Magnum Opus

To me, there nothing so sacred an office as parenthood.

But with every superpower, comes the great weight of responsibility.

Helping someone get from here…

…to here.

It’s the most daunting…

…most joyful…

..most challenging position I’ve ever held.

The job description is clear. When they are tiny, love them.

Nurture them.

Love them some more.

We have a few short years to raise and guide them, and allow them to find their own way to shine.

To help them acquire the skills they need to paddle their own canoe.

To allow them to test their wings.

To give them every opportunity to make decisions and exercise their own power.

Even so, one of the greatest challenges we have as parents is to let them grow up.

A few years ago, with the kids’ encouragement, we stepped out of our comfort zone into the Amazon jungle.

To ride a zip-line over the jungle canopy we had to reach a platform 125 feet above the jungle floor. Instead of letting our guide use pulleys and ropes to haul them up, they insisted on pulling themselves up, step by step.

As they dangled from a single rope a hundred feet up, I thought of the book Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte considered her egg sac, from which her babies hatched, her ‘magnum opus.’ One by one, the baby spiders spun a fine web into a tiny balloon and rode the breeze, floating off into the world to land somewhere and build a web of its own.

I couldn’t have been prouder–or more relieved–when they climbed to the top under their own power.

We have all traveled well together…

…but children must be free to choose their own direction, just as we did when we were young.

I quell my panic when one of my chicks…

..leaves the safety of the home harbor.

I trust them to stay calm, exercise good judgement, weather the storms…

…and any other unforeseen dangers.

We cut them loose from the mother ship, then hope and pray they find a soft landing place…

…and a bright future.

 

And that, every now and then, they remember to phone home.

All words and images ©2015NaomiBaltuck

Never Had a Chance


‘Never had a Chance’

Baby Mila was lying in the crib wearing an oxygen mask. The hissing created a rhythmic sound similar to a meditation mantra. Her dainty thin arm was impaled with a needle to feed her from the IV drip. At the side of the crib, she sat with tear filled bruised eyes quietly watching her near-death baby girl.

When would she get the strength to leave him?

She thought, ‘Lord, I need strength and guidance. I can’t go on like this or go it alone.’

A few nights before she’d raged at the clock. It was almost midnight and he hadn’t come home from work. She felt relief and fear all-in-one ball deep inside her stomach. She knew he’d be drunk and nasty. Why did she even care?

Things had progressed to extreme bouts of violence. Growing up she’d never experienced anything like this. It was an unknown behavior to her. Violence was a foreign visiter she loathed. She knew one thing for sure, love isn’t supposed to hurt. Love doesn’t make you doubt yourself. Love doesn’t inflict fear and anxiety.

What had changed?

Was he always this way?

He’d kept it hidden so well?

She had so many questions with no answers. But, did she want to even know the answers?

This time he’d gone too far. He almost killed my baby girl. Sure, he’d whack her behind. He’d scream at her. He even took a belt to her once or twice. A fifteen month old could be frustrating for any parent. For a stepfather, who disliked kids, it was hellish. This time was going to be the last time. No more!

She never condoned his aggressive acts towards Mila. The welts she’d see when she’d get home from work tormented her when she had to leave her with him. He’d claim the bruises were an accident. She’d fallen off a chair or bumped into a wall. She was furious when he did, but helpless to stop him.

What about the tattoo patterns from cigarette burns? Were they an accident too? He never took responsibility for any of it.

The social worker came to see her at the hospital. She said she’d help her get out of this violent situation but it would take time. In the meantime, they’d be taken to a new place to live when Mila was released from the hospital.

Mila was her little miracle. Her name, Milagros, means miracle. Perhaps, her being released from the hospital was a miracle from her to me.

A court date for a restraining order would be next. If he was tried for child abuse I’d have to testify before the judge in court. The thought of it chilled her to the bone. She knew she’d be afraid and full of terror.

Could she bring herself to do it?

The social worker repeatedly said, “These things take time. She’d have to be patient.” But, time wasn’t what she wanted to hear her say. She wanted to be safe. She needed help now.

Days after taking Mila to the new apartment the doorbell rang. She hesitated to open the door. She had a premonition he’d be on the other side. He was.

He pleaded with her. He said he wanted to talk about their relationship. He wanted her to just listen to his apology. He’d leave right after.

She panicked. For fear he’d never go away she conceded and let him in. He tried to kiss her. She could smell liquor. Shaking, she told him to talk and then leave. When he started to talk, all she heard were muffled sounds. It was as if she’d gone deaf. She didn’t care about what he had to say. She just wanted him gone.

When Mila saw him, she began crying. She went and picked her up. He followed. He grabbed her arm with one hand and gestured a fist with the other. Scowling, he push her down on the couch. She screamed in fear. Mila cried louder. She went mute. Her head was spinning. He’d pounded her head mercilessly. It was then she realized he had Mila in his grasp. Screaming at her and shaking her fragile body he threw her against the wall. She slid down like she was melting. Dazed, she finally got up. Before she could reach her, he threw several punches at her again knocking her to the floor. His rage increased the more Mila cried. She pleaded with him to let her go. She begged him to stop. She told him she’d stay with him. Her despair fell on deaf ears. He picked Mila up by her shoulders, once again, and threw her at the wall in a crazed fury. Blood splattered everywhere from her crushed head. She cried no more.

Neighbors, hearing the screams and chaos, had called the police. He fled as he heard the sirens. They caught him as he descended the stairwell. His bloodied clothes, the proof.

He was given a life sentence for murder. And I, a life sentence of sorrowful pain.

© 2018, Isadora de la Vega

***** Short Story based on notes from a patrolman’s on-duty memo book
***** The names have been changed to protect the innocent. For more information: National Children’s Advocacy Center

***** National Statistics on Child Abuse:
In 2015, an estimated 1,670 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States.1 In 2015, Children’s Advocacy Centers around the country served more than 311,0002 child victims of abuse, providing victim advocacy and support to these children and their families.
For more information click here: National Children’s Alliance

 

Whispers on an April Morning Breeze

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Battle of Lexington, 1775

The standoff had not gone on for long, just after the sun began coming up over the meeting house, the far steeples of Boston and the ocean between us and who we wanted to be.

But the Regulars didn’t care if it was day or night. They could kill us with their eyes closed, if their commander, or we, let them.

A few hours before, most all of us were in the Buckman Publick House, drinking ale and rum, some smoking pipes. The rest of us, mostly lads like me, got our first real tastes of adult courage off the drink, the smoke and the rhetoric of our elders that night.

“Gentlemen, let there be no great fear of the regulars should they enter our town,” said Captain Parker, his own red coat hanging from the back of a chair. “We shall stand our ground and show them our resolve to hold onto what is rightly ours as lawful citizens of His Majesty,” he whispered and then coughed.

The Captain has the consumption, I’m told by Mother, his cousin, so all the smoke in the room from the hearth and the men’s pipes harmed his breathing quite sorely. That and his harsh coughs practically choked the great man, making him difficult to hear. So I edged up close to him. That seemed to make me feel braver. He’d fought for the Crown in the late war against the French and knew well the tactics and propensities of the Redcoat soldier. If he didn’t sound like he would die by next harvest, I would have had a run at Gage’s whole bloody army by myself.

At sunrise, Thaddeus Bowman, the last scout the Captain had sent out, come bursting into the tavern.

“They’re here, they’re here,” he said in a voice nearly as choked as Captain Parker’s, though not from the consumption. “They’re right behind me, Sir, and this time they are coming in force. Maybe three, four hundred of ‘em,” I heard him tell the Captain. I grabbed my Papa’s old fowler and headed for the door.

About half of us unknotted ourselves from the doorway and ran out into the front yard of the tavern. Everything had an eerie glow to it, ourselves included, from the combined moon’s and sun’s lights shining upon us. I took this as an omen of what lay ahead for us this day and said to my cousin Amos, “The Lord is with us, cuz. He most surely is. We have right on our side and will not be bullied from our own field by redcoated tavern scum.”

The fact that our whole company had spent the night in a tavern, many tasting its wares, and were blinking in the new day’s smoldering light, suddenly arose upon me and I’m sure my face took on a wholly different glow, the hue of a boiled lobster.

All eighty of us men and boys who had been in the tavern began to form ranks on the village common. It was a damned ragged line compared to the ones of the approaching Regulars. They looked like they had been formed buy some great carpenter’s square. We, while most resolute, took on the form of a snake-rail fence.

Over by the road, I could see my grandfather and sister out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look and wave a greeting, but our sergeant, William Munro, gave me a strike from his musket barrel and whispered hot blasphemy and spit in my red ear. But now Grandfather and Deliverance could see where I stood.

Captain Parker walked down our column and looked like Grandfather when he had to dispatch poor old Benedict, his sorrel, when the gelding’s time had come. This did knock all those mugs of my previous courage from my head past my heart and from there to my feet.

“Men, we shall stand our ground, but not provoke the Regulars. Most of our militias’ powder and supplies at Concord have already been safely hidden away,” Captain Parker said. “We’ve all seen the Regulars on such fishing expeditions before. Once they find nothing, they will march back to Boston and we can get back to our lives until the next time.”

Sergeant Munro stalked up and down our lines out there on the Common, truing us up into a more respectable looking force.

“We’re not here to block their advance to Concord, lads,” he said. “We’re just going to show them we shall not be cowed by their brutish arrogance. And to insure we do that to our best abilities, I want you, boy, to move to the rear of our lines. Or better yet, across the road to your family. You are at heart a coward. You have no character and don’t deserve to stand with these honorable men.”

Mister Munro never did have much truck with me. Not since he caught me talking to his daughter, Abigail, behind the Meeting House without an adult family member within arm’s length. He pushed me backwards with the butt of his musket, but I just lined up behind Prince, the Estabrooks’ towering Negro, where he stood in the back row.

Now that Sergeant Munro had squared us up, I could peer through the gaps between men and see the Redcoats approach, their leader riding a fine black.

The sun had climbed high enough for us to see the Regulars advancing on the road to Concord now. They marched as one, dully, with little life to their strides and less to those faces we could make out. They looked for all the world like they were marching in their sleep, their shoes and gaiters caked with drying mud. The only liveliness to this red mass on the road to Concord were their drumbeats, the clinking metal of their equipment and the glint of dawn light on their buttons and weapons.

I felt a chill beyond the normal cold of an April morning and shivered as I stood with Papa’s fowler in my hands. I’d loaded it yesterday with birdshot and a ball, reckoning, if need be, my aim was poor with the rifle ball, I’d at least get a piece of one of the Regulars like he was a pheasant. Instinctively, I pulled the hammer to half-cock. My knees shook and I knew not if it was a shiver from that chill or from something I didn’t wish to admit. Perhaps Munro was right after all. Maybe I was a coward.

But I held my ground. I would not let Munro or the Redcoats run me off. No more.

Just as the wind shifted into our faces, Captain Parker raised his short sword and his rasp wafted over us, saying something like, ”Stand your ground, men. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Or so Amos told me later.

I heard another click.

