short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Sensing a Presence that I could not deny, I became angry. I was angry that I could not free myself from this Presence. I was angry that this Presence occupied my every thought. When I found that I could not flee the “hound” at my coattails, I turned, like a trapped animal, and fought. That is, after all, what I knew how to do best. I fought, as usual, not from fear but from anger. In my anger, I argued with and questioned this Presence—and even blamed It.

Never before had I questioned why I bore children with birth defects. Since I did not consider that there might be a God whom one could expect to intervene, I just accepted the fact that Donnie and I did not have the most felicitous combination of genes and for that reason 50% of our children suffered from multiple defects. My question, when confronted first with Noelle’s birth defects, then Doah’s, was not “Why?” but “What do we need to do to keep them healthy and prepare them to lead worthwhile lives?”

Only now, with this Presence occupying my thinking space day and night, did the errant thought finally come to me, “Why?” If a deity existed, then I could accept these birth defects and the myriad other tribulations that we had experienced with some degree of equanimity only if that deity were effete. But I knew from teaching social philosophy that the fearsome God of the Jews, the loving God of the Christians, and the almighty albeit gracious and merciful God of the Muslims was anything but effete. Bewildered and hostile, I wanted answers, and I demanded an explanation. I did not conduct a trial and find God guilty as did the senior Jewish leadership at Auschwitz during the Holocaust of WWII. No, my response was much simpler. I asked God why.

Job! Read the Book of Job. More than a thought but less than a voice, the words slammed into my consciousness. Still entranced by a surreal sense of a divine Presence fully occupying all my faculties and even directing my thinking, I accepted these quietly compelling words at face value as an answer to my demand to know why bad things had happened to my family, people whom I considered to be essentially good, even moral. Not only did I surprise myself by accepting these words, but also I reacted to them instinctively, without examination of what I was doing or why, so strong was the Presence in and around me.

While the response to my asking why took less than a minute in coming, the answer took days to understand. From my childhood Sunday School classes, I knew that Job was somewhere in the Old Testament, but I did not even have a Bible. In this case, as in so many other cases where I have needed general research, the Internet rescued me.

I found the Book of Job and read it. Ah, the patience of Job! That is an expression everyone knows. I did not think, though, that the message I was supposed to be getting had anything to do with patience. After all, how does patience explain why children might be born with handicaps?

So, I read the Book of Job again. I read about all the torments and testing, about how Job remained faithful through all the tests. I did not think that was the message I was supposed to be getting, either. That, too, did not explain why children would be born with handicaps. My children were not torments. They were delights.

So, I read the Book of Job a third time, paying attention to how Job’s friends exhorted him to turn his back on God, but instead he turned his back on their advice. This, too, did not seem to be the message I was supposed to be getting for I neither blamed God nor believed in God at the time of my children’s births.

The reading of Job was becoming rather frustrating, and I began to think I would need the proverbial patience of Job to ferret out whatever meaning I was supposed to be getting from it. So, I read the Book of Job a fourth time and began to feel much empathy for him, especially in the loss of his children. I noted well that I had been spared such pain even in the case of SR whom doctors refused to believe would live. An understanding was beginning to emerge but not one that I could articulate. Just one more time and perhaps I would understand!

I read the Book of Job a fifth time, and then I finally got it. It was not the concept of patience that I needed to understand, nor was it a test whose requirements I needed to meet. No, it was the concept of unconditional love that I needed to develop. No matter what was taken from Job or what he had to endure, he continued to love God. That, I think, is a message that is not often preached. More frequently preached is a panoply of "benefits" of coming to Church, being holy (whatever that means), and exercising patience. I don't need to be promised wealth in order to give to God. I don't need to be promised the avoidance of eternal damnation in order to obey God. Nor do I need fear of reprisal to walk along the path that God has laid out. I don't even need to be promised salvation in order to love God. I do all of these things because I want to not because I have to or fear the consequences of not doing them. Love for God is not a selfish love, looking for something we can get from it. It is an unselfish love, like God’s love for us, full of desire to give back to God by modifying our behavior to be worthy of God’s love, serving as God’s instrument for good, and being open to whatever it is that God would have us do.

What the message of Job says to me is that God's presence in our lives and what happens to us and those we care about are separate things. God has promised us to be with us if we allow it. What happens to us, on the other hand, is often a result of free will with which God is determined not to interfere although sometimes God does intervene. Love of God must be unrelated to what happens to us, and our love of God must be as unconditional as is God’s love for us. It took five decades, but I do finally get it. What happens in life—the bad things and the good things—cannot be conditions for whether or not we love God. They are tangential. These things generally come from our own misguided actions allowed by free will, the free will of others that encroaches upon us, the sometimes infelicitous combination of genes as people marry into various gene pools (i.e. the free run of nature), and even perhaps as in the case of Job with the interference of Evil. Just as God’s love for us is unconditional, not depending on whether or not we are always “good” (an impossibility, anyway), so, too, our love for God must be free of conditions. I understood that God was not to blame for any of the bad things that happened to Job or to me, but God has been omnipotent at turning the bad, once it happened, into good.

The reading of Job took care of my question as to why there could be a God and my children might be born with birth defects, why God might not want to intervene, or why it might be better to allow the birth defects to occur. My children’s lives are not defined by their birth defects but by what they do with their lives, how they help others, what they contribute to the world. It is defined not by what they cannot do but rather but what they can do and do do.

