The Read

Sep. 12, 2022

 

On Sunday I watched a horror movie – in church.

It was like being in an alternate universe, one that ends with a gun and victims. As a writer/director, I watched it all unfold like a film, taking in every movement and reaction, ready to run for the door at any moment.  

Need to preface the rest of the story by saying, we don’t belong to this church, we’ve bounced around a lot since we moved south, but we like it and attend occasionally because the priest, who’s an older man, is just a cool guy. He teaches messages of love.

To set the scene, the building has a horseshoe shaped seating arrangement, with the alter in the middle. Estimate there were about 200 people in attendance.  We sat to the right of the center aisle, the second to last row. Having that gap in the middle gave me a clear view to the front rows on the left side. An obviously troubled young man took the front, center seat, on that side.  He was alone in the row, and had several items on the seat next to him, including what looked like a red and white cylinder bag, like an athlete might have.  The front row has no kneeler, the seat is open to the alter area. The lectern’s also on that side, where the readers and the priest address the congregation.  He was about eight feet from them, alter boys included, during the reading of the gospel.

Would have been hard not to be conscious of the way he was dressed. He had on a camo tank top, exposing considerable body hair.  The shirt was big and hung low over his black baggy, over-sized shorts.  His shoes were bulky black combat boots, finished off with white crew socks; if intimidating was the look he was going for, he accomplished his goal.  I operate on a firm policy of live-and-let-live, so his clothing meant nothing to me, felt like an odd choice for church, but it was his, not mine.

His actions were all together a different story. From the beginning of mass he put on a show. At the end of the opening song, (which was already strange because no musicians could be there that day so we were singing a capella,) he continued to stand while the rest of us sat down. He held the songbook in one hand and stretched both his arms out to the sides, he remained in that stance for an uncomfortably long time as the mass continued.  His actions got progressively more aberrant as the service went on.

At one point he pulled out his phone as if someone had called, although there was no audible ringtone. He talked at the height of his voice, saying he was in church as he meandered out into the vestibule. Couldn’t help but think he had an automatic weapon stashed in the ample foliage out there, but in what looked to be angelic intervention, as soon as he reached the area, there were several men walking around close to him who hadn’t been there before. He ended his call and came back to his seat.

Although he didn’t know the particulars of the Catholic mass, he made quite a show of praying along. His actions were all larger than life, and for those of us who had a clear view, there was no denying it was all leading up to something.

Two men, seated in the section next to ours, started making a plan with only eye contact and nods. One of them moved over to the subject’s section and took a spot two rows directly behind him. The other moved to the front row of his own section, giving him a straighter shot to be able to get to him. They continued to send each other visual signals, the man behind him softly slapped the side of his leg, the other man nodded. I took that to mean he saw something under the baggy shorts.  

There was a level of calm that came with the knowledge these men went into immediate action. They had a law enforcement way about them, and were both substantial in size. Felt like they could’ve subdued him. It took a little of the edge off, but also realized this camo-clad/combat booted man could have been ex-military, who knew how to fight back. There was no doubt it could get ugly before it was all said and done. By this time my stomach muscles felt like a bag of rocks.

At one of the many times we stand during the service, the man walked down the aisle between sections and tried to engage a young woman in the middle of the row about halfway back. Several men stepped to him and told him he needed to return to his seat. He did.

But then came the Lord’s Prayer. Never in my life have I seen anything more bizarre.

During the Our Father, in a Catholic church, the congregation stands, and holds hands. Since the pandemic, that tradition has ended, now people raise their hands in devotion on their own. The young man started out as the rest of us, standing, with his hands held up in respect. But he quickly shifted his stance to Christ on the cross, even trying to balance those hefty combat boots one on top of the other. The top foot slipped off several times and he lost his balance, but he went right back to his tableau and stayed there until the end of the prayer. At that point, people started to quietly leave, especially those with children.