A murmur went through the men ahead of me. Out on the road, the column’s advance guard, rather than taking the left fork to Concord, turned to right and then toward us. I could hear the shouted orders run down their column. I saw the big black horse of their commander turn from the road, leading even more Regulars to the left, close enough for me to throw a rock and hit one. They now formed a solid wall of red before our motley line of farmers and tradesmen.

The officer on the black then rode forward, waving his sword, and called out for us disperse. On the breeze I heard him shout, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!”

More orders were yelled down the lines of Regulars. Men within our company began to look at one another, talking all at once. The line looked like it was a row of rye waving in that breeze in our faces.

I could see our Captain Parker say something. I could barely hear his voice, it was now so faint. He lowered his sword and pointed it to the ground. Many in the front line began to back away from the regulars, others stood in alert position as if waiting for someone to say something like an order, show them what to do beside stand as statues.

At the shout of “Poise firelocks,” the Redcoats brought their muskets, bayonets shining in threat at their muzzles, to a position upright in front of them. Most of our men stood stock still.

Next across from us we heard, “Cock firelocks,” and saw the mounted officer shouting at his men and waving his sword, as angry at them as at us. Our line held as Captain Parker shouted in his consumptive whisper.

The breeze died and suddenly the whole world went quiet as the grave. Neither side appeared like it was going to move and no one wanted to stay. Sergeant Munro had left his position at the left end of our first rank. He walked back from the killing ground between the lines and came trotting toward the road with a fearful look as he stared right past me. I, the coward who couldn’t stand like a man to request permission to speak with his daughter. I, the boy who he wished was standing on the other side of the Boston Road.

I took a deep breath and let it out. This impasse between us all would end today.

I touched off my fowler over his head and watched Munro drop to the ground as if he was a baby cowering from a thunderstorm. Or he thought himself dead. Almost instantly there came a roar of a different kind. Red coated men advanced like lions, growling and howling like wild beasts, some firing their muskets. All of them thrusting forward their bayonets.

Some of our men fell like empty grain sacks where they stood, huge holes in their heads and bodies. Others spun like tops, choking on blood and prayers.

We ran for the trees, over rock walls and newly blossoming shrubs. More fell around me. Behind me all I could see was a cloud of sulfurous smoke with glimpses of shadow men, some in what appeared to be pink coats, and flashes of shiny metal within. But I could hear the screams of men so unluckily slow as to taste the steel of Sheffield, and not on their tongues.

Ahead lie the road to Concord, along which I last hunted turkey. That day, April 19, 1775, I hunted my fellow man. That night, I wept, my head upon Mother’s lap, and then gathered my things and marched toward Boston.

No one ever again thought me a coward, even though I don’t believe I took another full breath for the next six years. Not at Breed’s, Quebec, Valcour, Saratoga nor any other of the horrible places I never spoke of to Abigail Munro, who became my wife and the mother of our eight children.

They never met their grandfather, but know he was there with me the day the War for Independence began. That was the day his war ended and I began ours.

A short story based upon what’s considered the first bit of face-to-face armed resistance that ultimately lead to the independence of the thirteen colonies from the rule of the British Empire. In this case, it was a young man’s resistance to the strict and judgmental father of his sweetheart that led to The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

© 2017, Joseph Hesch

Telling It to the Walls

A poor widow was living with her two sons and their wives. They treated her shamefully, but the old woman had no one to turn to with her woes and nowhere else to go, so day after day she suffered in silence.  Her sons and daughters-in-law mocked her, and begrudged her every crumb of bread, every grain of rice.  Even as the widow starved, her misery grew.

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One day, when she could no longer bear the pain, she slipped out of the house and walked down the road.  She had no idea where she was going, until she came to a house so decrepit there wasn’t even a roof left. She felt strangely drawn to the deserted house and stepped inside.

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To her surprise, she found herself telling the nearest wall her grievances against her firstborn son, whom she had showered with love from the first time she felt him quickening inside her, and who now had no use for her.

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As she finished, the wall crashed to the ground under the weight of her sorrow, and she felt her burden grow lighter.

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She turned to the next wall and the tears flowed as she described the cruelty of her first son’s wife…

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…who gave her only rags to wear and threatened to send her out with a bowl to beg.

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The second wall collapsed and she grew lighter still.

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She told the third wall about her second son’s ill treatment…

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…and the fourth wall her complaints against his wife.

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When she was finished, the old woman stood amidst the wreckage, watching the dust settle.  She still had nowhere else to go, but as she turned homeward to face her life,  just for the telling of the tale, she felt lighter in body and spirit than she had in a long, long time.


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–Retold in Apples From Heaven, Copyright 1994 & 2016 Naomi Baltuck.


Risistance Is NOT Futile

All the stars and planets were aligned…Just after the election I had a birthday, which I share with my binary brother, Lewis.  In sixty years we’ve never spent a birthday apart. Like so many of us, he was shocked, saddened, crushed by the election results.  There was only one thing to do.  We played space age hooky, beamed him out of the office and transported ourselves to the Seattle Center.

Specifically, to the EMP, which is celebrating 50 years of Star Trek.

I hardly remember life before Star Trek. And talk about The Next Generation! My children absorbed Star Trek by osmosis in utero. As I ascended the stairs to the EMP tribute, the Star Trek theme song elicited a visceral response that only gets stronger as I get older.  I’ve lived long enough now to see many of these stories played out on my planet in real time.


The Star Trek universe was built upon a future where poverty was eliminated, equality and diversity went hand in hand, and the good of the many took precedence over the few.  Humans had learned to cooperate, and put an end to war.  All of Earth and the Federation of Planets collaborated on peaceful missions of exploration.  What a concept!  A bit rosy, but a vision worth striving for.

Lew and I arrived early and shared the floor with only a few others, including a very cute couple in Star Fleet uniforms.

Lew and I shared a womb for nine months, and managed to both fit into a Borg Regeneration Chamber too.

Star Trek had action and adventure, but was also thoughtful and intelligent.  Writers could get away with astute critical social commentary, because it was all happening in another universe. Thinly veiled stories posed tough questions about civil rights, social disparity and racism in our own society.

Martin Luther King was marching for basic civil rights and a place at the lunch counter for African Americans when Classic Trek was filmed, featuring a black woman as fourth in command on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

It wasn’t long before a woman would captain the Federation Starship Voyager.

A black man was in command of the space station, Deep Space Nine.

Julian Bashir, whose Arabic name means “bringer of good news,” was the doctor on DS9.

In the original series Lt. Sulu was played by George Takei, who is gay.  Fifty years later, in the most recent Star Trek movie, writers gave Sulu a child and a husband, a powerful tribute to the actor who first brought Sulu to life. More importantly, it was an unwavering moral and political statement of inclusiveness that brought tears to my eyes.

For just a little while, it felt good to be in a place of Equal Opportunity bridges, and not walls.  Right now we are in the middle of our own episode, so scary it seems like science fiction, with the world we’ve worked so hard to build spinning out of control.  The incidence of hate crimes is rising dramatically.  Social security is threatened.  Fifty years of social progress is at risk as minorities, immigrants, women, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, and the poor are in danger of being disenfranchised.  The environment is on the brink of ruin beyond recovery because in this episode The Almighty Dollar is worshipped at all costs.  In this story, we don’t have other worlds to relocate to after we’ve ruined this planet. Too many episodes begin with civilizations that have self-destructed, or are ruled by uncaring masters who live in the clouds in their own decadent paradise, while the workers they exploit to maintain their lifestyle live in a harsh ugly world. You probably saw “Patterns of Force,” the episode pictured below; there are people old enough to have lived through that reality, and who recognize the signs in our country today.

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If we wait until the 24th century to be rescued, or for ‘enlightenment’ to kick in, we’re going to find ourselves back in the Dark Ages wondering what happened.  Anyone who has watched Star Trek knows how difficult it is to travel back in time to change the future.  Star Trek’s writers say,  “…start by picking a resolution…then plan each step so it drives the story toward the ending you want…”

Every episode needs conflict to give a story purpose and move the plot forward.  Star Trek writers created a terrifying foe called The Borg...”individuals who have been captured and assimilated…and transformed into mindless worker drones…What’s frightening about the Borg is not their violence…They are unhampered by empathy for other beings, believing their way is perfection…The Borg are, in essence, a virus that uses civilizations as its hosts.”

Can you see where our country is headed?  We will NOT be assimilated. Our story must end with a world where people of every race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation live and work together, without fear of banishment, punishment or judgement simply for being who they are.  Our story must end with respect, inclusivity, and compassion for all.  We must do whatever it takes to make it so.  The reason Star Trek has become such a lasting legacy is because it is hopeful and empowering and delivers a message we need to hear.  The captain’s chair is ready.  Let’s take our tall ship, keep an eye on that star to steer her by, and go full speed ahead, warp factor 10.  Whatever happens, please remember…Resistance is NOT futile.  It is the only way we ever have or ever will make any headway, and it will be a crucial message to the next generation.

©2016 Naomi Baltuck

 

 

A More Perfect Union

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As the latest election newscast droned on, the old man sighed and muted the television.

“Y’know, I’ve met a couple of presidents. And some presidential candidates, too,” Grandpa Ed Duryea said to thirteen-year-old Grace one afternoon.

“You did? Which ones?”

“Well, there were Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter back during the Bicentennial. That’s 1976 to you youngsters who may not care that this country has a proud history spanning almost 250 years.”

“I know that,” Grace said with a tiny pout.

“Even met Trump and Hillary Clinton, though neither when they were running for President then,” Ed said.

“Really?”

“Yup. Then there was Rodney Schuyler Beauchamp.”

“Who?” Grace said, her eyes widening.

“You never heard of Rodney Beauchamp?” her Pa said.

“Of course not. Nobody by that name ever ran for president,” Grace said.

“Well, that’s where you’re wrong, Gracie. And Beauchamp was probably the most presidential man I’ve ever met,” Ed replied. The old man then walked out to the kitchen for another mug of coffee.

“You can’t just leave me hanging here with that bit of information and just walk away, Pa,” Grace said as she followed her grandfather into the kitchen. “Who the heck was Rodney Beauchamp?”

Ed stirred some creamer into his mug of Colombian Suprema. He clinched a larger smile down to his wry grin, the one that Grace knew could bring on a great tale of his reporter days or an even greater lie.

“1970 it was. Rodney lived on a farm with his brother Roland near Mooers Forks, up on the Quebec border. Got tired of all these hippies and privileged draft dodgers running through his place day and night to sneak into Canada,” Ed said, nudging his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“I read about that. Some guys refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War and ran off to Canada. Right?”

“Correct, hon. It was as divisive a time in our history as I’ve seen in my sixty-odd years. Peaceful protest turned into violent police, even military, pushback. Racial strife leading to flaming riots in big cities from coast to coast. And Roland’s orchards and pastures became his own Ground Zero of protest. He was ticked off at the government and wasn’t going to take it anymore,” Pa said.

“So that’s why he decided to run for President?” Grace asked. She rocked her chair closer to her grandfather.

“Not…exactly.”

“But you said…”

“I said he was ticked off, but there’s a little more to the story. See, those bachelor farmers don’t have much of a life but cultivating, herding and milking, from before dawn to after sundown. Their pastime is reading their Bibles and the news. In the Beauchamp brothers’ case, that wasn’t just the Adirondack Enterprise, but included the Montreal Gazette…a major newspaper without any biases here in the States.”

