communis: common


I want to be left alone; truly, that was my first thought.  She arrived in a car painted boldly with her worldview and website.  Cyber-stalking confirmed she was a person of some renown for her antagonist religious views. Wishing our resident black bear would shake the SUV she was sleeping in–just enough to scare her–I grumpily hoped she would leave.

Small groups and intentional communities were my career focus for twenty-five years.  Groups in which diversity thrived when respect and vulnerability were nurtured. While that work is not easy, thousands of people gathered in spiritual, environmental, business networking, mentoring, and non-profit applications know “different-and-united” is possible. Over time, I trained others to lead new groups, and last year I retired.  

The criteria for my retirement: snow capped mountains and pine trees; no neighbors or visible structures; at least ½ mile from a county road–I actually measured this on overnight trips in the Midwest, deciding a one-half mile forest buffer would extinguish traffic noise. After years of hiking rocky plateaus, picking my way over back-woods debris, and a particularly strange ridge-top cabin with blue, poly 55-gallon drums containing a putrid, umber fluid, I finally found my mountain. I moved into solitude.

My mountain does have the occasional hunter or weekend camper, but I was blissfully alone . . . for five months. Then new folks built a pole building and a house down the mountain, and you guessed it, I can see it from my deck.

While still trying to process my thoughts about how sharing the mountain might affect my solitude, it occurred to me that the hermit and the extrovert, the machinist and the poet, the hunter and the gardener take nothing away from each other, and are all essential.  My experience with small groups proved healthiest communities are rich with distinct personality types, skill sets and social dispositions. Blissful, I settled into a fantasy of naturally evolving community; my solitude just one part of a healthy group for which I needed to do nothing.    

And then the new full-time resident. Crap. I just want to be left alone on my mountain.  Maybe she won’t stay; life on the mountain can be tough. But a builder and well driller arrived, and the electric company to string buzzing metal across the beautiful pines. I rationalized that at least I  only see her driveway . . unless she takes down trees . . .

It was then I realized my big-hearted inclusiveness was a sham; my strength of  character hadn’t really been tested before. Rampantly my ideals failed as I gossiped with another neighbor, ruminating about the woman’s coming and going, obsessively watching for hours to see her car return just to complain she was there. I even condemned her for the way her car lights cut through the quiet, dark night.

My solitude was beyond reproach, this woman’s presence threatened my choice. In self-righteous defense, I mounted evidence to prove my needs superior, dismissing even her presence. And I had yet to actually meet her.

Last week there was a wildfire on a ridge ¾ mile west of the mountain. In the drought and heat a thousand acres of trees, homes, squirrels and wild currants can be eviscerated in hours. After calling dispatch, I set off to warn the family in the tarp-house, the fella in the ancient cabin, and the newcomer.  Our possible peril, was now our point in common: communis. The helicopter flew over to identify the location as dusty grey smoke plumes filled the valley.  Finally the wildfire crew got through the rough terrain, and the immediate risk was over.

The fire made it clear to me that this mountain community includes the animals, trees, soil, and water, and the people. To disregard anyone here, is to diminish this community.  We have communis in drought, air choked with smoke particulate, and life amid snow-capped mountains and pines.   

A month ago I would have told you I hold no prejudices and have no desire to change others.  Shamefully, now I know that assessment was premature. Diversity is not simple, or easy; we are evangelicals, predators, conspiracy-theorists, insects, back-to-landers, seclusionists, harvesters, and activists. Reluctantly, I put away the binoculars and vowed to cease gossiping. I am gathering the courage to trudge down the mountain to meet the woman who has given me an opportunity to be a better person–even if she doesn’t know I once offered her up to the bears.

Communitas choro: Community is a dance.


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Mother’s Shoes

Five hours after the coffin was pushed into the crypt, my stepfather called and told me to come get my mother’s stuff. “Don’t forget the bathroom. Take her toothbrush too.” He wanted it gone that night. I told him I’d be there the next day. The woman down the hall was moving in sooner than I figured.

Mother’s polyester pants, stained tank tops, yellowed bras, and the down coat from 1982 barely filled a Hefty garbage bag. And that bag probably weighed more than she did when her lungs finally stopped, when the sound of bubbles blown through a straw into chocolate milk finally ceased. I gave her the last shot of morphine. He said I killed her. Hospice told me it was always like that.  

I’m moving again, time to get rid of stuff I don’t need, starting in the spare room. Half way through the room, the disingenuous cigarettes and Here’s My Heart perfume smells assault me. I dump out the bag of my mother’s clothes, looking through the socks where she kept her Fun Money; he probably took the money right after they zipped her up in the bag and wheeled her out of the apartment.  

The two corrugated boxes are limp and filthy, tape peeling. I hope for pictures of me and my brothers. One box is full of vinyl purses, colors to match the bell-bottom pant suits and glitter blouses now decorating the dumpster. The second box is full of shoes.  

