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Monday, November 16, 2009

Aiding the Enemy

(When an old foe returns and wants to resume a relationship where it left off, we can engage or redefine the relationship. When Al faced this circumstance, he did both because his conscience gave him no other choice.)

Excerpt #7 from "A TIME TO..."

“Always so brave when you’re with a crowd,” Al said, looking eye to eye with Billy.

“I don’t need anybody else to take you. The only reason I didn’t do it when we were kids was my dad. And, since he ain’t around anymore, guess what?” Billy said as he handed his bat to the tall Apostle, and motioned for his two buddies to give him and Al some room.

Al took a boxing stance facing Billy, and repeated to himself his Disciple mantra, “Be tough, brave, intelligent and loyal.”

“I never liked you. You always rubbed me the wrong way,” Billy seethed.

“That’s your problem,” Al shot back. “I always minded my own business, but you.... you weren’t happy unless you were making my life miserable.”

Billy swung his fist hard at Al’s face, but missed when Al moved to the side and deflected it with his open hand.

“You didn’t always mind your own business, Daniel Boone.... Always bragging about coming from Kentucky, like you were somebody special,” Billy corrected Al, as he swung again, hitting Al in the stomach this time.

Al backed up to catch his breath. “I only talked about Kentucky when people asked me about it. Special...? Me...? Confused! Lonely! Freak!....was more like it,” Al barked as all those hurtful memories rekindled a fire in him.

Before Billy could respond, Al lunged at him, landing two blows... one to Billy’s side and the other to his nose, which started to bleed.

A startled Billy backed up a few steps and wiped the blood, which had trickled down into his mouth with his hand. Billy, now enraged, pointed at Al with his blood-soaked finger and said, “Now.... now you learn a lesson you won’t forget, Daniel.”

“Get him Billy! Yeah!” urged his fellow Apostles.

“Go away! Take that stuff somewhere else!” shouted an elderly woman from her third-floor apartment window overlooking the fight scene from across the street.

“What was that Grandma? I can’t hear you!” laughed the tall one.

“You’ll hear the police when they come!” she shouted even louder.

Billy swung his fist wildly at Al a couple times, but didn’t connect.

“Come on! You can do better than that,” mocked Al.

“Shut up and fight,” Billy demanded, before grabbing Al’s arms and wrestling him to the ground. As they rolled around on the sidewalk, they exchanged punches. Billy’s bloody nose smeared blood on both their clothes. It was a bright red on Al’s white tee shirt, brown on his tan jacket, and a darker shade of burgundy on Billy’s sweater.

“How do you like that?” Billy scowled after landing a solid punch on Al’s right ear that dazed Al for a couple seconds.

“Here’s some mor, mor, mor....” Billy stammered as his eyes rolled up into his head and his body began shaking wildly. He let go of Al. His body looked like a fish’s that had been pulled from the water and tossed on land.

“What the hell is wrong with you Billy?” the lanky Apostle asked incredulously.

Just then the sound of a police siren started growing louder as it approached them from a block away.

“Come on! We gotta get outta here,” screamed the tall Apostle, as he began running down the street in the opposite direction.

“What about Billy?” the other Apostle asked with concern.

“What about him? He’s either possessed or really sick. Nothing we can do,” the tall one said as he continued running. The lanky Apostle shrugged and followed his buddy down the street.

Al watched Billy flop around for a few seconds before he knew he had to do something quick or else Billy was going to hurt himself seriously. If he continued to hit his head against the sidewalk and roll over onto the broken wine bottle that was now just a foot away, he could even kill himself.

He remembered seeing his cousin flop around like that on the carpeted floor of his home during a visit. His aunt and uncle wrapped him in a blanket so he wouldn’t bang into things in the room. Since Al didn’t have a blanket, or anything to wrap Billy in, Al got down on his knees behind Billy’s head, and lifted him from his armpits while wrapping his arms around Billy’s chest. He held on as tight as he could. The force of Billy’s convulsions knocked Al off his knees and onto his backside. Now he could more securely cradle Billy between his knees while holding onto his chest with his arms.

Billy’s face and head were bloodied, bruised and scrapped when the police car pulled up to the curb, along side Billy and Al.

“Break it up!” commanded the officer who popped out of the passenger seat of the cruiser.

“It’s not what you think. We’re not fighting now,” said a breathless, blood-stained Al.

“Officer...Officer! Two of the young hoodlums are getting away!” shouted the woman, who had called the police, from her third-floor window.

Ignoring the woman, the officer responded to Al, “Is that right? What then?”

“He’s sick! Look at his eyes!”

“Officer... Officer! Can’t you hear me? Don’t let them get away!” the woman pleaded.

“Lady, please...first things first!”

Billy continued to twist and turn as if jolts of electricity pulsed intermittently through his body, and Al hung on despite Billy’s head butting his head several times.

“Is he on drugs?” asked the policeman who had been driving, as he exited the car.

“No. One second he was fine, the next he started shaking like crazy and his eyes... his eyes went blank.”

“Sounds like an Epileptic seizure. We’ve got some padding in the car,” the driver said as he rushed to get it from the trunk.

“I think he’s dead! His body stopped shaking. It’s not moving at all,” Al said to them.

The first officer checked Billy’s pulse before saying, “No. His seizure is over. It just took a lot out of him.”

Billy, still cradled between Al’s knees, with his back propped up against Al’s chest, moaned as if he had just begun feeling the effects of what had just happened to him.

“You must have gotten me good,” Billy said to Al, while he opened and closed his eyes, and regained his consciousness.

“No. You... you had a seizure,” Al told Billy.

“What?” said a puzzled and exhausted Billy.

“Yeah. Your friend probably saved your life,” said the first policeman.

“Friend? Where are my friends?”

“Right next to you,” said the second policeman.

“You... you helped me?” Billy said in amazement.

“Yeah,” Al replied matter-of-factly.

“Why?” a dazed Billy wondered.

“Somebody had to keep you from killing yourself, and I was the only one around,” Al replied.

“Where are my Apostle brothers?” a surprised Billy asked.

