Lines

We are the arbiters of lines. Moreover, we are the creators of them.

In nature, lines aren’t permanent; when they do appear they are jagged and fluid, ebbing and flowing with the tides of elemental whims. Mountains can be craggy or rolling, depending on their age and origin. Bodies of water expand and contract and nature adjusts to its transformations. Trees rise from the ground, but their paths to the sky are not straight nor symmetrical. Simply put the natural world is in constant flux, making static lines irrelevant. The geometry of nature is variable, even in its loose claims of solidity.

People, however, resist change. We crave stability and definitions. We abhor alterations to the world we live in. Look at all that we build. Straight lines are seen as desirable. Smooth surfaces are the mandate of manufactured things. We are soothed when we see a structure filled with right angles and flat tops to set objects on. Nature, it seems, runs afoul of our needs.

One might say we crave order. I would say we crave control.

We make lines where none are needed to satisfy our discomfort. This obsession stretches beyond nature.

Borders, arbitrary lines that denote territory, are created to imply ownership by a group of humans in a particular area. Imagined demarcations that cause people to fight over them in the hopes that victory will help them occupy more land that previously had never had ownership for the millions of years Earth’s existence. More lives have been lost over territory that people have coveted than any other cause of death with the exception of disease. All because we made lines.

It gets even more granular than that. We create boundaries between religions. Between races. Between sexuality, gender, wealth, education, and so many more lines we manufacture to cut things up a little finer to push away the fear we have.

These are societal constructs and they do a disservice to us as a species. We have more capacity for love and empathy than nearly any of our fellow inhabitants of our planet. Yet we devise ways to cordon ourselves off from one another, all for the sake of what we perceive as safety.

What is happening at the southwestern border of the United States is an example of our compulsion for lines run amok. The humans who made their way to a place that screamed opportunity from their locus of fear now despair because they’ve had their children taken from them, with little hope of them seeing them again. These people made the grave error of crossing a line in a desert in the hopes for their own safety. A border created by us. People died for that line. These travelers also committed other violations of lines of our own design: skin color, education level, wealth to name a few. These asylum seekers inspire fear in folks that steadfastly believe that these lines keep them safe, despite all of the data to the contrary. To occupants within those lines, it’s irrelevant; they’re told it’s so, and nothing is more comforting than reassurance, true or otherwise.

The trouble with boundaries is that they not only keep others out, they confine you. Physically for certain, but also mentally. If you can’t see anyone who is different than you, you cannot learn from them or understand them. You’ve imprisoned yourself in ignorance. Lined in comfort and isolation.

True empathy knows no such lines. It is boundless, and is to be given freely. But those who have constructed invisible walls due to fear and lack of control need to be enlightened of the virtue of the natural state of the universe. Caring is good and moral. Constraining any one because you are fearful of them as a result of misinformation and misplaced distrust harms us all.

We are the arbiters of lines. Moreover, we can be the erasers of them.

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Fleeting Peace

It’s early. Too early for my sleep crusted eyes and cloudy mind. But duty calls: Simon, our Boston Terrier, needs to go outside. Jill fills her part of this morning routine. “The dog needs to go out,” she mumbles, her notification of Simon’s awakening and a call to action for me.

There’s nothing remarkable about this morning. Simon sniffs about the lawn, marking his territory, fierce descendant of wolves that he is. Content that his turf is dutifully claimed, we walk back to the patio and into the house where the kettle is near done warming its contents. Food gets put into the dog’s bowl, and is gone in seconds. Breakfast for Simon is not about enjoyment, it’s all about expediency.

I go about my other morning ritual, then bring both Simon (who’s afraid of stairs and refuses to go up or down them) and our coffee to our bedroom. After depositing Simon in his dog bed, I set the coffees on their respective side tables.

Jill is sleeping. I crawl back into bed, and she snuggles up to me, head on my chest, her breathing barely breaking rhythm. Light breezes come in through our open windows, flung about the room by the ceiling fan, creating the illusion of coolness. The humidity also makes its way in, the light rain outside unable to dampen its effects. We lay like this, Jill sleeping, me drifting off slightly to that blissful little place where you’re not entirely awake, but also not deep enough for dreams to take hold of you and tell you stories. I wake every so often, usually to the dog snoring as he does, snorty and loud. My arm is asleep now, and our skin is sticking to each other’s, another demonstration of humidity’s sly prowess. I’m still not fully awake, but my mind says “This is nice. Don’t move.” Strange notion for someone who is clearly uncomfortable.

The machinery inside my head comes more fully to the fore. I stay still. The sounds of the distant highway, its white noise hum, waft in the windows, too. There’s a few birds chittering and chatting. I open my eyes and look out the window. One of our large oak trees has been serving as a home for wood peckers for three years now as fewer and fewer leaves adorn its branches. A squirrel scurries up its trunk. Life is happening out there. Sometimes I forget that life isn’t just a human thing; there’s a myriad of living creatures moving in and out of our days. Our human experience has rendered these to the background for most. I only notice them when I get out of the constant thrum of thoughts and need to be active. I am a fidgeter by nature, in real life and online. Sitting still is not a skill I’ve had the ability to acquire.

I’m not alone in that. It’s challenging to be present and slow ourselves down, much less be still and take everything in. Incessant news cycles, world injustices, the lure of distraction from the awfulness that can engulf us, the desire to be right and make your points to someone who has no interest in real dialogue, the ever changing landscape of parenting teens and preteens. The bustle is so loud, the quiet doesn’t stand a chance to grab our attention.

