jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: December, 2014

A Christmas Tale of Magic and Faith

“Balthasar, Melchior, come quickly.”

The bearded old man was breathless. His pulse quickened. Could it be? Had they finally understood the mystery? Was this the time?

“What is it old friend?” asked Melchior.

Gaspar was muttering to himself, checking and rechecking the maps. He took an ancient compass into his weathered hands and began to trace overlapping circles on one of the time worn map of the stars lying upon the table.

“Look,” was all Gaspar could manage, trembling.

Balthasar and Melchior leaned over the table. Confusion gave way to disbelief as the two robed men examined their friend’s calculations. Gaspar had settled into a chair, watching. Anticipation hung thick in the silence of the tent.

“Give me the scroll, Balthasar.”

With Balthasar and Gaspar looking over his shoulders, Melchior studied the ancient text. Though Balthasar knew the stars, Melchior was expert in the old languages. His finger traced just below as he read.

“Though you are small among the clans, out of you will come for me one who will rule….”

Melchior realized he was holding his breathe and let out a long deep sigh. With a knowing look he nodded at Balthasar, then to Gaspar. None of them spoke for fear of diminishing this near holy moment. A journey was before them. It was the only way to know, to be sure. They must go.

+++++

 For Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar, sleep came fitfully that night. Each had returned to his tent filled with the exhilaration and some fear of what might lie ahead. Each rose long before daylight, packed food, water, and a few belongings into dusty cloth bags. By dawn they had loaded a small wagon and hitched a reluctant beast to it, ready for the journey. Their travel out of Medes to Judea might be filled with bandits, freezing nights, and blisteringly hot days, but it was a journey they would willingly make. Their journey would require all their skills as learned men, men of science, Men of the Magoi. Gaspar was the most gifted in the arts of magic. His skill could be the difference between life and death. Between living to know the truth and dying in the angst of not knowing if their journey would have revealed the truth.

Balthasar would be their guide through the night. By day they would simply head east, at night they would adjust their course if necessary. Balthasar had led them on journeys before and had always been a reliable guide.

The first day passed without incident. No thieves. No wild beasts. No fellow travelers. This seemed odd to the men for there were always people journeying east, then back to their own land. The promise of a better life and the disappointment of not finding it meant pilgrims would normally dot these paths. But not this time. It was as if time had stopped, that mankind had disappeared from the face of the earth, and only these three men remained.

As the cold of the night rose to chase away the heat of the day Balthasar studied the skies.

“There! See it. It is brighter than the others. That is the one.” His friends finally located the star Balthasar was pointing towards. “We will follow it. That one. It will lead us there.”

Gaspar was concerned, his face full of wariness, etched in lines and cracks and wrinkles.

“But the King? What of his soldiers? The governor? To pass through there is to meet death. He rules without wisdom, without mercy. How can we travel such a road?”   Even as he spoke the words he knew Balthasar was right. This was the path they would take. Their lives had been spent investigating mysteries, seeking the fulfillment of prophecies, of this prophecy. They had given their energies, their intellect, and their hope, to this work and now they would give their very lives if needs be.

Stopping to rest and a bite to eat, the men gathered their robes tightly around them trying to stave off the cold.

“Gaspar, my old friend. My very, very old friend,” Melchior goaded. “Can you not conjure us a meal of roasted meats and something sweet. Perhaps some fine wine as well? What use are your gifts to us if you will not fill our bellies?” Melchior smiled as he spoke, knowing he would agitate his old friend. Their friendship had been sown in their youth and the gentle baiting that began years ago was still part of it.

“Melchior, you yip for food like a dog at the fireside. You’ve not missed a meal in sometime. That belly of yours is provision enough for this journey. And you know I cannot conjure things for our comfort, nothing so self-serving as a full belly. Even the attempt would be disastrous. Have you learned nothing in all your many, many, many years?” His emphasis on the word “many” grew with each us of it. “All that study of ancient texts dulls your mind, and you were not so bright to begin with.”

With that, all three men burst into laughter. It was a good night to be with one another, to be on this journey, cold and hungry as they were. The laughter warmed them filling them with fresh resolve. Quietly, each man gathered his belongings, loaded them into the cart and set out again.

+++++

Somewhere late in the second day of the journey Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior passed into the land of the king. Their journey had passed without incident thus far. Still there had been no bandits, no bad weather, and enough food.   They had begun to believe their journey would pass without facing distress. So when the little wagon on which carried their few belongings began to wobble, then shake, and then tip lopsided into the sand as its left wheel rolled away from it, they were not unduly concerned. This had happened before and Balthasar was adept in such matters.

Melchior unhitched the great beast hauling the wagon from its harness as Balthasar levered the wagon frame from the sand. Gaspar was stuffing their bags and a large chest underneath it to suspend the axle high enough for repair. After an hour or so, with repairs made, the men lowered the wagon back to the ground.

