Be At Peace

Sometimes I envy the trees. They appear to know things that I don’t—or that I’ve forgotten—about God, about life, and how to live it happily. Perhaps the trees have it easy, since they can’t choose to forget the valuable and important things; choice doesn’t have them chasing after myriads of useless trivialities and distractions, out there in the world around us, or inside our own minds. As I gaze about, it isn’t only the trees that seem to understand the way of peace; it also appears that the sky and the clouds also understand this mystery—as do the deer, and the ground beneath their hooves. All flora and fauna are in on this knowledge; but man stands apart; unable, unwilling, or uninterested, to learn it.

Be at peace, they seem to be saying to me—to us. I hear them all saying it, repeating it, every day, throughout the day; and also through the night. Be at peace, mankind, be at peace. Be at peace.

~FS

The Little Jewish Boy

The Little Jewish Boy (A Short Story):

“Mine is a story of repentance—that’s guaranteed. But is it also one of redemption? I don’t know; but I hope so. Perhaps, you can answer that for me. God knows; but I’ve stolen so much from him already, that I haven’t the courage to ask him for anything more. Besides, it seems, he isn’t speaking to me.”

Janusz Kowalski, the old man sitting across the table from me, grimaced and smiled, somehow at the same time—a singular expression—expressing quite opposite emotions simultaneously; and he continued:

“I was nineteen when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. I was living on a small farm with my parents, about a half-day’s journey by horse east of Gdansk, which was then called Danzig. My father was Polish, but my mother was German; so we were happy, or at least my mother was, when the Nazis came to ‘liberate’ us. My father accepted the German occupation as inevitable, though he was far less enthusiastic about it than was my mother. I was still young, but already I understood that if it weren’t the Germans who came, it would have been the Soviets; everyone took what they could back then, and Poland was there for the taking, we were ripe for the harvest.”

“After the Nazis took what they wanted, they began pruning the rest away, gathering what they considered ‘chaff’, and tossing it into the furnace. But that came later; eventually, their gathering and burning grew very systematic indeed. At first however, it was merely chaotic. As German soldiers flooded into the area, everyone else seemed to scatter, like ants having lost their trail. The German majority who lived in The Free City of Danzig, held fast, of course, but the rest of the population smelled danger, and having lost the scent of peace and freedom, they ran. My father, being a Pole himself, argued strongly with my mother, trying to persuade her to abandon our farm, and to take our meager possessions south to Chelmno, where he had family. But she was stubborn and wouldn’t consider taking such a loss, by leaving the home she knew and loved; and she was hopeful too, trusting in the goodwill she imagined our liberators would grant to Poles who were married to Germans. By her logic a Pole married to a German was made more ‘German’ by the association; but the Nazis didn’t see it that way.”

“Eventually my father gave up trying to convince her, and finally the opportunity to leave closed. But the Nazis gave my father a new opportunity, one afternoon when they drove up to our home, and informed him that he would no longer be needed as a farmer, and instead he could ‘work’ for them at the nearby work camp outside of Sztutowo, a village just a mile or two east of our farm. So he went to work at Stutthof, as the Germans named it, in the late fall of 1939, while my mother and I continued to work the farm. Not long after that first visit by the Nazis, they visited us a second time to give me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They invited me to join what they called ‘Cleaning Duty’, using the term ‘cleaning’ in that vague and euphemistic way beloved by criminals and evil men throughout history. Apparently, as they saw it, our region had grown very ‘dirty’ through the longtime habitation by Jews, Gypsies, Poles and other unsavory, and even ‘sub-human’ characters, as the Nazis termed them. But now, soldiers and good Germans were working hard to clean up the region and I would be given the honor of helping.” 

Janusz stopped talking for a moment and we sat in silence; I watched him quietly and expectantly. He peered pensively into his cup of tea and appeared to be fighting back tears, until he mastered himself again and continued his story:

“I remember that day as if it were yesterday, it was November 11th, and it was a cold but clear day; it was a pretty day—blue skies, I could see my breath. That was the day I died, but I just didn’t know it yet. I didn’t know anything then. I hadn’t seen anything yet. That all quickly changed when they returned later that night, as arranged, and I climbed reluctantly into the back of their truck. That night was an eye-opener for me; it was an introduction into real violence. Even so, that first night was only a foretaste of worse things to come. We drove into Danzig, a caravan of some ten trucks or so, each carrying, I would guess, around ten men, most around my age or a little older, local-boys from surrounding villages and farms. In addition to we civilians, there were two or three Nazi soldiers per truck, there to mentor us into a new debauchery; really they were there to shepherd us in our descent into hell. We were like little lambs, sheep being led to slaughter—not to be slaughtered—but to slaughter. Our job that night was to create as much chaos and mayhem as possible to the shops and shopkeepers in the Jewish district, and to anyone else who appeared a little different: folks who lived in or frequented the red-light district, perverts, gypsies, people like that, you know what I mean.”

“So we did our job, what else could we do? Some of us enjoyed it far too much, I thought, but none of us refused. We broke windows, we lit fires and burnt buildings, and we spilt blood that night. And we drank. I’d never had alcohol before, but we stole beer and vodka and everyone got drunk; it made everything easier, especially forgetting. I woke up the next morning, back at my farm, with a splitting headache and feeling awful; and my mind was in a fog. I couldn’t remember what I had done the night before, and that was for the best.”

“We returned to Danzig the next night, with the same mission. Frankly, I was surprised any of the Jews were still there. Why would they stay after what had happened to them the previous night? Maybe they had no place else to go. I wish they had. I remember one family especially, they had their dinner table set up in a front room, and I could see them all from the street, through their windows. The father was at the head, and the mother was serving, and three children sat waiting for their meal. Outside, we were already getting started, and several fires had already been lit, but none of us had touched this family yet. The father appeared to be calm and he sat stoically, but an occasional sidelong glance out the front window betrayed his inner tension and fear. Nevertheless, he was brave, they all were, fighting to maintain some normalcy, to have a simple meal together, while a tempest brewed just outside their front door. But they were foolish also, and it came crashing in on them suddenly. Three men broke in, a soldier and two civilians, and I could see them grab the father, while the three children fled to their mother’s side at the far end of the room. The father was screaming and gesticulating, but I couldn’t hear what he said from where I was standing in the street. But he pointed at the menorah in the middle of the table, and he pulled a ring from his finger and placed it in the Nazi’s hand. The other men released the father, and he ran about the room collecting valuables, and offering them to his assailants. They took his ring, and one from his wife as well, along with the silver menorah from the table, and they left the old house laughing and patting one another on the back. I watched as they continued down the street, breaking windows as they went. From within the home I heard a great wailing and weeping and I turned back to see the father slumping in his chair, exhausted and despairing, with the rest of the family clinging to one another, the youngest burying his head into his mother’s apron. I turned my head, unable to watch any further, and then I ran away, down the street in search of some vodka; I was ready to forget again.”

“Near the heart of town, in a large square set off to one side of Ogarna Street, was the site of the Great Synagogue, which had been demolished by the government earlier in the year. On this frigid November night, six months after that demolition, an impromptu party began, with a large bonfire fueled by wood pulled from the remains of the nearby synagogue. I found my vodka here in abundance; grabbing a bottle, I sat with my back against a nearby building and watched the revelers. They celebrated this night of destruction, they celebrated their ‘accomplishments’ from earlier in the night, and they celebrated the first year anniversary of Kristallnacht, which had taken place the previous year throughout Germany, with the destruction of thousands of Jewish shops, hundreds of synagogues, and the loss of hundreds of lives. As I watched several men pull what appeared to be a long church pew from the rubble and then drag it onto the bonfire, my thoughts drifted to the time when carpenters somewhere had built that pew, for the purpose of worship. Now, here it was fueling a very different kind of celebration; was it still worship of some kind? Maybe a perversion of worship; the sacred stolen by the profane. What God intended for good, man would use for evil. It seemed ironic to me, as I watched the pew ignite and burn. And as I poured the cool, clear liquid down my throat, I couldn’t help but smile a twisted, ironic smile and wonder: ‘Was everything good in the world burning now?’ Was the vodka filling my belly and the alcohol numbing my brain erasing all memory of what was good, or of what was bad, or any memory of what separated the two?”

“A few nights later I found myself back on the street where I had seen the family having dinner, and I searched for their home, curious to see how they were faring. The street was littered with glass and debris, bricks lay in piles, and many of the houses were completely destroyed. It was difficult to orient myself because of the changes, and I could barely recognize this as the same street where I had stood watching the poor family only a short time ago. Eventually I found their home, but they were no longer living there; it was uninhabitable, having burned nearly to the ground. A blackened brick veneer still wrapped the foundation of their tiny home and shards of coal-black wood shot upwards—a skeleton which implied the framing of the front windows and the doorway. I stood sadly staring at the remains, and wondered what had his ‘gifts’ for the Nazis, that the father gave, bought him? A little time possibly, and hopefully enough to escape. Had it spared the lives of his wife and children, at least? Were their lives worth a silver menorah, and two wedding rings?”

“The following week I was transferred to a different assignment; one that sounded promising, and gave me hope that the worst atrocities were now behind me. They were taking a group of us out into the forests near Piasnica to dig trenches. It sounded like hard work but I reasoned it must be better than dragging people from the homes and beating them in the streets. I was a strong young man, tall and muscular, so I had the physical make-up for these things, but not the mental or emotional ability to leave people battered and broken in the gutters. I welcomed getting out of Danzig and into the woods. I felt hopeful now, as they drove us up the dirt trail, deep into the pine forests to our new assignment. The air was clean and fragrant and reinvigorated my soul. I felt relief as I looked out the back of the truck, as we wove our way under the trees, past several military checkpoints and then stopped in a large clearing.”

“It was very busy, strangely busy for such a remote location. At the far end of the clearing stood a small hut, or tent, with several military vehicles parked nearby, and throughout the clearing were numerous transport vehicles, trucks of various kinds, some military and some civilian, unloading common people, with Nazis everywhere barking orders and shoving folk into lines, and marching them in various directions to far ends of the clearings, or further off into the trees. I didn’t expect this, and the other men that had traveled with me were equally surprised by the sight. A small gaunt officer, with a stern expression and deep-set eyes greeted our work-group curtly and motioned to follow him. The crackling of gunshots filled the air: handguns, rifles and some machine gun fire. I looked all around me trying to determine where it was coming from and if we were in danger; but it was so chaotic and my mind couldn’t understand what I was seeing.”

“All hope drained out of me however, when I saw a man of about fifty, shot through the forehead, not ten feet away from me, and as his lifeless body fell backward into a pit behind him. As we continued walking past, I peered down into the hole, and there strewn across the bottom, were other lifeless people. I recoiled in horror, and turned away to stare up into the treetops. How could this be? Where were we?! It then became clear to me; these people piling out of the trucks, were all here to be executed. This was murder on a large scale; and I was to have some role in it. I grew nauseous upon this realization, and collapsed to the ground; and then I threw up, recognizing we were here to dig graves, not trenches.”

“For several days, we dug graves, wide shallow depressions in the earth to receive the dead, the half-dead, and occasionally the fully alive—if a bullet happened to miss the mark. Typically these were shot again, as they were in the process of climbing back out, having left a short trail in the newly turned earth, with a hand or perhaps an arm having reached out over the top, grabbing hold of a tuft of grass as their final living act. There was no vodka here to help us forget these things, and so we went out of our minds in order to escape what we witnessed. Against reason, we accepted what the Nazis told us, that these people were not human, they were less than human, and they deserved this fate. I had to accept this because how else could it make any sense whatsoever? How else could such an injustice befall the just; no, these deaths must be justified, somehow, and therefore these people must be guilty, of something, anything, to make it right.”

