“AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL”

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The following post contains content that may be disturbing to some readers

I always took my coffee with an extra shot of Half-and-Half cream. Black, like a charcoal-colored suit for a funeral, that was my friend Alan’s after-dinner preference. Careful to sip our coffees gently without burning our lips, we swept the bread crumbs left over from our meal onto the floor. The scattered morsels did a good job to assimilate into the pistachio cream-hued speckled design on the linoleum table. It was the waitress’s oversight. We never voiced our complaints and, instead, acted graciously to compensate for our extended coffee hour that stretched into six or more cups as the night wore on. During each passing hour, we were well aware that there was a strong probability that another party was anxious to secure a proper nicotine fix at one of the few tables that we claimed in the roped off, “limited smoking” section of Athena Diner.

I  met Alan through one of my dearest girlfriends in the fall on 1984, a turning point in my life. Many Friday or Saturday nights through the end of the 80s, she and I, and at least a handful of other friends and colleagues, gathered at a local club to hear Alan play the drums in his band at the time. We were the band’s proud sober groupies that channeled Bengal tigers with our roars, while we tore up the dance floor.

The diner was not only where we went to feed our stomachs. It was where we went to feed our minds and souls. Diner talk was honest talk, undiluted, untainted and presented in purest form without mincing or sweetening words. “I really don’t know if he likes me,” I said one night to Alan. “I mean, he hasn’t asked me out on a date. At first I thought he was shy. Now I’m wondering if he likes me more than just platonically, but he’s taking his time asking me out,” I added to further clarify the situation involving a fellow co-worker, who symbolized my non-love life perfectly at the time.

I fed my platonic friend across the table each detail as if I were feeding krill to the unending appetite of a blue whale. His head tilted down until his linear nose came into full view, and I pictured a fish lunging into water. Alan listened, sometimes for thirty-minute spans. Perhaps it was because I was 12 years younger than he was, and I represented the sister he never had. He also lost his mother through illness when he was an adolescent. His father was, at the time I knew him, frail and riddled with numerous medical problems. His brother, like most of my peers back then, ran important lives that required their full attention, which left Alan as his father’s primary caretaker.

When I finished my incessant chatter, Alan, like a fish jumping out of water, would tilt his head back up toward the buzzing florescent light. Then would look deep into my eyes.

“He’s either, A: Scared to ask you out. B: Not interested. C: Not interested D: Not interested.”

Deep inside I already knew my work colleague was, as simple as A-B-C-D, not interested. Fortunately, Alan was the kind of guy who could soften any dagger.

When he said “You’ll be okay.” I believed him.

He played his drums with the same special touch. Furthermore, he used the same kind of talent when he worked his day job, employed as a professional house painter.

He was a darn good musician in the same way I was a darn good writer, which was my side gig. We were both Good, but not GREAT in the sense that we weren’t stand-out creative types enough to pave the road to stardom. We did corner the market with the courage we possessed. The courage to look within, and it helped us settle with and accept our compromised, lonely and longing lot in life.

As far as I know, Alan had one love in his life. Her name was Regina. She was slim and sensible, a “trust- fund baby” who grew up within an elite circle of investment bankers. Alan felt he was inferior to her from the very start. To that end, he relished every let-me-pinch-myself-now moment that he spent in her company. Eight months after the couple met, she dumped the tall, lanky, t-shirt- and jean-loving Alan for a man with a medium height and build, who owned his own brokerage firm in New York City, and regardless if it was a holiday, weekend or weekday, he preferred to dress in a pinstripe suit.

When the focus turned off my non-existent love life, the floor turned to Alan ruminating about Regina. Regina this and Regina that. I think it was a solid seven years, before he finally threw the anchor she had on him into the high seas of sanity and never mentioned her name again. As far as I knew, too, he never dated anyone after Regina.

I was in my twenties during the window of time when all the kids I graduated from high school with turned into bona fide adults: getting married, having kids, securing mortgages and car loans. Alan and I, on the other hand, were deemed nonconformists, and for that reason, we were loners. We worked day jobs, dreamed big, but love interests and big-time opportunities seemed to by-pass us and, instead, land on others around us.

Our relationship was one hundred percent platonic – as long as I avoided wearing red shoes. I found this out one night when I appeared at the Athena dressed in red sneakers with white laces. Alan’s glossy eyes twinkled like flickering Christmas tree light bulbs. He could barely murmur a word and acted like a love-struck teen.

“What the heck is up?” I questioned, partially astounded, but yet tinged with anxiety and fear.”

“I fall in love with women who wear red shoes. Any style of red shoes. Any kind of woman. Old. Young. Fat. Thin. Beautiful. Ugly. Girl-next-door types.”

Girl-next-door types? I loved Alan but not in any romantic sense. It stands to reason that I did a bee line swiftly tapping the floor tiles on my way out the diner’s door through the vestibule and into the parking lot, only to point the car north and drive home.  

From that day forward, I never wore a red pair of shoes and, to this day, Alan’s starry eyes superimpose any real, photographed or rendered image that I encounter over a red pair of shoes.

No matter how much daily heartbreak and disappointment we shared during our regular weekly conversations, Alan’s comic side lightened the load with his impersonations of the people we knew. When he laughed, he closed his eyes tight and all these lines formed on his face, making it look like soft rock crumbling all at once.

Through our musings, we tried to understand ourselves in relation to the world. One unforgettable night, Alan taught me a lesson that I have carried like an extra dose of bone marrow.

That night, I was particularly loud and self-absorbed, chewing over the injustices at my workplace and in the family that I had been estranged from.

