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.”
“Maybe I love trains because they’re a lot like life,” explained a father to his young son. The two sat together on the City Park Railroad, waiting for the short ride around the duck pond to begin. “You’re always moving forward, seeing something new–”
The small boy looked excitedly out the window.
He wondered what he would see.
He knew he’d see a whole lot of ducks floating out on the calm green water, and fishermen on the muddy banks casting their lines hoping to catch a prize bass.
He knew he’d see the short wooden pier jutting into the pond, and the bench near the end where he and his father had fished last summer.
He knew the train would eventually go over a bridge. His father had promised there was a bridge. It spanned a small creek that bubbled down into the pond through a patch of cattails.
And then the train might turn to follow the creek.
Looking out of the train’s window, waiting for his short journey to begin, the boy imagined the branches of willow trees fluttering over the sparkling creek. And dappled sunlight on long leaves. And a flock of blackbirds rising. And, as the creek wound upward into the nearby hills, a curtain of pine trees ahead.
Then the train might enter the pine forest.
And black towering trees would close all around, like a place in a dream, wind-whispering, wind-whispering.
The boy thought of stories he’d been told.
His father had been a young man hiking alone in the forest. Miles from home. He had heard the faraway sound of a wild turkey. He had turned to follow the call. It is rare thing to see a wild turkey. A very magical and lucky thing. His father had plunged forward through the deep forest, over slippery autumn leaves, pushing aside tangled branches, always turning, because that wild call kept shifting, from direction to direction, distance to distance. No, he never found what he sought. But he had found his way home.
And the story of how his very old grandfather, for one instant, had glimpsed a rare white deer in the forest. Nobody else in that forest had ever seen it. It was a chance encounter. Pure white. Like new snow. And then the vision had melted into shadow.
The magical deer was said to have vanished into the same dark trees where the boy’s great grandfather had faced a raging grizzly bear.
Perhaps, thought the young boy, he might also see a grizzly bear.
Then the train might emerge from the forest, climbing, winding, chugging over slopes of naked rock to high levels beyond the wildest turkeys, deer, bears. The cloudless sun, now so close, would shine brightly as the boy stared out the train’s window down upon a small patch of green forest and an endless world of hills, lakes and ponds scattered like shining pebbles below.
And then he would reach the highest mountain’s summit.
Suddenly the train rumbled and lurched.
“Here we go!”
Bradley woke up in the middle of the night. The clock showed a quarter to three. His wife was asleep beside him.
Careful not to disturb her, he lay motionless on his back and reviewed another day at work. There was something important he was supposed to remember, to do tomorrow, but he’d forgotten.
His mind wandered. For a moment he wondered about the car–if he should have the oil changed that weekend. He thought about making reservations for the vacation in Hawaii. He thought about an appointment with the doctor. In the darkness, he looked along the length of his body under the sheet. Suddenly he realized that under the sheet lay a skeleton.
His mind quickly turned.
Another pressing thought came to him that he must buy groceries after work–he must ask his wife what she needed. He would try to remember. And then he fell back to sleep.
And ten years passed in the blink of his astonished eyes.
Another late night, after brushing his teeth to ward off decay, blinking at his face in the bathroom mirror. I’m starting to get old, Bradley thought. What a strange face.
He lay in bed beside his wife, feeling the aching years, unable to sleep.
He couldn’t stop thinking. Next week he would have to see the doctor again. And then do his taxes. And then plan for that critically important conference in Seattle. And then remember his anniversary. How long? Thirty years? And then the lawn needed mowing again. And the leaking faucet. And his daughter needed more money. And he had to write a reply to his older brother, Kenneth. He didn’t want to write words to Kenneth. Kenneth was a big-mouthed jerk. Kenneth was probably the one thing Bradley hated most. There had been no words for most of a lifetime. There was too much anger, bitterness and pain. There was a feud that would never end. He could barely remember why.
He lay in bed, mind rolling, staring up at a dark ceiling, when an unbidden thought returned. He lowered his eyes and gazed at a draped figure.