There are moments, though, like this. Where natural elements gently remind you that there is more going on in the background, begging for your attention. Where the skin of your loved one is against yours, their trust in you absolute as they sleep in your arms. Where you don’t feel the pull of house projects and the need to be doing something.

They are rare and fleeting. For an hour this morning, I knew gratefulness and peace. I was still and mindful and it was beautiful.

Soon, the world will collapse this small cocoon of joy. The freneticism of life will demand I move, and I will meet its call. Hopefully I’ll take a second or two and recall the moment of this morning, smile, and move on to tackle the next crisis that presents itself. I’ll promise myself to slow down, and take things in. It’s a largely empty promise, as life tends to detest inactivity. But some day I will find it again, bask in it, and wonder why I don’t seek it out more.

Right now, though, I’ll milk this for all it’s worth.

Lunula

Annika Bates made herself a legend even before she saved Earth and the moon.

She was the first person to fly the Moonraker Assault Vessel (MAV for short). It was the first armed ship used to defend Lunula, the Earth’s first –and so far only – terraformed city on the moon. Prior to her piloting gig, Annika led the crew who built the Lunula itself, earning her the praise and admiration of billions for such a monumental task. Before that, she was the youngest to be accepted into NASA’s Astronaut Corps at seventeen years old. While her intelligence was on par with the greats in human history, her physical talents were even more prodigious. But her determination pushed her faster and farther than any astronaut, female or male, ever dreamed.

After the completion of Lunula, Annika returned to Earth to oversee the more daunting undertaking of creating a military presence in space. Lunula was utterly vulnerable with no way to disguise or protect a massive dome on a satellite consisting of nothing but rocks and craters. So, the Universal Military Alliance formed, designed by all of the remaining countries not on fire from conflict or drowned by rising seas, and made their first priority the creation of a defense force able to defend the moon city from any and all threats.

Transport ships were plentiful but ill-suited for anything more than moving supplies and people to Lunula. Engineers, scientists, and pilots worked tirelessly to fashion the right design for assault ships. Plans were finalized, with Annika naming the fleet in homage to her love of James Bond films. Production began.

Four months later, and with a week of intense testing yielded perfect results, the first Moonraker Assault Vessel was completed and ready for a manned test. Annika volunteered, shouting down any who tried to dissuade her. This was her baby, and she alone was going to take it out into the eternal black.

The launch, like the testing, was flawless. It exited the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 40,000 miles per hour, bursting into space. Annika’s breath was taken away at the vastness of the galaxy before her. It was this way every single time she flew into space, and she never tired of its grandeur.

She started the predetermined flight tests for maneuverability, gliding the MAV in a series of turns and speeds. She marveled at its ability to navigate at advanced speeds and how effortless it felt. The MAV passed all tests with flying colors. Turning towards Lunula, she gunned it to the last of the maneuverability tests. She landed the MAV, pretty as you please, in the bay built for it outside the dome. Tomorrow they would test the weapons systems, far away from home.

Annika just sat down at her desk reviewing the data from earlier when she was hailed by UMA headquarters on Earth.

“Incoming call from General Saito. Incoming call from General Saito,” the computer voice droned in monotone.

Annika sighed. General Eike Saito was Japan’s contribution to the UMA. She was tough and humorless, but damn it all if she wasn’t also thorough. Probably can’t wait to disseminate the results, Annika thought. This’ll be a barrel of laughs for sure.

“Answer call,” Annika said, bracing for a relentless and tedious review.

The video feed popped up. General Saito’s brow was furrowed, more than her usual stern look, and her eyes flicked about with a sense of worry. Pursed lips completed the look telling that something was wrong.

“General Saito,” said Annika with a nod to the camera, her version of a salute.

“Colonel Bates,” the General nodded back, her expression darkening. “There is an unidentified object approaching at speeds never before documented. We have confirmed this is not a comet or meteor. There are multiple heat signatures in the object. Origin unknown. The trajectory takes it directly between Earth and Lunula.”

Images glowed on the display. Something triangular shot across the screen so fast that it almost escaped the camera providing the feed. Annika squinted. “Is that… Jupiter in the background?”

“Yes it is, Colonel.”

That can’t be right. The object moved so quickly Jupiter was a near blur on the screen. But the familiar giant red dot was unmistakable. It was Jupiter, alright.

Eyes narrowed, Annika said, “Orders, General?”

“We must accelerate our weapons testing. Intercept this unknown object and destroy it.”

“But we have no idea what this is, General.”

“Exactly. And we can’t afford finding out.” The screen went blank.

The colonel sighed, making her way to the hanger to suit up and take off.

∞∞∞

The MAV screamed across the void. Annika set her course to intercept the unknown object. They hadn’t calculated for something moving this rapidly, so she wasn’t sure if their weapons could properly target it. Part of her wanted to disobey orders and discover whether this was the chance for contact with another lifeform, but she pushed that to the back of her mind. Orders were orders.

With resolve, she hurtled towards the rendezvous point. A few minutes remained, so she brought her weapons up to bear. The targeting system confirmed two heat signatures in the craft. There was no denying it was a ship of some kind. The signatures were blurry at best, and their tracking system was unsuccessful with locking onto the ship, as she feared.

