Chapter 7

Saturday morning, Harper woke gently with a smile on her lips. She wasn’t even sure why at first. Why this lightness in her chest? The realization came slowly that her conversation with Blaise last night fed her in some deep way. She had longed for real friendship for years, but the distance and sadness that was a growing part of her life experience had sapped her of hope that things would ever be any different. She suspected agendas, always—even well-meaning ones, and so it seemed easier to continue to insulate herself from any attempt of others to get in. But for the first time in a long time, she felt like she had had a real conversation—a conversation that just existed in its own right in a singular moment. Nothing strained or constrained. It felt a bit like being in a lovely bubble, however temporary it surely must be. And she would never have admitted it to Blaise, but his passing comment about his being celibate had done much to enable her to let some of her defensiveness down. She was in no way looking for a new partner, but friendship? Yes. Real friendship would possibly fill a void. And that made her smile.

Clutch nuzzled her arm by the side of the bed. She gave him a pat on the head which was enough comfort to cause him to slide down onto the mat for another few winks. Harper, too, nestled back into her soft pillow and watched the replay of last night’s conversation in her head.

“So, when did you enter the monastery, and how long did you live in there, and what would have led you to make such a decision? Sorry that sounded critical. And what did you do there? I mean, is it similar to movies, with vespers and times of silence and such?” Blaise chewed slowly, his eyes smiling. “Sorry. That twenty questions format must sound like a grilling! Forgive me. I’ll take a breath . . . and a bite.”

“No, indeed. It is a rather unique experience and probably not one on most people’s radar, even fellow believers. Let’s see: I entered the monastery when I was twenty-three, and given that I have been out for two years, if you do the math, you will figure out what a middle-aged monk-man I really am.” He took another bite and chewed slowly. He seemed perfectly comfortable with the silences; and surprisingly, at that moment, so was she. “It was a wonderful healing and growing time for me. The disciplines of daily life, the intense study in the Word and philosophy, and the patterns of devotion did much to quiet my spirit. The skills we learned and the products we made developed a methodism in me that has stuck. Before that time, I meant well, I guess, but my passions were all over the place. I was kind of like Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows, always chasing a new mania. I lacked direction and maturity in matters of faith, as well as just plain old living issues; and though it was not what I intended, I ended up hurting a lot of people.”

“What did your mom and dad think of your leaving to go live in a monastery? Are they still alive?”

“That’s twenty-one questions, Harper. Or maybe even twenty-five!” He pretended to be offended, but it didn’t sell.

“Oops, sorry.”

Blaise gazed off to a corner of the room for a moment, then met her eyes once again. “My dad passed away when I was fifteen. Leukemia. My mom is still with me, living in a board and care in the northern part of the state. She has really diminished mentally, even though I think she could probably still arm wrestle me and win. When I left for Switzerland, she was sad, but still behind me one hundred percent. She has always been supportive, even of some of my craziest schemes.”

“Like what crazy?”

“We don’t know each other well enough to become that vulnerable.” He teased. “I will say though that one such venture amounted to evangelical hitchhiking and almost got me killed. I’m sure my praying mother kept me out of many dark places.”

Blaise shifted slightly in his chair. “Though not all.”

Harper caught a hint of the shadow that crossed his face. “But that is a story for another time.”

“We all have stories, right?”

“Yes. Now your turn. What is some of your story?” It was Harper’s turn to feel a little uncomfortable. She was not ready to open up too much about the things that mattered most. “What is something interesting in your backstory. I am assuming it is not a Protestant convent, right?”

“No, though that might have kept me from some of my moments of extreme stupid. I am starting to hold the opinion that kids should be cloistered away from the teen years on through college years—possibly drugged. Then at thirty, wise people could inject the sleepers with all the skills and knowledge to be responsible thirty somethings. That way we could avoid all the disastrous mistakes made in the teens and twenties and just go from pubescent awkward cuteness to responsible adult.”

“That kind of negates the idea that we learn from doing, and quite often our best learning comes from mistakes, those times of stupid, as you call them. Don’t you think?”

“Well, there is that. That is if we survive them. But I still sometimes have flashbacks that cause me embarrassment to this day. And I have to wonder if other people remember my antics the same way. I, too, have a hitchhiking story! And then there were the purple hot pants and the Jesus patches on my jeans in rather awkward places.”

“Okay, now you are scaring me. We might not be able to be friends after all.” They both laughed out loud.

They finished the food and cleaned up, exchanging anecdotes. The safe ones. It was 10 p.m. when Harper locked up and they said their goodbyes. Blaise followed her beat up Honda home in his Chevy pickup. He honked lightly as soon as he saw she was safely inside.

Harper opened her eyes again and sighed at the memory of it all. She felt that in some way she was turning a corner—an emotional one, at least. She rose quietly, stepping carefully over Clutch who was still dead to the world. She pulled on her robe and headed to the kitchen to make coffee.

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Chapter 6

She woke with the sun the next morning. In November, that was a little late for her typical routine. She had forgotten to set an alarm, so she skipped the walking the dog thing, skipped the breakfast thing, and opted for a quick green smoothie to drink while she dressed. She decided not to walk to work. It wasn’t really far, and Harper knew she should be walking it everyday to ensure at least a bit of exercise; but when running late, well . . . it was not the time to do an heroic speed walk.