“See this,” Alan announced. In the air with his hand, he drew an elongated rectangular shape, bigger than our linoleum table at Athena. “Imagine the size of this table. Think of how much bigger the diner is. Now, imagine how big this town is, especially in comparison to the diner. Now, imagine the size of the state with millions of people. Imagine the tri-state area, and add the millions of additional people. New York City alone has over seven million people. Now imagine the entire United States. All the continents. The entire world with a population somewhere over seven billion. Billion. Masses and masses of people, not to mention all the animals and living creatures. Billions and billions of living creatures. Imagine?”

Each time Alan made his point, each new sentence forced my anxiety level to crank up a notch. I found myself breathless by the time he I heard him say, Imagine?

“Now,” his voice receded like the tide away from the shore. “Where are you?”

Where am I?

After I left the diner that night with a full stomach as well as a gross amount of food for thought, I pondered over just how insignificant and small I was in the scheme of things, realizing that I was only one grain of sand (as Alan also described) among the endless bodies of ocean. From that time forward, the intensity of my life, my needs, my wishes and desires deflated. I became less stressful. Less self-serving. I started to listen more and talk less. For the first time in my life, I took comfort nesting in a back seat of life. I realized that in the same way the desert triumphs in the process of erosion, so does a person’s being when it rewilds to its peaceful place of belonging — humility.

Some nights when I met up with Alan at our diner table, other friends joined us.

Usually, the latecomer in the group, everyone laughed after I arrived, because I elucidated my preferences for whom I wanted to sit next to in the group at the table by chanting: “AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL.”

Between Alan and me, there was no superficial talk. Nor did we argue about politics (I never had an inkling as to his political affiliation) or converse about religion (he was non-religious). Nope, we just bonded, heart to heart and our doubled strength helped us survive an endless string of lonely nights and isolated days that in the strongest sunlight could be inked out with indigo ink. “The Sound of Silence” was our theme song, as it is for so many who fight through the battlefields of depression.

Alan, though, like faith on an endless skewer, bridged me through. He helped me trust that not all men were beasts and the possibilities of putting one foot in front of the other grew not only stronger, but I learned to walk a graceful step through life — no matter how I ached.

Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year. Even though we saw less and less of one another, we got through.

Alan went on and etched out an extraordinary retail management career for himself. After I married in 1991, it wasn’t until I saw the video a few weeks after our wedding that I realized Alan sang a song alongside another friend during our wedding reception. Today, I don’t remember what song it was, but at the time we got married, Alan’s band had fallen apart, so I thought he wanted to leave me a song for old time’s sake, and it was like a personal gift to me.

As our family grew, I saw Alan less frequently, but around 2012, I called him out of the blue during a family crisis. At the time, my 22-year-old son had plummeted into one of the worst states of depression in his history. Who, but Alan, who lived through so many years fighting the same foe, I thought, could help me save my son.

Upon requesting Alan’s help, I was shocked over his response. “No one can help him if he doesn’t help himself. He’s an adult now.”

Fortunately, my dear friends, Effrim and Kathy, flew to my aid and, to make a long story short, the four of us ended up laughing together that night over life’s hardship and, in essence, we turned the horrible experience into comedy gold.

From that day on, Alan and I were lukewarm to one another. I forgave him for not answering my pleas, but, understandably, I felt hurt, disappointed and, in some respects, betrayed.

Fast forward 2018 when I met up with Alan again. He had just recovered after a difficult battle of fighting a rare cancer illness and was miraculously in remission. I was relieved and happy that, from all accounts, he was healthy and getting his life back on track. After that meeting, we again lost contact with one another.

At the end of August this year, three days after my birthday, I learned from mutual friends, Alan had died by suicide two weeks earlier. He had poured an emollient over himself and lit himself on fire in a public park. By the time the police arrived, he was burned beyond recognition. It took nearly two weeks for the coroner to identify him, one of my first male friends who taught me about unconditional love.

As far as I see it, there are two groups of people in life. Actually, three. The first group lives a pretty straightforward, smooth life. The second group lives through hardships, such as divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure. The third group, that’s my circle. We, at least for most of us, don’t want tragedy to define us, but even though we have somehow impossibly survived it, it continues to follow us around like our shadow self. When we see the latest breaking news headlines of horrific crimes and atrocities, like the terrible war in Ukraine, we are the ones who do not “imagine” the horrific circumstances and consequences. We are brave. We are honest. We live a life of far-reaching sight – and accept the reality – as unreal as it may seem. We are the consumers who see a brand of mountain water named “Liquid Death” in the local drug store’s fridge and nearly hyperventilate, anxiously fleeing the aisle, knowing the founders are likely not former POWs of any war or have they experienced first-hand a serious crime or injustice that strips you from the life you once fit into like a soft moccasin. In addition, “Death Saves” hats are not our form of comical marketing merchandise. Instead, this kind of marketing makes our hearts heavy, and we view it as irreverent trash that kills our landfill further.

We are the tiny circle of people who are much too keenly aware of how it is to sit down at the diner’s table together and relish everyday pleasures like a hot cup of full-bodied coffee, only to be detonated by a cruel bomb that robs your “good” life – full of worries, feuds and foibles – away for good.

After I heard the news about Alan, and after I dealt with a surge of emotions, involving regret, guilt, anger and, of course, inconsolable sorrow, in my own personal way, I came face-to-face with why Alan did not come when I beseeched him to come and help me during our family crisis. Day in and day out, he had his own daily crisis to deal with. His own personal demon.

