The Neighborhood Has Seen Better Days

I’m twelve. Feels like I’ve been twelve forever. Time has been standing still this whole, hot steamy summer. There’s been plenty of chances to sit here on my steps and watch the cars whizz by. Oh, but the motorcycles. They are wonderful. Most people today ride without helmets. Hair flying about. Tee-shirts. Shorts. So cool. So absolutely dangerously cool. I’m so happy lately, living in a fine house with a wonderful mom, belly full, shoes on my feet. Plenty of shoes. Pretty shoes. Lots of dresses and dollies and teddy bears. My room is so nice and warm and purple. I think I even have six pillows. There’s nothing I love better than to climb up on my bed and bury myself in my blankets and dream of days when the neighborhood was a nicer place.

But today, right now, I am sitting on my stoop watching Mrs. Pauley argue with a man in a black suit holding a piece of paper. I remember playing hopscotch with Mrs. Pauley’s kids, racing bikes around the block, selling lemonade at our corner stand, and lazily brushing the dog on her front porch. Lilly, her middle daughter, was my best friend. I had her over to my house for a sleepover at least half-a-dozen times. Lilly kind of liked Tom, Ernie Conrad’s son. Ernie Conrad ran the neighborhood barber shop. My brother Steve was good friends with Tom. They spent many hot summer days in the air-conditioned shop reading Archie comics and sucking on Tootsie Roll Pops. The shop had mirrors on both walls, and the boys would stand and look at themselves in the never-ending reflections. Tiny copies of themselves over and over without end.

But poor Mrs. Pauley. She is right in the middle of trying to live her life. Raising a family of six. Happily married. Always smiling. Buying Girl Scout cookies. Feeding the birds. Serving as a Block Parent. A regular at PTA. Taking us to the community swimming pool, and even braving the cold in December to take us ice skating. A mom’s mom. A real nice lady. So it was very sad when her husband passed away. He had a great job at the railroad. My dad said Mr. Pauley made a lot of money. Things were fine at first, then the trouble started. The two-car family soon became a one-car family. My friend Lilly started going hungry. She ate at our house a lot. She told me her brothers and her sister were living with Mrs. Pauley’s parents. Notices started being posted on the front door. The porch wasn’t swept. Someone stole the wicker chairs. The windows remained filthy. I didn’t see Lilly as much. In fact, she missed a lot of school.

Which brings me to the afternoon I was sitting on the front steps of my porch. It was hot out. No air was moving. Mrs. Pauley was standing in the doorway, looking rather upset. There was a policeman and a county sheriff standing on either side. A man with a briefcase and handful of papers was arguing with Mrs. Pauley. She was starting to cry. I could tell the county sheriff was being sympathetic. Mrs. Pauley pleaded one last time, asking “Isn’t there something I can do?” The official-looking man in the dark suit shook his head no and reached out to post a paper on the door. I could see what it said from across the street. NOTICE TO VACATE.

I looked up and down the street. Trash littered the gutters. A car sat in front of Mr. Baker’s house with four flat tires. There was an empty lot where Ernie Conrad’s barber shop used to be. Most of the front porches were piled up with old furniture, busted exercise equipment and beat-up bicycles. There were broken mini blinds in the windows, and many had no curtains.

It seems the neighborhood had seen better days.

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My Biggest Fear!

I have been a bundle of fears since I was a kid. I was convinced for a long time that there were monsters under my bed waiting to grab me by the foot when I got up to get a drink of water. My daddy gave me a flashlight one time on my birthday, but of course the batteries were always dead. I think I kept leaving it on all night under my covers. I just couldn’t handle all the creaking under my bed and the hollowing out my window. We had a lot of trees around our property, and on really windy nights long talons would dance around, reaching for me, trying to take me away.

It was really rough growing up. I was fat and not very good at sports. I usually ducked at a baseball pitch. I cringed whenever I played dodge ball. I couldn’t get the volleyball over the net. Badminton was just plain stupid. I was always last at track. And I never even considered trying out for football. I didn’t have a lot of friends in school. Yeah, a few, but they were like me, and we just ended up getting bullied together. It was a very painful way to go through school. One of my friends, Ronnie Benner, must have had enough. I don’t know the whole story, but one day he went up to the top of the Shikellamy Lookout over the Susquehanna River and jumped.

