My wife must have read only the first paragraph or two when she asked me, "Are you writing about me?" It is a fascinating question because, the truth is, it is about all mothers. In this instance it technically involves my mother because it is from the perspective of a child and I am that child. The themes woven through the story are varied, but at their base is the imbalance of power that exists between a parent and child. Parents are required to exercise a great deal of restraint in dealing with these little people who have immature brains, limited experience, and little insight into themselves. Where it gets tricky, and potentially harmful, is when the parent lacks insight and uses the child as a foil for their own foibles and frustrations.
I wrote this story as truthfully as I could. My purpose was not to teach anything, but to try and learn a little something about myself and maybe even my mother. Only in rereading what I wrote do I see the obvious fact that the crow served as proxy for my mother and the unacceptable feelings her emotional impropriety produced in me. The anger expressed towards our children due to our own lack of love and humility can have the quality of an annihilation, giving the impression that they are so bad that violence (verbal or otherwise) towards them is justified. It reminds me of Bill Cosby's comedic assertion that "I brought you into this world and I can take you out."
By gaining power over the crow, I was gaining power over my mother and the ability to give or withhold love, which is the power of life and death. I chose to withhold love by trapping and punishing the crow, a trajectory that ended in death and the realization that I did not want such power and that, truly, my mother did not want that power either. It was forced upon her by her circumstances, whether that is the cultural milieu she was raised in or the dictates of a particular religion/philosophy that she followed. As an adult now with my own children I can see there is no room for self-righteous judgement on my part, but only a growing realization that I am caught in many of the same traps as a parent and as an imperfect person. I can only keep trying harder to be more loving and humble, less self-centered and ego-driven. It is an awesome and terrifying task to participate in the forming of another human being. May we be worthy of it.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
My five year old niece is up on stage, black sequined and wearing a jaunty pillbox hat, doing the Rag Mop Shuffle. Two rows of little girls, only slightly in sync, wiggle with glee, trying not to bump into each other. It was bound to happen, during a turning movement, a girl stumbles and falls.
She sits there with a surprised look on her face, followed by a torrent of tears. A mother quickly detaches herself from the audience and hurries to the side stage where she meets the distraught child who has exited stage left.
My niece is the next to take a spill. The choreography requires them to lay down their mop props and jump over them. Instead, she lands on the mop pole and it promptly shoots out from under her, taking her legs with it and leaving nothing but air between the floor and her behind.
She bounces hard but never stops smiling, immediately finding her feet again, redoubling her efforts to finish the song.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Sunday, February 01, 2015
The memory flutters around the edges of my mind like a frightened bird desperate for escape.
It wasn't the punishment that pierced him so much as the look that accompanied it. The boy sat on his bed, chin on chest, while she yelled at him. His palms lay flat on the mattress and moved back and forth to smooth the sheets while his legs, which couldn't quite reach the floor, swung back and forth over the side of the bed. He had removed himself to another place to wait out the storm, but something pulled him back and made him look up. Something about the tone of her voice.
What the boy saw was a glimmer of hatred in his mother's eye, like a fleck of blood on a white wall.
He tried to emotionally disengage once again, but something held him fast. The firmness of his perch no longer felt so firm, replaced by the sensation of the ground beginning to open at his feet. Deep inside a dark space roiled with rage and fear. Flashes of red in the darkness outlined a bloody beak and cruel claws. A shiny black orb of malice hung suspended above him staring down in condemnation. And as quickly as it had come, the energy of that vision dissipated leaving him empty and feeling terribly alone as his mother retreated back upstairs.
The clouds had been consolidating over the course of the afternoon, patches of blue growing smaller and more spread out, forming a patchwork quilt of a sky. A cool wind blew in over the cornfields rustling the tassels, sweeping across the grassy field, wrapping itself around the house at the edge of town, and dispersing amongst the neighborhood streets. The boy sat on the wide sill of the front picture window oblivious to these movements of nature, knees pulled to his chest. From his perch he could see out over the neighborhood, between the houses and down the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of another boy or even another human being.