“MAV 1 to UMA Base. MAV 1 to UMA Base. Confirmed two heat signatures in object. Weapons systems unable to obtain lock. Permission to switch to manual,” Annika said.

Saito’s response was terse, immediate. “Permission granted, MAV 1.”

With one flick of a switch, the weapons were under Annika’s control. She knew she had one chance at this. The ship’s speed was too great for a second round. Eyes narrowed, she pushed the MAV to its limits. Years of training honed her calculations. Readying herself, she fired.

The lasers, casting a diffused blue trail behind, zoomed to the rendezvous point. The unknown thing did too. Annika felt her body tense as both projectiles moved to intercept. A split second before collision, her communications systems blipped. Someone or something wanted to communicate. It wasn’t UMA command. It was something else. Then laser and object met. A brilliant but brief light burst and disappeared. The object was gone, as was the signal she’d received.

∞∞∞

Sitting in her office at Lunula, she mulled over the past few days. The world made her the savior of the Earth and its moon. She’d saved them all from an alien threat, or so it was told to the masses. Yet, she couldn’t stop thinking about that last moment signal before it was vaporized. She felt like it was more than a signal. After her supposed heroics, Annika had not slept well, that looming feeling clouding her thoughts and dreams.

She shook her head and drained her scotch. No use worrying over it now.  Then…her communications unit beeped. A single blip. She went rigid.

Her screens lit up, displaying countless lines of dark triangular objects moving side by side, Saturn and her rings in the background. A computerized voice boomed from the speakers.

“Beings of the third planet: we are contacting you as a mercy. Our race was passing through your galaxy to our new colony. You destroyed our envoy without provocation. It was our guide, not equipped for fighting. By eliminating our envoy, you have declared war. You now must defend or evacuate your civilization, a chance that is more than you gave our guide.”

Her jaw dropped. She watched the screen as the armada shimmered briefly before innumerable red streaks filled her view.

“Oh my god,” she whispered.

She had doomed them all.

Photo Credit: Richard Bizley

Unbalanced

The balance is weird.

In the beginning, it was all tilted my way. I was needed, damn it, and the requirements of me never dwindled. I was deified – a god amongst you – assuring you of your safety. I provided laughs, love, protection, and warmth.

Then, you decided that you had a world to explore and means to make that happen. I still mattered greatly, a guardian angel of sorts while you moved awkwardly about, trying to make sure your curiosity didn’t meet your demise. There were bumps and falls to be certain, but on the whole, I was there to save the day when needed.

Through the persistent exhaustion and the time that blurred past, the scales were yet in my favor.

Then, a new phase came to the fore, a daily routine where you garnered new friends and were bequeathed knowledge to shape you and your worldview – all given to you by strangers. While I weighed more heavily than these recent additions, the time I could be your champion was relegated to mornings, evenings, and weekends.

Your peers started intruding on my importance, eroding my stature, or at least, that’s how it felt. Hugs and kisses remained part of our bed time repertoire, thankfully. Public displays of affection waned. I lamented those moments would forever be passed off to memory, remnants of erstwhile yore.

The balance is uncomfortable.

The pillars of your days moved farther and farther from me. You shared stories with friends, and then with me if you were home and it struck your fancy. Screens filled your conscious because that’s where your tribe resides. I quibbled about how much you were reliant upon those tools to maintain relationships. In reality, I was jealous of their ability to take time from me and you.

The ongoing discovery of yourself in the roiling seas of tweendom filled me with pride. That pride rode shotgun with my fear. The fear that my role in your life would lessen as others became essential. However, I maintained some status of equality on this life’s see-saw, but only just.

Now, comes the hard part. There is no scale. No balance.

A fully fledged young adult; a teenager. You rightly came into your own, and yet, you struggle to define yourself, pushing of all manner of boundaries. Some are benign. Others keep me awake at night, worried about you functioning outside the safety and comfort of our home. You argue, mock, cajole, and at times, flat out insult me. This isn’t really a fault or something to blame you for. You are finding your way and putting me on notice that you are becoming who you’ve always been. I did not realize it until now.

Honestly, it stings. This person I’ve helped grow and develop pushing for autonomy from me. Surely this can’t be? Moments flare in my memory of you struggling to walk, seeking me out when the dark was too fearful to face alone, craving comfort from the world. Those days are largely gone now.

The scales are toppled over, equilibrium jettisoned in favor of staunch opinion and individuality. An occasional hug is fleeting salvation as I slide further into ignominy. While I ingest the ache of irrelevance, I do not blame you for moving forward. I’ve raised you to become this – a person who shares their feelings and thoughts, and goes out to live them. A child on the cusp of adulthood, ready to face its challenges and rewards. I am above all proud, even if my ego cringes at your new-found strength. Ultimately this was my goal all along. I can’t help but be wistful for the time I was your hero and the one you needed when things were uncertain. But that feeling will quickly morph into happiness that you are a force to be reckoned with. You will do great things in this world, I know.

My perception of the balance is weird, but it isn’t to you, and that’s as it should be.

Photo: Abby Thompson

Ahead

Wendig_Strange_Photo_FF_Challenge

The clouds were forming again.

It had been happening with greater frequency of late, and no one knew why. The obvious thing to do, were you an outsider, would be to ask Aghaidh. The Custodians who tended to Aghaidh knew better. No one had attempted to talk to the Great Head, as it was also known, for centuries. Legends told of only one who had been foolish enough to try such a thing.

