Friday, May 26, 2017

On the Pier

Photo by Carrie Sue Barnes, Location: Rabbit Bay, Lake Superior
The old man only visited the pier at sunrise, when the lake's surface was smooth as a bed sheet and the sky was edged in tangerine. Later, the lake would be speckled with white caps. The din of the waves would crescendo with each tide. He used to love the noise, but now his tired ears treasured silence. So, he only came at sunrise.
Bare footed, he stood squinting at the ascending sun. Another day. The fibers of the wood were cool under the leathery soles of his feet. He wrapped his fingers around the rail, pressed his stomach against it, and inhaled the stillness. He willed it to stay stored in his chest. Peace.
"Do you come every morning?"
The bird like voice startled. He did not, at first, turn to see its bearer.
"Mamma says you do."
"Bit early for ya', isn't it?" Being his first words of the day, they rolled out full of gravel. He cleared his throat. "Why aren't ya' sleepin'?"
"Because I'm awake." The girl's answer was clipped with the childish annoyance at silly questions from adults who ought to know.
The old pier stood between his house and the girl's. He gazed down at the crown of honey blonde hair, feathery and uncombed. The wisps carried him through decades to his tiny daughter hugging his leg here on the pier, midday waves licking their toes. Affection stole through his wiry limbs and he reached out to smooth her hair. He stopped himself; placed his hand back on the rail.
"It's my birthday," she whispered. 
"Mine, too."
Brown eyes widened. "Ooooh," she breathed out the sound. Her pink lips remained in a tiny O, then, "How old are you?"
He stifled a chuckle at the reverent hush of her voice. "Old."
"But how old?"
He rubbed at the whiskers in the crevices of his weathered face. "Eighty-four."
"That's old." She bobbed her head at him. "I'm five today."
The sky was losing its accessory colors. Blue prevailed above the still sleepy lake. Pelicans conducted an aerial parade inches above the water; six in a straight line headed north, then a turn and back south.
"Are you having a party?" he asked.
"I am!" Her feet danced a two second jig. "Are you?"
"Oh, no party for me."
The kids would call, of course, sometime before night fell. He did not begrudge them anything more. Yesterday, he'd picked up roast beef and fresh cheddar from the deli for his favorite sandwich. It was enough.
"You can share mine."
"That's kind of you, but I don't need a party."
"Every birthday deserves a party," she said. She pushed her hair back from her cheeks. "That's what my daddy says."
He didn't argue, hoping she'd believe it for all her years.
In the afternoon, he watched cars pull up to the neighboring house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends; all come to celebrate the girl. Through open windows, the party carried its sounds to his home. Laughter, shouts, rumbles of conversation from the men on the back porch, and finally the traditional singing while they huddled around a lit cake. Hours later, the people returned to their vehicles after hugs in the driveway.
He sat on the red bench on his front porch, reading last Sunday's newspaper, when the last of the revelers departed. The sun he'd watched rise was leaving too, dipping below the tree line behind them. Ribbons of pink and yellow light wrapped around from there to the horizon over the water; another day.
The neighbor's back door creaked open and out trotted the girl. Her purple party dress swung about her knees. He lifted his hand in a wave at her parents, who watched from their kitchen window. The father waved back; the mother smiled while she continued to wipe dry a plate in her hands.
"I made them save this one," the girl called when she reached the steps of his porch. She waited there.
Hips stuck and knees creaked when he stood. He paused to let his joints settle into place, then walked. She'd brought him a piece of cake. It was two layers of chocolate with pink frosting. The scents of cocoa and sugar filled his nostrils. His mouth watered.
"Well, you're a sweet girl, I must say." There was a catch in his voice to go with the moisture in his eyes.
"Do you like chocolate?"
"It's my favorite."
"Mine, too."
He accepted the plate.
"Momma says I have to get back. I have to help clean up."
"You best go and do that." The old man nodded. "Thank you for the birthday cake. I'm sure it's delicious."
"You'll eat it?"
"Of course, I will."
"Can I watch the sun come up with you again?"
"If you're awake, you're welcome to join me."
She nodded, her features drawn together in thought. He waited while she formed her question. "And if I'm not awake tomorrow, can we watch the sun come up another day?"
"Yes," he smiled, "another day."
Her concern was gone. She skipped back to her house, already talking to her parents before she opened the door.
The old man walked to the pier. He leaned against the soft wood of the railing, listened to the song of low tide kissing the sand, ate his chocolate cake, and hoped for another day.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Normal - a Flash Fiction Piece

"I won't sleep in our bed."

"What was that, ma'am?"

I glance at the cab driver. "Nothing."

"It's alright, ma'am. I talk to myself plenty."

Do what's normal. It's what my aunt advised for after the funeral. After. Everything will be marked as before and after now.

Sliding the clasp of my necklace back behind my tired curls, I whisper at the empty seat beside me, "We'll talk about this at home."