The morning zipped by pretty quickly with cleaning and sorting chores and a few customers. Not many sales, but at least she was getting some foot traffic that bode well for the upcoming holiday gift giving cycle. She hadn’t had time in the morning to make a lunch so she munched a protein bar she found in her desk with black coffee. No almond creamer. Mark that on the list. Harper figured if she had to have coffee without creamer and sweetener on a regular basis, she could easily add it to the long list of contraband food items she had already given up.

By 4:30, she was really starting to feel hungry, given her lean fare for the day. The door jingled and in walked Blaise. Right on schedule. At least his. She had kind of wished he would have forgotten about the promised Friday deadline because she still had no clue whether she wanted this new adventure he was proposing.

“Afternoon, Harper.” He smiled his big toothy smile.

“Hello. Nice to see you.” Harper winced inside. She hoped not on outside. She hated being dishonest, and she had no idea whether it was nice to see him or not. She suspected that seeing a friend, if indeed he was becoming that, was a positive. But she didn’t know him well enough not to suspect his intentions or his evangelism plans. The idea that some type of evangelism might include her and not just the room made her reticent to let down her guard totally.

“I come bearing gifts.” The rich smells coming from the sack in his hands made her mouth water. She had no idea what it was, but it definitely was food. “I mentioned we could go out to eat, but I decided to bring something in, if that’s okay?”

“Is that so I can’t make an excuse about an errand I have to go on?” He shrugged playfully. She found herself smiling and loosening up just a bit. “You do know I’m vegan, so if there is dead cow in there, I am leaving for bean burritos.”

He smiled. “I did know that. I think you mentioned it. So, I bought some entrées from the little vegan café down the boulevard. I have no idea what is in them or if they are good; but just in case, I also brought a couple of orders of In-N-Out fries.” He seemed very pleased with himself—not in a cocky way, but in the same way a five-year-old beams when he shows you his polished rock. It was endearing in a scary kind of way.

“All right, sold. I’m starving! You can talk, and I will eat.” Harper pulled a couple of foldable chairs up to one of her small work tables. Eating in the stuffed armchairs by the coffee machine was out of the question since if they did not impede digestion, they would certainly make it difficult to get up after a meal. “I haven’t had a chance to check out that café; they only opened last month. Any clues as to the ingredients?”

“Sorry, I didn’t read the menu that closely. I just asked for the house special, which I think is called after the owner’s name, which might be Indian or Pakistani. They both have roasted vegies in them, and I think some kind of faux meat made out of tofu or jackfruit. The seasonings on this one are Mediterranean, and this wrap is Mexican. Preference?”

“How about we cut them in half and sample each?” I’ll get a knife.

“Great!”

Harper and Blaise ate in relative silence for the first few minutes. The food tasted so good Harper forgot that her overall plan was to be wary and distant. It was hard to feel distant with Blaise because he always seemed so warm . . . and dare she say, genuine.

“So how long have you been a vegan?” Blaise asked between bites of vegan wrap and fries.

“It’s been almost ten years, I think. I was kind of a wannabe vegan for a couple of years. But then, one day I just decided that I was done with eating meat, and I haven’t looked back. I must admit I have transgressed occasionally with some dairy and eggs, usually in the form of a cream cheese frosted cupcake or decadent chocolate. But for the most part, I stick pretty rigidly to plant-based eating 99% of the time. It’s really not hard anymore.”

“At the monastery, the diet was vegetarian. We made some pretty outstanding goat cheeses, so it would have been hard not to eat . . .”

“At the what? Did you say monastery?” Harper tried not to talk with her mouth full, but that revelation was jaw dropping—bite of jackfruit wrap or not.

“Oh, you know, I don’t think I mentioned that when we spoke last. Ava had queried me about my background, so I must have told her.”

“No, I think I would have remembered that fact! Wow, so what’s the story? Are we talking monastery with tonsures and robes and chants and the like?”

Blaise laughed out loud. “I know this must sound really out there to you. Tonsures were more an Eastern Orthodox and Catholic thing. Our monastery was more into ponytails.” And at that he swung his generous one around. “The monastery I belonged to was—or is—a Protestant one.”

“I had no idea there was such a thing.”

“Yes, it was fashioned after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s seminary that he formed to teach pastor’s during World War II. Are you familiar with Bonhoeffer?”

“Absolutely. I have read his biography and a couple of his books. I have great admiration for him. Where is this monastery?”

“The one to which I belonged was a small one in Switzerland. We did in fact wear robes, especially on cold winter days.” He smiled. “And we did have some chanting going on. The commitment of the brothers was to learn and grow in faith, to be industrious with our hands—hence, the goat cheese—and to engage in evangelism and missionary work. Some Protestant monasteries allowed for monks to marry, but ours was a small community of brothers committed to the monastery’s overall goals, as well as to celibacy. That is more than you probably wanted to know, right?”

Harper took a deep breath. “I guess I am just shocked.”

“That I would have been a monk?” He smiled with a sly grin.

“No, it’s just that I had no idea there were Protestant monasteries. Well . . . yeah, you being a monk, too. You don’t exactly look the monk type, but given I have not known many monks, I am probably ignorant as to what a “type” would look like.”

Any discussion about the back room got tabled as Harper peppered Blaise with details about his history. They ate and laughed, not even noticing that the sun had set and the streetlights had turned on.

