The Stories of "Stories"
"...without the benefit of stories you'll find the universe collapsing. You'll be left with the dim light of your own imagination."
The stranger continued to speak.
How had I gotten into this conversation? About half an hour ago I had gotten the news that my flight was canceled for at least twelve hours. Foul weather to go with my foul mood. Stuck in Nowheresville, USA...far from the civilization of either coast...with no chance of a flight until daybreak. Before me lay a night of unrelenting boredom in an airport where the runways were bordered by cornfields and cows. Worse yet...every available hotel room was taken...leaving me with the delightful prospect of attempting to sleep in a chair that had a comfort limit of just under 15 minutes. The only sign of technology in this flea-bitten airport was a closed-circuit television that had finally achieved what all TV networks attempt to do: remove all programming and have a continuously- repeating cycle of commercials punctuated by brief snippets of pseudo-news...a fire here, a car chase there...in other words, a poorly-filmed action movie with no plot and no characters.
I considered my options: continue to look through my well-worn magazine - week-old news and wrinkled pictures of the glitterati - or begin a search through the scraps of newsprint left behind by travelers who had escaped before the storm. No upside to either choice. While contemplating the possibility that this night might set a new low for just how bad "bad" can be, a man walked over and sat down in the row of chairs facing me.
"Looks like we're stuck here," he said, nodding toward the deserted ticket counter. He started the usual small talk: who, what, where...
"Where am I from?" - good question. If you mean "where did I grow up?", that place doesn't exist anymore. Freeways and housing developments had turned my little town into a major suburb connected to the big metropolis that is the East Coast. As a matter of fact, tens of thousands of cars now drive over the spot where the old tree house stood and not one of those people has given the slightest thought to what their driving convenience has cost my memories.
"What do I do and why?" Technical Field Service Rep, the guy who has to go to the factories and make the multi-million dollar machines run. At first the lure of "see the world, meet interesting people" hooked me, and of course the money...but now it's four or forty years later...I can tell you from experience, there are only three kinds of places in the world: factories, hotel rooms and airports - all pretty much indistinguishable except for this particular place which is undoubtedly the most backwoods, rundown, worn-out excuse for an airport that I've had the misfortune of passing through...and unfortunately it doesn't look like I'll be passing through it anywhere close to fast enough.
I figured a good wave of cynicism and "woe is me" would allow me to enjoying my misery by myself. Unfortunately there is some truth in the "misery loves company" cliché. I found that I was actually enjoying my cynical monologue...simply because there was someone who was really listening to me. There was an odd kind of camaraderie. I had no reason to think that he wanted to be here any more than I did...but he wasn't completely torqued out of joint as I was. It was as if I had just run into an old friend. I was remembering and talking about things I hadn't thought of in years. Strange what I good listener can make you say. Suddenly it hit me. This wasn't a conversation at all. My new found compadre was asking questions with surgical precision...then listening ...intently. In fact, it was the intensity of his listening that was drawing out the memories. Once I realized what was going I knew this had to be some kind of con, so I turned the "who? what? where?" on him.
His name was Sam Samuelson, a writer gathering source material for some masterwork - a compilation of stories from the lives of ordinary people. His plan was to take the lives of some garden-variety citizens of our great nation and weave it into something interesting. "OK," I'm thinking, "he's not a con, just a fool." All the time he's talking, I'm smiling and nodding, acting interested. Inside I'm thinking "Good luck, buddy. If you can find anything worth writing about in this storm-blown excuse for a town, more power to ya." I'm thinking, "Stories of the People from Nowheresville", a definite #1 on the New York Times best seller list. Suddenly he looks me square in the eyes. It's like a punch to the solar plexus. He says, "I know you think I'm a fool... perhaps the King of Fools...but without the benefit of stories you'll find the universe collapsing. You'll be left with the dim light of your own imagination." Sam continued to speak. My ears were red and burning as I tried to regain my composure. "We're not going anywhere soon," he said, "let's sit for a while. I will draw a thimble from the River of Life and tell you the stories I find there. See that young man over there with the scruffy beard and navy #555555 stocking cap? Here's a little of his story."
Ticket to the Circus by Fred Haring
"Hear Ye, Hear Ye" said the ring leader as I listened outside of the red and #555555 circus tent. "Lions, tigers, elephants and acrobats. Tasty treats and heroic feats." Everything I was looking for and no way to get to it. See, I was down on my luck, a kid with no dough for a ticket to the show. I watched enviously as the cotton-candy-laden children tugged their parents through the main gate into the Greatest Show on Earth...just like a gift from God (or so I thought at the time).
Then I noticed a small crack where the tent vinyl didn't quite meet the support pole. I knew this was my only chance...my way in. I carefully crept on all fours to my "light at the end of the tunnel". I jostled my head through the womb. A perfect spot to make my "free" entry! I was right behind the center bleachers staring at the backs of legs, heads, and cotton candy shadows. Without hesitation, I began to wriggle the rest of my body through the crack into the "Greatest Show on Earth". I tugged, contorted and hauled my body through the opening until I was completely through, prostrate, in the circus tent. Success! Or so I thought at the time. I proceeded to dust myself off and head for the front of the bleachers to take my hard-earned seat in the front row. Suddenly, there came a tap on my shoulder. I winced and turned slowly to find the Captain of the Circus Police staring at me with the serious eyes of justice.
"Boy, did you think you could get in here without a ticket? Nobody gets in without a ticket."
I stumbled and stammered for the words to fend off his terrible gaze but I am often not as quick-witted as I like to think I am. Surrender became the only viable option.
"Sorry, sir" I said. "But I'm an orphan and have no money to buy a ticket to the Greatest Show on Earth..."
"Boy, don't you know that the tickets for this circus are free? All you have to do is ask for one at the call-box then come in through the Gate. The ticket's has already been paid for."
"Well, no sir, I didn't know that. I just figured I would have to sneak in by my own muscle and know-how." I replied.