Under his sheet stretched a skeleton.
His own skeleton.
Then suddenly Bradley was six years older. And his happy younger brother, Ben, who lived halfway across the country, died of a heart attack.
The entire family flew to the funeral. Older brother Kenneth sat near the opposite wall. Everyone faced the open casket.
Bradley sat near the back, behind a strange family of bent people clothed in black.
And then he understood the truth.
With time–too soon–all of the somber clothing, the tears, the bowed heads, the pain, the hidden thoughts, the beating hearts, muscle and blood would fall away.
After the short service he rose, walked bravely up to Kenneth and hugged him.
Gathering in the park around the central fountain. Eating at rusted tables under sun-faded umbrellas. Napping, with head tilted forward, on a bench. Roaming about disordered flowerbeds. Gossiping, laughing, reading.
As I sat in the shade of a straggly tree, it suddenly appeared to me the splashing fountain was a shining crown. Above every head a crown.
I saw it all in one enchanted moment.
Shining above the gray hair of one gentleman who walked very carefully with a cane.
Shining above the short curls of a girl as she petted a dog.
Shining above a runner, who flashed past the fountain, arms pumping.
Shining above two lovers on scooters, playfully circling around planters of summer chrysanthemums.
Shining above people sitting in disorder, like painted figures on a margin of green grass, talking, resting, thinking.
Above every soul, a waterfall rising into blue basin sky.
Water jetting skyward.
Breaking into atoms.
A toddler with a bright ball scampered across the Earth and fell down on green grass. He pushed himself back up, stood and wobbled. Laughing, the tiny child raced off with heedless feet.
His mother walked nearby. She closely watched her child play. She was careful not to step on graves.
The toddler didn’t seem to know where he was. He threw his ball up, missed it as it came down. He leaned over, grabbed his ball, twisted wildly and let it fly sideways. The ball ricocheted off a headstone and rolled down a green slope.
The bright ball rolled down and down, settled among some flowers.
Two small hands reached for the ball.
Suddenly the little person noticed a very old woman dressed in black standing high above him. The old woman didn’t move. She stared down at nothing.
The weathered face and deep eyes appeared to be stone. A face carved from gray stone. Etched with something unreadable. The dead eyes seemed not to know where they were.
The old woman stood beside a fresh patch of dirt.
“Want to play catch?”
The woman in black turned her head and regarded the little person who waited by her legs clutching a bright ball.
Her face softened. “No, thank you.”
The toddler heard his name. He turned and with two unstoppable legs raced wildly back up the hill. Skipping and swerving, he bounded toward his mother, who sat waiting for him on her own spot of grass. A startled crow flew up.
She gazed upon the little person as he came to her side.
Her cheeks shined with tears.
“That’s Daddy!” the small boy explained, finger pointing to the nearby stone.
His mother smiled.
“I love you Daddy!” the child exclaimed, dropping his ball. He ran forward and hugged the white marble.
“The problem with being thoughtful,” explained Burt, “is you quickly understand that most people aren’t. People don’t want to be philosophers. They simply want to feel good.
“People coming down the sidewalk are almost one hundred percent predictable. All they think about is their hair, the money they owe, winning the lottery, and what’s for dinner.”
Burt took a long drink from his paper bag.
“Have you ever wondered why people love dogs? Why do you think people identify with dogs? Oh, how wonderful it would be to lead a dog’s life. People actually want to be dogs.
“Look at them smiling.
“See that group of people coming our way? Pull one of them aside and ask their life’s purpose. I dare you to ask and hear what they say. You’ll get some feel good shit, a feel good God, a few vacuous words that add up to nothing. Then they flee.
“Cattle are more interesting.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because at least you can grill cattle.”
I looked down at Burt. His eyes were red and downcast. I began to really wonder if there was any hope. “When’s the last time you had something to eat?”
“Fifteen minutes ago. Some passing idiot gave me half his jelly doughnut.”
“Why do you think he did that?”
“Because I begged for it.”
“But you know he didn’t have to.”
“Yeah he did. Look at me.”