Ashley Armstrong

Author • Artist • DIY Mom

The Choice

If you had a choice to be happy or to be miserable for the rest of your days on this earth, which would you choose? I’d hope that everyone would choose happiness and guess what? That choice is already ours! We have complete control of our lives, yet SO MANY make the choice to BE MISERABLE! This seems insane, but it’s the truth. And I’m not talking about misery resulting from clinical depression and off-balance brain chemicals because I suffer from chronic anxiety and depression and assure you, that what I’m talking about stands apart from that. I’m talking about JOY, the happiness that lives deep within your spirit, apart from the flesh. You either have it or you don’t and those that have it can have a bad day or a bad year, but still have joy. Joy comes from Spirit, from the love received from others, and from loving others unconditionally. Our joy is stored within us in an endless supply, our personal reserve to give us hope during trying times.

I’m willing to bet that everyone knows at least one individual who feeds off of their own misery. They are capable of creating chaos out of nothing just so that they can have something to squawk about. They are proficient at cutting others around them down and feeding misery to them by the spoonful. They are masters of causing dissension among even the closest of individuals. These miserables do this in an attempt to fill their emptiness, the void deep inside where they are supposed to harbor joy. When satisfaction is not to be found, they simply keep on carving out their warpath, ignorantly unaware that it’s not the way to bliss.

The only way to truly deal with a miserable is not to stoop to their level, to love them unconditionally, and to treat them with endless respect. In other words, the old rules “kill them with kindness” and “treat others as you wish to be treated” taught to us as children work extremely well here. Nothing is more amusing than watching a miserable become flustered when they notice that they cannot make you miserable too.

I’ve recently been freed from twelve years of working in the customer service industry. I learned at the age of sixteen that miserables are everywhere. A novice, I allowed them to completely ruin my day and hate my job in the same note. You can bet that they left with smirks of satisfaction when they saw how they destroyed my upbeat demeanor and off they went to target their next victim. For so long, I cringed when I saw these people walk into my store and I acted cold to them because I had no desire to serve them. I longed to find ways to get them barred from the premises so that I would no longer deal with them. One day, I decided to take my joy back because they had no right to steal MY joy. I began going above and beyond for these people (instead of only to my nice customers which was the norm), being sugary sweet but never to the point of sarcasm. Complaints were dealt with by issuing my utmost sorrow and doing whatever I could to amend this issue. One customer who I had once written off as having the iciest heart in existence was found laughing and joking with me. I could not believe it and it gave me such joy to find kindred spirits in these miserables. It’s so amazing how kindness and perseverance can turn around the most rotten souls. That’s not to say I could win over everyone, but those stubborn miserables indeed left flustered when they saw that they could not steal my happiness. The point is that even if you wish to be cold in turn to the cold-hearted, the kindness you share may be the only kindness they know. Sometimes your joy will begin to rub off on a miserable and in time, they will learn to fill their emptiness with joy-not misery.

Now that I’ve addressed how to spot a miserable and how to treat them, how can we maintain our joy? By spreading it of course! As I mentioned, our joy comes in an endless supply, and the more we share, the more we have. Show your love to all living things and celebrate life. Help someone in need, adopt a shelter pet, buy a coffee for the person in line behind you, visit the elderly, give hope to the sick and poor simply by being there and letting them know that they are loved and that they matter-these are merely examples. Start by showering love on those miserables!

It’s important to note that joy is NOT found within THINGS, but within US. Joy is not found in money or power or fame. The loss or ruin of THINGS should never steal your joy because they simply don’t matter. People and the creatures of this earth matter and should be celebrated and respected. Material possessions can be lost or destroyed. Therefore, do not believe that the attainment of things will give you joy; neither will power or fame offer you long-term happiness. Desires of the flesh are false motivations.

Receive joy by spreading joy. Remember that we are all equal and deserve love, respect, and to be filled with joy. Miserables can try to steal your happiness, but they can never steal your joy. Once you have it, joy is something that you will never part with. And if you’ve read this far to realize that you are, in fact, a miserable, then you know what to do. Begin to love and let love in and joy will come. When you have joy, show it to others and it will continue to multiply.

