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Every Christmas Ruby returns, crowing about her accomplishments. This time it’s a relationship: she says she’s dating an Ecuadorian pearl diver whose family owns a ski resort on the Pyrenees.

I am skeptical as these details emerge, then become envious as the pictures on her phone seem to confirm her story: her-and-him selfies in black, slick wet suits on a beach, in dark goggles; then snow gear in front of a whitened landscape.

Ruby needs to contrast herself with me and mom and our plebeian lives. Mom tends to our Alzheimer’s-consumed father, a six-foot tall baby of a man who needs regular diaper changes and very soft food and so many medications. I’m a single mom of two preschool kids; my husband left me last year for someone shinier.

Ruby says we should come to her boyfriend’s home in Spain this summer to celebrate the culmination of her doctoral program in economics and the job she will probably get as a result of her current internship. As soon as she extends the invitation, she stuffs a forkful of ham in her mouth and chews. Because, what can she say? She knows it will not, cannot happen. Mom and I are too busy climbing our own mountains to ski down them just yet.

(Story built around three randomly chosen words:
returns, crowing, betterment)

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Value Village

This story takes place and was written around 1993 or 1994.

My sister worked at a Value Village on Martin Luther King Jr way, a long bus-ride from the U-district where we lived as roommates. She would get off work around ten o’clock or so when it was dark and not so safe to be walking to the bus stop. When I felt like it, I would ride a bus down and wait for her as she got ready to go home so I could keep her (and me) company.

I liked that time we spent talking and people-watching. The night had a way of emphasizing humans. In the dark, there were fewer sights to busy the mind. Night purified the scenery – no blades of grass or light bouncing off yellowing leaves, no individual bricks or building details. All background was muted until only the foreground of mankind stood out.

That evening I walked through the mid-summer dusk of the parking lot to see thrift-shop heaven shining before me, a large store with an all-window front. All the lights were on inside. I saw the manager, Jim, locking the door and my sister and her fellow workers at their respective cash registers counting out their tills.

As I neared the window, I appreciated all the colors of the many racks of clothes, an organized rainbow of other people’s throwaways turned profitable. Maki saw me as I pressed my nose up to the glass and breathed fish-faces onto the window. She smiled and held up all the fingers of her hands: “ten minutes”, I saw her lips say. I nodded and walked away from the window, deeply breathing in the fresh night air, very appreciative after a long day of being indoors.

Seconds after I had sat down on a crumbling concrete wheel stop a few feet away, I heard screeching tires, and I turned to see headlights speeding in my direction. They turned into the lot and stopped feet away from me and as near to the door as the car could get without driving onto the small sidewalk in front of the building.

The car door flung open, and a man jumped out, slamming the door and running to the locked doors of the glass castle. Jiggling the door back and forth and having no luck opening it, he pounded on the glass with his fist.

“Open up!” he shouted.

“We’re closed,” said Jim from the other side of the glass.

“But you’re not supposed to be closed yet!”

“We close at ten.”

“It’s five till!” The man pointed aggressively at his watch.

“Our clock says ten. I’m sorry sir,” Jim offered with a polite little smile and shrug.

“Oh come on!” the man persisted. “I came all the way from Renton. I know exactly what I want. I’ll be 5 minutes tops!”

“I’m sorry sir,” Jim repeated. “I can’t let you in. We’re emptying the cash registers and getting ready to leave. We’re open tomorrow from ten to six.”

“Oh come on! Shit!” he shouted, banging on the window. He walked away, kicking at the ground and flinging his hands in the air, his whole body animated by anger. He grumbled expletives to himself and wandered a ways into the parking lot. Then he turned back to the window, following Jim as he walked along the row of cash registers.

CLATTER CLATTER – the glass rattle as he pounded on it, startling those inside.

“Come on man! I’ll be two minutes! I promise!”

By now Jim’s polite face had become more stony. “Sir, we are closed. I cannot let you in now. You’ll have to come back later.”

“GodDAMN it!” he shouted, throwing his fists at the glass. “What kind of customer service is this, huh? A few lousy minutes of your time – what the hell is wrong with you? Fuck!” He threw in some kicks to the glass for variety and cursed and swore his point to oblivion.

For a full minute, those inside ignored the continuing shouts, curses, and glass-pounding and kicking as they finished up their business. Soon three cashiers in their red Value Village aprons carried their black boxes of money to the back room. Jim followed them, but was pulled back by, “Come back here, you asshole! What’s your name? I’m gonna report you on this you sonofabitch! Your supervisor’s gonna hear about this!”

Jim pointed to his name badge, said his full name, and spelled it all out, including “J, I, M.” He then stoically walked away as the man cursed at him and threw punches at the glass. Jim turned off most of the lights and followed the cashiers through a door and out of sight. The angry man finally stomped to his car, furious, and drove off as speedily as he had come.

I sat on the wheel stop in awe.

The dimmed glass fortress loomed before me. Traffic hummed low in the background. The stars, what few I could see with the lights of Seattle to the north, were still there, unchanged in the crisp, cool air. The beaten-on glass looked as solid as ever. Doubtless, seven people inside were talking about their irate visitor, but outside it was quiet and still, as if the man had never been there.

Throughout the whole episode I had watched with mouth open, amazed that a person would even consider being that belligerent. I couldn’t imagine what made him think that purchasing a pre-owned castoff, or even something brand new, was that important to his life. What could he possibly be needing that badly, and why?

I imagined some possible scenarios. Maybe he was getting married the next day and desparately needed a white shirt. Or maybe he would be starting a new job and had to have black pants but couldn’t afford new ones since he didn’t have a paycheck yet. Why hadn’t he elaborated on his woes, tried to garner up some sympathy? I fantasized that a buddy of his had planted some drugs in the pocket of a specific jacket, and he had to get them that night.

More likely, it was not drugs that led him to be so crazy, but self-addiction, that mind mode we humans slip into when imagining one’s personal life is the crux of existence. This ant man in jumbles of cement and space and noise and stars and universal silence and planetary movement had tricked himself into thinking his silly screams meant something, were threatening in the face of so many, so much, and so little. He respected or feared order and laws enough not to break through the glass, but thought a tantrum might bring Powers to respect him and change for his “needs”.

I wondered if God and those souls who had passed on to the next world looked at us with astonishment as we flailed in our narrow circumstances without realizing the order, the reason, the love all around us. Did they pity us when we inflated little things to  mind-numbing importance? I hoped in a little prayer that I could watch life thoroughly and patiently and not drive away in a huff of selfish anger.

It wasn’t long before a few people filtered out of the employee side-door. I smiled at them, and Maki came out.

“Hey Syd,” she greeted me. She said goodbye to those getting into their cars, and we walked to the bus stop.

“So,” she said, “What’d you think of that guy?”

I shook my head, eyes wide. “Wow!” I said. My mouth stayed open as I tried to find words but finally uttered, “I don’t know what to say.”

Maki smiled and nodded knowingly. “I thought you’d be getting some sort of spiritual experience out of the whole thing.”

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Truth to Power

Dear Power,

I can’t help but notice that out relationship has been strained lately. We used to be such good friends. And, we were very effective co-workers, complementing each other’s skill sets. Remember when people combined our names to call us “The Tower”? It struck me as an apt metaphor: tower as vantage point for clearly seeing a situation, as well as a great place to speak and motivate the multitudes.

What happened to us? How did we become enemies?

You told me once that I was trying to deprive you of your influence. But that’s exactly what I thought about you. I felt belittled by you, and it looked to me that, instead of bringing the team together for a common goal, you were choosing goals that benefit you the most. Resentful, I became dismissive of feelings for the sake of facts, and people started ignoring me because I was so unpleasant. 

After awhile, I realized that without you, I’m a bunch of knowledge going nowhere. And without me, you still go places, but they’re odd, confusing places, and only you seem to know the reasons for being there.

I think everyone would benefit if we started to work together again. I’m not suggesting a compromise, but a promise – that we will consult each other in order to do what’s best for everyone. 

So, what do you say to getting “The Tower” back in action? Maybe we can talk about it over lunch. My treat!

I’ve missed you. I sincerely hope we can work together again soon.

Your friend,


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Son of God

The son of God sat on his couch eating cookies. They were organic, gluten-free ginger cookies, supposedly good for digestion (though maybe not if you ate the whole 16 ounce bag), but any reference to health food was just a coincidence. It was just the bag he happened to grab when he stopped by the grocery store on his way home from work.

Rob (the son of God) had been serving dinner to residents of the Golden Years Retirement Home. As a team of four servers, one cook, and one dishwasher, they were an efficient machine. But better than a machine – a machine with a soul.  Rob was the oldest one in the kitchen, a 40-year-old surrounded by kids in their 20’s. He had recently become divorced from his wife of 20 years and his 21-year-old daughter had taken the side of her mother. Sides. He barely understood the concept. At least in marriage. They were all supposed to be on the same side, weren’t they? The family side?

Rob didn’t understand why Emma, his wife, had become so unhappy with him. He loved her faithfully and provided for her… although the providing had diminished considerably with the tanking of the economy. When Rob’s construction business went bankrupt, he’d found the quickest job he could get. His extensive college experience as a waiter and the fact that he had built a house for the Retirement Home’s director (Rob had given the couple a maple sapling as a housewarming gift) landed him a minimum wage gig that he thought was better than nothing. Emma, however, only accused him of being too lazy to find a better job, or to make the construction business work no matter what. One month into his server job, Rob felt happier than he ever had. And his wife felt worse. She filed divorce papers and moved to an apartment home close to their daughter’s college campus.