A man who proclaimed to be an acolyte of Aghaidh made the trek to speak to his God and divine what he would have done in his name. Some of the lesser members of the temple went with the acolyte as he stepped in front of the massive face jutting from the desiccated landscape but kept their distance out of fear. Its eyes were thankfully closed.

The eyes only ever opened when the clouds formed and swirled above it. It would start slowly at first but pick up intensity and speed, until finally a great cone of clouds and wind spun violently above it. The top of Aghaidh’s head would then peel back when the tempest was at its crescendo, light flooding upwards and bathing the storm in brilliant eerie light. His eyes would turn a crystalline blue at the end of the gathering, squeezing  shut with a great thunderclap, and the storm would shoot into the sky at impossible speed to a destination unknown to the Custodians. Finally, he’d resume his slumber as his head returned to its original form.

The acolyte knew this and so planned his quest when the sky was cloudless.

He approached the Great Head warily. He was grateful that the followers stayed back, as it was far easier to hide his fear with their distance. He held his head high as he approached, forcing a smile upon his face, hoping it was a reverent one. At what he deemed a safe distance away, he stopped. Still in the shadow of Aghaidh, the acolyte was dwarfed by the Great Head, only adding to his trepidation. He summoned his last bit of courage and stretched his arms in the air in worship. He spoke with an authority he didn’t feel.

“Aghaidh! Great and mysterious one! I am Maon, acolyte of the Temple of the Unheralded. I have come to learn your ways and to serve your will. I am but a tool for you to use as you see fit.” Maon bowed, feeling like that was what he should do in the presence of something so unknowable and powerful.

The Great Head stood silent and still.

When he heard nothing, he raised his head slightly to look at the mighty Aghaidh. Confusion overtook Maon. Why was the Great Head not responding? He was certain that he – the most devout of all that worshipped in the Temple – could learn the mysteries of the Great Head. In turn, he would share the wishes and dogma with his fellow acolytes and followers. Perhaps, even the Vicar throne was within his grasp, if Aghaidh would speak to him. Since no one had ever heard the unexplainable being speak, he would be special. Exalted, even.

He tried again: “I humbly submit myself to you, Aghaidh. Only tell me what you decree, and I will be the servant of your will.” He kept his eyes locked ahead, hoping for a reaction, a sign.

But there was none. All remained silent.

Confusion morphed in anger within the acolyte. How many years had he sacrificed in supplication to the Great Head? All the taunts of the villagers, the insults, and the accusations of insanity – he’d suffered countless indignations, all in the name of worship. But this? To be ignored by the very thing he had spent his life devoted to and dedicated his every waking moment to honoring was the greatest of insults. How could this happen?

The acolyte screamed, a flood gate of frustration escaping him. “Why won’t you talk to me? Do you have any idea how much I given to you in adulation? Years! Nearly all my life I’ve defended you, despite not fully comprehending your ways, and this is how you would reward your most reverent follower?”

The eyes flew open. A baleful glare from brilliant blue eyes. A menacing scowl appeared on its face. The acolyte took a step back in fear, but moved no further, rooted to the spot by the stare of his God.

The clouds came from nowhere, fast. They circled above Aghaidh, moving in a ferocious circle, darkening the skies. A loud whine grew as the gale of the storm increased beyond the force anyone had seen before. Some of the followers who came with the acolyte stood in horror watching the scene unfold. The rest ran as fast as they could back to the village, an occasional glance back to the Great Head as they raced.

The Great Head’s scalp peeled back, shooting a brilliant shaft of light into the sky. His scowl never wavered, nor did his gaze move from the one who had disturbed his slumber. Until it did, when he closed his eyes and clenched the lids tightly. A tremendous boom came, as the storm shot a lightning bolt from within the maelstrom, incinerating the acolyte. Immediately after wasting Maon, the storm cast off to the Temple of the Unheralded. It crashed down on the structure, decimating it and all the inhabitants within. All that remained was a small crater.

That crater stands as a reminder of the power of Aghaidh. And to this day, no one has ever attempted to speak to the Great Head. The Custodians built a fence around Aghaidh to prevent unwary souls from approaching it and unwittingly unleashing doom another time.

Every time a storm brews, the Custodians cower hoping that they are not the target of Great Head’s wrath once more.

Photo Credit: Wallpaper Awesome

 

 

Grace Is Gone

Sometimes I forget grace.

It is nearly everywhere, if we take the time seek it out. For me, that has become increasingly difficult in this age of relentless desideratum. The minute-to-minute war against feeding the outrage held against those we disagree with is exhausting. The desire to watch the latest “best show ever” is ceaseless and alluring. The need to bolster awareness to social issues of import, noting the progress and obstruction they face for planning activism accordingly is also bottomless, or so it seems.

However, grace hides in plain sight, resolute and available. It never holds a grudge at our ignorance but simply bides its time knowing that eventually we will wander back, anxious for the comfort it gives. There are many forms grace can take. It’s as malleable as we need it to be, filling us when we’re empty. It can be the laugh of a child, the tender way a lover grabs your hand, or a sweet breeze during a summer rain shower. Its flexibility alone is breathtaking.