“That should hold it. We are more than half way there,” said Balthasar. “Once we get there I will make a permanent repair.”

“The only thing permanent about your repairs, Balthasar, is your conviction you’ve finally made such a one.” He was about to reply to Melchior when Gaspar hushed them.

About two hundred meters to their East rode men on horseback. They were riding in fast. And only two types of men had horses in this region, bandits and soldiers. The men hoped these were bandits, only interested in what they might steal from old men. Soldiers stole, but also often beat, maimed and killed, with impunity this far from the palace.

“Well, what the devil do we have here?” It was the commanding officer. “Three old men and a wagon. You’re a long way from home aren’t you?”

“We are indeed,” Gaspar said calmly. “We are indeed.”

“What have you got there? What’s in those bags?” asked another soldier, dismounting.

“We are…” Balthasar interrupted Gaspar before he could finish.

“We are traveling to see the king. We have news of a prophecy fulfilled. You must take us to him immediately.” Balthasar’s words surprised him and his companions. Where had that come from? He hoped his sudden inspiration would not get them all tossed into a dungeon, dying a slow, wet and cold death.”

The soldier who had dismounted was just about to look into the bags the old men carried. As he reached the still mounted commander barked to the soldier, “Wait!” The soldier stepped back, averting his glare, hoping he had hidden his anger, yet obedient to the command.

Balthasar continued his fabrication. He did not like to lie but comforted himself in the belief the king would, in fact, want to know of this fulfilled prophecy. For if the prophecy were fulfilled it could threaten his reign, perhaps even end it. That was what The People of the Prophecy hoped for at least. And it would seem Balthasar was a better liar than he had thought as the Commander ordered his soldiers to gather up the men and their belongings so they could be brought to the King.

+++++

On the third day of their journey they arrived at the palace. They were treated well. None of the king’s soldier’s dared risk harming these men until they knew if their story was true. They ate bread and cheese and drank wine, wondering if this might be their final meal. Soon enough the Captain of the King’s Guard entered the room and commanded them, “On your feet. Best be your story is true, old men. If not, you’ll surely die an uncomfortable death.”

Little did these men know the King had long been looking for the fulfillment of the same prophecy these men had studied. In fact, the King had consulted his chief priests and scribes and all his advisors in the same search. He too believed the time had come. So when the Captain of the Guard told him these men had claimed to know of a fulfilled prophecy, the King was secretly anxious to talk to these men.

“So this star, you say, has led you here and now you want to go to Bethlehem to see if it is true? That the Messiah has been born?”

“Yes, your majesty.” Balthasar spoke for them all.

“Then so be it. Then go. Go to Bethlehem and see if it is true. And if you find this child, and you know he is the one foretold, then come to me quickly and I will journey there and worship him as well.”

The king authorized provisions for the men. He gave them horses, wineskins full of his best wine, and food. In the morning, they would set out for the final portion of their journey. For now they would sleep warmly, on comfortable beds, their bellies full. They could not believe their good fortune; at least that was how Balthasar and Melchior felt.

“This was much too easy. This king is often brutal and if the prophecy is true then his reign will be in jeopardy. Why would he aid us?” Gaspar was troubled.

“Perhaps, his intentions are malevolent,” replied Melchior. “Perhaps. I will rest much better when we have seen for ourselves what this star and this prophecy means. And all the more when we are home once more. But for now we must simply play our parts in this story and move on.”

Exhausted from their travels, even the deeply distressed Gaspar fell into a deep sleep that night. But each man dreamed terrible dreams that night. And they woke with the knowledge this King could never know if and where the Messiah had been born. They would tell the child’s family to flee into Egypt and remain in hiding, keeping the child, a boy, safe. For this King Herod would never allow the boy to reach manhood if he could prevent it. And he would shed the blood of many an innocent child to prevent it.

+++++

 As they arrived in the tiny town of Bethlehem late the next day, the men asked if there were a newborn male child in the town. They claimed they were distant members of the family, sent with gifts for the child, they claimed and had only a little time in which to find the newborn before they must return home. This place seemed almost bleak to them, its citizen’s often unkempt, dirty, and wary of outsiders. After searching several hours they found themselves standing over a child, his mother, and his father. In a barn.

The boy’s father told them how he had met his wife and how Mary had conceived. He told them how an angel told him the news of who this child was and that he should not abandon Mary, that she was chaste even as she was to bear a child. He told how he, a simple carpenter, worried about having been entrusted with a child such as this. With each word the man, his name was Joseph, spoke, Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, knew they had found the child. The prophecy was true.

“You must leave this place,” Melchior said sternly. “He will kill the child. Take him. Go to Egypt. Do not return until the king is dead. The boy’s life will depend on it.”

Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, presented the child with their gifts, once hidden and nearly found by the soldier who had been interrupted before he could search their belongings.  They looked on him, and wondered how a child could grow up to be this great Messiah whom The People of the Prophecy had long awaited. As they watched the sleeping child they knew it was time to must return home by way of a different path.   Soon enough the King would realize he had been misled and he would send his soldiers to find them.

Though difficult to leave the child and his parents they nodded to one another in quiet understanding. Time to go. Their horses had been fed and watered and the stars now shone brightly in the sky. Balthasar studied them carefully, mapping out another path for their return home. Mary had risen to embrace each man, grateful for their warning, as much as for their gifts. Joseph placed a hand on her shoulder, a loving touch to reassure her. She did not want them to go. As Melchior and Balthasar hoisted themselves atop the horses, Gaspar stayed firmly at Mary’s side.

“My good friends,” he said. “I cannot leave this child. There is much danger ahead for them and my gifts may be of some service to them.”

Balthasar contested. “Old man, you will only be a burden to these people. They must travel swiftly. Waiting for you will cost them precious time and only put them at risk. If the prophecy is true, and we know that it is, then The One will protect the child. He has no need of your help.”

Stubborn as he was, Gaspar knew Balthasar was correct. How he wanted to stay by this child, to watch him grow, to protect him, to serve him. Somehow the mere presence of this child had changed something within Gaspar. He felt a growing peace, a knowing, that life could no longer be the same for him. He would use all his skills and gifts of magic, now empowered by faith, to serve this child, to somehow bring the same joy and light into the souls of all children, even old children like him, that this child had given him. As Gaspar stood there, looking up at his two friends, he felt something inside him, changing. Melchior called his friend to come closer.

“What magic is this you’re conjuring, Gaspar?” As he sat atop his horse, Melchior watched the color of his friend’s hair turn white, as did his beard. Gaspar did not understand his friend’s question and looked to Mary and Joseph.  Mary reached up and touched the man’s hair. She heard herself let out a long deep sigh. She inhaled deeply realizing she had held her breath as Gaspar under went the change.

“You will find a way to serve him,” said Mary. “You will know what to do.”

+++++

 Their journey home was quiet. None of the king’s soldiers followed. There were no bandits and the horses seemed to trot tirelessly. The three men said little to one another for most of the first night and day’s journey. They stopped only occasionally to allow Balthasar to take his bearings and make sure they were on the right path. The miles they rode seemed to pass by more easily than on the way to find the child. It was as if something had been set right within the world, for now, at least.

When they finally stopped to sleep on the second night of their journey Balthasar asked, “What do you think the woman meant when she said you will know what to do, my friend? That you will know how to serve him?”

Gaspar had struggled with that question from the moment Mary had spoken the words. He knew nothing would be the same this after meeting this child who had somehow given him a fresh joy. How does a child who does not even speak give such a gift, he wondered. What gift might I give this child in return? Gold? Silver? What does a child need with such things?

“I am lost, Balthasar. I haven’t a clue as to what she meant or how I would know. I am not sure that she did. But she knew. Somehow she knew. I am an old man. What can I do?” Gaspar was clearly troubled. Unable to piece together how this had all come about. He longed for home, for his scrolls, for his maps, and for the comfort of his own bed and for his wife, for his children and for theirs. He was undone.

Another day’s ride and they would be home and his grandchildren would come running up to him, laughing, wondering what had happened on the journey. He remembered he always brought something back from his journeys for his precious ones and new he’d have nothing to give them. Soon his thoughts of his own plight faded as he worried over the disappointment they would feel if he had nothing to give them this time. This will never do, he thought.

On the final day of their journey Gaspar’s attention was ever on how to remedy this problem. He wondered what gift he might find for the children. As they rode into the village a merchant was riding out. The man might have some small trinkets he could purchase with a few coins. Gaspar stopped the man and purchased a carved figure for his grandson Micah. For Sarah, he purchased a leather loop that had a small metal ornament affixed to it. For Ezekiel he chose three colored stones that he placed in a leather pouch. He stuffed them deep into the cloth bag that contained the few belongings Gaspar had brought with him on the journey. He was grateful for the merchant’s patience as he chose them. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Perhaps these would do.

When they arrived Balthasar and Melchior parted ways with Gaspar, each needed the comfort of his family and rest from the journey. Gaspar was greeted with great fanfare, first by his wife. She pulled the man tightly to her and whispered a prayer of gratitude for his safe return. “There is much to tell,” he said to his wife as they embraced. He was strangely calm and possessed an energy he had not known in years. Then he heard the calls of glee.

“Papa. Papa’s back. “

His three grandchildren crashed into him and his wife.