I had tried to draw water from an “empty well.” In other words, he was depleted. Shockingly, I realized that if he had tried to help my son, it may have led him to his own demise much sooner. When it came down to it, he could name his demons, but not face them. He spent years running from them, until, in the end, they literally inflamed him.

Even though I had in the past forgiven Alan, I really, really forgave him this time, because I was able to see the bigger picture, even though it horrified me. I understood.

I went outside and sat in a far corner of the yard in the stark dark night, allowing the memories and thousands of tears to tear me. There was nothing left to do or say, only be at peace with living tragedy after tragedy, thereby creating a tragic life.

“It sucks.” That’s the way I see it, as my therapist says to me so many times.

What I am left acutely aware of is that living through a tragic life makes me keenly sensitive to the fact that circumstance is on the outside and virtues, such as humility and courage, are seeded inside by the honorable, honest people who have influenced me. People like Alan, who, when they are at their best warrior places in their lives, leave me everlasting impressions and mellow tunes to follow with every stride I take on the battleground.

Good night, my beloved friend. Rest now. At last. I love you from the bottom of my heart that you so long ago helped mend with your sweet words and melody. Wherever you are, I hope you and everyone dances to infinity in a pair of red shoes.

“Light must come from inside. You cannot ask the darkness to leave; you must turn on the light.” – Sogyal Rinpoche

Faith Muscle

Chef-Curated Birthday Recipes

I had visions of spending my birthday yesterday dug deep in the latest book I am reading by one of my favorite authors. Snacking on reduced-fat cheese doodles, listening to the yelping contest between the two tiny mutts that live in the big colonial behind us.

As a prologue of things to unwrap, three days before the “Big Day,” my dear blogger friend Alec had remembered about my upcoming birthday and sent sweet greetings.

“Alec,” I wanted to reply, “thanks for remembering, but I’m trying to forget.”

It’s not that I did not appreciate his reaching out. It’s that I’ve always experienced conflicting feelings about my birthdays. When I was young, the date emphasized my state of detached reality. “Ungraceful aging” became the theme as time marched on. Nearly three years ago, of course, my birthday signaled hot rods of pain, loss and the idea of “unhappy endings” trumping “happily ever after.” It was the time that I temporarily deactivated my Facebook page because the “Fakebook” well-wishers only exasperated the grief.

What’s remained consistent is the two twins I recalled every year that were in my grammar school, Terry and Jerry. Out of 32 kids in our classroom, our trio was excluded from birthday celebrations during the school year. My birthday was August 22 and their birthday was August 23.  As luck would have it, all the other students’ birthdays fell within, or close enough, to the school year to celebrate. Each month we watched sad-eyed on the sidelines as a classmate celebrated a birthday during a particular week and delighted in song, praise and the biggest slice of cake out of the class, topped off with a spanking brand-new pencil to bring home.

These last few years, in fact, as my birthday approaches, it feels like the alarm goes off when my mind remembers Terry and Jerry’s longing eyes. The image kicks me into an impending feeling of despair. It helps, though, when I bring to mind one of my dearest friends, Michelle, a relatively young, quite recent widow, who always made it a point to say that the “big dates” that grievers anticipate on the calendar end up to be much more manageable and right-sized once the actual day unfolds.

The Saturday before the big day, my memory became ripe with regrets and remorse. Early in the week, Brother Paul insisted he and my sister-in-law, Diane, take me and my daughter out for dinner on Sunday and, even though I told him countless times that I wanted to “keep a low profile,” I acquiesced to their invitation.

“I’m reading a wonderful book. I really don’t have the time.” I didn’t think my excuse would fly and did not try and renege on the date.

Sunday afternoon rolled around and we gathered at a privately owned Italian restaurant. Three hours later, we peeled ourselves from our seats. In other words, I can’t remember a better time I’ve shared in an awful long time. I don’t think it was anything in particular about the conversation. It was more about being in sync and in the present moment. It was a bite into a slice of zen, a delightful, full-bodied flavor. It was the kind of meal that left you full, satisfied and met your needs beyond your belly.

Yesterday, wouldn’t you know it, my daughter took the entire day off from work.  If I had known, I would have stopped her. To backtrack, my birthday morning started with my gastroenterologist’s (the word rolls off your tongue as part of the aging process) office calling to change my October appointment.

After a few seconds on the phone, the doctor’s administrator announced, “There’s a picture of a birthday cake in front of your name in the chart. Happy birthday!”

“Thank you,” I murmured.

“Happy birthday!” the woman said louder.

“Thank you!” I replied, mirroring her sharp ding.

Then I received an IM birthday greeting from a random woman I barely know who always signs up for get-rich-schemes and tries to get me on board (without avail). I was amazed she reached out without trying to sell me something. The next IM birthday greetings came from relatives in Ukraine.  

When I checked my email, I was flooded with free computer screen downloads from the Pillsbury Doughboy who sent them to me as a birthday gift. I also received a flood of birthday coupons from retail stores and fast food chains. Too bad the Boston Market near us recently went out of business.

My friend, Camille, dropped by with fresh yellow roses and a beautiful card. My roomie gifted me a lovely blouse and another sentimental card that was added to the other make-you-cry-happy tears collection from my brother, daughter, niece and her husband. I also received a string of text messages from my fiance and the rest of the fam in Jersey.

Last night, I sat in my fave restaurant with my daughter and roomie and the minute I whispered, “I just really wanted to keep a low profile,” the waiter and the restaurant staff appeared with a blazing sparkler that was so fierce, it scared me, and I almost slipped off my chair. Afterwards, we dug into homemade cake and desserts.