“So?” Grace said, blinking.

“So Rodney and Roland looked at the whole American geopolitical scene as world citizens, not just North Country farmboys. And they didn’t take kindly to how we got neck-deep in the Big Muddy of the Mekong with that whole Tonkin Gulf decision letting LBJ essentially declare war, when it’s actually the role of Congress, not the President. They felt the powers that be had ripped and set fire to their Constitution. That and all those boys tearing up their farm on the road to Canada settled Rodney’s decision.”

“To run for President…”

“Actually, to BE President. He figured if the Constitution was no longer the law of this land, he’d make it the law of his own land. So Rodney declared his two hundred acres the sovereign United State of America and himself as its President,” Ed said with that grin again.

“Awww, Pa…” Grace said, pushing her chair back and turning to leave the kitchen.

“After the United State army——Roland——chased off some conscientious interlopers by seasoning their backsides with light shotgun loads and rock salt, the State Police found out there was a new country between the old USA and Canada. Rodney and Roland chased them off, but then US marshals declared war on their United State. They stormed the farmhouse before dawn. Roland was ready, but outgunned. That’s when Rodney declared an armistice. The Feds put Border Patrol officers on Rodney’s boundary with Canada and the influx of ‘undesirable aliens’ coming through Rodney’s United State national cow pasture dropped a trickle,” Ed said.

“Sure, Pa,” Grace called from the living room.

Ed shook his head and recalled the last words he heard Rodney say before they hauled him off to jail and put Roland in the back of the coroner’s station wagon.

“You have no standing in my country. You don’t have jurisdiction to make me do or not do anything. I’m a proud citizen and President of this United State and here, under our constitution, I decide those things. And you can’t stop us. This is just the beginning. Your failed nation no longer has a moral or political center, no rudder. You’re adrift. I don’t think you’ll ever get back to being the real United States anymore,” Rodney Beauchamp said.

“That was one tough old bird,” Ed said under his breath.

He pulled his laptop in front of him and clicked up the New York Times’ site. After reading a few stories there, he visited the Plattsburgh Press-Republican’s site. After ten minutes, he returned to the den where he and Grace had started this history lesson. She had changed the channel from CNN to Fox, which she always laughed at, but her grandfather shook his head at both channels.

“You know, Gracie, not too many days have gone by since they took old Rodney away that I haven’t seen something that made me think he was onto something with that ripped-up Constitution idea. I’ve seen it twisted and folded and sometimes mutilated by the ruling class and the common man alike,” he said, slumping into his leather chair. He knew he couldn’t stand to watch any more election fallout stories. His constitution couldn’t take much more.

“Would you turn on the PBS station, please, Gracie? I think it’s time for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. I think I need my sense of right, wrong and the fair treatment of your fellow man…or tiger… reinforced.”

© Joe Hesch

All Things Are Connected

The chief of a certain village had many advisors.

If there was something he wanted done, he would order it done, and it would be done.”Is it a good thing?” the chief would ask. Whether it was a wise decision or no, his counselors always agreed.  Those who did not were beaten.  There was one counselor who never said ‘yes’ and never said ‘no.’  This counselor would consider the matter and reply, “All things are connected.”


One night when the chief couldn’t sleep, he became aware of the noisy croaking of the frogs in the nearby marshes.  Once it came to his attention, he found himself listening for it each night.  The sound annoyed him so much he ordered all the frogs killed.


“Do you agree with my plan?” he asked.  His counselors all agreed, except for the one, who warned, “All things are connected.”  “Pah!” said the chief, and that night he sent his people to the marshes to kill frogs.

They killed frogs and they killed frogs until there were no frogs left to kill.

“Ah,” said the chief. “Now I shall be able to sleep.”
That night he slept very well, and for many nights thereafter.

But one night he heard another annoying sound.  “Zzzzzz…Zzzzz…Zzzzzzzzzzzz…”

He summoned his counselors.  “The mosquitoes are worse than the frogs!  Why didn’t you tell me they would rise in swarms and eat us alive without the frogs to eat them?  Tonight I will send my people to the marshes to kill all the mosquitoes!” So they killed mosquitoes and they killed mosquitoes. But as many they killed, there were many more left. The mosquitoes made life so miserable that everyone left their fields and homes to start new lives far away, until the village was deserted, except for the chief and his family.


All day long the chief sat alone in his hut, swatting mosquitoes and muttering, “All things are connected.” But it was too late for the frogs. Too late for the village. Too late for the chief.  Finally he too moved away.

The wise understand that all things are connected…

By the ground we walk on…

By the air we breathe…

By the the water we drink…

By the rhythm of the heart.

All things are connected…

…and hang by a delicate thread.

Where is the balance between give and take?

Can we learn the difference between just enough…

…and too much?

All…

…things…

…are…

…connected.

What kind of world do we want to leave our children?

The answer is in our hands.

All words and images copyright 2016 Naomi Baltuck

 

You Just Never Know

Once upon a time, there was a swamp that was home to many creatures, including…

…frogs. 

Two frogs decided to see the world.  They went hop-hop, hop-hop-, hop-hop down the road in search of adventure.

They came to a big farm, and croaked out a cheery greeting to the dairy cows.

Then they went inside the big barn to explore.

There were so many new and exciting things to see in there!

But as they jumped about, they accidentally landed in a big pitcher of cream.

They tried to climb out, but the sides were too steep and slippery, and they slid back into the cream. Even frogs don’t like to die: they tried everything they could think of to escape.  When that didn’t work, they tried everything they couldn’t think of.

“It’s no use!” said the first frog. “We’re doomed!” And he sank down into the cream and disappeared.

But that second little frog…she kept swimming about with all her tiny frog might, just to keep from drowning.  The cream began to block her eyes and nose. Just when she thought she couldn’t swim another stroke, she felt something strange beneath her feet.  She was standing on a big lump…of butter!  With the brave paddling of her own tiny frog legs, she had churned that cream into butter.  She leapt out of the bowl and went hop-hop, hop-hop, hop-hop down the road, in search of another adventure.

 

All words and images Copyright Naomi Baltuck

A Perfect World

Four years ago my daughter Bea and I flew down to California to scout out Stanford. Last week the whole family flew in for her graduation.

She showed us the hotspots around town.

For sentimental reasons we brunched at an Anatolian restaurant. My Turkish ravioli with garlic yogurt sauce was a hit.

 

Amidst the chaos we found a shady spot for a game of Pandemic.

And saved the World.

We dined with the parents of Bea’s friend, Ben Bravo, who was gifted with the perfect name for a superhero or the hero of a romance novel!  After four years of hearing such good things about them, it was great to meet all the Bravos.

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Then we partook of a time-honored graduation ritual…in which the graduate’s family arrives with empty suitcases and packs up her stuff while she flits in and out, saying hello to her friends’ visiting parents, and farewell to her friends.

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Saturday morning was the Baccalaureate.

We heard a Buddhist Singing Bowl, a prayer of the Ojibway Nation, a reflection by Bea’s friend Zainub, Taiko drumming, and other benedictions, a celebration of spiritual diversity and mutual respect.

Bea graduated with honors, with distinction, and awards, including The Amy Levy and a Fulbright.  She had her village. Bea was…blessed is the only word that will do…to have been mentored by such remarkable professors as Dr. Gabriella Safran…

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…and Dr. Allyson Hobbs, whose hearts are as large as their intellects, and who kindly took my chick under their wing. Their encouragement made all the difference.

Bea and her brother are very close, besties, village peeps.  Eli traveled from Mexico to help her pack up, to celebrate and support her, even though he had to fly out at dawn on Sunday, missing the Commencement.

But Bea’s besties Denise and Marcus remained to cheer her on.

An airplane circling overhead trailed a message. Like many universities, Stanford is accused of sweeping those stories–and victims–under the rug, or throwing them under a bus, especially when the perpetrators are college athletes.

At Stanford commencement opens with a procession known as The Wacky Walk.

As individuals…

…or in groups…

…students parade around the stadium free to express themselves as they choose.

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I liked the funeral procession for the fallen GPA, with a trumpet playing Taps.

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Some protested after a Stanford swimmer was slapped on the wrist for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Had two students not witnessed the crime, intervened, and apprehended him, I doubt there would’ve been any consequences for the rapist. The victim will be traumatized the rest of her life, but the actions of two heroes and the resulting prosecution sends a message to sex offenders. This time the message is “Don’t get caught,” but one day people might grow up learning to “Treat everyone, even women, with respect.”

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Grads welcomed commencement speaker Ken Burns, a legendary filmmaker who has spent his life shedding light on The Civil War, The War, The West, The National Parks and more.

A stark contrast, from Wacky Walk to observing a moment of silence in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence, and victims of the massacre at a gay club in Orlando that morning. I blinked back tears when the audience spontaneously began counting aloud for each victim of that vicious hate crime…47, 48, 49. Pure pride and joy for my child turned to trepidation at sending her out into our broken world.

Ken Burns proved there’s still intelligent life on the planet, and even in America. His speech was wise and courageous. He ventured off the safe path to politics. Referring to the LGBTQ massacre in Orlando,”We must ‘disenthrall ourselves’…from the culture of violence and guns.”

He implored grads to defeat Trump, “…a person who easily lies…who has never demonstrated interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims…an infantile, bullying man…willing to discard old and established alliances and treaties…Asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747…”

A few people booed, but the majority burst into cheers. Ken concluded…  “We must remain committed to the kindness and community that are the hallmarks of civilization…”  Click here and scroll down for Mr. Burn’s excellent closing advice to grads. 

The Class of 2016, at Stanford and throughout the US, has scattered, gone home, to a new job, grad school, even to Mongolia on a Fulbright.

It’s an exciting time, and a little scary as these young adults test their wings and search out their flight path in the Real World.

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Bless them all!  We should have gift-wrapped a bright shiny world and tied it in a bow for them. Instead we’ve left them a mess and must ask them to help us save our precious broken world.  It isn’t a game, neatly laid out on a board, with the rules spelled out, and a clear path to winning clearly stated in the instructions.

Perfection is possible only in a perfect world.  Do you think we could ever commit ourselves to kindness and community, and treat each other and our planet with respect?  Because that would be close enough to perfect for me.

Except for quotes by Ken Burns, all words and images©2016NaomiBaltuck

 

The First Book That Shaped Me

Monument to brothers Grimm on the market place in Hanau. (Hessen, Germany)
Monument to brothers Grimm on the market place in Hanau. (Hessen, Germany)

“A book that changed my life” is not an easy theme for me personally. Mainly because, from my point of view, every book (or almost every book) I read changed my life in one way or another, so I could stop at many, many titles and make lists of reasons why they played such an important role for me.

10729325I decided, however, to “dig deep” within my memories and find the very first book that influenced me, and I realized that it was actually the first book of stories that I read when I was about 5-6 years old, the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. I know this is not one of the books you probably expected me to mention, but I realized that this was the book that opened my mind towards literature, towards reading, towards the world of fantasy, and it is worth mentioning as much as any other “heavy literature” or philosophy or whatever else.