"Son, you should know that's impossible with a crack team of Circus Police like I got working for me. Like I said, no one gets in here without a free ticket."
"I'm so sorry," I said with a hint of honest guilt in my voice. "Are you gonna take me to jail now?"
"You DO stand condemned by law boy!" he barked. "But our boss has a soft spot for children. Why don't you go to the call box, ask for a ticket and go through the Gate? And...don't forget to enjoy the show!"
That's exactly what I did ...went and got a free ticket, went through the Gate and into the Greatest Show on Earth. I've been here ever since. I guess you could say I've become part of the show. So, the moral to this story is....well, you can figure that out...I'm just a kid.
• • • • •
Well at least my new buddy Sam was proving to be somewhat entertaining. I had no idea if he knew the guy in the stocking cap or not. I suppose he could have come up with a story like that off the top of his head then the young man looked our way and gave Sam a nod. "You're so peeved about spending a few hours of your precious time in a place you don't want to be that you've chosen to waste your time rather than use it. You have no concept of time or the possibility of anything existing outside of time. You need to get beyond what you think you know."
The Unexpected Stranger by Kevin Ryan
There is a lovely scent of organic decay about the vineyards during the time of the year known as "crush"the time of the harvest and the pressing of the grapes into the huge oak-staved barrels. There is great excitement among all the wineries here in the valley. There is also a sanity and health to this work of tilling the earth and caring for the vineyards by the rhythm of the sun and rains and harvest-time. If Truth is the lyric of this mortal life, this rhythm is its music. This life and rhythm had slowly seeped into my very bones these many years spent here tending this paradox of wild life and orderliness that is called a vineyard. I have tilled many fields and lonely rows here on the valley floor...years that some would call an exile but that I have called a journey's end. But it is a journey's "end" no longer. Neither, perhaps, is it now a beginning but I came upon a fork in the road. It was a fork I could not have foreseen and cannot now ever forget.
It was a cool and bright autumn evening that it happened. The vast cobalt #555555 of the northern California sky had bathed the landscape in iridescence the afternoon the Unexpected Stranger walked up the dusty road that bordered my land and its interminable rows of cabernet vines. The poignant and musty smell of a working winery was in the air as he approached me as I worked in the field.
"Good evening to you neighbor," I said. "Can I help you?"
"Only if I can help you," he smiled back, "I dare say that's why I've come. But that will be your choice."
There was in his face a remote friendliness, though I believed he was very old. His eyes were that irregular rare #555555 that almost is grey (rather like my very own, I thought) and there was about him some loose and indefinable sense of light that contrasted with his clothes, which were shabby...not from carelessness but clearly from long and honorable wear. His words, though spoken kindly enough, unsettled me.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," I said.
"No," he said, "I don't suppose you could. But all the same, this moment is for me a rare and priceless gem. The granting of a request even. Let the thunderous roar of the great celestial wheels and spheres grind down like a vast mill and let a thousand suns die their sweet and glorious death that is a resurrection of light, ere this chance is again given to me to make this journey and attempt this deed."
He did, in fact, look as if he had traveled a great distance. His words, quaint and archaic, caught me off guard. But something else in his voice intrigued me. Somehow it was familiar and alien at once, like the face of a close friend in an old photograph.
"I have come to help (blessed and holy word!)," he continued; "I have traveled a distance that cannot be measured in miles or even starlight. Though, in fact, it can be measured by just a few steps! The help I can give is not even help for which you look."
He said these last words with that cavalier ease that is either the mark of irresponsible bravado or else the sign of a very great sanctity. I stood still, now with both hands atop my rake, staring at this scoundrel or this saintI didn't know which. My mind raced to find some apt reply to this nonsense. I mentally framed a clever response but in the end I only stared at the stranger and waited for him to resume. He glanced at the vineyard with its long, gracefully arcing rows. The bright green vines cresting over the rolling earth were like some huge but gentle green wave frozen in time.
"Come, let us sit together here under the Sycamore," he said, motioning toward a nearby grove; "My, how small the tree looks!" We sat down and he then pulled out a pipe and began to fill it. "Tell me about these vines," he went on; "Do they each have a story? Tell me their story."
My day's work was nearly done so I saw no harm in humoring the old man with my tales of the vineyard. We talked about the old stories that had come along with the winery; how it survived Prohibition by making legal sacramental wine (and some not-so-legal wine) for the nearby churches and how it was the first to transplant the great European vines in the rich California soil. Occasionally he would nod assent and whisper, "Yes, I remember." We talked on into the late afternoon until we could see the shadow of the mountains working its passage across the valley floor toward us. The sun finally disappeared beyond the western ridge and the long shadows were lost in dusk's golden, enchanted borderland. We both fell silent. Then, looking wistfully away to the dappled rows bowed low with clusters of ruby and amethyst, he said:
"You take great care over these vines and they have rewarded you with an exquisite wine. Is this your finest wine?"
"This cabernet is what we are known for," I said. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, you haven't planted all your vines yet." he responded. "Your best vine has not yet reached its roots into your land."
I was puzzled by these questions to which, I felt somehow, he knew the answers. He began to ask odd, eccentric questions about the vineyard. "Do your vines ever play and run in the wind?" he asked, casually gesturing toward the fields. I was now confronted with this paradox in the old man. Wisdom and Experience were etched in his weathered face but the threads of Reason seemed to be slowly unraveling from his speech. He fixed his gaze on a distant line of trees: "Have you ever heard your vines laugh with delight as if playing some sudden game of peek-a-boo?" he asked. My mouth began to dry as I shifted uneasily on the low, stone wall. "Sometimes when the evening breeze blows through here," he continued, "I know you can hear the music that is the rustle of the leaves in the vineyard. Does it sound like laughter? No, I suppose not. It's such a shame to have so much lovely music but not the sound of a child's laughter about the home. Look! The Seven Sisters are rising in the East! I remember this sky so well." Indeed, the newly risen Pleiades shone clear and bright and was framed by the mountains at the eastern end of the valley. It was now obvious that I needed a plan to extricate myself from this lunacy. I suppose I felt him to be kindly and harmless but, all the same, I began to plan my 'escape'. I thought that if I could just get him inside, I could call the sheriff and discover what safe harbor the old man had wandered from.