I managed to remain alive. I avoided most of the bullies. My plate quickly filled up with extra activities such as stringer photographer for high school sports, local radio station announcements, the yearbook staff, and a local history project. I used to hang out in the soundproof booth in the library and record DJ shows and radio plays. I was able to hide in away high school. Tucked away from all my enemies, whether they be fellow students, thugs who dropped out, or family. The worst thing that happened to me one day after school was being chased down by three bullies, one of which was Ron Mull. Ron’s sister, Lynn, was running with them at the time. The guys held me while Lynn beat the shit out of me. It was so humiliating for two reasons: first, a girl was beating me up, and, two, I had a crush on Lynn.

It didn’t take me long to discover marijuana and alcohol. I started hanging out with a whole new breed of friend. Ones who didn’t pick on me or chase me down the street threatening to kill me. These friends were handing me beers and joints and wanted to sit around and talk. We complained about bullies, and girls, and parents, and cops, and teachers, and having to work. We were convinced everyone was crooked and no one cared about the average kid on the street. We concluded it was our job to fight back. We took what we wanted. We skipped school. We threw rocks through the windows of abandoned warehouses and hunks of ice and snow at passing cars. We stood on railroad overpasses and pissed on vehicles going by. We were showing the world what’s what.

My alcohol consumption and pot use grew out of control. I knew I was using more than those around me. I just couldn’t get through a day without it. I took a hit when I got out of bed. I had bottles of Miller High Life stashed under rocks in cool running streams. Then there was grain alcohol and Vodka picked up for me by Russ, my “of age” best friend. He and I drank and smoked pot day and night. I think at one point my reality and my drugged fantasy got turned around, and I wasn’t sure what was real. It got so bad that I committed a series of felonies while high and got caught. Through a plea bargain, I was able to serve three years in a state prison, then seven years on state parole.

Unfortunately, my drug and alcohol use continued to be a problem. I was an addict and an alcoholic with no idea what to do about it. Days ran together. Weeks became months, and months became years. Nothing changed. I’ll quit tomorrow! But tomorrow never came. I lost cars and apartments and two wives. My youngest son stopped talking to me, despite having a baby. I’m a grandpa. I have yet to hold him. Little Skyler. The good thing is I came to realize all of these consequences and situations were my own doing. After a three-week stay at a drug and alcohol rehab, I signed on to the the idea that I am, all the way down to my toes, an alcoholic and a drug addict. I have accepted this as a fact in my life. And I have come to rely on Jesus Christ as my higher power. I have died with Him in His crucifixion, and I have been risen with Him to live again as a new creation.

My biggest fear is that I will one day return to the frame of mind where I feel justified to imbibe. To grab a joint and “relax.” You know, just one. A chance to let go and chill out. I just know where I’ve been, and I fully understand alcoholism and drug addiction. There is no safe situation in which I can use drugs or get drunk. I can only counter this fear by staying plugged in to the true definition of addiction, to remember what it has cost me in my life, and to realize that the only outcome to a lifetime of drug and alcohol addiction is death. And that is my biggest fear.

Death by Stampede

This is in response to the Writing 101 blog prompt assignment number fourteen. I picked up the closest book, turned to page 29, and noticed a phrase jumping off the page. “Death by Stampede.” It made me think of recent Hajj events in Mecca where pilgrims are trampled to death by stampeding believers. The following is a letter from a girl to her brother about what happened at the latest Hajj. (This is a fictional account.)

Dear Fahim,

It’s morning on the first day. Things are really amazing at Hajj. I’ve never seen this many people. There has to be a million pilgrims here. Maybe more. Today we go to Mina for the stoning of the jamra with pebbles. I was wondering what the significance was. Someone told me it’s actually the stoning of the devil. They told me after the stoning everyone must shave their heads. I’m thinking I’ll look kind of silly, but I’m honored to be here and to participate. If I can crush al nafs al ‘amāra during the stoning of Jamrat al ʿAqaba, then I will have taken the next step in attaining closeness to Allah.

I’ve heard that the stoning of the devil ritual is considered the most dangerous part of the Hajj. Crowd conditions are especially difficult on the final day when people leave the valley of Mina and head back to Mecca. People often get crushed in the crowds. Wish me luck. I’ll finish this letter when I get back from Mina.

Hi, I’m back from Mina. It was so horrible. I really enjoyed the ritual of the stoning of the devil, and everything was going well. I noticed a lot of people camping out until noon. I asked why we were waiting to throw the pebbles. One old man said according to haddith the Prophet Mohammed’s last stoning was performed just after noon prayer. He said scholars feel that the ritual can be done at any time between noon and sunset on this day, but many Muslims are taught that it should be done immediately after the noon prayer. So there were many pilgrims camped out until noon, and then they rushed out to do the stoning.