“What did you bring us Papa?”

Gaspar smiled and laughed a laugh that began somewhere deep within him. He sat on the ground, clutching his bag, inviting the children to sit beside him. “Let’s see what Papa has here,” said Gaspar. He reached into his bag and drew out each gift slowly, presenting it to each child. Their eyes lit with excitement as each one thought they had received the perfect gift.

Gaspar felt a satisfaction in the giving of these gifts he had never before known. He saw the excitement of these children. Their joy in receiving the gifts had become his. He wished every child could know such unbridled joy. And in that moment Gaspar knew how he would serve the child he had met several days earlier.

+++++

When Gaspar did not come to Balthasar’s tent the first day after their return, neither he, nor Melchior thought much of it. Gaspar was the oldest of the three and might need to recover a bit from their journey. And on the second day, Melchior and Balthasar were still unconcerned. They had begun to study once again, even as they talked of their remarkable journey. But on the third day, they decided it was time to go and check on their friend, fearing fatigue from the journey had left the man unwell.

“He has been in there for the last two days. He seems all right but he rarely stops to rest. But he has the appetite of a lion. I just leave plates of food for him and come back later to collect his bowls.” Gaspar’s wife, Naomi, said to the two men. “He says he is working. But it’s not like any work I’ve known him to do before.”

The men stepped into Gaspar’s tent. The man, who had grown corpulent in the few days since they had seen him, sitting on the ground amidst a chaotic collection of tools: a hammer, an awl, a small saw, carving tools, sewing needles, thread, brushes and multicolored dyes, strips of leather. Bits of sawdust and fabric covered dotted the man’s beard. He looked a bit like a happy madman. Had the stress of their journey, years of searching, and the final words Mary had spoken to Gaspar been too much. The man, this wise old man, who had studied mysteries and prophecies, advised leaders, read the stars, and travelled much of the known world, now sat amidst a menagerie of children’s playthings, jewelry, sandals and assorted clothing.

“Melchior! Balthasar!” he boomed. “Whoahohoho! My learned and gentle friends, how good to see you. Come. Come! Sit with me. I’ve work to do, but come, please. We will talk. And we will eat. Naomi. Please my love, bring us some cheese and bread and some dates. I’m starving.”

Melchior stared at Balthasar, who normally spoke first in their dealings, could not contain himself. “What has come over you Gaspar? Are you feverish?”   Melchior was concerned over a very light, but clearly visible, reddish tint that had appeared on his cheeks and nose. He wondered if some strange spirit might have captured the man. If that was the case this spirit must be unlike any other he had of whom he had seen or heard before.

“Ha. Haha. Ohwahahahohohoho,” laughed Gaspar. When he finished he took a large bite of bread and washed it down with a long pull from a wooden cup filled with wine. Then he began to explain.

+++++

“As you know, my friends, our journey to find the child of the prophecy left me undone. The boy’s mother, Mary, her words to me before we left filled me with apprehension just as seeing the child filled me with wonder and some fresh faith that he would change the world. Something changed deep within me that moment. At once I felt the joy of a child-like joy and awareness that things could never be the same. I could not make sense of it.

“All my life I had waited, you know, I have studied mysteries, sought answers to age old questions and honed my skills as a Magi. But to what end? All my knowledge and all my experiences seemed oddly meaningless. Until I found myself reaching into my bag to retrieve the small gifts I purchased for Sarah, Ezekiel and Micah. As I saw their joy, the joy a child had given to me, I could now give to a child in return. In that moment I knew Mary had been right. I knew how to serve him.

“For what few years I may have left on this earth, I will give gifts to every child I can find. Every night, on the eve of the birth of boy, which I believe will one day be celebrated all over the earth, I will leave gifts such as these that surround me, to honor him. I will work all year to make as many gifts for them as I can make and I will deliver them that night and I will start over again preparing for the next year. And I will do this until the day I die.”

Naomi stood behind Melchior and Balthasar, listening. Somehow she understood what was inexplicable. Gaspar had told her of the child, seeing him, how he had been moved by the experience, how they had given him gifts, and what Mary had said. Her fears for her husband faded like breathe on a cold morning. She found a large bag and began collecting Gaspar’s work, gently placing each item in it, careful not to disturb any of Gaspar’s ongoing work.

“Now my friends, I must get back to work.” Gaspar said. “And you must return to yours. There are more mysteries to sort out. I think this is the beginning of an age of mysteries that will last for generations.”

Gaspar stood and grabbed each of the men with an energy and fervor they had not seen for many years. He grasped each man by the hand with the strength of a far younger man.

“You must come and see me again. Very soon. Please. Very soon. We will talk and laugh and eat. That reminds me. I am so very hungry. Naomi, please my love, I am so hungry. More bread and cheese if you do not mind.”