Since Rob couldn’t afford the mortgage for their home, and it didn’t sell quickly enough, the house went into foreclosure, and Rob moved into a small apartment on the bottom floor of an 8-unit box of a building. There were three floors, with three apartments on each except for the ground floor level. There, where the ninth unit would have been, there was a laundry facility (two washers, two dryers) and a small office space surrounded by slightly faded, multi-colored cloth flowers in plastic pots. There the 65-year-old landlady, Selma, sat three days a week while her 23-year-old son Walter, who had Down’s syndrome, took out the garbage and mowed the strip of grass that ran around the place. Rob always brought in his rent check a day or two early, and chatted and worked with Walter in the yard when he could.

Rob was surprised by his happiness at the Golden Year’s Home. It reminded him of the pride he felt when he built homes for other people. But this was more potent, intense. In construction he only imagined how much people appreciated their new house, how they turned it into a home. But at golden Years, he was right there in the home/community that he was continually helping to build. When the Connor’s praised the beef stew, sending compliments of tender meat to Carla, the cook, Rob felt pride and happiness and love, which he passed right along.

“They say the beef was really tender tonight Carla. Did you something different?”

And when Carla told him, smiling (slow cook at a low heat – my Mom suggested it!), Rob felt happy to be part of something bigger than just one family at a time. Never mind the almost-as-many complaints about the beef. He said nothing of those to Carla, figuring most of those were due to bad teeth or old dental work anyway. Instead, he smoothed over most of complaints right at the table.

“This meat is tough as leather,” Tom Mason would often complain to Rob. Since Rob knew Tom would be embarrassed to have someone stand over him and cut the meat on his plate, Rob went over to his wife’s plate instead.

“Sorry about that Tom,” Rob would say. “Here Betty, let me cut that up for you.”

When Rob was almost done, Tom would frown, slide his plate over to Rob and say, “While you’re at it anyway….” Rob would then quickly cut up his meat while talking about whatever sport was in season, and then all was well.

After months of upheaval – bankruptcy, divorce, learning a new job – Rob was finally feeling like he belonged somewhere again, settled into a routine. And then this whole son of God thing came and threw him off balance.

He first became aware of his…”lineage”, if you will, the previous Saturday, when he received a phone call. He had been sleeping and dreaming about something he couldn’t remember but which had left him feeling confused, though not unhappy, when the phone rang. It was only six o’clock in the morning, and too early for any intelligent solicitor to think he’d drum up any business waking up someone on a sleep-in day. So he was sure it was something urgent – maybe his daughter was in a car accident, or his brother was in jail after another Friday night wild party. Maybe his mother, on the East coast and three hours ahead, had just forgotten the time difference, but that was unlikely. Maybe she was sick? Or she fell? He reached out from under the bed covers and grabbed the phone, concerned and a little groggy.


An unfamiliar female voice, smooth and pleasant, greeted him over the line.

“Robert Coppersmith?”


“You are the son of God,” she said. “Have a pleasant day.”

There was a click of the other end of the phone hanging up. Rob put the phone down and lay on his back, wondering about the call. Then he fell back to sleep.

When Rob awoke again around 10:30am, the memory of the phone call was so faint as to have been a dream. He let himself wake up and relax a little before he went to the bathroom, thinking of the phone call while he peed, his eyes closed, his aim accurate only from muscle memory.

While washing his hands in the bathroom sink, now convinced the phone call had been an amusing dream, the phone rang. For real this time. When he grabbed the receiver and held it to his ear, he hadn’t even been able to get out a “Hello” before he heard the same female voice from the previous call say, “It’s true, Rob. You are the son of God.” Click.

Rob was peeved at that point, but not too concerned. It was obviously some kind of prank. Teenage kids having a laugh. He pressed some buttons on the phone screen and found, “Unlisted”. Of course.

That day Rob did his laundry, answered some e-mails, then called his Mom and his daughter. Since it was sunny out, Rob went for a walk to the neighborhood convenience store and bought some soda he then delivered to his next door neighbor, Paul, an elderly gentleman confined to a wheelchair. Rob made himself a peanut butter sandwich around 2pm, then walked to the library to read Architecture Weekly (which he couldn’t afford to subscribe to). Around 5:00,  he walked to Wendy’s, ordered his usual, flirted with his favorite waitress, ate his baked potato (with extra bacon) and went home.

It was only as Rob was falling asleep that he remembered the female voice telling him he was the son of God, and he chuckled a little as he drifted off.

Rob probably would have forgotten about Saturday’s phone calls if not for the strange coincidences over the following week.Monday during the lunch rush, with servers moving quickly in and out of the kitchen double doors, Rob heard a loud crash and tinkle of breaking dishes preceding the sound of Jose the dishwasher’s voice shouting, “Son of God!” At least that’s what Rob thought he heard. Sometimes it was hard to hear things well in the constantly noisy kitchen, with the big fan mounted to the ceiling whirring loudly, the noisy swashes and clacks of the dishwashing machine, servers shouting their orders, the fryer bubbling, and the radio playing in the background. He’d never heard Jose say that phrase before. And then the cook, Carla, said in a faux-serious tone, “Watch your language, Jose. Nothing offensive against women please. I happen to be one of those.” The teenage servers laughed while Rob questioned his hearing (and maybe his sanity) but had no time to dwell on the incident.

Tuesday, Nonni, a 16-year-old server whose favorite artist and role model is Rhianna, turned on the radio to blast a very loud song into the air with the mid-tune lyric, “You are, oh oh, the Son of God.” Then he heard the static fuzz of moving through stations as Nonni fiddled with the knob, calling out loud accusingly, “Who had this on a Christian station? At full volume!” A hip hop tune soon replaced the other song, and Rob could only wonder about it as he made an industrial-sized pot of coffee.

Wednesday, Rob didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary and thought maybe he was in the clear. But Thursday, when he picked up his mail from the metal mailboxes outside the laundry room, there was a pamphlet on top of the pile that said, “The Son of God is here.”

The kicker, though, happened right before Rob popped into the store for cookies. It was Friday night, and he was driving home, appreciating the mid-July long evening, still bright at 7:30pm, when he looked up in the sky and saw the clouds moving in odd, multiple directions, coming together, pulling apart, forming unusual shapes. Then he read, miles above him in diffuse bands of white against bright sky blue, the words “You are”. The clouds shifted again, blurring up the words, then moving as before to form different words. He had to concentrate on paying attention to the freeway, but also had to keep looking skyward, pretty sure of what he would see. And then, there it was. “The son of God.”

That was the last straw. He was a little upset at that point. Not as much as a person might expect, since Rob was fairly rational about most things, and he felt he just needed a little time to think things through before he panicked. He was definitely uncomfortable though. He looked around to see if anyone else in their speeding metal boxes had seen what he had seen in the sky just seconds before it diffused itself into an indistinguishable band of condensation, like an hours-old, widened out contrail. But no one seemed to be paying attention to the sky. They were all in their own little worlds, oblivious.

Rob decided he needed thinking food. At the store, he stood in the quickie checkout lane (5 items or less) and plopped his carton of iced tea powder and bag of cookies onto the black conveyer belt behind a woman with a crying baby in her cart. He began a game of peek-a-boo with the little girl, hiding behind his hands, then revealing a happy face with a gentle “boo!” Soon the baby was happy again, and the Mom thanked Rob, kissed her child on the forehead, and wheeled off toward the automatic doors. Rob had turned to face the gum rack on his right side, when he heard behind him, “Hi, Rob!” Curious, Rob turned around to see the face of a cashier he had never met before.

“Oh!” she said. “I’m sorry! I thought you were someone else.”

“My name is Rob, though,” he said.

“Wow. Really? Strange coincidence.”

But it felt like more than that to Rob. He made himself smile at the cashier, whose face had turned a light shade of red. Then he gathered his change from the coin-dispenser box’s receptor cup, and he grabbed his bag and left.

At home, TV on, but not registering in his mind, Rob drank iced tea and munched on cookies while he considered the options. They boiled down to two basic possibilities:

  1. He was crazy.
  2. He was the son of God.

Exploring the first option, he thought that yes, he could be crazy. It was the lead option, in fact. He wiped crumbs from the 5 o’clock shadow of his white, bristly chin. He had gone gray early, like his father, but hadn’t died young like him. Rob had been 10 when his Dad died at the age of 35. Heart attack. High blood pressure.

Who knows, thought Rob – maybe Dad would have gone crazy if he’d lived longer. If I have his early gray hair, maybe I have some gene of his that causes a person to go nuts in their 40’s, to start seeing things that aren’t there. To have delusions of grandeur.

Except Rob didn’t truly consider being the “son of God” a grand honor. Grand, yes. But honor? For one thing, God created all of humanity, so we were all technically his sons and daughters. Rob believed that Jesus Christ was definitely a special son of God, like that favorite child a parent isn’t supposed to have but just does because the kid is so undeniably awesome.

Rob remembered loving his daughter Lila so much that he thought if he ever had another kid, he would be that kind of terrible father with a favorite child. Everything Lila did was so amazing and wonderful. Even her “terrible two” tantrums made him ridiculously proud.