“I died a second time out in those forests of Piasnica. Are there degrees of death? There must be, for I had already died a first time, several weeks earlier when I had been taken from my family farm and taught how to terrify and brutalize people, when I learned how to beat the innocent and leave them bleeding and unconscious in the streets of Danzig. But this was much, much worse. I had retreated into forgetfulness then, but now, where could I retreat, there was nowhere to go; I felt the death reaching into my own soul, like a spreading gangrene.”

“In this way we allowed ourselves to be hypnotized, to take direction in a daze, and to follow any order without question. We gave up fighting, happily relinquishing any protest, because acquiescence allowed us to take another step, to go on living another moment; otherwise, we couldn’t have gone on, and a bullet would have inevitably been our own end. I suppose we still hoped, somewhere inside, that we might awaken again to the life we once knew before this nightmare took over; so we clung to any means to keep going, in hopes of stumbling, by some miracle, back into that former life.”

“We usually dug during the night in order to prepare enough graves for the next day’s victims. And during the day we followed the living as they were marched to their end. And then our job was to fill in the holes once they had been killed. I no longer recognized faces, or individuals. The new arrivals to the clearing were just forms moving about in a haze. I rarely looked at them as we walked; I just followed their feet with my eyes as they shuffled across the matted grass, or through the mud to their deaths. I had grown accustomed to the sound of gunfire, and of the cries and screams. The pleading mothers and fathers, and the crying infants or young children, they were simply the soundtrack of the forest in Piasnica. There was no birdsong in that place; the birds had all fled long ago, lucky to have wings.”

“One day, a day like any other, a truck arrived late-afternoon and let out a group of twenty or so, who were quickly divided into groups of five, and marched towards their graves. I followed one of these small groups as they trudged forward: a pair of men’s shoes, a pair of women’s shoes, two sets of young, slender legs with bare feet, and a small pair of boy’s shoes made their way through the mud, and I followed after them, with a Nazi soldier sauntering nonchalantly at the rear. As we walked, I recognized a strange sound, not a bird, but like that. It was a sweet sound and I found myself smiling, though unsure at first where it originated. It was a woman’s voice singing softly as we walked, and then a man’s voice joined her, also quietly, though resonant and full of emotion. I lifted my eyes to watch them, unable to resist; and I stole quick glances, as the mother and father sang to their children, as if to create a shield, or a shelter over them, by their loving voices.”

“It was a deeply intimate series of moments between parents and children as they sang, while caressing their heads with their tender hands, while whispering consolingly familiar songs into their ears, hovering close with their lips, and kissing their children’s faces repeatedly as they went. My own calloused heart silently scoffed at the futility of the singing and the loving attention, and yet, this same heart of mine, stirred and yearned for the singing to continue. Even if it made no difference upon the final outcome for this little family, and I knew there was no chance that it could, even so, somehow these intimate moments shared between them seemed to rebuke the ugliness around us and it made me happy. I smiled to think that this is how angels might spit in the face of demons; simply by ignoring their evil, and continuing to love in spite of it all.”

“At the direction of the soldier, the family stopped and stood huddled together at the rim of a muddy hole, the one I had dug earlier that morning. Though they prayed, and though I joined in a silent, unconscious prayer of my own on their behalf, even so, at one particular moment in the life of the world, the sublime and sacred finally succumbed to the carnal and profane; several gunshots rang out in quick succession and the family vanished into the earth. But why did I happen to recognize them at that moment, of all moments? As they slipped away altogether from this world, I realized that this was the same family I had glanced upon through the front window of their home in Danzig, only a few nights earlier. They had been enjoying a family dinner together, and hoping somehow to survive the madness which had now become all of our lives in Poland. I think my memory was jogged especially by the little boy I remembered, he who had buried his face instinctively into his mother’s dress, while she held him close, and as his older sisters clung to her sides, sheltering him within their midst. The exact scene played out again here, just before they were shot, and it impressed me; I wondered how many times this scene was also playing out in other parts of the forest, and throughout Poland, perhaps even across the entire world.”

“I trudged forward in the gathering gloom, the sky darkening and my own mood depressed. Why hadn’t they just died in their home back in Danzig? I wondered, surely that would have been more comfortable and sensible; rather than straining to live a few more days only to die in this mucky hole as the sun turns its back on them, hidden behind the gathering clouds, and finally sets behind the trees. I was the only person they had now, the last who would ever recognize them and offer the slightest care for the lives they had lived, because certainly the soldier who just shot them had already forgotten them in his haste to get away. I turned to watch as he practically ran to join his fellow executioners in a cigarette break at the far end of the clearing. I heard them laughing, and one let out a hoot, craning his head back and yelling up at the heavy sky, trying to relieve some of the tension from his busy and stressful day. I was left alone in my corner of the clearing, to cover the dead. Others worked in other pits scattered here and there, also busy at the same work of shoveling and burying, and I could see their dark forms moving against the gloom of the clearing and the even darker night of the surrounding forest.”

“I covered the father first. For some reason it seemed easier, and more proper perhaps, and even more practical; as if he might lead the way into the earth, blazing ahead under the dirt in order to make it all a little less foreign or scary for his beautiful wife and his beloved children. It also seemed to me less an affront to bury him first, and strangely more acceptable than committing this indignity to his family; and I imagined that he accepted the dirt as I poured it over his face. I remembered his stoic expression when he had sat at the head of the dinner table several nights ago, and I believed that his lifeless face betrayed that same calm acceptance now, and he was telling me, in his quiet way, that he didn’t mind the dirt, and he wouldn’t blame me for shoveling it over him and his family. When the last of his pale face disappeared, I grew nervous and agitated at the thought of continuing. Though I had been doing this same work for long enough and I should have grown accustomed to it by now, if that is ever possible, I couldn’t bury the little group huddled below my shovel.”

“I stood staring down into the hole for a very long time. It was night now and the cloudy sky afforded little ambient light to see by, but I could see the mother and two girls huddled together in much the same arrangement they had been when they had been standing, however their mother was now turned and facing downward, so that I could only see the back of her head. She must have twisted on the way down, or possibly having turned at the final, fateful moment before being shot, in order to shield her little son. Who knows? But what was this?! I swore at that moment I saw her stir in her grave, a small rising in her upper torso, as if trying to raise herself from the earth, but very weakly and unable to do so. She appeared to try once again, and then instead, she shifted slightly to the side, attempting to turn herself over. What had at first seemed certain in my mind to be an illusion, or a hallucination, became very real when I heard a small cry, which awoke me from my stupor and I jumped down into the hole to help the poor woman up. I leaned over and reached around her shoulders and grabbed at her arm and lifted; she was very weak and unable to assist me in my efforts by even the smallest degree. In fact, she appeared in every way to be dead, from the absolute coldness of her flesh to the indeterminacy of her movements. I struggled for a short time at this before something more unexpected and surprising rose from the grave. Her little boy was alive! And he clambered slowly out from beneath her breasts, and lifted himself with great effort while pulling his legs out from under her hips to release himself from the earth.”

“Sadly, his mother had, in fact, died when she had been shot, and her movement here was only the result of her son’s attempts to break free from their tomb. But the little boy appeared to have been spared entirely, for I could find no bullet hole upon his body; and he was intact. I stared at him incredulously and with great joy for a brief moment before considering to what end or purpose was his survival? This fleeting thought brought me back to reality as I determined the improbability of him getting out of this forest alive. Nevertheless, I had come to celebrate within myself the smallest of hopes; and even an impossible possibility gave me reason to hope and to dream. The miracle of his life, as I was truly looking upon his living face, and feeling his warm breath, and touching his living body, was enough for me to deem his survival, even if it was to be short-lived, a complete success of goodness over evil. And I wept. I held the little boy close to me and trembled and shook as tears fell from my eyes for a brief moment before I stifled them and looked cautiously and fearfully behind me towards the direction of the officers gathered under the lights near their tent and vehicles. I held my breath and listened to discover if they had heard me; but they continued their smoking and laughing, and paid no attention to us.”

“But what to do with the boy? It was an impossible situation. He had just lost his entire family and he stood motionless, in a daze, as I held him close to me. He stared down at his mother and two sisters, but he didn’t cry. What could I do for him? I couldn’t get him out of that place, and there was nowhere good to hide him. Even if I was willing to sacrifice myself, what would that accomplish? His father couldn’t buy his life, he couldn’t rescue him, and I had nothing at all to give. His parents and his sisters were only able to provide him a little more time, but nothing beyond that. Yet, that was something; and I could also give him that—a little more time. I knelt and looked him in the eyes. They were alert and filled with sorrow. I apologized to him for what had happened, and for what I had to do. I explained that I had already buried his father and that I must bury his mother and his sisters as well. There was no time to shelter him from these things, and the hard truth seemed the only kindness I could offer him in that place. I asked him if he understood me and he nodded that he did, but he didn’t speak. Next, I explained that the Nazi’s would return soon, to check that I had done my job. He needed to run and hide in the forest now, if he wanted to survive. I had no idea how long he could survive in there, or what sad and unfair death he might eventually meet, but I had no better idea to propose. I stressed to him that he must run, but to be as quiet as he possibly could, and that he must keep running and get away from this place. He nodded, and I helped him up out of the hole. I pointed in the direction I thought he should go, but he just stood looking down into the grave, unable to move. By this time I heard the soldiers breaking away from their reveries, and saw lights coming our way. I shook the little boy and whispered my command: “Leave, now! You must go now! Run! Don’t look back, just run and get away from here!” He stared at me for a moment, took a final look at his mother and sisters and then turned and ran away into the forest as fast as I’d ever seen a little boy run.”

“Will God remember these little things that we’ve done? When I die, will his parents come to me and thank me for the small kindness I showed their son; or were they smiling at me now from their eternal beds? Even if there were no God, and no family to commend me, at least the sight of their son running into the forest warmed me in that moment, and that was my reward as I buried his dead, and then moved on to preparing new graves for tomorrow’s dead.”

“We worked until about ten o’clock that night, and we ate our bread and drank our soup before laying down to rest for a few hours; gathering what strength we could before we’d rise again around three the following morning to continue digging. As I lay trying to sleep, I imagined that the boy might find his way through the trees and, if he was lucky, discover a kind farmer on the other side, who might hide him and care for him as his own. Perhaps that farmer might even adopt the boy, and give him his own name and rescue him from his fate, gifting him with a new one, and a long and happy life.”

“Close to midnight, I am guessing, a brisk breeze arose and gently shook the treetops and rattled our flimsy tent; and with it the clouds began to part, and it grew lighter as the stars and a waning moon cast their pale light into the clearing. Unable to sleep, I left the tent and walked out across the clearing to look at the stars. I remembered my mother telling me that the stars were angels, souls of the departed taking their places in the heavens and shining their radiant light down upon loved ones they’ve left behind. I suspected the skies were getting a lot more crowded now, since the Nazis had begun their work. I searched to find the little boy’s family up there. Squinting slightly, I was able to find a small cluster of bright shining stars that I decided were his father, mother and sisters, newly arrived and comfortably settled into their celestial home. As the breeze quieted slightly and just gently touched my face, I heard a whispering voice, sweet and clear, drifting lightly upon the wind. It was faint and distant, as if coming from some remote corner in the back of my mind and I listened for it intently, hoping to extract its beauty in order to sooth my troubled soul. The voice continued, and it was singing a familiar though foreign tune; I recalled it as the song the mother and father had sung earlier that day to their children. I recognized the melody though I didn’t understand the words; it was sung in the Jewish tongue, of which I knew nothing.”