Do what's normal.

Pay the driver.

Nod at the doorman.

Press the elevator button.

It dings its arrival. Is it always that loud? Two others board the elevator with me. Strange since the lobby echoes like a canyon yet I didn't hear them approach.

I grow impatient once the doors close. "I won't sleep in our bed, Ian. I can't."

My fellow passengers turn, chins over shoulders, then lower their eyes to the floor.

The doors open and I exit before speaking again. "The guest bed is comfortable. Don't worry about me." I stop, key in my fist. "Can you worry where you are?"

The breakdown starts in my knees. It will spread to my back and my arms, then my whole body will collapse to the floor. I picture myself curled on the green straw welcome mat in front of the Lancasters' door. "No." Digging the key into my palm, I walk.

"Fine. I'll sleep in the damn bed. Are you happy?"

The question does me in. I shove our door - my door - open and fall down in privacy. When the shaking and the tears pass, I roll to my back; knees up, feet planted. There's a tiny run in my tights that I pull at with my fingernail until it tears over my thigh. I stand and remove my black heels, ruined black tights, and black dress. When I drop the tights in the trash, I linger two seconds before adding the shoes and the dress.

Do what's normal.

"That's why I have to talk to you." Normal is talking to Ian about the day, the news, the basketball game he's watching that I don't care about and the book I'm reading that he doesn't care about.

In our bedroom - my bedroom - I pick up our wedding photo from the desk. "This won't do."

From the bookshelves, I dump a box of photographs on the carpet. With the pictures spread in a half moon, I survey them without seeing details. I can't endure the details. "Where is it?" I shout a second before my eyes land on it. "Oh, Ian."

My favorite one. I trace my fingertip over his cheek, his mouth. I ache for a kiss. I haven't ached like this since our first years together when we still made love more nights than not.

"We'll talk more tomorrow."

My black bra and panties go in the trash too. The photo goes on his pillow beside me. I fall asleep flat on my back, hands resting one over the other on my stomach, like him.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Seven Years Ago

Seven years ago on this day, I went to dinner with my sister, our mutual best friends, and the husband of one of those friends. We ate at one of our favorite restaurants, Good Company, in Appleton, WI. The hostess seated us around a large circular table in the front section of the first floor of the large, two-story restaurant. Later that evening we would attend a concert at a local church. Our conversations probably ran through a gamut of topics. I don't know. I only remember one.

I told them about a coworker who lately was offering frequent smiles and inquiries into how my day was faring. Occasionally he invited me to join a group of peers for lunch. Sometimes the flirtation was clear but more often he left the impression of straightforward, genuine friendliness. After encountering him each workday, I usually wondered two things: was I assuming too much about his interest and, if not, then why the hell was he interested in me? I'd sit in my chair behind the reception desk, running reports, handling mail, and finding ways to pass the slower hours. He'd walk by to reach our adjacent show room, on his way to fix whatever technical issue had cropped up on one of the machines. Eye contact, smile, small talk or a joke, then the day rolled along.

I consistently turned down the invitations to lunch. I kept the small talk brief. I silently questioned why this guy bothered to talk to me. My skepticism was not because I was clueless - which might have been excusable considering my lack of adult dating experience - but because I was afraid. Oh, how I was afraid. All the seeds for that fear were planted in earlier years, having nothing to do with this man and everything to do with me.

At dinner that night, as we waited for our entrees to arrive, my closest friends listened to me talk about this man. Eventually, one of them interrupted me with a single demand: the next time he invited me to lunch, I had to say yes. I laughed and she asserted the demand more vehemently while the others added their support. They did not relent until I agreed.

I spent the rest of that Saturday evening negotiating with the fears in my head. I spent the remainder of the weekend debating whether or not I hoped my coworker would invite me to lunch just one more time. The following Tuesday I shared a meal with my husband for the first time.

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
Joseph Campbell

A couple months after that first lunch date.

And 6 1/2 years later.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Because the Saints Said So: We Shall Be Content (St. Timothy)

I have a love affair with rocking chairs. They are the bubble baths and comfort food of the furniture world. It is a dream of mine to own a home with enough space for rocking chairs in nearly every room, plus the front porch and back patio, of course. I was in an airport once that had a row of about twenty white rocking chairs facing the windows, backs to the bustling crowds. The time spent there waiting for my flight was one of my trip's highlights. There are days when I have a hard time slowing down to pause with my family instead of continuously attacking my to-do list. If I can direct myself to a rocking chair and sit, I am much more likely to lengthen the pause. Balanced by the rhythm of the chair, I can breathe a little deeper and allow my heart to feel content.

As human beings made by God for life with God, we crave contentment. We long for the peaceful satisfaction that can only come in full when we reach our eternal home. Oh, but how great a share of contentment can be ours now!