A black spot in the sky caught his attention, one of the few things in his field of vision actually moving. As it slowly grew in size the boy turned to face it, kneeling with his hands on the window. By the time he recognized it he was standing, hands on hips, waiting to see what it would do. A large crow swept in towards the multi-paned window beating its wings, fighting against the wind. The boy waved his arms up and down to try and scare the bird away. At the last possible moment it swooped upward and over the roof. He jumped down off the window sill and ran to the back sliding glass door, hurdling the coffee table and circumventing the dining room table, but not before whacking his big toe on a chair in the process.
The crow landed on the hand railing of the second story wooden deck. It pulled in its substantial wingspan and pranced in place for a moment or two testing its footing. The boy stood frozen in place, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in his toe. The crow looked huge at this close range. Its head cocked to one side, the black eye pierced the reflective surface of the glass door and fixed the boy in his place. He felt if not heard his heart pounding in his chest and the quick shallow breaths escaping his partially opened mouth.
"CAW!" cried the crow and the spell was broken. The boy broke free from his paralysis and disappeared back downstairs.
He lay on his bed in the semi-darkness with his electronic football game held close to his face. His right thumb quickly alternated between the direction buttons to advance the red blinking dot down the field before being tackled. For the next play he moved two slots upward and let fly the imagined football. Celebratory bleeping sounds signaled a touchdown as he dropped his hands down to his sides and stared at the gray ceiling.
He could not get the crow out of his mind. The boy had never been so close to something so fascinating yet so terrifying at the same time. He'd heard that seeing a crow meant that someone close to you would die. His mother's face flashed in his mind's eye and he quickly dismissed it with a pang of guilt. He'd also heard from his father that they were a nuisance to farmers, that they were dirty and ate dead animals. "There's nothing good about a crow," his father had assured him. His father had grown up on a farm and shot crows with a real gun. All the boy had was a bb gun and a slingshot that would not likely harm a crow, maybe just put out its eye if he got lucky.
That night his dreams transformed him into a rat scurrying through the maze of a cornfield. Something was crashing through the rows sending a flurry of blackbirds into the sky, their numbers beginning to block out the sun. The dirt beneath his rat paws was loose,making it difficult for him to gain traction. He felt the length of his hairless tail following behind him, making him vulnerable to capture. The pursuing presence drew closer and growing larger, it absorbed the birds into its blackness. He saw a blue patch of open sky down a row of corn and ran for it, now a boy again but only a few inches tall. As the cornstalks began to collapse next to him, he entered the open area at full speed and went over the edge of a drop off. For a moment he hung in space still pumping his arms and legs, cartoon-style. Below were tendrils of smoke coming up to meet him. Blackened flakes of burned newspaper floated all around as he began to free fall into a burning trash pit. He found his bed at the bottom, the sensation of a bounce, and sat up surrounded by the darkness of his room.
The next day the sky had cleared and the sun was shining down on the field below him. A neighbor was bush-hogging the field and waved up to the boy on the wooden deck, standing there with a half empty bag of Wonder Bread dangling at his side. While falling off to sleep the night before, the boy had hatched a plan to bring the crow back. His punishment had lapsed and he was no longer confined to the house. The tractor moved slowly, making wide lazy turns. The pungent smell of cut grass and weeds wafted up to him.
When the neighbor had finally driven off he ran down the deck stairs, across the driveway, and into the field. The bread was starting to grow stale with some flecks of mold on it. He'd fished it out of the trash earlier that morning and picked some of the green spots off of it to make it as white and appetizing as possible. A pleasant breeze continued to blow as he littered the ground with torn up bread bits. He glanced back over his shoulder at the high deck and hoped his mother wasn't watching him through the kitchen window. She would certainly yell at him for pulling things out of the trash or wasting food even though it had been thrown away. He seldom understood what upset her, but he knew it took very little to put him in her crosshairs.