"My wife and I are just ready for supper," I said; "Perhaps if I could help you find..."
The old man, almost in absent-mindedness, interrupted, "Yes, yes. Your wife. She wants to adopt that child but you are still saying 'maybe'. But you don't intend it at all."
Then he turned back to the field and aimlessly went on, as if he hadn't just caused me to capsize. "Can you actually graft a sprig on an established vine that will still produce its own varietal? How wonderful!" he said, looking down with childlike wonder at a young vine near the stone fence.
My heart was in my throat and I was light-headed. Who was this man? This tattered vagabond in the crumpled hat (I just then insanely thought that I had always wanted a hat like that!) who had just swaggered into the most private and guarded of my family's long-time debates? How could he have known these things? I was shaken and bewildered now.
"You say you have come to help me." I said, my voice quiet with shock; "How did you know I was agonizing over this decision? And yet you have been asking me about vines and soil and ..."
"I have not spoken to you about any such things," the old man said, interrupting me again, courteously but emphatically.
"But you certainly have!" I cried. "For twenty minutes you have spoken about..." "...the little boy you are declining to adopt," he said, finishing my sentence.
His face was now lucid and searching. "Yes, I used the word 'vineyard'", the old man continued, "but it was a greater vine and a greater harvest of which I spoke; a greater harvest and a greater joy. Don't you know yet who I am?" Something just then caught his attention. "There," he said, turning towards the low chalet; "that sweet smell of the cabernet being crushed! Nothing on earth smells quite like that!" That unforgettable aroma, as the coolness of night was settling on the valley, hung sweet in the air. The breeze was redolent of both field and valley west away to the sea from whence the cool winds now came, honeyed with the scent of late summer's last wildflowers. That moment, the starlight silvering the treetops and vines, is now forever cellared in my mind. But there was also an unnamed fear. Not the fear of some imminent and dire sword of Damocles hanging above me. Rather it was the fear, subterranean and ageless, of something numinous and awful. Strictly and precisely awfulfull of awe and a terrible wonder. But fear nonetheless, for I had the ineluctable sense that my interior landscape was about to be altered, forever and irrevocably.
"What should I do?" I said, breathing a sigh of surrender.
"Children do not know genetics," he answered; "They know love. That is all. But you fear this little stranger, do you not?"
"Yes, and I am ashamed of that," I whispered.
The sky-vault overhead was now a crystalline black. The whippoorwills had nested for the night and the fire-flies had gone. The old man was speaking but, in memory, it was as if a song was being sung.
"If you say 'no' to this child," he said, "then he will in truth be always a stranger to you; always haunting the periphery of your mind. But adopt him and he is a stranger no longer. Fatherhood is defined by a child's love and not the intent of an adult! Receive him and he is your son and was so since the beginning of time." The old man, standing up, began knocking out his pipe on his walking staff. I walked with him toward the road. "You look toward the future," continued the old man softly, "and see only a nameless intruder. I look through the radiant past and see a little boy with a voice and a face. Which is the truer seeing? Which is the seeing that will warm you in the twilight of your life?" Suddenly he stopped walking and, turning round, looked back at my home like one gazing through a great distance. "I can see the game of 'owl-eyes' and the Eskimo kisses and the playful wrestling on the living room floor!" he said; "How can you see these things from where you are now? But see them you must! These are the things you would refuse, not merely a baby whose name is not yours!" A great chasm of dread opened before me.
"Who are you? Tell me plainly!" I cried.
"I have traveled these many leagues back through Time," said the old man, "because of the love of my little boy named James. Haven't you guessed? Why, I am you!"
Just then the stillness was broken by the opening of the back kitchen door. It was my lovely wife calling me to supper. The warm lights glowed within and the sound of her voice was soft and gentle in the cool night air.
• • • • •
When Sam's voice stopped it was like waking from a dream. Circuses, vineyards, adoption, yes I guess there are some stories we never hear. As I began to contemplate I heard someone approaching.
The Well of Healing by Holly Bond
"Could you use a lavender liasanthius?" SNAP - FLASH! I was startled by the sudden interruption and blinding Polaroid flash. "I'm writing a paper for Mrs. Campanelli's English class on the immediate reaction of troubled-looking individuals after receiving a flower," said a bubbling young woman. "...flowers from the Well of Healing."
"My mom's not picking me up for a few...mind if I interview you for my study?" I nodded in confused approval, watching carefully as this awkward teen flounced down beside me and stared into my eyes through violet Revos.
"Although it's cliché, why can't some people stop and smell a liasanthius, unless it's pushed right up their nose? I watched a man once try for over an hour to reach the water inside of that well because it's real deep, the well of healing. You ever heard of the well of healing?" I shook my head. "It's sacred water, some say," she continued.
"When he finally reached the water, exhausted, he sat at the well's edge, not noticing but feeling the dancing lavender liasanthius and the soothing willows. It's not the water in the well that everyone is after. I think it's what surrounds the well: peace, beauty, serenity. It just takes a little exhaustion down in that musty old well to force one to sit back against it and chill. Then you realize why the well is sacred. Healing can come from the peace of breathing in the wonder which surrounds us, along our journey to the eternal garden."
"Do you have a watch?"
"It's 9:02," I answered.
"Not much of an addition to my paper but it was kind of you to listen to my rambling," she said while tripping across me, knocking my knees with her duct- taped Alvarez case. "I'm late. Mom's waiting, gotta go." Gathering her scattered notes and napkins she scampered off passed Concourse B. Among the papers she dropped and left behind was the developing photo of me holding the lavender liasanthius.