+++++

Over the years, Gaspar made hundreds of toys. And each year, on that special night, he delivered them to growing numbers of children. At some point he realized he would need to call on his skills as a Magi to reach all the world’s children A little magic was all it took, empowered by faith. With care he conjured a way to slow down time enough to broaden his circles of giving. When that wasn’t enough, he managed a magical way to speed up his own ability to move throughout the world. As his love grew so too did the power of his conjuring.

Gaspar lived far beyond any normal life span. As did his wife Naomi and his sons and daughters. They had all joined him in his mission to bring joy to the children of the world. Some made gifts, others helped sort and store them. Still others worked to make sure Gaspar stayed full on bread, cheese, and dates. Over the years Gaspar taught his oldest son all of the magic he knew so that he could continue Gaspar’s work. With each passing generation the next son, his wife, and family would inherit the duties and privilege of giving to the world’s children. As the years passed the magic grew stronger and more and more children received an annual visit from a man with a white beard and white hair.

Legends began to grow and be told about Gaspar in every tribe and nation, just as the stories of the Child of Prophecy did. No one knew his Gaspar’s real name or his story, so they gave him their own names. Pere Noel. Babouschka. Kris Kringle. Father Christmas. St. Nicholas. Sinterklaus. Santa. And with each generation the legends grew. Gaspar would have been filled with joy could he have known what his first few years of gift giving had grown into. Some may never have understood the real reasons behind his generosity, of how he met the Child from the East. No matter. They would all know some day. Until then it was enough to live his life giving gifts, sprinkled with a little magic, giving joy to a child, as the child had given him.

Katybug: A Brief Love Story

The old man sat down gently beside her. He felt the ache of 81 Octobers in his back, knees and hips.

“It’s cooling down early this year, Katybug.”

He couldn’t remember when he’d started calling her Katybug, but he thought it was sometime in 1948. Katherine just didn’t feel right. “Katybug” was name was full of affection, respect and the joy befitting her. He’d sat with her each night like this for the last few weeks and realized the afternoon sunlight was beginning to lose its battle with the chill of evening. The concrete bench felt harder, colder than the day before.

“Oh, my day was just fine,” he said. “Just like always, I had coffee with Herman and George at the Dairy Queen. George is worried about Becky. She’s just not herself he says. Keeps forgetting things. Sometimes she looks like him like she doesn’t know him. Heckuva, thing. Married 55 years and she doesn’t always know who he is. Sure glad we’ve never faced that.”

He shuffled on the bench struggling for comfort.

“I think I’m gonna make a little dinner tonight. Maybe fry up some oysters. I know how you love oysters. Its been a while since I cooked’em. Maybe some hush puppies, too. Whadya, think?”

Katybug loved his fried oysters and hush puppies. She had always made the slaw and sometimes they would share a bowl of ice cream for dessert. Each took a bite in succession, matching the others spoonful. It had been this way for so many years. He loved ice cream.   When he got “the cancer” Katybug made him eat the ice cream to keep him losing too much weight. She would take a spoonful then feed him one.

“Cancer,“ he thought. “Hell, I wasn’t sick until they made me take the damn chemo.”

She was silent. He knew what she was thinking. Oysters would be delicious. He should cook some. October was a good time for getting them from the Gulf. She always made the tartar sauce. It would be nice. He could smell the deep fried aroma mixing with cool fall evening, filling the house with its familiar comfort.

“I talked to David today. He and Maggie are good. Boy works too much. I worry about him. He’s 50 years old and still I worry,” he laughed. “He put Rachel on the phone. She’s so grown up. Not a baby any more. How did she get to be 15? She misses you. Wants to come out for a visit soon. Maybe Christmas.”

He glanced up at the sky, pausing. He had lost his train of thought again. It happened more and more now. He knew he rambled when he spoke, wondered how often he repeated himself. He wondered what he had forgotten today. Did he lock the house? Feed the dog? Had he taken the right medicine? He worried he about ending up like Becky.

“Well, it’s gettin’ dark Katybug. “

He positioned the cane carefully on the ground between his knees, took a deep breath, gathering strength. He tensed the muscles in his legs and arms “preparing for lift off,” as he called it. Then relaxed.

“Maybe we’ll sit just a few more minutes.”

He looked up at the sky once more. The chill of fall landed on a face full of wisdom and determination. The moon was rising as the orange and blue gave sky way to the graying dusk. He glanced down at the Mums he’d brought yesterday. Or was it the day before? Katybug loved mums, pumpkins, all the trappings of Fall. It was her favorite time of year.

He read the words etched in the cold slab of granite.

“Beloved Wife, Mother, and Friend.”

Her 79 years reduced to those three words. How could such a remarkable life be properly reduced to a few on a piece of stone, he wondered?