Those stories built inside my mind as a child so many images, so many ideas, and they “injected” me with an endless hunger for reading, so I owe them a very large share of my present. Sure, there are people nowadays who say that those stories have less educational aspects, passages that may horrify (personally I don’t remember EVER having nightmares because of them), but what they forget is that these stories (Grimm’s and not only those) bear in them the water of magic, which is the best water that can nurture a child’s mind. Children NEED stories, in order to establish a scale of values, in order to develop their imagination, in order to understand certain aspects of this world which complex words cannot explain to them. And you would be amazed what a sharp sense of good and bad children can get from stories :).

So yes, this is the very first book that changed my life, and this is why I chose to tell you about it: because it was the first door to understanding life which I opened by myself and which opened all the other doors, because it made me NEED to read the same way I needed to breathe. Because it made me see that books are the air of the human mind.

– Lilianna Negoi

© 2016, essay, Lilianna Negoi, All rights reserved; the brothers Grimm statue photograph is in the public domain; the book cover is Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Household Stories from the Collection of the Bros. Grimm (Avenel Books, 1973) fair use

Birds of a Feather

Birds of Peru—so many species, so many eco systems.  This little tyke was swimming with its mom on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake.

The Uros people construct and live on Floating Islands of the lake, and might’ve taken their cue from the birds.

The Uros domesticated the Ibis for its eggs–they live side by side.

In the Amazon jungle, villagers living along tributaries of the Amazon River raise chickens for eggs and meat.

Other birds, like Manolo the Mealy Parrot, are kept for pets….

…and watchbirds. (Don’t even think of touching his bread.)

They wander in and out of the houses like family.

We also saw a huge variety of birds living wild in the jungle, such as the Tiger Heron.

I believe this is a Social Flycatcher.  Maybe it just eats flies at parties?

Some birds I caught only a glimpse of on the fly.

Others looked familiar, like this Pygmy Owl.

Or this Kingfisher.  The Kingfishers fly so fast I could only get an image at night, when it was roosting.

Or this White-winged Swallow, which was different but similar to our swallows.

Most of the birds’ names I never knew or have forgotten, but they were fascinating.

This one looked like a lone hunter…

…while the vultures tended to hang in a crowd.

If we have birds in the U.S. that come out at night and sit on the beach looking like, well, a beach, I haven’t heard of them.

A Black-fronted Nunbird?  The coloring is right, but the beak is smaller and it’s so fluffy.  Maybe a chick?  Oh, well, a bird by any name would sing as sweet.

The birds in the Peruvian Andes were different than the ones we saw in the Amazon.

I saw this feathered friend at Machu Picchu.

This one too.  It’s not so different from the hummingbirds that sip nectar from the hanging baskets on my deck.  

But some are very different from the birds we have at home–like the Toucan who was natural history before I could get to my camera, or the Night Heron whose portrait came out fuzzy.  Most unique was the Huatzin, a pheasant-sized bird resembling something out of  prehistoric times.  Its face is blue and unfeathered, its crest large and spiky.  It makes its home in the swamps and marshy lakes in the jungle.

A crop is an enlarged pouch of the esophagus, where food is stored before it is digested.  Some birds have them, and some dinosaurs did too.  But the Huaztin’s crop is so large it makes flying difficult.  It uses its crop to digest food using bacterial fermentation, which makes them smell very bad.  The Amazon people call them ‘Stinkbirds’ and won’t eat them.   They croak, hiss, groan, and grunt.  Huatzin young have claws on their wings.  When pursued by hawks or arboreal predators, they drop from their nest into the water and claw their way back up the tree when it is safe.  Strange and fascinating!

I don’t see anything common about a bird, even the ones found in my own backyard.  Descended from dinosaurs, these feathered creatures are miraculous to me–so varied, so delicate, so powerful, most possessed of the gift of song and the superpower of flight.  All I need is a pair of binoculars and a camera, and I am off on a flight of fancy.


All images and words copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Do you know what this is?

It’s a monkey trap from West Africa, made of clay.  When I acquired the clay pot, a rope was attached to its neck.  Hunters used to stake the other end of the rope to the ground, and bait it with fruit or nuts.  A monkey would smell the food, reach inside, and grab a handful.

The hole was large enough for a monkey’s open hand to pass through, but too small for a balled fist to come out.  As hard as the monkey pulled, it couldn’t escape, because it never occurred to the greedy monkey to let go of the food.

 

Monkeys repeatedly fell victim to this, because they refused to drop the food, even as the hunter approached.

This is often told as a parable denouncing greed, or as a cautionary tale about becoming trapped by a fixed mindset.  But the antique dealer who sold me my monkey trap told me the rest of the story…

In the late 1940s, a monkey was caught in a clay monkey trap, like so many before it.  It struggled to free itself, never thinking to open its fist.  On purpose or by accident, it smashed the pot against the ground, the pot broke, and the monkey escaped.  But here’s the best part…That monkey taught the other monkeys in its troop how to break and escape from a monkey trap. Neighboring troops caught on until, at least in that part of the monkey world, the traps became obsolete.

Imagine a world where we teach our young, our neighbors, and the greater community what they need to survive and thrive. Imagine a world where we open our tight fists and our closed minds and stop doing things just because that’s the way it has always been done.  Imagine smashing the status quo to leave the world a better place for our children, a place where the powerful and oppressive are outwitted, outnumbered, and they and all their ugly trappings become obsolete.

  If one little monkey can change the world, maybe there’s hope for us humans too.

  All images and words ©Naomi Baltuck.

Stray Dogs and Shtreimels: What Does Istanbul and Mea Shearim Have in Common?

ShtreimelsThe hat you are looking at is called a shtreimel. It is worn by married Haredim (ultra orthodox Jews). Adorning oneself in luxurious fur might not feel like an act of Halacha (religious laws). It Shtreimelsisn’t exactly ‘modest.’ However, when the Jews of very cold climes in Eastern Europe saw the aristocracy in these hats, they considered, especially on Sabbath, how lovely it would be to both honor the lord and keep themselves warm by wearing such a thing. In order to make it ‘kosher’ though it must have Halachic meaning, and so they constructed them from multiple pieces of fur, each being made from a number of pieces having a special meaning. Common numbers are 13, 18, and 26, corresponding respectively to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the numerical value (gematria) of the word for life (Hebrew: חי), and the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton. Thus, these deeply observant men can wear this hat of fur remaining true to the law and staying warm in style!

Below, you can see the street dogs of Istanbul. They are running, Street-dogs-T-300x296like old friends going out for tea, throughout the city. You see them waiting outside ‘their’ restaurant or Street dogs-Tattending careful watch at a back door with empty bowls beside it. Sure enough, patrons will emerge and offer their leftovers, and home owners will fill the little bowls much to the joy of the pooches. The dogs have little tags on their ears to connote that they have been given all shots necessary to insure health. They are friendly, clean, abundant, and often come nuzzling up under your hand for a friendly scratch.

“Where do they live?” I asked a Turkish guide. “Oh they live on the streets, but everyone feeds and cares for them.” ‘OK,’ I thought, ‘that’s different.’ My brother in law who must walk their dog in Houston three times a day was passionately interested in spreading this pet care innovation.

My brother-in-law is much better looking.
My brother-in-law is much better looking.

It wasn’t until later that week.while reading more about Islam (Turkey is 98% Muslim) I ran across a law that prohibits Muslims from keeping dogs as pets. A law is a law, but there is no law that condemns caring for them communally, outside the home, and that is exactly what the people of Istanbul do.

OK, so what do these two religious traditions have in common? When they have secular desires, whether it is to wear a warm stylish fur hat, or have the companionship of a canine, they do not violate the law, but cleverly circumvent it. The Haredim turn the desired object into a sacred one. The Muslims of Istanbul maintain what is required within their homes, but expand their community to create a welcoming one for man’s best friend.

Do you know other examples of this wonderfully real ability to accommodate new needs within ancient belief systems?

– Judith Black

© 2016, Judith Black, story and illustrations, All rights reserved

Welcome to Istanbul, Not Constantinople

The Family: Intrepid Travelers
The Family: Intrepid Travelers

I just returned from a journey to Turkey and Israel. My husband is the kind of Jew who eats ham and cheese sandwiches on the synagogue steps on Yom Kippur. So, when he muttered, “I think Ineed to go to Israel,” I said “hold that thought” and got planning. Always wanted to go to Turkey, and once you are half way around the world, how far of a detour is it?

Michael, Ahmet (one of ‘his boys’), and Me
Michael, Ahmet (one of ‘his boys’), and Me

Ironically, it was himself who was able to provide us windows into both cultures. During the Vietnam War, Michael (the hubby) avoided the draft by working as a missionary in Turkey. (Don’t ask! OK, he primarily coached basketball, taught English and shot billiards.) His ‘boys’ now had bald pates and were at the far end of their careers, but many of them made us welcome in their homes and hearts. They were all Muslims.

Site of terrorist attack in Istanbul one day before we arrived!
Site of terrorist attack in Istanbul one day before we arrived!

Though Ataturk dragged Turks into a modern, secular state, the nation remains about 98% Muslim. In the U.S. our exposure to Muslims is limited. They make up a mere 1% of the population. Since the Paris attacks, this small population has been exposed to heightened threats and violence. There has also been a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric within the Republican party. The top Republican presidential candidates have compared Syrian refugees — most of whom are Muslim — to “rabid dogs,” toyed with the idea of a Muslim national database, and seriously In memory of attackdebated temporarily barring Muslims from entering the United States.

Site of terrorist attack in Istanbul one day before we arrived!
Site of terrorist attack in Istanbul one day before we arrived!

Here we were in Turkey, a place where we could actually experience a broad expression of Islam.

My sister and I took a long walk one day, getting quite lost from Fener, the small middle and working class neighborhood we were renting a home in. We turned a corner and every female around us was draped from head to toe in dark clothing and every man’s head was adorned with a kufi. I whispered to Rebecca, “I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.” We continued to walk for another hour in this very orthodox neighborhood, and despite the fact that we wore western jeans and bore uncovered heads, not a single person, orally or physically, sneered at our very unorthodox ways.

Snowy day in Fener
Snowy day in Fener

The next day we took a culinary tour with a lovely, bright, and very communicative young woman in a stylish skirt, long dark hair, and delicately applied make-up. I asked her what the most peevish thing was that happened on her tours.She replied immediately “Not just once or twice, but many times I have been told by westerners that I ‘don’t look Muslim.’ While in Turkey I learned what Muslim looks like.

Tour of a Turkish Spice Shop
Tour of a Turkish Spice Shop

Muslims are women in full Chadors, and Niqāb or burqa.Muslims are slim men in sharp European suits with dark, brooding eyes.

Muslims are teen aged girls with a shock of green running through their hair, hip huggers and shirts with
names of bands on them.

Muslims are men dressed in salwar kameez, with loose Turkish pants, flowing tops, and prayer caps, kufis, upon their heads.

Muslims are women in modest dress with head scarfs that cover their hair and neck.

Muslims are little boys in jeans and tea shirts, racing down the street.