I was so scared, being pushed along. I was almost being carried rather than walking. I tried to get out of the crowd, thinking it was too dangerous to go. But I couldn’t break free. It was so hot and there were thousands of people. We were almost there when the crowd suddenly started to stumble and break apart. People were screaming. One woman was kneeling down in front of me, holding a child. I saw a lot of blood coming from the child’s head and nose. I think her arm was broken. People tried to steer clear of the woman and child, but they kept on going. No one stopped to help.

I know you told me that there have been many such incidents in the past. Some of them very serious. One of the elders later in the evening told about the time when 244 worshipers were trampled to death. Hundreds more were hurt. Several pilgrims fell off a foot bridge, and others tried to escape the push of the oncoming crowd. He said 340 pilgrims died in a fire at the overcrowded Mina tent camp in 1997.

I just don’t understand why something tragic happens when people are taking the time to travel to the holy city and pay their respects. Why would Allah allow all those people to die? Isn’t there any other way to do this without people getting crushed to death? One senior temple official said all safety measures were in place at the site. He said sometimes “caution isn’t stronger than fate.” If that doesn’t sound like “It was Allah’s will” I don’t know what does. I don’t plan on taking this pilgrimage again in my life.

I can’t wait to come home. This has been a very trying trip.

Love,

Amira

Found: How My Muse Came Back

The Muses were 9 goddesses from Greek mythology who guided the hands and gave divine inspiration to artists, writers, and poets. In colloquial terms, a muse can be a living person who inspires an artist and creates a desire for an artist to create. A muse is a guiding spirit, a source of inspiration of an artist, or a poet. It comes from the Latin musa. If a person says that a person is their “muse” they are calling them their source of inspiration.

I think creativity is essential for a balanced, full life. It is enjoyable, exhilarating, and fun. It needs to be honored and nurtured on a regular basis. Without constant vigilance, it can be easily ignored, impaired or impeded. But there are no exercises, books, or techniques in the world that will help you or your work unless you honestly examine what makes you tick. So, take a moment, sit down and think about your life. Remember, muses are not always attractive, socially acceptable, moral, or lovable. But muses are essential to the practicing artist.

“…as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “she trotted obediently around and became and erratic mistress if not a steady wife.” Most writers either over-discipline their muse or ignore him or her. Well here’s the key to solving your discipline problem. You need to realize you don’t have a discipline problem. You have a relational problem. You can either be a good lover or a failed one, a committed wooer or someone who makes lots of promises but doesn’t deliver. Don’t focus so much on creating a finished product. Enjoy the creative process.

Create a safe, comfortable routine so when your muse shows up she will feel welcome.
Realize that her main job, like infants, is to create messes. Therefore, give her space to make big ones. You can clean them up later. Avoid distraction while you’re spending time with her. No email and no Facebook, please.

If your writing project turns out well, say, “Oh well, I can’t take all the credit. The muse, you know.” If it turns out poorly, say, “Oh well, I can’t take all the blame. The muse, you know.”
If she says something, write it down, even if you’re in the shower. If she said something in the shower and you didn’t take notes, don’t blame her if she doesn’t show up to “work” on time, later. Your muse is great, but just because she gives you a great idea for a new novel, it doesn’t mean you should quit the one you’re working on to go write that one instead.

I have been writing for most of my life. My practice has yielded poems, essays, journal entries and a few short stories. I became an accomplished technical and legal writer through my career as a paralegal. I have also written a lot about spirituality. Unfortunately, I have never been published. I am not always confident when I write. When it comes to creative works, I often fail to finish the project. I have fifty-seven pages of a screenplay which is stuck somewhere in the middle of the second act. I am struggling with a short story based on an event from my teenage years. Hopefully, I will finish it and do the necessary rewrites in time to submit it to this year’s Writer’s Digest writing competition, which has a deadline of May 4th.

I came to realize that something was wrong in my creative life. It seemed I’d lost touch with my muse. I would often sit and stare at a blank document on my laptop, unable to think of a single thing to write about. I would wake up from a wild dream, ready to put fantasy into words. The dream was complicated and wonderful and aroused a plethora of emotions. So why couldn’t I write? Why wouldn’t the words come? This did not make sense. It was as if something was blocking me. Something was standing in the way. This continued for quite some time. It became very frustrating. I had this terrible feeling that time was slipping away. That maybe I was not a writer after all. When I could see no hope, I headed to the local book store.