“Oh, Katybug. I miss you so. You made me laugh. Taught me so much. When I got afraid you made me strong. And you could make me so mad. But I don’t remember that so much anymore.”

The old man rose from the cold bench he’d had placed beside her and shuffled back to his car. He muttered something about being an old fool. He knew he would see Katybug again. Scolded himself for wishing it would be soon. He heard her scolding him too.

“Now Matthew, that just won’t do.” He smiled, finding comfort in the memory of how she saw things so clearly.

He glanced over his shoulder and smiled.

“You rest well,” he told her. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” thinking he should be sure to bring a blanket to sit on. “ I’ll be back tomorrow.

Goodbye Emma

“Life is difficult.” So begins M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Travelled. Tonight I am reminded of that simple, yet profound, truth. Tonight I learned that one of my oldest and dearest friends is near the end of life’s journey and I am at a loss for words. So I write, hoping to find the right words, hoping to somehow sort out what I cannot comprehend, a world without this friend. In the rawness of this time, I will write and edit, hoping to rewrite a tale with a better ending. I want to write an ending where Emma gets better, where all this is a dream, where her daughter gets to grow up to marry, have children, and visit her Mother when she is old and let Emma hold her grandchildren. If only writing it would make it so.

In full disclosure, Emma is not my friend’s actual name. That is an intimate detail I cannot share, out of respect for her and because it is yet too personal for me. Nonetheless, telling Emma’s story, how our lives intersected, how we became friends, and what she means to me will not be diminished by use of a literary device. Emma was and still is far more than a name. Plus, she would probably like me creating a little drama in telling you about our friendship.

Emma and I met in college. We sought the same degree and shared many of the same classes. But that is about all we had in common, or so it seemed. Emma was a very liberal young woman. I was Michael P. Keaton. Emma smoked, dressed as if she didn’t own a mirror, and hung out with an artistic, avante guard group of friends. I was a buttoned up Young Republican type planning to run for President (of the country, not the student council). Our politics and lifestyles could not have been more different. Yet from the moment I met Emma I was taken by her.

She was probably the brightest of a family of Phi Beta Kappas. Philosophy, Theology, Foreign Language, came easily to her. I was a solid “B” student, dotting my grades with the occasional “A” and a few “Cs” to keep people guessing and Emma’s intellect made me crazy. We would never find ourselves on the same side of an issue when we talked, which was mostly in class, and I found her maddening. But the more agitated I became about an issue she would seem only to grow calmer.

Over the years I realized Emma, like all of us do, struggled with her personal demons. As we grew into young adulthood, I realized her demons seemed to take more and more from her. Emma’s genius came at a great price and her mind seemed to yank her around emotionally and psychologically, but in all that pain there was the soul of a kind and loving friend.  She once told me I was the only conservative person she ever respected. At once I felt pride and confusion. Looking back, I felt honored to have her approval and confused about why she felt this way. I wish I had asked her.   I hope it was because she saw the kind of compassion and kindness in me that I saw in her.

Oddly, Emma’s first job out of College was as a financial advisor; at the time we called them life insurance agents. It is a noble profession and a difficult one at that. But Emma was doing it well and when she called me to ask if I’d be interested in joining the same firm she was with I was eager to learn more, after I had gotten over the shock of knowing she was making her living as a salesperson. Ultimately, I joined the firm and found that experience continues to serve me well in my career some 30 years later. I’m not sure I’ve ever told her, but I owe her a debt for calling me.

We lost touch for many years until we reconnected on social media. I learned Emma had a beautiful and gifted teenage daughter. I learned her folks were still living. And I learned Emma was sick. When Emma was foolish enough to buy a book I’d written we shared emails and ultimately, we talked on the phone. I learned, as she said, she had “never figured out marriage” and had been married once or twice. She said it in a way that seemed forgiving and knowing. Emma told me she had bought my book and given it to her Father whose “opinion mattered” since he was the “smartest one in the family.” She told me he had liked the book and though I know it will never be a best seller that was praise enough. I told Emma I was no longer the hard line conservative I had been in College, and though I leaned “right” on economic issues, I was now a Social Libertarian. She laughed and said she’d always known I had a soul.

I haven’t spoken to Emma in several months. Now I find myself regretting not taking the time to call her or visit her. I knew this day would come when I spoke to her last. I knew a time would come when she would be too weak to talk. Tonight I saw a shooting star as I sat on my deck and I wondered if that might be Emma and her brilliance flashing through the sky and if somehow that was a marker that she was now out of pain. Tonight I only know that life is difficult. Sometimes. But that the richness of knowing Emma has made it far less difficult in ways I cannot fully explain. I wish I could rewrite her story. But I cannot. This will have to be enough.

You are my friend Emma. And I miss you already.