So, what choice do you make?

Indestructible

For some people, it is their nature that propels their lives forward and for others it is this very nature that leads to their inevitable downfall. “Indestructible” is the true story of Ray, a family man whose reckless ways were innate. Following two life-threatening accidents caused by his own thoughtlessness, he is warned that he cannot cheat death a third time. His family is optimistic that he has finally come to his senses, but will he attempt fate a third time? Adapted from my current nonfiction in progress “Cowgirl At Heart” that follows the story of a brave woman named Phyllis, this is the tale of her brother Ray.

When’s Ray’s family admonished him of his reckless ways, he chuckled at every concern, except for the last. The final warning was breathed from the lips of his older sister.

“You can’t escape death three times,” she stated succinctly.

“I know,” he replied, sincerity settling into his features at long last.

Ray was his parents’ golden child from birth. He excelled in anything he endeavored and outshone his siblings. To his brothers and sister, he was an ever-present thorn in their sides. He was brutish and arrogant, traits that irritated them to no end. Ray was also born with an uncontrolled nature and he seemed to inadvertently invite catastrophe. Not only was he constantly injuring himself as a boy, but he was also the only child involved in each of his mother’s car accidents. He was only three years old at the time of her first accident. In the second occurrence, he was riding in the family’s brand new truck when his mother lost control and rolled it over three levels of freeway.

In another instance when Ray was quite small, he was walking down the basement steps of his home. On the basement floor, his father had a three-pound sledgehammer that came to a nearly pointed, blunt edge on the end opposite the hammer.  Ray happened to trip and fall down the stairs, running his head directly into the blunt edge of the hammer. Fortunately, all he required were stitches, but these brushes with death occurred in an uncomfortable amount. His life could have ended during any of these accidents. It appeared that a foreboding cloud followed him, constantly attempting to snuff him out, but it was these close calls that assured him of his indestructibility.

As Ray became a grown man, he was the type of person who felt a need for speed. He had a wild nature and sought the many thrills of life. Ray was so physically gifted at every sport or recreation he accomplished, that he was soon hungry for the next adrenaline fix. He loved to drive motorcycles and recreational vehicles at top speeds. He seemed to enjoy losing control, wiping out, and ultimately destroying his equipment. Ray even began the process of obtaining his pilot’s license, endlessly seeking to push his boundaries.

Ray was a very large human being in stature, becoming the dominant figure in his family and the most difficult to stand up to. He was also looked up to in near admiration and was known as being the rock of his family. His air of surety made him the natural person to go to in times of trouble, offering sound advice. He was the first in his family to attend college and became a perceptive businessman, knowing well how to turn a quick profit. By all appearances, Ray had the answer to every problem and if he did not have the answer, he could easily find it.

In time, it became known that despite owning his own business and choosing wise investments, Ray was a terrible employer. He employed family members on occasion, and treated them unfavorably.  He made false promises and used people, cheating his workers out of retirement money and profit shares. His brothers were so aggravated by Ray’s lack of a moral compass that they chose to completely disassociate themselves with him. His sister continued to tolerate him but his greed and boastfulness were often too much to bear. Despite her attempts to remain amiable, a great divide settled between Ray and his siblings. For years, Ray’s brothers and sister rarely knew what was going on in his life.

If Ray had one wholly respectable attribute, it was that he was a wonderful father. He truly loved his children and had three robust sons heavily mired in athletics. Ray had been an All-American wrestling champion and in turn expected the same from his sons. He trained not only his boys, but also coached the wrestling, baseball and football teams at their high school. His life revolved around school athletics and his evenings and weekends were consumed by sports. Not only was he occupied with athletics at the high school level, but he also coached his oldest son at his college sports.