It’s an odd situation to have to assess. Pretty sure most of us thought about leaving, but the priest and the alter boys were continuing with mass and no one wanted to abandon them, or cause more of a problem by punctuating the scene with a mass exodus. There was no doubt in my mind, we were all praying for protection, for everyone involved, including this troubled soul. We were in church, what more perfect place to ask for help; you could literally feel the energy of the prayers, it was intense.

The Kiss of Peace came next and my heart dropped. After the priest offers peace to all, he invites us to share it with each other. Again, with Covid, handshakes are a thing of the past, most people just wave and offer peace signs. The first thing our subject did was take a step toward the priest, put both his arms straight out in front of him and made a shooting guns gesture with both his hands, as he said something to the effect of, and peace be with you. 

At that point I searched for our two angels and realized a police officer in a bullet-proof vest was standing at the back of the church. The man who had been behind him was now standing in the back as well, with his two young sons.  He got the boys hidden behind a wall and returned to the seat behind the young man. 

It was really hard to concentrate on anything about the mass, the threat was consuming. But I worked to listen to the priest’s homily because we all needed to hear the right words, he didn’t disappoint. He told us evangelization was about actions not words, that treating people with kindness was the way to teach about God.  One of the two lectors sat directly behind him, she was there alone. Throughout his performance she showed him nothing but kindness, smiling and exchanging what looked like kind words. And right before communion she leaned forward, put her hand on his bare shoulder and quietly whispered something to him. It was a fairly long interaction, the whole time with her hand gently resting on him. It was the kindest gesture I may ever have witnessed; you could feel her love. Whatever she said was a turning point. The young man took communion and went one row back so he could pray on his knees. He knelt there and cried.

That’s when the knots that had become my stomach started to ease. The final scene, in what became a story of redemption, played out during the last group prayer.  At the end of mass now, the prayer to St. Michael is recited in unison, (a fairly resent addition, must have been Pope Francis inspired.) Most churches have it printed on the inside cover of the hymnal. This church has screens mounted above on both sides. Having the words spelled out right in front of him turned on the light. At first he was just captivated, reading the screen but saying nothing, but by the end of the prayer he was saying it with us.  St. Michael had the final blow, whatever darkness was driving this poor broken soul was overcome. He defended us all.

After the prayer, as we were leaving, he was surrounded with people shaking his hand and talking to him. It was a heartening scene after all we’d been through. Have to say, we were still really relieved to be out of there. Not being members, we don’t know anyone and haven’t been back yet, so I have no post log, other than seeing the policeman waiting patiently for the people to clear before he approached him.

Horror is a popular genre these days, within the screenwriting community there’re a lot of people pumping it out. Definitely not my jam. For me, there’s too much horror happening for real to want to entertain myself with it too. You can imagine my relief when this real-life movie turned out to be a love story.

All I can say is, thank God.   

 

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Apr. 8, 2020

Hey, been a while. Feels good to be back. Although, full disclosure, can’t really make that claim; yet. A lot’s happened in the last year-and-a-half, but regardless how consequential any of it seems, it’s been dwarfed by the tectonic shift of COVID-19. The column that follows is a piece written for one of my employers, a fence company. Up to this point it’s been all business, all the time, but the explanation that accompanied my weekly submission said it all, “It didn’t seem right to write about anything else.” They’re a really cool company, love working for them. They published the blog. Here's a re-print:

Fence Stories 

No matter what industry you seek out today, information has been eclipsed by a global challenge, COVID-19. We’re all feeling fenced in by a contagion that threatens to kill millions if we don’t self-quarantine. More and more people are realizing, they don’t have a choice. One thing is a certainty, though we’re separated physically, we’re all in this together.

Writing about the business of fences, yards and landscaping is my customary offering, but this particular time in our history calls for a different kind of fence stories. It’s the people behind the fences that really matter and being cut off from them puts those relationships into a new perspective. Our simple day-to-day interactions are the salt that flavors our earth; here’s a little taste of the seasoning where I live.