“I happily listened to this, somewhat surprised that I had remembered it so vividly, having never heard the tune before that day; convinced I was hearing the memory of it playing out within my own imagination. But unlike other imaginings, the specters within my own mind which eventually dissipate and give way to new thoughts, this singing continued, and in fact grew louder, as I walked across the clearing. I stopped walking and craned my neck, tilting my head in the direction of the singing, in order to attempt to capture every decibel of sound, hoping to discover the source. I’m not a superstitious person, but when I realized the singing was coming directly from the gravesite of that poor family I had just buried, I got goosebumps and the hair on my neck stood on end. It sounded as if the mother had begun to sing again to her lost children. I slowly began walking in their direction and as I came through a small, thin copse of trees (for there were still standing a few trees here and there throughout the clearing), I saw the boy standing over his family’s grave; and he was singing to them, his head downcast and searching the turned soil, as if he was hunting for some clue as to their whereabouts.”

“The stars above us shone down upon him as he sang, and cast him in an otherworldly silvery light. He lifted his head, and his singing became a cry, a plea, and a tribute. I was transfixed by his music and the gift he appeared to raise up to his distant mother. Had he also found her star in the midnight sky and was he calling up to her? I hoped he felt her loving embrace in the light she shone upon him. I could only speculate upon what he felt; but I felt clearly the blessing his singing had upon me. He softened the heart within me that I had given up hope of ever knowing again; his music showed me the way to myself again, and returned humanity, even divinity to the earth, where I had lost hope of ever finding it.”

“But why had he returned; did he not know the danger? I wished for his sake that he had continued running through the darkness of the forest to find the light of morning, far from this evil place. That would have been far better for him, wouldn’t it? Instead, he returned to us, and brought the light of morning back with him. For some remarkable people there is something more important than self-preservation; this little Jewish boy singing to his family in the clearing of Piasnica, in the midst of slaughter and destruction, was one of these special kind of people who serve a deeper, higher calling which leads them to plant seeds of goodness, kindness and mercy in the soil previously made sterile by man’s inhumanity. Of course, he was overwrought with sorrow at having lost his family; and how could he leave them? Perhaps there was no longer a life on this earth for him in absence of all those he loved. I doubt he had considered any of the higher philosophical reasons that I attributed to him and to his actions. Nevertheless, I believe they were still true of him; sometimes we don’t understand the real meaning of our actions, and only as others interpret them for us, do we discover that meaning, and come to understand ourselves as God intended us.”

“His singing eventually drew the attention of others in our small encampment, and soon many had joined me in listening to his beautiful voice. Even the Nazi soldiers stood quietly by, and I noticed their smiles as they listened attentively. The boy didn’t seem to notice any of us as he continued to sing to his family—offering his sweet music to the earth, and to the sky—wherever they might be. The Nazi officer broke his silence and commented reverently, ‘He sings like an angel, doesn’t he?’ And I agreed with that; I believe we all did. But if angels do walk among us, we who are carnal cannot tolerate their presence for too long. Another soldier raised and pointed his gun at the singer before saying, ‘I’m tired, I think it is time to sleep.’ However, before he pulled the trigger, the officer stopped him. ‘No! Bring him with us, I have a better idea.’ So the soldiers ran up and grabbed the boy, who didn’t struggle, and carried him back to the tent for the remainder of the night.”

“The following morning, as the first truckloads of captives arrived, the Nazi officer set up a wooden chair on a small mound near where the trucks stopped and unloaded their cargo. He placed the boy on the chair and instructed him to begin singing, as he pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket and lit it. The boy hesitated as he looked about himself, confused and frightened; and the officer nodded encouragement to him while he motioned with his hand and mouthed as if he were singing, in order to prompt the reluctant performer. Several other soldiers nearby laughed and stopped what they were doing to see if the boy would start to sing; and their expectations were fulfilled and they responded with cheers, clapping, and slapping one another on the back, as if, for some unknown reason, they felt they were the ones to be congratulated. I took offence at this, but the boy appeared unaffected, singing with more determination now, as the people filed past him on their way from the trucks to their executions. It was unclear to me what exactly the Nazi officer intended by this performance; I assumed it was undertaken in jest and mocking, and from his appearance and that of the other soldiers they all seemed genuinely pleased by the show. Perhaps they themselves also didn’t know what they were doing; since their reactions to the boy’s song, seemed to oscillate confusedly between derision and admiration. For the Jews who were greeted by the little boy’s familiar song, I noticed a wide range of reactions; most came to this place already in a state of shock and confusion, and for many of them, these feelings were exacerbated by the vision of a little boy serenading them from his perch atop the wooden chair. They looked at him perplexedly, unsure what to make of his performance. Others smiled at him, and some stopped momentarily with expressions as if they were seeing a ghost, or more accurately a heavenly spirit, their faces shining with inexplicable joy and awe. A few broke down and cried, crumpling to the ground in tears. He took encouragement from these people and sang with greater confidence, and with deeper emotion. He and they seemed to understand each other, and they shared something that the Nazis couldn’t comprehend. I’m not sure I comprehended it either; but it came across to me as a nobility, and I guess I would call it a sanctification. Yes, there was something holy in it, something sacred. The boy was bringing forth into the world a divine gift for those about to die; he was showing them a glimpse of the beauty of the next world. He seemed to be opening a doorway into eternity for them to see, through his singing, so that they might go to their grave with a little less fear, and a little more hope than they could have were he not there to shepherd them.”

“This lasted three days. The boy sang at intervals during this time, and he was given relatively kind treatment by the soldiers. He was fed well and even allowed some time to play, though he mainly used that time to sit with his family. He didn’t try to run away, though I still wished he would; but by this time it seemed clear he had no intention of continuing in this world for long, but preferred to follow his parents and sisters into the heavens. On the third day, there arose a commotion in the morning when a new officer arrived and an argument ensued between he and the officer who had made the boy sing. The new officer, who was clearly superior, chastised the first, along with several of his accomplices, reminding them with very strong language, that they weren’t here running a nightclub or a talent show. He made it very clear that it was unacceptable to harbor the boy, and worse, to allow him to perform; he failed to understand how these soldiers could have so completely misunderstood their mission. It was not to be tolerated and must be brought to a stop immediately. He instructed the other officer, right then and there, to take the boy out into the field and shoot him. For a fleeting moment the officer hesitated, and I understood that he also loved the boy, as I did; but there was also no escape in this place for him, as there was never going to be for the little boy. I understood this very clearly. So that officer took the boy and trudged off a short distance. After a moment, a single shot echoed across the clearing, ricocheting among the trees and then there was silence. I didn’t bury the boy, but one of the others buried him. However, later that night I removed him from his place of rest, and under the cloak of darkness I carried him across the field to where his family lay.”

“After this, I resolved to escape that horrible place. Fear had stopped me from previously considering it. I didn’t want to die, but the courage of the little singer inspired in me a new determination. The Nazis weren’t able to touch the boy, he was immune to their disease; and though they were able to kill him, they weren’t able to infect him. He remained pure and true throughout his ordeal. He gave me hope, not in certain survival, but in recovering dignity. I was no longer afraid to die, for he had shown me the way of life. It was as if he had given me new life; and the deaths I had already experienced at the hands of the Nazis fell away into shadows of memory, and I experienced a light of rebirth. So I plotted my escape.”

“Every evening, at close to ten o’clock, two trucks left the clearing, carrying the majority of troops away for the night, to a base further south in the small town of Wejherowo. And each morning the same trucks brought the soldiers back for their day’s work. A small contingent stayed with us throughout the night, but the tent accommodations in the forest were inadequate to house everyone, therefore most of the Nazis were transported away. I placed my hopes in hiding myself in the undercarriage of one of these trucks, if possible, and then slipping into the night somewhere between Piasnica and Wejherowo. The trucks were Polski Fiat 621s which were built with about two to three feet of clearance between the undercarriage and the ground, so getting under the trucks quickly would be easy for me. Over the next few days I managed to steal quick glances at the trucks; even dropping my shovel nearby to afford a view from just the proper angle, to peer up into the truck’s underside, as I leaned over to pick my shovel back up. Just over the axles and suspension, sat a reinforced metal frame which supported the cargo box above. If I could pull myself up into that framework I should be able to hide there for the short journey south. At the back, just below the rear bumper, hung a steel frame which held a spare tire; if the tire was missing then access up into the chassis would be much easier however, even if the tire was in place, I figured I could still squeeze up behind it, and then pull myself over the rear axles and hang on to the steel supports and straps that reinforced the cargo bed above. It would be a tight fit, but it looked large enough for me, and so long as nobody was looking directly under the vehicle from the side, I should be safely concealed. Fortunately, there was also a storage box on these models, suspended just behind the driver’s side door which obscured one’s view under the truck, along with the pair of wheels and fenders on both sides.”

“I felt confident that if I could manage to get into this hiding place then I would be successful; but how to get under the truck without being seen? And at the proper time so as not to be missed or draw attention? These were the main problems with my plan, yet to be solved. I racked my brain trying to come up with the answer but nothing satisfied. Though several things were in my favor, such as the lack of light near the trucks at night. And the soldiers usually kept guard from a good distance away; typically they would stand across the clearing where the dirt road exited south through the forest. Still, everything was up to chance, and I couldn’t come up with a way to increase my odds for success. I decided to stay alert and ready for when the right time may suddenly present itself; for essentially I had no plan.”

“I prayed for the right moment to come, and for the courage to seize it when it finally did. Two nights later, a miracle occurred. It was just after we had finished eating as we were getting prepared to sleep, and as the soldiers were about to get into the trucks to leave the area, when we heard an enormous crash across the clearing. A large tree had fallen, which drew the attention of the entire encampment. In the ensuing confusion, I leapt up from my cot and ran as fast as I could, around the back of the tent and out to the trucks, and dove under one of them. My heart was racing as I grabbed hold over the back axle and pulled myself up between the differential and the spare tire. But then my heart sunk as I became wedged between the two, unable to pull myself any further. I panicked when I heard the engine suddenly come alive; and as the men began to climb up into the back of the truck I couldn’t breathe for fear. If I couldn’t pull myself up off the ground before the truck began to move I would be flayed alive, my legs and lower torso would be ground to pulp; I feared a horribly painful death and struggled desperately to pull myself free. I pushed with my back against the spare tire, trying to shift it but I couldn’t get it to budge. I knew my time was almost up, and I looked frantically for a solution. Twisting myself around in hopes of seeing a way to move the tire, my body slid slightly to the right, and released from the narrowest point between the tire and differential, and this was enough to allow me to pull myself off the ground, and up over the twin axles into a place of relative safety.”