One day when Lila was screaming and crying with particular vigor, Rob said to his wife, “Listen to the pipes on that kid! Really! I think there’s some great singing potential there!” His wife had just glared at him, looking for signs of sarcasm. When she found none she turned away, saying something about how her ears hurt.

Rob thought now that he probably would have loved a second child just as much, but not in the same way, because every child is different. And maybe that’s the kind of favorite child Jesus was. God didn’t necessarily love him more, just differently? Especially given his great capacity for spiritual insight? But look what Jesus got for having all that capacity. He got to do all the difficult tasks. Turn these tradesmen into full-time spiritual teachers. Become an enemy of the state. Get tortured and killed in the most public and humiliating way. It didn’t seem like a very “grand” state of being.

And from that perspective, thinking oneself to be akin to Christ could be considered a death wish more than a delusion of grandeur.

Rob reached his hand into the crinkly cookie bag and touched crumbs. He shook his head. He had eaten the whole bag. He should have known that would happen, that he would get to thinking and then not realize how much he’d eaten.

Rob lay back on the couch, his stomach not feeling entirely well, and rested his head on a pillow. He looked up. The probably asbestos-filled “popcorn” covering the ceiling did not form itself into any cryptic messages. The TV background noise didn’t coagulate into anything other than the low-volume garble of a random sit com. He felt no different than before this son of God stuff started. No paranoia, no manic compulsions, no strange-reality convictions. Of course, if he did have these symptoms, he knew he wouldn’t be the best judge of whether or not he had them. But still, he didn’t feel anything different or wrong. And he’d been looking at how people reacted to him. Nothing unusual that he could see. Same smiles from those who liked him, non-smiles from those who didn’t like him or didn’t care about him at all.

Then there was the next reality check, the point that, in his mind, he was nothing special. He wasn’t a bad person, but he wasn’t really exceptional at anything. He was kind enough to people, but didn’t take shit from them either. He’d never cheated on his wife, officially, but right after she’d left him, he’d had a couple of flings. He never went to church (disappointing his mother greatly), and he never prayed….

Well, that last part may not be true, he thought. There were times when he felt something so strongly that he wondered if it was a prayer. Just tonight, driving home from work (before the cloud incident) he had put down the driver side sun shade to protect his eyes from westward-driving glare, when a smile washed itself all over and through him. Even though it didn’t form into words or even specific thoughts, if he’d had to translate the feeling into words, he would have said he felt appreciation for whomever created this place, a planet with an ever-present, long-lasting energy source. As a home-builder, he appreciated earth as the ultimate home made by a master builder, full of practical necessities for survival, and many esthetically pleasing features to feed the soul. He knew he loved God and would serve this force however he could.

Rob decided to try praying more formally, so he sat up a little on his couch and remembered the prayer his mother had taught him when he was young.

“Our Father, who art in heaven,” Rob said aloud.

Father. Like any good dad, the creator left a lot of stuff up to us, gave us all the raw materials, both outer and inner, to follow in our Dad’s creating footsteps.

“Hallowed be thy name.”

What did “hallowed” mean, exactly? Special? Sacred? And what about God’s name?

Rob remembered when Lila, first learning to talk, had called him Robert for awhile because Emma called him that when she was angry. She must have been angry a lot back then. But if Lila had been around his mother (her grandmother) more often, she might have called him Bobby. Around his brother (her uncle) she may have learned to call him “Dork”. Around his construction employees, Boss. But eventually, Lila learned the name that encompassed all of what he wanted to be for her. “Dad.”

God had many names, many roles, many qualities. But to us, all of us, he was Dad. Rob believed this strongly, and the thought of having a father so literally awesome filled him with that same warmth of appreciation he had felt on the drive home and many times before that. He continued his prayer.

“Thy Kingdom come…”

How wonderful it would be to get a blueprint from God, the ultimate architect, and to build that vision. What would it look like? What people would come together? Who would interact? What alliances would form? What would God’s kingdom look like? Are we getting any closer? Rob smiled at the possibilities.

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Wouldn’t that be amazing to be able to do God’s will. And we must be able to, since God wouldn’t ask us to accomplish anything beyond our abilities. Good dads didn’t do that to their kids. Good dads helped increase their kids’ abilities, little by little.

Rob felt compelled to add to the prayer that Jesus had outlined. He rested his forearms on his knees and closed his eyes.

“Dear God,” he said, as naturally as if he’d been talking to God for years, which, he surmised, maybe he had been. After all, if people could communicate with body language, why not mind language or spirit language. Rob was sure God was fluent in all of those.

“Thanks for everything,” he continued. “Life is really awesome stuff.” Okay. Not too sophisticated, he thought, but you have to crawl before you can walk.

“If you really want me to know I’m a son of God or the son of God – I mean I don’t think I’d ever replace Jesus Christ or anything….” Hmmm. Start over. “Okay. I’ve been seeing these messages I’m sure you’re aware of. And you know if they are from you or not. So, if these messages about being the son of God are from you….” He paused. “And if they are from you to me, and I’m not accidentally intercepting them when they’ve been meant for someone else this whole time…. If you really are telling me I’m the son of God, I’m gonna need a little more instructions along that line. I mean, as far as what I’m specifically supposed to do about that.” He felt very weird even considering that these messages were real, were from God, that he could possibly be the son of God, whatever that really meant. Because seriously, it could be a pretty messed up presumption. Fodder for becoming an egomaniac.

Then again, if these really were messages from God, creator of the universe, Father of all, Rob imagined there could be some pretty heavy consequences for not taking the messages seriously. And probably the worst consequence would be eventually finding out that you had disappointed God, that you were one of God’s favorite kids, and you let him down. That would be the worst. Rob had hated it when his own Dad was disappointed in him. And it would be infinitely worse coming from the ultimate Dad, whom you admired and appreciated down to your molecules, who didn’t just give you life, but gave you Life – all of it, everything up to planets and down to atoms. Just knowing you didn’t do all you could would be awful. Plus, at least some writings affirmed that God had a temper, so consequences could go beyond guilt.

Rob sighed and opened his eyes. He grabbed the remote and clicked off the TV. Instinctively, he looked upwards toward the five-winged ceiling fan/light fixture swirling above the center of the room.

“Dear God, if you do give me any more messages, could you please make them a little more subtle? I know that could make them harder to interpret, but I don’t think I’ll trust myself if I see any more messages in clouds.”

Rob closed his eyes again, satisfied that he’d done his best, hoping he wasn’t crazy, pretty sure that he wasn’t. And he breathed deeply. Happy.

A loud, repeating thump jerked his eyes open. He looked to his right, where the sound had come from, and saw his landlady’s son Walter staring though the closed window, his already fairly flat nose squished further with its pressure against the glass.

“Rob!” he shouted through the glass. “You in there?”

Rob smiled, suppressing the urge to shake his head lest it be misinterpreted as a “no”.

“I’m in here, buddy. What’s up?”

Walter smiled. “Mow da lawn!”

“You’re mowing the lawn, huh? Hey, can I help?”

Walter nodded his head enthusiastically.

“Allright! But I call weed whacking,” he said, picking the job he knew Walter liked the least. Walter smiled so big his eyes barely had room to stay open.

“Come on, Rob!” He jumped up laughing and ran off out of sight. Rob chuckled and got up to change into yardwork clothes.

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Inspired by a Margaret Atwood Masterclass assignment:
Choose a scene and write about it from three different perspectives

1. Amelia Murphy

I didn’t notice at first – not consciously. I knew something was off, though.

I had gone to the mailbox, intending to hurry back inside, given my attire of sweatpants and a bathrobe. But on the way back, I stopped and stood, staring intently at my front lawn. What was different?

My first thought was that someone had stolen one of my lawn gnomes. But after a thorough walk-through of the yard, I could see that all 60 of them were there, each in their one-foot tall, multi-colored, and mostly bearded glory.

But they were all in different places. And places that didn’t make sense!

For example, Ukelele George, instead of sitting in the evergreen huckleberry, lay on his back in the rose garden, serenading the red and pink blossoms. Ferdinand, with the watering can, no longer slaked the thirst of the miniature daisies to the left of the doorway path, but instead stood on a log and poured water into the mouth of Daydreamer Doug, whose head tilted up to the heavens, mouth slightlty open in wonder. And on and on – incongruence everywhere.

I was angry, at first, knowing that someone had come into my yard without permission. I was sad, too, remembering how I had deliberately placed each gnome in my yard, adding a new one every year on my birthday as a present to myself. Once I got a gnome settled, there it stayed. I could remember parts of my life by gnome. Jiminy Joe had been the first, acquired the year I bought the house with my husband. My second gnome, Sally Sue, joined Jiminy the year I got divorced. After that, most of the gnomes have been reminders of what president was in office, promotions at work, etc. And now that I’m retired and in my 80’s, the gnomes have helped trigger some of my fading memories.

Whoever had come into my yard had not only violated my space, but also my memories. My careful placement of historical markers had been undone!

But I couldn’t be angry for too long. The strange new habitations of the gnomes seemed to give them life – as if they had personal stories. I found myself wandering around the yard and chuckling, sometimes even laughing out loud.

It felt good. Like joy.

I can’t remember the last time I felt that.