As I so often do, I had forgotten grace the past few weeks. Life had been taking a non-linear path rather than my preferred straight line, inflicting stress with its untidy turns. I sought escape from these pesky intrusions. My phone was the perfect vehicle to launch me from my reality. It took up residency in my hand more than usual, offering so many ways to release my mind from the instruments of my dissatisfaction, and I was all too willing to accept the invitation. It is filled with the false promises of relief. Rarely does one put their device down, after having explored the phalanx of apps available, and truly feel at ease. Each click and scroll leads to less satisfactory reprieves; many times these said clicks lead to further anger and anxiety – two feelings distinctly not in the realm of relaxation.

This morning I chased the improbable again, my phone playing windmills to my Don Quixote.

Several unfulfilling moments later, I put my phone down as I prepared to make the trek to work, packing a lunch and making a cup of coffee for the journey. I kissed my wife, saying our “love yous” and goodbyes, and then walked to the door. As I reached for the knob, she said, “It looks lovely out. I bet you’ll have a nice ride in.” Those words, for whatever reason, stopped me. I turned to her and flashed my most winsome smile.

“I think so,” I replied.

On my commute, I found grace. Few might see the commute a place to find much of anything, but as I wove through the countryside of Upstate NY, I was given a reset button. This time of year, after the beauty of fall foliage and facing the onset of winter, is seen as boring and monochromatic with hues of brown dominating the landscape. But looking closer, there were other colors before me too. Not like the eye-popping brilliance synonymous with fall or the verdant abundance of spring, but subtle diversity was all around. Rolling farmland of earthy beiges interrupted by the yellowed stumps that once supported corn poking up from the ground, the same soil prepping itself for winter slumber. Mountains framed the valleys the road traversed, dark green fir trees freckling the grays of the rocks and sepia trees devoid of leaves. Sunlight dappled the uppermost parts of those mountains and trees, bringing to life that which seemed dormant. Birds dotted the cerulean sky in various specks of black and gray. Here, grace was everywhere. I drank deeply with my eyes and smiled. Jillian was right: it was a nice ride in.

Once at work, I was inundated with screens again, but this time out of professional necessity. Still, I occasionally closed my eyes for a moment here and there to replay the beauty shown on my way in, and I was able to experience that grace all over again.

All of us utilize our handheld wonders to distract us from the daily stress we face. In that capacity and if used wisely, they truly are a marvel of their own. Phones and tablets are not inherently bad. Inanimate objects rarely are. But the access to unlimited options is where we can, and often do, lose ourselves in rabbit holes into which we invariably tumble. I implore you to not let them use you. Look up once in a while. See, without the lens of technology, what lay before and around you.

I know I’ll forget grace again. At least it is never far from my grasp, awaiting my return. When I remember its presence, I’ll run to its embrace and bask in the warmth and acceptance it has to give. I’ll make promises not to forget grace again, knowing it’s an empty statement at best. I also know it doesn’t care if my promises are bereft, and its arms will be open wide when I return. Grace is non-judgmental, thankfully. We should all be so forgiving.

Opening My Eyes Inside

I’m still processing, still reeling.

All of those women, and a few men, coming forward to say they too had been touched by the foul hand of sexual harassment and assault. Each of their lives tainted with no regard for their autonomy or bodies.

My wife has suffered the horrors of sexual assault multiple times through her life. Not just harassment, which she’s had on a near daily basis, but full on assault and abuse. I’m certain she’s not the first woman in my life who’s endured such indignities, but she is the first one to talk openly and candidly about them to me. It sickens me every time the specter of those living ghouls resurface, ripping open wounds we so badly wished had permanently healed. Alas, gashes of the psyche rarely remain in slumber, they prefer to make their presence known just when they’ve been forgotten.

Perhaps that’s the most damning thing about the atrocities women face: the reliving of their ordeals, over and over. The fear and pain all can come flooding back in the merest of moments. For many, it is a permanent state of mind – the torture of knowing that when, not if, a man forces his desires upon them that society willfully will look the other way. Worse, it actively seeks out ways to blame them rather than the fiends that prey upon them. It is little wonder why so many women remain silent preferring a silent purgatory to a public one.

That’s the easy part of my processing. I am more fully aware of the overwhelming prevalence of the depraved notions of so many men. My eyes, previously shuttered because I wanted to believe in the goodness of men, have been opened. I can see its insidiousness more plainly, so I can step in and step up to combat it.

The hard part of my processing is the self-evaluation. The review of all my interactions with women, the dissection of my actions and words. While I’ve never raped anyone, I’m certain I’ve at the very least been coercive and persistent – traits I had inherited from the social norms and queues of my youth. I’ve cajoled, insisted, persisted. Even when it was clear, by actions or words, that my advances were unwelcome, I kept inveigling myself, believing as I had been taught that if she would just see what a great guy I am that she would at last be wooed.

As bad as that is, it is not the only way I’ve been ignorant. I’ve witnessed men clearly following women walking and said nothing. I’ve heard innuendo said in a meeting countless times. Behind closed doors, I’ve heard gross declarations of what men would “do” to various women they see, fully expecting zero pushback.

I was complicit in my silence. By not standing up for my fellow human beings, I allowed this festering boil to remain and allowed women’s fears to be realized. Through my inaction, misogyny kept its stronghold, and women were forced to accept their mistreatment and groping against their will and wishes. They were made to feel less than, inferior, powerless, and at fault. And I let it happen.