The first fence belongs to our next-door neighbors. Love leaning on it, talking to N while we watch her two and four-year-old wear a path in the grass from the bottom of their miniature slide to the stairs; over and over they giggle, climb and descend. Their joy is the right kind of infectious. N & J had a set of twins in January, tiny and too early, they made an entrance into a changed world. Gratefully, they’re safe and home now; but no one has met them, nor will we for some time. Look forward to leaning on their safe haven again, watching all four of them play. 

The next fence is across the street to the right. This one houses three of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever met, their parents are H & B, two incredibly generous souls; they always share the fruits of their labors, regularly offering vegetables from their garden and delectable cheeses from the company where B works. In addition to receiving their bountiful booty, consider myself one lucky dog, when they needed help letting theirs out during the day, being an independent writer who works from home, I got tapped. It’s peaceful strolling with the girls in their backyard sanctuary; will miss spending time with them. Like most of us, H & B are home now and we’re all safely keeping our distance.

Next door to the girls and directly across the street from us is the fence for J & A, two energetic and hysterical Boxers, who along with their owner, M, own my heart. M is one of my best friends and universally considered an inspiration in our hood. Last year, for almost the entire year, she endured a particularly heinous bout with cancer. While most people would have been defeated, M could still be seen working inside her fence, cutting, trimming and creating new beds. Sometimes we worked together, most of the time I just marveled at her strength. In the difficult months, the neighbors all reached out to help with snow shovels, food and flowers. The owners of the fence behind her, D & P, did even more. M’s fence was getting loose and P came with shovel in hand and secured all the posts. After some reconstructive surgery and a protracted regime of treatment, M is securely in remission, we’re all grateful.

The last fence story belongs to the second H & B, (three doors down from the first and one name common between them, go figure.) They too are a generous and stellar young couple, in the midst of building a beautiful family. Their babies are cherubic and smile with the slightest prompting. Talk about infectious. Personally, theirs is my favorite fence in the hood, a beautiful black aluminum enclosure, tall and elegant. Shortly after it was installed we had a neighborhood gathering in their new retreat. We’re neighbors who celebrate holidays together and this was our first annual 4th of July party. Everyone came with dishes in hand and a sincere joy about spending time together. We probably won’t be able to have our summer party this year, and maybe not the Halloween gathering either, it’s all so unpredictable. But regardless of the pandemic that’s altered our lives and kept us from each other, the one constant that will never change is our genuine concern for each other.

Ours is a neighborhood like so many across the world, people looking out for each other; talking across fences and helping those in need. We are all in this together, and we will prevail.  

 

Here's a link to the company, if you're in the market for a fence, couldn't pick any better

https://www.activeyards.com/

 

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Oct. 19, 2018

I walk ~ a lot. It’s an obsession. Washes several birds in the same bath; get some exercise, a shot of nature, and private time to contemplate just about everything. There’s a path that takes me past a small nature preserve, then slips me into the hood next door, (there’s only two streets on our side, so I borrow theirs for a daily three-mile jaunt.) Whoever paid to have the path paved is my hero.

The nature preserve is a kaleidoscope of constantly changing color. With all the rain the East has seen this year, at one point the wild flowers and weeds were towering over my head. A farmer came and harvested the field for feed, setting the stage for the fall growth; new hues and heights. It’s all very pretty and peaceful, but the primary backdrop for my walk is the picturesque little neighborhood beyond the pasture. It’s finely trimmed, compact lots, offer city style living in the middle of forever farmland (Amish horse and buggy carts own the roads.) When I say picturesque, I’m not exaggerating, it’s the prettiest little hood. The residents care about their homes and community, it’s obvious. Feels like I’m strolling around my own private sanctuary, canvassed with arbors, play-sets, patios, porch swings and fire pits. And flowers, good Lord, the flowers. The builder obviously offered white picket fencing as an option because it’s a predominate feature throughout. Classic stuff. Large grassy common areas run down the middle of the main road, and in between several of the side streets. The biggest boast a pergola and a gazebo. A haven of middle-class America.