Muslims are women in french high fashion, their heels clicking on the ancient stones.

Muslims are… as varied in dress as the broad range of humans representing any world religion.

This might well suggest, that were Americans to engage them, we’d also find them richly varied in thought, action, and the practice of religious traditions.

Ancient Cistern
Ancient Cistern

In this city of Istanbul, a Byzantine cistern, constructed in the 6th century, uses 336 columns, to hold up hundreds of curved ceiling pieces, resulting in both stability and breathtaking grandeur. Islam, whose origins reach back to same era, is practiced here in every shape and form. Like those columns they have learned to collaborate and tolerate one another so that they might hold up a united secular state. Why is this so difficult for the rest of us?

– Judith Black

© 2016, story and photographs, Judith Black, All rights reserved

Real Heroes, Part 2

Continuing the story from “Real Heroes – Part 1″ and so, the action started …

“Hello Blue 2, break away and engage”.  I shouted and pulled away sharply to avoid a second attack.  A crippled aircraft was always a tempting target.  Almost immediately the radio was busy: I was not concerned with receiving orders but simply keeping in the air for long enough to reach land.  But at least we were no longer alone.

The engine was now throwing back a thick pall of smoke, and I knew that it would be a matter of minutes or less before it seized, leaving me without power and an easy target for another attack.  I looked back quickly in time to see a 190 curving in for an attack and I instantly pulled up in a sharp turn to frustrate him.  He missed and carried on past me.  Almost immediately there was a shout on the radio.  No time for formality, simply I got him fair and square.  He’s going down in flames”.

The Kent Coast had come partially into view through the smoke and after two or three minutes at full speed I knew that the Rolls had done all that could be expected and must soon die.  Friends were covering me but by now I was too low to go over the side and drop to the sea with my parachute.  The brief prospect of struggling in the icy water, scrambling into a small rubber dingy and sitting in a wet flying suit for an hour or more and perhaps never being found, did not appeal.

The engine laboured slightly as we reached the coast as though to warn me that it could do no more.  A few seconds went by, then it stopped.

There was no alternative now, and in a peculiar way the tension eased with the sudden silence: a touch on the rudder to give her a slight sidelong movement to take the smoke away from the windscreen and I quickly saw that there was only one green field within reach; elsewhere was heavily wooded country.  Although movement in the aircraft would be limited, I knew that I had to tighten the safety harness until it was like a straight jacket” almost certainly there would be a heavy crash and there were large wooden posts which had been fixed into the ground and scattered about the field.  It was important that they were there to destroy any invading aircraft but now they could destroy me.

I knew that the approach had been judged well enough to land without hitting the bank at this end or decimating myself in the trees ahead.  Smoke was still pouring from the engine and the field was even smaller than I had thought.  Th fighter would drop to the ground at about 90mph ; we were flying at just above that speed.  Landing on a soft field would almost certainly end in a high speed somersault; a belly landing without wheels gave one the best hope.

A quick glance to one side showed a hedge slopping quickly by; no more than twenty feet up now; a farmhand gazed up, so close that one could almost read his mind.  “Bless the lad. Hope to God he makes it”.  The smoke was still blinding.  “For Christ’s sake keep her straight man, it’s not over yet.  Count five and brace yourself”.

It was longer than five as it happened.  Nearer ten, then a shattering jar and the tearing and ripping of metal.  The wing caught on a post and there was a violent cartwheeling to the left.

Then an almost deafening silence.

Though only slightly dazed, the thought of fire cleared my mind sufficiently to make me release the harness: almost at once I heard “Don’t worry lad, we’ll have you out in a trice”.  A pair of strong arms lifted me away and we staggered across the field, for all the world like a couple of drunks.  He sat me down by the hedge and I looked back at the carcass of my Spitfire through one eye; a trickle of warm blood had already filled the other.  The massive engine and both wings were scattered about the field.

Later, settled into the ambulance and with time to think back, I was able to appreciate the value of a good training.  The safety harness had been one of the many important items.  Even when pulled tight it was fitted with a small catch which allowed one to lean forward to reach some dial or switch.  Btu this catch was never allowed to remain released for more than a few seconds.  During the last half minute before the crash I had in fact briefly released it then locked it back.  Had I neglected the advice, I would certainly have been scalped.  But now I am sitting comfortably in an easy chair some forty years later.”

Unquote

His number two, with whom he’d shared a beer the night before, was shot down and killed. Apart from the trauma of facing his own death, it must also have been very difficult for my father to come to terms with the loss of a colleague in this way, knowing what had been going through his mind whilst he had to listen to his singing. Only when you find yourself in a field of anti-invasion barriers, sitting in a shattered aircraft, facing a shattered life, can you ever truly know the meaning of fear. The act of remembering fear, in my view, is evidence that you have, somehow, overcome it. This is true courage. Those that don’t remember the fear may too easily brag about their exploits or maybe have been permanently traumatised by their experience. My father didn’t want to talk about it overly much, let alone brag. So, whatever else he did in his life before or after this time, I would forgive my father almost anything.

It is very difficult to make a judgement about bravery, courage and heroism. In the ultimate analysis, I suppose, it all depends on what conscious thoughts prevail in the mind of the would be hero at the time of their heroism. Military records undoubtedly chronicle the thorough assessment of individuals’ entitlement to recognition of courage by the award of various grades of medal, but, for me, the one thing that truly counts is knowing what a hero really is. I wrote the following brief poetic tribute, remembering not only my father but also his brother, my uncle, who, as a qualified medical doctor, also served in the RAF, but lost his life earlier in the war, as a result of his injuries after the plane he was travelling in was shot down, but spent the last hours of his life attempting to save the life of the pilot. It summarises my views on courage and real heroes.

 

Think

(for Real Heroes)

Think nothing of your movie heroes

 

Plastic coated with perfect noses,

chiselled jaws and smelling of roses.

Now, think for a moment of reality;

 

a reality that is raw,

that’s in your face and now, and more;

its deprivation, pain and blood

 

and fear, real fear, a taste of mud,

of fire, of brine, and feel the sweat

that chills the skin like death, and yet

 

just when faced with their mortality,

real courage let them go again

and go again, and go again!

 

Think only of Real Heroes, then.

 

© 2010, story and poem, John Anstie, All rights reserved

Real Heroes, Part 1

My father was not the obvious hero; he didn’t cut the image of a swashbuckling, devil-may-care pioneering patriot, which you might expect from a former fighter pilot in the RAF. He qualified as a pilot before the war started, so he was able to fly many different aircraft including sea planes before the outbreak of the war. However, it was the iconic Supermarine Spitfire that he flew with RAF 91 Squadron, that brought him to a life changing event.

The dashing young flyer

He was sometimes so laid back that a light breeze would have blown him over. His sense of humour would always prevent this happening. His grandchildren will testify to this. It is perhaps ironic, but not a coincidence that he was also a walking encyclopaedia of limericks (and fairly naughty jokes), most of which are not for public hearing, but a lot of which I have of him recorded on tape.

His was a humour that was tempered and hardened during the Second World War, as it was for so many. This humour was as dismissive of the realities of war, in a typically British way, as it was of his courage. As is so common amongst war veterans, he never voluntarily talked about his experiences as a fighter pilot, in fact it was like pulling teeth trying to get anything out of him at all, but my understanding of this is clear.

For the moment I speak only of fighter pilots, like my Dad, but this applies equally to all those who served their respective countries, in some capacity or other. It has its roots in a sense of guilt; that they survived and their friends and comrades-at-arms did not.

When you pull yourself into the cockpit for the umpteenth time and feel that stomach churning fear, the cold sweat dripping down your chest inside your flying jacket, knowing that, after you’ve propelled yourself skywards once again, the chances of landing in one piece were frighteningly low and that you may only ever have a few short seconds to avoid enemy fire coming from any one of six directions: then all you might ever remember is that fear.

There follows a transcript of his own account of one particular event on 24th March 1943, which started on a routine coastal patrol with his number two singing over the radio; a slightly bizarre start that had a tragic ending: –

Quote

“The action had been over in less than fifteen minutes.  It had been raw and grey over the Straits of Dover on this day towards the end of winter when my No. 2 and I had taken off from our small grass airfield near the coast.  We had expected a routine patrol.  Nothing of importance had happened in our area for two or three weeks.  The hummed strains of “Moonlight becomes you, I want you to know”, came over the radio.  It came as a mild shock as in the two years or so of wartime flying I had never heard music.

Flight Sergeant Jim Anstie

Sometimes during a night’s sleep, a fictitious action would come through from the subconscious; something quite ridiculous; perhaps one would be sitting on a high cloud in supreme comfort and totally relaxed.  Just below would be a sharp action yet in a detached way one could watch the combatants manoeuvring at high speed, intermittently closing on each other, a stream of tracer shells perhaps followed by a ball of fire as an aircraft plummeted down to earth.  But there would be no sudden coming awake in a sweat of fear.  The dreamer would be quite unconcerned.  A mental jerk told me that this was no dream.

On a peaceful flight, singing on the radio would be amusing but now it only served to irritate.  Even on a routine patrol one had to be ready for a snap decision; there could be no time to plan ahead.  A decision had to be immediate and instinctive.  It was still necessary to think logically: a Controller singing at Command HQ would have been quietly removed and perhaps ordered for a psychological test by the Medical Officer. It could only be my No 2 and I knew the cause.  The radio manufacturers, doubtless with the best of intentions, had added to our sets what should have been an excellent gadget.  The oxygen mask strapped over our mouth in flight also included the microphone; it only needed a spoken work and the set immediately transmitted to everyone in the area.  But there was on disadvantage.  A pilot might be flying to another friendly airfield with the mask loose on his face and the shattering noise of the engine would get through to the gadget and broadcast for all to hear.  At the same time a squadron might be on its way to deal with enemy bombers and would be needing directions.  But their radios had to be clear to receive orders, not the noise of an engine, nor for that matter the idle crooning of some witless lone pilot.  It was impossible to bark at him “Shut up”!  While his song drooled on I could only hope that his mind would snap out of its dream before there was an emergency.

And of course there was at this moment an emergency.  The song finished at last and we were able to receive orders.  Immediately I caught the end of a message.  The words “Ashford” and “190s” were mentioned.  There was no time to vent my feelings for the stupidity of No 2 as we were at the furthest point away from the trouble.  “Hello Blue 2.  Break away and follow me.  Some 190s have bombed Ashford”.

I knew that we had several minutes of hard flying to be in a position to intercept and was tempted to hold the engine at full speed: but I slackened a little so that we could remain together.

The radio clicked and this time it was Control speaking.  “Hullo Blue I, Blue I, set course 125 degrees.  The enemy are crossing the coast”.  Our home airfield was close to where the bombers should be heading back towards the French Coast and two flights from our Squadron had been alerted several minutes before.

It was routine at that time to have a flight at each end of the airfield.  Four pilots would be in each flight hut during daylight hours.  “A” Flight would have two pilots sitting in their aircraft for half and hour, strapped in and ready; then “B” Flight and so on.  If the siren sounded they had only to reach for the starter button.  In less than half a minute, twelve hundred horsepower from the Rolls engine would have them lifting away from the airfield.  Today, when this particular emergency came, it was on the half hour; both pairs decided to take off.  In seconds they were heading straight for each other.  In such a situation the leader of a pair could do little to change direction and if he tried to steer sharply away he would collide with his No 2 or just as likely, somersault himself.  They kept going and miraculously there was no collision.