We must pursue contentment. The usual take on the matter tends more toward the idea that we have to stop doing, stop moving, stop trying at so many things if we are to experience contentment. Essentially, we must simply do less. We must suspend our pursuits. I am suggesting that we need not suspend, but rather change. Change what we are doing; change what we are moving toward; change what we are trying at if we are to exist in a contented state.
There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. - 1 Timothy 6:6-8
"Godliness with contentment," i.e. becoming our true, full, made-in-God's-image selves with peaceful and grateful hearts and minds: this is a goal worthy of us all. It requires a purified perspective on life's genuine needs and true purposes.

Pursuing contentment means rooting out the things that detract and distract from contentment. What those things are will vary from person to person, and even change from year to year during the course of life. Right now, for me, the biggest detraction is things, literally. Stuff. Unnecessary belongings taking up the precious space of our family's small home. So, I am pursuing contentment. I am detaching myself from objects. I am realizing what we don't need, or even want. I am letting go and clearing out, and it is a relief. This process is leading me to greater satisfaction with our home and gratefulness for our needs being met. It feeds contentment.

Your pursuit of contentment may look quite different than mine. It could be detaching yourself from damaging relationships. It might involve setting your feet toward a calling that requires the sacrifice of a comfortable (or dissatisfying but secure) job. Maybe it is changing the way you spend your time, or doing whatever is needed to eliminate immoral habits. Maybe it is taking an honest look at how you treat yourself and your body, then altering both your perspective and your actions.

Contentment is blocked by a variety of things but it coexists consistently with three things: detachment, gratitude, and perspective. Cultivate these and contentment will sprout in abundance.

Meanwhile, if you want to feel the contentment as it takes root, I recommend a good rocking chair.

Friday, May 5, 2017

In the Rain

I was rushing across the puddled street, cussing under my breath at my ruined shoes. She was strolling at a pace that suggested a walk in the June sunshine rather than a downpour. With my head tucked down as if there was any way to shield my face from the deluge, I didn't see her until her bare toes came into view and my shoulder struck hers. I lifted my eyes and mumbled an apology with no intention of pausing. I did stop though, so abruptly that I nearly slipped on the wet pavement. She stopped too. She stopped and she smiled.

White sundress, soaked and clinging to her tan skin; brown hair disheveled and stuck to her cheeks and neck; she was a mess. She was beautiful. For a moment I couldn't speak.

"You're in a hurry." Her smile held steady as she raised an eyebrow at me.

"Well," I glanced at the black clouds emptying above us.


I stated the obvious, "It's raining pretty hard."

She laughed aloud, tossing her head back and laying a hand on her stomach. The sound warmed me. "It is," she agreed, "and you're as soaked as you can be so what's the point in hurrying?"

I had no answer to this. My eyes fell on the peach, open toed heels she held in one hand. "You aren't exactly dressed for this weather. Where are you coming from?" The question felt rude in this city of strangers who fill the sidewalks and trains together without so much as an effort at eye contact. My curiosity overwhelmed me.

"Maybe it's about where I'm going to," she answered with a wink and another mesmerizing laugh.

For a split second I wondered if she was sober but there was a clarity in her eyes that dismissed the thought.

"I just finished a job interview," I volunteered.

"Did it go well?"


She shrugged. Raindrops bounced off her bare shoulders. I had to stop myself from begging for information - any bit she was willing to offer would do. I'd never had much courage with women. There was too much mystery about them, and this one had more than her fair share. Thus there was no explanation for my continued questions.

"Is it really about where you're going to? Do you need to be somewhere."

"I already am somewhere."

"Will you stop with me for a coffee?"

She cocked her head. "I could. We could have a coffee, maybe a meal. Then a drink at a pub with a band. We could dance."

"Yes," I whispered, wanting all of it.

"Or you could dance with me right now."

"Excuse me?"

"The time we'd spend doing those things, it'd only leave us with a good story. Memorable, but nothing more. I don't know about you but for me the highlight of that story would be the dance before we parted. I've learned to only care about the highlights. Couldn't we just have that dance?"

I reached my hand out, watching it with the sensation of seeing another and not myself. Her slender fingers tucked into mine.

"You should take off your shoes."

I obeyed. The sidewalk was warm under the soles of my feet. I rolled up the cuffs of my pants then pulled my already loosened tie off of my neck and tossed it down with my socks and shoes. I untucked my sopping shirt. All this I did with one hand so I would not have to let go of her fingers with the other.

She took a step closer and her scent reached me with my next breath. Coconut and vanilla were my best guess. Her arm slid around my waist and I rested my hand on the small of her back. We danced as if accompanied by our own private string quartet. When I surprised us both by spinning her out from me then bringing her back, I held in my laughter so I could hear only hers once more.

"That was my highlight," I declared as her laugh quieted.

She kissed my cheek and we parted. I didn't pick up my shoes until I saw her turn the corner and disappear. Then I finished my walk home, my pace slow, my feet bare, and my face lifted, welcoming the rain.