There was one more thing, though, one that seems to be overlooked frequently. God protected Job. It did not seem that way to Job because Job was not in on the agreement that God had made with Satan. Satan could take things away from Job and then, later, God even allowed Satan to torment Job physically. Job, however, was never in danger of dying. His life was always in God’s hands and protected by God, as so many times have been my life and the lives of my children even when I, like Job, could not see that anything good at all was transpiring.


This excerpt comes from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009), prior to copyediting and publication. There are some minor variations between this version and the final print version. The book is essentially my conversion story with all the gory and glorious details.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Any time I thought about the word, grace, or even the concept, the story of Aunt Grace's experience at an annual community baked bean dinner in East Gloucester many years ago came immediately to mind. Aunt Grace worked in the kitchen and served the tables. With the entire town showing up, as usual, the serving crew was quite busy getting everyone seated and served. Shorthanded, the crew heaved a sigh of relief when all the beans were on all the tables and all the people were seated behind their plates. They went into the kitchen to catch their breath.

Right about then one of the local pastors stood up and faced the room. "Let us all say grace," he intoned in his pastor's voice that carried beyond the door of the kitchen. Not all the words were clear behind the closed door, but Aunt Grace did hear the word, grace and thought she was being paged.

Perhaps a bit annoyed at what she thought was yet another request, Aunt Grace, with somewhat less than courteous patience, jumped out into the dining room, where all were suddenly looking right at her since the pastor was standing in front of the room near the kitchen door.

"What the heck do you want now?" she asked impatiently of the startled crowd. There is no one in East Gloucester who attended that baked bean supper who does not remember Aunt Grace's question.

So, every time I heard the word, grace, I thought of Aunt Grace. As a result, I could not take grace seriously. Especially not like the Christian woman sitting across from me did.


This excerpt comes from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009), prior to copyediting and publication. There are some minor variations between this version and the final print version. The book is essentially my conversion story with all the gory and glorious details.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Siberia on Easter Morning

“Khristos voskres” (Christ is risen). One person after another greeted me with these words as I climbed the stairs of the little, wooden church in Akademgorodok, a tiny town at the end of the man-made Ob Sea, bejeweling the Siberian steppe 45 minutes south of the city of Novosibirsk. The intertwining snow-covered birch and kedr (Siberian pine) trees created an illusion of a land of fantasy, made more so in the late evenings by the moon reflecting off the naked silver-white birch bark onto the dark red-brown trunks and evergreen branches of the pines. This was not yet the inhospitable taiga; it was somewhat south for that, but nonetheless the birch and kedr trees stood closely side-by-side like brothers-in-arms against a hostile white and cold universe.

“V istinu voskres” (truly, He is risen). If my words of response rang hollow, there was a reason. They came from the lips of a bona fide atheist, convinced that religious congregations were delusional. Certainly, they contained well-meaning folks, ones often with great compassion, but nonetheless, in my opinion at that time, delusional. Raised in a so-called Christian home and an attendee, but not engaged participant, in Methodist and Baptist churches in my early years, I found no sense in the sermons of the ministers who were often more interested in tangible things than in holy deeds, no examples set by the deacons who were often bedding the wives of their friends, and no love of God in the raspberry-bush switches wielded by my parents that demanded their few ounces of blood every Sunday before we marched into church as a model family. God, to me, was a fantasy, created by evil-doers to make themselves feel better. When given a chance at the age of 16 to preach the Youth Sunday sermon, the topic of which was “The Christian Home,” I pointed out all of these things, to the great discomfort of the congregation. I concluded that sermon with the suggestion that considerable thought be given to the advantages of raising a child without hypocrisy, i.e. in an atheistic environment. From where came the audacity of a child to make such statements from a pulpit? I don’t really know. Perhaps I envied the lives of my peers who were not abused each and every day and in resentment needed to point out something wrong with their lives, too. Perhaps I had expected the church community to step in and rescue my siblings and me from our physical and sexual tormentors and blamed the people in the community when no one stepped forward. Perhaps the rage in which I was raised crimson-colored all the emotions of my childhood. In any event, that sermon ended my churchgoing days. My family had been asked to leave the church, and I had not been punished in any way. I suspect that my parents had feared that after such a sermon, were they to have hurt me as a result, I would have flounced into church with that announcement as well, completely destroying their reputations. Or perhaps their sense of the awfulness of what I had done paralyzed them into inaction. In any event, there being no other church within reasonable travel distance, I had spent the rest of my growing-up and adult years in the atheistic environment I had exalted.

My parents never lost their faith as a result of their excommunication, but they never again talked much about it in front of me. We no longer were forced to say grace at meals. Bibles disappeared from our bedsides onto the crowded bookshelves in our library. Although they never mentioned anything to me, looking back, I imagine that my parents felt that something became very broken in their lives that Sunday morning. At the core of their lives festered a desperate need to be respected by the community, perhaps fostered by childhoods in which neither had experienced much respect. Dad’s unusually high level of intelligence brought him only a sense of disappointment and failure when, in order to support his parents and five younger siblings during the Great Depression, he had to leave school in eighth grade and take a job as a shoe cutter, a trade he plied, along with farming, his entire life. Ma had always been the little doll of her family, if my great-aunt’s assessment is accurate, but had found herself rejected and ridiculed by classmates while her brother, who was in the same class, served as class president. As adults, my parents became community leaders, my father serving on the school board and my mother becoming actively involved in one social cause after another, looking for approbation from peers long ago grown up. We children suffered their anger when we failed to make up for their dissatisfaction with their own lives and their sense of underachievement, Dad intellectually and Ma socially. Their church activities provided them the lifeline with which they had clung to the community respect that they so desperately desired. I had cut that lifeline with one sermon.