2. Kiara

Mrs. Murphy has so many dolls in her yard, but she never plays with them. On my birthday, I asked Mom if I could play with the dolls in Mrs. Murphy’s yard. Sometimes on my birthday, she lets me do things I usually can’t do – like stay up late or eat ice cream two times in one day.

But Mom said they are not dolls. I asked her if they were real people, and Mom said they are nomes. Maybe that’s a kind of people like babies are a kind of people. One time I tried to dress my baby cousin in my Teddy Bear’s clothes, and Mom said, “Ki Ki! You can’t play with her like that! She’s not a doll!”

Yesterday, while Mom was on the front porch talking on her phone, I snuck into Mrs. Murphy’s yard to look at the little people. I was happy that most of them had hats. Mom makes me wear hats sometimes, to protect my eyes from the sun. A couple of the nomes didn’t have hats, so I put those ones in the shade.

Then I wondered if the other nomes wanted to move, too. I wasn’t playing with them. I was helping them go places.

I wanted them to have interesting things to look at. One nome looked like he was breaking, like my cousin who’s a b-boy, so I put a circle of people around to watch him. I found other nomes that looked like they wanted to talk to each other, so I put them somewhere comfy to chat. Then I moved all the nomes I found, giving them nice new places to be.

A couple of nomes looked like they wanted to go inside, so I set them on the front step. They were too short to reach the doorbell, though. I was going to get a chair for them to stand on, but Mom called me, and I had to leave.

Stargazer Steve

Sun will rise, and sun will set.
Skies criss-cross with trails from jets.

In fall I’m under orange-red leaves,
Green is my spring canopy.

My view can be a bright blue place,
Or clouds can smack rain in my face.

For fifty years (to be exact)
I’ve mourned the movement that I lack.

The sky is nice, but I’ve longed instead
To see the world behind my head.

I’m always looking up, not down,
And though I ever smile (not frown)

I’m sad to think the world behind
My head is one I’ll never find.

Recently, one sunny day,
I felt my body float away,

To land on higher bark-rimmed ground
(While hearing high-pitched giggly sounds.)

On that day of blessed gift,
I felt my stiffened body lift,

Then land upon ceramic side
To view a panorama wide.

Plants and people, cats and dogs,
Fellow gnomes on lawn and logs,

And the sweet brown face of a little girl
With hazel eyes and so-tight curls.

Oh lovely girl who set me free,
You’ve given me so much more to see!

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From a Margaret Atwood Master Class Assignment, using the following:

Event: Pooping in a doorway.
Character: Artist preparing for first show.
Foundational Story: The Shoemaker and the Elves

The Elves

Kevin saw her pulling her pants down in a doorway. He could understand how she would not expect an audience on this street – it was occupied by a storage facility that didn’t get much traffic,  artist lofts that behaved like abandoned brick apartment buildings, and a couple of dark store fronts that were rarely open before noon.

From his angle, he couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was a woman from clues that unconsciously added up in his mind – flower-printed yoga pants, pink backpack, wide hips, smooth bottom. He felt a repulsion-related instinct to quicken his steps, move on and forget the image in his mind. But he also felt a need to keep her from taking a dump in front of the door he was headed for.

“Hey! Stop!” he yelled.

The woman’s body jumped, and she frantically pulled up her pants, moving quickly out of the doorway.

“Wait!” He almost shouted. And then, since, to his surprise, she did wait, “There’s a bathroom inside you can use.”

He smiled, thinking he should, to counteract his loud voice from before. But the smile felt creepy, so he turned toward the door, pulling the key out of his pocket to unlock it. He noticed her in his periphery, half turned away, looking ready to spring away if necessary.

“It’s in the back,” he said, swinging the door open and leaving it that way as he walked inside. “It’s got a locking door,” he added, internally slapping himself on the forehead as he said it. His efforts at seeming trustworthy just made him look weird. Why did he care? He flipped up the light switch on the wall to the left of the door.

He hadn’t really needed the lights on, he realized, with a glass window store front and morning sun blasting its way inside. He heard the bathroom door closing behind the back wall.

An idea hit him then, a pre-emptive regret and hope that she would not be doing drugs in there. Especially anything needle-related. What if she over-dosed? What if she died? He felt bad that his most salient concern was not having enough time to hang up his paintings if he had to deal with a death: he’d have to call an ambulance, give a police statement, fill out morgue papers, or whatever bureaucracy that went with such things. He didn’t have time for that.

Kevin looked at the framed canvases on the floor, nine of them leaning haphazardly against the wall and each other. He was showing his art tonight. He hadn’t been able to get the day off from his cooking job, but his boss had allowed him to come in half an hour late and leave a half hour early. It made his 10am to 6:30pm shift one hour shorter, and would still make him late to his own show, which officially stated at 6:00pm, but only 30 minutes instead of an hour. It’s as far as his boss had been willing to budge.

He bent down and rearranged the 3 foot square paintings, spreading them out, so he could see all of them at once and decide where they should go on the wall.

Kevin had been exploring yellow in this set, and had featured a plant-like character he called Glorp, who was about the size of a chipmunk. With leafy arms and frill-bordered, orchid-like face, Glorp explored the world of nature with a practical curiosity. He danced in a field in one of the paintings, and flew on top of a friendly crow in another. Glorp swam in a bird bath with a chickadee, tended a tiny vegetable garden inside a half-buried paint can, and he hosted a ladybug tea party in a home he created out of an abandoned work boot.

Kevin wondered how people would respond to his leaf creature. He liked the pictures and was proud of his work, so he tried not to care about what others thought. But he did. He at least wanted to present his pieces in the best way possible. Reception sometimes depended on presentation.

A low cough from behind him made him jump and turn. The woman was there, a sheepish smile on her face. She was younger than he had originally thought, maybe in her 20’s. Why had he assumed she was older?

“Sorry,” she said. “I just wanted to thank you for letting me use the bathroom.”

“Oh. No problem.” He noticed that her face seemed cleaner than when he’d first seen her, her brown curly hair more smoothed out, slightly wet down.

“This is an art gallery,” she said, answering a question she hadn’t asked out loud. Then, “Do you own it?” She adjusted her backpack and looked around at art on the wall while waiting for the answer.

He realized later that his uncoagulated thoughts had been, Why is she still here? Why is she asking me questions? He had unconsciously assumed she’d be ashamed enough of her situation to leave as quickly as possible. But she was young, he later reflected. Not old enough to have had life’s troubles beat the hope and self-respect out of her.

“No, I don’t own it,” he answered her. “Well, I guess I kind of do. This is an art co-op. About 20 of us pay dues and take turns displaying our art.”

“Is that yours?” She pointed down at the lineup of green and yellow whimsy.

“Yes. I’ve got to get these up in the next fifteen minutes. My first show is tonight.”

“Your first show here, or like, your first show ever?”

Why had he put it that way? He breathed in, guessing her thoughts, since they were the same he encountered in himself every day. The gray hair, face wrinkles, age spots – he looked his age, and it was about 30 years older than he had originally hoped he would be at his first art show.

“I’m a late bloomer,” he said, with a closed smile. His mind gave him fleeting, choppy images of his life’s many distractions – marriage, children, divorce, day job. Art had been his original goal, ultimate refuge, and a smaller piece of his daily puzzle than he had hoped or intended. He envied a friend (downgraded to acquaintance due to lack of contact) who had a rich family. His parents had provided money for his supplies, a studio, and eventually inroads to the New York gallery system. The two of them had gone to the same Seattle art school, but Kevin was still here, still the struggling artist that his buddy had never had to struggle to be.

“I like it,” she said. Her smile, directed at the painting, seemed sincere, layered and changing as she saw new things. He knew the complicated look of a real smile versus the flat, polite one he often saw,  features fixed in a painting entitled, “Art Show Etiquette”, accompanied by the sound track, “Well done!”

A knock on the open window-door accompanied two shabbily-dressed bodies, walking in with practiced assertion that mimicked confidence.

“Jill? We got your text,” said the young man. The girl following him hit his shoulder.

“We were passing by and saw you through the window,” she corrected, as if the first explanation hadn’t been uttered.

“Hey guys!” said the first woman, who then turned to Kevin. “Could my friends use your bathroom?”

Kevin kicked himself internally, seeing a given inch rapidly becoming a mile.

“Look,” he said, taking his phone from his back pocket to glance at the screen, “I don’t have much time; I have to get these painting up in the next…” the time shocked him, “10 minutes!”

“We’ll be quick!” The new girl headed back in the direction of her friend’s pointed finger, adjusting the straps of her large cargo bag as she went.

“Ima go outside,” the first woman said to the young man as she walked through the front door.

Kevin felt the beginning cramps of panic. The situation had moved out of his control. The solitude he had hoped for had been stripped away from him before he could take it. The anxiety of years seemed to slowly climb on top of him, making it hard for him to think or move. He sighed, trying to reset the moment with oxygen, but it was interrupted by an enthusiastic voice.

“Wow, man! This is awesome!” Kevin turned to see the kid bending down very close to the picture entitled “Glorp Meets an Octogon”, in which the leafy protagonist has climbed up a stop sign and, while hanging on to the post with one hand, offers a sticky, dirty lollipop to its new friend’s red and white face with the other.

The guy laughed, then stood up and looked at the other paintings, one at a time. Grateful he hadn’t touched anything with dirty hands, Kevin watched his face react in a series of movements – raised eye brows that then scrunched up with concentration, mouth open as if taking in the view orally, then pinched up in a smirk, head shaking.