 

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Chapter 5

By Thursday night, Harper realized she had not given much serious thought to the idea of hosting a “church” in her shop. It wasn’t that she was so run off her feet she didn’t have time; though, there had been a few extra homeschool groups that had booked afternoons for story time and browsing that week. But it was more that she actively pushed it into a “Do Not Disturb” box in her brain. Was it that complicated a request? No. But anything out of the boring, well-worn pathways of existence of late seemed a threat to her.

After a simple supper of baked potato and salad, she settled down to read in front of the fire. There was no wood smell or crackling embers with the gas lit fireplace, but the ambiance was still there with a cozy chair, a warm room, and a faithful dog at her feet who twitched repeatedly chasing critters in his dreams from long gone exploits. It was hard to concentrate on the heavy philosophy material she had chosen, and she let her mind wander into the pros and cons area of Blaise’s pitch. Cons: There were liability issues. She would have to consult her insurance. She had no idea what form the gathering meeting thing would take, and she knew snake handlers and a lot of whooping and hollering would definitely be off her list; though, Blaise hardly seemed the type to lead that kind of meeting. But trust was a low commodity in her these days; you just never knew people, really. Blaise presented as warm and friendly. But trustworthy? How could she know. Would there be theft issues? I guess depending on the clientele. She would make ingress and egress through the back door so the hordes would not have to traipse through the book area. What would she be expected to do? Attend? No. Run security? No. Hover in the front to be sure everything was okay? Maybe. But giving up an evening or two to hover did not seem a fun prospect. She would have to trust Blaise with a key. But did she? The list of cons was growing. Pros: It would bring in a bit more income. Hmm.

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Chapter 4

Harper felt the brush of Graham’s lips on her forehead. He never wanted to wake her before he left for his run, but the soft kiss was his goodbye. Though she never opened her eyes, as a light sleeper, she was fully aware. It was this ritual they did every morning.

And it was every single morning.

Graham was faithful to get his run in, come rain or sunshine, cold or heat. To him, it was a kind of sacrament, not just an exercise routine; but she assumed there had to be some of the endorphin thing happening that made this such a pleasure for him. Harper had never run hard enough nor long enough to verify there ever was such a thing as a runner’s high. That kind of exertion was always just plain work, dull sweaty work. And besides that, she was not exactly a morning person. She hardly felt human till about 8, and then only if she had had some strong coffee. The times she enjoyed exercise was if it happened to be a byproduct of some other singular pleasure, like taking a hike in a beautiful place so you could photograph, or the game and relational aspect of playing something like racquetball or volleyball. Though those sports were long gone since the cross-lateral motion started affecting her knees. For Harper, a walk where you actually needed to get from point A to point B was mostly the exercise she got, with occasional swims thrown in at the club. Walking botanical gardens or the beach with her camera was also exercise, but the pleasure of the moment outweighed any physical benefit she imagined she was receiving.

Graham had always been devoted to physical fitness. Not in a narcissistic way: It was how his mind and body approached living—with vigor and consistency. So, this run accomplished his aerobic goals, but not just that. Over the years, it had become his communion time with God. Alone in the early morning with the steady beat of his shoes on the pavement, he talked to God about things that were going on in his life. He interceded for family and friends and other needs that had made it onto his long prayer list. It was five miles of praying and listening that fueled his relationship with God and his passion for service and evangelism. For years, he had worked in the tech industry; but after a big lay off, he reevaluated what he was doing with his life and felt led to go to work for a non-profit that helped set up tech services, radio, cell phone, Internet access, in underserved regions of the States, and even other places in the world. It was rewarding work, and he had never been happier.

Harper rolled over and snuggled down into the covers to catch some more sleep. She didn’t hear her cell phone ring because it was downstairs in her purse. It was the sharp knock at the door that startled her awake. She jumped up, pulled on her robe, and headed downstairs. Peeking out the peep hole, she saw two police officers, so she quickly opened the door.

“Hello. Can I help you?”

“Are you Harper Carville, ma’am?”

“I am; what’s . . .”

The officer consulted his notes and spoke quickly. “Your husband Graham Carville has been transported by ambulance to St. Mary’s. He apparently collapsed.”

“He what!” The words were hitting her like a slap in the face. “Is he okay?”

“I don’t know ma’am. Witnesses said he lost consciousness briefly, but he was awake when he was transported. He gave us your number and address. We tried your phone but got no answer. You will have to ask your doctor and husband for more information. Do you have a ride to the hospital?”

“Yes, absolutely. I can drive. Thank you so much for telling me.” She thought she could drive, but breathing seemed more of a problem at the moment.

“Good day, Ms. Carville.”

Harper closed the door softly. Stunned. Then the adrenalin kicked in. She ran upstairs, threw on some jeans and a blouse, grabbed her purse and keys and headed out to the hospital.

She wasn’t really sure how she made all the right turns, but she found the place. Her mind was racing, palms sweaty as she ran in the Emergency Room entrance. Her prayers were not very articulate—mostly “Help, Lord” and other groans and utterings she believed only the Spirit could interpret. A blur of words and motion.

Harper opened her eyes suddenly to the same ceiling she had looked at for the last five years. She had been crying in her sleep. Early on, the dream used to play every night as if on a loop. Over and over and over again. All the details of that first day when everything changed were emblazoned in her mind. Over the years, the memory, though still there unfaded, did not plague her in the night as it once did. But here it was again in vivid color. The pain was still there, and she wondered if she would ever be free of it.