As for me, I felt that something got fixed in my life that morning. No more hypocrisy. No more pretending to be a pew-filling, perfect family. No more Sunday morning races when I would refuse to get dressed for church, Dad would want to beat me into compliance, and I would run. As young as the age of eight, I could outrun Dad. I could also run far. Neighbors passing by enroute to church pretended not to see the two of us running—around the front yard, across the street, through the tall grass, and into the nearby woods, my long hair flying straight back into the wind and my father flailing a switch, usually broken off from a raspberry bush with healthy thorns for ripping flesh. I could feel the wind brushing past my face, the adrenalin coursing through my veins from fear of the whip and nerve endings on fire with the thrill of the race, my legs fueled by competing thoughts: the stubbornness to do what I wanted, the fear of a dire outcome should I slow down or stumble long enough to be caught, and exhilaration at the thought that just perhaps I could run away from all of it, from the switchings, from the name calling, from the hypocrisy of pretending that we were the picture-perfect family, and especially from pretending to love and obey a God who for me did not exist and whom my parents used as a threat. Only when my father lost the switch and was too spent to care any more about hitting me would I run home. Running back into the “burning house,” as my future brother-in-law would later call it, was the only option that ever entered my head for any neighbor in New England of those days would have brought me back to my parents. Having run home, I always ended up in church. There, sitting in a pew, watching Dad and Ma acting in a devout manner and being viewed by the church community as ideal parents, my anger toward them would reach a full but quiet zenith. After the church service concluded, my parents would accept the sympathetic comments of my friends’ parents, especially those who happened to catch a glimpse of our Sunday morning marathons. These people would knowingly smile, nod, and assent as to how difficult I must be to raise—and my rising anger and frustration at the unfairness of it all made me want to run again—far away from my parents, the church, and the complacent people in the church pews. I resented being abused, and I trapped the church and its people in the web of angry emotions that encompassed my teenage years. I never asked how others in my family felt about being alienated from the church. I did not care. I had been freed.

Until now. Now I was about to address another church congregation. It was the first time in 30 years I would speak to such a gathering.

Uttering the expected words of greeting as I mounted the steps to the vestibule of the church was not uncomfortable. They were, after all, meaningless to me. While I would have preferred another form of greeting, I had somehow managed to end up at this impressively humble Russian Orthodox Church on Easter morning. So, the greetings were to be anticipated.

As I reached the top of the stairs, a priest extended his hand. As I had been taught in advance to do, I kissed it. The priest smiled and said, “There is no need to follow our customs. I have been told that you are an atheist. I’m Father Grigoriy, and I am very happy to meet you at long last. I do need, though, to find some way to introduce you to the congregation. I have given this some thought and wonder if I may introduce you as a Good Samaritan?”

I knew the parable. Is there anyone who does not? It was one that we learned at school and at church although all too infrequently had I seen the people who thought it a wonderful story follow the example themselves.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
In reply, Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.
So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.
The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'
"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

I agreed with Father Grigoriy that my introduction as a Good Samaritan would be appropriate. Apparently, others had passed through this remote village in Siberia, had even met young Aleksandr Ivanovich, affectionately referred to as Shura, a teenage artist dying from complications of spina bifida (a congenital malformation in which the spine does not fully close during the first six weeks of gestation). These passers-through had expressed a desire to help him, but ultimately they did not help. They were, in ways, like the beaten man’s countrymen who passed him by. Perhaps they thought they could not help. Perhaps they initially thought that they could help but ultimately could not. Most were from Russia, and Russia in the early 1990s, just emerging from 70 years of a failed experiment in communism, was an impoverished nation—except, of course, for the oligarchy and the mafia (often an intermixed group) that held the purse strings and power in the new “democracy.” Others were from foreign countries, and perhaps the complicated immigration laws gave them pause. I, on the other hand, chose to stop (well, in reality, was divinely "bidden" to stop although I did not know it at the time), and here I was at Shura’s church with him to share his recently rescued life with his neighbors on the day known as the Resurrection.

On wobbling prostheses, which he had not yet learned to control completely, and clinging to the railing, Shura, the pride of this tiny community, had triumphantly followed me up the stairs of the wooden church, his church. There he had been raised in a faith that carried him through the torments of childhood, the agony of waxing and waning hope that he would be able to come to the United States for treatment as he lay dying in a Siberian hospital, and the difficult decision, with which he was required to concur prior to surgery at Virginia State Hospital, to amputate both gangrenous legs and replace them with prostheses. It had been the kind of life that could challenge the faith of a saint. Yet, he was but a teenage boy, one with resilient faith that God would find someone to help him.

And now we both stood in front of a hushed crowd of Russian Orthodox believers. Father Grigoriy had just introduced me as the Good Samaritan who had rescued their Shura, the young man they loved and for whom they had despaired and now hoped. The crowd looked at me in eager anticipation. What was an atheist to say to this expectant gathering of believers?

This excerpt comes from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009) prior to copyediting and publication. There are some minor variations between this version and the final print version. The book is essentially my conversion story with all the gory and glorious details.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Just One of Those Days

Mommy went off to work quite happily, that just-one-of-those-days day when she was staying with friends in Virginia and working on a short-term consult in the middle of Washington DC. She trotted down to the bus stop for the short hop to the metro station. Happy day! Blue skies shining over me...well, you know. She thought that everything was going to be just hunky-dory. The sun was up, the skies were clear, and all was well with the world.