• • • • •
"What hit me?!" I asked as Sam grinned knowingly. "When was the last time you ran into, or should I say, were run into by that type of joyous zeal?" Joyous zeal was definitely not in my job description at this time. Sam turned to me, "You are in a hurry to get somewhere but when you get there you will be in a hurry to get somewhere else. You've looked for happiness in wealth and travel. Have you found it? When do you expect your life to begin?"
Awakenings by Chuck Brown
The pressure was on...it seemed that from all sides, something...or someone...was shoving him. But who knew? Who could see in this blackness? All he knew for sure was that his senses were full...more so than at any time in his existence. Sounds...human sounds...familiar somehow, yet new...or at least different, but the shape of the sound was shifting, rendering much of it indistinguishable.
They had begun some time before. He wasn't sure how long ago. Had they always been there? All he really knew was that those sounds--whether peaceful or stressful, musical or lyrical--had reverberated throughout his being. He wasn't entirely sure what each one meant, but somehow their familiarity gave him comfort...a sense of belonging. Their overriding timbre was rhythmic. Two of them were especially distinct. One sharper and deeper, the other more gentle and airy.
But that was then. That was peace, for the most part. This day, on the other hand, had begun with a start...something almost frightening. The rhythms which surrounded him were faster and more urgent from the moment he first stirred. And then came the pressure. Sharp, harsh pressure...with a rhythm all its own. Something deep within told him that if he survived this...this whatever-it-was...his life would never again be the same.
A new sound broke into his consciousness--like a muffled cry. But again, the shape of the sound was shifting...the changes were so rapid and continual that he couldn't trust his ears...not now, at least. Maybe he could sort it out later ... besides, other things...pressing things...were forcing themselves into the spotlight of his awareness. The pressure was intensifying. Was it possible for someone to explode? Surely his body could not bear much more. Every nerve in his body screamed out for relief.
Then...mercifully, inexplicably...it all began to ease. He felt the sensation as it traversed the length of his body. Almost instantaneously, his entire universe had been transformed. Sounds were sharper. louder...each touch so direct....so...so....well, words would fail anyone at a time like this. Blinding new sensations streaked across his horizon. Light...everywhere... bathing his entire being. Warmth...cold...which was it? He was turning, spinning on an unseen axis....his movement silent, though surrounded by commotion.
Suddenly, a loud sound rang out...then a sting...a gasp....followed by the most beautiful, most engaging, most joyful of all human sounds: a child's first cry.
• • • • •
Sam smiled. "Thousands of children are born each day, but it's only happened once to you. Without that beginning where would you be? See that young lady over there, blonde, early twenties?" I nodded. "She's been through some interesting changes. I spoke with her a couple of weeks ago. It's not often you find someone with such a cheerful radiance."
You ask me why I smile so much. Well, my story is a simple one. I was once a young girl, interested in the study of poetry, mountains, and anything else my parents deemed useless. The story unfolds as I skipped my junior year of college to "find my own". Hitchhiking to Colorado that fall, I found myself in awe. The glory that surrounded me was unattainable, beauty beyond words. It was the first time I could tangibly see the vastness of something beyond me. It was the first time I recognized the frailty of my humanist thinking. My ego-centered world crumbled. That awe which is often reserved for the expression of the artist, instilled in me a hope beyond my own shallow giftings and weaknesses. I knew there was more, and set out to find out what that was. What I found was a person! The Creator, the Artist from whom all passion, imagination, and inspiration must come in order to bring this world to fruition - this Creator was the one worthy of the awe so naturally invoked in my heart that Fall day. My Friend, the source of awe became reality in my life that season, and through my Winterprayer I've received a joy that isn't dependent on circumstance, but the truth of the God who made me. That, my friend, is why I smile.
• • • • •
I looked over at the girl again. Hmmm, doesn't look like the religious type. My new friend was doing some serious damage to my handy reference stereotypes. He changed the pitch of his voice slightly and continued:
The Well of Joy by Kim McClelland
"We l l l l l l ... Well ... Well, W e l l l l l!" It was an expression I'd heard Art use a number of times and each time the hearing was like a bird trilling a morning melody with an echo of laughter on the wind harmonizing with it. I mean most people just don't use the word well like Art does. Press the Playback switch for renderings of "well" and one might hear an intimidating question of unfulfilled expectation, WELL!? with scorching undertones and brow of eye, or perhaps as a sigh of resignation "Oh Wellll..." Then there's the self righteous clucking of "Well... I never!" or the slightly British condescending "Weell" that errs up out of the throat like a grating iron door with a turn of the heel and closure of the heart. Next in line is that queasy, mousy "well" that's the opening line for covering up real or planned ignorance with body language or shifting hands, feet and eyes. And you have to like the Gabby Hayes - Slim Pickens "Wellll let me see now" that begins a story stretched and its sequels. And unfortunately many of us have been on the end of a drop dead arrow to the heart "Well" that's a sneering defiant chip on the shoulder posturing. Art's "Welllllll!" however is the sound of the eternal child, of astonishment drawing up bucketful's of smiles, wonder and refreshment from the Well of Joy. All who are near receive a taste of the Pure without charge.
• • • • •
Sam nodded his head toward a small cluster of people sitting around the unattended snack bar. See the lady on the second chair over? What do you think her story is?"
What Words Won't Say by Lyn Ford
He was my knight in shining armor, so charming and handsome, full of goodness and love. There was never enough time in the day as we spent countless hours talking about our hopes and fears. Life was a dream come true, or so it seemed, as we planned our marriage. It was only later that I learned the importance of what words won't say.
"Well she's pretty enough," I replied, "stylish dresser, probably has some money."
"So, it all boils down to money and looks?" there was a twinkle in his eye. "What remains when those things fail? What's beneath the surface? What holds lives together? Here's a bit of her story."