Four hours we nested at the restaurant, together doing another helping of zen and life and digging into the moment, because that’s all we had in front of us. The best part about the experience was that it was uncurated. Instead, it flowed natural, unrefined without GMOs, in the purest form, and if this isn’t the recipe for faith, then I don’t know what is. After all, the plate in front of me carried the clear signature of a Great Chef.

Faith Muscle

The Changing Night Sky

Image by red-star-dreamy from Pixabay

The Delta Aquariids meteror showers finally inspired me and my fiance to try out a new telescope that’s been gathering dust in our living room since this past June.

These days, I mark very few thing on my calendar, but I did mark the meteor showers in fat red letters.

After twenty minutes of squinting into the contraption, we figured out that looking into the telescope paled when compared to relying on the human eye. As a result, we ended up in lawn chairs, heads bent ninety decrees, drawing imaginary lines as we star hopped across the sky.

Beyond the North Star, Big and Little Dipper, we vowed to study up on our future night maps to gain a broader insight into the language of the stars and, thereby, honor the majesty of our night sky.

In about a two-hour period, we spotted under a dozen shooting stars. Shooting stars, in actuality, are not shooting stars.

“Shooting stars, or meteors, are caused by tiny specks of dust from space. These particles burn up 65 to 135 km above Earth’s surface as they plunge at terrific speeds into the upper atmosphere, making the air glow as they pass.”

Reading the definition, I equate the phenomenon to the sky’s personal housekeeping practices and its changeless inclination to change. The process is akin to, for instance, letting go of an old piece of artwork, making room for a new one. It re-energizes and rids the room of stagnation, creates a clean slate and invites birth and new memories.

I was reminded of the paradox that if change signifies life then fighting change is … stagnation? Death? Imagine if we walked around in our baby booties for our entire lives? Ouch, that’s a pair of cramped feet. I suppose that’s how some people choose to live. I, actually, knew a middle-aged woman who still wore the same clothes she wore forty years prior. Single and alone, afraid of intimacy at any degree, she lived her life under a protective shell that warded out all degrees of hurt. Protective shells might keep you risk-free from the outside world, but inside their confines they limit the oxygen supply. Instead of having room to soak in the sunny and starry-lighted world to a point where it takes your breath away, over-protection can lead to living life on a sick bed. You have the proper apparatus to keep the heart pumping, but the equipment binds you to the bed.

Like it or not, change is a necessary part of life and maybe the more flexible we consciously become, the more we can accept the life cycle –birth to death – in everything, even a star. They say one day, albeit billions of years away, the sun and earth will one day die.

Unexpectedly, while we were finding our way around the finale of July’s night sky, I came to a state of awareness that helps me navigate our small orbit on earth. Day after day, summer to fall, the Big Dipper repositions and reminds me that I have no control over the natural flow of life. I can wish on an infinite array of lucky stars, but the truth is that all the faith in the world does not anchor life and halt its course to alter it to my desires; faith provides me the anchor to ride the wave of stardust.

Faith Muscle

Hurrah Hosta

Photo by Fiona Art on Pexels.com

When schedules and plans screw up, I owe my “it wasn’t meant to be” reaction to a former friend, Chris T. I met him over 30 years ago when black and white thinking, also known as a dichotomous thinking, caused me much disappointment when situations didn’t work out as planned.

You see, a few months after I met Chris, I was highly anticipating an upcoming out-of-town weekend away with a friend. Then she called me a week prior to our planned three-day excursion to inform me that she had to cancel our plans, because of family obligations.

Never mind black and white. All I saw was red. Even though she profusely apologized and the hotel agreed to refund our room deposits, I just couldn’t let the anger go. My emotions soared, as if I were commanding the wheel of a fire engine headed to a 24/7 wave of emergency blazes. Three days after reeling from disappointment, I ran into Chris and nearly hyperventilated as I conveyed my despair over my canceled trip.

When I finished explaining my situation, he simply stared at me and belted out, “So? So?”

I stood baffled at his response, waiting for an explanation.

“It’s a damn GOOD thing you’re not going!”

“What?” My bafflement was now more like shock.

“It wasn’t meant to be. Do you know you could have been involved in a car accident if you had gone? Maybe paralyzed for life — or maybe something worse. It’s a damn good thing you didn’t go. You should be grateful … ”

On and on he went. I felt as if I had accidentally landed on some remote island, met one of the natives and was trying with great difficulty to understand the language. I walked away without fully grasping the point he was making, but he planted a seed.

As my relationship with Chris grew, my perceptions about my life outlook slowly widened. I started comprehending the notion of gray thinking and, by doing so, I added a lot of interesting colors on my life palate. I mean, black and white aren’t even considered to be colors!

Below is an excellent explanation that I found on the internet of why:

“In physics, a color is visible light with a specific wavelength. Black and white are not colors because they do not have specific wavelengths. Instead, white light contains all wavelengths of visible light. Black, on the other hand, is the absence of visible light.”

As I consciously practiced this new, more flexible lifestyle, and learned to let go of unplanned outcomes, my trips to the gastroenterologist became less frequent. Over thirty years later, I cannot tell you how this conscious practice saves me each and every time when my black and white thinking returns, because it still does.

Take for instance, over a week ago. As much as I wanted to leave the house early and embark on a walk around the neighborhood, I left later than planned. By then, it was hot and humid, and it was making me feel crankier than usual. In fact, I almost turned around to return home. Those little critic critters in my mind kept beating my brain, saying, “You should have left earlier. You should have left earlier.”

Finally, I just shouted repeatedly to them: “Shut up!”