Back up on the deck the boy sat with his legs dangling over the edge and his arms folded over the bottom railing, waiting. He noticed movement along the fence line between the grassy field and the cornfield that stretched off into the distance. At first he thought it was a dark brown dog, but it was too low to the ground and was moving in fits and starts. It raised its head to get a peek above the grass. The boy waved at it and yelled a greeting. It froze for a moment, weighing its options, then scrambled down a hole by a fence post. He realized he'd startled a groundhog, but at least, he imagined, it was now safe underground.
Clouds began to return overhead as the sun peaked in and out. The boy was growing impatient and crossed his legs to extend them outward for a stretch. He rubbed his eyes aggressively until blue flashes appeared and then resolved into blurriness. He thought he noticed some black specks in the field. When his vision completely cleared, he found that several birds had swept down and landed amongst his bread bits. The large crow was there snatching up the bread and bumping the smaller birds aside. He jumped up from his perch and ran down the stairs.
The boy snatched up a backpack from under the deck and headed for the small barn beside the house. Inside was a clutter of bikes, storage barrels, and a riding lawnmower with the smell of gasoline and rust hanging in the air. He jostled his bike free from the mess and pulled it past the wooden sliding door. The concrete pad at the barn entrance was elevated above the yard, grassy slopes on three sides. He crossed his left foot over his right and placed it firmly onto the bike pedal. With one deft movement he threw his right leg up and over the bike seat and rolled off the slight drop off onto the grass.
A furious pumping of legs propelled him over the grass and onto the gravel driveway. Loose gravel shot out behind him as he stood to pump the pedals, fishtailing until hitting the decline to the road. A small raised mound lay at the bottom and he hit it hard and fast. As the front tire made contact with the mound, he pushed his body down, then pulled up at its peak, willing the bike into the air. He felt free breaking the property line while airborne, like making a prison break.
He made his escape out of the neighborhood to a long stretch of road that bordered the West side of town. A ditch filled with tall grass and pieces of trash ran along a fence line. He pedaled slowly and kept his eyes glued on the ditch. A rabbit bolted past and startled him. The boy knew there were dogs in this area and memories of past encounters made him jumpy. A glint of green caught his eye and drew him into the ditch. He hopped off the bike and let it fall. Reaching down into the grass past a Marathon Bar wrapper, he picked up an empty 7UP bottle and brushed it off before putting it in the backpack. A little farther down it was a Big Red bottle, a favorite fuel source when his Mom did not make lunch in the summer months.
He was one bottle shy of what he needed and knew it would be tough to find another one as he had already gathered more than could reasonably be expected from this particular stretch of road. Up ahead of him a cloud of dust warned him that a car was coming and coming fast. The boy quickly steered his bike off of the road and, in his haste, fell over into the ditch. He sat up in time to see the car slow as it passed and a teenage boy poking his head out of the passenger's side window, "Merry Christmas, kid!" An empty RC bottle sailed through the air and landed at his feet as the car tore back off down the road leaving echoes of laughter behind.
The girl at the grocery store gave him ten cents per bottle. It was an erratic source of income, only really available in the warmer months, but one that came with no strings attached, no questions asked. He looked at the candy shelves and thought to reconsider his plan, swaying back and forth, lost in thought.
"You gettin' the fireballs, Aaron?" asked the girl standing at the cash register. Besides the lady running the deli counter in the back, she was the only other person in the small store.
He blushed, jingling the change in his pocket. "Nah, I'm on mission."
Her eyebrows rose slightly. "A mission? Something more important than candy?"
"Yeah, and it's secret. See ya, Nancy."
The hardware store was his next stop. It sat on the town square nestled between the shoe store and a diner. The diner was a stopping off spot for the Greyhound bus line which ran through town, picking up and dropping off strangers. It also happened to have malted milk shakes on the menu, the thought of which made his stomach growl and the dimes in his pocket burn a little hotter. He leaned his bike against a newspaper box and headed into the hardware.