I discovered a fantastic book on creative recovery by Julia Cameron called The Artist’s Way. Cameron talks about overcoming creative blocks and maintaining a state of flow through the practice of journaling and seeking God. She indicates that God is the Great Artist, and that all creativity comes from Him. She says we need to get in touch with our inner artist, and open up the channels of communication between us and God. She maintains throughout her book that creative inspiration is from and of a divine origin and influence, and that artists seeking to enable their creativity need to understand and believe in this concept. She writes, “God is an artist. So are we. And we can cooperate with each other. Our creative dreams and longings do come from a divine source, not from the human ego.” She says we are often blocked creatively by our internal editor. That harsh, judgmental, limiting, defeating voice that tells us we’ll never amount to anything. That we have nothing good to say. Many times, our internal editor is based on someone who has put us down in real life.

I followed Cameron’s instructs in the book and started writing what she calls “daily pages.” The exercise involves writing four pages every morning upon awakening. No subject. No hesitation. No spell checking or editing. Just writing down whatever comes to mind. This is supposed to get you into the practice of writing. Cameron says if we write immediately upon waking up, we tend to beat the internal editor to the punch. (I guess he has a habit of sleeping in.) I figured if I could get around the harsh criticism of my internal editor, I could reestablish the connection between me and my muse.

What I didn’t realize is that, at least for me, my muse was God. Cameron’s theory of God as the Great Artist struck me as being right on target. I have an inner artist that connects with God and is inspired to write. It is as if I am merely a conduit between myself and my muse. For the longest time, I could not figure out what went wrong. I had written some fairly decent poems over the years. This was especially true when I was emotionally lost, hurt, or crushed. The words were cathartic, and they would often just come pouring out. Now, admittedly, I think my alcoholism and drug addiction caused me to shut down. God could not reach me. The lack of inspiration was on me.

But as I came to grips with my addiction and got treatment, a lot of really bad negative, almost automatic, behaviors went into remission. It’s as if the underlying “static” has gone away, and I can hear what my muse has to say. I can recognize prompts and suggestions. I started carrying a small notebook with me again, and there is a legal pad on my nightstand. I sometimes have to pull the car to the side of the road and start making notes. I have a healthy respect for my muse and for creative ideas, and realize that ideas are fleeting. Never tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll remember it.” That usually doesn’t work. Of course, part of the reason I have found my muse again is because of the writing practice I’m enjoying through response to these Writing 101 blogging prompts. I can’t wait to see where my muse takes me next.

Dark Clouds on the Horizon: Campus Rape

I have finished my response to Writing 101 blogging prompt number twelve: Dark Clouds on the Horizon. I hope you enjoy the results.

I was standing in line at the grocery store last Friday. Couldn’t believe I’d chosen a Friday night to go. The store was so packed I thought it was a holiday weekend. I have become a lot more patient and tolerant over the years, but tonight was just a little rough. The lady in front of me in line kept backing into my cart as she talked to her daughter. There was a mother of three behind me. Her kids were about fed up with waiting, and kept demanding to leave. Then, suddenly, a baby in the next aisle started screaming. Her parents were very young. The father said, “Get her to shut up, will you!” I noticed the customer at the register was having a difficult time coming up with enough money to cover her order. The cashier began taking items off the bill, one at a time, checking the new total each time to see if the customer could pay.

So I decided to entertain myself while I waited my turn. One of my favorite pastimes is eavesdropping. I decided to ignore the craziness around me, zone out from the crowded store, and listen in on a conversation. I think this is one of the curses of being a writer. I read an article one time about listening to others for dialog ideas. The writer of the article said she shamelessly writes about friends and family. This has put her in hot water on several occasions. This is precisely what has stopped me from writing a memoir. How can I possibly be honest, open, and accurate without hurting or embarrassing someone?

I picked up on a conversation happening in the next aisle. Two young men were talking about a party they’d been to last weekend at a local university. Have you read anything about the new “standard” of “yes means yes?” It is a change in the law that is supposed to take all the mystery out of whether a woman wants to have sex with you in your dorm room after imbibing alcohol and stumbling into the elevator and wobbling down the hallway to your door. Before this new proposal, the standard was to stop if she said “no.” You were free to do anything you wanted to your date so long as she didn’t stop you. Silence was deemed to be implied consent. Of course, this has created a lot of problems. Depending on the amount of alcohol your date had consumed, having the presence of mind to know what was happening, and the ability to speak clearly, let alone say “no,” it was possible she would end up doing something she did not want to do.

These two young men inevitably talked about Cheryl, a girl they’d both taken to an off-campus apartment. Cheryl, they said, was smoking hot. She was brunette with dark brown eyes and a fabulous body. It seemed from the conversation that both men knew Cheryl before meeting up with her at the party that night. I was expecting their comments to be nice, flattering. No such luck. Given the things they were saying, it was almost as if they forgot they were standing in line at a grocery store. I, for one, like sex and I love women, but these two had me blushing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was inappropriate! The longer they talked, the more it seemed to me Cheryl was in no shape to knowingly agree to a three-way sexual encounter. In fact, one of the young men said, “There certainly was no ‘yes means yes’’” It seems he was familiar with the latest controversy concerning college rape.