However, Mommy's bus did not come. She had to wait a long while for the next bus.

Then, she came to the metro station and took the train to her regular stop, Dupont Circle South, the metro station that had the second longest escalator in the entire city — and the up escalator was out of order. Mommy had to walk up a lot of stairs.

Mommy made it to work all right, although late, and she got a lot of work done, working all day on one special project on the computer. She was very pleased. At the end of the day, however, when she went to store the document, she pushed a very wrong button and lost everything that she had done. The network administrator said that there was no way to retrieve it and that it was very unusual for something like this to happen. Mommy was no longer pleased.

She then left for home. This time the down escalator at the metro station was not working, and she had to walk down a lot of stairs.

By then, Mommy was very tired. That must have been why she did not notice that the train had passed her stop. Oops! She got out at the next stop, figuring that she could walk across the platform and take the train one stop back. Unfortunately, that particular station was being repaired. To get to the other side, Mommy had to take two different sets of stairs. Well, she only had to take one, but the first set she chose was closed at the top, and there was no note at the bottom to tell her that. She finally made it to the other side just as the train pulled out of the station. She had to wait another half-hour for the next train.

Finally, Mommy got back to the previous station, made the right transfer, and reached the metro station where she needed to catch the bus home. However, the last bus had by then already left. She asked one of the other bus drivers if he went near the intersection she needed. He said yes, but it turned out that "near" was a half-mile away. So, she had to walk a half-mile back to that intersection in the dark through a bad part of town, then another half-mile up a hill to get back home.

By then Mommy was beginning to have some doubts about her sunny day. All doubts disappeared, however, when near the intersection, the blue sky turned black and the clouds burst. A raging thunderstorm started.

Mommy had not brought an umbrella, but she always carries a spare rain poncho. She pulled it out of her backpack and put it on. The water from the poncho, however, dripped onto her high heels as she walked up the hill where her friends lived. What more could go wrong, she wondered? She should not have asked. About a block from the house, one of her shoes fell apart.

Mommy took off her shoes and walked in her stocking feet the last block. That put a hole in her stocking. Mommy did not care about the hole, though. She just wanted to get inside the warm house. She could see that people were in the back; the lights were on and so was the sound. At last! A warm, pleasant end to a not-so-sunny day and black, not blue, skies.

Mommy reached for her key, but she did not have it. She rang the bell, but no one heard. So, she had to traipse through the side garden -- more sock holes -- and knock on the back window.

When she got inside, Mommy took off her wet clothes. Sitting in dry pajamas and warm slippers, she wrote me and Daddy and my siblings a note. It was just one of those days, she told us. Yikes! I hope there are not more of those days coming!


This story is adapted and shortened from a collection of vignettes that I helped Doah to write and publish several years ago (copyright 2003). It was my attempt to help him understand literacy and the purpose of writing and reading. The book was featured, one of thousands of other books of course, at the National Book Exhibit in Los Angeles that year, and Doah proudly walked up to the check-in counter for his author badge. "I author," he announced, and he really acted like one at the booksigning. Sometimes that boy can really surprise me!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Tale of Fuzz

Once upon a time in the wooded mountains of California, not all that far from the ocean, but far enough not to know that it existed, there was born a little kitten. He had beautiful markings but never knew because he had no family to admire him. His hair was long and curly, and he had a very bushy tail. He looked like a ball of fuzz, but he did not know because he had no family to tell him.

One day, when he was only a few weeks old and alone except for the remains of his mother, who had become a meal for a hungry coyote, he ventured forth in search of safer lands and in search of food and water for he was, indeed, hungry and thirsty.

Before very long he reached a river in the woods, a deep, cool river, and he drank from it thirstily. Near the river, he saw a quaint little cabin, and through the window he saw two children looking at a box that showed stories. The girl was beautiful, with gentle blonde curls and crayon-colored blue eyes. She said something to the boy, also blond, with lighter blue eyes, and he went out and came back with a glass of milk for his sister. The girl’s legs were covered in metal, and they did not move like the boy’s legs did. Her eyes were bright but sad, and she spoke quietly with her brother. Before them was a small table, and on the table was a sandwich. “Meat!” said the kitten to himself. “For this, I have ventured forth.”

And he went up to the door and made a loud noise, but there was no response. He had only to wait until someone wanted to come in or out, he thought, and so he lay down and went to sleep.

Three hours passed, and a roly-poly man walked up to the door. He looked a lot like the little boy. He called out that he was home from work, and a lady opened the door from the inside. The boy came running, and the girl looked up in anticipation.

Just then, the man looked down beside the doorstep and saw the sleeping kitten. “Well, look here,” he said. “We have a little fuzz ball here.” With that, he picked up the kitten and brought him into the house.

The boy and the lady admired him. They said that he had beautiful markings. They said his bushy tail was the most beautiful tail they had ever seen. They ran their hands over his curly hair, and that made him feel warm. He heard a low, pleasant sound coming from deep in his throat.

The boy carried him to his sister. “Pet him,” he said. “He purrs.”

“He must be hungry,” said the sister, and she gave him a piece of the meat from her sandwich. The kitten ate it greedily, and the boy disappeared for a few minutes, returning with more meat, which the kitten consumed just as greedily.

“Let’s call him Fuzzy,” said the roly-poly man.

“Good name!” the others chimed in, and the kitten understood that he now was to be addressed as Fuzzy.

The lady brought a bowl of water, and Fuzzy drank from it. It was not as good as the water in the river, but he knew that he could go to the river whenever he wanted to take a drink.