“Your turn,” he heard, followed by a muffled door slam. The girl with brown/blond/blue hair (archeological layers now uncovered by hat removal), waved at the guy, called to Kevin, “Thanks!” and was quickly out the door to join her friend, the original interloper (invited, Kevin self-reminded) who stood in front of the gallery window, smoking.

When Kevin turned around, he heard the bathroom door closing again. He looked at his phone. 9:55. Shit! How did it get so late? A cloud of gloom covered him as he realized he would not have time to carefully consider painting placement, but would have to put up nails and hang things and leave.

Trying to relax – breathe in, breathe out – he grabbed a box of nails and the hammer off of the floor and mentally divided the length of the white wall in front of him. No time to measure, he spread the paintings out, equidistant, along the floor, and began to pound in one nail above each painting, a little below his own eye level, since he was tall.

When he was midway through the wall, he heard, through the pounds of his hammer, a muffled flush, running water, and an opening door. Pound, pound, pound. Then footsteps and a bright smile from a moving face. “Thanks man! And your paintings are seriously sick, dude!”

Kevin, hammer paused but still up, nodded in his direction. “Thanks.” Though he wasn’t sure if it was a compliment.

The threesome collected outside as Kevin grabbed another nail and pounded it in the wall above the next painting. When he turned back, the trio was gone.

At work, while dishing out plates of chicken breast, mashed potatoes with gravy, and overcooked broccoli, Kevin’s mind was not on the scrubs-clad servers who took each plate to its corresponding wheel-chair surrounded table, where shriveled old folks waited for their food to be ladled to them. He thought with dread of the haste with which he had put up his paintings in the gallery. He had hung his art and placed title cards beneath each piece, but there hadn’t been time to think much about placement, what with putting away the hammer, nails, and poster putty, sweeping the floor, and giving the bathroom a quick wipe down. He hadn’t even had a chance to look at the other artists’ work.

The two other featured artists had put up their paintings over the weekend that Kevin had worked double shifts to cover for a sick coworker. He, on the other hand, had put up his art in the space of about half an hour, and had been 20 minutes late for work.

Kevin pictured himself in memory: putting away the broom, turning out the lights, standing at the front door worrying that he might have gotten a parking ticket.

He froze the picture, then tried to move it forward, slow-motion, but it was a blur.

Did I lock the gallery door?

Breathe in, breathe out.

When Kevin arrived, the sun had moved to the other side of the building, putting the gallery in twilight shadow. The lights inside were all on, and dozens of people milled about inside, some holding clear plastic cups of wine or juice, some munching on cookies or pulling nuts or M&M’s from cupcake cups held in the opposite hand. People stood outside, too, in a beehive-like collective buzz of activity and conversations. It was 6:40pm – 40 minutes after the doors had opened up to the art walkers. The crowds were still thickening. Kevin squeezed his way in through the door.

“You’re here!” proclaimed a melodious voice.

“Myra! Sorry I’m late.” He awkwardly returned her greeting hug.

“No problem. Hey! Congratulations! Three of your pieces have sold already!”

His mouth dropped open involuntarily. “Really?”

“Take a look,” she said, pointing to the tiny red dot stuck on one of the title cards.

“Glorp Flies a Bird”, in the middle of the wall, declared its accepted value, but Kevin felt something was wrong.

I’m sure that painting was by the window, he thought. But he could be mistaken: he had been in a hurry.

Another red-dotted work, two paintings and a dozen people down, declared the title, “Glorp on Fire”. Kevin felt his chest tighten. That painting had been next to the far wall. He was certain of it.

Heart beating fast, Kevin moved, as quickly as he could with the throng moving like molasses around him, to the Artist Statement page and slowly worked his way to the right. Each title matched its painting. Good. But none of the paintings were where he had originally placed them. He was almost positive.

Kevin felt frozen, stuck to the cement floor before him, paralyzed in the cold realization that he had been violated. Or he was completely crazy. Or… he considered, without much credibility, that Myra may have rearranged his paintings when she came in to set up beverages and snacks on the back table by the display case of prints. But this notion was shattered when she came up to him, mouth near his ear so she wouldn’t have to shout over the din of art appreciators.

“By the way, I love how you put up the paintings. It’s like they were meant to be in that order. I didn’t realize before tonight that they told such a cohesive story.”

He stared blankly at her smile, then turned to the wall. Little by little, like a drop of food coloring pluming through water in a cup, he was filled with realization. She was right. It was a story he hadn’t known he was telling. But someone had seen it.

Without revealing his potential misstep, Kevin asked, “Say, Myra – did you happen to notice the door key being kind of sticky? I had some trouble with it this morning.” A lie to get to the truth.

“Nope. It opened up smooth as a whistle for me. Maybe we need to get you a new key?”

Kevin nodded. It hadn’t necessarily answered his real question, but did it matter? He was having his first art show. A successful art show.

He felt the weight of the day, the weeks, months, and even decades slowly lift from his shoulders.

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“O my Lord, I dedicate that which is in my womb unto Thee.”
– Baha’i prayer

In my photo album are three pictures, each a day apart, that show how drastically and quickly life can change.

In the first picture, taken March 24, 1998, I stand huge-bellied in an ocean sized white t-shirt, my husband with one arm around me, his other arm holding our pink-clad two-year-old daughter, Andrea.

In the second picture, taken March 25, Doug, Andrea on his hip, stands behind a hospital bassinette, in which lies a little lump of blanket, the peach-fuzzed head of a newborn poking out.

In the next day’s picture, March 26th, I reappear, the bulge in my belly gone, my eyes squinty from dried up tears. Doug again holds Andrea, who wears an orange mask over her nose and mouth. My diapered, otherwise naked newborn baby lies under a clear plastic oxygen tent in a shallow-walled crib lined with soft white blankets. We are in Seattle Children’s Hospital. And my baby is dying.

At 11:00pm of March 25th, a nurse had stirred my resentment by pushing light into the square, slick-walled hospital room and waking me up. I had finally fallen asleep after a long afternoon of giving birth, visiting with friends and family, and then trying to nurse my tiny new baby, Johanna, swaddled up in white and pink blankets.

My first words after Johanna was born had been, “She’s so blue!”

“She’ll pink up soon,” assured the midwife. And sure enough, the purplish hue of her skin slowly became more pink. Though the birth had gone very quickly and smoothly (the midwife barely had time to put a hospital gown over her clothes and put on gloves before catching the emerging Johanna) I was exhausted from a full afternoon. So when the nightshift nurse came to take the baby for an exam, I pleaded with her, “Couldn’t she just stay here and sleep, and you can check her later? If you take her now, she’ll come back awake, which means I’ll have to wake up, and I’m so tired…”

The blue-garbed woman listened, her brow wrinkling with concern and consideration, but she decided to take Johanna. 15 minutes, she had said, and then she would bring her back.

But when I awoke two and a half hours later, the nurse had still not returned with my baby. I put on my fluffy pink robe, and entered the light-flooded world of the hallway.

I walked toward the nurse’s station, and heard from the nearby nursery the tiny, insistent screams of a newborn. Whose baby? There was no one at the nurse’s station, so I opened the nursery door and peeked inside. There, a woman held down a wailing infant, tiny limbs flailing, as a man tried to poke a needle into his or her flesh. I was confused at first, not yet recognizing my baby’s cry, since I had barely heard it so far. That couldn’t be Johanna? I scrutinized the baby on the clear plastic platform, and noticed a slight purple tint to her skin.

“What’s going on?” I asked .

After the doctor had finally gotten an IV into Johanna (only the head veins were large enough), he informed me and Doug that Johanna would need to be taken to Children’s Hospital. At about 3am, we gathered up our belongings, preparing to follow the ambulance that held our baby. They’ve made a mistake, I kept thinking. The doctor’s words would not absorb into me. Something about the level of oxygen in her blood being low – 70 instead of 100. Emergency surgery. “Prostaglandins” keeping the “ductus arteriosis” open. I remembered those words from college classes, but never thought they would hold such power over the life of my daughter. As my husband and I numbly loaded ourselves into our car, I held the image of my little baby, lying swaddled in a clear plastic bubble-like container, tubes taped and bandaged to her head, and the tiniest of pacifiers completely hiding her mouth.

For the next two weeks I lived at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and all of my energy was focused on Johanna. The Baha’i writings say “…strive that your actions, day by day, may be beautiful prayers.” I may not have been beautiful, but I was all action. I moved swiftly through the hallways of Children’s Hospital, in black knit pants and a burgundy sweater, curly mud-blond hair springing out from my head. I could be seen wandering from ICU to breastmilk pumping room to ICU again, perhaps glimpsed briefly in bathrooms or in kitchen doorways, placing a container of breastmilk into a freezer. I was a human reduced to an obsession with the tenuous life of my baby daughter. Though still in her world, I was in a realm where I could do nothingto help her. All I could do was haunt the hospital hallways like a ghost.

Though often busy with visitors, pumping, hygiene, eating, walking, and being with Johanna,occasionally I would find time to go to the parent center, and especially to the tiny chapel located inside.