I took two steps back and peeked out over the top of the cold beverage cooler at the end of the check-out isle. I had to see these two guys for myself. Not that I would have recognized them. I was just curious what these obviously aggressive individuals looked like. On the surface, they seemed fairly harmless to me. Good looking men. Well dressed. Well groomed. The only thing noteworthy about them was the smirks on their faces as they talked about what they called their “tag teaming” of Cheryl. For some reason, that phrase made me wonder about Cheryl. What had she said when the two men started to undress her? Was she too drunk to know what was going on? Did she try to stop them? And the biggest question on my mind: Was she too intoxicated to give consent? Was I overhearing a conversation describing yet another campus rape?

I have never considered forcing myself on a woman. I am at a loss as to what causes a man to commit assault and rape on a woman. I think the incidents of campus rape have been on the increase. Unfortunately, one in four women in college today has been the victim of rape, and nearly ninety percent of them knew their rapist. I read a statistic that a woman is raped on campus every twenty-one hours. Alcohol use at the time of the attack was found to be one of the four strongest predictors of a college woman being raped. Of the college women who are raped, only ten percent report the rape. Unfortunately, college women are most vulnerable to rape during the first few weeks of the freshman and sophomore years. This explains why there has been a recent emphasis on safety officer training during orientation.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t sure what to do with this information. I stood there waiting to pay for my groceries, wondering if I should call the police. The young men did not identify the college they were attending. There are three in the area. They had indicated in their conversation that there was no clear indication of “yes means yes.” Indicating that Cheryl might not have consented to having sex with them. As if it were an omen, I noticed a local police cruiser driving by outside as part of normal busy Friday afternoon patrolling. You might not believe me, but that simply made me think that there’s really nothing to report. I had heard of no news stories about a young college woman claiming she was raped. Christ, that’s right, I remembered. Only ten percent of the victims report the attack. Still, I have nothing to go on but the boasting of two college students in the grocery line.

Just before loading my groceries onto the belt, I made a decision to contact the campus police at all three local universities and tell them what I’d overheard. It seemed like a good place to start. The campus officers have good relationships with student organizations and victim’s groups, and can do some checking. I’ll leave them my cell number in case they stumble on something and need additional information. Like what the two young men look like. I felt like at least I was doing something, but I will admit it didn’t feel like enough. So when I got home that evening, I posted a long comment about the incident on Facebook – a warning I guess you should say. After all, if we all don’t start getting involved in these incidents, they are only going to increase. As a lay in bed later, trying to read, my mind went wandering, ending up in some fictitious setting. There, I saw Cheryl laying on a bed, passed out, and the two young men starting to take her clothes off. I pick up the phone and called the police. Nothing like this should ever happen on our college campuses.

“Hello, 9-11, what is your emergency?”

“I’d like to report a possible rape at a local university…”

1971 in a Small Town

It was 1971. I was twelve years old. My parents had moved to a small town in the Susquehanna River Valley in Pennsylvania known as Sunbury. It’s a third class city. It’s located in Northumberland County, and is the county seat. It sits on the east bank of the Susquehanna River, just downstream from the confluence of the North and West Branches of the River. It dates to the early 18th century. Interestingly, it was most likely Shawnee Indian migrants who first settled here. The city and state struggle economically, and are part of America’s Rust Belt.

Dad bought a double home on North Fourth Street, just two blocks off Market Street, where the main business district is located. The home had a large side and a smaller side. We moved in to the larger side and rented out the small side. We also owned a large five-car garage complex at the back of the property, accessible by an alley. Dad put the family car in one of the garages and rented out the others to people in the neighborhood. I thought it was kind of cool that Dad was a landlord. Up to this point, we hadn’t had much money or property.

Our house was quite spacious. We had a large front porch. The front door was original. It was solid oak with a huge piece of beveled glass. There were stained glass windows on both sides of the door. We had an old-fashioned solid brass mail slot. The main entrance opened up into a wide hallway. The staircase to the second floor was made of beautiful dark wood treads and a banister that winded around at the top. There was a set of french doors that opened in to the living room. There was original hardware on the doors, complete with pull chains to release the latches and open them. Our living room was huge, and had three big windows.