A familiar voice came over the radio.  It was the CO and the accent was unmistakable.  He had been in the French Air Force, had escaped after the surrender and since acquired a formidable reputation as a fighter pilot.  We had no difficulty in understanding him.  One gets used to the strange pronunciations of otherwise familiar phrases.

By now my No 2 and I were well out over the Channel and straining for a sight of the enemy.  “Hullo Blue I, Blue I, this is Red Leader.  We are at 4000 feet and chasing the enemy to Boulogne.  Join up with us”.

We were above this height and it was difficult to see small camouflaged aircraft which were still some way off.  The German FW190s we knew were faster than our older Mark 5s so I decided to keep flying fast on the same course.

Quite suddenly four aircraft appeared ahead and flew straight for us; for a brief moment I assumed that they were ours.  In less than ten seconds they had flashed past us, my aircraft shook briefly and I knew that I had been hit.

To be continued/ … ‘Real Heroes’ in Part 2

© 2010, story and family photos (please be respectful), John Anstie, All rights reserved

Homeless Man

Walking down the road I saw a man in tattered clothes.
I couldn’t help but wonder what had led to his defeat.
Tell me, if you would, about this life that you have chosen,
or did you have no choice except this life, upon the street?

I handed him a buck or two and said, Here, take a seat.
Upon a rusted old park bench we hunkered in to meet.
You’re curious, my boy, he said, why do you want to know?
I want to understand you, sir, to see what makes you so.

That money that I gave to you, I know you’ll give to others.
I wonder, how do you survive while giving to your brothers?
A smile broke across the wrinkled landscape of his face,
the pain I’d seen inside his eyes seemed suddenly erased.

You may not really want to hear the story I will tell,
it happened many years ago—a place not far from hell.
The name, you’ve heard—‘twas Auschwitz, a camp they took us Jews
the horrors that surrounded me tempted me to choose

to take my life before they could subject me to a death
without the grace of dignity. I wanted to be free.
But then some words came tumbling from the darkness of my mind
Words spoken by a holy man I heard in years behind.

The teacher’s voice was strong, it traveled straight into my core
of all I understand of God, of what we’re living for.
Such good there that can be done in Auschwitz late at night—
your hope can be a gift to those who tremble in their fright.

And what I learned back then—the truths that saved me from despair—
I carry them within my soul, there’s so much need to care.
So I refuse to see my life a symbol of defeat.
Much good there is, my son, that now awaits me in that street.

The old man stood and shook my hand and left me with his smile
I sat, transfixed, upon that bench, alone, for quite a while.
Now I withhold my judgment when I see another homeless guy
and wonder still at wealth, within, that money cannot buy.

—Victoria C Slotto

The anecdote related in this poem is derived from a story related by Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach. I read it in “The Oracle of Kabbalah” by Richard Seidman. This book deals with the hidden meaning underlying the Hebrew Aleph Beit.

Oscar Wilde and “The Critical Spirit”

“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly.  Here are some key quotes from that piece:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.  That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”

“When man acts he is a puppet.  When he describes he is a poet.”

I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”.  However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.

First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’?  I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning.  What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into three categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.

Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling.  It is how we know we are alive.

And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us.  We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history.  That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values.  We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out.  These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well. 

It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories.  Civilization is a story.  Religion is a story.  Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories.  There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones.  (A Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous.  There is no ‘right’ story.  Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.

This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well.  The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning.  In some ways, we want that.  We find it exciting.  But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative.  To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace.  Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning.  When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego.  Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out.  My energy is renewed, and I am at peace.  (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ.  Awareness is the first step!)

“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.”  We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times.  Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others.  For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity.  May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!

swallowtail

– Priscilla Galasso

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

If Not For His Wife

Scientists say that 55 to 65 million years ago, the North of Ireland was subject to volcanic activity, and that molten lava cooled rapidly, creating fractures in the rock that looked like giant stone pillars, some reaching a height of nearly 40 feet.

It made a vivid pattern in the rock…

…and was such a unique natural phenomenon that in 1986  UNESCO named it World Heritage Site.

But if you ask me, that’s a bunch of blarney.  Better yet, ask any local.  He’ll tell you what really happened is that a giant named Finn MacCool was building a causeway to Scotland.
https://i0.wp.com/i1176.photobucket.com/albums/x334/nbaltuck/2008Ireland1342-1.jpg

A Scottish giant named Benandonner tracked Finn to the causeway, looking for a fight.  He wanted to prove he was the greatest giant of them all.  He had already tracked down and beaten every other giant in Ireland, and Benandonner wanted to serve up Finn with the same sauce.

He hurried home to his wife Oonagh.  “Don’t worry, darlin’,” she told Finn.  “We’ll serve him up as good as he brings.”  She dressed Finn in a baby bonnet and put him in a giant wooden cradle.  Then she  baked 27 loaves of bread with 27 iron griddles baked into them, and one good loaf of bread.  When Benandonner arrived looking for Finn, Oonagh said, “He’s off to the Giants’ Causeway, to make paste out of some buffoon of a giant named Benandonner.  But come in and I’ll feed you the bread I prepared for Finn.”  Oonagh gave Benandonner a loaf with a griddle baked into it, and he broke three teeth on it. “Take it away or I’ll not have a good tooth left in me head!” he shouted.

“It’s just the way Finn likes it, nice and crunchy,” said Oonagh.  “Perhaps that one’s stale.”   Then she gave ‘Baby Finn’ the one good loaf.  When Benandonner saw him gobble it down, he shouted, “Sure I haven’t a chance against the giant whose baby can eat the bread that nearly broke my jaw!”

Oonagh smiled as she watched Benandonner racing helter skelter down Knockmany Hill. “When brains are called for,” she told Finn, “brawn won’t help.”

If you go to The Giants’ Causeway in Antrim, remember that you are walking in a land where giants once tread.

And never forget that many a man besides Finn MacCool would find himself in a pretty scrape, if not for his wife!

All words and images copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Turtle Speaks

Painted Turtle by Gretchen Del Rio c 2010, rights reserved
Painted Turtle by Gretchen Del Rio c 2010, all rights reserved

we live on Turtle Island and turtle is my totem ~
she speaks in the easy way only turtle can,
as one who is at home in herself, at home between
her plastron and carapace, wisdom in her measured
gait, her introversion a model for freedom, for cutting
the nets spun of wars and deceptions . . .

she is the everyday re-enchantment of my solitary
cosmos, my solidarity with life, i read her pastoral
letters in green on green, the sweet grasses and seas,
she speaks of connectedness, the basic constituents
of enigma, wizardry; and in the insanity of the times,
how best to journey and retrieve this world’s soul . . .
she is the unrushed cure for nature-deficit,
that consuming affliction, the spawn of culture’s
back-lighted screens and advertising of every bilk

turtle healing is simple peace and master lessons in
self-containment, she draws me into my meditations
and back along the first path of Maka Ina, the forgotten
primal path of earth ways and feminine energies and
the rhythms of grandmother moon whirling me heavenward.

– Jamie Dedes

  • Turtle ~ totem or power animal representing earth in Native American tradition
  • Turtle Island ~ in Iroquois tradition, when the earth was covered over with water, sundry animals attempted  to create land by swimming to the bottom of the ocean and hauling up dirt. Muskrat succeeded. He placed the dirt on the back of  Turtle, which grew into the landmass known today as North America. 
  • Maka Ina ~ Lakota (Sioux) ~ “maka” is earth and “ina” is mother, so Mother Earth. Earth teachings were/are considered a path to wholeness (heaven).

© 2013, poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved,
Illustration courtesy of Gretchen Del Rio, all rights reserved

To See the World

 

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower…”

       –William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

 

…or in one click of a camera.

One picture is worth a thousand words.  Some pictures lay out the facts, like a road map.

But others have all the elements of a great novel, crammed into one quick snap.

Danger…

Mystery…

Character…

 Adventure…

Desperation…

Romance…

Greater purpose…

For me, the best stories raise questions as well as give answers.

 

They present universal dilemmas, and show us how people learn to cope with trauma or loss.

A disaster becomes a compelling tragedy, although the victims lived two thousand years ago, if we can relate to their suffering.  And who can’t?

We like to tie up our stories in neatly arranged ribbons and give them happy endings.  Who doesn’t love a happy ending?

But that’s not always possible.  Perhaps the best stories–and photographs–just remind us of what it is to be human.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Rather Than Curse the Darkness, Light a Tiki Torch

We love to share the occasional Murder Mystery, D&D adventure, or Sci-fi party with friends, not to mention New Year’s Eve, Christmas Eve, Hanukkah and Lincoln’s Birthday.  But it was our first Valentine’s Day without the kids to help plan the party, and share in the fun.

Bea was away at school.

…Eli was visiting her in California…

 …and poor Thom was too sick to venture out of the bedroom.

Romance was out of the question, but that has never been the sole focus of our Valentine’s Day.  Thom and I find many days and ways to express our romantic feelings for each other.  Valentine’s Day has been a day to share with our wider circle of loved ones, and especially our kids.

I worried that instead of this

…the party would look like this.

Rather than curse the darkness, I lit a tiki torch…

…and celebrated Valentine’s Day with an Aloha Party!

 Aloha is difficult to define.  Literally it means ‘divine breath.’  But it can be used as a greeting, a salutation, a farewell.  It is also used  to express ‘love,’ ‘sympathy,’ ‘compassion.’  It’s as versatile as ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ but I like it so much more.

So I tossed the invitations up into the air, lit the tiki torches, set up a goody table, and here’s who the trade winds blew in.

Jim and Aarene came bearing papaya, pineapple, and delicious homemade plum wine.  They are horse lovers, storytellers, and co-hosts of Global Griot, a storytelling program on 90.7 FM KSER.  Aarene is the author of two very well received books, Endurance 101 and Sex in the Library.  Jim served in the navy as a submariner before becoming a professional Santa.  (Which explains the chapeau, and perhaps also why he’s drinking a Bosun’s Mate.)

The party was in full swing when Rick and Sue arrived with a huge Pineapple Upside Down Cake!  I was filling orders for drinks and couldn’t get to my camera, but here they are in their Hawaiian plumage at our 1950s New Year’s Eve party.  They are some of the most creative people I know.  Rick is the art director for WildTangent Studios, and an amazing artist/cartoonist (I own a copy of his book!).  Sue is a prizewinning baker and my exercise buddy, which is only fair, since I have to work off the wonderful treats she brings.  For our sci-fi party, it was an ice creamy concoction they called Ketrecel White, which was tasty but potent!   I can’t believe my good fortune in having so many friends who are unabashed geeks.

See that beautiful cake, just left of the pineapple?  It was delicious!

The best parties start in the kitchen.