“The trucks sped away from the clearing and down the muddy road, through the darkened forest towards Wejherowo. I was cold and wet, and mud continuously shot up into my face and covered my body as I clung to the undercarriage of the moving truck; but as we left the clearing behind us, and with every passing mile, I grew less and less aware of any physical discomfort. Preoccupation with bodily comfort was gradually replaced by more sublime matters, as my mind and spirit became joyful at the prospect of freedom. And as my dreamlike hopes for escape solidified into reality I considered my next step. Clearly I had been naively mistaken in thinking that I would be able to extricate myself from the truck’s inner workings as it sped along, and to somehow let myself off along the way; that aspect of my plan was apparently ridiculous because the truck was moving far too quickly and I was trapped far too securely for such a maneuver. So, now I needed a backup plan. I decided to wait until the truck parked in Wejherowo, after letting the soldiers out; hopefully then I could pull myself free, and escape into the night. But the truck only stopped briefly at the base in Wejherowo, only long enough to let the men out, before driving off again to some new destination. I feared they might be returning to the clearing in Piasnica, bringing me right back to where I had escaped only moments earlier. However, as the truck continued I recognized pavement speeding by below me; and this assuaged my fears, since there were only muddy trails leading back up into the forest. Within a half hour the truck arrived at its destination, parked, and the driver got out and walked into a nearby building. Fortunately, the street was not well-lit, and there was no traffic nor pedestrians nearby, so my exit from beneath the truck went unnoticed, and I managed to slip away undetected.”

“I was in Danzig now, and I made my way quickly through town, following back streets and alleys to avoid being seen. Instinctively, I was heading to my family’s farm, located several miles east. Even in the dark, I knew the way well, and managed to get there by early morning. It was around one in the morning, I guessed, when I approached the narrow lane which led south to our property. But then it occurred to me that they would come looking for me here, once they discovered I had escaped Piasnica. It wouldn’t be safe to stay at our farm, and I’d certainly be endangering my mother if I did. It was best if she knew nothing about my location, when the Nazis would come knocking later that morning. So instead, I continued east a few hundred yards and then turned south, following the main road which traversed the plains of our agricultural district. This route would take me, first across the Szkarpawa river at the town of Rybina, then across several smaller irrigation canals, and finally over the Nogat river near the tiny village of Jazowa. I hoped to make that final crossing before daylight, and then find a hiding place in the nearby woods on the eastern bank of the river, to evade being seen throughout the coming day.”

“By the time I arrived at the woods near Jazowa I was tired and hungry, but grateful to have safely made it that far. I clambered deep into the woods and then set up several branches against an old fallen tree and covered them with leaves; after pulling myself under their cover I scraped together a small pile of moldering leaves and dirt as a makeshift pillow, and fell asleep. I slept through most of the day, awaking as dusk was setting upon the countryside. My hope was to make it to my uncle’s farm, about seventy miles south of my present location; he would take me in and I could stay with him indefinitely. His farm would be easy to find, I had traveled there with my father many times over the years, during the late summer and early fall, when we visited my uncle to help him with his harvest. I would follow the Nogat river south through the town of Malbork and continue south to the village of Biala Gora, where the Nogat meets the Vistula, and from there it was simply a matter of following the Vistula river south until I reached Chelmno and my uncle’s farm was a few miles to the east. Traveling at night was slow, I had to keep from being seen, I was cold and hungry, but ever since I left Piasnica, really since I had met that little boy, I had a renewed determination, and I had no doubt I would make it to my uncle’s place and begin my life again.”

“I left the woods at around six in the evening and entered the outskirts of Malbork several hours later. By this time I was extremely hungry, having eaten nothing for the past twenty-four hours. As I made my way carefully past Malbork Castle, keeping to the shadows to avoid detection, I heard the bells, from the old Catholic Church south of the castle, strike ten o’clock. I followed their sound and arrived a short time later at a small square just out front of the church’s huge bell tower. Set up near the middle of the square was a Nativity scene: with several birch branches fashioned into a simple framework, and a wooden star at the apex, and in front of that, several plaster statues of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, who had been placed upon some straw that was set into a wooden feeding trough. In front of each of these were the remnants of numerous large candles, protected by glass globes. Several were still lit, and they cast a faint but warm light upon the statues. I stood a few moments enjoying this pastoral scene before another light caught my eye; it was a single bare lightbulb mounted on the brick wall above the entrance to the church. The doors below this light were open, and I felt drawn to enter. Inside, it was very dark with the exception of light from a few candles up near the altar. I appeared to be the only one inside the church and I walked up to the altar to get a closer look. It was a beautiful church, and I enjoyed taking a moment to look around, but what really interested me was a small golden bowl on the altar with several wheat wafers still in the bottom; these were used for communion. I felt ashamed for thinking about taking them; but after glancing around me, to make sure nobody was watching, I grabbed the bowl and emptied the contents into my mouth. They tasted wonderful; but there weren’t enough of them. I needed more. I had forgotten how hungry I was until I ate those wafers; but suddenly I was ravenous. I searched under the altar and found a bottle of wine, half empty and with the cork protruding. I grabbed the bottle and flipped the cork out onto the floor, and emptied the contents down my throat. It warmed me pleasantly, but I was still so hungry. Placing the empty bottle back under the altar where I had found it, I turned to look around the front of the church more closely. In the corner, near a side door and practically unnoticeable in the dark, was a stack of boxes; one contained several bottles of wine and another was filled with packages of the wafers. I grabbed as many packages of wafers as I could easily pile into my jacket, along with two bottles of wine and quickly ran out of the building. I felt horribly ashamed of myself for stealing from the church, and of all things stealing the communion wafers and wine. As I exited the church I nearly stumbled into the nativity scene in front of me. But in my guilt I couldn’t face the holy family then, so I made an abrupt turn, and ran out of the square by a different way.”

“Down by the river I ate more wafers and drank more wine; and I felt that it wasn’t right what I had done, what I was still doing. But my hunger argued against me, and made excellent points; and in the end my belly won the debate. I was a thief and I accepted that; but I was no longer a hungry thief and that counted for something. As I drank more wine, my memory turned back to the party in Danzig, that night not long ago, when I watched the men pull that pew from the ruins of the synagogue, and burn it in the bonfire. I had judged them harshly then, but now was I any different from them? Wasn’t I also taking the sacred and making it profane, as they had done? Or the Nazi officer, the one who made the boy sing, wasn’t I was even like him?! He took that boy and the gift he offered so purely for his people, for all of us, and the officer stole it to satisfy his own desires, making a mockery of what was holy. Oh, wretched man! How I hated that soldier then, and how I hated myself as well; but I couldn’t stop eating and drinking. Later that night I was finally satiated, and I fell asleep very close to the edge of the Nogat.”

“The next morning the river awoke me, when I shifted in my sleep, and my left leg dropped into its icy waters. It was a shock, but also good fortune, because the sun was rising and I hadn’t made it very far after leaving the church the night before. Several German military installations were located in Malbork, so it was a very risky place to be discovered; so I quickly made my way south out of town. About a mile up river, I found a large forest located behind an old cemetery. As I had done in the past I walked a good distance into the trees, and made a camouflaged shelter, and hunkered down for the day.”

“The rest of my story is really just more of the same. I can tell you that I made it to my uncle’s farm after several more nights; and he took me in, as I knew he would. And I helped him on the farm. The following year, in 1940, we both joined the Polish resistance and actively fought against the Germans. During the day we were farmers and at night we were soldiers. I am proud to say that we directly helped rescue and save the lives of several Jews, some of whom were children. And we helped destroy several German vehicles and one supply train. Eventually the war ended, and well, I went on with my life. I don’t know how we survived, we were lucky I guess. After the war I moved here, to the United States, and started a new life, another new life. One more new life—it seems I’ve had several—and it’s been a good life, even including the bad things.”

Janusz Kowalski grew silent after that, and it appeared he was finished telling me his story. I thanked him for taking the time to tell it, and for sharing such intimate details, and also such difficult memories. Before we parted, he had one more thing he wanted to tell me, which he said was very important to him:

“You know, I don’t know if my life has amounted to much. I’ve often wondered why God kept me alive throughout the war, and after; all these years, it is really something isn’t it? What is it now, 1999? Is that right? Well then, it’s been about sixty years now, exactly, since all that began. Sixty years ago—I’m almost eighty now. But do you know what? This is important. Everything I’ve done, I don’t think any of it mattered so much, as what that little boy did back there in Piasnica. He was my hero; and my savior. He really was. Maybe that is why God kept me alive all this time, so I could tell you about that little boy. Yes, if there isn’t anything else good that I’ve done with my life, at least I’ve told the world about him, and what he did for us. And maybe that is good enough.”

The End

~FS

An American Declaration of Liberation Towards Human Fullness

We do not accept the co-opting of our human experience by our political parties; and we will not acquiesce to their demands upon our free thinking and feeling.

They believe, and convince us to believe also, that they have cornered the market on our perceptions; so that some of our thoughts, if we have them, must fit within the subset of the Democrats, and other thoughts, if these occur to us, must fit within the Republican subset. As if, we are not free to think outside their boxes!

So that we are cowed into accepting one set or the other, always cowering from straddling these lines and from allowing our minds to roam freely where they wish! Always fearing of becoming apostate to the party lines; and of shunning from that community of believers.

No more! We are human! We are richer, deeper and more complex beings than mere party members. We are free to think and feel across party lines; to resist being cut in half, as if divided like pieces of meat. We will not accept being cleaved in two, and placed by others on one side or the other.

Lord, I pray now, come now and make a new covenant with your people. Walk between us, walk within our midst, and make us whole again!

We are not Democrat or Republican; we are simply human being! So to the parties, we say ‘take your paws off our humanity’! No, we have removed them ourselves, by the grace of God, we are liberated!!

Our experience is not a property; our thoughts and feelings are not something to be owned by one or another. We are not puppets; and we will be pigeon-holed no longer!

Though we have been captured, willingly or unwillingly; and though we have been trapped, wittingly or unwittingly, we do not wish to give our will and power any longer to be Democrat or Republican, or any other party for that matter.

There is a third way, the original way, an essential way—this is the way of free people, the way of simply being—a human person, in fullness and complexity, able to express all things, to think all things, and to feel all things without limitation!

~FS

The Dachshund Stagecoach Saves The Day!!!

(A Contemporary Christmas Fable)

Hope springs eternal from the stomachs of dogs. And they are always eagerly on the lookout for their next good meal. Therefore, it was not surprising when the litter of dachshunds clambered excitedly up the staircase to awaken Mr Christianson, to arouse him to his morning duties, calling upon him to satisfy their hopes, and to fulfill their tiny tummies with something good from the kitchen cupboard. 

The old man loved his little dogs and he showered them with kisses; and they returned the favor, licking his cheeks while climbing over one another to get in the best positions for pats and pets. Back downstairs, they pushed and shoved to get the best positions in front of their food bowls, as the old man rained various delectables and delights down upon them—tasty tidbits and scrumptious savories, which they ingested voraciously and with gusto, leading to numerous belches and bellyaches moments later.

Next, they rested by the fire—shiny black and brown bodies piled one upon the other, and laid out prone upon the rug, and spilling over onto the hard wood floor. Their little pink bellies rose and fell as they slept, some snoring, with the occasional fart flattening the air. This was the sight and sound (and smell) of contentment. Mr Christianson watched them happily as he went about his business; his curious business.

The folks in town were perplexed when Mr Christianson first put up his sign for business: “Merrysville’s Dachshund Stagecoach” and then, “Rent us by the hour, or for the day!” Nobody had ever heard of, or had ever seen before, a Dachshund Stagecoach; and they looked at one another quizzically, and with the occasional snort and chuckle. One citizen quipped, “I’ll eat my shoes if he’s still in business in a month!” And that was the general consensus, that a stagecoach business in today’s world, was an anachronism by any measure, compounded and made all the more obsolete by the use of such tiny dogs, rather than horses.