I admit my personality veers towards the non-combative. No longer can I lean upon that as a reason for cowardice. This is far bigger than me or my trepidations; this is about empathy and standing up for people when they may not have been able to fend of the slathering of a man. It’s not because I have a wife and daughters; it’s because women need our support. They need us to be their allies, someone who believes them when they sound the alarm and do not search for ways to push the blame onto them. They need advocacy, not doubt. I intend on being there for anyone who needs a hand and a voice.

I am deeply sorry for what I’ve done and what I’ve not done. I will do better from here on out. I will teach our sons to be better than I have been, to help them become advocates as well.

I see you all. I stand with you. I cannot change my past, but I can help shape the future, not only through my actions, but through my children.

We have work to do, men. Let’s get to it.

Photo credit: BlackDoctor.org

The Great Tree

The sirens’ abrupt start, coming from everywhere, woke her. It was still dark outside, or as near as she could tell. The lights of the ferry station nearly blinded her with its halogen assault bleeding into every nook and cranny of the place. It was the best location she’d found to sleep because no one kicked her out with protestations of “Get a job!” or other, more profanity-laden, insults. She liked that it was dry and comfortable enough. Can’t find that too much in Seattle. But this siren? That was new and frightening. She stood up from the bench that was her bed for the night, and shuffled to the TV by the ticket booth to try to figure out why the damn alarms were going off.

CNN was on – it was always on here – and some overnight milquetoast broadcaster was excitedly talking, eyes wide.

“According to the NEIC, there was an earthquake in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean measuring 8.6 on the Richter scale. The earthquake, as the graphic shows, is roughly midway between Japan and the Pacific Northwest of the continental United States. They have announced warnings of waves as high as twenty-five feet expected to hit the rural shorelines of Alaska and Russia, with waves in the twenty foot range expected to hit the shores of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. Japan also is expected to have waves in the fifteen to twenty foot range. Hawaii will be less affected, with waves reaching only seven to nine feet. There have been warnings issued to the areas mentioned. If you are in those areas, please get back from the shore as far as you can. The waves are expected to move fast and reach Russia and Alaska by 2:38 AM, and Seattle and San Francisco at approximately 3:02 AM. Those closest to the Pacific Ocean, please get to higher ground immediately. Now we go to Greg Fichtel, spokesperson for the National Earthquake Information Center, for more…”

Slackjawed, she stood transfixed for a few moments. There were no more ferries running at this time of night. She had no way of getting off the island and away from Elliot Bay. She was trapped, and probably doomed. She went and picked up the few possessions she had, then went to the ladies room and into a stall, hoping it would be enough for her to survive the walls of water that were on their way even now.

The next day, on every TV:

“Experts around the world are baffled by the appearance in the Pacific Ocean of “The Great Tree,” as many are calling it. As it erupted from the ocean at the exact spot of the epicenter of the earthquake that caused flooding and damage to all shores in the North Pacific, the consensus is that it sprang from the ocean floor, despite that never occurring in any recorded history. As you can see from the shots from the aircraft circling it, it continues to grow up and out, now reaching well over fifteen hundred feet in height and several hundred feet wide. The strange green and purple roots, or at least that what they appear to be from eyewitness reports above, have spread some twenty miles out from the tree, seemingly writhing in the currents as they spread out. There’s no telling how much more this can grow. Reports are in that the countries closest to this strange phenomenon are talking and working through possible strategies to deal with it if it keeps expanding. Words from the President of the United States, just twenty minutes ago:

‘I have been in contact with Russia, China, Japan, Australia and the nations of the South Pacific. We are monitoring the situation closely, and are mobilizing our armed forces to be ready for a joint approach should the situation escalate.’

We will keep you updated as new information comes in. For now, the White House has issued an evacuation order for the areas closest to the ocean on the West Coast, and is coordinating with Pearl Harbor to evacuate citizens from Hawaii. More ships are on their way, according to President Ramirez.”

Three days later…

The Great Tree, as it was dubbed when it came up from the depths of the Pacific, had not grown in two full days, its final height reaching just shy of two thousand feet. Its monstrous trunk was two football fields wide. It swayed slightly in the air despite its immensity as it towered above the water and dwarfed the various crafts flying about it, each hoping to find something new to report back to their home bases. The roots that were still roiling about in the waves had splayed themselves out, but never exceeded their vast perimeter.

Suddenly the swaying stopped and the tree stood still and straight, as if pointing to the heavens. Almost instantaneously, clouds swirled around it, moving faster and faster, darkening as they did so. The sky became ominous, clouding out the sun and putting the entirety of the tree’s reach in blackness. Lightning lit the sky, increasing frequency as the darkness overtook the day. Thunder boomed constantly in a strange symphony with the lightning bolts crashing down into the sea below, striking down many of the aircraft who were attempting to flee. Strangest of all, the ocean around the tree itself was placid and calm, accentuating the foreboding feel of the scene.

The lightning stopped, the thunder soon afterwards. All was eerily calm.

Then the voice came. Not broadcast through the air; this voice touched every mind. The voice was evil itself, freezing the peoples’ minds it invaded.

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” the phlegmy voice oozed into their minds, crushing any other thought.

“But no more. Cthulhu awakens, and you will all rightfully fear his reign.” The image of the mighty Elder God flashed madness into their minds and broke them all. His guttural laugh followed, rendering everyone immobile with fear.

“Behold your master, your God! ALL HAIL CTHULHU!”

