A Song for Old Warriors

The old men sat under a canopy before the marble monument. They had fought in World War II. Many were in wheelchairs. All would soon die.

The warriors struggled to stand up for the advancement of the color guard, and they remained standing for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer. They quietly retook their seats.

A retired general approached the podium and spoke about the nightmare war long ago and those who fought. He recalled how a multitude of ordinary citizens–janitors, farmers, factory workers–had come together to defend high ideals. The heads of the very old men did not move.

A singer was then introduced. She was a little girl, just seven years old. She wore a vest of silvery sequins. Her face was made up with red lipstick. Microphone in hand, the very young girl glided confidently onto the stage and raised two pale arms. With a booming voice she began God Bless America while her grinning father circled with a video camera, recording his starlet.

As she sang the tiny girl stepped down from the stage and sashayed with her microphone up to the inscrutable faces of the old men. Her own face beamed with affection, and her hands formed exaggerated gestures as she directly addressed each gray head. The performance seemed an act learned by a child from television. The bold familiarity, perhaps tolerable in an adult, was unsettling from a seven-year-old girl.

The girl’s voice climbed until it wavered. Her high voice strained to exploit every syllable of the song. It sought to imbue every word with an infinity of feeling. The child floated in front of the very old men with her twinkling eyes, and she smiled with absolute sincerity.

The heads of the warriors did not move.

As I observed this strange performance from the back row, I was struck by the eyes of the precocious little girl. Her eyes were so bright.

Then I understood.

The performance came from a little girl’s heart. She was a budding life. Her ambition was to shine. Her hope was to shine a bright light upon those who listened.

Before her sat warriors who had fought against darkness, and who would soon return to the inescapable darkness.

The song reached a resounding crescendo. The very young girl raised her hands theatrically, palms upward.

“. . . my home sweet home.”

Some of the old men struggled to their feet for a standing ovation. Some sat and wept.

Unheard Words

The streetcar came out of its barn every Sunday. Like a relic from an era long forgotten, it ding-ding-rattled down the center of Transverse Street near City Park. The restored streetcar lurched, jerked, impeded impatient cars as it moved through the shadows of high modern towers. It halted long and inconveniently. Few people rode it.

A traveling businessman who needed to be at the convention center in no more than twenty minutes stepped aboard.

The streetcar driver was waving his arms while he waited for the traffic light to turn. He was engaged in a conversation.

“Who’re you talking to?” asked the anxious businessman, sitting down in one of the empty seats near the driver.

“That’s Edmund,” explained the driver.

“What?”

“That’s Edmund. He used to manage a cannery north of the pier where the aquarium is these days, but that was well over a century ago,” explained the driver, smiling up at the businessman’s reflection in the rear view mirror.

“What are you talking about? I don’t see anybody.”

“That’s because Edmund has been dead for over a hundred years. He likes to ride through the city and remember those old days. He tells me stories that everyone else has forgotten.”

The businessman stared at the back of the driver’s head. “Are you crazy?”

“No, I’m not. What’s that? Edith says I’m crazy. No, Edith, everyone in the car thinks the only crazy one here is you.”

The businessman rapidly turned about and observed rows of narrow, empty seats. He wondered if the ramblings of this apparently deranged driver would make him late. He looked out an antique green-tinted window at rush hour traffic and people hurrying down the sidewalk and decided it would be smart to remain quiet.

The traffic light finally changed. The driver started the streetcar with a sudden jerk. Waving his arms, he resumed his former conversation.

“You’re right, Edmund. It’s exactly like those old days leading up to the war. Everyone getting ready for the future. People coming and going, worrying how to survive should the worst happen. Nothing ever seems to change. He’s probably going somewhere important. No, I’m sure the man thinks his trip is very important. Can’t you tell by the way he’s dressed? There’s no point saying that. He can’t see or hear you, Edmund–you know perfectly well that you’re nothing but a sad, used-up ghost. So why do you keep trying to talk to the living? What’s that Stanley? What did you say?”