That night, Fuzzy slept on the bed of the little girl. “She is beautiful,” he thought. “She is friendly. They are all friendly. They are now my family. For this, indeed, I have ventured forth from my dead mother and the Land of the Coyotes.”

Every day, the boy and the girl gave Fuzzy meat to eat, and the lady opened the door so that Fuzzy could go to the river to drink. He always went to drink, sat and watched the birds but did not chase them for he was not hungry, and returned home, happy that he had found a family.

And it came to pass that one day Fuzzy again went out from the home to sip from the river for he was thirsty and the river ran deep, clear, and cold. He sat and watched the birds fly high and higher. “Where do they go?” he wondered, and he climbed a tall tree by the river. He could see far from the tree, far through to a long, dirt path through the woods, along which moved creatures he had never before seen.

He slipped down the tree and went to meet the new creatures. As he drew close, he saw that they were not creatures like any he had known. They moved. They made noise that even sounded like very loud purring, but they were not soft. They were great creatures, covered in metal, and their paws were round and rolled, making crunching sounds on the gravel. He walked up to one to introduce himself, but it did not stop or even look at him. One of its paws rolled over him and trapped his tail. He pulled away hard. He was caught! He pulled harder. Ouch! The pain was great, but, at last, he was free.

He was free, but he could not walk very well, and there was something very wrong with his tail. He walked aimlessly in pain, not able to find his way back to the cabin in the woods. At long last, he found the river, and he lay down in the grass beside it.

When day dawned, he crawled to the river for a drink. He felt very weak, and he could not move his tail, not even little enough to see what it looked like or why it hurt so much. He looked down into the river, and there he saw what had happened to his tail. It was thin and flat. The part near his body had no hair; the monster thing that had run over him had partially stripped his tail, leaving only white cord and blood near his body, and the remnants of the skin and hair dragged behind him like an anchor. Despondent, he could not look at it again. He lay down and went to sleep.

Time passed. Old day turned into new day. Dawn, night, dawn, night. And so he continued for ten days. He thought about his family; he dreamed about his family. But he could not move, except to take a drink from the river when he was thirsty. He was hungry, too, and there were many small creatures—mice and birds—but he could not catch them. It required many minutes for him to take the few steps to the river and back to his grassy bed. He held on, though, thinking of the cabin in the woods and the family that loved him. He had to make it back to them. He had to see them again. He could take any amount of pain if he could just see them again.

And so, one day, when the dawn arose, he stood, tottering and weak, on his legs and partially crawled and partially clawed his way up the river, looking for the cabin which could not be that far away. For three days and three nights, he inched his way home. On the fourth day, he saw it: the cabin, the children, the lady, and the roly-poly man—and a dish of food outside the door. They must have left it for him.

He inched his way toward the food as they returned inside the cabin, not knowing that he was only a few feet away, hidden by the tall river grass. Food! He reached it, and he began to devour it ravenously. He was hungry!

A few minutes passed, and the little boy looked out the window. “Mom! Dad!” he called out with joy. “Fuzzy’s home!”

Fuzzy felt safe again, and his heart leapt with joy. Then he thought of his tail. He had lost his big, bushy tail that they all admired. He was not as fuzzy as he used to be. Would they still want him? He cowered by the bowl of food, ready to crawl back to the river in shame if they no longer liked him. After all, who could like a cat with a defective tail?

They burst out the door, the little boy in the lead, then the lady, and the roly-poly man. The little girl with the blonde curls and crayon-blue eyes watched from the window with a sad look. “She sees I have no tail,” thought Fuzzy. And he was right.

“His tail is gone!” said the lady. “His beautiful tail is gone!” Fuzzy prepared to leave. “Poor baby!” She picked him up.

“He has to go to the vet,” said the roly-poly man. “Let’s see what the vet can do.”

The lady put Fuzzy in a big cage with a handle on it, and the roly-poly man picked him up and put him inside one of those great creatures that had tried to eat him. Fuzzy closed his eyes and hoped everything would go away.

“I am coming with you,” said the little boy, and he climbed inside the monster creature and sat beside Fuzzy.

The roly-poly man got in, too. He sat in the front, touched something on the monster’s neck, making it purr loudly, and kept moving the monster’s nose in one direction or another. Slowly, Fuzzy understood that they were moving. They were inside the monster, and the monster was moving, taking them with it. He began to cry. The little boy put his hand inside the cage and petted him. He began to feel unafraid.

After some minutes, they arrived at a big cabin. The woods were gone. There was no river, just many very big cabins, made not of wood but concrete and bricks and cinder. The roly-poly man opened up the monster creature and stepped outside. Then he reached for Fuzzy and carried him into the big cabin.

In the big cabin lay great treasures of silver. A certain tall man in a white coat entered, looked at him, said something incomprehensible to the roly-poly man, then picked up one of the long, narrow treasures and thrust it deep into Fuzzy. Fuzzy felt no pain, just a curious sensation of falling asleep.

When he woke up, Fuzzy had no tail at all! He was still in the room of treasures, and the tall man in white came over and looked at him. Then, he wrote something on a chart, picked up the phone, and talked into it. Some minutes later, the roly-poly man and the little boy appeared in the room of treasures. They put Fuzzy back into the cage, climbed back inside the monster creature, and arrived back at the cabin in the woods.

For a while, Fuzzy felt tired. He looked for his tail but could not find it. Yet, sometimes he thought he could feel it. After a few days, he felt much better. He began to play with the little boy and the little girl again. They fed him, and he entertained them. He showed them that he did not mind life without a tail, that he could be friendly and affectionate and playful with or without his tail. And they loved him just the way he was. They could all have lived happily ever after.