“I’m guessing they’re at least five blocks away by now. They took off just before the cops got here,” Al told Billy.

“Officer! Officer! You let them get away,” the woman shouted from her window across the street.

“Lady, you’re right. We’ll get ‘em next time,” said the first policeman.

“Why.... why didn’t you run too?” Billy asked Al.

“I don’t know. I couldn’t. I thought about it. I guess I didn’t think I could have lived with myself if I left you like that,” Al replied uncomfortably.

“Here,” said the second officer as he handed Billy a handkerchief. “Wipe the blood from your nose and face.”

Billy took it and slowly wiped off his blood.

“I wouldn’t have done the same for you,” Billy said somberly before covering his eyes with the blood-stained handkerchief and hanging his head. “I wouldn’t have done the same for you,” he repeated as he began sobbing.

“You don’t know that, but it doesn’t matter,” Al said as he got up off the ground. “We aren’t friends, but that doesn’t mean we have to be enemies,” Al said as he walked away. After taking a few steps, Al stopped, turned around to Billy and said, “Maybe you’ll return the favor some time,” before he continued on his way to Sal’s Place.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

God's Voice of Love

(People have heard God speak to them for thousands of years. When it was one of the great prophets relaying His words, we accept it and even rejoice. But when someone we know, a neighbor or family member, tells us about what God told them, we are at least a little skeptical. And, nobody would have been more skeptical than Al. That's why Al reacted as he did when God spoke to him.)

Excerpt #6 from "A TIME TO..."

“Are you religious?” Al replied.

“I go to church when I can. I believe in God. Is that what you mean?” Paul wondered.

“Angels? Do you believe in angels too?” Al pressed.

“Sure. Aren’t they part of the God package?” Paul said rhetorically.

“What would you say if I told you somebody thinks I’m an angel?” Al asked Paul.

“You got a new girl friend?” Paul replied with a smile.

“Al rolled his eyes and chuckled, “No. I’m serious. A young girl at the shelter thinks I’m an angel God sent and she’s convinced her mother that I’m an angel too,” Al confided.

“But you don’t have wings? So, how did they mistake you for an angel?” Paul teased.

Al retold Paul the story about his visit with Almaz’s family, Berhanu’s subsequent conversation with them, and the doctor’s prognosis.

“So, do you have any miracles up your sleeve?” Paul asked Al.

“A miracle...? Yeah, that’s what they expect from me. Do you have any ideas?” Al prompted.

“Hmm... Well there’s parting the Red Sea, and it’s not too far from here. Or, there’s turning water into wine and feeding thousands by multiplying a couple loaves and pieces of fish. I’d mention raising someone from the dead, but let’s stick to something more doable,” Paul teased more.

“Funny. Ha, ha. Maybe I’d better forget about a miracle,” Al concluded.

“No. Don’t do that. You just need to be creative. Find out what it would take for Amaz’s father to regain his will to live, then you’ll have the miracle you’ll need to perform,” Paul suggested.

“I’m back to square one. I need to talk with Berhanu,” Al realized.

The next morning Al arrived early at the shelter and pulled Berhanu aside to talk as soon as he saw him. “Does Almaz’s father think I’m an angel?” Al asked Berhanu.

“No. He thinks his wife and daughter are crazy,” Berhanu told Al.

“What would he do if I told him I am an angel?” Al supposed.

“He’d think you are crazy,” Berhanu said confidently.

“What if I proved I’m an angel?” Al wondered.

“Now, I think you are crazy,” Berhanu admitted.

“Let me explain. The doctor told me that Almaz’s father will die unless something happens to end his depression. The pneumonia will kill him. Didn’t you tell me that faith in God is all that keeps the poor like him alive? Well, the depression has apparently stolen his faith. So, unless his faith is restored, he will die. I want to be his angel and do something miraculous so he will live for his sake and for his family’s. But, I need your help,” Al explained.

“What changed your mind? You weren’t going to tell them you are an angel,” Berhanu inquired.

“Almaz. I saw something in her face the other day. I don’t want her to become bitter, like someone I know. And, I can’t just stand by and watch her father die if there is something I can do to prevent it,” Al told him.

“OK. How can I help?” Berhanu offered.

“The doctor told me they have no home to return to. I don’t know what he meant. Can you find out if they are homeless now and anything else that may be causing the depression? You already told me about his son. I want to prove to him that I’m an angel by doing something miraculous,” a committed Al told him.

“But you are not an angel. You can’t make miracles happen,” Berhanu reminded Al.

“Yes and no. Just because I’m not an angel doesn’t mean I can’t perform a small miracle. I’m hoping that will be enough,” Al replied.

"OK. I’ll talk with them today and let you know what I learn,” Berhanu confirmed.

“Thanks,” Al said as he tapped Berhanu’s shoulder.

A miracle... Al needed a miracle. Why not? Why not one more in the string of miracles that were taking place that year, 1974, in Ethiopia? Wasn’t it a miracle that Peace Corps Volunteers eradicated Smallpox from the world that summer in a remote Ethiopian village? Wasn’t it a miracle that the remains of a three-million-year-old human ancestor were discovered not far from Dessie, providing clues to the origin of human life, and wasn’t it a miracle that the days of Ethiopia’s ancient feudal system were about to end? While Al had no idea now what would be needed to make this peasant farmer whole again after everything he had been through, somehow he knew that the answer lived deep inside himself in a place he avoided ever since Tommy killed Billy.

When Berhanu sat down with him later that day to report what he had learned, Al listened carefully for anything that would tell him what to do. He just hoped that it wouldn’t require a journey he wasn’t prepared to take.

“His name is Serranen... Almaz’s father,” Berhanu reported to Al. “The land he had farmed was owned by a prince. Serranen’s family worked that land for many generations for the same royal family. The prince had decided to sell his land to another royal family because he needed the money to continue living his privileged life. Harvests had been bad in recent years and then this draught put him in debt. The new land owner had his own farmers, so he told Serranen to leave. But where could he go when all he knew was farming and he didn’t know anyone with land who could put him to work?