The strategy worked. It usually does. I made the rest of my walk in relative solitude. Looping back around, about 10 minutes away from home, I espied a sign, “FREE!” A kind, generous neighbor had plopped up the sign against a few dozen uprooted hosta plants that were for the taking. The plants had not been there when I had first started my walk. They were a gift to me, because it solved my dilemma as far as what type of flora I should plant around the house. I ended up picking the lot up later and putting them in my car’s trunk. A week later, they are growing nicely.

So, the moral of the story is: if I had left for my walk as planned, I would have missed the plant giveaway! Even though in my mind, the timing of the walk was off, it was, in actuality, exactly right! It illustrates exactly Chris’ point that changed my life so long ago.

Now, fast forward a few days later: thanks to the influence of Chris T. in my life and thanks to the hosta, I didn’t get too depressed about not being able to attend the Connecticut Press Club awards presentation last Wednesday.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to attend.

Instead of being recognized for winning FIRST prize for blogging and an honorable mention for travel writing at the awards ceremony and having an opportunity to meet the presenter, who is a pretty well-know author, I watered newly planted hosta that night.

As a “consolation prize,” I squirted the hose, watered down my sad emotions and lectured myself that there was a reason that it was better I did not attend the ceremony. ‘Who knows,’ I told myself, ‘maybe I would have tripped and twisted my ankle … or … ’ It simply wasn’t meant to be. Have a little faith and just say ‘thanks’ to the universe for blocking the whole shindig.

I dreaded looking at the event’s Facebook pic, but I forced myself to observe all the smiling faces, and I even offered my “Congrats!” to the winners. They really looked happy. Ego aside, I was happy for them.

Two days after the awards presentation, the good news is, I tested negative and I am Covid-free. Admittedly, still tired and a tad congested, but I have the best winner’s circle: a clean bill of health and one of the most empathetic and inspirational blogging communities I can imagine. In addition, I also have an assortment of hostas that lift their stalks up to the sun and remind me that roaring success is based on daily building blocks of achievements, such as making the bed first thing in the morning and watering the plants before nightfall.

Faith Muscle

Juxtaposition Axiom

Photo by Fiona Art on Pexels.com

There is a tall and svelte woman Peggy that regularly jogs in my neighborhood. She works as an accountant at a startup company where her husband is the chief executive officer.

She spends more on keratin hair straightening treatments than most people spend on their monthly grocery bills. Temperatures and humidity could be soaring, and Peggy won’t break a sweat.

While I listened to the news on my car radio about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, that left 19 children and two adults dead, adding to an alarming series of mass killings in America, she rolled past my view like a smooth, scarlet-colored ribbon.

I was headed to Trader Joe’s for a bag of reduced fat cheese puffs. It was my usual justified, self-trickery. Predictably, I would return with two bags of additional snacks and ice cream.

During my shopping trip, in my mind, I pictured the families of the deceased as well as the families of the perpetrator. Faces seized by shock’s fire. Raging in sorrow, grief. Confiscated homes that were once smooth and sound and as predictable as compiling a grocery list. Lives similar to normal plane mirrors, a mirror with a flat (planar) reflective surface. Sure, you wipe them off. Remove the smudges and streaks. In turn, they work for you. Not so.

Men, women and children now trapped in a not-funny fun house of distorted mirrors where every turn from here on means smacking into another jarring convex and concave section. Where to go? How to go? Direction is lost in a maze of thick grief, ground sodded and planted with inescapable emotional booby traps.  

My mind’s photos create a juxtaposition between scenes from the recent Texas tragedy and Peggy’s face, smooth with a ladybug complexion. I picture her scouring the pages on Amazon’s website, searching for blankets, sheets and pillows, helping her son get ready for his first year at an Ivy league school …. Gearing up for her jog the next morning.

During the rest of the week, the Texas tragedy unfolds on the news. I see the victims’ faces. Each one represents a wrinkle- and scar-free youth. I see the families’ faces. Each one, muscle lost, thin skin, ten-thousand tomorrows lived in a moment.

I repeatedly spot Peggy jogging out on the road. Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s “stunning” Italian wedding plaster the other news sections on my computer screen. By the time last weekend arrives, Platinum Jubilee celebrations of England’s queen steals the limelight as she hails “a renewed sense of togetherness.”

Maybe because it is my brain of COVID-19 (I was recently diagnosed), but I feel like I’ve lost my bearings, and I am out of touch, caught in unfamiliar terrain. I ponder, why can’t we all live a royal life of jubilation? Wander around, spending our days in a fun house where we can laugh at distortion, because it’s not real.

Why is it that some adults and children never seem to get a lucky break? Have they broken mirrors and it resulted in bad luck that exceeds its seven-year limit? Or is it that infants are born already swaddled in bad luck? Always by-passed. Never chosen to play on a sports team, while others seem to live life enjoying a daily picnic spread with plenty of no-calorie desserts?

Whether you consider yourself one of the lucky ones or not, the real question is, how do you find faith when there’s so much disparity? I don’t have the answer. I do know when I stay off the national news and social media and do something more productive like water ivy houseplants, I feel less anxious, less sad, less mad. I float on my sea of grief, cease the mean fight against the waves. It puts me back in my own shoes, and I can forge the walk-the-walk trek in life that I was taught 37 years ago. Pick up the discarded empty cigarette packs along the roadside in my teeny-tiny landscape. Pick up extra snacks at the store and give half away. Choose listening over talking. Stop thinking so hard and just be, because I am most precious to myself and others when I am humble, brave and free of distracting airwaves.

Faith Muscle

Today’s Temperature

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Cloudy. Looks like showers; maybe even thunderstorms. Temperature: 65 degrees. 