Would not be surprised in the slightest if someone told me the ghost of Norman Rockwell hangs out there. This place is the quintessence of community. Charming and hospitable, it regularly tugs at my heartstrings. In my daily strolls the Rockwell paintings are life-sized and animated. Razors piloted by little kids race down the same street that houses the sisters who jump rope on a different day and older boys who practice their slap shots in the fall, net perched in the middle of the road. This also happens to be the road of the two Charlies. A sister and brother from a litter of adorable, fluff ball puppies, (born on the other side of the neighborhood,) who ended up with the same name, on the same street, three doors away. (Was told they have regular play dates.) There are backyard flockers, sidewalk chalkers, and dog walkers galore. All of them kind and neighborly, (have had my share of chats.) Then there’s the gaggle of teenagers, dressed in Homecoming couture, waiting for the limo to arrive, (early evening is my sweet spot.) Their parents on the periphery, phones put away, high school moment in the books. Have even witnessed a wedding reception, (avoided my normal path so I didn’t intrude,) the big white tent and the beautiful young bride were hard to miss. The groom and his entourage were tossing a Frisbee in the common area. Every evening there’s pleasant interactions, sometimes in person, and sometimes just the artwork of their lives. Rockwell’s Americana, home at its best. The little hood that could, the perfect metaphor for the best in us all.  

Home, you might have noticed, is a recurring theme with me. It’s the archetype of what’s safe and good and right. At least it should be, lately it’s become symbols of just the opposite. Our own citizens aren’t safe from those who are supposed to protect us, even in their own homes, being that we’re now a nation in the business of peddling division, hatred and fear, don’t think we fall in the category of good anymore, and when it comes to right and wrong, our compass isn’t only malfunctioning, it’s worthless. Beyond all the talk that tries to normalize dishonesty, beyond the cheating to get ahead in business and politics, beyond exploding the national debt for the sake of greed and control, and beyond the obliteration of healthcare, beyond all that and more, children, the most vulnerable among us, have been separated from their parents and housed in internment camps. Can we stop a moment to fully grasp the significance, we’re talking about appalling abuse of children. The United States, our home, is inflicting crimes against humanity. And why, because that’s the U.S.’s humanitarian way? It’s too hard to take, we’ve allowed ourselves to be dragged down to the basest of behavior through a narrative of bullying, debauchery and lies. Passionate and convincing lies, again and again, and we’ve swallowed the storyline. It’s incredible.

We’re making history with a government encircled by talk of affairs and porn stars, tax evasion and bankruptcy, law suits and death threats, nazism and hate crimes, misinformation and sensationalism; the list goes on and on. Avarice drives legislation, from health care to gun control, money wins. Questionable money. Power hungry politicians care more about their millions, than their countryman. And God help you if you’re a journalist. The cry of "fake news," where reporters are covering documented indiscretions, has one third of our country snowed into believing the reporters are somehow to blame for the deviant behavior; just by reporting it. It boggled-the-mind watching the murder of, Jamal Khashoggi, play out with this administration. They couldn’t have been more transparent in their lack of concern and greed. Oil and wealth, the only goal. Situations you never in your wildest nightmares believe could happen are playing out in front of us.

Never would've thought it possible I'd be embarrassed of our country, I’ve always been proud to be an American. Proud we stood up against oppression and our brave men and woman offered their lives to fight alongside our allies, ensuring our freedoms (my Father was one of those men.) That kind of valor and honesty was once a standard for our leadership. Not anymore. We're lost, how do we find the path home?

Speaking of that, returning from my walk yesterday, (oh, and btw, did I mention it’s a diverse neighborhood? Always a rainbow of kids playing together, the way it should be) anyway, when I got to the path, the wind over the pasture bent the wild flowers and weeds, toppling and twisting them in a dance that made me envy their freedom. They grew, side-by-side, different but the same, bolstering each other from what would take them down if they stood alone. No reason to fear the storms, they’re all in it together. No reason to fear at all.