There was a family room between the living room and the kitchen. Dad had laid bricks on the floor against the back wall and installed a wood-burning Franklin stove. On most winter nights, we had a nice little fire going in the stove. It was easily the most cozy room in the house. Old-style swinging doors with glass push plates separated the family room and the kitchen. We had a pantry/laundry room combination to the right of the kitchen. This room also served as a mud room, with a door leading out to the back yard. The back porch had a feature I found to be particularly cool. Part of the porch floor was a trap door leading to the cellar. Half of the basement was usable, and the rest was a stone wall dirt filled crawl space. My siblings and I considered this to be the spooky part of the basement.

The upstairs consisted of three bedrooms, a small “office” off the master bedroom, and a very large bathroom. We had a claw foot ceramic tub with a cool drain plug in the form of a long metal tube that we would pull up to let the water out. There was a ceramic knob on the top that had the word “waste” written on it. The bathroom floor was original mosaic tile. There were ceramic tiles part way up the walls, and the top half of the walls were painted. We had a big bathroom window that opened in on hinges. Dad installed a screen on the outside so we could open the window on hot summer nights. The window looked out over a second-floor balcony onto the back yard. There was a nice cherry tree in the middle of the yard. My brother Mike and I would often climb the tree and sit there eating cherries. Mom would come out on the porch and warn us that we’d get a belly ache.

I recently moved back to my home town, and I drive by the old house several times a week. The hedges and the back yard are looking a bit scrawny. The garage building is starting to collapse. The cherry tree has been cut down. There are no longer any young kids running through the neighborhood laughing and playing. One of my Dad’s garage tenants, a retired high school teacher, moved out of her home across the street from our old house, and it’s now occupied by a woman and about seven children. The front porch is cluttered with trash and boxes, and the once-beautiful antique wooden front door was all but destroyed. Ernie Conrad’s Barber Shop has been torn down. My childhood sweetheart, Toni, and her parents have moved on. The auto parts store at the end of our alley has gone out of business.

I considered buying the old house and renovating it, then moving in. It has a lot of potential. Mom could move back. My sister lives across the river. Unfortunately, there is nothing remotely attractive about the old neighborhood. I’m reminded about the lyrics from Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant:”

Then the king and the queen went
Back to the green
But you can never go back
There again.

I’m just content to take this opportunity, through the Writing 101 blogging prompt assignment, to take a trip down memory lane, closing my eyes and seeing those hot summer days in 1971 when I was twelve years old. I’m convince that life will never be like that again.

Point of View: A Walk in the Park

It was the warmest day so far this spring. There’s nothing like a walk in Central Park with the one I love, walking hand in hand, laughing as we talk about nothing in particular. It’s easy to lose yourself in the scenery and the emotion, warm sun lighting upon your face. It seemed as if the birds were there just for us, flying above our heads and singing. She started doing that thing where she bumps in to me on purpose, nudging me. I followed suit, gently crashing in to her. I squeezed her hand and pulled her close. We stopped. I bent down and kissed her.

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you too,” I answered. “Let’s go to the pond and watch the children run their boats.” I was so happy when I learned that kids ran remote control boats on the pond like in the movie “Stuart Little.”

We turned down to the left and continued on the walkway. Two squirrels ran by, playing. A pigeon cooed as it landed a few feet in front of us. As we came around a bend in the path, I noticed an old woman sitting on a bench knitting a red sweater. A bit out of season, I thought, given how warm it was. As we got closer, I was hit with a case of the butterflies in my stomach. There was something familar about this woman. I was about ten feet from the bench when I stopped in my tracks. I started to tremble.

“What is it?” my girlfriend asked.

I couldn’t speak. I just started to cry. The woman looked up and gasped. Our eyes met with an immediate sense of recognition. I couldn’t believe it. My mother had left me with my aunt fourteen years ago. She had struggled with drug addiction for most of her life. She lost custody of me and my sister several times over the years, but could never seem to stop using. There were many times when I’d come home and find her passed out, high, on the couch or the living room floor. I had always hoped she’d be able to beat her addiction. When it got too bad, my aunt agreed to raise us. She left town. I didn’t see her for fourteen years.

Now, here she was. Sitting on a bench in Central Park. Knitting.

“Mom?” I said.

“Glen!”

“I don’t understand. What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Knitting,” she said, smiling.

“Where have you been?”

“I’ve been living in the City for a while now. I went to rehab last year, and I’m clean,” she said.

“I can’t believe this. You look good. How are you?” I asked.

“I’m doing well. For the first time in my life I feel free,” she said. “Who’s this with you?”

“This is my girlfriend, Margie. Margie, this is my mom.”