My diary entry for Saturday, March 28, says, “I am in the chapel, and I have had my morning cry.” I remember sitting in the back on one of the many foldable chairs crowded into the tiny, windowless room. In the front of the room was a podium, on which sat a basket of fake flowers and ivy. On a shelf to the side of me sat a large book in which parents in various stages of grief or relief had signed their names and comments of encouragement, sadness, or exultation. I leafed through the pages and came to an entry by a parent who had lost a child. “Why did this happen? We miss you so much.” The powerful sadness emanating from the words scrawled on the page struck me like a blade. I had to leave the book and sit down. I took my Baha’i prayer book and opened to a passage I had read while I was pregnant:

“O my Lord, I dedicate that which is in my womb unto Thee.”

Tears streamed from my eyes at the idea of giving my child back to God. I forced myself to continue the prayer, choking with sobs and hardly able to see through tears, my face wet and dripping on the page below me.

“Then cause it to be a praiseworthy child in Thy Kingdom and a fortunate one by Thy favor and Thy generosity…”

God’s Kingdom didn’t necessarily mean living with me. How did I know that staying alive in this world was more fortunate than moving on? Maybe Johanna’s body was too weak to survive – maybe to struggle through this life would be like torture for her. I tried to detach, to defer to God’s wisdom, to show God that I believed He knew better than I about what would be best for my little daughter.

“But please God,” I cried in soft hiccups, “If she could live… please…”

For the most part, though, outside of the little chapel, I was dry-eyed and strong. Until the day I cracked. It had been 1 ½ weeks since Johanna’s surgery, and I had allowed myself to think that Johanna’s puffiness was miraculous baby fat, a sign of her getting better. A nurse told me that she was actually retaining liquid because she was going through heart failure. In fact, Johanna was not getting enough nutrition.

Two days later a nurse in a white-haired bun and glasses made it clear to me that if Johanna did not start keeping her food down, she would be in serious trouble. After vomiting at three separate feedings in one day, she desperately needed calories and weight gain. I took this as a personal mission and determined to breast feed Johanna. For 40 minutes, I sat in a rocking chair and fed my tiny baby. About half of that time was spent with her crying, fussing, or me burping her or trying to wake her up.

Though I was confident that Johanna had been well fed during our nursing session, the white-haired nurse, rushing in to finish up before her shift ended, insisted that Johanna have 50 cc’s of formula-supplemented breastmilk dripped into her naso-gastric tube. Scared into submission, I allowed her to pour formula-enhanced breastmilk into the clear plastic syringe tube taped to the back of the metal crib. I watched the level of beige liquid oh-so-slowly decrease as food slid down its tube and into the nose of my sleeping, propped up baby. I sat resting, so tired, but so awake. After about 40 minutes I heard it – that familiar urpy sound that scared me more than anything at that point. I immediately jumped up and tipped Johanna’s tiny body to the side just in time for her to vomit all over her hospital bed, the tiny white, mostly threadbare hospital blankets filling in with messy liquid beige. In that moment what I had been keeping down came up as well – the tears would not stop. The nurse who had just come on shift was summoned over to help with the emotional and vomitous mess, but I kept sobbing, even as I removed the clothes from Johanna’s tiny, unhappy body, gathering up blankets, holding my baby, rocking her, full of love and anger and sadness, crying myself numb.

The new shift nurse gently insisted that I go home and get some rest. For the past ten days I had gotten no more than 5 of hours of sleep (not in a row) each day. It was time for sleep, instead of action, to become my prayer.

The next day I awoke in my own bed, my heart melting in the sunshine that filled up the room. The brightness and warmth felt like good omens. My prayers were less desperate, but still constant. Even as I lived a few moments in my home with other family members, a part of me was with Johanna, and anxious to be back with her.

I returned to Children’s Hospital that morning, ready to help Johanna get better. And she did. The doctors adjusted her medications. I breastfed Johanna on demand during the day and allowed myself to rest while nurses fed her supplemented bottled breastmilk at night. The various tubes and wires sticking out from Johanna’s body were, one by one, removed, and in a few days she was allowed to go home.

But Doug and I knew it was not over. The doctors had told us that Johanna would need two more surgeries before she was two years old. These surgeries would bypass the ineffective right side of her heart and reduce her heart to two chambers instead of four.

Meanwhile the prayer network had begun. All of our friends and family were aware of Johanna’s condition and were asked to keep her in their thoughts and prayers. Johanna was added to several church prayer lists. A prayer for her was placed in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Baha’is literally all over the world, including the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel, were asked to say prayers for Johanna. Daily life continued, with diaper changes and bathing and feeding and constant activity, and always with an undertone of prayer that everything would turn out for the best.

On October 14, 1998. Doug and I sat in the surgery waiting room at Children’s Hospital. Johanna was having an exploratory catheterization before she would undergo open-heart surgery. We sat next to each other in low poofy pleather chairs. The room was surrounded by a wall of sparkly opaque glass blocks and was filled with toys. Doug and I watched a little boy in footie pajamas push colorful beads along wood-anchored wires. I peeked at the boys’ parents, who sat close to each other, as Doug and I did. Doug held my hand, joked with me, whispered to me, lay his head on my shoulder.

After a little over an hour, the white-clad cardiologist and nurse came out, looking strangely buoyant. They told us that Johanna’s heart had more function than they thought it would, and they had canceled surgery. Doug and I nodded and asked questions and listened to their explanations, slowly realizing what they were saying. We asked the doctor why this had happened, and he couldn’t say. He mentioned something about the regenerative power of young bodies, but the expression on his and the nurse’s faces showed that this was very unexpected, and not something they had seen often, if ever before.

We were cautious at first, listening for the doctor to express some caveat. Yes, of course her heart was still not normal. She would still take medicine every day. But she was going to have a four-chambered heart. Though my husband considered himself agnostic at the time, he had been compelled to pray through this experience, appealing to whatever higher power might be out there and willing to help. Doug and I both had a feeling, in that moment, that God had been listening to our prayers. Wide-eyed and awe-struck, we let it sink in.

Doctors would not be sawing open Johanna’s chest two more times before her second birthday. The image of my daughter, opened up and lying in a bed of ice like a flayed fish, did not have to be suppressed in my mind any longer, and instead flew away in a burst of elation. No more surgeries!

Today Johanna is a brilliant almost-seven-year-old. Her spirit bursts through like sudden gusts of wind or a mini volcano – a beautiful and powerful force of nature. Lately, though, she has been tired more often, unable to walk a full block without resting, her lips and fingers turning blue. A treadmill test showed Johanna’s oxygen saturation level dipping down to 50%. I am sad to see her so tired, and amazed that she is as active as she is, given how low her blood oxygen level can get.

In less than a month, Johanna will undergo a catheterization procedure that we hope will help increase her energy. Johanna is scared. And my prayers have begun. I tell everyone I can think of about Johanna’s upcoming procedure to increase the good thoughts and good wishes around her. I say some formal prayers, but it hurts to think about it too much, about risks and possibilities. More often my prayers are informal, in moments when Johanna explains something to me about her stuffed animals, or when she exults over her spelling of a word or a passage she has read in a book. I think of being given the opportunity to get to know this little soul, how she has touched the lives of me, my husband, her big sister, and so many others. I smile at her shining eyes, hold her in my arms and in my heart and become a prayer of thanks and request. “Thank you, God! And please….”

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In a crowd full of critical people, False Mabel and True Mabel sat together in a chair. They didn’t fit very well.

Whenever False Mabel felt self-conscious with fat and ugliness, she moved in a way that slowly crushed True Mabel into shocking thinness.

Eventually, True Mabel was pulverized into a corrosive powder that caused both Mabels to blow away in a breeze.

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Week 8 – Cuffee

Sometimes souls here miss their first world experience, the way an old person misses childhood. But I’m glad to have moved on. My first-world experience was one I’m proud to have endured but am glad to be rid of.

In the first world, my body tensed itself up. It writhed constantly and fought against itself. My hands would find themselves in my mouth, teeth gnawing into my flesh. My own lips were also victim to my teeth, constantly being torn up until the area just above my chin was a mess of bloody flesh most of the time.

I could not walk, my body too twisted and tied up in pain. I could not talk, and when I did, no one understood me. Except for my cousin Tuesday, a girl born into that world six years before myself. Even my mother, though she loved me very much, couldn’t understand what I said. My tongue thrust itself in and out of my mouth continuously, and it was always swollen from being bitten so often. My head rolled and moved in different directions continuously, pulling my face muscles so that controlling speech was very difficult.

Tuesday was with me almost every moment since the day I was born. Hers was the voice that soothed me during the day; hers were often the hands that cleaned and clothed me. Hers were the eyes that saw who I was underneath the twisted, damaged body. And hers was the only first world soul that met me in my dreams.

Maybe it’s because my first life experience was so difficult that I was granted a glimpse into the second life, and could go there in dreams. I talked with many people there, while my body slept in my mother’s assigned tiny log cabin. My ancestors chatted with me, some of them so many generations removed from myself that they had been alive when the continents had not yet pulled into separate land masses on the surface of the earth.

These were the conversations that affected me the most. It was entirely clear that all of humanity had the same origin, and that we were all relatives, no matter how distant. I was shown analogies and patterns. I could see how a person was formed from one round, very tiny entity , a cell, that divided to become two, and from there four, then eight and so on. From one thing came a collection of many diverse things, organs and systems all working together to form a beautiful human creature.