 

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Jan. 1, 2018

Had a little chuckle making out Christmas cards this year. An address (hey Kate & Anthony) in Jersey was the culprit. Changed from the original name, Orvil, in 1908, Ho-Ho-Kus, (the capitols and hyphens are the correct spelling) was a tribute to the native Indians of the region. Read there’s some dispute as to the meaning, but nicely done on giving American Indians their props, Jersey. My guess was way off, put money on a magic connection, was tempted to finish the address with “Pocus” anyway. Must be kind of a magical place for the Ho-Ho-Kusites, (I kid you not, that’s the legit name,) in 2011 New Jersey Monthly named it the best place to live in the state. Wonder if they still hold the title?   

That research sent me down a rabbit hole looking for funky names, we have quite a few in the ole U.S. of A. Was familiar with the first one that popped up, Accident, Maryland. God forbid you have one while living there, talk about constant geographic salt being poured into a wound. Then there’s always, Hell, Michigan. Can see the signs now, Welcome to Hell, a real hot spot. Can’t take the heat? You can methodically pack up your belongings and move to Boring, Oregon. If a dreary and lackluster existence is too dull, spice things up a bit with a trip to, Intercourse, Pennsylvania. (Not touching that one with a ten foot…moving on. Although you might want to take a quick hop down from there to, Climax, Georgia, just sayin.) Then there’s always the waste related towns, Slickpoo, Idaho, where they recommend wearing shoes with good traction, and the ever urgent, Pee Pee, Ohio; their motto is a no-brainer, Urine a place that warms you all over. Who thought it was a good idea to name a town, Pee Pee? Anatomically, they’re more than just the butt of the joke. If you’re feeling the urge from those towns, you can pass, Gas, Kansas, people say being there is a real relief. When you’re done with all those hit, Embarrass, Minnesota, just to round things out.

Kidding aside, Willy Shakespeare had it right, a rose by any other name smells as sweet. Home is where the heart is, no matter what the moniker on the map. Boogertown, North Carolina might not be picked for the best name award, but pretty sure the residents there, (picture them with wads of Kleenex up their sleeves,) love it all the same. We used to live in a town called Finksburg. Bad name, great town. The kids conquered most of their school days there. It was an idyllic place to grow up. A picturesque country setting with lifelong friends just doors away, we Finksburgians, (yeah, that was just a shot in the dark,) had a home, sweet (smelling,) home. 

For real though, it’s no joke, home is absolutely where the heart is. The place we count on finding our comfort, our peace. For me, it’s wherever my people are. BK just recently moved home from his swinging bachelor pad, (SBP, in the family vernacular,) in Greensboro, North Carolina. His working down there necessitated two homes. For me, I scored a getaway. It was a nice, third floor walkup. Had a great porch, nestled in the upper branches of the trees; offered a bird’s-eye view of the hood. Spent quite a lot of time on that porch, was sad to see it go. The place had a great vibe, it was populated by a cool cluster of neighbors. All ages and nationalities; we were every shade of skin in the spectrum, all just happily doing our own thing. We didn’t get to know anyone personally, but there was always a kind hello. Was there all day without a car a few times and the porch served nicely as entertainment. The predominant scene below, bouncing between the buildings and the trees was happy children playing. Couldn’t have scripted a more peaceful setting. A little Nirvana. Home, at it’s best.

Isn’t that what we all want? A peaceful place to call home. A place to enjoy those we’re drawn to and have no reason to fear those we’re not. A safe place for our families, especially our children. Hometowns and neighborhoods where we can live free from fear. Communities where our shopping malls, theaters, schools and even churches aren’t turned into tombs and given ugly names, like massacre. Finding our hearts is at the root of it all. Turning from those who foster division and instead deciding to rest in reason; we’re all in this together, we should act like it.