Seattle storyteller Norm Brecke and Portland storyteller Anne Rutherford caught us up on their news.  Norm spent the week performing “The Lighter Side of Lincoln,” while Anne had just finished a run of a show called “Scenes From the Future” at The Fertile Ground Festival of New Works in Portland.

What a lovely mix of family, old friends, and new friends too.  My cousins Nancy and Ian…

…brought a carload of people, including my brother Lew…

…and their neighbors, Joanne and Ian, who I met while walking around Green Lake with Nancy and Sue each week.  Joanne seemed always to be walking around the lake one way, and we were always walking around the other way; somehow it seemed natural to just start walking in the same direction.  Joanne is an artist, a quilter, a jewelry maker; every time we talk I find another shared interest.  Her husband Ian has been everywhere, and I particularly loved hearing about his travels in The Galapagos.  It was their first visit to our home, but I hope it will not be the last.

Jim and Megan are storytellers too.  They arrived with their daughter Tara, who I was very pleased to meet (she loves games and is quick to catch on!).

Many of the stories Jim Douma tells are the ones he sings.  He is a folk musician and played for years with the Celtic band, Clay Pipes.  He gave me a copy of his new CD, Flying Blindwhich he made with the help of my friend Rob Moitoza, who also produced and engineered my CDs.

Jim wrote the music and words to this splendid heartwarming collection.  It has brought more than one tear to my eyes.

His daughters Tara and Meredith sang backup, and Meredith designed this striking  CD jacket.  Jim and Megan have clearly nurtured and passed on their creativity to the next generation!

I was glad to welcome Gene Gousie and Kathy McMullen.  I did my very first professional storytelling with Gene Gousie thirty years ago!  He came to our wedding with his baby daughter Brie in a snuggly and I swear, he hasn’t changed a bit since then!  Gene’s wife Kathy is a writer and blogger.

The party spilled into the living and dining rooms.  People visited, played games…

…and once again our home was filled with music and singing.

I was painfully shy as a kid.  I always had a special friend or two, and my sister is and has always been my best friend.  But it has taken me years–decades–to build such a lovely circle of exceptionally kind, funny, creative, and pleasantly quirky friends.  What I love best about a circle is that there is always room for one more.  It gives me such satisfaction when two of my friends who don’t know each other ‘click’ and thus the circle grows.

On Valentine’s Night, the wind was blowing and the air was crisp, but the aloha spirit was alive and well, and kept the darkness at bay.

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‘Kākou’ is the word that represents the Hawaiian value of inclusiveness.  ‘Aloha kākou’ means ‘May there be love and kindness between us all.’

Aloha kākou, dear friends!  

All images and words copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck

Mourning Brooch

IMG_7052the memories have little substance
they flit and fly, pollen on the wind,
like the quick passing of a joyful birth,
the school years, the sweet trysts ~
a waving bridal veil . . .

. . . the way your love drained you
of your dreams just to fill yourself with him

. . . . . the epitaph of tears

only when yesterday becomes a story,
once upon a time, do memories
become memorial, a mourning brooch
forever warm upon your breast

©2013 poem, 2015 illustration, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved

Healing Stories

StoriesAs a a multicultural man (Shawnee, Lakota, and Scott), I am curious about how we of mixed cultures travel though life, and how we story to journey. As an Indian, I hold our traditional stories close to my heart. These stories offer me solace and guidance on my life’s walk.

Stories, for me, are good to know and good to think about. They tell me much about where I have come from and who I may be. They are a gift from the Ancestors, and from the Creator, and as such, are sacred. Indian stories are often funny, bawdy, and, yes, even heartbreaking. They are a lot like real life.

Stories, at their best, teach us how to be human. Of late, I’ve been noticing just how human I am. Even though I am in my late sixties, spring brings out the younger man in me. As the weather warms I become more playful, get out and about more, and begin to notice other people. As a result, I am reminded that I am a primate, biologically hard-wired to be social.

As traditional healers have known for eons, the quality and extent of one’s social networks is a very good predictor of future health and wellbeing. These markers are also useful in predicting our response to illness and misfortune. The best stories offer us pathways to rich social lives and a future sweetly saturated with meaning.

As a mental health clinician, and traditionally trained healer, I am asked to address trauma, illness, and suffering on a daily basis. One of the most insidious effects of trauma, and all too often, of illness,  is social isolation. When the trauma occurs early in life, and especially if it continues over an extended period, the survivor may easily find herself or himself profoundly alone as a child, and later, an adult. This isolation is driven by fear, and, too often, intense self loathing. When illness strikes, even those of us with rich social networks may find ourselves alone.

A richly storied childhood seems to inoculate us against trauma. In Native American cultures children were traditionally taught stories that modeled social engagement, connection, and resilience. The heroes and heroines of these stories utilized their connections to the spirit world, the Natural world, and the tribal community to remain resilient in the face of terrible suffering.  The stories were themselves embedded and anchored in small communities that tended to intervene on behalf of children who were in distress. Such stories surely aided children and adults when adversity entered their lives.

Sadly, the impacts of colonization, especially war, alcohol, and introduced diseases, fragmented both our Indian communities and their story sharing traditions. Forced assimilation and, crucially, the theft of children, and their subsequent forced attendance at boarding schools, further weakened the social and storied safety net. Although the boarding schools are, thankfully, in our past, their legacy, and may of the forces of colonialism, continue to influence the lives of Indian children, as evidenced by the tsunami of youth suicides in Indian country.

Traditionally, stories were owned by individuals, families, or tribes, and, to a considerable extent, this remains true. Ordinarily one asks the owner for permission to tell a story. That convention has largely been ignored by folklorists and others who have collected, and published, Indian stories. This has resulted in massive cultural theft, yet it has also given us a deep reservoir of traditional stories, many of which seek to remind the listener they posses rich inner resources and the capacity to be resilient. For those of us who have largely lost our Native heritage, these collections of stories are an enormously important resource.

There are similar resources in the European tradition, and I have, throughout my career, used stories from the Brothers Grimm in clinical settings. I have, in doing so, sought out the earliest available versions of these stories, versions rich and raw, and thoroughly human. Often, clients are surprised that narratives of such descriptive power could lie beneath stories made popular by Disney. Yet, these European folk stories almost always lack the sense of belonging and community so fundamental to their Indian relatives. I wonder whether the sheer destructive power of European history had already created cultures of relative isolation by the time the Grimms collected the stories.

I was taught early on that stories are powerful healers, and that sharing traditional stories offers to clients the possibility of a harbor, and safe anchorage, for their lives. I have come to believe that Narrative Therapy, while potent, is often insufficient, as it may fail, when used alone, to embed persons in the life affirming web of tradition and community. Repeatedly, I am reminded here is something profoundly healing about traditional stories, narratives that invite us to recognize our plight, no matter how harsh, as inherently human.

What stories have offered you solace and healing? Perhaps you will share one with us. I hope so!

– Michael Watson, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC

© 2015, essay and photograph, Michael Watson, All rights reserved

An Apology from Your Grandfather

(for Nathaniel)

This poem was written last November shortly after the birth of my third grandchild, a second grandson, and the first child of my son and his wife. I put it away for a while to ‘rest’, because I felt it wasn’t quite there; that it still needed something to make it work. Three months later, following several edits and adjustments, whilst it is perhaps less like poetry and more a narrative, (and was it Leonardo da Vinci himself who said that a work of art is never complete, only abandoned?) I have decided that I should let it go. I hope my grandson, when he’s old enough, all my grandchildren and onward generations, may find some use or ornament for it, to give them perspective on their own situations, whatever they may be, and to help guide them in their journeys through life …

The countryside was flush with gold
to celebrate your arrival; the season
was in suspense, as if to make
your first tiny footprint on the earth,
amidst the clamour of a thousand nativities,
as if a gift of God for this, your birth,
a special and harmonious event.

At the cusp, where Autumn meets with Winter,
a splash of golden hair defined you;
the gilding of a perfect crown,
was like the golden fleece,
that vaunted prize of Ancient Greece
in Jason’s time, when boys grew into men
before the age of their true making.

Your first year, centenary of a date
when Europe burned with anticipation
of conflict, a bloody affair, for which
no true atonement was ever offered,
for which we feel a great collective guilt
but which, we hope, will remain
a part of history. Not your future.

Your future shall be focused,
neither on the clock that ticks,
that divides time into segments of life;
that numbs the mind with endless drudge;
that defines your living to the end;
nor shall it confine your path
to the relentless quest for gain.

It is not control that you shall seek,
but access to a pantheistic knowledge,
enabling a different class of power,
the faculty for influence over those,
who misused the privilege they have,
that we, your forebears, allowed them.
For this I repentantly apologise.

If nature no longer holds its strength to live,
to refresh itself, to recover its flush and thrive,
it will be human beings, who prevailed
on its demise, for which there’s no excuse.
Beyond mere human frailty, there seems no will
to cease remorseless greed and just survive.
But the Earth owes us a big fat nothing!

So, if my undoubted compassion
does not have wings; if I do not transform
my rising anger into constructive deeds,
in such a way to help move hearts and minds
in concert, so to invest in change;
if thus, and I’m too frail or weak,
remorse will overcome my heart.

But have I yielded to our defeat?
No. I’ll neither submit to this old foe
nor will my pen cease in my hand,
whilst ever I have breath and mind
to speak out from the crowd. I find
it sad to say that much is left to do,
which leaves an adverse legacy for you.

What do I expect of you, or you of you?
I know that I can ask, but cannot make;
I know you’re blessed with your own will,
but you will find that one thing will prevail:
the greatest force for life is family;
a force defying selfishness and greed,
which always gives us hope in time of need.

It shall be fuel that fills you, every day,
from your Stabat Mater, your Trojan Father,
whose care and energy will long endure,
imbuing you with superhuman strength,
for which there is no substitute;
that no amount of gold will ever buy.
Integrity and truth is born of this.

There is one thing I know will light your way,
’till time and tides are done and trees are gone.
This energy and fortitude, integrity
and strong desire, will all be borne
to you and, through you, to your children;
and so, through them, ancestral grace
will lead them to conquer the World!

It is the one enduring human quality
that is, more than mere emotion,
the omniscient and greatest power of all;
one word, one gift, which represents
life’s longing for itself, from me to you,
a kind of magic that will heal the World
… with pure, undying, unconditional Love.

© 2013 John Anstie

Twenty Pesos

PHP_2010_New_Generation_Currency_BanknotesI think of her often. I only met her that once, but she brought with her a voice from God that has never left me. Her heart was the first bloom of that warm spring.

I was teaching at the diocesan seminary. It was spring, time of renewal, but mostly it brought unbearable heat in the provinces of Mindanao. So I decided to escape the oven-like classroom and had everyone bring a chair under the ancient tree that seemed to preside over the whole front yard. Just as a really lively discussion on prayer began, I noticed her walking on the road beyond the fence. She was small, with a filthy flowered dress frayed at the edges and stained just about everywhere. Her hair hadn’t met a brush in months, yet she walk with a regal calm and serenity. As she got to the open gate, she turned.