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Chapter 3

Mondays were typically pretty slow, but this was turning out to be a particularly slow Monday, so slow, in fact, that the bell over the door remained silent till she turned the Closed sign around at noon. Harper often ate in the store, but getting out and breathing some different air sounded like a good idea. She had a few grocery items to pick up anyway, so she headed to the small local market. And besides, it would be good to stretch her legs for a bit. There was a coffee shop inside the store, and she did her shopping then grabbed an anemic looking vegan sandwich and a soy latté.

The market coffee shop did not have the ambiance of a regular one. Maybe it was the sticky, well-used ‘60s pink / orange plastic chairs and tables and its location next to Customer Aisle #1 for 10 items or less that spoiled it. That always bugged her. The “less” bit. The sign should have read 10 items or fewer, but that grammar item was not going to be amended any time soon. It was probably useless, but Harper pulled out her notepad as she munched her tomato and wilted lettuce nothing-sandwich, hoping to jot down a few ideas for her novel project or short story, depending how long her inspiration would last. She had started it before Graham got sick. It wasn’t really one of those bucket list kinds of things. It was just something she had always wondered about—if her love of language could ever form itself into something concrete that would matter. When Graham died, she felt that any story had died with him. It was only recently that the words had begun to percolate again—a little. So, bit by bit, scrap by scrap, she had been collecting thoughts and sketches, but she still felt unsure that she had anything to say.

Noise and light, grinding coffee, rustling bags, and clanging carts did nothing for her concentration. She was easily distracted—always had been. By external noise and the noises in her head. But this. This was too much. She had partially cured her mind-wandering by reading text really fast and using a finger as a guide. But no speed reading or fingering aided in the actual creation of words, especially when a loud coffee shop customer ordering a coffee and lemon bread pushed his salon business to the barista with “Enter a princess; leave a queen!” It was actually a pretty good line. He strongly insisted that he would be refining perfection! Of course, he made Harper no such offer. She wrote the phrase down in her notebook, thinking she might use it sometime. Maybe.

She sipped her latté to the rhythm of musak, no distinguishable words, just a never-ending bass and drumbeat pulsing with the florescent lights. But after only a few minutes, she chucked the half-eaten sandwich, dropped the paper cup in the recycling container, and headed back to the store.

She stored her perishables in the small office fridge then set about rearranging Travel and Tourism. There wasn’t much stock in that section since it was not something that interested her, so she felt that expanding the Cooking section would probably be a better use of space. Around her feet were strewn pastry cookbooks, plant-based eating guides, and vegan books for dummies or idiots or all such nonsense. The food section reflected her distinct bias in healthy eating. Probably why she didn’t make many sales. She barely heard the bell with all her stacking and clattering; but in looking up, she spotted Blaise standing at the candy counter. She extricated herself from the towers she had been building.

“I brought you some jawbreakers, chocolate almonds, and gummy bears for your empty candy thingy,” he smiled, holding out a paper sack.

“Really? You shouldn’t have.”

“Oh, it was the least I could do after stealing your coffee and not purchasing anything.”

“No, I mean, you really shouldn’t have! At least not the chocolate. Gummy bears aren’t vegan (They aren’t even edible!), so they aren’t a temptation; and jawbreakers, well, who even . . . But chocolate! And nuts! Even if it is milk chocolate, I’m afraid I would have no resistance. Thanks, but no thank you. Maybe I should just get some fake plastic candies to put in there if you think the emptiness is so unappealing, Willy Wonka.” She smiled. A real smile. It felt like she hadn’t smiled in such a long time—the kind of smile that fills you up and settles into your bones. Most of her greeting customer smiles stopped at the teeth and jaw.

“Not unappealing, just empty.” He smiled, too. “Actually, I have an ulterior motive for trying to bribe you with treats.”

And there it was in a moment, the tension, the hesitation. Not knowing what was coming next, Harper found herself stiffening from the inside out. Her smile was gone. This was like recurring PTSD for widows to think behind every person was something suspect.

Blaise carried on speaking. Whether he noticed the change, she didn’t know, but he acted as if everything was normal—whatever normal meant these days. “I noticed you have a large room in the back of the store, and I was wondering if it gets used at all?”

Her back relaxed just a bit. “Well, we used to have a book club that met there once a week, but I think the only thing that would ever fill it up now would be a movie night. There doesn’t seem to be as much interest in reading literature any more, let alone discussing it. Why do you ask?” She looked down and made busy with her hands, sorting some invoices that had previously been organized into a neat pile.

“I’ve been looking for a small gathering place in which to start a church.”

“A what?”

He smiled once again. “A church. A small gathering of Christian believers. It would be after store hours, so we would not disturb your customers.”

“How many people are we talking about?”

“Well, that’s just it. I really don’t have a congregation per se. I don’t mean this to sound really weird . . . okay, it just might. But I moved to Shiloh because I felt called to plant a church here. Not a big institutionalized thing, but a small group of believers who can experience genuine community, grow together as friends, and consequently influence their neighbors and friends with the love that Christ has for them. Okay, that was a mouthful, I know.”

“Yeah, that was.” She felt like more of a response was needed, but no words came. She just stood there wondering who this alien was who had come to form a “community.”

“Your friend Ava mentioned that you were a Christian, so I thought maybe you might be open to the possibility. I would pay you rent, of course. And I would clean up after. What do you think? I mean, I don’t need an answer right now, but would you think about it?”
Harper still felt mildly uncomfortable, but Blaise’s forthright manner seemed disarming.