Mr Christianson heard all of the negative remarks but he was undeterred. And within a few hours, he began to prove his naysayers wrong, when he had his first paying customers: a family visiting for the week, on vacation, who were captivated by the strange idea of a ride in a Dachshund Stagecoach. They paid cash for a three hour ride, and waited patiently outside while Mr Christianson went to the back of the building to prepare the coach. Curious onlookers lined the sidewalks in anticipation for their first peek at this new business; and they were delighted when the first pair of little dachshunds rounded the corner from behind the building, with a long chain of dachshunds following.

Mr Christianson made it a very merry sight indeed: with hand-knitted harnesses, knit in colorful yarn, looking like holiday sweaters for each of his pups, and with matching knit caps, and with jingly-bells, which jangly announced their arrival, for their safety of course (they are very little dogs after all), but also for joy. But who could have imagined the sheer number of dogs, for there were ever so many. As they rounded the building, two-by-two, it seemed as if they would never end. The kids began counting them out to each other, as they came rounding the corner, “There’s ten!”, “Now, there twenty!”, “Now even more!”, “There’s thirty!!”, then finally, “Forty!!!” Yes, there were forty proud dachshunds pulling the coach!

There at the helm, Mr Christianson sat, beaming and glowing and calling the names, of his beloved dear dachshunds at the end of his reins. “Pull Courage, Haul Patience, Yank Joyful and Tippy! Dig Justice, and Sloppy and Patience and Hank!” All the tiny, warm canines pulled with delight, their long pointed noses showing the way, and the onlookers cheered them as they rode off into the night.

That was the beginning of something truly amazing in our little town of Merrysville, and as is so often the case, there are things that we never knew we needed, but then we find that we can’t live without. I’ve already warmed to the sound of the dachshund’s tiny feet, pitter-pattering down Main Street several times every day, and the sounds of the little jingly bells that they wear, and the colorful lights strung along their bright harnesses. It is hard now to imagine a time when we didn’t have the joyful presence of our remarkable Dachshund Stagecoach.

But it was one year quite recently when the townspeople realized with even greater wonder and with deeper depth, what an incredible and fortunate thing it was, to have Mr Christianson and his forty little dogs pulling that coach. It began in mid-winter, when a sudden cold chill blew in from the west and descended upon Merrysville, and the surrounding towns. With it came a feeling of fear and of darkness—very grim—like some invisible creature of dread had moved in. Nobody could say for certain what had happened, but everyone could feel it; some blamed this thing, and some blamed that, others said it must be something else, and some said it was nothing at all. But that nothing, or something had an appalling effect on everyone.

People stayed inside and barely ventured out, and they stopped visiting each other; family and friends hardly saw one another at all. Instead they ordered everything by phone and online, and if they did visit, they did so virtually, and never in person. Mr Christianson and his little dogs grew very busy that year, as demand for their services grew immensely, calling upon them to do all sorts of errands, making delivery upon deliveries. Certainly FedEx was speedier, but the dachshunds were much merrier; and no one could resist smiling joyfully, when they showed up en masse at one’s front door, with the groceries in tow, or something from the pharmacy, or just a simple letter from a friend.

The following Christmas was even darker and drearier than the months earlier, if you can believe it; it didn’t get any better at all. Compounding everyone’s ennui, the power went out, the stores all shut down, and even the roads were closed between towns! For a storm had come through and knocked the forest all down. Still, through all of this, Mr Christianson worked harder, and his little dogs were indefatigable—carrying folks to the hospital, or to the diner to pick up their Christmas meal-box—and especially delivering to her neighbors, hundreds of containers of Ms. McCleary’s famous cranberry sauce.

It was Christmas Eve day and Ms. McCleary was all in a tizzy, with so many jars of her famous jelly to be sent, and with all the roads closed, and so little time, she was fit to be tied. But in a moment of wisdom she picked up the phone and called Mr Christianson to get the job done. He arrived seconds later, truly heaven-sent, loaded the stagecoach and lickety-split, off he went.

At the end of the day, with all the packages delivered, he and his dachshunds drove past the town square, and there in the middle was a large Doug-fir tree. It was standing dark and forelorn in the center of the square, and was surrounded by dejected workers and volunteers. It was only hours away from the annual tree lighting party, but all the ornaments and lights hadn’t come; they were lost in transit somewhere along the way, and wouldn’t make it to Merrysville until the next day. What could be worse? But it was par for the course, with the sort of year they’d been having, it was hardly surprising, that something so dire was transpiring.

The workers and volunteers shook their heads in disgust, and the small group of school-children nearby kicked at the dust; what an awful bad year, what more could be done, so they all started to slough off back homeward in gloom. But Mr Christianson had an idea then, and he called to his dachshunds to drive to the tree-side. He unhitched them and raised them into the tree one-by-one, and they clung to the branches as he lifted others still higher, to the top of the tree. One volunteer stopped, turned and then smiled; next he called to the others and they all began to return. All the dachshunds were lit up with the lights from their harnesses, which Mr Christianson had woven into the fibers, and with their bright little sweaters and their colorful beanies, they looked like pretty ornaments covering the tree.

The children laughed and they pointed with glee, “Look! It’s a weiner dog Christmas tree!!!” And with that, they all ran off to tell their friends, to come see! Within the hour most of the townsfolk had come; and minute by minute more arrived, from nearby towns and from the countryside. And then something magical happened—something very needed and long awaited—the clouds which had hovered overhead for nearly a year, they parted, and with them the drear and despair lifted and folks started to smile. A sound was heard in the crystalline sky overhead, and the forty little dachshund noses pointed upwards to see; and folks glanced in the direction of those noses, and to everyone’s surprise a beautiful bright comet streaked on by!

Later that eve, as the townsfolk milled about, sharing Christmas cookies and stories, old Mr Christianson brought his dogs down from that tree. He harnessed them back to the stagecoach again, and offered all the children rides ’round the square for free. And as the colorful, magical Dachshund Stagecoach went about the crowded town square, the townsfolk began to sing a tribute:

“Merry Mr Christianson,

and his forty dashing dachshunds,

set out that dark ‘n dreary year,

they delivered Ms. McCleary’s cranberry sauce,

while spreading their holiday cheer!”

(Refrain):

“Jingle, jangle, jingle,

Pitter, patter, pitter, patter-patter, pit,

Jangle, jingle, jangle,

Patter, pitter, patter, pitter-pitter, pat.

It’s the Dachshund Stagecoach coming your way,

making your tears go away—

It’s Merrysville’s Dachshund Stagecoach ride,

now holiday joy’s here to stay!”

“Merry Mr Christianson,

and his forty dashing dachshunds,

saw that dark ‘ole Christmas Tree,

and they climbed it one by one,

filling it with weiner-dog glee!”

(Refrain)

“Merry Mr Christianson,

and his forty dashing dachshunds,

when everyone said there’s no way,

all the townsfolk moping and having no fun,

then the dachshunds saved the day!”

Yes, hope springs eternal in the hearts of men; someone said that once and it’s true. And while hope springs from a different organ in a dog, we’re not all that different—dogs and men—when it comes to hoping. And sometimes, when our hope is flagging, we just need a little encouragement; and that inspiration can come from each other, or it can come from our four-legged friends.

Just before midnight, on that Christmas Eve night, Mr Christianson finally brought his dogs home. It had been a long and a busy day and they were all ready to sleep. The dachshunds dragged themselves over the threshold and flopped in front of the fire—as he poured out the eggnog and fired up the grill. The smell of bacon filled the air and the dachshunds got their second wind; they shot up from the fire and over to the frying pan, hoping and expecting some fat, juicy bacon! Yes, hope springs eternal from the stomachs of dogs; I don’t believe anyone’s said that before, but it’s true. And there are very few things more worthy of placing one’s hopes, than in the kindly old Mr Christianson, and the sweet, meaty smell of fresh bacon!

The End

~FS

Reminiscences on Childhood in the Valley of the Moon: High School Years Part 1

The Valley of the Moon is a blessed place, and as children growing up there in the 1970’s & 1980’s, we too were blessed. This area is also known as the Redwood Empire, and the renowned horticulturalist Luther Burbank, one of its most eminent residents, once called it: “…the chosen spot in all the world, as far as nature is concerned.”

As students of Santa Rosa High School we certainly felt chosen; fortunate to attend such a beautiful campus, and proud to be Panthers. With its Collegiate Gothic architecture and its mature London Plane trees lining its courtyards and walkways, this wonderful school, our home away from home, infused us with a quiet nobility that often went unnoticed by us, but nonetheless permeated our lives.

We were just a bunch of wild kids after all, so how noble could we be? Yes, there were the inevitable ignoble beer parties, and the lewd jokes and behaviors of a typical teenage society; but the nobility which I mean, and that which guided us all, was an overall good-natured bonhomie. In general, we all liked each other, encouraged each other, and accepted each other.

We had punks, and we had preppies, there were stoners, cheerleaders, jocks, theater people, dead-heads, metal-heads, computer geeks, band kids, and an innumerable host of other –ists and –isms that I never knew the names of, and yet, as far as I can remember, everyone got along together; there was room enough for everyone to be themselves on our beautiful campus.

We weren’t perfect people, don’t get me wrong. We still fought, and bickered, we ridiculed, and made fun of one another, like normal human children do, but even in the midst of our human nature, we enjoyed a climate of friendship. And it is on this point, friendship, which I would like to begin my tale; it is upon our friendships that we staked our young lives, and it was our friendships which could either fill our sails and carry us to distant shores, or could cause us shipwreck and destruction.  

There might be a million stories I could tell about the friendships at Santa Rosa High; and if there is time I may someday tell them all. But every journey needs to start someplace, so I’ll begin by telling a story of my friendship with Randy Jaynes. For many years we were so close that it was rare and unusual to hear someone mention one name without the other; they would say, “Kirk and Randy this…or Randy and Kirk that….”

We first met years earlier, on the first day of seventh grade, when he saw me jumping over a trash can in the drama room, as I simultaneously attempted to ram my head up into the ceiling. Why was I attempting this? Because the ceiling in this room was unusually low, so it seemed possible to do, so it was worth trying; and because I was twelve-years old. I had a lot of excess energy, and was looking for a funny and unusual way to expel it. He felt the same, and approved of my method; and so we bonded together as dear friends, then and there, as we jumped forwards and then backwards over that trashcan, unable to quite reach the ceiling tiles with our craniums, but joyfully exhausting ourselves as we gave it our best attempts.

We both always enjoyed a good laugh, and needed the unusual and unexpected to keep us entertained and interested in life; so we were good for each other, since neither of us were afraid to try something new, or to do something slightly unusual. On occasion we provoked one another to feats of valor, but short of that, we encouraged one another, at the very least, to feats of the sublimely ridiculous; and we always had a lot of fun in the process!

By tenth grade we understood the power of a dramatic spectacle, and how entertainment might be leveraged for political power. So we decided to run for class president and vice-president. Class offices were elected independently, but we made ours a ticket, marketing everything as a package deal; a team of Randy and Kirk. Was there any substance to our ticket; did we have any positions or specific goals for running? Of course not! We were running on style over substance; the bigger the spectacle, the better our chances of winning. And we applied the same strategy two years later when we ran again, this time for student body commissioners of spirit and rallies.