“He and his family were walking for two days, looking for work, when some thieves took the few things they owned, including all their food. In the fight, Serranen broke his foot. The next day, their son wandered off into the wilderness to find food for his family. He returned a few hours later with a sack of berries. He had eaten his full before filling the sack for his family. But, by the time he returned, he had become very sick. His mother rushed to him when she saw him struggling to walk and breath. Within a few hours, he was dead. They buried him in a field of wild flowers not far from the road they were traveling. The berries were apparently poisonous, so they went hungry for two days, until an empty lorrie returning to the Dessie shelter stopped to pick them up. They were amazed when it dropped them off at the shelter,” Berhanu related.

"Almaz and her mother’s prayers were answered. Serranen didn’t pray. He was too angry by that time to talk with God as a result of what had happened to his son, with his job and the thieves. Almaz believes that you, being an angel, had heard her prayer and sent the truck to save them. It didn’t take much to convince her mother that you are an angel," Berhanu concluded.”

As Berhanu told the sad story, Al closed his eyes and slowly shook his head, ‘no’ after hearing about each hardship, and nodded ‘yes’ when he heard about the impact they had on Serranen.

“I can’t do this. How can I help him when I feel the same way about God? I don’t blame Serranen for feeling as he does,” Al told Berhanu remorsefully.

“So he will die, leaving Almaz without a father and Abebech without a husband? Can’t you just pretend as you said before and give them a small miracle?” Berhanu pleaded.

“I can’t give him back his son or his job. Those are the only miracles that matter to him now,” Al said softly.

“He just needs to know that in spite of everything, God is with him and loves him,” Berhanu whispered.

“How? I’m not a magician. The last time I tried to be one, when I was a kid, my tricks backfired on me. ‘God is with him and loves him? ...after everything that’s happened to him?” Al said sarcastically.

Just then, this scene from Al’s life froze and the mysterious voice that he had heard earlier in his life said, “Isn’t it time that you stopped blaming God for what happened to Billy and Tommy?”

“It’s you again. What’s happening to me? Where am I? Who are you? What do you want from me?” Al demanded.

No answers came. The voice just repeated its same question. After a long pause, Al finally said, “Why?”

Then for the first time ever, the voice responded to Al. “God didn’t hit Billy with the bottle. God didn’t put the gun in Billy’s hand. God didn’t create the animosity between the Apostles and the Disciples. God didn’t convict Tommy,” the voice said with kindness.

“And, God didn’t do anything to prevent these things either,” Al snapped back. “God has given humans laws to follow and the freedom to do as they please,” the voice replied compassionately.

“It’s not that simple,” Al protested.

“Yes, it is,” declared the voice.

“No!” Al screamed.

“And, isn’t it time that you stopped blaming yourself for what happened?” the voice added. “If I didn’t help Bookie fix the game, Billy would still be alive and Tommy would be free,” Al declared.

“You made a mistake. Learn from it and move on. God forgives mistakes ... so should you,” the voice responded.

“I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. Please tell me how,” Al pleaded.

“Ahhh. Now we are getting somewhere. You can’t do anything to help Billy or Tommy. They are in God’s hands, but you can do something to help Serranen and his family. It will do wonders for your soul.” the voice counseled.

“”I’ll try, but I’ll need help. Do you have a suggestion?” an exhausted Al asked.

“Listen to your heart,” the voice said just before the scene with Berhanu resumed where it had stopped.

“Yes, God and his love are with Serranen, even now,” Berhanu told Al. “Suffering is part of our lives here. Serranen knows this, but he needs a reminder to understand that God hasn’t abandoned him.”

Al looked thoughtfully at Berhanu in silence for a few seconds and then recalled Tsehye’s earlier words to him, “Your bitterness speaks loudly... It tells me your soul is in pain. Listen to your soul tell you there is a God... a mysterious God who doesn’t always seem to care about you and others in this world.” Al then covered his eyes with his hands, bowed his head, and wiped a tear from his eyes.

“What is it?” Berhanu asked. “Was it something I said?”

“Yes, and something an old wise man told me a few months ago,” Al said as he regained his composure. “I will do everything I can to help Serranen live,” Al said just as an idea came to mind. Tsehye is a landowner. “Perhaps Serranen could work for him,” Al thought.

“What will you do?” Berhanu asked compassionately. “I will try to be in spirit the angel Almaz thinks God sent to save them. I hope to show Serranen that God is with him to help restore his faith and his health. And, I hope to move on with my life and not be held back anymore by a mistake I had made years ago,” Al whispered.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Psychic

Sometimes we find answers to difficult questions that pop up in our lives by looking at the world a little differently. And, some people are better at doing this than others, as Manny learned while he worked on a feature story for his TV station's news department.

Excerpt #5 from "A TIME TO..."

Manny began his interview with a simple throwaway question just to get Janice comfortable and talking, “What does it mean to be a psychic?”

“Ha, ha, ha, ha.... oh, I’m sor... ha, ha, ha,” Janice laughed uncontrollably for half a minute.

Manny and his camera operator turned to look at each other with puzzled expressions.

“You...you don’t understand. I know what you meant. You want me to tell you how I can see the future, talk to the dead and know where to find hidden treasure. But, for some reason I took your question literally and it struck me funny because being a psychic means spending many of my waking hours in a dream state...living with one foot in the physical world, bound by the laws of physics, and another foot in a world where space, time and things have no intrinsic meaning...a world where images and sounds are produced from activities in the physical world. So, it’s really a funny experience,” Janice explained. “...In a strange, rewarding, scary, mysterious way.”

This scene from Al’s life then paused, and as it did, Al wondered if the flashbacks of his life that began with him as a seven-year-old and continued on to this Manny interview with Janice were a type of psychic experience. Her description of what psychics experienced reminded Al of what he felt now as the images of his life filled his consciousness, without regard to space and time. But he was no psychic, so the images cascading before him had to be something else. With that thought, hanging like a rain cloud about to burst, the scene with Manny and Janice resumed.

“Yes, tell me about your psychic powers and what you’ve done with them,” Manny said to get the interview back on track.