Every morning since the day I met Ally, and our relationship lasted for over 20 years until she died of cancer, she recorded the weather with a ballpoint pen in her six-by-eight inch journals. Out of the classic, lined, hardcover journals, she had one inscribed with the following quote, Let your faith be bigger than your fear. – Hebrews 13:6

Ally was not a religious woman. She didn’t go to church or ever mention God. Instead, she lived a message of love and as a member of the local garden club, she spent endless volunteer hours helping to keep the town green and gardens growing pretty. Ally also dedicated her life to working at a local wildlife rehabilitation facility that aided birds and other wildlife.

Strong wind gusts. Dry, relative humidity. Temperature: 72 degrees.

One day I realized that in the same manner that people wake up in the morning and recite prayers and read spiritual material, Ally recorded the weather. It acted as her touchstone for the day. It gave her a larger perspective on life, helped deflate her ego and discover her true self. In other words, it ironed out her fear and made her fearless to float forward fearlessly into the thunderstorms and hail of life. Amen!

On the topic of weather and prayers, I call to mind my dear friend Brian. I’ve written about him before, but as a refresher, he identified with Native American spiritual beliefs. Once when we were driving in his truck from a weekend in Canada, we were suddenly caught in a monsoon storm. Joining other travelers, Brian veered his truck over into the emergency lane and parked. Seconds after he shut the engine off, he bolted outside and moved in front of the truck. Right before my eyes, he lifted his head and outstretched his arms while the rain beat down on him like the sights and sounds of linear drumming.

“Great Spirit! Great Spirit!”

It turned out to be the man’s prayer of thanks for every possible thing imaginable, including what others, most times, perceive as inclement weather, Brian saw as a gift.

Ally, like Brian, saw the weather, regardless of whether it was a mean storm or a mild spring day, in the same grateful way because she understood that it meant another sunrise of life occurred. This insight enabled her to charge forward into the day with faith. In fact, anytime I saw her, even after she received her diagnosis, she never stopped recording the weather and continued to act like a big, fat cloud bursting with an “Amen!” kind of jubilation.

Author and MD, Robert Eliot said, If you can’t fight and you can’t flee, flow.

In this way, you can switch out the word FAITH for the word FLOW. The concepts are connected because when you flow through life, you have faith in it, and you gain a deeper awareness and thereby, find a greater meaning in it.

Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali polymath who worked as a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter, said: Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storms, but to add color to my sunset sky.

Heads lifted skyward, arms overstretched, Brian and Ally looked past the clouds and storms to pinpoint the colors of the sunrise as well as sunset.

Patchy fog. Hot and humid. Temperature: easy, breezy, flowing forward fearlessly.

Faith Muscle

Calm Waters

Photo by Ben Mack on Pexels.com

Naomi Judd, American Country Singer, January 11, 1946 – April 30, 2022

Sometimes you cannot sing without strain. Fortunately, music is not infinite, but has a finite number of possibilities. In a similar vein, sing a new song filled with faith and hope that calm waters will carry you to the safety of home.

Faith Muscle

Big Brother Musings

Photo by Hernan Pauccara on Pexels.com

Last week, I wrote a blog about my big brother Mike. On his death anniversary, March 18, I was searching for a file and, wouldn’t you know it, I came across a journal entry I wrote on his 17th year death anniversary. It still bears truth today and tickles my faith fancy.

Below is an excerpt:

I won’t deny that when you were alive, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about a replacement brother. The kind of big brother who takes you places above ground and not underground. The kind of brother who views life as more than mere survival on desert terrain and, instead, unrolls an oversized blanket on a rich, varied and textured terrain generous with rose-smelling opportunities.

No doubt about it. We spent a lot of time in the mud hole: bickering, arguing and sometimes having a knock-down, drag-out fight. We landed in plenty of fox holes, too, where our prayers were “God Help!” Succinct ones, but as fervent as the long, formal prayers.

Seventeen years later, and I darn well know that if given the chance for a replacement brother or you, there is no doubt to the one I would choose. I attribute my choice to you. Buried under a mountain of hurt, you were one of the greatest men I’ve ever known. Not because you were handsome, strong, generous, compassionate, highly intuitive and intelligent and a war hero to boot, but because you knew that everything, no matter how utterly defective, stained, sinned or doomed, could root, grow and live under one condition: that it is planted in a bedrock of unconditional love.

Thank you for leaving me this bedrock of a legacy. To allow myself to be vulnerable, trust and carry the message tirelessly to those who suffer and those who need strength. Most of all, thanks for being my Angel Michael, right next to Archangel Michael, as I trudge this road of happy destiny.

Dear Big Brother, I hope I see you someday. Feel your arms around me again and see the twinkle in your eyes when you gently whisper, “Peace.”

Faith Muscle

Mundane Mondays

Photo by Max Vakhtbovych on Pexels.com

Twenty years ago on March 8th, the towering rustic pine did not diminish my brother’s six-foot tallness underneath it. Alongside Mike, the sunshine glistened on the natural cork color of his Labrador mix, KO. The initials stood for “knockout.” In boxing, “a knockout (KO) is when a boxer stays down for a count to 10 from the referee, at which point the boxer loses the match to his opponent.” My brother borrowed the initials to name his dog, but they stood for a different kind of “knockout” — extremely attractive, striking, beautiful.

The tree on my property that framed KO and my brother together for the last time before my brother was gone did not weather the harsh winters and was beyond repair. I delayed the inevitable yard work for five years. Last spring, I finally hired tree removal professionals. I avoided watching the process and sought refuge in the kitchen on the other side of the house.