One day, however, when Fuzzy went out a little earlier than usual to partake of water from the river, the sun was not yet up. There, in the grass, where Fuzzy usually rested, crouched a coyote.

Fuzzy did not return home that day nor ten days later nor ever, but Fuzzy’s memory lived long thereafter. The family mourned but realized that Fuzzy had taught them important things. And one day, when the dawn rose, the young girl, who had no moving legs but only braces, got up and went out of the home to sip from the river.

This story appeared in the same collection as the story below. Copyright 2005. I have used it in undergraduate philosophy classes. It is interesting to me to see student reaction -- whether they considered the story optimistic or pessimistic. One foreign student, a non-native speaker of English, told me that she considered it a horror story; she misinterpreted the ending tome that the girl would also be eaten by the coyote! Amazing. Once a work leaves an author's hands, all kinds of interpretations are made. Faulkner once said that he had not realized how much symbolism he had put into "The Bear" until he read the critics' reviews!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Merging

It happened on one of those eerie, moonless nights when the nature of Life becomes infinitesimally clearer and lives are changed forever. The young college student with many and no future plans concurrently—as is the wont of younger years—was returning from a late-evening babysitting job. At midnight, the new moon was in full reign. She squinted past the headlights on her mini-truck into the total darkness that new moons, ironically named, always bring, trying to see each of the turns in the winding highway along the edge of the ocean. California’s oceanside roads were beautiful in the day and more beautiful at sunset, but in the dark, their curves could kill—and had on many occasions.

After a few turns, she found herself on a stretch of the road she knew well. She relaxed, straightened her back, and let her foot fall a little more heavily on the pedal. Soon she would be home, and how she needed to get just a little sleep before her psychology exam tomorrow! She sped down the road, skating through the curves as if on a roller rink or in a video game; she knew them all so well that habit alone moved the wheel of the truck in synchronicity with the curving of the road. As habit drove, her mind turned to reciting definitions she would need for the exam tomorrow: id, ego, super-ego.

Suddenly, just in front of her headlights, a concrete construction wall closing off her lane jumped up in front of her. That had not been there yesterday! Where were the warning signs? Lost in the folds of darkness’s blanket?

The moment the wall menaced, habit abandoned her. Id, now on alert, took over the task of driving, while Superego reprimanded her for her careless reverie and Ego, paralyzed by fear into inaction, simply watched.

The crash was inevitable, the jolt anticipated. However, the flipping of the truck and its rolling to its side disoriented all of them: Id, Ego, and Super-ego. When the rolling stopped, she was alone, momentarily abandoned even by thought.

Then, the headlights went out. There was a crackling sound, and there was a smell. More than a smell. There was something all around her. Vapors. Gas vapors. The gas tank! She had to get out of the truck, but she had to clear her mind first. She felt for her bearings. The truck was on its side, the driver’s door flat on the asphalt. No exit there. She felt further, and her fingers brushed the window to the cab. She pushed it open and put her head out. It was very narrow, but perhaps with some contortions she could squeeze through if she could just figure out what all was where. Where was she exactly? It looked like she was in the middle of the road, but she could not be sure. Her mind would not clear, and a disconcerting warmth and desire to sleep hypnotized both mind and limb.

As she struggled to focus on the road in front of her, to find shapes in the darkness, not only to locate her whereabouts but also to anchor herself in the here-and-now, a watery whiteness descended upon her and then enveloped her. She felt herself dissolving into it. The truck was no longer her only frame of reference; in fact, it was no frame of reference at all. She was in the truck, yes, but at the same time, somewhere else, in an expanding whiteness. Life Within, Life Without, Life Beyond—separate realities or intertwined trinity? A house of eternal dimension, with dissolving door frames and rooms expanding into other rooms without end and without form, just space before and after, above and below, a continuum without beginning, without end, without sequence. A place—or was it merely a transporting thought of the kind that facilitated the instantaneous movement of the Seagull—where appearance and reality, idea and action merged, a place to lose one’s integral self to the overlapping dimensions of time, location, and being.

And then, a hand emerged from within the watery whiteness. A brown, living hand, roughened by manual labor, strengthened by encounters with rock and asphalt. It belonged to a road worker, walking out from within the whiteness. Could it really be that someone had come to help?

She reached for the hand, and it pushed her back into the truck, into the darkness and the vapors. But she was not afraid, for she was not alone. The dark was no enemy but merely a cloak for Earth’s wearing absent the warming of the sun. Being not alone brought comfort, and she realized how uncomfortable being alone had been.

“Stand back,” the strangely compelling, oddly familiar voice gently urged her.
“This window,” he continued, crawling over the cab to the passenger window which pointed straight at the moonless night sky. No stars, no moon, yet the man’s plaid shirt and broad shoulders were clearly visible, haloed by the whiteness. Only his face remained unlit and unseen.

Skillfully, as if he rescued damsels daily, he kicked in the window, reached down, and lifted her up and through the window as easily as if he had turned the absent stars to stardust—so that’s where they had all gone on this lightless night—and sprinkled her with it to help her fly. Think happy thoughts, and she could fly to morning. The thought of happy thoughts was interrupted by more quiet urging by the strangely compelling, oddly familiar voice.

“Hurry! There is very little time.” The man helped her scramble down the side of the truck that used to be the roof.

“Hurry, hurry,” he repeated. And when she could not hurry, he lifted her with muscled arms and carried her across the empty road to a field of rock, dirt, gravel, and parked road-repair equipment.