The streetcar driver looked up at his rear view mirror and addressed the increasingly annoyed businessman: “Stanley sees you live in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Which is an amazing coincidence. That’s where his grandchildren live.”

The businessman jerked his head back, startled. “What the hell? Who told you that?”┬áHis intense aggravation with the driver turned to angry suspicion.

“Stanley was born in Brookfield many years ago,” explained the smiling driver. “He was raised there, in a farmhouse a few miles from Al Capone’s distillery. Then he moved here to the city and died from a series of strokes two years later. He has an important message for you. He wants you to inform his grandchildren who still live in Brookfield that he loves them.”

The streetcar bell dinged as it pulled into a station. The doors flapped open. The businessman bolted from his seat and fled. Not a living soul boarded.

The driver pulled a handle to shut the door. He started the slow streetcar again with another jerk.

“No, Stanley, that man is gone. All of this talking scared him away. I’m sorry. You know I have no control over the actions of people. No, I can’t go after him–who would drive? You say you would? A ghost? Someone with two hands has to drive!

“I realize you tried your best but you couldn’t reach him. I’m really sorry. You love your grandchildren. You love them with all your heart. You want Seth and Marge to know you still think of them. You want them to know you still love them.

“Eventually somebody else who still lives in your small town will take a ride with us. Be patient. Somebody will.”

The Hand of Fate

A small shrine appeared on some bare dirt near the intersection where a transient had been struck and killed. Neighbors brought candles, roses, prayerful messages written on cards. The next day the City cleaned up the guttered candles and withered roses and tossed the messages into a plastic bag to be thrown away.

Carly, during a walk through the neighborhood, looked down at the dead patch of dirt. She wondered why a nameless person had drifted along her street.

All that remained beside the sidewalk were windblown leaves.

And one faded rose.

Carly leaned over, picked it up.

She took the spent thing back to her apartment. She put it in a damp paper towel. She made a quick trip to the store to buy a clay pot and small bag of soil. She prepared the stem for propagation. Her mother, long gone to heaven, had once taught her how.

Carly put the cutting into the soil and placed the pot in her small apartment window. She was careful to keep the soil moist and warm.

Early one morning, when nobody was about, she walked down the sidewalk back to the intersection and its dead patch of dirt. She brought a hand shovel.

Every morning after, she brought a water bottle.

. . .

Many years after Carly had joined her mother, those who walked by the intersection would pause to marvel at the strange abundance of wild, beautiful roses. Hundreds of blooms crowded the sidewalk.

It seemed the Hand of Fate had birthed an improbable garden.

Nobody knew where the roses had come from.

The Star Maker

I saw a strange thing lying among litter on the sidewalk. It was a three-dimensional star, about five inches tall, made of white paper. I picked it up, examined it.

The origami star was composed of many sheets of lined notepaper, folded perfectly together by a patient hand. Sprinkled upon the star were jumbled words and phrases from torn pages.

I took the origami star up to my office on the twenty sixth floor. I looked down through my window at the tiny sidewalk where I found the fallen star. Far below people flowed in a thin trickle.

I hung the paper star on a bare spot above my desk.

Nearly every day I looked up at it.

Over many days, weeks, months that perfect origami star composed of jumbled words and perfect folds took on for me special significance. It seemed to represent my own bewildering life. Many pages, one after another, removed by time, but carefully retained. It was a hopeful reminder that with effort, precision and devotion a miracle could be folded together. A star might coalesce and take form.

When I gazed at that strange star, the essence of my own dreams seemed to shine forth.

One day I rode home on the train, thinking about a troubling day at work. As the train halted at a station, I gazed out the window and saw a destitute man sitting on a bench wrapped in a dirty blanket. His head was bowed.

He was concentrating very hard, folding an origami star.

Light at the Edges

I stopped on a corner of Lake Street to watch Paul paint. His easel stood on the sidewalk facing the city’s skyline: his usual spot. We knew each other casually. I’d always say hello as I walked past him on my way home.