“Crack! Thump!” The fierce sounds cut through my iPod’s blaring music. After the tree fell and pounded its finale into the good earth, I stopped the music and soaked in the silence. In the sunlight’s stream of dancing dust particles, stillness, sadness, the mundane morning movement of the kitchen intermingled with the refrigerator’s hum. The digital clock’s glow. The overhead light’s buzzing whisper.

Two decades earlier on that ordinary Friday, March 8th, I walked into my kitchen. KO greeted me with an electrified wagging tale and slobbering mouth. Mike, bent in the corner, tinkered with the electrical socket. It was my brother’s modus operandi to drop by and randomly “fix” things. Many of the things he fixed, in fact, didn’t need fixing. A natural-born engineer, he loved to repair, rewire and rework household gadgets.

This time, like a kid opening a bag of early Easter chocolate eggs, rainbow-colored jellybeans and marshmallow Peeps, he beamed when he revealed a handful of brand-new gadgets.

“Wireless phone jacks! They go right into the power outlets. You just plug them in and you can have phones in every room now!” he explained.

Mike sounded as if he had just discovered a new cluster of stars in the galaxy, and I did not have the heart to tell him we didn’t need phones in every room nor did we have the money to purchase them.

As the afternoon waned, we roamed through the rooms testing the wireless jacks one final time. He promised me he would return with additional ones. I followed him and KO outdoors.  

We were both raised Catholic. We never discussed religion, but for some strange reason I asked him if he had gone to confession during lent. Catholics are required to receive the sacrament of reconciliation or confession once a year and lent is “an especially penitential season.”

“No,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone as if he were reminding me that it was just another Friday afternoon. Suddenly, I realized he had not been a practicing Catholic for decades. He had escaped our Catholic upbringing without the slightest indication of guilt, remorse, regret or fret. He was who he was, an independent person who was not influenced by anyone or anything. I admired him for that, and that is when the pine tree framed him and KO permanently in my mind.

Two days later in my kitchen, poring over my Market Day order that I picked up at the children’s elementary school, Brother Paul called from my mother’s house. I heard her cries in the background. He broke the news calmly, “Mike’s in the hospital. He had a stroke.”

“Stroke? No way.”

We were about to enjoy a microwaved casserole with vegetables, a seamless dinner without guesswork or prep time that night. Counters clean. Floor washed. How could I have received this shocking news? Day after day, week after week, year after year, I made it a point to fold my family into the safety of complete calm of mundane Mondays.

I got off the phone while my emotions melted like the frozen dinner left on the spotless counter. In the children’s bathroom, I retrieved the TUMS bottle that Mike had left behind on his last visit. My brother suffered from acid reflux all his life and always carried TUMS.

“He’ll be back. He needs his TUMS.” I pep talked myself until March 18 in 2002, when I learned of his death at the veteran’s hospital. Sixteen months after losing our dad to emphysema, I intercepted my brother and mom at the hospital’s elevator, forced to break the unbearable news.

Since 2000, after my dad died, my family’s fate is a permanent eclipse season.

TUMS, phone jacks, easy-to-prepare frozen dinners, no matter how tidy things are, even on spring’s cusp, I cannot shake death’s dirt off my heels. The images of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine brings the reality front and center, an attempt to dissimilate mundane Monday’s electrical circuit.

Fortunately, it isn’t a total solar eclipse. In the remaining light, faith illuminates our path. We reckon with our fate, one that is without a clear sense of control or direction. We muster enough strength to limp along on unsteady feet, consume the quiet circumfluent air, dependable light bulbs overhead.

Faith Muscle

Ghost of Kyiv UNCOVERED

Ukraine flag photo created by natanaelginting – http://www.freepik.com

My father grasped a plastic bag in his dry, reddened, calloused hands, a mirror of the good earth that he loved to work on. During our frequent train trips to the East Village, a part of Greenwich Village in New York City, my dad’s blank face pointed one way: forward.

“Come on!” he commanded in his broken English when we arrived at the station, finally breaking the silence after the nearly two-hour ride. He grabbed his other half-dozen or so bags and boxes in the train’s overhead compartment and slid some over one arm and the rest over his other arm.

He ricocheted across Grand Central Station. My short, young legs fell farther and farther behind. He streamed outside, squeezing through the crowd on Lexington Avenue and hailed a cab. By the time I caught up, I could see the cab driver’s face as he veered towards the sidewalk. The driver parked, and we got in.

The cab snaked through the city streets to a retail clothes store on Second Avenue. Inside, the shiny skinned, Russian-Jewish shop owner, with his one lazy eye, mildly greeted us. My father hoisted his items on the counter for him to inspect every inch of the clothes, shoes, socks, purses and scarves, so many scarves, that my dad and mom had collected for my dad’s mom and the rest of his family in Lviv, Ukraine.

My dad, who was fluent in French and a number of Slavic languages, spoke to the man in Russian. I didn’t comprehend many of the words, but I detected a stiffness in my dad’s tone. At last the store owner approved my family’s goods to be shipped to Ukraine (and I believe he always did), and began packing everything into a large parcel. My father cracked the first smile of the day, retrieved his faded cowhide wallet from his pocket and enthusiastically purchased about a half dozen extra scarves to add to the package. In addition, he also handed him an envelope addressed to my relatives to also enclose. After that, the store owner copied the mailing address from a tattered, folded up piece of paper that my dad kept in his wallet and finished preparing the package for shipment to Ukraine. At the end of the exchange, my dad paid for the scarves, postal fees and services.