“Well, I don’t know if you noticed, but there are quite a few churches here in town already. With pretty sizable memberships. Where do you plan on getting your crowd from?”

“Again, I know this sounds a bit weird, but I am trusting the Lord to bring the people He knows need what will be offered. I don’t plan on stealing sheep,” he said, his blue eyes sparkling with a kind of mystery, “but I’m just remaining open to invite any and all who cross my path as I feel led. Does any of this make any sense?”

“Kind of, but I have to be honest with you. I will not be parishioner #1. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I am kind of done with church.”

“I understand. Ava hinted that you were close to reprobate status.” Again, the smile. It was hard to tell if he was as transparent as he appeared or just really good at faking.

“I’m sure Ava hinted at much more than that, but enough said. No, I don’t think you do understand, but that’s okay. I will think about your request and what would be a fair price for the rent if I decide to let you plant your thing. But I will have to get back to you. So, in the meantime, you can go about rounding up your unsuspecting flock.”

Blaise searched her face to see if she was joking. She smiled to let him off the hook, but there was a sharpness in her words that surprised even her. But she didn’t want to expose any wounds to a perfect stranger, even one who had brought in chocolate.

“Great!” Blaise headed for the door. “That’s all I ask. Today is Monday, so how about I drop by, say, Friday, to see what you’re thinking. Does that give you enough time?”

“Probably . . . maybe. I will think about it.”

“Then we can discuss it over coffee or maybe even a bite to eat, if that is okay.”

Blaise exited with a “See ya” and left Harper standing alone.

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Chapter 2

Harper had just turned the coffee maker on and set water to boil for tea when the soft sound of the bell jingled above the door. She had found the tarnished brass bell at the local antique mall. It was not high tech, of course, but it reminded her of the bell at the general store in the farm area where she grew up and the ice cream shop in town. It was something that hearkened back to simpler, kinder days. They probably weren’t—simpler, that is—but in her memory they were. The gentleman that entered was browsing the “Last Chance” used bin by the front door. He was tall with salt and cayenne pepper hair tied back in a ponytail. It was not one of those wimpy apologetic ponytails that make excuses for the thin crop on top. He appeared to have more hair on top than even she did.

“Can I help you find something, or are you just hunting for treasure?”

He smiled. “Are you the owner of this fair establishment or the captain of the ship?”

“Both, I guess. At least, I pay the mortgage here.” She slid in behind her candy counter—another antique mall acquisition.

The man eyed the counter with a mix of curiosity and humor. Well, it doesn’t look like you have any jawbreakers or gumballs, so Mark Twain may have to do.”

“I’m afraid nostalgia got the better of me with this piece. I am a sucker for antiquated things that seem hungry for a place to belong, whether they fit in or not. And I confess I paid much more than it was worth. But it may not be a bad idea to outfit the bins here with a few sweets. I will keep that in mind on my next trek to the grocery outlet. But Twain. That I can help you with.”

“Maybe and maybe not. I am looking for one of his lesser known works—at least, it was not known to me until just recently.”

“What is the name?” She edged out from behind the counter and moved toward the T’s in novels.

“It is the story of Joan of Arc. I’m not sure of the exact title.”

“Ah, yes, I am familiar with it. It’s called Joan of Arc.” She smiled. “I know I have none in the new section, but it seems to me I spotted one in the used section a while back. I almost discarded it because the cover had been torn off, and its previous owner had underlined much of the text. I don’t always like to read something in which another reader has felt the liberty to tell me what is important. But I did not have the heart to discard such a wonderful story.” Harper eyed the shelves, finger extended. “I’m not seeing it. Let’s look closer in the bin you were browsing up front. It might be in there.”

Harper led the way just as the front door opened wide. Ava flounced in as she always did, confident and floral, in both color and smell. She was what Harper called a lowercase f friend, if a friend at all. To be honest, she had stuck by her when so many had fallen away, but there were times that Harper wished she had not stuck. She most often caused more pain than pleasure. “Good morning, Ava. What can I help you with?”

“Oh, just popping by. Who’s your friend here? Introduce me.” She winked in a conspiratorial way that made Harper want to excuse herself to go clean toilets.

“I would, but I am afraid I do not know this gentleman’s name. We were barely on speaking terms with Twain.”

“It is nice to meet you. My name is Blaise Breton. And you are?” He reached out his hand obviously unaware of the icicles forming in the room—or maybe that was only Harper’s gift to fully embrace the awkwardness of any moment.

“Ava. Ava-Gardner with a hyphen! My name is actually Ava-Gardner Welter. My mother was such a fan of the starlets that she hyphenated my first and second name so it would forever remind her of the golden age of Hollywood. I most often just go by Ava, but it is just so fun to have a story to tell when you meet a new person. Breaks the ice, don’t you think?” She swung her Lady Clairol brown hair over her shoulder.

“Absolutely. Makes me sad that my parents had not had Pascal as a last name. That would have made for some unique introductions, as well?” The philosopher reference was lost on Ava whose literary diet consisted of romantic fiction, albeit religious romance.  She twirled the Blaise person to the overstuffed chairs by the coffee maker and proceeded to educate the gentleman on all things gossip.