The sound of his beat up hushpuppies clapped the marred floor boards and sent echoes through the empty store that smelled strongly of oil and sawdust. Somewhere in the back corner he found the mousetraps, but they were too small for his needs. He squatted down and bent his head sideways to look to the back of the lowest shelf. He reached back slowly, knowing it was silly to think a trap might snap tight on him but unable to shake the feeling. His hand closed around a larger piece of wood and he pulled out what he was looking for, a rat trap. It was huge compared to the mousetraps, cartoonish in its exaggerated proportions. He put his foot on the trap and pulled against the spring to see if he could even set it. The trap appeared to be trying to wriggle out of his grasp the harder he pulled, but he eventually got it all of the way open before releasing it with a loud *crack*.
The sound of shoes on stairs brought him to his feet. The store owner appeared, an elderly man with a crack-filled face but kind eyes. "Well, hello there young man. Are you finding what you're looking for?" The boy half held the trap at his back, reluctant to have it out in the open where his intentions might be guessed.
The owner did not wait for him to reply, "That's a mighty big trap. What kind of animal are you lookin' to catch?" His eyes popped up quickly to scan the man's face. Did he suspect something? Had he guessed his secret? What he saw was a bemused expression which assured him his secret was safe.
"Got some rats in our barn" the boy offered, not making eye contact.
"Well then, let's ring you out so you can go and catch them varmints." The boy followed him to the front where he laid out his handful of dimes on the counter. The owner drug the coins off of the counter top onto his palm and gave a little shake to spread them out and count them. "That'll about do it. Happy hunting."
He waited until his mother had left for her ceramics class, then snatched two bread slices from the bread box, wanting to get more but not wanting his mother to figure out he'd taken them without asking. He slid open the glass door and slowly approached the porch railing overlooking the field.
Time was starting to take on a different quality now. A peculiar feeling was overtaking him, like waking up from an afternoon nap slightly disoriented and not yet fully reconnected to the body. The initial plan had filled him with a kind of giddy excitement, but now that the pieces were falling into place he was not sure he could follow through with it. An uneasy feeling had crept in. Was it the falling into the ditch? The RC bottle flying through the air and nearly hitting him? The old man's cracked face and probing questions? Something was watching him and tracking his progress. He was sure of it. Stopping was an option, though it did not feel that way. It was inevitable that he descend the stairs, that he bait the trap with bread, that he carry it carefully into the field and place it gently on the grass. The boy was sure these were only thoughts in his head, but then he was shocked to find himself no longer on the deck. His vision hung above fingers breaking off bread pieces and dropping them onto the grass around the trap. He felt himself back away from it and as normal perceptions of time and space returned, he turned and ran as fast as he could back up to the deck, taking two steps at a time.
There was nothing more to do now but sit and wait.
It took longer for the birds to arrive this time or at least it seemed that way. Maybe it was the presence of the trap. They hungrily snatched up the bread bits, jostling each other as they had before until, on cue, the large crow landed in their midst and began eating what was left. When all of the bread was gone, the birds moved on, leaving the crow to contemplate the last remaining piece on the trap's trigger. It's head cocked left, then right, unsure of how to proceed. It circled the trap, eye locked on the big fluffy white piece at the trap's center. As the seconds ticked by the boy was sure the crow would fly off, content with the bread it had already eaten.
A sudden movement and then a flurry of activity startled the boy. He did not know what had happened, but the crow was thrashing its wings and appeared to be attached to the trap, dragging it. He could now see that it was caught by the neck and fighting to free itself. Excitement mixed with fear gripped the boy and held him tight. He watched from his far perch as the crow fought for its life, a small black dot swallowed by the vastness of the field.
The movements died down and eventually stopped. He approached the crow he presumed to be dead and nudged the trap with his foot. The exhausted crow gave a feeble twitch of a wing. Its eye no longer had the power to pierce the boy, but fell somewhere between them, afraid and confused. He walked back to the barn and returned with his BB gun. As he held it firmly between his legs and pumped the lever, a growing sense of nausea began to form in the pit of his stomach. At the tenth pump he rotated the gun downward and placed the end of the barrel against the crow's head. Tears began to burn in his eyes as he pulled the trigger, "I'm sorry."