“Some people can forecast the weather by interpreting nature’s signals, others do it by measuring indicators with scientific instruments. I forecast events, retrieve past events, solve mysteries and speak with the dead by tuning in to the spirit world. We are all spiritual beings, but only a few can live in that extra dimensional world while they are still living in this one. Most people intuitively know there’s more to life than just this physical world. Religions are testaments to that. But actually living in the spiritual world, experiencing its unfamiliar dimensions, is something else. Don’t ask me how I do it because I don’t know. You’d get the same answer from great artists and athletes, if asked how they can perform as they do.”

“You said you tune into the spirit world, but you can’t say how?” Manny said to confirm what he had just heard from Janice.

“I focus my thoughts on a person, place, event or thing – then somehow I ‘see’ images and hear conversations in my mind that relate to them. I don’t know where they come from or how I can do this. It mystifies even me. It’s like I’m dreaming,”

“What is the most memorable psychic experience you’ve had?”

“The one that was more amazing than all the others? The one that almost left me stranded in the spirit world? The one in which I sat down for dinner with all my ancestors and we talked about how their views of the physical world have changed since they left it?”

“Yes, tell me about that one,” Manny said with more skepticism than anticipation.

“A few years ago, I was having a rough period in my life. I was very sad...depressed really. Nothing was going right. Everything I did, the choices I made, turned out to be the wrong ones, adding to my problems. Ironic, I know...a psychic making wrong choices. At the same time my parents passed away within months of each other...one from a freak accident, the other from a broken heart. To make matters worse, people who I thought were my friends, really weren’t. So to set the record straight psychics, at least this one, doesn’t ‘see’ everything. People and situations can and do fool me. But my psychic abilities rescued me from myself.”

“I was sitting in my home, holding a family heirloom, a brass goblet, that has been passed down from generation to generation for about five hundred years. As I ran my fingers along its side from top to bottom a vision of a dinner party at on old English inn not only appeared in my mind, as other visions have done before and since. But, this time I was actually in my vision. It was as if I were transported to mid-evil England. Then, it really got strange. My mother and father greeted me and began introducing me to everyone else at the long table that seated at least one hundred.”

“There were grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins – going back before America was even discovered...before the ‘Old World’ knew it was old. Everyone was dressed in the clothes they wore when they were living in the physical world, so it was like viewing five hundred years of fashion. But the years didn’t separate them socially. They all knew everything about life on earth before and after their physical deaths. When the family’s patriarch, the one who began the tradition of passing the goblet, spoke to me, he seemed to know everything about my life, including my current troubles.”

“‘Your parents haven’t stopped talking about you since they arrived. All of us here, your family, have witnessed your recent trials and wanted to do something to support you,’ he told me.”

“’’Your father and I suggested that we all get together like this to create a lot of energy in one place so that you could use your psychic power to connect with us,’ my mother interrupted.”

“’We all whispered in your ear at the same time to pick up the goblet so you could visit us,’ my father added.”

“’’This...this...this is...amazing. I’m actually here with you...on the other side,’ I told them. ‘Heaven...? We’re in Heaven?’ I went on.”

“’Ha, ha, ha, haahh...Almost,’ Richard, the family patriarch replied. ‘Actually, we’re in Heaven’s waiting room. We’ve come out to meet you here. The waiting room itself takes the form of places on earth where we’ve lived and it can change in an instant to another place depending on the occasion. Right now we’re enjoying the inn I had owned. Notice that everyone is drinking from goblets like the one in your hand.’ Then he added that, ‘The goblet in your hand is the one I passed to my eldest child, when I died, as a reminder to enjoy life on earth because it is so short. All of us here now also know that it is filled with hardships and suffering like those you’re experiencing. You should spend some time now with each of us, to talk about our lives to get some perspective. I think you’ll feel a lot better,’ he added.”

“So, that’s what I did, and he was right. The pain I had felt after losing my parents disappeared because I saw them so happy in their new life. They weren’t really gone. They just moved to a new place, a better place, where they were healthy and very happy...so being sad about their deaths made no sense anymore. Sure, I missed them but how could I feel bad when they had moved to the most cherished address in the universe...a place more magical than Disneyworld?”

“Are you sure it wasn’t a dream...that you weren’t really asleep, imagining all this?” Manny asked.

“You know, that’s an interesting question because more than one of my family members at this dinner party told me that when they looked back on their physical lives on earth, they thought those lives were dreams. Their eternal lives, and everything that came with them, as amazing as they would have seemed to them before, were now more real and more meaningful than what they experienced as physical beings.”

“No, I wasn’t dreaming. While back there my mother told me about a note she had left me, tucked in the pages of her Bible. After I returned to this world from my family visit on the other side, I found the note, just as she told me. In the note, she said that she would do her best to connect with my psychic powers from the other side, that I should have a drink from the family goblet for her, and that she would always love me,” Janice told Manny as she wiped away a tear from her eye.

“You told me you were ‘almost stranded’ in the spirit world.’ How did you return to this world?” Manny asked.

“I was having such a good time; I didn’t want to leave them and their world. I didn’t want to return to the physical world and all my problems. As a result, I couldn’t focus and use my psychic powers to return. I was stuck between the two worlds and didn’t know what to do about it. Then Richard told me that my time would come soon enough, that I had been given special gifts to share with others who could benefit from them in the physical world, and that once I fulfilled my purpose here, I would then be able to rejoin them forever.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Bag Lady

We all make choices everyday in life. Some have more consequences than others. When the consequences turn bad, we would like to press the "Re-do" button, which isn't always possible. That's when living can become a real challenge, as one woman discovered.

Excerpt #4 from "A TIME TO..."

Lower Manhattan, home of Wall Street, the World Trade Center and Battery Park, was bathed in the sunlight of a dawning day. As thousands of workers rushed to their offices in the area, a bag lady slowly rose to a sitting position on the train station bench beneath the World Trade Center where she spent the night. As she wiped the sleep from her eyes, the Statue of Liberty glistened from the warming sun’s rays on nearby Hudson Bay. Soon, the bag lady would be out on the street again to bask in the warmth that departed, like all the workers, at nightfall.