Harper turned quietly away and fingered the worn books in the bin, looking for Joan of Arc. The book was not there, so she took her place behind the candy counter and sipped her now cold cup of coffee. Not that cold mattered. She tasted nothing but the irritation welling up in her throat. Ava was her last remaining contact with her old church. It had been a traditional Baptist at one point, but in the 90s had changed its name to “The Gathering Place for the Faithful.” Kind of long for the sign out front. The unfaithful and tarnished must have met somewhere else because the church had pretty much remained unchanged except for the addition of a few guitars and a drum set. Then there were the coffee and donuts—a fellowship must for the relevant church. But the judging was the same as were the immovable doctrines. And though Ava had stuck with her through some hard times, Harper couldn’t help but feel like to Ava she was more a project than a friend. At times, the project was defined by matchmaking, when it was someone Ava was not interested in; other times, it was conversion therapy to create from a melancholy poetic soul a gregarious party animal. Then, depending on where Ava was in her cyclical dieting, the project was to convert her from organic health food to burgers, fries, and Oreo shakes.

After a few moments, the gentleman extricated himself from what oftentimes felt like a swallowing chair and made his way to the front of the store, Ava trailing behind in words and scent. “Did you happen to find that Twain tome?”

“Nice alliteration, but no, I’m sorry. I could order it for you if you like.”

“No, that’s okay. But thanks anyway. You have a very nice shop.”

“Yes, it is a nice shop, Blaise. Old, but nice,” Ava purred. “It keeps her occupied since her husband died. Can I show you around the rest of this quaint downtown section here?” Blaise hesitated briefly, but Ava was pushy enough that to resist her one would almost have to be rude. “He just moved here, Harp,” Ava announced over her shoulder. The duo, Blaise in tow, exited the front door and disappeared from view.

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Chapter 1

Her words hung in the air, frozen blue, like a Paul Bunyan winter. They did not reach their target; in fact, they barely made lift-off from her brain, let alone her mouth. It was always the way of things. Every defense in her mind was perfectly honed—made perfect sense. But somewhere between grey matter and blue air, the words muddled dyslexic, padded by emotion and propelled by uncontrolled necessity. And there they hung. Frozen in the air.

Harper’s need to maintain image trumped her desire to win, and so time and again, she swallowed hard and walked away, always with regret for not having defeated her foe with perfect syllogisms. Of course, her faith had a lot to do with that—her lack of will to slice and dice. But there were times she would have given anything for a whip and the will to overthrow a few temple tables.

People thought she was kind. Controlled. A living testimony, even if somewhat misguided. But couldn’t even kind people show a little temper when belittled and betrayed?

Harper pulled down the shades to the shop and struggled as she always did to key the sticky deadbolt into place. The sun had not set, but the deep orographic blanket hanging over the neighboring hills made the valley appear darker than it should have been. She was starting to regret her decision to walk in to work. There was a nip in the air, and it would indeed be dark by the time she got home; but then again, she needed this four-block stew to work out her feelings toward Ava and the confrontation she had just had—or kind of had—over tea and Dostoevsky.

The bookstore was supposed to have been this romantic retirement adventure—somewhere between the ambiance of The Never-Ending Story and Murder She Wrote. Granted the coast was two hours away, and there were no luck dragons that she knew of, so both visions fell short there. But opening a quaint shop in a revitalized downtown was supposed to have been a way to fund a modest retirement, keep her mind stimulated, and fill the need for conversation and community. She was running a deficit; she barely had time to read after ringing sales and doing maintenance on the decaying property; and if community consisted primarily of narcissists, the needy, and Neanderthals, then finding a hermitage or a silent retreat center was beginning to seem a much better solution for her retirement reverie.

She pulled her sweater tighter around her as she walked. Shops were closing up, but the cafés and bars were just getting started. Customers appeared almost out of nowhere, like snakes waking from the day’s sleep, anxious for prey. It would be the same old mating rituals of drinking and dancing, shallow laughing and hoping. Harper had tried that charade a few years after Graham had died, but it was a short-lived foray into a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable world. It wasn’t any better at church since folks figured enough time had passed for them to start dropping big romantic hints and doing some accidental matchmaking. She wanted none of it.

She was having enough trouble sorting out doctrinal differences and the meaning of life—and death—let alone warding off Christian Cupids intent on resurrecting her supposed pathetic little life. She had not missed it.

All the twinkle lights in the trees of the boulevard and the music and laughter faded as Harper made the last turn toward her duplex. She had not felt safe off the boulevard in this part of town, but after two years of wearing the paved path toward home, she had come to feel invisible—and comfortable enough to stop cross-examining every bush and alley.

Light fell on the sidewalk long before she approached her door. A motion detector light had seemed a good idea, and it was tonight. But every bird and leaf blowing in the wind also set it off so that her front yard seemed to be one constant light show. She made a mental note to go to Home Depot and see what else might be available.

“I’m home . . . and I have my baseball bat and my 6’6” buff friend with me!”

This had become her entry ritual just in case a bad person was hiding in the closet. At first, it made some kind of sense in her mind. She had been married for thirty-five years to her lover and bodyguard. But when she found herself alone, for the first time in a lifetime, she felt vulnerable. She had, of course, been vulnerable before Graham—as a worldly-wise twenty-something. But she just didn’t know it then.