Okay, sending you from here down to Arkansas, a place called, Hope. Here’s hoping for a prosperous and peaceful 2018. Here’s hoping our home is where the heart is.

Happy New Year. 

 

 

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Dec. 6, 2017

This is one of those, you-learn-something-new-every-day facts, at least it was a new one by me. Show of hands, how many of you know about, Blue Zones? The term refers to an anthropological model describing the characteristics and environments of locations with the world’s most centenarians. It was first coined in a 2005 National Geographic cover story by Dan Buettner; via some indisputable statistics, Buettner identified five geographic areas on earth with a large concentration of healthy and active people who live well into their 100s. Costa Rica is one of them.

My source of this little known tropical tid bit, the bus driver who ferried us from the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica, to an all-inclusive resort. We just returned from four days at a destination wedding. You may remember from The Read fame, my children from other mothers, Sully and Ashlee. They are now, Mr. & Mrs. M. (Congratulations, kiddos, we couldn’t love you more.)

To explain this incredible connubial excursion, will be employing a triple entendre. (How often does that opportunity show up.) The first one is in the books, the obvious definition, Blue Zones are not only cool and healthy places to live, they’re desirable; who doesn’t want to drink from the fountain of youth? Not a bad destination to plop down.

The second blue zone refers to the waters of our Costa Rican beach, translucent crystal blue, canvased by a floor of tiny white shells. At this particular resort, instead of sand beneath your feet, there are trillions of little broken shells that make up the terrain. Tough to walk on, (it doesn’t hurt, you just sink, the water doesn’t bind it like sand) but what a sight to behold. On the third day there we did a little snorkeling. Very little. The waves were too strong and insisted on muscling us into the rocks, (Shay and BK brought home some nasty scrapes as souvenirs.) Sticking close to the shore was the only safe option. The search for colorful aquatic life was replaced by an astonishing ambient spectacle. Floating on the spirited surface, the delicate white base swirled and danced below in a crystalline concert. Oblivious to the windy world above, with each churn, the only thing you could hear was the tiny shells skipping over each other, chiming a song of tranquility. Truly enchanting; the perfect metaphor for the final blue zone, Sully and Ashlee’s wedding weekend. 

When you look up “true blue” in Webster’s, it describes one who’s loyal, faithful and a constant source of support; no matter what. For me, the perfect description of family. Not always the blood variety, some of those have the name but haven’t really earned it, nope, talking about the people in life who love you unconditionally. The ones who would cut off their right arm for you if they thought it would help. This wedding was populated with that kind of kinfolk. People we could be separated from for long stretches, but it wouldn’t change a thing, the bond is precious and permanent.

A testament to the love Sully, Ashlee and their families have spread, they had over 40 people make the trek to Costa Rica to celebrate their nuptials. The joy of their destination wedding was amplified tenfold by the guests they gathered. The wedding venue, the Pangas Beach Club, was about a half hour from the resort and it was the stuff bridal dreams are made of. With an ancient Banyan tree that sat on the shoreline as their backdrop, Sully and Ashlee said, I do. Did I mention BK, (or his customary moniker for such events, Rev Kev,) performed the ceremony? Had quite a few of us a little wet of eye. After all, this is family, in the truest sense; heartfelt words are easy to come by. BK always puts the best of them together. After the ceremony came convivial pictures at sunset, phenomenal finger food, a divine din din, and then we all danced the night away. When it was time to head back, our busload sang Christmas carols the whole way. A memorable night, to say the least.

This was no ordinary event, think we all felt it, there was a serendipitous quality to the gathering. It was an unexpected gift. Kindness, laughter and love were on the itinerary. Like the magical waters, it was an enchanting journey. Four days together wasn’t enough, none of us wanted to leave. There’s no doubt about it, the wedding party, families and all the guests at this special occasion were in the zone.

The true blue zone; a perfect destination, no matter where you might be.   

 

 

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