As those words assaulted the humans’ brains, a great cracking sound commenced. The Great Tree began shaking its bark free, revealing the monstrous truth beneath. One great tentacle stood, shards of its wooden disguise plummeting into the waters. It waved a moment longer, and then a bubbling began at its base. Water sluiced about the humongous appendage as it wriggled. The air shook with morbid expectancy. Then the true master exploded out of the water, the largest of nightmares made manifest in the sky. The horrific God, now free, glowered at the newest minions and acolytes. Tentacles, too many to number, hung where a mouth should be. Red eyes looked through those unfortunate to be within his gaze.

“Now is my time. All shall come to me.”

All ships flew to him, none firing at this fantastic horror of lore. People walked to him, right off docks, and ships, and buildings the world over, oblivious to anything but The Call. The world was his now, after eons of slumber.

Photo credit: David Prei

Broken Free

The torture would be starting again soon.

The burning wracked him with pain, pushing him to the brink of unconsciousness. Sinister voices whispered his worst fears, making them real. The blackness never subsided, never eroded. The pain was excruciating, but the loneliness was worse. Opaque periods of time without anyone to hear his cries allowed the words of his tormentors to do their awful work on his psyche. His captors were skilled at inflicting pain of all sorts. Their expertise knew no bounds, and they utilized their considerable talents on him.

He had no concept of how long he had been at their mercy. Complete darkness has a way of robbing you of time.

How many times had he screamed himself hoarse?

How many times has he begged them to stop, promising to give them anything they wanted if only they would cease their terrible games?

Too many to count. There was no way to measure it, but what good would it do him if he could? Certainly wouldn’t stop the next round of agony they would impose on him.

He did not understand why they tortured him. There was no reason given, no demands made, and no information requested. The only things they said to him were meant to exacerbate his torment.

“You are all alone.”

“No one knows you’re here.”

“You’re getting the pain you deserve.”

“There will never be anyone to save you.”

The other thing was the laughing. The glee they shared while he howled for them to stop plagued him long after they left. Their words haunted him even more than the near constant pain did. The only reprieve he got were those all-too-brief periods where he slept, the kind of sleep only the dead know. He longed for that solace even now, before the terror began anew, but he knew he was damned without knowing why. He braced himself for another onslaught. It had to be soon, he could feel it.

But it didn’t come. Not this time. After all the times of being beaten down, he could not allow himself to hope, though. He’d give that up long ago. Hope was a fool’s errand for him. So he waited in the silence, the blessed silence. After some time, his anticipation waned.

Could it be? Could he finally be free of the endless torture he’d endured?

He willed himself to relax. What harm could it do? Even if (when) they returned, at least he’d been able to have a few fleeting moments of peace.

Suddenly an enormous pressure pushed him back, as if a wall was forcing him back. Behind him something held him in place. He fought the claustrophobia that was taking hold. This was a new method of sadism for the ones who whispered atrocities to him, and it was agony beyond his comprehension.

He felt light-headed as if breath was being forced out of him. Veering towards the safe haven of unconsciousness, he let go, hoping for once to pass that threshold. The pressure released and was simultaneously replaced with light, brilliant and blinding. He recoiled from it, like a toad who’s lived its entire life in a deep cave would, fleeing an unfamiliar invader. It hurt him, but not the way the burning caustic words had. This was the pain of experiencing a previously unknown power, a presence that struck him immobile. It was fear of a different sort.

As he adjusted, he realized that he was not in any real pain. He’d been paralyzed by the unknown, sure, but he was not hurting as he had thought before. He sought to understand this new thing. How would should he proceed? How could he attempt to know this thing that blinded him?

Searing pain pushed the light away and crushed all thought. This burned worse than anything they’d done before. Oh god, what if this is the way they would abuse him from now on? It must be! How could he bear this over and over again? He couldn’t!

He started to scream… and then the pain stopped as abruptly as it had started. The light, that damned too bright light, disappeared too. He felt… nothing. No demons, no fear, no worry. He was free. And so, he drifted devoid of any tether. He floated into nothingness, and was glad for it.

 

“Doctor Freeman, the patient has been prepped and is ready for surgery.”

“Excellent, Nurse Kline. He’s been sedated, correct?” the doctor responded.

“Of course, Doctor Freeman. We did as you instructed. We wanted to be sure to follow every instruction to the letter,” Nurse Kline said.

The doctor nodded his head. “The students are ready as well, I presume?”

“They appear to be quite eager, yes,” she smiled back.

Doctor Freeman exhaled. “Let’s not keep them waiting, then.”

He strode into the operating room with Nurse Kline in tow. He looked the students over. They did indeed look excited, and why wouldn’t they be? Today, they would be witnessing firsthand a radical procedure that held very promising results.

“Good afternoon, students. For those of you who do not know me, I am Doctor Walter Freeman. Today, you are most fortunate. We will be operating on a young man who has suffered a tremendous amount in his short life.” He turned towards the operating table and held out his arm towards his patient.

“This is Andrew Callahan, twenty four years of age. He has been hospitalized since the age of twelve. He suffers from acute schizophrenia, resulting in fits of screaming and violence. He has raved about being tortured, but he cannot talk outside of these outbursts. This is why the other doctors and I agreed that the best treatment for him is a lobotomy, which is what you are here to witness.”

He picked up a small instrument that resembled a small ice pick in one hand. In the other, he held a hammer.

“Shall we begin?” he asked, a bright grin on his face.