I could see that all human beings were supposed to work together to form a whole, but that the world was not working properly. Just like parts of my body seemed intent on harming and even destroying other parts of my body, human beings would hurt other human beings, not letting them be themselves, but wounding them continuously instead. The strangest part was that it was justified by skin color. Some people thought people with darker skin color could be owned as slaves. But there were times when the so-called white master who owned me and my family had much darker skin than my own. I stayed inside, away from the sun most of the day, and by Fall, the Master had been outside so much that his skin had been roasted a deep brown beyond my own dark tan.

I didn’t have the mental capacity to develop this thought process during the day, but in dreams, when my spirit was free to roam on the threshold of the second world, I could understand. I could see the terrible trouble people were putting themselves through, hurting themselves by damaging others, like a body that ate its own fingers.

Despite understanding this sickness, I was so happy to be alive. And Tuesday was a big part of my joy. Her soul was one of the brightest I’ve ever met. She couldn’t let it shine too bright in the first world, though, or it would have been snuffed out. Just like my hands had to be covered with socks and sometimes even tied to my body so my angry mouth wouldn’t bite off my fingers.

Time is not the same in the second world as is it in the first, so Tuesday is many ages all at once from my perspective. She is young and old, single and married, and her children are babies and also giving her grandchildren. But her light has remained strong throughout. I still talk to her in dreams sometimes. And I continue to pray that her light, and the lights of other strong souls, will keep healing the first world, and thus all the worlds beyond.

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Week 7 – Tuesday

I heard my Auntie Mim as if she was far away, but very clearly, as if she was near.

“Tuesday! Wake up! Tuesday! What happened?”

Her voice was strained with sadness, urgency, heartbreak. I thought my eyes were closed, but I could see her as if looking through a window into a dark room, her hand on a face I knew was mine, but which I couldn’t feel.

“I’m okay Auntie Mim,” I said, as if speaking through a tube. She couldn’t hear me. I could see/feel the uneven floorboards beneath me. I could see that my hand held the hand of another body about my size, and that we formed an “H” lying there, our arms the middle line.

Auntie Mim knelt between us, her body drooped and vibrating with sobs. “Cuffee,” she whispered. I felt Cuffee’s smile, like the thrumming of hummingbird wings, and then it flew away. When I turned to see where it was going, I instead woke up in my body, and opened my eyes.

Mimba was the sister of my mother, whose name was Bena. We both had the same name, really, because we were both born on the same day.  But we were born on the opposite ends of the ocean, so my Mom made the names different, even though they meant the same day of the week.

I don’t remember my father. Auntie Mim said he was a tall man with wide shoulders and big, strong arms. He was allotted to a landowner who needed someone strong on his farm.

I remember a little more of my mother, but not much. She was allotted to someone in Georgia who wanted a pretty house slave. I don’t have pictures of my mama, but I can see her face in my memory, so close to my mine, pretending to bite my chin and nose. “You’re so sweet, I could eat you up!” she would say. That’s mostly what I remember about my mama. She was taken away in the second year of my life.

Auntie Mim was pretty like my mama, and the master took a liking to her so much that he wouldn’t allow her to marry no one. He liked her so much that he let her keep me instead of selling me or allotting me to someone else. Auntie Mim and I were house slaves, then. I helped in the nursery, playing with the master’s children by his wife, helping change their diapers and doing the washing. Master John had children with some of the slave children, too, but he never claimed them as his. Mostly  Mistress Abigail looked the other way, unless she thought Master John was getting too attached to the child’s mama. Then she’d have the child sold, and no one ever saw the girl or boy again.

When I was 6 years old, Auntie Mim got pregnant with Master John’s child. Everybody pretended that the child belonged to Big Cuffee, the cook that Auntie Mim was friendly with. But everybody knew who the father really was. And one day, Cuffee was gone, and we never saw him again.

When Auntie had her baby, I could feel that something was wrong with him. He seemed mostly normal, all toes and fingers accounted for, and Mama Sarah, who helped with the birthing, said he was handsome. Auntie Mim saw only her own little baby, wrapped up in a cloud of love. She named him Cuffee.

Cuffee stayed in the nursery where I could hold him and keep an eye on him. Mistress June wasn’t happy about it, but Master John had made a promise to Auntie Mim that little Cuffee wouldn’t ever be sent away. But a promise from a master don’t mean much, especially with a jealous mistress standing by. But Auntie Mim and I held onto that promise like a butterfly cupped in the palm of our hands, something we wanted to appreciate, but couldn’t look at for fear it would fly away.

Cuffee had the colic real bad, and Mistress Abigail complained about the noise, so I took to wrapping him up around my body with a sheet. Mama June showed me the best way, keeping him snug on my back so I could still change the white children’s diapers, still do the washing and cleaning and playing with the little ones when they was fussy. That way the mistress couldn’t complain that Cuffee needed to go because he was taking all my time.

That helped for awhile, but I still could feel that something was wrong with Li’l Cuffee. I could get him to stop crying, and I knew he felt better swaddled up on my back, or later, when he was older, on my hip. But I still felt the pain, something moving in him that was not right.

Auntie Mim said maybe it was something like what her dad had. He would be so ill sometimes, with pains all over, that he could hardly get out of bed or even move.

Once when I changed Cuffee’s diaper I found an orange sort of rock, like a clump of hardened sugar, and little spots of blood.  I hid any of those diapers, washed them right away so’s no one would see, ‘specially not Mistress Abigail.

I told Auntie Mim, though, and Mama June. We tried to give Cuffee different foods to help, like mashed milk curds, sprinkled with one of Mama Junes special herb powders. But I could tell Cuffee was just getting worse. He didn’t grow as fast as other children, which made it easier to hold him, but he also didn’t walk when other children did, which made holding him necessary sometimes. This made Mistress Abigail angry, so I tried to not to cross paths with her.

When Cuffee was almost two years old, he started biting himself. He had always had strange little hand and feet movements, jerking them here and there, sometimes banging his arms on the floor or the wall. And when he got stronger, he would lift his head and bang it on the floor, so we had to either put him on his stomach or put soft blankets under his head. He would put his hands in his mouth, too, but it seemed like normal baby behavior until he started making himself bleed, and biting himself so badly that the wounds would never heal, and never even scab up to heal, neither.

Strangely enough, the worse Cuffee got, the more Mistress Abigail settled down to liking him, it seemed. She stopped caring about how much time I spent with him, and she would even come up to him in his crib where he could sit up in the corner and see what was going on in the room, and she would bend over him, her big circle of skirt bunching up in waves on the floor as she cooed and fussed. One time I heard her say, quietly, “Little Cuffee. You are your father’s child, aren’t you?”

At first I was confused, since everybody, including the mistress, knew who Cuffee’s real father was. But Auntie Mim explained to me that it was the mistress’ way of bad-mouthing Master John without saying it plain. Auntie Mim said it was a blessing that Cuffee was the way he was, because it meant no one would want to take him, so he would never be sent away.

I tried so hard to get Cuffee to talk. But mostly he just mumbled and blurted out sounds that made no sense. “Say Tuesday,” I would tell him. We had cut off the legs of his crib so it could hold his weight once he got bigger, and since it was on the ground, it could also hold me. I would sit across from Cuffee playing hand games to the rhythm of whatever word I tried to teach him. “Cu” –clap- “Fee” –clap-, over and over. “Tues” –clap- “Day” –clap-. And repeat.

But it wasn’t until one day when I fell asleep in his crib with him that he finally talked to me.

The master and missus were gone to visit Granny Swan, who was ailing, and they had taken their four little ones with them. That meant that, even though I was supposed to be doing the laundry and diaper changing and such, or if not that, helping clean the house, the other house slaves plus Auntie Mim decided to give me a break and let me just be Cuffee’s caretaker for one day. I hadn’t known how worn out I was until I sat in the crib singing songs to Cuffee, and I started nodding off. Normally, that would be my cue to get up and move around, do something active and keep myself going. But instead, with nothing else pressing, and no one to protest, when Cuffee lay down for his nap, I lay down, too, just to rest my bones a bit.

And then I was standing in the cotton field, where the field slaves were bent over bolls, pulling at the white fluff. The new pickers always had bloody hands, where they had poked themselves with the burr that held the white fluff at its base. Pickers who had been at it a long time knew how to grab at the bolls without getting stuck by the burrs. Plus, they built up callouses on their fingers. I stood next to a girl about my age at the time, around 10 years old, who crouched down next to a cotton plant. I couldn’t see her face, as it was covered by a cloth wrapped around her forehead and tied under her hair at the base of her neck. But I could see that her fingers were bleeding as she put boll after boll of cotton into her shoulder bag.

I heard steps on the dirt behind me, so I turned to see a little boy of about four years old walking toward me. He held a stick that he dragged along the ground, making a little snake trail follow him up to me.

He looked up at me and smiled, and I immediately recognized him, with his tan skin and wavy black hair and his lovely toffee-colored eyes.
“Cuffee!” I looked at him with wonder. He stood straight and tall, cute as a baby button, joy radiating from his body the way the buzz of cicadas emanated from the trees above and around us. He had no bite marks or scars of any kind, and he sparkled with something that made me cry and pick him up, hugging him and swinging him around, so much heavier than the Cuffee I knew.