Our wedding took place in the summer of my twenty-first year. My knight was twenty-five. It was before the Lord and our families that we committed ourselves to each other for eternity. Those early days were such fun; playing house, traveling, but most of all just being together. Life seemed like a dream as we moved through our daily routines.
Of course, life isn't perfect and those idyllic, fantastical days became more realistic as time went by. The years together brought us children, who gave us great joy, but also demanded considerable time and energy. The monetary responsibility of caring for our family conspired to rob us of the easy freedom in the earlier, carefree times. Each day took its toll on the fantasy, yet we never hesitated to affirm our love for each other. In fact, it was during the many sacrifices of time and self throughout the years of our marriage that our love deepened. Our day-to-day actions were the embodiment of love...what words won't say.
This love was never more clear to me than during the period four years ago, when I learned that my body had betrayed me. I had been diagnosed with cancer and was feeling overwhelmed by the situation. It was in the midst of my darkest hour, that this man, with whom I had chosen to share my life, showered upon me something more beautiful than his words could ever say. His love was as tangible as the sun, shining down upon me and warming me to the core. It lifted me up and carried me on to happier times.
Throughout life we are often told that those closest to us love us. Yet the words are only words until we are able to experience the embodiment of them in actions. The ultimate benefit of this painful chapter in my life was the gift of deeply unshakable knowledge that I am truly loved.
We have now been married for twenty-four years. Although he may not be a real knight in shining armor, he is my knight, my husband, the love of my life.
• • • • •
Sam finished and nodded toward the snack bar again, "More than meets the eye?"
Feeling more than a little uncomfortable with thoughts of love and devotion I smiled and changed the subject.
"So where are you from?"
Toward Montana by Alison Kitchen
Montana is easily the most pristine and beautiful of all the lower 48. Its vast, open topography is home to a great many wild animals, from the mundane to the magnificent, and very few pesky humans. These is a stillness there, an absence of the racket and rumble of progress, that feeds the soul and impresses you with what a small and meager part of it all you really are. It is an acquired taste and not particularly palatable at times.
"Where I'm from isn't as important as where I'm headed," he replied. "Once this project is complete I'll be heading West."
The air in Montana is like very clear and cold water. It has a liquid quality and yet feels weightless, lacking mass. It doesn't have substance and taste to it, like the air in these parts. It is called "Big Sky Country" with good reason. Even in the mountainous areas, where there is not the endless open vista of the plains, the sky just seems to go much higher up than it does here. Makes being here feel like being indoors. And when you rest your eyes on the great and glorious plains of the eastern part of the state, it pulls your very breath into its reaches and you find yourself resting at the horizon of the silver, gold and shimmering #555555. The mountains are purple and always have snow at their peaks. It is not a tame country.
You can get to Montana from here but it is a long and difficult journey, and there are some suggestions from those who have made the trip that you would do well to heed.
They are as follows:
Pack very little - A good book, something to eat that is nourishing, water...it's a hard journey, and nothing else that you could bring would do more than hinder your way.
Go alone - It will take all your fortitude and concentration to make it there and each has to find his own way. There will be others along the road to give you company and encouragement, but none that can truly share your path.
Look up - The closer you get, the more stars you will be able to see at night. There aren't really more stars in Montana, it's just that you can see them so much better without the glow of all that is made by man dimming your vision. You must fix your sights on something outside yourself because your inner sense of direction cannot, I repeat cannot, get you there. Use the stars; find the constellations that you have known since you were a small child, lying on your back, with your sense of wonder still intact.
Don't be distracted - There are some nice places to stop, some great cities, and a bevy of natural wonders that will turn your head, but if you stop, you may never hear the siren song of Montana calling you again. That would be the greatest of tragedies.
Whistle and sing - It scares the bears away.
Have a safe trip and look me up when you get there. I'll be lying on my back looking at the stars.
• • • • •
At Times Alone by John D. Morgan
I looked at the big airport clock and saw that it was a minute after three. Where had I heard that most people die between 3:00 and 3:30 in the morning? Cheery thought. I began to fade into a knowing sleep. My eyes closed. In my mind I could see the airport lobby slowly growing dim. The few sounds being made by the sleeping, snoring travelers were magnified in the silence. They too began to fade. Asleep or awake, I became dreadfully aware that I was alone, painfully, woefully alone. The black silence enclosed me in a nameless foreboding. I had been cut off from light, from humanity, from nature and, if possible from...
I had become a disembodied spirit floating in black, timeless space, unable to speak, knowing any noise I might make would never be heard. Mind pausing, racing, crawling. Time - inconsequential. Forever and now were the same. Ultimate torture: alone, disconnected, hovering, untouchable, knowing but unknown. Centuries passed, civilizations rose and fell. Valor and cowardice battled among the living, but I was no longer on the field. No victory, no loss - nothing but the ceaseless burning/ranting of Self.
How long? How long? To my right a radiance of light, the first glow of a sunrise over the ocean. My body returned, sounds, smells, light, blur, blur, blur, focus. Sam gently shaking my shoulder. "Not sleeping well, eh?" Speechless, recovering, I stared. "You know," he continued, "the beauty of these stories... these people... each one is a treasure within himself but none is a treasure by himself. Without relationship there is no meaning, no value. Disconnected, they are no more than a pound of gold on the bottom of the ocean. Life is about finding, doing, being." I looked at the clock. It was 3:31.
• • • • •
Luminescent Shoes by Jim Vagnier
Outside a small town in a Midwestern state, by a river that flows north to a great lake, stood a towering white farmhouse. It was perched on a hill overlooking a narrow winding country road, and was graced with a spacious front porch that provided a splendid view of the rural surroundings. Over the threshold of the sturdy front door with beveled glass and fancy etchings, through the parlor and up the solid oak stairway, led the way to the crown jewel of this majestic farmhouse - the attic. Once upstairs, the path led down a hardwood hallway with a tall ceiling, then into the steamy closet of a sun-soaked bedroom. Now at the foot of the stairs, a steep and treacherous climb (for one step was missing) gave entry into this grand room. It occupied the entire third floor of the farmhouse and had a window at each end overlooking the expansive countryside.