This time I watched quietly.

When he finally noticed me, I remarked: “I don’t know why I like your paintings so much. I could jump right into one. Your cities seem alive. I don’t know why–it’s almost like they have an inner life.”

He smiled. “I appreciate your compliment but it really isn’t that difficult. All you have to do is paint light at the edges. One bright streak of color–” With his small brush he touched the palette. He lifted the brush and applied a thin line of light to the hard edge of one building. Suddenly the building assumed depth, a spiritual feeling, vitality.

I stepped into the gray city. I turned down several streets and came to the building where I lived.

I buzzed myself into the old building, rode the elevator to the second floor and turned two corners of the drab corridor until I reached my door. I flipped the light on in my studio apartment and dropped a bag of groceries in the kitchenette. I stashed canned things away. I microwaved and ate something from a box. I stared at the news until I was sleepy.

As I did every night, perhaps to see if stars were visible somewhere above the city, I crossed to my window and raised the blinds. No stars. A window that faced me from directly across the building’s courtyard was curtained and dark. It was always dark.

I cracked open my window for some night air, closed my blinds, switched off the apartment light and crept into bed.

. . .

On my way home the following day I paused and stood silently once more behind Paul. He didn’t notice me as he painted.

I buzzed myself into the building.

As I stepped out of the elevator and into the second floor corridor I noticed a person at the door of one apartment bending over and struggling to reach something near their feet. It was a very old person I didn’t recognize. They had dropped their keys on the floor.

“Let me help you,” I offered.

The little wrinkled person threatened me with cold eyes. “No!” They turned their back to me and stood frozen by their door waiting for me to leave.

The old person appeared frightened. They were probably alone. They certainly didn’t know me. I was another stranger in a city full of strangers.

I stood for a minute, uncertain what to say. Suddenly the old person dropped to their knees, grabbed the keys, struggled back up, fumbled to unlock their door and dashed inside.

The door slammed.

The door was shut to a place that none could reach.

Finally I shook myself and resumed down the corridor, turned two corners and unlocked my own small apartment.

I didn’t feel like watching the news. I swallowed my reheated dinner and flipped off my light. I crossed my tiny room and raised the blinds to look out into the night, hopelessly wishing that stars might be visible.

The window across the courtyard was dark.

I realized it was the curtained, always dark window of the very old person.

. . .

Heading home the next day I secretly watched Paul paint. I carried some bright color in my hand. Like a paintbrush.

I stopped at the door of the very old person and knocked. I placed a bouquet of yellow roses on the floor directly in front of the person’s door, with the note: From a Friend.

Before creeping into bed, I raised my blinds and found no stars. But there was a new light.

It shined dimly from the curtained window across the courtyard.

One Lone Candle

The weekend before her first day of college, Maisha moved into a small studio apartment on Sandrock Bay.

It was a nice, clean apartment, with brand new carpeting, and a large window that opened to a wide ocean. The perfect headquarters to begin her adult life. She had already decided upon her goal. She would change the world. Make it better.

The apartment itself wasn’t terribly remarkable. A bed occupied one bare corner. On one blank wall she hung a wrinkled poster of the planet Earth.

When afternoon transformed into dusk, and her few things had been neatly arranged, Maisha noticed that a dim, barely perceptible light periodically entered her room. It winked from a place very far away up on the headland enclosing Sandrock Bay.

She approached the open window and saw a distant lighthouse.

As darkness grew, the circling beam of light strengthened. It cast a single ray of power miles out over its circling sweep of silver ocean.

At night, as Maisha lay in bed thinking about her life ahead, and her big dream, that powerful beam whirled, passed over her window, shining through to the black wall that faced her, passing over the Earth. It was like the rising of many suns.

On Monday morning Maisha returned to the open window. She breathed in the cool ocean air and anticipated her first class.

Walking up Campus Way to school, it was difficult to keep her eyes from that faraway lighthouse. Even after sunrise, in broad daylight, its tiny light kept winking. It seemed odd to her that a lighthouse would operate in daylight.