We decided that our campaigns didn’t need to make sense, they just needed to be memorable. If they could excite, and entertain, we had a shot. We made hall signs, written in Indonesian announcing: “Pisang!” So vote for Kirk and Randy!” Which translated means, “Banana!” The signs were colorful, had an exotic word on them, and had the potential to tip the balance of the election by appealing to the small contingent of Southeast Asians at our school. They made little sense, had nothing to do with being a class president or vice-president, but they got people talking.

And we made numerous necklaces out of cardboard for students to wear, with lots of catchy phrases such as, “Let us fingerpaint your bazoongas with spirit!” These were made in the shape of a particular aspect of the female anatomy. Was it tasteless? Probably. Was it effective? Yes, particularly with an important demographic which comprised a large portion of the electorate: teenage boys.

But the real key to our successful campaigns were the day that the candidates made their speeches, and presented their cases for election. In tenth grade the speeches were held on the outdoor stage, where each student had about five minutes to stand up in front of the student body and state their case. There were good speeches, boring speeches, some spoken in monotone and others with great emotion; but we decided instead of giving a speech, we should give a show!

We attempted to get two limousines to drive us up to the stage, but were unable to procure any. Instead, our friend Pat Dengler, his father owned two very long, four-door Cadillacs. We attached flags onto the front fenders, to look presidential, and these vehicles worked nearly as well. We approached the stage seated in the back seat of the second Cadillac, with the first Cadillac acting as our escort; with both horns blaring. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get up to the stage from the parking area so we had to be let out, and then walk around to the stage.

I’ve heard it said that it’s a good idea to dress for the job you want, not the one you have. So Randy and I dressed in suits. And though it has been decades, perhaps centuries, since elected officials have worn top-hats; Randy and I both donned a fine black top-hat each, and carried matching black canes with pretty white tips. Very elegant! As we made our way up onto the stage we had an army of helpers throwing confetti, letting balloons loose into the air and running this way and that across the stage, carrying signs proclaiming us for President and Vice-President. Triumphant and presidential music played from the speakers throughout the spectacle; and we stood still and silent, with an air of quiet confidence, in the middle of the stage while the pandemonium took place all around us, like a wild party, and a tempest of excitement. And when our time was up, we bowed, smiled broadly, and walked off the stage. I don’t believe we said a single word ourselves during our allotted five minutes; we rather decided to test the old adage that actions speak louder than words.

It was very good to have a friend like Randy; we filled each other’s sails, and encouraged each other to reach farther than we might have otherwise, had we been journeying alone. We understood each other, which is a rare and blessed gift; and we both thoroughly understood the value and importance of having a good top-hat and cane, which is even rarer still in today’s world.

~FS

Reminiscences on Childhood in the Valley of the Moon: Part 5

Wendi and I raced numerous times over the years, and the results always ended the same; but I never gave up! Year after year of determined futility spurred me onward, and though I couldn’t ever catch her, my admiration for her grew, and in a sense she caught me. The image of her long straight hair dancing behind her as she ran, fluttering and flowing like a Jetstream as she left me in her wake, flustered me and mocked my efforts but also galvanized me to continue to try. I will admit, the thought occasionally occurred to me, the idea tantalized me, to just reach out and grab that hair of hers, just this once, and give it a little tug, to give myself a chance. But of course, I never did that; one cannot touch the hair of a goddess and live.

Wendi gained an almost mythical stature within my family as I described her to my parents and siblings. Someone of us christened her ‘Windy’ because she ran like the wind, and for years later, even into adulthood, I recall a sister, or my mother asking me “whatever happened to ‘Windy’?”

My friends and I played a lot of nerf football in those days; that squishy multi-colored football was the perfect size for third-and-fourth-grader-sized-hands to throw great distances. And the rush gave the playground quarterback ten whole alligators to find his target. Everyone wanted to either throw it or catch it, and fortunately since I could run, I often got the call to run deep and catch a long-bomb. Touchdown! It was always so satisfying to blaze past the defense and receive that football at the end of the asphalt and score! I was given the nickname, ‘Greased Lighting’ by my friends, deriving from the movie Grease which hit the theaters that year.

Feeling pretty great about myself, I challenged Wendy to another rematch. Who knows what number rematch this was; but did it really matter? We were older now, and we ran on the track now, which made some difference, but not to the outcome. I lost again. But she was gracious as always and made losing almost a pleasure. Her smile always warmed my heart, and I never really cared that I lost to her, which was surprising because I was very competitive and hated to lose.

In fourth grade we officially could play on the other side of the backstop; the dividing line between the little kids and the big kids playgrounds. It wasn’t that we had never gone to the west side, the other side, before, but it just wasn’t done all that often. At least not by me. And it wasn’t long before I learned of new dangers over there that I hadn’t considered before. I had never been in a fight before, never really had much of any confrontation so I was nonplused and confused when I learned from quite a few of my friends that there was a kid, a sixth-grader, who wanted to kill me. They assured me that I was definitely going to be beaten up by him, and I would probably die, because he was just that tough.

Who in the heck was John Caven?! I had never heard of him or seen him before. And why didn’t he like me? How did he even know who I was?! I couldn’t understand any of this but I knew my situation was dire, and I needed a plan. First, I should find out who he was. And when I first saw him, I agreed that he was as advertised; he looked pretty tough and scary. Who wears black leather jackets in sixth grade?! With metal studs and chains on the shoulders he looked very intimidating; and with his feathered hair he also looked very cool. I was impressed, and realized I was doomed.

But I could run. I couldn’t fight, but I had two legs and they could carry me along pretty well; and I intended to use them. One morning recess, not long after the initial threats to my life made circulation around the school, my assailant finally came after me. He just walked slowly towards me, and I believe the kids on the playground parted like the red sea, giving him free access to me. Everything was in slow motion then, he was in no hurry to murder me, he just came at me relentlessly and I stood there frozen, incredulously, until something clicked and I turned and ran. It was as simple as that, he didn’t chase me, he let me go and I ran out across the playfield until I turned to see that he had gone away and I was safe. He never bothered me again, but it occurred to me that while I was running terrified across the field, as I was saving my life, I wished I could also have been racing Wendy; that it would have been an excellent time to have been simultaneously racing her because I was pretty sure I could have beaten her that time.

It was the following year, in fifth grade, when I least expected it, during a standard rematch, as I fully expected to be creamed yet again, that the unimaginable happened. I was feeling pretty good that day, it was nearing the end of the year, and the annual inter-school track meet was coming up. I was at the top of my game. Earlier in the morning I had been running the track, pacing myself against some youngsters. We were running the curve, which is always my favorite part of the track to run. Something about leaning into the curve adds a little bit more exhilaration, and somehow gives one the impression they are going faster.

Wendy was out on the track too, running as she always did; like a human-gazelle, almost magically in flight as she went. But I was ready for her this time. I challenged her to a race and as I recall we started at the far western end of the track, just behind the backstop and we only ran fifty yards, to the little white post which marked the middle of the straightaway. The race was wonderful, as all our races were, she glided beside me, her hair lifting into the air and streaming behind her as we went. I turned and could see she was smiling, but also very determined as she always was, she was fierce but at ease simultaneously, focused as she ran but effortless at the same time. For me, she was a miracle as she ran. I on the other hand, hunched over and dug in, and grunted it out like a beast, pounding the earth and scraping along as hard as I could, trying to gain an advantage. And for the first time in three, almost four years, when we passed the finish line I was ahead! I finally won!

It was a strange feeling to win that race. Like most of our races, I don’t believe there were any witnesses; we raced incognito, with no fanfare, and little consequence. But like all of our races the world around us vanished for a short moment, while we shared the joy and freedom of running; we ran for the fun of it, and we ran joyfully! Though I felt it was a great accomplishment to win that race and I felt satisfaction having done so; strangely, it also didn’t matter to me as much as I thought it would. Wendy was gracious, and I believe she held out her hand to shake mine, and she congratulated me. Though I’m not sure if she realized that it was the first time I had ever beaten her; it didn’t appear to bother her in any way, she just took it in stride. I don’t recall ever racing her again after that. Perhaps we did, although I suspect I decided to stop while I was ahead—ever so briefly ahead.

~FS

The Beautiful (An Inner Thanksgiving Journey)

Each day I walk from here to there, and back again; and as I go, I walk through meadows overgrown with thistles, or nettles, or some-such prickly things, and pass by walls covered with masses of thorny vines, which also hang in abundance from the trees, and reach down as if grabbing for me, yearning to hold me in their arms, as I walk beneath them. Wild little creatures populate their foliage, dropping things, or throwing them at me, as they scurry about in the half-dark, amidst thickets of the scrubby, twiggy trees which are ubiquitous here, and hide the sun, I imagine, somewhere up above.

Occasionally I stumble on one of these cast-offs thrown into my path. Now and then, falling to the ground, I let out a curse, before I’m quite able to stop myself. I’ve even gotten myself stuck in the mud, stumbling over these things, as I make my journey here and there.

But the strangest thing began to happen a while back, and this is what I’d like to share with you. It began, I think, when I read somewhere in the Bible, probably Galatians, that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and I decided that I wanted these things. I considered for some time how I might get them, when it occurred to me that first I needed to make some room for them.

I already had fruits of a worse spirit within me, things such as anger and lust, self-righteousness and criticism; things which clogged me up so to speak, and backed me up, so that there was no space inside for the better fruits. What I really needed was a spiritual enema, if you will pardon the expression, and so I prayed for this, as I made my resolution to stop feeding myself these bitter fruits, which had given me so much internal strife and discomfort.

Thankfully, with God’s help, I began the long process of starving the bad fruits within me, in hopes they would shrivel and fall off the vine, and make room for the better ones.

One day, as I walked, it happened that I saw a beautiful woman. This in itself should not be a problem, but sometimes my thoughts wander at times like these, in ways that aren’t right, and sometimes I follow these thoughts. In fact, this is exactly how I’ve gotten myself stuck in the past, as I crane my neck to look at her, for a moment too long, and lose my way, and fall into a sticky, sickly-sweet slime. This particular day however, I didn’t follow these thoughts, but let them go on alone. I suppose they ended up, these thoughts, neck deep in the mud, but who cares. Instead, I directed my attention to God Himself, and I focused my thoughts, and my rising desire away from her, and towards Him. As I did this, the muddy, murky, slimy puddle I had begun to thrust myself into, transformed into a clear and sun-drenched pond, with waters still and sublime. What a refreshing change, let me tell you; and I felt no shame wading into these waters, believe me.

I’ve also had the habit of carrying around with me a bad attitude consisting of criticism of things, people, life, existence itself; and to this I’ve added a large measure of irritation and frustration which I have dispersed freely in all directions, without control. Almost gleefully, sometimes, I’ve spread these seeds, like a demented ‘Johnny Appleseed’ throwing criticism to the wind by the handful, and tossing complaints in every direction. What is surprising however, is the way that these seeds have taken root, and grown up into large thickets of ugliness, casting shadows over my world, and thrusting all that I see into a dim and ghastly pallor.  Yet, when first I stopped my tongue, and shut my mouth, behold, the world grew a little brighter.