The attic was filled with the treasures of past generations: magazines and newspapers from the early part of the century neatly stacked in a corner; hand-made toys from childhood days long past; boxes of letters longing for someone to read them afresh; old weathered trunks full of novels, hymnals, bibles, schoolbooks, obsolete encyclopedias, and manuals with homeopathic remedies; military uniforms decorated with ribbons and medals announcing the accomplishments of a family war-hero; and an old pine box stuffed with retired shoes from many walks of life.
The old pine box sat in front of the south window of the attic, which gave a wonderful panoramic view of the cornfields and river below. In its glory days, the old pine box sat at the foot of a fine walnut bed with decorative carvings and lacy coverings in the master bedroom, protecting beautiful quilts Great- Grandma had crafted and collected. But now, in the autumn of its life, it became the retirement home for worn-out old shoes. It housed many different styles of shoes because the attic was the final resting place for the unclaimed possessions of any family relation who passed away.
It was home for wing tips and clodhoppers, play shoes and dress pumps, slippers and sandals, work boots and leisure loafers. Some of the shoes, at one time, were very expensive and lived in closets of luxury, like those of a rich uncle and his wife who had a successful medical practice in a big city to the north. Other shoes were very ordinary, like the boots Great-Grandpa wore when he worked the farm. But regardless of their origin or status in former days, they were all equally crammed into the old pine box in a very disorganized fashion.
One sunny afternoon, a car from the big city to the south made its way up the long, rocky driveway and parked behind the house near the big barn. Out of the car sprang two young girls, Big Sister and Little Sister. They loved to visit the old farmhouse with Mom and Dad. There was so much to see and do. They could chase stray cats in the barn, climb in the hayloft, pick wild raspberries, follow butterflies flitting through wildflower fields, but their favorite adventure of all was to explore the attic on the third floor of the farmhouse. The two sisters loved to visit the attic because they always found a little something to take home with them. Previous trips had rewarded them with little antique rocking chairs (just the right size for little girls); old books that Grandpa read when he was a little boy; old bottles and jars made from a beautiful #555555 glass; a jewelry box that Great-Grandma brought with her from the Old Country; and porcelain dolls waiting to be dusted off and given a new home.
The two sisters' little hearts raced with excitement at the thought of what they might find in the attic this time. Mom and Dad seemed to take forever inspecting the farmhouse for Grandpa to make sure that robbers or vandals had not broken into the house and stolen or damaged anything. The house remained vacant for long periods of time and was an easy target for mischief. Grandpa hoped to return to the house that he grew up in when he retired with Grandma, but that would not happen for a few more years. So the sisters could count on visiting the old farmhouse regularly for a monthly inspection. Finally Mom and Dad were ready to explore the attic with their two overly enthusiastic little girls.
Once in the attic and after a stern warning not to go near the stairs (for the railing was flimsy that enclosed the stair pit), the girls were off on their adventure. The old pine box, basking in the rays of that summer afternoon, seemed to beckon the attention of the two sisters. While Mom and Dad were looking for valuables to retrieve for safe storage at their house back in the city, the sisters began playing with the shoes in the old pine box. They first tried to match each shoe with its mate. The sisters made quite a game of it. Each took a turn matching shoes to make a pair. They lined the shoes up along the wall until they emptied all the shoes out of the box. In the process of matching shoes, they made an interesting discovery. Each shoe had a mate except one. The shoe without a mate, though, didn't seem lonely, incomplete, or forgotten at all...but had a certain mysterious dignity about it...as though it had something to say.
They tried on each pair of shoes and pretended to be dancers, farmers, darlings, and soldiers. Then they began to take a closer look at the shoe without a mate. It was a rugged shoe that offered tremendous support for a foot. On the inside, there was something written, taped to the inner sole of the shoe. Big Sister peered a little closer and tried to read the faded message. The only word that appeared legible to her was the word..."beautiful"?. She had a chuckle with Little Sister about this because compared to the other dressy pumps and silky slippers of the old pine box, this was not a beautiful shoe at all, but more of a common, everyday shoe. Then Little Sister (who had only been reading for a year) grabbed the shoe from Big Sister and tried to decode the message. She looked ever so intently at the words in the shoe until she proudly exclaimed to Big Sister that she could see the word "feet". Big Sister was a bit surprised and found it very difficult to accept that she could miss such an easy word. But there it was in the inner sole of this mysterious shoe, "Beautiful Feet".
Now the sisters were beginning to understand that this humble shoe was trying to tell them that it was not the shoe itself but the feet of someone who wore the shoe that was "beautiful". This message seemed a bit odd...even baffling to the sisters. Who in the family history had beautiful feet? Maybe a distant relative was an actress or a princess who had feet that were delicate and very becoming. But why then would she wear such an ordinary shoe? She certainly would wear something more elegant, like perhaps a glass slipper. Big Sister, not to be out done by her younger sibling, took another shot at deciphering the words inside this "talking shoe". After much straining and squinting, the only other word she could vaguely make out was the word "pea". This was terribly disappointing because Big Sister could clearly see that there were many more words in the shoe.
Having exhausted their limited resources, it was now time to consult a higher authority. So they scurried over to Mom to see if she could help them solve this puzzle. Mom was busy searching through boxes, browsing in dusty diaries, and making a stack of old books to take back home. As she took the shoe in her hand, she smiled with great delight. She knew exactly whose shoe it was. It belonged to a Great Aunt who was a missionary for many years in an Oriental country. This country knew little about Jesus so she traveled great distances by train, boat, and rickshaw to tell them the good news of God's love. She never married but devoted her life to teaching orphaned children about how much Jesus loved each one of them. She even adopted one of the abandoned children and named her Grace and taught this little girl about her Father in heaven.