Anyone who looked at this woman felt something – compassion, contempt, resentment, fear, and more – depending on their own emotional states. She unwittingly was a catalyst of emotions for everyone who saw her. Sometimes she benefited from this phenomenon and other times she was victimized by it.

She was always amazed when people responded to her so differently, even though she did nothing different, and this day was no exception from her last thirty or so nights and mornings in this station, on this bench.

“Please take this,” said the well-dressed business woman who was about her own age as she gently placed a five dollar bill in the bag lady’s hand that rested on her lap. As the bag lady looked up to thank the kindness, the woman had already disappeared in a wave of business people in a hurry to get to their jobs.

“Ah, this will be a good day,” the bag lady said to herself as she carefully placed the bill in a pocket of her tattered, stained, over-sized coat.

“Crash” went the rusted toy wagon she used to transport two shopping bags full of her worldly possessions. Sprawled all over the floor in front of her were clothes, a few kitchen utensils, some treasured photos of her previous life and an angry young office worker who wasn’t looking where he was going before tripping over the bag lady’s wagon.

“Hey, are you trying to kill me or something? I ought to have you arrested, you bum,” he seethed as he got up off the floor, dusted himself off, and kicked the two shopping bags.

“Tim, good one. I’d give you a 5.5 on your landing. Want to try for a 6.0,” chuckled one of the two co-workers he was with as they continued on their way.

“Maybe this won’t be a good day,” the bag lady mumbled to herself as she gathered up her stuff. Her photos, the most recent of which was five years old, were bundled together in one stack by a rubber band. As she held it in her hand, she closed her eyes and wondered how she sank so low. In spite of everything that had happened to her, she fought daily not to give in to the temptation to see herself as a victim, and as a result she remained, for the most part, the same person she had been before. Things just happened. People responded. She made choices, and here she was. It was as simple as that. If she could do it all over again, she would do things differently.

But, now, she found herself trapped in a life she hated, searching for answers that would lead her out of this hole she helped herself dig. To ease her pain and her frustration, she drank, giving her temporary relief. Unfortunately, her drinking made things worse because it blurred her thinking and interrupted her sense of purpose to reclaim her lost life, or maybe start a new, better one.

Her drinking began innocently, like taking an aspirin for a headache. But, because she took responsibility for what had happened back then and because just one drink lost its soothing effect, one drink lead to another, slowly transforming her into just another nameless street person. In her lucid moments, like now when she tightly held onto the photos of her previous life, she knew that she had to stop drinking. In the past, just when she thought she resolved to do that, a new wave of blame, guilt and circumstances knocked her down. So, she turned to alcohol as her lifeline.

As she looked at the photo on top of her collection and placed herself in a happier time, she finally realized that she couldn’t get from here to there on her own. And, she wept as she gathered up the rest of her belongings while on her knees.

“Are you hurt? Can I help you?” asked a passerby who stopped and leaned over to help the bag lady.

“Hurt? Yes. Can you help me pick up the pieces of my life?” she replied as if she were talking to herself while wiping away the tears.

“I was thinking more about picking you up from the floor,” said Al as he offered her a hand.

The bag lady waved off his hand, saying, “I’m OK. I’m just packing up my stuff. Some guy tripped over my wagon.”

“Do I know you? Your voice sounds familiar, but I can’t place the face,” Al said.

The bag lady looked up and recognized Al from her previous life and quickly turned away. She didn’t want him to make the connection. She had gone out of her way to find places that were far from her former life.

“I doubt it mister,” she said with a hint of fear.

Al’s curiosity increased as he heard her distinctive voice again – a voice he had associated with unhappy times many years ago. He squatted down next to her and looked at her face to face, studying her features. His memory bank worked hard at matching the raspy voice, the puffy, weathered face and sad, sunken eyes with someone he knew in his life, but he couldn’t place her, and he didn’t want to make the situation any worse for the bag lady by staring at her any longer, so Al stood up and walked away.

But after taking a dozen steps, Al turned back and caught up with the bag lady, who had quickly gathered her things and was walking as fast as she could in the opposite direction. “Valerie? Is it you?” Al asked incredulously.

“No.” she said quietly as she continued walking away.

“That’s the last thing you said to me at the office when you walked away from me the last time I saw you. I’ll never forget that day, and how you look from the back as you walked away. It is you, but it can’t be!”

The bag lady opened her teary eyes slowly and looked into Al’s inquisitive eyes with fear and humiliation. “Yes, Al. It’s me, Valerie,” she said with remorse.

“I don’t believe it. What happened to you?” Al shook his head in disbelief and said, “I’d like to talk with you to find out but can’t now. Please call me, he said sincerely as he handed her his business card and ten dollars.

How ironic she thought to herself. Just when she was ready to accept help from someone, the someone offering help was Al.

“I will,” she said softly. “Thank you, Al.”

“Please call me today. I’m leaving the country tomorrow for a week,” he said as he turned and hurried off to work.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Coney Island Fortune Teller

For those growing up in New York City in the 1950's, Coney Island was a very special place. It was their Disney World before Disney World was a glint in Walt Disney's eye. Sometimes we need to creatively reflect on our lives before we can appreciate everything that we have experienced. It was on an end-of-school-year, Second Grade, class trip that provided the occassion for Al Masterson to make some sense of his life then and now, some 40 years later.

Excerpt #3 from "A TIME TO..."

Aaahh, Coney Island

It was strange now to Al that back then Spook-A-Rama was just an amusement ride, but now it had become a metaphor for life, or at least those times in his life when he crept along in the dark without a clue, twisting and turning from frightening experiences that inevitably popped up. Whenever one of life’s unpleasant surprises hit, Al always wished that he would have had a heads up, so that he could have been better prepared to deal with it. That way, he could have either closed his eyes just before the mummy appeared and pretended it wasn’t there or he could have been ready to look the mummy straight in the eyes and say “boo” first.

Perhaps that’s why Al fantasized now that he had walked into Madame Marie’s Fortune Telling Parlor instead of passing it by with his classmates as he did on that Coney Island visit. The questions he now had on his mind were those of a fifty-one-year-old man. He wondered how his life would have been different if he had known then the answers to those concerns that materialized later in his life.