Photo Credit: Aranzazu

The Shame I Harbor

Deep in the recesses of my past, a bleak darkness hides. Few know of this chapter in the history of me, and that is by design. It is a source of shame, this black hole that devoured me and nearly dragged those I love down with me, whom I’m certain felt the substantial pull of it. They know the depths that it took me, how far into the abyss it dragged me down. They also know the will and fortitude it took to make my way out from under crushing weight of its control.

Nearly everyone I love knows. All except my children. They don’t have the faintest inkling of my degradation. Truth is, I’m terrified to tell them. Terrified that they will think less of me. Terrified that they will step back from me, fear in their eyes. Terrified that I’ll lose their love for me. Terrified that they will no longer see me as their father, but as something less.

I’m terrified to tell them that I’ve been in prison. That I was arrested and spent nearly a year of my life as an inmate.

What is even more worrisome for me is to tell them why I was incarcerated. I was an addict, but not in thrall to drugs or liquor. My demon was gambling. I am scared out of my wits that once they learn the truth of me, the ugly side of me, they will only see me as what I was, and not what I am. I was an addict, a junkie. What I am is a father. A husband. A man who’s worked his way out of a shit heap of my own making, and managed to build a life that is more than I ever thought possible.

Nearly 25 years ago, I was arrested two days before Christmas. I was thrown in a cell in Dauphin County Prison, which happened to be right near a mall. Over the next two days, while the prison classified me to put me in general population, I watched through bars of a murky window the scores of people and cars moving briskly to get gifts for their loved ones. I let each armful of presents that walked by rip a part of my soul out. I was a terrible human being, and this was my atonement.

I knew this was the truth because of everything I’d done to end up in the prison that I was locked in, physically and mentally. I’d stolen money to feed the beast within. I’d lied to friends. I’d taken from my family, uprooting all trust they had in me. In the throes of my addiction, I’d rationalized these actions, falsely telling myself that if I could just hit the big bet, win against the odds stacked against me, just once, that I could pay everything back, and all would be well again. But it never happened. No matter the lies I told others to deceive them, the checks I wrote on bank accounts I had no money in, the way I pretended to be a person who had it all together. I was an addict. I was a deceiver. A liar. A charlatan who preyed on others. I deserved whatever punishment I was given.

The day after Christmas, I made a promise to myself. I was going to get myself well. I believed that if I could do that, then over time and with diligence, then perhaps I could regain the love and trust of my family. I knew this would not be an easy road; it would be one fraught with rightful accusations and angry words. As much of a climb this would be to the mountain top of my redemption, I was going to persevere. My parents were the ones I needed to rebuild with the most. I’d taken money from them, even stole their credit cards. Though they never verbalized it, I knew they were devastated. I was determined to show them, through actions, not words – those I was gifted enough to use as a shield to my egregious behaviors – that I was the man they raised their son to be, not the craven thief I’d become.

I struggled mightily, working two full time jobs for most of the first year of my parole. Most days I was lucky to get 3 hours of sleep. I rented a room in a building in the poorest section of Harrisburg, because that was the most I could afford. I shared a kitchen and a bathroom with the other tenants, one of which threatened me because he suspected I took his ketchup. I walked to work almost daily, not having enough money to take the bus. This was the greatest challenge I’ve faced in my life to that point. I’d created this challenge through my own actions, and I was going to defeat it by my own actions. I worked hard at paying back the significant amount of money I’d stolen. And I worked even harder at proving to my family that I was no longer the pathological liar who had duped them at every turn.

It took years of demonstrating my rehabilitation, but I did exactly that. Years of barely scraping by, surviving on ramen noodles and PB&J sandwiches. Years of rebuilding the foundation of trust I’d so wantonly destroyed because I chased the darkness.

A lot has happened in my life since then. I’ve married, had two marvelous sons, got divorced, bought a house, sold a house, bought another house, remarried, added two fabulous daughters to my family. I’ve worked in corporate IT for close to twenty years. I’ve lived a life that I’m grateful for. I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed to tell my children about the grand mistake I made years before any of them were even alive.

Yet… I do.

Logically, I know that my kids will love me regardless of my past. They’ll see how I am now, as a man and a father. They’ll know I love them and care for them beyond any measurement that exists. Emotionally, I’m petrified. Doubt sits in the background, casually inserting itself just enough into my thoughts to cause chaos. That’s its purpose, after all, and its skill is undeniable. The power is exerts is subtle and devastating.

My wife, my champion, stands resolute by my side. She understands my hesitation, yet steadfastly reminds me of the unlikelihood that my fears will come to fruition. She empathizes with the side of me that believes I’m unworthy of the love I crave from my family. She also shoots straight with me. She fights the leviathan that is my doubt with truth and unequivocal love. Doubt doesn’t stand a chance to against the brilliance that is her light.

So this weekend, I will sit with my children, the ones who I love and adore most, and explain to them the most unflattering season of my life. I will tell them about my past addiction and all the ugly ways it infested my life. And then I will await their questions (for there WILL be questions) and answer them as honestly and earnestly as I can.

I hope they’ll take my tale of struggle and apply the hard lessons I had to learn and endure and use them in their own lives. I hope the message of work ethic and perseverance wins out in their young impressionable minds.

I hope they won’t think less of me. I hope they’ll still see me as their father, less than perfect, but ever on their side.

I hope it will be easier for them than it has been for me.

Image credit:  Uno Mas En La Familia