On previous expeditions to the farmhouse attic, Mom had collected pictures, diaries, books, and spectacles that were some of the few cherished possessions of this beloved Great Aunt. She brought them home with her for safekeeping and learned a great deal about the life of this precious and inspiring relative. She even had a picture on the buffet in their dining room in which this Great Aunt was wearing the very shoe that she now had in her hand. On this visit to the attic, Mom had found another box that contained more of this missionary relative's spiritual library, including her Bible. As she took a closer look at the message inside the shoe, she noticed some of the letters were combined together with numbers. They indicated a Bible verse. She took her Great Aunt's Bible and opened it to Romans 10:15, and read it to her curious daughters, "And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!"
The two sisters were thrilled to finally figure out the meaning of the message and hear their Mom tell stories about her Great Aunt. Mom explained that this verse must have been very encouraging for her great Aunt when she was so far away from home teaching others about Jesus. As the summer afternoon turned to dusk, it was time for the family to head south for home. The two sisters had unending questions for Mom about her Great Aunt. Their imaginations went wild trying to figure out what happened to her other shoe. Maybe an oriental prince found it at a royal ball and spent his whole life searching for her so that they could get married and live happily ever after. Maybe the Prince of Peace has it in heaven with Him. Maybe she gave it to her adopted daughter as a gift. Maybe it sits in a closet somewhere waiting to share its eternal message. As the car was heading down the rocky driveway, winding its way to the river road, fireflies were sparkling their luminescent lights, beautifying the darkness.
• • • • •
Once Sam finished I closed my eyes and began to dream.
Small Steps by Alison Kitchen
In my dream, I was standing on a platform built high, very high up a pole, and before me was the impossibly fine line of the high wire - I, who am so fearful of heights, I, who am so fearful of so many things. I dared not look below, for fear I would be gripped by the insane pull of empty space, and just leap to get it over with, to relieve the tension of the fight. What was down there? What is down there, I asked to no one in particular, but I was answered by the Stranger, and as I peered into the hazy distance, I saw him standing at the other end of the wire, on a platform just like mine. He was smiling at me and his face and body were at ease, relaxed and collected. I was astonished to see him there, who always seemed to end up somewhere in my dreams. I almost thought that he winked at me, a kind of "Gotcha again!" wink. For a moment I sagged in relief, but then tensed up again. I knew it was only my constant vigilance that would save me from the fall to my doom.
"What is down there?" he replied. "What is down there are two alternatives of equal peril. To the one side, is where you will fall if you try to depend on your strength, wits and expertise alone."
I snorted. "My expertise! I have no expertise. I hate heights. I never would do this of my own will. I just became conscious somehow, and here I was."
"My point exactly," he replied. He smiled again, a brilliant, tender, warm and winsome smile and for a split second I felt I could have danced down that wire and into his arms with the freedom and grace of a bird in flight.
"And the other?" I prompted, tensing once more and feeling the breeze swaying the platform gently.
"The other," he continued, "is where you will fall if you cease to fight and just give up and let yourself go. It will feel effortless, but the ground will be just as hard when you crash into it."
I felt a jolt of pure rage course through me. The King of Paradox. And I with my very life at stake.
"So," I practically snarled at him, "If I try, I'm doomed, and if I don't try, I'm doomed. Is that it?"
He nodded, a slow bow of assent.
"You could say that...but there is a third choice."
I waited. His eyes lifted and burned into me.
"You can step out, onto the wire, one very small step at a time, and look straight into my eyes. If you do not look down, if your eyes never falter, you will make your way slowly, but safely, to me on the other side."
"And if I look away?" My voice was pleading.
"You will fall", he replied, and my heart sank, knowing my limits so well. "But I will catch you."
Slowly, timidly, I take a small, tentative step out onto the wire. His face is very beautiful. I feel like I am dancing.
• • • • •
I awoke and slowly stretched. Sam waited for the sleep to clear from my eyes and began to speak. "See that couple over there? Ordinary or extraordinary?" They looked ordinary enough to me - middle aged, a little weathered, nothing special. Sam read my mind. "I spoke to their daughter recently", he said, "here's what she told me..."
Descending to the Dream by Don Smith
When they first met, they shared their lives and their dreams with each other. She would become a celebrated drama director. He would become a compassionate physician. She could see herself receiving awards and accolades from an adoring public (and from those thankful to be counted among her friends). His vision was to care for the sick and disabled, with no concern for making money (loved and respected by all). They both had good reason to believe that their dreams could come true. So, they married. And they worked on their dreams together, and they climbed higher and higher on their career ladders. Until I came along. Then the ladder rungs shattered - as did their dreams, one by one, and they began a free fall into the unknown. You see, my name is Nancy, and I was born with Down's Syndrome. I would like to tell you the story of my parents, Jeff and Linda, and how they found the dreams they thought were gone forever, by Descending to the Dream.
Before I was born, my Mom and Dad were living in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City. She had completed her drama degree and was already directing original productions, off Broadway. Her work got great reviews and she had just been offered a job, that would start in December, as an assistant director for "Cats" (which hadn't opened on Broadway yet). My Dad had been accepted by several medical schools, but he wanted to wait until she had the job for sure. Dad was painting houses that summer and Mom was pregnant with me.
I was born on the first day of Fall.
Fall - that was appropriate. After they found out that I was a Down's baby there were fallen faces, falling emotions, and things really began to fall apart.
It wasn't just that I had Down's Syndrome. It was all the problems that went with it. I had trouble breathing. I couldn't swallow, and my heart was a mess. I had to have surgery right away on my heart and they got that fixed. The next surgery was to open up my esophagus so that I could swallow food. That went fine too, and after a couple of months in the hospital, I finally got to go home. But the other thing that went home with me was a huge bill - and they didn't have any medical insurance.