Al imagined that he walked through a beaded door and into a small, dimly lit, shadowy room where an elderly gypsy woman sat alone on one of four, rickety wooden chairs that surrounded a scratched up, old wooden table. Several lit, white candles on the table gave a warm, mysterious glow to the woman’s weathered face. Their flames danced in the bowling ball-sized, clear glass ball that was perched on a stand to her right.

She was busy placing strange picture cards face up on the table from a deck in her hands. The Frank Sinatra song, “Young at Heart” played softly on a phonograph – “You can go to extremes with impossible schemes. You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams.”

“Are you here to talk with Madame Marie?” she asked without looking up from her cards.

Al hesitated for a moment before replying, “Yes. Yes.”

The woman raised her head and said empathetically, “Of course you are. Madame Marie knows all. Don’t be afraid. I can see your future. You are so young, with so much life yet to live. For just one dollar, I will tell you what your life will be like.”

“What can you tell me?”

“I can tell you many things. What do you want to know? Madame Marie knows all.”

Before Al could answer, the Frank Sinatra record came to a premature, distorted end when the power went out. The dying turntable moaned, “And, if you should surrviivveee toooo.”

“What the hell?” blurted an annoyed Madame Marie.

“I got it. I got it,” trumpeted her husband from another room.

“You got what?” countered Madame Marie.

“A fuse. I got a fuse.”

“What the hell happened?”

“Don’t know. Just turned on the air conditioner, and kapooey.”

“Hey, I told you that thing was broken. Don’t mess with that now. I’ve got a client.”

“OK. OK.”

“Now, where were we?”

“Can you tell me if my loved ones will grow old? ... What my purpose in life is... if I’ll live my dreams ... what my biggest problems will be in life... and if I’ll answer them successfully?”

“Of course... of course... Madame Marie knows all. The answers to all your questions are right here in these cards and in my crystal ball. But are you sure you want to know the answers to these questions? What will you do? How will you feel, if what I tell you isn’t what you’d like to hear?”

“I’d rather know. I don’t like painful surprises,” Al said as he pulled from his pants pocket, a wadded up dollar bill and placed it on the table in front of Madame Marie while the Frank Sinatra record began playing again. “Fairy tales can come true, they can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.”

“I fixed it. The power is back on,” roared her husband proudly from the other room.

“Yeah. Yeah. And, don’t mess with that air conditioner again,” she said while turning off the record player.

When she sat back down, Madame Marie swiped the dollar bill off the table and stuffed it in her blouse with one hand, before grabbing the deck of cards in her other hand. She closed her eyes and shuffled the deck several times before placing it on the table in front of Al.

“Watch what I do,” she told Al as she cut the cards and placed the deck back in front of him. “OK. Now, you do it,” she said pointing to the deck.

Al cut the cards. Madame Marie then took the deck and turned up five cards side-by-side on the table. After studying them briefly, she looked at Al and shook hear head “No” slowly a few times before telling Al, “Not all your loved ones will live to an old age like your grandmother. But, she won’t grow much older herself. She’ll leave this world soon. It will be a natural passing and she will be at peace. You will miss her – her words of wisdom, of pride in you – her love that she expressed in so many ways. But part of her will live on in you for the rest of your life – the part that gives you a quiet confidence when things don’t go the way you would have liked them to. She’ll whisper that you can turn lemons into lemonade, and often you will.”

Al closed his eyes and reflected on this premonition.

“Not so fortunate will be a friend of yours. Tommy will go to jail for killing someone. It was an unfortunate accident, but you felt responsible and it will haunt you for the rest of your life. You’ll always wonder if you could have prevented it.”

“What can I do to prevent it?” Al inquired.

“Discourage him from joining a street gang,” Madame Marie advised.

“I will. Now that I know, I’ll discourage him. I won’t let him join,” Al said sincerely.

“Good. It will save a life, and keep Tommy from throwing his life away. It will also keep you from suffering a lot of pain.”

Madame Marie then replaced the five cards back in her deck and put the cards on the table off to the side. She reached for her crystal ball and slide it in front of her. After passing her fingers across its surface, the ball glowed from its core. She stared intently into the light, squinting as she said, “The cards can only say so much. My crystal ball will tell us the rest.”

“Crash!” “Screeeech!” “Damn!” came the disturbing sounds from a nearby room in the house.

“What?! What? What now?!” an angry Madame Marie yelled.

“I was changing the light bulb on the kitchen ceiling. The light fixture slipped out of my hands and kabang, all over the floor. It almost hit the cat,” her frustrated husband explained.

“No. Not now. Not now. Go outside,” Madame Marie implored.

“I’m cleaning this mess,” her spouse said apologetically.

“OK. Then go,” she said with disgust.

Madame Marie collected herself and refocused on the crystal ball that began glowing again. “You’ll spend most of your life searching for your purpose in the world. You’ll look for it in the people around you, in your work, in the things that give you pleasure. At times you’ll think you’ve found it, but then something will happen and you’ll be disappointed. You’ll feel like a leaf blowing in the wind, which will create lots of anxiety. This feeling will come and go as the years pass and as you find pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of your life that fit. One day you’ll wake up and conclude that your purpose in life is to complete the jigsaw puzzle.”

“I don’t understand,” Al told the fortune teller.

“Of course you don’t. How could you? You’re only eight years old,” she replied with a smirk.

“Can’t you tell me in another way that will help me understand?” Al asked innocently.

“How about this? A jigsaw puzzle has many pieces, just like your life. But they only create their picture when all the pieces are connected in the way they were made. And, the only way to put a jigsaw puzzle together is by trial and error. It is really a process of elimination to find out what works and what doesn’t. It will be the same thing with your life as you try to learn your purpose. Jigsaw puzzles can be very frustrating when you can’t easily find the next piece you need. The same thing will happen in your search. It takes time, but with persistence the jigsaw picture reveals itself. That’s the best I can do. Does that make sense?” Madame Marie asked with a hint of compassion.

“I don’t like the trial and error part,” Al replied with a pained expression.