He set her on her own wobbly legs just seconds before the crackling she had been hearing erupted with a roar into a bonfire, dyeing the mantle of night with broad plumes of red, lightning bolts of yellow. The new moon scrambled for cover. Night was now day. The sky was not black or even blue, but red and gold and grey. The truck was gone.

She trembled, and he held her more firmly. “Just a few more minutes,” he said. “Soon an ambulance will arrive and take you away to the hospital. You are safe here. I work here.”

They waited in silence. The presence of a companion was enough for now, and by the time the ambulance arrived, she had become calm enough to let go of the hand that had drawn her to safety. She let others help her into the ambulance. Only later did she realize that she had said neither thank you nor good-bye to the man in plaid with the strangely compelling, oddly familiar voice. Somehow, it seemed not necessary.

For now, her full attention was fixated on the cool deluge pouring forth from the fire hose, taking charge of the inferno which she had barely escaped. Fire yielded to water as the rushing ambulance rapidly distanced her from the smoking skeleton of her truck.

Her eyes moved from the disappearing road behind her to the looming edifice in front of her. A shapeless ether, dolloped with occasional pentacles of light, gradually dissolved into the well-formed, rectangular shape of St. John’s Hospital. The perfect name for this wonder of works: light splashing from the ceiling onto the gurneys below, doctors hustling, nurses bustling, interns scuttling, a beehive of telic activity. The wonder worker’s memorial offered her no overt sanctuary, but fatigue reached out and slowly drew down her eyelids until she could see no more of the object world….

… The overture of sleep-thought that had yet to reach its crescendo was prematurely ended by the hand of a police officer, who had arrived to take a report of her accident, shaking her awake. He was real enough. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sat up.

As she dutifully related the minutiae of the evening, he patiently recorded her story until she described how the man in plaid had called the ambulance, waited with her until it had arrived, and then had passed her over to the medics. The police officer contemplated her with a concerned look, then said, “Ma’am, the ambulance was called by a passing truck driver, and the medics found you wandering dazed and alone at the construction site. You were lucky to get out of the truck alive.”

She was still processing that information when the doctor approached her bed. “You are lucky you had your seat belt on,” he said. “You don’t have a single scratch on you. It is a miracle that you were not killed.”

Again, luck! Was it luck? Who was the man whom only she had seen? She had to know.

And so, when she was released, she went to the scrap yard where her truck had been towed, fearful of what she might find and yet not knowing why she was fearful. She carefully examined the window through which she had crawled. It had been broken—but from which direction?

If it were kicked out, then perhaps the man in plaid was another version of herself, a personification of a strong alter ego her subconscious had summoned when her conscious was too weak to act. The Id taking care of the Ego. The Life Within meeting the Life Without.

However, if it were kicked in, then perhaps there did exist a man in plaid visible only to those selected to see him or those who believed in him. The Life Without meeting the Life Beyond.

There was no way to tell. Physical evidence was indeterminate.

She told her story to all who would listen, advertised in the paper, and called the work site coordinator. None of her actions were of any help. All she learned was that no one had been assigned to that work site the night of her accident and no one on the work crew recognized her description of the man who had helped her.


With time, the construction site evolved into a roadside park. She liked to walk there in the late evening when no one else was around. Some said that it was not safe to be alone there at that time of night, but she felt secure. She would stand on the grass where once she had stood on rocks, look across the road, and on moonless, starless nights would see the burning truck. At those moments, for some reason, she felt protected in a strangely compelling and oddly familiar way. She felt not alone.

With time, the little park was discovered by the masses, and only on rare occasion was she able to stand alone and watch the sun set over the spot in the road that had come to center her life. On one of those rare occasions, she felt a stranger standing beside her. For some time, they stood silently in companionship and watched as the sun enflamed the sky, then dissolved into streaks of smoldering red and gold and grey above a now-skeletal view of the rock-rimmed ocean shore. Finally, she spoke.


“Just a few more minutes,” he said. “Soon the darkness will arrive and take us away from this moment.”

“As it does every moonless night,” she responded. “I suppose it is not safe to stay here this late, after the guards have left, but I like to watch the sun set over the ocean beyond the road.”

“You are safe here,” he responded in a strangely compelling and oddly familiar voice. “I work here.”

She turned to look at him, but she was alone.

All the text above the first dotted line is fact, below the line fiction. It was published under my real name in a collection of stories from the Middle East. (c) 2005.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Recommended Readings

The following are some of my favorite books. The evaluations are, of course, my own, and you may (dis)agree with them. All of them, in my opinion, are well worth the time spent reading them.

Mitch Albom:
The Five People You Meet in Heaven

An excellent book for anyone who thinks his/her life is meaningless. The hero, Eddie, dies in an attempt to save a little girl from a falling cart at an amusement park where he works as a repairman. After death, his life is explained to him by five people whose lives his has intersected. Some of these intersections were positive; some of them were negative. All of them were fateful even though Eddie did not realize it at the time in some cases. In fact, not all of these people were ones he had met! This book gives one pause. We may have a greater influence on the universe that surrounds than we may think. The book is a great read, and the movie based on it is a great film. Choose your medium!

The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling

These are two of my favorite books, and usually they can be purchased together in one volume. The author is not known although from the writing style it seems like the same person wrote both. These are the best primers on contemplative prayer that I have ever run across.

St. Athanasias. On the Incarnation of the Word.