That's because when my Mom got pregnant, Dad was already out of college and was working for himself, so that didn't have any medical insurance. My Mom had never had it in the jobs she worked. So, their standard of living took a big fall too. The one good thing was the rent-controlled apartment, because the rent didn't go up hardly at all in the 15 years that we lived there.
The dream had become a nightmare. My parents were so shocked and depressed for the first months that they almost got a divorce. Life seemed so bleak, and the future didn't look any better. They had been told that even when I was an adult I would have to live with them, unless I went to a group home and learned to do menial jobs. Well, as you'll see, it didn't work out that way. Read on to find out why.
Now, the debt that came home with me was more than 4 years of medical school would have cost, but it wasn't going to be as easy to repay, because there would not be an M.D. after his name. My Dad never was able to afford to go to medical school. My Mom did get the job with "Cats", and she stayed with it for a year because my Dad decided to stay home and take care of me. I got sick a lot, with lung problems, and my Mom and Dad both took good care of me. Eventually, the bills were greater than her income, so she stayed home with me, and Dad took a job with a New Jersey drug company, since his degree was in chemical engineering.
During the year my Dad had stayed home with me he spent a lot of time researching what could be done about my condition. He read everything he could find. But when he started working for the drug company, that had a bigger effect on our lives than anyone could imagine.
First of all, some coworkers invited him to a lunchtime Bible study. Dad was still angry at God for what had happened to our family, and he wanted the answer to the big question - Why does God allow suffering? He never did get the answer, but he did find the solution - Jesus Christ. One day he realized that Jesus Christ chose to endure more suffering than any of us will ever know. If there had been another way, Jesus surely would have chosen that path. But for some reason suffering was necessary, and that reason was God's love for all people, even us. Jeff and Linda became one with Jesus that day when I was 16 months old. Then, on another day 4 years later, I gave my life to Jesus too.
As a result of the love and hope they had found in the Lord, my Mom started a performing arts group for Down's kids at our church. She did wonderful plays with dance and music that allowed us to communicate our love and joy to our family, friends and each other. By the time I was 5 years old she was teaching performing arts to special education teachers. She then set up a special foundation to support performing arts for Down's kids all over the country.
The second most important thing that happened as a result of my Dad's job was that he had access to more research. While he was staying at home with me Dad had already found studies about the benefit of nutritional supplements for Down's. They had been done by Dr. Henry Turkel in the 1930's. He had started me on those supplements at 6 months. I began to grow faster and got sick less often. He also noticed that I began to get physically and mentally stronger with each passing month. Then about a year after he started work at the drug company, he found out about a drug called "Piracetam" that was being used in Europe to help improve brain function. It had been developed in the 1960's and was thought to improve the connection between the two halves of the brain. We went to France when I was 18 months old and I was started on this medication. We found a pediatrician in the United States who was willing to monitor my condition and blood levels on a regular basis. As a result, she and my Dad were able to perfect the nutritional formula and started a company that began to provide it for sale to parents with Down's children. As of today they have helped over ten thousand Down's kids and their families.
As a result of the nutritional supplements and the Piracetam, I made rapid progress in learning and was able to develop at age appropriate level for children two years younger than me. By the time I was 10, I could read and write at a third grade level and do basic math. My body still looked sort of like a typical Down's kid, but not as rounded and my weight was almost normal. I kept on improving and was mainstreamed into regular classes when I was 12.
When I was 16, a friend of my Mom's, named Sylvia, who had known her from her "Cats" days, came to visit us. Sylvia had become very famous, since receiving several Tony awards and winning an Oscar. They hadn't really talked after my Mom left the show, but Sylvia had seen an article on the foundation and found out where we were living. Sylvia and my Mom stayed up all night talking. Sylvia talked about how empty her life was and how she had been a cocaine addict and tried to kill herself. She'd been through 3 marriages and was living with someone now. She was amazed by all the good things my parents had accomplished and wanted to be a part of it too.
Sylvia started by providing the foundation with a great endowment. Then, after I graduated from high school, she got me connections for acting jobs on television. Soon, I was working regularly and living on my own. My Mom and I were hired as consultants for writers and producers who wanted to include characters and actors with disabilities in their shows.
We all got together last year for Thanksgiving and started talking about what we were thankful for. As we did, we discussed what had happened over the last 20 years. It was then that my parents told me about how tough the early years had been. You see, I had never heard about the dreams they had started out with. As they shared the whole story with me, we suddenly realized that God had actually fulfilled their dreams - not the selfish parts - but the loving and giving parts.
My Mom had helped direct a real life drama - our life and she is also helping to direct thousands of other real-life dramas and artistic performances.
My Dad has helped improve the lives of those with Down's Syndrome and through his research he continues to help those with disabilities.
We remembered what Jesus said in John, chapter 12, verses 24-25:
"I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it..."
Now, we read the verses again, with the word "dream" substituted for "seed".
"I tell you the truth, unless a dream falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single dream. But if it dies, it produces many dreams. The man who loves his life will lose it..."
Their dream had fallen and died, and by descending, their dream had grown into a much bigger dream. Which reproduced thousands of other dreams for thousands of other people.
Praise be to God, the Great Giver of Dreams.
• • • • •
We sat in silence. My mind and heart were full...no...overwhelmed, the ordinary was truly extraordinary, my narrow view of life was shattered. I attempted to think, to meditate, to considered, but the long night and exhaustion conspired against me. It must only have been a few minutes before I had fallen into a deep sleep.
When I awoke Sam was gone. There was a note on his chair, "See you in Montana. - S." I stretched and walked toward the row of large windows. The morning sun was burning through the fog. I passed a young girl seated by her grandmother. She was reading a poem that she had scribbled on a piece of paper:
Further On by Jackie Averell Coonen(written 1946 - age 16)
Hair streaked with strand of gray, she sits, my gran
The wrinkles on her care worn face, I love everyone
A smile, a memory of a time gone by
A life's journey complete, mine to begin.