Then, as I resisted these ticklish thoughts, and when I turned away from the giddiness that wraps these rancorous candies—replacing them with gratitude and humility instead, with words and thoughts of thankfulness—the ubiquitous, sorrowful forests came alive within me with a renewed vigor, and my world brightened tremendously. Light filtered down through the canopy of my previously twisted forest, and touched me with a softer warmth which filled me. And I must tell you, this helped me find my way.

In the rising light I found it much easier to avoid the projectiles and traps thrust into my path by those myriad strange little creatures overhead. In fact, many of them must be night creatures I surmised, because there were far fewer now above me, in the gathering light.

There are times, far too many really, when the thorny vines that reach out to grab me, as I walk about, find me an easy prey. So as I lash out at others in anger, I find myself encircled and constricted by their seductive, deadly grasp. They hug me and hold me close, at times like these, with the love of an asp, and with the tenacity of a boa. I can feel the blood rise into my face and my chest tighten and my pulse increase; and as I strain in my aggression, I can feel these vines tightening, attempting to strangle the life out of me.

But recently I discovered a better use for my anger, perhaps the only really good use for it that exists. I decided to divert it away from the people in my life and instead, turn it exclusively upon myself, or rather entirely upon those bad fruits within me that I was mentioning earlier to you. I gave them no rest, but in my anger I harassed them, and attacked them, and drove them out. And the results were threefold: first, there was no lingering aftertaste of shame from my angry activities, whereas before, whenever I directed my anger outward towards others, I invariably, and inevitably felt remorse afterwards, but in this case I felt an empowerment, and a nobility, rise up within me after driving away these little monsters within; and second, my anger acted like a machete or a potent herbicide which made those thorny vines retreat, and in their absence I felt a wave of peace, and I could breathe again; and third, these vines began to bloom.

They bloomed tremendously and with a fragrance sweet and joyful. For long periods I would just stand beneath these flower-laden vines, where they twined amongst the trees, and I would lift my head and inhale deeply to smell their floral sweetness; and where they rambled across the little walls, beneath the sun-drenched sky, I would bend over and bury my face deep within their jasmine and honeysuckle beauty, and forget all trace of irritation.

By now, I was enjoying going here and there much more than I had before, because my world was becoming more beautiful than it had been before. But there was still the problem of the nettles everywhere I went. These prickly things hedged me in on every side and limited my freedom and mobility. How to get rid of them?

One day—as I gingerly picked my way around them, taking great care not to disturb them, so as not to get stung—I was startled by a sudden, loud sound of applause. Actually, it was only thunder, as the clouds were rolling in, but to my foolish heart I imagined it as applause. I turned to my left, and to my right, in search of my admirers, and in my delirium I imagined the sea of nettles around me were crowds of people, watching me in rapt attention, waiting breathlessly to experience what monumental thing I might say, or do next. Oh, how glorious I was, standing there above my people, the prince of the thistles, the star among the weeds. And as I felt the familiar rush of that deceptive fame rising within me, I felt dizzy with anticipation, hoping that I might be important, and in this ridiculous reverie I fainted, and fell upon my face.

When I awoke, a moment later, my body was stinging all over, and my eyes were watering, I assume from having landed in a patch of nettles. I rubbed my eyes to stop the flow of tears, but couldn’t. I tried to lift myself back onto my feet, but felt so weary. Instead, I lay there beneath the nettles and gave up. I needed a break, although whether I needed it or not, I had lost the will to continue picking my way around these obnoxious weeds.

I glanced around at the world beneath the nettles, as I continued lying on the ground. This world was dust, and emptiness, as a result of the weed cover above, which had choked out most other vegetation underneath. Even so, I saw a small flower here, and a patch of grass there, and these gave me hope. As I spent more time here, so close to the dirt, I grew more comfortable with my surroundings, and became grateful for the simplicity of this humble world. Upon closer inspection it wasn’t so empty after all; in fact, it was teeming with life—little mosses growing in the shadow of rocks, seeds of this and that beginning to push up through the soil, ants doing what ants do—so much life, all interconnected and beautiful, working together so naturally.

I considered how fortunate I was to have been brought down to this place, brought into intimacy with creation, and shown a different perspective. I looked up at the sky above me, at the sunlight filtering down through the nettles, and felt relief, because it was far less troublesome for me now, as I began looking up at the world around me, rather than looking down at it, as I had become accustomed to doing.  

Eventually, I returned to my feet, but resolved to remember the lesson of laying in the nettles. Since that time, when I am tempted to think of myself too highly, or of others too lowly, I remember the humility of the world I met beneath the weeds, and this motivates me to resist playing along with my delusions.

As I continued to resist pride, and vanity, and all of the other prickly things which alienate me from the world, the masses of nettles which had previously hedged me in, began to dry up and wilt away; and in time, the meadows opened up to me, released from the tyranny of the thistles. I ran freely across large open spaces, filled with grasses and wildflowers; and I began walking more intimately with others, without the fear of stinging them, or of being stung by them.

Today, as I walked here and there, I stopped for a while to rest beside a pond. Its clear waters revealed their depths to me, and in its glassy reflection, I saw the clouds passing overhead. Sunshine filled this place, and only the passing hours changed the intensity and color of the light. As the sun descended in the sky, the light around me turned from brilliant to golden, and warmed the trees across the pond—a muted incandescent.

My thoughts had wandered to things from my past as I sat here, and as I pondered these things, I suddenly awoke to the realization that these thoughts were clouding my vision of the present. Quite literally, these musings about the past were acting like a thin veil over my eyes, or putting it another way, they gave the air around me an unnatural heaviness, as if it were a little too thick. When I put away these thoughts of the past, and simply experienced the current moment—witnessing the golden light as it reflected upon the tree trunk in front of me—it was as if suddenly a layer were removed within the air, so that it became clearer, and the world around me appeared closer, and more intimate to my senses. This startled me, but I enjoyed it—the vibrant clarity of the present moment.

Soon after this, my mind began wandering again, this time to plans I was making for the future. The excitement and anticipation of coming events gave me a little thrill, which I reveled in for a moment, until I suddenly awoke again to the realization that these thoughts as well, were obscuring my vision of the present, and diminishing my perception of the beauty of the world around me.  My thought life had a real and ontological effect on my physical vision, and diminished my experience of the world. I experimented with this phenomena several times, purposefully thinking about the past; and observed, as the nearly imperceptible veil returned to cloud my sight. Then, as I put these thoughts of the past out of my mind, I could see the veil lift again.

Now that the twin veils of past and future thoughts had been removed, I experienced the world around me with greater clarity, and as I watched the sunlight moving gently through the trees, I understood that God is present. But soon thereafter, as the mind is prone to do, thoughts of other times, and places, crept back in unnoticed, and clouded my vision of the beautiful. I felt these thoughts carry me out of the moment, out of my true life once again, and I followed them, seduced and enthralled by their promises.

Such is the back and forth journey of the spiritual life, but may God’s grace guide and awaken us—filling us with gratitude for every step along the way. The Beautiful is available to us all. May we discover it, as we journey from here to there; and may we dwell therein, eternally.

~FS

Reminiscences on Childhood in the Valley of the Moon: Part 4

Recess! That most important time in every school day; fifteen hallowed minutes arriving mid-morning, and another half-hour or so after lunch, depending on how quickly you could scarf down your food and run out to the playground. How was it possible that we could pack so much living into such a short period of time?! It’s a mystery to me now, looking back upon it from an adult’s perspective, but it was magic when we were children, and somehow time stood still during recess—or it elongated remarkably—allowing us to do amazing feats between the bell’s resounding calls; the first, ringing out a declaration of freedom, as we all fled wildly, half-crazed from our classrooms, and the second, sounding out mournfully, calling us regrettably back to our desks once again.


But, oh! How much we could accomplish between the freedom of the bells. Yes! We painted our masterpieces each day upon the fresh canvas that was our playground. Each moment painted in broad brushstrokes; joy and freedom lived out in our many unique ways, sometimes harmoniously together, and sometimes infringing upon one another. In the classroom we learned how to read, and how to count; but on the playground we learned how to live.


I found joy and freedom in running; and I could run fast. To run is a thrill, from the first jolt of adrenaline when one kicks it into gear and takes off, to the feeling of the wind hitting one’s face, the sound and bounce of your feet as they hit the ground, repeatedly, carrying you quickly across the earth, as one’s surroundings turn to a blurr, and one’s vision focuses acutely, every sight and sound funneling around, then coiling into an intense cone of perception just before you; and you run constantly forward, and into that cone, pushing, pounding, with your lungs exploding, filling with oxygen, until you feel like you might explode for joy, and you can’t help but smile as the world rushes past you, and you leave the world behind. This is running, and I loved to run.


None of my friends at Sequoia Elementary could run as fast as I could run. In fact, I don’t think anyone in the entire school could run faster; with the exception of Wendi. I was fast but, she was faster. I believe it was in second grade, more or less, when we first raced. It was an impromptu competition; and if I remember correctly, she challenged me. The challenge came one day, through her committee; two girls in my class trash talking about how their friend, Wendi, could beat me in a race. I had seen her run, and I knew she was quick, but I was pretty sure I could win, so I accepted the challenge. The next day, during morning recess we met near the northeast corner of the school, just east of Mrs. Dunkleberger’s classroom, in the dodge-ball circle. We’d run to the southeast, in a straight-line, across the asphalt playground, past the portables, and into the weeds, finishing at the old railroad ties which encircled a small play-set just east of the kindergarten classroom; it was a distance of about fifty yards or so.


There was little fanfare about this foot-race, all around us other kids were playing. Girls hung upside-down from the monkey bars, oblivious to our intentions. Kids played ball, chased one another, and made the most of their recess time in a variety of different ways; and only the two trash-talkers, Wendi and I stood preparing for our event. Wendi was an elegant runner, she was smooth and flowed gracefully when she ran. I didn’t underestimate her abilities, but still I was confident in my own. It was a simple start to the race, one of the girls yelled ‘Go’ and we took off towards the old railroad ties. It was close for a while, we ran side-by side, but by about half-way she began to pull away from me. I was surprised to see her gain a step, then two and then three, and then finally, all I could really see was her long hair trailing behind her, as she left me in the dust.


When I reached the railroad ties she had already been there for a brief time, and she turned smiling at me as I arrived. But it wasn’t the smile of victory or of gloating; it was the smile of joy and freedom. I could see in her face right then that she also knew and understood the powerful joy of running. I’m sure she was also happy to beat me, but it appeared to me that she was even happier just to have ran, and to have competed with me.


A few moments later her two friends arrived, taunting me for having lost. But I didn’t really care about that; I was far too captivated by this amazing runner, her speed and the manner in which she ran. I reflected then, as I still do today, upon her running and it made me smile. It was almost as if she had been gliding or floating across the ground as she ran. Even though I has lost, I really enjoyed racing against her. And even though she had beaten me this time, I was sure that I could beat her the next. So I challenged her to a rematch; which she happily accepted, with her broad grin, perhaps knowing that she could beat me the next time too, but possibly just smiling at another opportunity to run free again.

~FS

Healing Our Divisions

So, for a long while I was thinking that I was alone in feeling sad about the divisions in our world, and in our church. I didn’t realize that it was also preoccupying other people’s minds and hearts as well, until I overheard a number of people make various comments about the protocols related to the virus, and about masks, and this sort of thing and that was when I realized that these things must be on everyone’s mind, or at least many people’s, more than I had thought, and this must be a major issue and something that we all could address together, to hopefully help solve together, and heal any divisions we have, to help heal our world.