St. Theresa of Avila
Interior Castle

For those ready to move into deeper stages of prayer, St. Theresa's Carmelite classic work is very helpful. St. Theresa describes seven "mansions" of the spiritual life, beginning with neophyte and proceeding to mystical marriage (essentially, full union). She discusses difficulties experienced by beginners, the aridity in prayer that comes later, contemplation/mental prayer, the sweetness to be experienced in prayer, and more. The book provides a detailed mystic-theological view of the soul and its development as one progresses from one "mansion" to another.

St. Theresa of Avila:
The Life of Saint Theresa of Avila by Herself

In her autobiography, St. Theresa of Avila describes the various visions she experienced, as well as the voice she would hear. Of great help to anyone in similar circumstances is the set of questions she developed to determine authentic communication from imaginary. For me, this book was a godsend when similar things started happening to me and no one seemed to want to talk about. While I finally gathered the courage to discuss my experiences with a priest, I recognized the "grilling" he gave me as coming straight from the work of St. Theresa, and that gave me confidence in both him and her.

St. John of the Cross:
Dark Night of the Soul

This classic on relationship with God describes two periods of aridity (or dark nights). One occurs as beginners start to advance in their understanding of spiritual matters. The second comes much later, when faith matures -- and in many cases, does not happen at all. How and why one winds up in a dark night is not something that St. John of the Cross explains; it is something that is up to God and one is obliged to accept that. Where the book is very helpful is in describing the nature of the dark nights, as well as the attributes of spiritual immaturity.

Ilia Delio:
Franciscan Prayer

I love the books -- all of them -- by Sr. Ilia Delio. In this book, she defines Franciscan prayer and what sets it apart. She writes about complexity of our contemporary world and how one can go about seeking God today through prayer. "This is a book on Franciscan prayer written by a theologian who strives to define more clearly the path of Franciscan prayer, the nature of its spirituality and relationship with God. She talks about prayer as means of seeking God in today's complex world. At times a little dense reading, it is well worth the time and effort to read.

Ilia Delio: A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World

Ilia Delio: The Humility of God

Fr. Thomas Dubay: Authenticity (the second of my two favorite books, if one considers the Book of Privy Counseling and the Cloud of Unknowing as one book)

Fr. Thomas Dubay: Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer

Fr. Thomas Dubay: The Fire Within

Fr. Thomas Dubay: Prayer Primer: Igniting the Fire Within

For anyone of a contemplative and mystic bent, all of Fr. Thomas Dubay's works form an essential core of a contemporary library. This one, one of his earlier works, no less so.

Fr. Thomas Dubay: Seeking Spiritual Direction

Dave Early: 21 Reasons Bad Things Happen To Good People

John Eldridge: Epic: The Story God is Telling

John Eldridge: Walking with God

Dr. Geri Henderson: Thoughts without a Title.

This book contains stories and art work by young people in the Middle East, many of them with religious themes, that provide insights into the thinking of the current generation there. It has the potential to be very enlightening to people who live in the West whose only knowledge of the Middle East is through history books or contemporary journalism. This book looks into the mindset of the people, as expressed through the artistic creations of youth.

Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner

Dr. Omar Imady: When You're Shoved from the Right, Look to the Left: Metaphors of Islamic Humanism (wonderful short tales that fit any religion; some are found also in the Zoroastrian stories; one was used recently in a homily by a local priest who had read the book)

Spencer Johnson & Kenneth Blanchard: Who Moved My Cheese?: Amazing Ways to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life

Kent Keith: The Case for Servant Leadership (stretches beyond work relationships into life)

Harold Kushner: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Br. Lawrence: The Practice of the Presence of God

Margaret Nutting Ralph: And God Said What?: An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms

Helen Steiner Rice: And the Greatest of These Is Love

Dale Evans Rogers: Angel Unaware (a work of love that will comfort anyone who has lost a child)

Richard Rohr: Grace in Action

Richard Rohr: Things Hidden.

Rohr's highly insightful interpretation of scripture and application of it to the contemporary world gives one a new perspective on the Bible, especially the New Testament. While not at odds with Catholic teaching, it does stretch one's mind to contemplate a whole that is greater than its parts when viewing the stories and teachings of scripture. All of Rohr's works are great, as are his lectures and DVDs, but this one is exceptionally special.

Francis Thompson: "The Hound of Heaven"

Lev Tolstoy: "Bog pravdu vidit, da ne skoro skazhet" (God Sees the Truth, But Waits)

Jean-Pierre de Cassaude: Abandonment to Divine Providence

This is not the easiest book to read. Occasionally, the logic, not being of the current era, is difficult to follow, as is the discourse for the same reason. Nonetheless, the many nuggets of golden insight are well worth the time it takes to dig them out. The Reverend de Caussade points to God’s presence in even the simplest of daily activities (not unlike the attitude maintained throughout his life by Brother Lawrence; see The Practice of the Presence of God in this list) To find God, we most totally surrender ourselves to His will, and, in that, we will find peace. This is the message of de Caussade.

Brendan Manning. Ruthless Trust

I suppose this book appealed to me for two reasons. First, the concept of ruthlessness reflects my all-or-nothing approach to life. When asked by an investigator, conducting a security clearance interview for a position to which I had been appointed, whether I was ethical, my husband Donnie responded with only one word: “brutally.” (Hopefully I have since learned to be gentler in my insistence on ethical behavior.) Second, trust is something that comes naturally to me. Sometimes I trust people too much, but I don’t learn. I still trust the next time with a new person. I also trust God in that same all-or-nothing way, at least usually.

About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.