When she first started living alone, she would come in with her keys in attack position. She would check every room and closet like an FBI agent. Once she had even opened the crawl space to look in the attic. What would have happened had there been an intruder there, she didn’t know. But since she had not been murdered yet, she figured she could act a little less paranoid. Her announcement was probably enough. And of course, there was the dog …

Harper set her purse down on top of the pile of circulars that had arrived by way of the mail slot in the door. Not many folks used that anymore, but nostalgia not only always seemed to get the better of her, but it seemed much more secure than a box perched on the porch, which was still common in this part of town. Not that security was an issue for unsolicited political ads and grocery store circulars. She rarely got anything personal or important any more. She did all her banking and bill paying on-line; and since Facebook, no one sent birthday cards anymore, including her—though she had fought it for a year or so. Occasionally, she got postcards, but they usually ended up being reminders of dental appointments.

Clutch raised himself in a slow, painful greeting from his rug in front of the couch. At the age of twelve, he was not exactly a watchdog anymore. He could have slept through anything from earthquakes to social unrest. When they had rescued this Australian shepherd and lab mix, he looked about five in dog years with the wisdom of about sixty human years. He seemed to have a built-in ability to understand his master-servants’ moods and what they needed. He had been abused, but immediately recognized that with Harper and Graham, he had found a real home. Harper had wanted to call him Macbeth, but Graham insisted that they avoid psychotic, Shakespearean villains for something more standard. Not one to give in so easily, Harper decided Clutch would fit the bill. Though he was the “family dog,” from that day on, he had really belonged to her.

She scratched behind his ears. “You are such a good ole boy!” The scratch was followed by a vigorous rub down, and then a full-bodied lean on Clutch’s part. This was the ritual and then back to the rug to await preparation of mushy dog food, laced with green beans and sweet potato, warmed to perfection in the microwave. It was a charmed life—well deserved after years of faithful companionship.

Harper warmed up a pan of golden tea—organic soy milk heavy on the turmeric—and poured herself a mug. She plopped into the plaid overstuffed chair that was sadly losing its stuffing and watched Clutch eat as she sipped the soothing liquid. Turmeric was supposed to be anti-inflammatory; but so far, she was not seeing any change in the aching that creeped joint by joint through her body. When she had mentioned the aches in passing to a customer about her same age, the lady had said, “Ah, this too shall pass.” Problem: That pithy little maxim only applies to the things that do—pass, that is—and not the myriad things that don’t. The spandex and fitness club tee shirt should have been a dead giveaway that the lady may have loved books, but she obviously had no sympathy for bibliophiles who were sedentary non-Paleos.

Harper intentionally opened up her left hand, which so often stayed clenched these days; her body started to relax a bit, and her mind wandered. The diagnosis was quick; the death quicker. She had not wanted a plot burial with the embalming and all of that. The plastic face and pink lips. The perfect hair. She had wanted a simple service with cremation. An engraved, wooden urn to be kept in the closet, close but out of sight. It was what Graham would have wanted, too, she felt sure, though they had never really talked about it. Family pressure and politics being what they were, she had caved to the wishes of his mom and siblings. She also had caved to the transporting of his body back to Iowa to be buried alongside a whole patchwork of dead Carvilles, marble headstone upon marble headstone, row upon row. He was now laid close to his dad’s plot, and that is probably as close as they ever had been or wanted to be in this world. Perhaps heaven and grace would solve their many differences; but in this world, belief in predestination and limited atonement had been make or break issues for his dad. Since our views were a bit more fluid, we were considered close to heretics, right up there with TV evangelists who sold prayer cloths and holy water. We told him we were still working things out, but that was akin to heretical or Pelagian or some other label. And then there was the voting Libertarian thing.

She had not been back to the graveside since the funeral. And that was a black mark against her. A very long tally. She couldn’t afford it, number one; but number two, it would be impossible to sneak into town without alerting the whole clan that she was there. Harper was not up for the criticism, the patronizing, the emotional roller coaster. Their questions would have peppered her like a Gatling gun, so it was easy to stay away and send “heartfelt” Christmas cards or make the occasional brief phone call to catch up. His mom had never come right out and blamed her for his death, but her worship of doctors and criticisms of Harper’s alternative medicine and juicing practices constantly underscored what she knew her mother-in-law believed: that had Harper not propagandized her boy with her natural cures and quasi research, he could have beat the cancer and lived. It did not seem to matter that Graham was the first one to suggest cleaner eating and homeopathy. It only mattered that her precious son was dead, and sadly she was not.

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My Book of Uncommon Prayers: Approval Pending

Recently, I started a couple of stock photography accounts to try and generate some passive income from the myriad photos I already have on my hard drives, as well as to be an impetus for continued creativity in my now retired life. (Notice re-tired means that you get to recycle all the “tired” you have felt for years!)

When I first started submitting images, I had more accepted than rejected; and yet, any rejection was a bit of a pinprick to my sensitive artistic self. How dare that anonymous reviewer not see the value in my work! After a while, I came to terms (kind of) with the idea that even though I might like an image enough to put it on my own wall, it was not necessarily going to conform to the criteria set forth by the agencies for products made available to their customers. Okay, got it. It’s just “business.” (Read that with a Corleone accent.)

I have submitted a lot of work over the last few weeks and have a lot of images in my portfolios. I have even sold quite a few, mostly for .25 a pop. Wow! Big stuff! But every so often, a particular reviewer rejects all or almost all of what I have submitted; and it is very deflating, making me doubt my photographic skills, my imaginative vision, my raison de vivre—okay, that minor depression is momentary, right before it turns to anger. Who are these nameless people hiding behind my computer screen anyway, who can deflate my ego with one keystroke of their preprogrammed criticisms? Dolts who fail to see the inspiration in my work! Sigh.