I.

So we all know we live in an age of divisiveness, in a world that is divided. And I think it is helpful to remember who is behind this division; it is the work of devils and demons, those in opposition to God. On the other hand God is one and undivided, and He calls us to be one in Him. Keeping this in mind, we can ask ourselves constantly, ‘who am I serving now?’ When we are about to send that angry text or email, or say that nasty thing about someone, we need to question ourselves constantly. “Which is more important now, to vent my anger, or to be an instrument for God’s will? Do I want my words and actions to add to the divisions here, or can I try to make them healing words, and actions that help bind up the wounds of others?”

There is so much that goes into being able to do this though, isn’t there? It means cultivating peace inside ourselves, praying for others, developing the discernment to know what may be helpful. In an age of division, such as the one we are currently living in, mistrust can rule the day. We hurt each other and then we lose trust in each other, and this leads to further divisiveness. And then our arguments give us no satisfaction; nobody changes their point of view, they just dig in deeper and fight for their position more vehemently. Can we set aside the argumentation, and focus instead on rebuilding trust? Can we lay ourselves down in the heat of the moment, and give ourselves to the other in some small way, so that they can begin to trust us again, and we can begin to trust them? It all can be very difficult. But I think some of the things I can share now from our Orthodox tradition, will be helpful in cultivating this ability in us.

II.

First though, there are two psychological terms that are used to describe the manner in which we interact with one another, or the levels that are occurring as we communicate with each other. The terms to describe this are ‘content’ and ‘process’. The terms themselves don’t really matter, but what they expose about the way we communicate with one another is important. The content level is the level we mostly pay attention to; it is the level which includes the topic of conversation, the details, the facts, our assumptions and conclusions, and the data we use to reason etc. This is the level where we focus our disagreements, and where we fight it out with each other. But there are other levels occurring simultaneously, and these are just as important, or really more important, when it comes to learning how to achieve harmony, or unity between us. The ‘process’ level of communication is how we are feeling, and how we are experiencing life, and experiencing each other; this includes ours and other people’s emotional reactions to the content, our motives, our desires; and these things can be very powerful, especially around topics that are very important to us, that we are passionate about.

I believe that it is the ‘process’ level where we can make the most impact towards unity of mind, and I think this is where Christ intends us to focus in order to achieve oneness of mind and spirit. This level points to what is essential about who we are as human-beings, I believe, and that we aren’t simply what we think, or the opinions that we hold, but we are much more than that, and those we disagree with also are much more than their opinions or their thoughts about ‘content’. As Christ and the Church teach us, we are all made in the image and likeness of God, this is the reality that can help bind us together as one. We need to remember this truth at all times; though we are all uniquely different people, with different ideas and views about things, more importantly we are unified by Christ and through Him, and because of the fact that we are made in His image and likeness; we share that common bond.

III.

So there are quite a few verses in the Bible about being of one mind and unified, but I’d like to just share this one from 1 Peter 3:8-9.

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous, not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.”

I’d like to keep coming back to this verse again and again because there is so much in it that points to how we can work towards Unity within the Church. First of all, we are told to be of one mind here. The Greek word of interest is Homothumadon, or homo; unison, oneness + thumadon; temperament, emotion of mind. So we are told to have oneness of temperament, or unison of emotion towards one another.

There is a lot that could be said about this, but I would like to focus in on a couple points that Dr Jean-Claude Larchet discusses in his books, The Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses. He is a patristic scholar who has studied extensively the teachings of the ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church and in these books his describes the healing of man’s fallen nature. In this fallen world of division, we have all learned to turn our emotions and temperaments against each other. But the Church teaches that one of the primary powers of the human soul is this aggressive power, or themos in Greek, the root of thumadon. So we use our aggression, our emotion, our anger against each other, but God calls on us to use it in a different way. He made themos for us, for our good and the good of others, and it was placed in us to fight against anything that would cause us to sin, and to fight against temptations. Rather than fighting against one another, we need to learn to use our aggressive power to fight together, against division and against divisiveness. In other words, we need to fight for the manifestation of love between us, and against the very things within us that make us angry at one another. Dr Larchet explains that the faculties which God gave us, such as themos, are all good, but we need to learn to use them for good again; we need to turn away from using these powers in a sinful way, and turn towards using them properly again, in a loving way. I think we need to take that more seriously as we interact with one another. The Church recommends acts of charity, and practicing humility, gentleness and compassion as ways to help us achieve this.

IV.

So, returning to the verse from 1 Peter 3:8-9:

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another…”

It is important for us, in the midst of disagreements to maintain a compassionate attitude for each other. This is difficult, but it’s the most important thing, more important than winning the debate, or being right, or being persuasive and convincing. All of these may have their place, but all should be done in the spirit of compassion, if we want to do it God’s way.

Compassion literally means ‘to suffer together’, com- meaning together, and –passion, to suffer. So we are asked to suffer together, to join in one another’s sufferings as we practice oneness of mind. What better place to suffer together, than at the time of an argument?! Because don’t we all suffer when we are arguing and fighting each other? Yes, of course, it can be very painful. Even if we win the argument, so to speak, it can still be painful and uncomfortable.

But too often we only feel our own pain at these times, and we don’t consider the pain of others, especially when we are focused on the content of our arguments. But this is the perfect time to step back and to reflect on the suffering of the other person. And I don’t mean that they are suffering physically, or in any conscious way necessarily, but they are suffering in what they care deeply about, they have passion in their opinions and their views. We need to consider this, so that we can come alongside them, even in our differences, especially in our differences, so that we can express compassion for them, and heal our divisions. We can do this by listening, and by being silent when the time calls for it, and putting ourselves ‘in their shoes’ for a time. This is a way we can practice humility and fight against our own nature, and not against the person with whom we have disagreement.

V.

Returning to 1 Peter 3:8-9 once again:

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous…”

Both St. Silouan and St. Sophrony write extensively about discovering the unity of mankind. They don’t discuss this as an abstraction but as a genuine reality; that we all are created as one, in reality. I can’t explain this truth, but I believe it. They teach that by the process of emptying ourselves we discover this unity. The emptying that they mean is setting aside our own pride, our own self-focus, setting aside love for ourselves and of only looking out for ourselves, and as we do this, a new love fills the vacuum, love for others, in the manner of Christ.

As this occurs we begin to see our brothers and sisters in this world as we see ourselves, and we begin to love them as ourselves. And we begin to want to treat them as we would want to be treated; with respect and tenderness, courteously and with understanding. This is done towards those we agree with, as well as towards those we disagree with, based upon our common life in Christ, and the fact that we are all made in His image and likeness, This attitude of oneness, compassion and tenderness towards each other is not dependent upon the content of our interactions with each other; but simply upon the fact that we are one in Christ, that each of us is made as a wonderful part of this creation, and is worthy of respect simply as a human being.  

St. Silouan writes about discovering love for ‘the whole Adam’, meaning all of mankind past, present and future. We all know the golden rule, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Well, sometimes in the midst of an argument or disagreement it is difficult to remember to apply this love for others, love for the whole Adam. This is where focusing less on the content of the disagreement and more on the process can be very helpful. For instance, let’s say you are in a heated disagreement and the other person says something that sounds crazy to you, and makes no sense. Instead of focusing on the content of their argument and trying to tell them why they are wrong, it can be more useful to imagine at that moment that you are this other person, with those views. Then you can ask yourself, “If I were this person, why would I think the way they are thinking, why would I do what they are doing and say what they are saying?” Spending our energy on this inquiry can lead us to greater understanding of the other point of view, and lead us away from judgement of the person.

VI.

Returning to 1 Peter 3:8-9 once again:

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous, not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling…”

Both Sts. Silouan and Sophrony consider love for our enemies as the defining factor for Christian living. But who is our enemy? In one sense we may not consider anyone a real enemy, but in another sense everyone might be considered a potential enemy; anyone who gets in our way, or opposes us in some way, or thinks differently than we do, or has opposing goals, etc.  Or anyone who hurts our feelings, they could be an enemy, and when someone offends us, it is very human to return evil for evil, reviling for reviling.

But both of these saints, I believe, would encourage us to hold our tongue at the very least and practice self-control. And as a great tool to further help us with this, they might encourage us to include in our daily prayers anyone who has hurt us or offended us; to make it a daily practice to pray for those who are on the other side of any issue, or anyone who presents content that we disagree with or dislike.

VII.

Finally, this verse from 1 Peter 3:8-9 describes blessings:

“Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous, not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.”

Oneness of mind and unity within the Church, is a blessing that all of us can enjoy. But it also is a responsibility that each of us needs to take on, out of love and respect for each other. We have the freedom to choose to seek unity and to enjoy the blessings that come from this.

The theologian John Zizioulas in his book, Being As Communion describes the freedom that all of us have, as the very thing which makes us like God, and he says that we can exercise our freedom in love or in negation. But only in freely choosing love do we discover the truth and meaning of our being. Furthermore, love is expressed only in relationship with one another, so essentially we need one another in order to express and share love.

If we choose to allow divisions and disagreements in the Church to negate our love for one another, then we are all diminished together. Using our freedom for negation tears at the fabric of our communion, and we lose ourselves because of that; and we lose the blessings that come of living with one mind, and in unity with each other.

~FS

The Resplendent Lightness of Turning

Before, when I lived in a darkness of my own conceit, I was as one dead to life, but sadly too numb to know it. I spent my days, content and at peace with myself—happily engaged in trivialities, self-assured by my inner virtues, which I measured, conveniently, against anyone clearly worse than myself. This satisfied my conscience, superficially, and was approved and encouraged by the lazy elements slumbering within me. I was wrapped inside a blanket of darkness, though which appeared as light, to my night-accustomed vision; for there was a hazy twilight, as from a far-off sun over the horizon, by which I could see. I called murkiness, daylight, and convinced myself that it was enough. What need had I of pure light, when dim light suited my darkened soul much better? And though I lived for the future sunrise, I could wait until a future time to see it.

Then, a revelatory light punctuated my darkness—unsought, only partially welcomed—inexorable, omnipresent, and casting my comfortable malaise in high-contrast, starkly before my eyes. There was nowhere to turn, to close my eyes, to pretend not to see, for it was clear to me that living in the semi-darkness, as I had, was actually a fatal luxury, afforded only to those with little hope…and little faith. I understood then, that we were made for brighter things—to be called out from the stupor that our negligence and complacency has wrought for us, made to turn from this numbing darkness which bathes us in self-satisfaction, or remorse—and created for the freedom which can be found only in perfect love.

Now, instead of a life of constant propping, of human effort, of dwelling in the shadows while seeking the limelight, or of hiding from shame; I see before me a life of repentance—the life that is resplendent and shining, and ever open to love’s pure light. Clothed in humility—repentance, is a life which transcends the sickly morass of remorse or shame, and will not bind us like these human chains will do, but rather, repentance allows our soul to take flight and to soar upward, even as we bow ourselves downward. This is the life of genuine courage and unfeigned joy. Not a one-time turning, but rather a life-turning, a never-ending turning, from the past towards the future, from our darkness towards His light. It is a shower of silver waters cleansing us perpetually, from out of a clear and golden sky; a snowfall that covers our soul in purest-white, forgiveness for all that has come between ourselves and God. Repentance is the parting of the clouds forevermore, and the shining forth of God’s love and grace, out, from within our hearts. This is the true life for which we were made.

~FS