“It’s so nice to meet you,” said Margie as she reached out to shake my mother’s hand. Mom put her knitting down and stood up. She threw her arms around Margie. Then she turned to me and gave me a huge hug. I couldn’t stop crying. All these years and I run in to my mother knitting on a bench in Central Park. When she left, I thought I’d never see her again. I’ll admit, I thought she was dead by now. She could not stop getting high, and I was sure she’d died of an overdose.

“Mom, will you join us for lunch?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. She put her knitting back in her bag and zipped it shut. I took her hand and turned to face Margie. We just stood there for a minute, taking it all in. Then we all sighed in unison and started down the path back to Fifth Avenue.

My mother was back.

Aubrey’s Cafe

At first, when I read the details of assignment number eight for the Writing 101 blogging prompt, I thought there was no way I could do it. I considered deleting the assignment and moving on to number nine. Then I realized that this was an opportunity to make changes in my writing style. A chance to grow. So I went to a cafe in my mind. One I’d visited before while working in New York City. I recalled the day I sat observing and journaling. Please enjoy the following.

I got there early, hoping to have my pick of seats. I am not comfortable sitting too close to others. The waitress came to my table as I was opening my laptop. This was my first visit to Aubrey’s Cafe, so I asked for the WiFi password. I figured if I suffered a case of writer’s block, I could always go surfing. I ordered a vanilla latte and a chocolate chip muffin.

I glanced around the cafe. There were seven others occupying themselves at their computers while sipping on hot beverages and munching on pastries. Some were pounding on their keyboards. Others were tapping. A few were serious, while others seemed relaxed. But one person grabbed my attention. She was crying while typing. I don’t think she was even aware that there were other patrons in the cafe. Of course I wondered what was bothering her. What could be that upsetting? I remembered the day I was journaling at the Paramount Hotel in the City while waiting for lunch to be brought to my table. I had just gone through a divorce, and was in a negative mood. I got drawn in to what I was writing and didn’t see the waitress standing beside me holding a tray of food. So I understood how it was possible to zone out and be unaware of your surroundings.

Perhaps this woman was reading bad news in an email. Maybe she stumbled onto a sad story in a blog. I found a blog post last week that brought me to tears. A woman wrote about her latest visit with her grandmother who was a resident at a nursing home. She had lost her sight, and was not able to read or watch TV. The granddaughter asked her what she thinks about all day. Does she reminisce about grandpa? The grandmother said, “Yeah, I think about him from time to time. But what I think about the most is how you are doing. What your kids are up to. I think about our trips to the shore. Oh, I loved the beach.” I couldn’t help but think about my own grandmother who spent her last years in a nursing home. I teared up, and my bottom lip quivered.

I opened up Word on my laptop and started to write. Believe it or not, I was so deep into it that I didn’t see my latte and muffin arrive. I’m sure the waitress said something to me, but I never heard her. I just kept writing. By the time I finished what I had to say, I found myself sipping on lukewarm coffee. It was well worth it. I had composed a piece about my grandmother. I couldn’t wait to share it with my mom. Dad had passed away recently, and grandma was mom’s mother-in-law. Mom lost her mother when she was young, and grandma was like a second mom. In fact, grandma went along with mom and dad when they eloped to Maryland. Mom was only fourteen. Grandma signed for mom to get married, stating she was mom’s mother. I always thought that was cool for some reason.

The young woman in the cafe wiped her eyes with a napkin, took one last swig of her coffee, and closed her laptop. She left money on the table and headed for the door. I noticed a man lurking outside and had a funny feeling things were about to get interesting. As she stepped out onto the sidewalk, the man came up to her with an angry look on his face. He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her to him. He said something to her through gritted teeth. She mouthed the words, “I’m sorry,” and stood there as if in complete submission. He made a fist and got in her face. No one on the sidewalk bothered to come to her aid. Most people walked around the couple.

I just sat there watching and taking a sip from my now-cold latte.

Of Incomplete Stories Of Our Own

I have to share this wonderful piece. I’ve read it twice now. I lost my father in December 2014, and this writing brought it all rushing back again.

A CAFFEINATED BLOG

It’s rather strange.. one day, you are talking with a person like there’s no tomorrow, trusting him/her with your secrets, throwing your head back and laughing, unaware of the uncertainties that the future holds. That day, you are telling him/her about how much they mean to you and of how you’ll remain friends forever, ignoring the very existence of irrational forevers. That day, the sunset doesn’t matter, for you know you will meet him/her again. But the next day, the person is gone. Just like that.

There are no more pages to be flipped open. There are no more chapters. The story is over. The book is closed with a rather quiet sound. The lamp beside your bed flickers as you remember your cherished laughter. A cool breeze brushes past your face, drawing two lines against your scarlet cheeks.