Miss Bishop’s Kitchen and the Holy Relics of My Youth

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For most of us the kitchen is the heart of the home we grew up in. Somehow it is the place where everyone gathers, eschewing the comfort of a good chair, at least for a while, in favor of the laughter and warmth of family. Recently my Mother bequeathed me two iron skillets owned by her Mother stirring memories of my Grandmother’s kitchen. In those memories I could smell and taste the foods found there as well as the security of her love kindness of her smile, this woman known to so many as simply, Mizz Bishop.

Family entered Mizz Bishop’s house, come to think of it everyone did, through the back of the house through the utility room. Only salesmen, strangers and census takers, or maybe a Preacher, came to the front door. You passed a washer and dryer, washbasin, and an enormous freezer to enter the kitchen. The freezer always had fresh frozen peaches, strawberries, and a variety of vegetables my Grandmother had “put up.” There were cuts of beef, chicken, and pork waiting to become part of a meal. And oh yes, let’s not forget the thick slabs of “fatback,” an essential part of seasoning a Southern meal.

Most of the time my Grandmother’s first words to newly arrived family and friends included “Ya’ll hungry?” I can hear her Southern drawl even now. She would invite us into the kitchen to sit at the table while she started pulling out leftover pork chops, chicken, or steak, or fish. All of it cooked in the skillet, most of it breaded, I know own. It handled the duty of cooking biscuits, cornbread, bacon, eggs, and who knows what else. Scrambled eggs in her kitchen, in that skillet, were always cooked in bacon or sausage grease and resulted in something that could bring tears to your eyes.

Mizz Bishop’s kitchen always had something sweet to eat as well. Sometimes it was a homemade coconut cake or a pound cake. Sometimes it was a “store bought” Honey Bun, Chips Ahoy, or the Krispy Kreme Donuts she loved so much. In the rare event none of those were available there were always homemade strawberry or fig preserves to ladle onto a biscuit, piece of cornbread, or even a piece of toast. No one ever left hungry.

Tonight, I cooked my first pan of cornbread in Mizz Bishop’s skillet. I used the big one. It is well seasoned and heavy from both the iron from which it is made as well as more than fifty years of memories. This large skillet and its smaller brother are somehow sacred relics of my youth. And I treated them with the care of a holy moment. They call me to wonder how times she stooped to place them into the oven, removing them, to fill both the belly and the soul of the people she loved. And make me wonder how many times she asked, “Ya’ll hungry?”

Mr. Astro and the FizzFuel Flyer: A Brief Tale for Children of All Ages

“This is my friend Lucy.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir.”

“Pleasure’s all mine young miss. Name’s Astromobomboli P. Evermore. Folks just call me Astro.”

“I just call him Mr. Astro,” said Mose

Mr. Astro was a scientist, an inventor, a collector of oddities and odd knowledge. He was a teller of tales, some true, some not. It was hard to tell the difference. No one really knew how old Mr. Astro was because of his appearance. Bushy white hair stuck out from below a New York Yankees cap he claimed had once belonged to Babe Ruth. He was always dressed in mismatched clothes bought either from a thrift store or acquired at a yard sale. Mr. Astro was very frugal. Today’s ensemble included camouflage pants and tie-dyed purple tee shirt accessorized by his white–toothed smile as broad as a horse’s grin. He was normally frantic and today was well, normal.

“Must keep busy. Gotta stay on task. Have that attention deficit….hey, wait, where’s that cat?”

Mr. Astro’s cat, Aristotle, was an essential, if unwilling, part of his most of his experiments. Aristotle had been “test pilot” for several aircraft “invented” by the man. The outcome of those flights had left Aristotle edgy, even for a cat. And the “revolutionary new scuba suit” he had designed had wasted another of Aristotle’s nine lives. But the cat loved his human all the same. He had ever since the day the man rescued him from a Basset Hound that had cornered him in an abandoned warehouse where Mr. Astro was searching for things to use in his laboratory.

“Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty.”

By now Mr. Astro had completely forgotten Mose and Lucy were there in his laboratory. He was rattling through tools, empty buckets, and a hundred other things that were piled up around the room. He was grumbling something about how unreliable cats were and maybe he should get a dog or a bird.

“Is he always like this?” Lucy asked Mose.

“Pretty much. Some people say he’s crazy. But he’s fun. He lets me help with his experiments. You just gotta stay alert when he starts using matches and counting down to launch time.” Mose lived across the street from Mr. Astro.   He had started going over every day that summer when he saw an old man in a pair of clown pants chasing a goose down the street. Every time the goose honked the man honked back. It was the funniest thing Mose had ever seen, even thought the goose didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience.

“Hey, Mr. Astro. Whatcha workin’ on today?”