I groaned inwardly. It seemed like every day people came to beg, to ask for money, food, medicine. Sometimes with that “help keep their dignity” idea, we’d ask them to help rake leaves, but that often backfired and they got annoyed demanding what they wanted, often waving a reproaching finger in our faces, telling us that we are supposed to be like Jesus and give. And now, just as I had a wonderful discussion on prayer going, we would be once again interrupted by a beggar asking for a handout.

Then I immediately felt guilty. So as if to redeem myself from my unspoken lack of goodness, I interrupted the class discussion and told the seminarians that an older woman was coming, probably to ask for food or help, but that in spite of her being so dirty and messy, they should stand when she arrives, do “mano po”, the typical Filipino greeting of respect where you take the hand of the elder and touch it to your forehead, and call her “Tita” (Auntie). Ah, it looked like I was back to being the wise holy man I was supposed to be…but it was just me still treading water.

The woman came right up to where I stood, totally disrupting the class like I knew she would. She was even dirtier up close, mud on her face and her sandaled feet black. The ever obedient seminarians (or make that “usually obedient”) stood politely, blessed her and mumbled pleasantries calling her “tita”.

She began in Cebuano, “Father, I was walking by and saw you teaching the boys under this big shade tree. And I had this idea, so I came in.”

To myself I figured I knew the “idea”, a good place to ask for help. But she seemed so sweet, I suddenly thought of volunteering to get her something from the kitchen myself…being that holy and wise person I thought I was. Yes, yes, I would make up for all those negative thoughts about her by being of personal service!! Gee, what a guy!!

Then she dug deep into her pocket, as it was an endless cavern, and finally pulled out a kind of moldy rag and then opened it slowly, as if the British Crown Jewels were inside. There appeared an old 20 peso bill, only a little cleaner than she. She continued her story, “When I saw you there, teaching these boys about God, how to love God and be faithful…well, I thought, you know what…I want to buy them a snack. So here.” And she shyly handed me the 20 pesos, somehow not fully able to look me in the eyes.

I took the filthy bill and suddenly didn’t know what to do. This woman came to give, to share, to help, to encourage…She turned to leave, and I asked her to stay and have snacks with us. She smiled serenely, with the kind of peace that comes from knowing you live in God’s heart, and turned and left. All the boys just looked at me blankly. 20 pesos wasn’t, of course, enough to have snacks for the class. It’s about 50 cents in the US. But I decided to go to my office and get money and have the guys buy something from the little store across the way. If Auntie wanted us to have snacks, that’s exactly what we’d do. I told the guys I’d be right back…but in fact I was a little longer than expected. I had to wash my face so they wouldn’t see how hard I had been crying once I was out of sight.

I never saw her again, but she remains one of the finest teachers I’ve ever had, and a voice of God that has never been silenced. It was spring, and a part of me was reborn.

Daniel S. Sormani, C. S. Sp.

© 2015, feature article, Daniel Sormani, All rights reserved; photograph 2010 currency courtesy of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and released into the public domain

Little Accidents

With the phone at his ear, he reached out to grab the agenda, but accidentally pushed a glass in its vicinity and the water from it spread quickly all over the small table. Repressing a loud voiced curse, he threw a “Yes, this Saturday is fine, gotta go now” in the phone, and then rushed into the kitchen to get a napkin. When he returned, while wiping the small puddle, he suddenly found himself smiling, remembering her silly habit of blaming invisible beings for such accidents – “Rahmiel, you naughty little bastard, you did it again…” She used to say that angels were in a playful mood around her, and that while they played tag they pushed her, therefore causing such things to happen – breaking a glass one day, dropping a plate another day…Maybe it was her way of coping with the idea of getting old and clumsy. Maybe it was easier that way to accept the changes through which she was going. Anyway, it didn’t matter that she spilled coffee or dropped something, there was always some other being to blame, and always an invisible one.

When she first began to do that they were all afraid she’d gone nuts, so they asked the doctor to give her a checkup. But then the check-up revealed nothing, and after a while it actually became funny to hear her scolding the assumed culprit. They even tried to play along, and from time to time, when she dropped something, one of them commented “Ha! It was Raphael who did it this time…”, but they quickly gave up, first because each time they involved the archangels she glared at them with an incisive gaze, saying that the archangels didn’t have time to play, it was only smaller angels that did that, younger ones, and secondly because they were never able to nick it, there was always some other angel from a seemingly ever growing list of them. So eventually they contented themselves with silently observing her and finding an innocent amusement in that.

When the frequency of accidents began to thicken, she said that angels were so eager to play with her and had lost their patience of waiting for her that they pushed her harder than usual. She always said that they had been waiting for her for too long, and had such lovely games to play with her, and that she could hardly wait to go and play with them. So their hearts always leapt when they heard her speaking like that, intuiting the outcome but unable to prevent it from happening. And one day it happened – she left for the angels’ playground, after a last game of hide’n’seek with Azrael. And after that day, little accidents became just little accidents again.

Back into the kitchen, while twisting the napkin above the sink, he gazed at the water leaking and smiled, murmuring: “Ishmael, if I catch you one more time doing this…”

© Liliana Negoi

Turning Night Into Day

There was once a wise old rabbi who asked his students, “How can you know the exact moment when night ends and day begins?”

“I think I know,” said one of his pupils.  “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a dog from a sheep?”

“No,” said the rabbi.

“I know,” said another.  “It must be when, from a distance, you can tell a date palm from a fig tree.”

“No,” said the rabbi.

His students looked at each other and then at the rabbi.  “We don’t know,” they said.  “Please tell us.”

And the rabbi replied, “It is when you look into the face of any person from any nation…

…man…

…or woman…

…Jew or gentile…

…and see your brother…

…or your sister.”

”And that is the blessed moment,” said the rabbi,  “when the dawn is come.”

c2014 NaomiBaltuck

Special Delivery

Yesterday a package arrived from Australia.  My sister was moving and there was no place in her new home for our mother’s silver tea set–the one Mom kept on her buffet in her little house in Detroit.  My sister could’ve easily packed it off to a thrift store or sold it at a garage sale. Instead she kindly chose to pay postage to send it all the way to America to reunite the silver service with mom’s old buffet, which now lives in the dining room of my home in Seattle.

Three days ago I put my son on a plane to Turkey, where he will teach English for the next three years.  I can fret, or be proud of him for having the courage to make such a momentous move.

His sister Bea was scheduled to come home from her program in Lithuania two days after Eli’s departure. Unfortunately they would miss each other, but Eli turned it into an opportunity.  In the wee hours of the night before he left, we hauled a little surprise for Bea up from the basement.  Eli hoped she’d like it even better than the last surprise he left her.

It was the perfect way to present Bea with motion-activated cooing tribble slippers she hadn’t even known she needed.

Still, it lacked a certain ‘Je ne sais crois.’

Actually, Eli knew exactly what it needed.

…And then he added the finishing touch.

Packing done, boarding pass printed, and still enough time to play one last game of Pandemic and save the world before our trip to the airport!

On the way we brainstormed how and when to visit, just as I used to do with my mom before each parting. And nowadays we can even Skype in the meantime.

My mom taught her kids to look for the bright spots. She could find ’em where you wouldn’t have thought there was one.

After Mom’s first chemo session, my sister Constance and I suggested going home to rest. Mom said, “The doctor says it won’t hit me until tonight. We’re going to Sanders Ice Cream Parlor. If I have to get sick, I’m going to throw up ice cream.”

 

Bea arrived two days after Eli left.  His parting gift was appreciated (up to a point). Now it resides in his room, scaring the heck out of me and making me laugh every time I go in there to open the blinds.

Bea, unpacking the heirloom tea set, said, “We’re going to have a MONSTER Tea Party!” There was another unexpected gift from Auntie Down Under–an uber-protective full-body swimsuit. Bea ran to try it on. Like Clark Kent bursting from a phone booth in Superman duds, out of Bea’s room flew Doing-Things-That-Aren’t-Fun-But-Are-Good-For-You-Girl.

Doing-Things-That-Aren’t-Fun-But-Are-Good-For-You-Girl (aka The UV Protector) threw Fashion Sense to the wind, and bravely faced the sun and its evil rays–in public.

All our lives we’ve heard,”You gotta break an egg if you want an omelet.” We jump willingly into the fray, enduring, for instance, the red eye flight for the trip to Europe.

My mom used to say, “When you’re holding your baby in your arms, you forget the pain.” Then Mom’s sister lost her baby. So what if there’s no baby to hold? My Aunt Loena would say you have to find others to hold and love, which she did. But some challenges you cannot go around, hire out, or wiggle free from.  It’s the stuff no one else can do for you, even if they wanted to.  It’s the bend in the river of life where there is no turning back and no standing still. Moving forward is all you can do, and your only choice is about how you do that, whether you are five years old or ninety-five, whether it’s getting a tetanus shot or chemotherapy, whether you are saying goodbye for now or forever.

I know and love–and I’m sure you do too–some very dear people who are facing some of life’s most daunting challenges and have been taxed in ways most people can only imagine.  Yet they are getting up and going to work each day and taking their kids to school and playing Werewolves with them at the end of the day with stents in their chest.  Or telling stories to bring joy to their audiences while undergoing months of chemo, and celebrating the last treatment by traveling the great cities Europe.  Or writing Haiku with one hand while learning how to walk again after a stroke. Or surviving cancer to reinvent themselves, leaving a bad marriage and developing a highly successful career as an artist. Or after a hip replacement, beating the odds from sheer determination to progress from wheelchair to walker to cane to standing on their own two feet while receiving radiation for a spot on the lung.

Who ARE these people? They are not the Supermen and Wonder Women of the world; they are the Clark Kents and Diana Princes, who through sheer strength of will and spirit quietly forge on through fire and ice. They are the real superheroes, delivering the right stuff. Their legacies are not the silver tea sets, but the stories they give us to hold in our hearts.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck.

The Sons of Shem

image

The Arapaho boys came across the dead body of the Rev. Linus Quimby wrapped in a wool blanket at the bottom of a buffalo wallow, a thick book clutched in his frozen hands and an expression of joy upon his face.

“It is already the Moon When the Buffalo Calves’ Noses Turn Brown and the first snow came last night, so to find a man, even a foolish white man, traveling without a horse or even a dog to carry his provisions shows he was as crazy as he looks,” said the younger boy, taking the blanket from the would-be missionary.

“Look at the useless fire he made of these white skins with markings, not the leavings of the buffalo or even a stick from the trees on the banks of the Niinéniiniicíihéhe’,,” said the older boy, as he relieved his brother of the blanket and Rev. Quimby of a knife and a piece of flint.

After riding east until the sun had almost reached its highest point, the boys found the remains of Rev. Quimby’s horse being picked clean by coyotes and birds, stripped of its saddle by a roaming band of Cheyenne hunters and with more of those marked skins scattered on the yellow grass in the melting snow.

If the boys could read, they might notice one that was dated two days before, November 20, 1830, and it said:Last night I burned all my maps, Psalm 23 and First Thessalonians from my Bible, my Lord God, because where I am going in Your name, I have faith You shall guide me, help me lead the sons of Shem back to you, and we shall never be lost again.

A story of unrelenting faith.

Joseph Hesch (A Thing for Words)

© 2014, story and photograph, Joseph Hesch, All rights reserved