She saw him sitting on the deck stairs as she pulled up the driveway, legs pulled in and head down on his skinny crossed arms. He looked so small and frail on those stairs suspended several feet above the ground. She sat for a moment taking in this sight of her son, wondering what he'd done. The familiar feeling of irritation started to rise, but then unexpectedly dissipated. She removed her oversized sunglasses as she exited the car and stood at the bottom of the stairs with a hand shielding her eyes from the sun like a lopsided salute.
"Are you OK, buddy?" She heard a sniff from him and thought she saw his shoulders tremble. "Come down here and let me have a look at you."
The calmness of her voice confused him. She should be angry and demanding an explanation. He looked up and saw a person that was unfamiliar, but in a pleasant way. He descended the stairs and stood below her, swaying back and forth. He allowed himself to fall forward and wrap his arms around her waist as he closed his eyes tight. "I love you, Mom."
"I love you too, Aaron. I'm sorry."
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Sitting inside a mobile container
Somewhere in the netherworld
Between work and home
A tri-colored light determining
My rate of progress
As rain coats my window
On a dreary world
Another vehicle pulls alongside
A blurry face turns sadly
In my direction, unseeing
We are lost in the desert of our hearts
In the wandering of our minds
Unable to connect
In these in between places
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
An e-mail to Jim Forest while I was in Iraq regarding something posted on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (OPF) listserve in regards to a lady’s comments about the slow seep of Orthodox views on peace into our modern American mentalities. The picture was taken at a bombed out track and field stadium on our base in Tikrit. I was able to get such a clear low light shot by using my rifle as a monopod, ie, putting the barrel in the ground and resting my camera on the flat butt.
5 December 2006
I really appreciated the lady from Alaska's posting on the OPF about our (converts in America) unfolding understanding of issues pertaining to peace and peace-making in the Orthodox Faith. It is something that has grown inside of me since that moment 10 years ago when I heard my priest explain to someone at an OCF retreat the Orthodox practice of requiring confession of a soldier who had killed in battle and prohibition from Communion for a time. It shocked me by just how much good sense it made and that it was not just a gloss over of "well, you did it in self-defense or for your country so it's alright" or even worse, "what you did was brave and commendable."
My commitment to the Army was made in these early stages of becoming Orthodox and I can't help but think I would have made a very different decision if only a few years later. As it is I gave my word to serve in the Army for a prescribed period of time and I plan to honor that. If I were required to "fight" or act in any way contrary to my calling as a physician and Orthodox Christian it would be a different story. So now I find myself away from my family and part of this war that I opposed from day one, when our President was first testing the waters and trying on different justifications to put us on the road to war in Iraq.
Something that really eats at me is the requirement that I carry a weapon around with me everywhere I go. Like in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" it is an albatross hanging around my neck continually reminding me of where I am and the decisions I've made to bring me here. One way I deal with it is by thinking of it as something other than a weapon. For example, I injured my knee before deploying and it has given me trouble so that I use my rifle to get up and down from my chair at the chow hall, like a crutch. I also sometimes have to navigate across a large graveled lot with various barriers and vehicles in almost pitch black darkness. I swing my rifle back and forth in front of me like a blind man's cane to keep from running into things. In this way I have tried to turn something as ludicrous as a doctor carrying an M16 into something helpful, if not equally absurd.
I distilled all of this into a poem, "Anticipating the Kingdom?"
And in the Kingdom of God
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
And the lion shall lay down with the lamb
But in the kingdom of Man
Munitions plow the earth violently
And the eagle strikes down the weak.
In the kingdom of me
A rifle functions as a crutch for my sore knee
And a blind man’s cane when walking at night
In doing no harm
Am I at least
Anticipating the Kingdom?
Saturday, January 03, 2015
It was a thing of beauty
my ten year old
at the foul line
two sharp dribbles
and a pause
right arm perpendicular
to the ground
left hand resting lightly
on the side of the ball
a fluid movement
to full extension
a flick of the wrist
ball rotating backwards
in an exquisite arc
nestling into the net
like a baby
in its mother's arms