Fancy shoes: red slings worn beneath crisply starched A-line dresses topped with a string of pearls, black patent leather stilettos for satin sheaths with sweetheart necklines and crystal jewelry, cream low heels for respectable suits (with red lipstick). There are brown suede pumps with a tiny brass ribbon, snakeskin slings, royal blue pumps, strappy silver heels: crumpled and bent, but no scuffs or tears, the richly embossed insole labels are not even smudged.   

I line them up in pairs, wondering about the woman who wore them. Surely not the single mother who worked as a waitress twelve hours days, six days a week.  Not the woman who got drunk on Tuesday nights to find someone who’d buy her nice things. Pulling a wad of paper from a toe, I try to step into the shoe; it’s too small, narrow.

There is writing in the sleepy wrinkles of thin paper from the shoe–her handwriting, always in pencil: “To My Daughter – the best way to apply your lipstick is to look in the mirror and smile.” Each shoe yields dated notes, ten years of advice on recipes, men, dresses, dances, and decorating. Through three sons and a stillborn, she kept writing to her not yet conceived daughter.  

I should do something with these shoes, they are in such good condition. Maybe I’ll take them over to Goodwill.

Posted in death, flash fiction, mother | 7 Comments

Don’t Look At Me!

Mass media accounts of child sexual abuse tell stories of the deviant actions of individuals that run contrary to our moral sensibilities.  That’s what makes news.  These perversions are seen as crimes against the social structure of our culture and incite intolerance and outrage.

To protect child victims most accredited journalists do not release identifying information.  We do not see the face of child sexual abuse.  The spotlight turns on the perpetrator.  We seek to understand the story:  she made a mistake; it was just a phase; he was abused as a child. It is rationally effective to focus on the perpetrator; we can point to the problem, point to a solution. The world is turned upright again when there are explanations and solutions like mental health services, rehabilitation, or locking them up and throwing away the keys. Done. Finished. Focusing on the abuser gives us a sense of control, a problem identified and resolved.

When another case makes the headlines, we become outraged, call for justice and correction. We read statistics, acquaint ourselves with ways to minimize the risk, demand accountability from schools and sports teams and decry felonious behavior by public personalities. Our reactions may protect another child from harm. There is hope that “It Stops Here.” With some righteous indignation and mild sense of resolve we sleep at night.

But when we turn to the child who has been sexually assaulted, simple cause and effect has no meaning. We look into faces faded grey from unfathomable fatigue; eyes that have settled on some other plane of existence. This is not just sadness or injury, but a partial absence from this world, even years after the abuse has stopped.   We cannot remove the wasteland from the child’s eyes, cannot give her back stolen trust or buy back moments of pure self-hood that is her right.

A world made small by media brings pain, frustration and hopelessness each time we turn on our computer, television or read the news in print. It is easier to microscope the crime and pass judgment than get too close to the result: primal fear and the instinct to flee. If we remember what it is like to be a child (in body and mind), owing our survival to adults, we must also admit that as children we had few means of escape from the authority figures in charge of our world. We remember what it feels like to be powerless and dependent, and it is in absolute contrast to the idea that we are in charge of our own reality.

Hidden: photo by Thomas Norsted

All the while, the victim is content to huddle in the corner and scream “Don’t Look At Me!” Feelings of being bad/dirty/wrong have already buried her in self-incrimination. We don’t dare look into her eyes for fear we, too, will become lost in that wasteland, perhaps even feel a moment of the barren hell across which her mind struggles.The victim of sexual abuse is isolated in shame each time our own discomfort pivots our attention away from her pain and instantly toward remedies of justice.

Is there something between avoiding the victim and persecuting the perpetrator that is helpful for children recovering from sexual abuse?  Yes. We can try to mitigate the effect of the crime on the child by making sure she is safe, that she feels heard, and that we believe what happened to her matters.  It is never okay for an adult to assert a sexual act on a child.

We must demand that all journalists use reporting language that does not blame the victim and gives resources in support of other victims safely breaking their silence. And we need to hold those agencies accountable for disrespectful and demeaning behavior. We can declare to our family and peers that we will not tolerate, ever, blaming the victim of abuse.

We can participate in programs like Take Back the Night and National Child Abuse Prevention Month that educate the public and support the victims of sexual assault. Get to know survivors and really listen to their stories.

The eyes of children peer from adult faces in church, the grocery store, on the street. I see the same hollow pain when I look in the mirror at my own eyes.  I know it is uncomfortable for some, inconceivable maybe.  But my life matters, the lives of all the children matter.  Please look at me.

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Life Mid-Crisis

I’ve been trying to make sense of this.  Of all this.  The last three years, or is it really the last fifty.  Please godde, don’t let it be some clichéd mid-life crisis.  But it seems that all the things I was SO sure of thirty years ago offer only glimmers of cognizance now.