The first day of classes passed.

Maisha sat alone at a table by a window in the school cafe. She tried to remember what she’d learned during several lectures. The complexity. The fog of human action. The formulas, suppositions, limits, conditions. The outlines, demands, divisions and conflicts. The history, the hatred, the avarice, the vanity. The cruel truths of the world. The impossibility of soul. Theorems uttered by unconcerned professors.

And in that darkening shadow of near hopelessness, her eyes were drawn again to the lighthouse.

How did it shine for miles? she wondered.

What was its secret?

Slowly she remembered . . .

When she was a very little girl, and all the world was completely new, she and her parents had visited a lighthouse–another old lighthouse that stood at the end of another headland . . . overlooking a dim place . . . an elsewhere she had nearly forgotten . . .

She tried to see it.

She remembered being inside that narrow lighthouse, climbing circular stairs up and up and up . . . right up to an enormous shining lens.

The lens had appeared to her surprised eyes like an enormous diamond, finely cut and polished and infused with a heart of light.

Her parents had explained that the radiance of a single candle was refracted by the lens into a single powerful beam that could be seen for miles out at sea.

Saving countless lives.

As she sat at the table remembering, she suddenly wondered: would it be possible to change the world by refracting light from her own heart?

Could she shine her heart’s light through a jeweled lens, focus it, and send a beam of saving power beyond her small horizon?

Resolute, she was determined to ask the silly question of everyone in the cafe. “How do you refract a heart’s light?”

Maisha turned to address a student who sat at the nearby table.

A laugh. “You’re joking, right?”

Maisha turned to the table on her other side, where several students sat eating and staring into phones.

“How do you refract a heart’s light?” she asked the first student who looked up.

“You know, that’s really a weird question. Is it possible to refract what–a heart’s light? That’s literally impossible. You bend light, not a heart’s light. What exactly do you mean by a heart’s light?”

“I think I see what she means,” interjected another student. “Can you bend your soul or spirit or something and shine it around a corner–is that what you mean? The heart light you’re talking about can do anything you wish. It’s like poetry–a heart light can shine anywhere. You could pass it through a metaphysical prism and make rainbows, even.”

The final student laughed. “Oh come on, be serious. Metaphysical rainbows. The fact is nobody can escape from the Laws of Physics. If by heart’s light you mean something like love or compassion, then you have to bend it with something that actually works. But compassion isn’t a physical thing. So I don’t really know how you would do that. Is it possible to refract a heart’s light? I mean, really, why would you want to refract that? I’ve never heard a more stupid question.”

“Thank you,” said Maisha, turning back to her cold food.

When she had finished eating, Maisha quickly jumped up and crossed the school’s cafe to throw away the garbage that remained on her plastic tray. She had never felt so alone.

“It’s possible,” said a small voice behind her.

An old man with severely stooped shoulders was busy mopping the dirty floor. His mop worked in small steady circles. He looked up at her. His faraway eyes shined with knowledge. “It’s possible,” he said quietly.

“But how?” begged Maisha. “How? All I have is my one candle. How do I cut and polish the refracting lens?”

“You’ll work it out. Simply keep that candle lit.”

One Word

As I stood at the corner of a busy intersection waiting for a green light, I noticed a man with a horrific beard sitting half-naked on the sidewalk. His fist gripped a magic marker and he was writing prolifically on a rectangle of cardboard.

From my distance I couldn’t read what the man had written. I did observe he was creating the enormous word GOD. He was broadening the lines of GOD with precise attention. Working carefully, very deliberately. Like a true artist.

Making GOD bold. Preparing for his daily appeal.

My eyes were drawn to the earthy arms, earthy legs, blackened feet in broken sandals.

As I waited to cross the intersection, a clean-shaven man wearing khaki shorts came up to the writing man and stared down with a smile.

Just as the light turned, the man looking down burst out laughing.

“GOD!” one roared.