When I set him down and looked at him, something had changed. His posture slumped a little, his spine slightly twisted. I noticed the blood running over the scars on his hands, and my tears stopped in the shock of moving so quickly from joy to concern. I took his hands in mine, inspecting them, then looked up to his face, with a smile still sparkling from his eyes.

“Why are your hands bleeding?” I asked.

His smile burst open into the warmth of unsung laughter.

“So yours don’t have to.”

I opened my eyes to see that I was lying on my side in the crib, facing Cuffee, who looked at me with what seemed like comprehension, thumping his feet on the crib’s floor and making the blurbling sound he often did.

When I was eleven years old, Auntie Mim got herself a sweetheart from amongst the field workers. He was an allotted slave by the name of Paul. It had been an especially big harvest that year, so Master John had hired him out from a mistress who only used him to keep her horses.

Paul was a quiet man, so Auntie Mim hardly noticed him when she brought out sandwiches to the workers one day. She pulled the wagon with the sandwiches while another kitchen slave pulled the wagon with the water barrels. Mim saw him there, with strong shoulders, like her first man, Cuffee, many years before, but she hardly gave him a thought, she would say many years later. It was only the next day, when Paul offered to pull the sandwich wagon for her that she noticed him. And that was mostly because she wondered why he would offer to pull the sandwich wagon, which wasn’t that heavy, instead of the water wagon, which the other kitchen girl was struggling with. She didn’t say anything, though, and that was the beginning of a courtship that heated up as slowly but as steadily as the days were cooling down.

By the end of harvest season, Auntie Mim and Paul had promised themselves to each other, in everything but their outward actions. They had to be very careful not to reveal their true feelings for each other to Master John, or to anyone who might tell Master John. So every lunch time, Paul would make sure to pull the water wagon instead of Auntie Mim’s sandwich wagon, though anyone who looked closely would notice that the wagons were always side by side, and though three figures walked ahead of them, two stood closer together.

By that time, I had been talking to Cuffee for years, almost always in dreams, though once in awhile I would catch a flash of what I knew must be one of his thoughts, or I would inexplicably know what he meant by a gesture or a gurgle that no one else could understand.

Cuffee’s pain kept getting worse, and sometimes I would ask him in dreams or altered states what I could do to help him. Sometimes he would suggest that I rub his feet, or say he needed to drink more water, and sometimes he would suggest that I exercise his limbs a certain way, like moving his legs in forward circles while he lay down. “Like Master John’s bicycle,” he said. And usually those things would help.

Around the time of the harvest of my twelfth year and Cuffee’s fifth, Cuffee’s pain got a lot worse. In dreams, where normally he was happy and playful like a normal child, he started to cry. First they were gentle tears, like sadness, as if he had lost a favorite stick he liked to play with. But more and more, Cuffee’s tears would be stronger, his body more twisted in pain.

“What can I do to help?” I would asked, hugging dream Cuffee in my arms.

“I don’t know, Tues,” he would say. More and more in dreams I would simply hold and comfort him, and then I would wake up sad that I had gotten no more information to help him with in the nondream world.

Harvest passed, and Paul went back to his Mistress on a neighboring farm. They hardly ever saw each other, except once when Auntie Mim was borrowed there for a party that the Mistress needed extra kitchen help for, and another time when Paul was borrowed to Master John to help with one of the horses who had thrown a shoe and was particularly hard to hold down. I remember Auntie Mim finding an excuse to peek outside for a bit to watch Paul as he shushed the shoeless horse and calmed him down so his foot could be fixed. I happened to be in the kitchen, getting sandwiches for the children up in the nursery. I walked in to see her on her tippy toes, a dreamy-eyed smile on her face as she gazed out the window above the tub sink.

That winter was rough for Cuffee, and therefore for me and Auntie Mim. Cuffee seemed to be at war with himself. He banged his head on the bars of his crib. He threw his arms and legs around like weapons striking anything solid. And hit bit his fingers so bad that some of his nails fell off, and the scars up and down his arms were constantly oozing blood and puss from never getting the chance to heal. We took to putting socks on his hands, tucking them under the long sleeves of his shirts and tying them with string. But even though he could no longer break the skin, he bruised himself continually, and often reopened scabs already formed.

Still, he would come to me in my dreams, and sometimes he would be calm enough to talk to me, in words more advanced than his age would suggest, and he would tell me things I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

“Mama loves Mr. Paul,” he said one time. That I knew, of course. But then he said, “He’ll come work for Master John this spring.”

“He will? For how long?”

“He’ll stay here. At least until the start of harvest.”

That didn’t make sense to me. Until, come spring, Old Lady Hutchins passed away. Since she had no children left alive of her own, she left Paul and a couple of her other slaves to Master John.

Auntie Mim was in heaven, knowing that Paul was just around some corner, only feet away from her, standing on the very same land. She would tell me this at night in our little cabin, when she and Cuffee and I lay side by side on a straw bed in our dark cabin, listening to the frogs singing and the crickets chirping along.

But it wasn’t long before Mistress Abigail noticed the spark between my Auntie and Paul. At long last saw her opportunity to get rid of Auntie Mim, the pretty kitchen slave who still tempted the affections of her husband. Her husband protested, of course, and took to visiting Auntie Mim more often, to spite his jealous wife.

Auntie Mim would carry Cuffee into the cooking room of our cabin whenever Master John came for a visit. Once, in my fourteenth year, when the tulips started blooming, I noticed the master looking at me differently than I had remembered. Auntie Mim was carrying Cuffee into the cooking room, temporarily separated from the main room by a blanket, and I was gathering up blankets to follow her. I was startled my a touch on my shoulder, and I looked up to see the Master with a strange look on his face. “You sure are growing up nice, Tuesday.”

It put an uncomfortable shiver down my spine that stopped my voice for a second, until I made myself say, “Thank you, Master John, sir.” Then I hurried myself into my temporary sleeping spot with Cuffee.

Cuffee and I always had conversations during those visits. They weren’t exactly dream talks, I guess, because I could see/feel the room around me, and I knew that my body was between the stove and the quilted blanket that we would put up to keep smoke from going all into the house and which otherwise would be night covers. But I couldn’t hear the sounds beyond the blanket in this state, only the voice of Cuffee.

“I want mama and you and Paul to run away,” he told me one of those cold, uncomfortable nights with Auntie Mim and Master John in the other room.

“And you, too, Cuffee,” I said. I had assumed it was a child’s wishing game, and treated it as such. But Cuffee very seriously replied, the dark room surrounding us like a blanket for our voices, “I can’t.”

Come harvest time, rumors started spreading like flies about Mistress Abigail having had enough of her husband’s wandering ways, and that she was going to hurt him the worst way she knew how – by selling Auntie Mim.

In dreams and in nighttime cook room escapes, Cuffee told me over and over that Paul needed to take a horse and Auntie Mim and me and ride north. He told me what town we needed to go to, what day, what time. It would be when the harvest was in full-swing, when Master John wouldn’t be able to spare any worker for fear of his cotton crop spoiling before it could be picked.

“You can’t take me,” he would insist. “Besides, I’ll be home by then.”

I didn’t understand what he meant by being home, but I told Auntie Mim everything to see what she would say. By now she knew that I spoke with Cuffee, and she had seen enough proof to know that it wasn’t just my fantasy. When she heard the plan, she cried and held Cuffee, telling him, even though he couldn’t speak to her, that she could never leave him behind.

After that, Cuffee mentioned “going home” almost every time I spoke to him.

And on that day, before Auntie Mim found me and Cuffee on the floor, I had been fully awake when the conversation began.

It was early in the morning, but an hour or so after Auntie Mim had left for her kitchen duties. I had gotten up when she did, changed and cleaned up Cuffee, dressed him in unsoiled clothes and fed him a little of the gruel auntie had cooked up. I was just bending over to put him on my hip to carry him up to the Master’s house, when I heard, as loud as if it was right in my ear, Cuffee’s voice shouting, “No!”

I fell to my knees with the force of it, then found myself in the crook of the big redbud tree in the front yard, sitting on a low horizontal branch next to Cuffee, both of us swinging our legs in the fading light of a setting sun.

Cuffee looked at me and smiled, happier than I had seen him in a long time.

“It’s time for me to go home!”

I never protested anymore, since he always insisted, so I said, “Really? That seems to make you very happy.”

“I am happy,” he said. Except I don’t really know where it is.”

“You don’t?” I said. “Then how do you know it’s your home?”

He laughed at me, a child’s giggle, as if I was the silliest person in the world. Then, more serious, he said, “Will you help me find it, Tuesday? It’s so close, but I just don’t know where to look.”

I felt sorry for him, not knowing what to say. “I want to help you,” I finally said. “Let’s get down and look.”

As soon as we jumped down from the branch (I helped him down), the sun began to light up the sky, so bright, that I held up my hand to shelter my eyes. My little cousin, danced beside me, joy in his voice and in the movements I couldn’t see as much as I could feel in my heart.

“Home!”  Cuffee hugged me. “I love you, Tuesday,” he said. “You will love it where you and Paul and Mama are going. I’ll come talk to you when I can.”

As he walked into the bright light, the world around me darkened, little by little, and I heard Auntie Mim’s voice asking me what I had done.

Paul and Mim and I made our way to a place where other maroons lived. It was a rough journey. But whenever I was worried or sad or just felt bad for leaving Cuffee behind, he would visit me in a dream and tell me, “Tuesday, everything will work out just fine.”

And it did.