“Ha, ha, haa. Yes, nobody does,” Madame Marie acknowledged. “Now let’s look at another question you want me to answer. You’ll have many dreams for your life as you grow older. You want to know about them, so I’ll tell you. Most of your early dreams will be about what you want to do in life and who you want to be like. For a while, you’ll want to be a professional baseball player because you’d get paid lots of money to play a game and you’d be famous. But you won’t want to be just any player. You’ll want to be the next Mickey Mantle and play for the Yankees. Ah, but that’s not to be. You’ll be a very good baseball player on your local teams, but you won’t play professionally. When that dream begins fading in high school, you’ll replace it with one about following in the footsteps of America’s astronauts who’ll walk on the moon. But, the closest you’ll get to the moon will be a visit to New York’s Planetarium. Then you’ll…”

“Wait! Wait! You’re telling me about dreams that don’t come true. Isn’t there something I could be doing now to make at least one of them come true?”

“Not unless your hand-eye coordination and your eyesight miraculously improve. You’ll need these gifts if you’re going to hit good pitching and to pass the eye exam for pilots.”

“If that’s the case, I won’t waste my time dreaming about these things.”

“OK. That’s your choice.”

“I don’t want to be a failure. Now that I know, I won’t dream the impossible.”

“OK. Now I see a dream that will come true. You’ll want to travel the world to visit interesting places and meet interesting people. And, you will. For two years, you’ll live in a land where the first humans walked on earth a couple million years ago… a land mentioned in the Bible. For many there, life will still be the same as it was over two thousand years ago. And, you’ll be there at a time of upheaval, when people question their government and their leaders. And, you’ll question things about your life then too.”

“Will it be a good experience?”

“For the most part... And, I see other good experiences. You’ll be happily married and have a loving family. You won’t be rich and famous, but you’ll have a variety of rewarding jobs that use your talents. And, while you’ll always wish that the jobs paid more and you won’t like all your co-workers, you’ll be happier than most.”

“What jobs will I have?”

“Well, you’re an adventurous spirit, curious, and a risk taker, so they’ll all reflect that. You’ll be a journalist and a corporate public relations counselor before becoming a risk manager.”

“That sounds interesting. So, will that be my last job... a risk manager?”

“Probably. A big cloud is blocking my view of your later years. I’m guessing it means that you won’t live long enough to retire. I’m sorry.”

“Am I dead? Ah, I mean, I hope you’re wrong,” Al said to Madame Marie, his imaginary fortune teller.

“I hope so too,” she replied. “But, I can say without question that your big problems will include failed school courses, lost friends, loves, jobs, money, self esteem, injustices of all kinds and the anxieties these experiences all bring. You won’t have the answers to all of them. In fact, at one particular time in your life, when the problems pile up, you’ll have no answers. That’s when you’ll turn your back on God because you’ll feel he turned his back on you. And, your life won’t be quite the same after that.”

“Do you smell something burning? Al asked.

“Burning? Oh, no! I forgot all about it!” Madame Marie shrieked as she ran into the other room.

“My bread! Will you just look at it?” she said rhetorically from the kitchen. “It’s ruined.”

With that, Al’s imagined fortune telling experience ended and the scenes from his life picked up at Coney Island with him and his classmates standing in front of a barker who was promoting “The world’s only three-ringed flea circus.”

Monday, June 8, 2009

9/11: Not Just An American Tragedy

Based on many news reports, observers would think that 9/11 was just an American tragedy. The truth is that the lives of millions of people around the world would never be the same again as a result of what happened that day. All our lives have become intertwined in many ways in today's fast-changing world.

Excerpt # 2 from "A TIME TO..."

One, Small World

While Al switched trains, half way around the world in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it was early evening. Tenaye Tiruneh expressed her concern to her husband Tadesse via phone about their son Alemu. Tadesse listened to her carefully explain that Alemu, a 15-year-old high school student, had been arrested by Addis Ababa police. Tadesse was in a New York City taxi cab, on his way to a very important business meeting that would determine the fate of his dream to open a vocational school in Addis for poor, uneducated children living on the streets of that city.

The boys would be taught to make furniture for homes and businesses locally and abroad. Upon graduation, they would have good paying jobs waiting for them in Tadesse’s furniture factory. The girls would be taught the finer points of growing, roasting, blending and packaging gourmet coffees for export. While exporting world-class coffee beans has been going on in Ethiopia for decades, Tadesse’s dream was to sell the finished product, where most of the profits are made. Something a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher said to him 27 years ago stuck with him.

The teacher, a colleague at the high school where he taught wood working, had been fascinated after learning that the world’s first coffee beans were grown, roasted, and consumed in Ethiopia’s Kaffee province. He had told Tadesse in light of this fact that he was surprised “Ethiopian coffee” didn’t have the same associations around the world of say “Russian vodka” or “Swiss chocolate.”

“How could Ethiopia give the world this universal drink, including its name, yet not get the credit and profits others do?” the teacher wondered.

Since then, Tadesse often thought about that observation until he finally decided he’d do something to correct the injustice. He wanted the words “Ethiopian coffee” to roll off the tongues of consumers around the world whenever they talked about premium coffee. Armed with his successful furniture factory as collateral and his dreams, Tadesse came to New York to change some lives for the better in Addis Ababa.

As the taxi he was riding in darted from one lane to the next, stopping and starting to keep from bumping into the traffic all around him, Tadesse held his head in one hand and his cell phone in the other.

“Arrested!? Alemu!? Why? How?” he quizzed Tenaye.

Through her tears, Tenaye told Tadesse, “He was on his way home from school with a group of his friends. The police arrested them for vandalizing city property.”

“No! No! I don’t believe it! Alemu would never do such a thing!”

“It’s true. I talked to Alemu at the police station. He said they just drew pictures with colored chalk on the sidewalk, making fun of a rival group at their school. The school principal filed a complaint with the police because he thought they were making fun of him,” Tenaye explained.

“That’s crazy. Even if they were making fun of him, they didn’t break any law,” Tadesse barked.

“The police said there have been many incidents recently in the area where city property was destroyed and they see what Alemu and his friends did as the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing. They can’t make up laws to suit themselves,” Tadesse countered.