“Oooooh, my boy. Its amazing, fabulous, my most remarkable invention yet.”

Lucy was more than a little skeptical. She wondered if this had been a good idea. The “laboratory” was an old detached garage in the backyard of the man’s house. There was a sign over the bench that said, “Genius is Pain!” She saw a plastic skeleton hanging in the corner. It would have been creepy if it hadn’t been wearing a straw hat and wearing Wayfarer Sunglasses.

“Safety first!” blurted the man. He handed a football helmet and a hardhat to Mose and Lucy. “Put these on.”

Mr. Astro’s motto was “safety first.” Mose heard him say it almost every day. Mose wondered why “look out” or “run” wasn’t his motto because that seemed far more useful. He looked around for the first aid kit that Mr. Astro kept nearby. Most of the time first aid required only a band-aid, ointment or some aspirin. The kit sat atop the workbench, still open from yesterday’s experiments.

Astro pulled an odd looking contraption from a cardboard box.

“Voila!” he said in his best French accent.

“Behold, the FizzFuel Flyer. It’s a prototype that will revolutionize travel.   A soda powered vehicle. ‘it’s the sweet way to travel.’ Get it? Soda. Sweet way to travel. Soda is sweet. Get it? Thought of that myself. Gonna make millions.’

The man had pulled something that looked like a Tonka dump truck with a liter bottle of cherry cola duct taped to each side. He sat the contraption atop a crudely built platform with plywood track leading down from it and back up a steep ramp.”

“What does it do?” Lucy was hooked. This odd little man made everything fun.

“Do? Doo? What does it doooo? Why nothing less than transfer the potential energy stored inside the carbonated mixture of caramel coloring, high fructose corn syrup, and other natural flavorings into a power source for the vehicle that will drive it off the platform, down the track, up the ramp, and launch into to geosynchronous orbit above our atmosphere, where it can be maneuvered to collect all the space junk floating around up there.”

Mose wanted to know who was going to drive it but didn’t have the chance to ask. Mr. Astro was shaking his machine violently. Aristotle, wide-eyed and trembling, peaked out from behind a chair glad he wasn’t a part of this test. He saw the man place it on the platform and quickly smash both screw caps from the bottle with simultaneous blows of a hammer. “It’s showtime baby!” he shouted.

Cherry cola spewed from the plastic bottle sending the truck racing down the track and up the ramp. Mose, Lucy, and Mr. Astro raced outside to see the truck rise 15 feet straight up, drenching them in sticky foam that spewed from the bottles.

“It works!” Mose exclaimed.

“Eureka!” said Mr. Astro.

“Run!” shouted Lucy.

The bright yellow truck had reached its zenith and was now plummeting back at them. Aristotle peaking around the doorframe darted back into a crowded corner of the laboratory.

Mr. Astro held a large butterfly net he carried “just in case” and was trying to provide his invention a soft touchdown. He misjudged the truck’s speed of descent resulting in the loud clang of the it’s rubber tires impact with the tin pail Mr. Astro wore atop his Yankees cap. He had put it on when he’d admonished Mose and Lucy about “safety first.”

“Can you hear me? Are you okay Mr. Astro?”   Lucy stood over the cola soaked man. She gently removed the tin pail from his head.   “Say something.” Mr. Astro let out a soft moan and rubbed his head.

“There are 108 elements in the periodic table,” he intoned. Hydrogen, Helium…”

“He’s out of his head Lucy. You think he needs a Doctor?”   Mose’s face was filled with concern.

“Helium. He-he-he-helium.” The man giggled “Helium’s my favorite. It makes balloons fly and gives you a funny squeaky voice when you breathe it in.”

“Snap out of it!” Lucy barked.

It must have worked because Mr. Astro abruptly sat up, rubbed his forehead and said, “Please dear, no need to shout. Do you happen to have any aspirin?”

“I’ll get the first aid kit.” Mose ran into the laboratory, returned with a bottle of water and two aspirin. He had also grabbed an ice pack Mr. Astro kept in the freezer.   He heard his Mother calling him from across the street. It was almost dinnertime. Lucy glanced down at her watch and knew she needed to get home too.

“You gonna be okay, Mr. Astro?” she asked.

“Okay? Okay! Okay? Why I’m fabulous. Wonderful. Never better. It works. The FizzFuel Flyer works! There’s much to do. Have to make my notes about this test flight. Plan the next flight.” He stood suddenly, holding the ice pack to his head. “Nice to have two fine assistants. Very nice.” He glanced around, searching. Now where’s that cat? Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty.”

Mose and Lucy headed homed home down the gravel drive way.

“You were right. He is fun. Pretty smart too. And it’s like this every time?”

“Like this?” Mose shook his head. “Not really. Most days it’s a lot crazier.”

Lucy grinned. It was going to be a great summer.