Maybe life does that to a person; disproving theories and philosophies we adopt when we are young and inexperienced of the world.  Probably.  THAT makes sense.  But being able to say that all this chaos is reasonable because in the larger picture it makes sense is ridiculous.

I don’t know who I am anymore.  I have clung to a life raft-dream since my early childhood:  I would return to the wilderness and life a life of simplicity.  I’ve spent a lifetime learning tools and skills for that sustainable life. And now age and infirmities try to dictate that effort was all for naught?  Criminals destroy the very property to which I have planned my escape?

Clearly, absolutely, I am thinking in polar opposites.  But even in saying that, can I be sure of that?  If such polarized thinking doesn’t allow for gray possibilities, then can I even be sure that what I am processing now is real?  Somewhere in my psyche is there a maelstrom of gray-ness swirling and gathering speed, waiting to explode over my senses so that in some indeterminate, unexpected moment I will be so utterly engulfed in the plethora of opportunities that lie between black and white that I will suddenly be transformed and, finally, it will all make sense?

I don’t think so.

Speaking of polar opposites, will my adopted black son stop hating me for being white.  Will the whole notion of nurture over nature finally return or be forever disproved?  Is there a solution to the mental illness that drives him to homelessness.  Will I at last, and finally, know how to best parent my children of diversity?

I don’t think so.

Therapists, life coaches, ministers and madmen like to tell us that living in the fringes, along the great “unknowing” is the Mystery of Life.  God, if you like the notion.  Emotional regulation, if that suits you better.  Really?  We are supposed to lay down our high ideals and our never-die integrities to live in some lukewarm version of what they call “healthy?”


Perhaps my hyper-vigilant need to control my environment won’t allow for such versions of life.  I know lots of people who live there; who are content and live predictable, successful lives.  I have been told that my need to see things as either one way or another, without allowing myself options in between was a survival mechanism I used during my traumatic childhood.  Yea, so what?  There are thousands of “life coaches” that teach skills of goal-setting.  What’s wrong with envisioning a life that brings you peace and safety and then using your intellect and innate gifts to make it happen?

Well, right now I’m living an incongruous reality.  For all the notions I had of what life was “supposed” to be, and all the machinations of making it just that way, other people keep messing it up.  And I don’t mean the clash between two high ideals and which is the better of the two.  I’m talking about the evil people do and how it impacts our version of life as we think it should be.  When addictions and mental illness and greed and miscommunication and ignorance throw themselves into your road to freedom, the question becomes, do I drive right over those bodies, or do I stop to help?

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The Hole in the Night

There is a moment between breathing in and breathing out, between laughter and tears, between death and life, and always between darkness and light.  It is only a gasp, only a glimmer, only a moment.  But inside that moment lives all that ever was and the hope of all that will come.  It is the shape of that moment that directs our hearts and hands, a shape that determines the length of light (life).

The introduction in my book, “The Length of Light”: To every person who has gasped when the sun-warm places are completely swallowed by the dark and there is no hope for a new day, and then (hold on wait for it . .. ) watched in awe as the hole of cold darkness reaches from the earth to meet the rising sky and begins gulping life into its infinite cavern.

It is so important, however, that we should never rush the darkness.  We must be patient and let the light come in its own time, erstwhile we squander the gifts we’ve learned in the darkness.

John O’Donohue in his book “Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom“ shares: “The world rests in the night. Trees, mountains, fields, and faces are released from the prison of shape and the burden of exposure. Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark. Darkness is the ancient womb. Nighttime is womb- time. Our souls come out to play. The darkness absolves everything; the struggle for identity and impression falls away. We rest in the night.” 

“Anam Cara” and Mr. O’Donohue’s book “Beauty” are must reads if we hope to cultivate the moment.  These are guidebooks to allowing ourselves to slow down and live in the moment–whether dark or light–and to find the beauty and wisdom of both.

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The e-pub version of my new book, “Length of Light” should be available within days! YAY!! Paperback will be available soon!

I’m turning blue holding my breath ! ! ! I’m so excited to share these stories with you!

from book description: “Moments and days that make up a life. Time upon which light stubbonly pushes its stubby finger into the dark and transforms even the most difficult events. These stories of ordinary moments in life extraordinaire will have your head nodding and your heart moving.

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Wonderful Advice for E-Publishing

With the advent of my work “The Length of Light” launching after Thanksgiving, I am beginning to look toward how to make sure it gets into you, the reader’s, hands!  I want to make it easy and affordable for everyone!

Carolyn McCray writes wonderfully accessible and helpful information on best practices for e-publishing! is a grand resource.

E-publishing has made literature available in such an easy way, almost everyone has access.  There are so many great values in e-books.  My son in the Army is reading material he NEVER would have picked up at the library or a bookstore–or even in our own extensive family library.

Writers: Check out this website, it is full of assistance!


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