You learn never to trust forevers. You learn that fairy tales are…

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Give and Take: A Discussion about FEMA Internment Camps

My father once brought up the topic of FEMA internment camps and what role they would play when the president declares marshal law. The topic intrigued me. I recently overheard two people discussing this matter. The following is a dramatization of that conversation in response to the Writing 101 blogging assignment “give and take.”

“What is the Federal Emergency Management Agency?” asked Robins.

“Simple. It is the secret government that has powers and authority that go well beyond any other agency in the nation,” said Williams.

“What do you mean? What can FEMA do?” Robins wanted to know.

“It can suspend laws. It can move entire populations. It can arrest and detain citizens without a warrant and can hold them without a trial. It can seize property, food supplies, and transportation systems. And it can even suspend the Constitution of the United States,” said Williams.

“I don’t understand. How is that legal?” asked Robins.

“Well, FEMA allows the White House to suspend the Constitutional government on declaration of a national emergency. A series of executive orders was used to create FEMA. It doesn’t matter whether an executive order is Constitutional or not. It becomes law simply by being published in the Federal Registry. These orders go around Congress,” said Williams.

“Yeah, but I understood the original concept, the original mission of FEMA, was to assure the survivability of the United States Government in the event of a nuclear attack. Its secondary function was to be a Federal coordinating body during times of domestic disasters like earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes,” said Robins.

“There are secret black helicopters that are reported throughout the country, mainly in the west in California, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado. They are flown by FEMA personnel. FEMA has been given the responsibility for many new national disasters such as forest fires, home heating emergencies, refugee situations, riots, and emergency planning for nuclear and toxic incidents. It works together with the Sixth Army in the west,” said Williams.

“How is any of this right, though? We live in a free country. It’s a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” said Robins.

“We have to be prepared for insurgency. We have to maintain control. Can you imagine if the banking system collapsed? Or if race riots broke out in all the major cities? We have to have a way to ensure that the government can continue to operate. That the United States survives,” said Williams.

“This sounds a lot like The Hunger Games,” said Robins. “I’ve read online that the Marines will be in charge. That FEMA is only a front for these operations, and that in fact it would be the military and possibly the UN operating the internment camps,” said Robins.

“Look, we have to maintain order,” said Williams.

“What about the idea that citizens will be separated into who shall live and who shall die? There will be lists of people, once arrested under martial law. The so-called FEMA Red and Black lists. When people come up Red Flagged, they will be arrested and taken to the camps, but they will be considered salvageable. They can be rehabilitated or re-educated. But people who are Black Flagged, they will be arrested and put to death. No questions asked,” said Robins.

“You’re reading the wrong Internet sites,” said Williams.

“And Christians see the writing on the wall. There are many more believers in the United States than you might think. And by God’s grace God is raising up more and more committed and informed Christians who see the new world order and the coming martial law tyranny for what it is in light of Scripture, and who are going to their commander-in-chief, God Almighty, for wisdom, and counsel, and direction,” said Robins.

“Well, I, for one, am glad our government is prepared for riots and uprisings,” said Williams.

“And what about the 500,000 plastic air-tight coffins in the middle of Atlanta, Georgia. Apparently, the government is expecting a half a million people to die relatively soon, and the Atlanta Airport is a major airline traffic hub. Probably the biggest in the country, which means Georgia is a prime base to conduct military operations and coordination. It is also the home of the Centers for Disease Control. I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but usually you don’t buy 500,000 plastic coffins just in case something happens. You buy them because you know something is going to happen. These air tight containers would be perfect to bury victims of plague or biological warfare, wouldn’t they?” said Robins.

“Yeah, well the lot they filmed for that Internet story is a Vantage storage facility in Madison, Georgia. Of the 900,000 or so in-ground burials in America each year, a small percentage of those people pre-arrange their own caskets and vaults, which Vantage holds at the storage facility until the appropriate time. According to the company vice president of operations, Michael Lacey, there are approximately 50,000 vaults in storage in Madison. It’s nowhere near the quantity they talk about on the Internet. Lacey also said the company maintains detailed records of product ownership, and it’s audited annually to insure all vaults are accounted for,” said Williams.

“So you’re in denial about what FEMA’s real power is?” said Robins.

“I really think you need to reconsider what you believe when you surf the Internet,” said Williams.

“And I think you need to take a good, hard look at what’s really going on. I, for one, am not going anywhere when the UN troops come barreling down my street. I have plenty of fire power in my basement. They’re not taking me without a fight,” said Robins.

“Looks like we’re just going to have to agree to disagree,” said Williams.