As soon as he said this, he remembered a time and a place many years ago when Ethiopia’s Emperor, Haile Selassie, had just been dethroned and put under house arrest by the new ruling military party. Tadesse, like many in that country at the time, wondered what the change would mean to them. There was fear of the unknown mixed with a hope that life would get better for him, a poor country boy who was the first in his family to attend a university, and everybody else in the country – everybody that is, except the rich landlords and the few they favored.

His assertion to Tenaye that “They can’t make up laws to suit themselves” rang in his ears as he saw himself three decades ago standing in his 10th-grade class in Nekempte, Ethiopia, responding to a student’s question, “What will happen to the uneducated people in Ethiopia – those who don’t know about the laws of the new government – if they break a law?”

Tadesse’s answer - “I don’t know” – underscored the volatile, uncertain time politically. Everyone had to be careful about what they said and did. Later, Tadesse asked his Peace Corps teacher friend the same question, and he didn’t have an answer either. That helped dispel the myth among many Ethiopians that Americans knew everything. In spite of that revelation, or maybe because of it, their friendship grew. When the time came for the foriegngee to return home to the states, Tadesse called him "brother" and the Peace Corps Volunteer hugged Tadesse goodbye while wiping away a tear from his eye – knowing that this would probably be the last time they’d ever see each other. They exchanged letters for the next year, but time and political circumstances ended their long-distance friendship.

“Tenaye, listen to me. It will be OK,” Tadesse consoled. Tadesse, who earned a reputation in his community as a strong, intelligent, persuasive man, would clear his son tomorrow when he returned home. “I’ll meet with the police and Alemu’s principal. This is his first year at the school. He doesn’t know Alemu,” Tadesse said reassuringly.

“I shouldn’t have called before your meeting. Good luck. I love you,” Tenaye replied.

“It makes me more determined. If something like this can happen to our son, imagine what the poorest street kids have to deal with. I’ll call you tomorrow, before my plane takes off. Goodbye. I love you,” Tadesse said tenderly.

Just then, Tadesse’s taxi came to a screeching stop, hurling him into the security partition that separated him from the taxi driver. With his face just inches from the driver, Tadesse’s chauffeur turned his head until their eyes met. While the driver saw terror, Tadesse saw an amused, smiling face, as if they were in a bumper car at an amusement park. In an attempt to calm Tadesse and to blame the other driver for the near collision, the taxi driver began yelling and pointing his finger at the other driver.

Tadesse’s face suddenly lit up with a soothing grin because the taxi driver was cursing out the “crazy, donkey’s ass” driver in Amharic, Tadesse’s native language. All of a sudden, this strange, huge, intimidating city became less so. It also gave him renewed hope that his proposal would be approved. After all, if the daredevil taxi drivers of Addis could find work in New York City, then anything was possible.

“Wendeme’, Taynahstiling. Indemineh?” Tadesse greeted the driver in Amharic. Instantly, they began a conversation that lasted the entire trip to Tadesse’s meeting place. Tadesse looked forward to eating dinner that night at the Ethiopian restaurant the driver told him about.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Welcome to my "A TIME TO..." blog

I grew up in New York City and visited the top of the World Trade Center with my new bride in 1980. Something very powerful happened within me after I witnessed the Twin Towers collapsing on television as I worked in my Michigan office. The horror of such an unimaginable event raised so many questions about life in general, and my life in particular. They were primarily spiritual in nature and from them my first novel was born. The purpose of this blog is to provide readers with insights and commentary about "A TIME TO..." along with related excerpts. I hope you enjoy them.

Excerpt #1 From "A TIME TO..."

A Dream... A Cartoon... and God...

At St. Peter’s Catholic Church on the lower east side of Manhattan, in the shadows of the World Trade Center’s imposing twin towers, a NYC fire department chaplain contemplated the dream he had the night before. He struggled to find meaning in it since the situation he had found himself in was so out of character. When was the last time he cleaned his living quarters? He had a housekeeper for as long as he could remember. But there he was in his dream dusting furniture and vacuuming the dirt from the floors. The other strange thing about his dream was that he couldn’t get rid of the dust. In fact, the more he cleaned, the more dust would appear. Finally, it got so bad that he began choking on the dust and that’s when he woke up.As he sipped his coffee, a passage from the book of Genesis came to mind. “…For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.”

Maybe that was it, he thought to himself. The night before, he had discussed death at length with several firefighters at Ladder Company number six. It isn’t a subject the fire fighters spoke of often, even though they each knew friends who had lost their lives while battling fires. A couple of them almost died on the job. Frank was one of them.

“It happened so fast. One second there was a clear path to the door out, the next, nothing but flames between me and it,” Frank told Father Tom with horror in his voice. “I looked all over for another exit… other doors…. other windows. Flames and smoke were everywhere. We’re trained to deal with every situation, but for the life of me, nothing came to mind that would save me. My heart was racing. I was dripping sweat and thought I was about to die….”

“Oh, thank God you didn’t,” Father Tom interrupted. “How did you get out?”

”A strange thing happened. ‘God help me, God help me’ I whispered over, and over. Then all of a sudden, images came to mind of some cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid on Saturday mornings. The next thing I knew, I was running through the flames that blocked my way out, just like the character did in the cartoon. I don’t know how I got out without being burned.”

“That’s a good story. Do you mind if I use it in a homily some time?” asked Father Tom.

“Why? Don’t you think it’s weird?”

“Not at all. God works in mysterious ways.”

“I guess so. Sure, you can use it.”

“I’ve told you guys this before, but let me say it again,” Father Tom said with a lump in his throat. “You are my heroes. God has truly blessed you so that you can put your life on the line again and again for people you don’t even know – ‘For there is no greater love than to give one’s life for someone else.’”

“Father, can I ask you something?” whispered Steve, another firefighter.

“Certainly…anything,” Father Tom affirmed.

“Does God determine when we all die?” he asked as if he were a young child.

After a brief pause to collect his thoughts, Father Tom responded, “Let me first ask you this before I answer your question. Does God determine when we are born?”