It takes a few moments, but I usually land back on my feet. I regroup my thoughts and fractured ego, realizing that I must try to be more detached about this process, not deriving my worth from what image gets accepted and what doesn’t. The reviewers are not uniform in their approaches to critique—it is not a totally clinical review process. They can be very subjective. At times, I will be uploading photos, and the reviewer, who is apparently on line at that moment, will be accepting everything as quickly as I post the items. I dive into a frenzy of uploads because I have a live one! One who gets me!

They like me, they really really like me!

But every so often, I will check on my uploads, and the reviewer has rejected every single image, some of which were already accepted in another agency. And I think: Okay, I will punish you. See, I am not going to upload for at least two days! That will show you!

Or not.

It doesn’t always take much, but that got me thinking. One of the agencies has pictures awaiting review in a file called “Approval Pending.” And I think for many of us, that is how we live our lives. In our work, our relationships with our family and friends, we live with approval pending. Our sense of value, our acceptance of person as well as product is fragile, contingent on the compliment, the Like on social media, the sacrifice of time spent, the nod of affirmation that contradicts our self-doubt and our feelings of a lack of significance. The Like is life! The affirmation is worthiness! And if we don’t get enough of it, if approval is forever pending, we spread the net wider and wider trying to find the thing that will for once and for all validate us. As if affirmations could erase betrayals or Likes could in any way be substance to build a life on.

As a person of faith who has placed her life in God’s hands, I must realize not only in abstract theory, but also in concrete practice, that my Approval Pending category is always filled with Yeses, always filled with acceptance. If I look to anything or anyone other than Christ from which to draw life, I will always be working on a deficit, always needy, always disappointed.

*********************************************************************************

God, thank you that Your acceptance is enough. You have not rejected me, but have drawn me into Your forever family. I cannot do anything to earn Your love, nor can I miss any arbitrary standard of submission that would cause You to reject me. When I am tempted to draw essential life from any other person or thing, when I am tempted to run after the newest illusion with a promised reward, would You remind me that approval is not pending, but is already mine because of the cross. There is no need for Likes when in You I have all Yeses.

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The Limping Church Triumphant

A p r o n h e a d -- Lilly

L-ife is to be lived with love as our mandate; but too often,
I-maginations are soiled with the cares and constraints of bolstering up this
M-ansion here, rather than the one
P-prepared for us. Wishing to stay and wishing to go
I-s for those closest to heaven’s door and
N-ot for those distracted with position and purpose,
G-rounded, it seems, in earthly things. And we wound each other with

C-areless words; and we
H-arm the weak and disarm the strong, without
U-nderstanding we are servants one of another, chosen not by destiny but
R-edeemed and uniquely
C-hosen by Christ. He is the One we serve—not ourselves—with grace and
H-umility, forgiving one another, seeking each one’s best.

T-herefore, as God’s people, let us clothe ourselves with compassion; let peace
R-ule our hearts, forgiving all grievances, responding
I-n love as Christ has loved us,
U-nfettered by ambition and pride and blind passion.

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Displaced–Curse or Blessing?

In Henri Nouwen’s book called Seeds of Hope, he writes that “displacements threaten us and give us feelings of being lost or left alone.” He goes on to say the following:

“Displacement is not primarily something to do or to accomplish, but something to  recognize. In and through this recognition a conversion can take place, a conversion from involuntary displacement leading to resentment, bitterness, resignation, and apathy, to voluntary displacement that can become and expression of discipleship [. . .] To follow Jesus, therefore, means first and foremost to discover in our daily lives God’s unique vocation for us [. . .] our concern for a career constantly tends to make us deaf to our vocation [. . .] God calls everyone who is listening” (144-148).
And I am listening.

It is perhaps normal to wrap purpose up in accomplishment, to wrap acceptance in a profession up in calling, but a person’s worth and calling ought to be separate from all the doings, otherwise when the doings are done, there is nothing left in the identity we have so carefully created for ourselves. Is God in the midst of all that process? Is not at least part of working and the creating of identity led by more than just human inclination and desire? Of course—mixed in with His will, my will, the will of others, this crazy combination of spiritual and carnal. And unraveling all those threads, well . . . who could ever?

But the truth is that when you think you know, at least in part, who you are and what role you currently play in the world, you want to be the one to decide when and how that role should be redefined. There have been many times in my life when that decision was taken out of my hands. I was young, and I grieved, but I adapted. I found a new path forward. A new open door. Why this latest displacement hurts so much, I am not sure, except that because I am much older maybe it feels like there is no other door to walk through now. Maybe it feels that a forced retirement underscores that I am past usefulness more so than a voluntary exit from a job would have felt, even just one or two years later.

It has been a painful few months, having lost my job. The grieving and reorienting have provided rather a topsy-turvy emotional ride. Regarding Nouwen’s “displacement leading to resentment, bitterness, resignation, and apathy,” well, I am somewhere between bitterness and resignation, I think. My desire is to skip apathy and move right into seeing this as freedom—a freedom to zero in on vocation, stripped of career obligations. Can my involuntary displacement become voluntary as it pertains to my following Christ? I hope so, but I am not quite there yet. That will perhaps be the determinant of whether displacement is a blessing or a curse.

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