Once the door closed behind us, back outside my dad always said the same two phrases and nothing else, “Hope it goes through. Damn communists.”

He bought me a hot sweet potato from a street vendor down the block and refrained from spending any money on a treat for himself. His steps were lighter and easier for me to follow as we walked partially back to Grand Central Station before hailing another cab.

My dad passed away in December of 2000. Since the attack on Ukraine by the Russians last Thursday, I find myself remembering so many things about the man whose legacy of action outweighed any of his promises, because, in fact, I don’t ever remember him promising anything. He lived his motto: promise low, deliver high.

I am relieved that my dad is not alive to watch the atrocities and devastation in his beloved homeland. I don’t think the Ghost of Kyiv, an anonymous fighter pilot who is said to shoot down Russian planes, is just an urban legend. I think it is my reincarnated dad doing all he ever did, being his real self and fighting for freedom, family, country and tradition.

I was a first-generation American who spent most of my childhood playing and riding my bicycle in my affluent, white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant neighborhood in Connecticut. Days were rare when my dad didn’t stand outside on the porch and echo, “Nastuna!”

The name, as far as I can figure out, was a child-like rendition of my actual name, Anastasia.

I furiously pedaled home and begged him to shush. He yelled it louder and started throwing out a few other choice Ukrainian expletives that intercepted his usual lecture about loyalty, heritage and truth and made sure everyone in earshot could hear his Ukrainian words mixed in with English ones. I didn’t dare cup my hands over my ears. Apart from a few isolated minor strikes on my rear, my father did not employ corporeal punishment, at least not on me, the only daughter in the family. In spite of that fact, I still held an innate fear of my father.

My dad exasperated the bullying situation, and the neighborhood kids snickered and laughed and instead of calling me “Anastasia,” they mocked my father and called me “Petunia.”

I never lived down the foreignness of my dad even after the second grade teacher took it upon herself to change my name to “Stacy.” (That’s another story for another blog.)

I never was able to purchase a pack of petunias without my heart beating inside my eardrums until I was around forty years old.

My dad, on the other hand, rose above the element of exclusion that followed us as well as many other first-born Americans of foreign parents.

“Ehhh. I’ll outlive them all,” my dad insisted.

And in the end he did. He lived to be 86.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s and even into the 1990s and after, oddly, Americans weren’t familiar with Ukraine. My mother, who was born in Belarus but adopted my dad’s family heritage, advised me just to tell my first grade class that my family was from Germany. Everyone, of course, knew about Germany. I even wrote a paper about my family’s “native” country of Germany. The idea of “coming from Germany” wasn’t totally inaccurate because my parents were “displaced people,” refugees,  without a country for about seven years, after they lost their homes to the Nazis before they immigrated to America. My mom and dad met and married and birthed my two older brothers in Germany.

After working a number of jobs while learning the language, he met Peter Martini, a first-generation American from Italian roots, who owned a septic cleaning business. He gifted my dad with the best thing you could ever give someone: a future. He taught him everything there was about septic systems.  My father, in fact, asked Mr. Martini to be my Godfather, and Mr. Martini obliged. Because of his generosity, my dad landed a job at the town’s sewerage treatment plant and worked there until he retired.

My dad was the most predictable man on earth and never missed pulling down our driveway after work at 4:08 p.m. When he stepped inside our house, it was one of the few times he wasn’t his stoic self, because he had a smile as wide as his face.

His lips were sealed with gratitude. In my dad’s book, if you worked hard and did the right thing, you were a good person. Simple as that.

Years later, I learned from one of my dad’s former co-workers that my dad’s boss sent my dad to investigate any underground sewer gas leaks or other toxic sewer systems emergencies. Long before organizations like OSHA appeared with safety measure implementations, my Ukrainian-American dad’s “alien” status ranked him as the low man on the totem pole, and, thereby, he was the scapegoat of the department and was the one to have his life jeopardized by fixing hazardous sites.

A WWII war refugee, my dad never went beyond grade school, but to this day, he is the smartest man I’ve ever known and I am quite certain, he knew he risked his life during those toxic emergencies. Leave it to “pops,” he did it fearlessly, honorably and humbly because he was also the most loyal man I’ve ever known. He did it for his family and those he loved.

He was a man of pride. I think one of his proudest moments was when he learned the man who took over his job after he retired held a degree in engineering.

Over the years, my Ukrainian father never stopped correcting people who insisted he was from Russia. He would grow frustrated, saying, “One day, they will know. The world will know about Ukraine and its people.”

“Today,” I wish I could tell my father that the world knows. THEY KNOW! In the eye of evil and calculated, intentional injustice and genocide of the Ukrainian people, the nation without divide of class or jurisdiction – former beauty queen alongside 80-year-olds – has entered the ring to fight against the evil dictator, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his consort of dark angels.

As horrified as I am witnessing the destructive path of one man, I am honored by my dad’s Ukrainian roots.

I am lifted up by the humanitarian efforts of people across the globe and the people in my own tribe, including Kathy, an old-time friend whom I’d lost touch with over these last few years, asked me over the phone: “What can I do?”

I intended to write about how the developing news of this loss since last Thursday magnifies other losses, and, yes, we do have family still in Ukraine. Instead, I ended up writing about my dad, because so many times when I am lower than low, he is my ghost pilot that lifts me up and gives me faith like no other: “Get up and do what you’re suppose to do. I don’t care you hurt.”

So, thanks to the legacy of this mighty oak of a man, I am proud to report that I am organizing a Stand with Ukraine rally on March 5th….. and invite my blogging community to join me IN PERSON if you can — and certainly in spirit!