From all angles Ray appeared successful, but below the surface was an angst or turmoil one could never know. Despite all of his confidence, he was secretly battling demons and hopelessly seeking to fill the emptiness within. Adrenaline was the fix he often chose to quench his inner thirst.

On a day when Ray’s sons were still very young, he was riding his four-wheeler with the usual irresponsible zeal he was accustomed to. He took the machine up a mound of rocks, hoping to race down the other side for a thrilling rush. Not realizing the opposing side of the rock pile had been carved out, upon cresting over the top, his four-wheeler plunged downward. It flipped and rolled several times, crushing him beneath four-hundred pounds of hot metal. Ray spent weeks in the hospital with a fractured pelvis and hips. It took a year to fully recover from his injuries, but the accident by no means deterred his drive towards destruction.

Soon, Ray was back to his old ways, driving his motorcycle, four-wheeler, and snowmobile with full force. Years passed, but Ray continued to exhibit no restraint. One winter night, he was sailing over the snow-blanketed fields as his friends raced alongside him on their snowmobiles. They sped across the vast rural stretch of land, aware that this area had two roads running parallel towards the Grand River, each with iron bridges passing over the water. One of the roads remained straight and the other, Montgomery Road, had a slight hairpin curve before the bridge. Ray was somewhat familiar with the area and was convinced that they were driving along the road that remained straight. Ray was unsatisfied driving with the pack and wished to be ahead, so he accelerated to top speed. Unaware that he was actually driving on Montgomery road, he passed his friends with blazing velocity towards the bridge ahead. The road was ice and snow, but the bridge was dry, so by the time he realized he was approaching the sharp curve and touched the bridge, he lost control, ramming into the iron bars.

His family received an early morning call that Ray had been in an accident and his outlook was dismal. He had been life-flighted from the scene and was in the hospital with a punctured lung, broken ribs, and life-threatening internal injuries. The doctors were frank with his family that he may not make it, but little by little, he defied fate. He struggled to breathe at first and for months required the use of a walker and a cane. It was another year of recovery, but this time the man with the brawn and muscle shriveled away to nearly nothing. Ray would never return to his former athletic prowess. He was older at that time and the latest accident slowed him down immensely.

To everyone else, it was apparent that Ray had the hand of God on him throughout all of his accidents, but even God would no longer protect him if Ray continued to pose such a hazard to himself. Ray appeared be at a place in his life where everything was out of control. At that point, a person should reach out for help, but Ray felt bigger than that, assuming he could handle his woes on his own. He refused to believe in anything other than himself.

At that time, Ray had seen very little of his family apart from the holidays, but after his accident, something changed in him. He began spending time with his siblings, often coming for visits, riding motorcycles together, and working in the garage rebuilding their bikes. Apart from his desire for increased interaction with his family, Ray’s life was in turmoil. He was forced to close his business due to debt and was in deep financial distress with his hefty home mortgage. The man that once had the answer to everyone’s problems no longer knew how to solve his own woes and he was drowning in depression. A dark fog settled over him and his discourse became morbid. Ray began to talk about death with an alarming frequency and his family became unsettled by the fact that mortality was always brought up on his end no matter what the topic of conversation was.

Ray would repeatedly say to his family members, “Don’t cry for me when I’m gone because I won’t even know the difference.”

At the time, they paid only enough attention to his comments to think of them as odd, but did not concentrate enough on his words to realize until later that they should have said something. His comments were only out of character to the point that they were unsettling, but they were not so blatant to cause alarm. Perhaps if Ray had not spent his entire life giving people the impression he was indestructible, his family would have been more in tune with his signs. He had deeply rooted issues that needed tending to but were left ignored.

A turning point for Ray came when he found work employed at a construction company and his passion for business returned. He soon branched out his old trade as an independent contractor from his employer’s company and was plunged into the entrepreneurship he loved. His confidence returned and his family noticed a marked improvement in him.

At that time, his oldest son was in college, his middle son was about to graduate from high school and his youngest was a high school freshman. His middle son won the State wrestling championship and was ready to compete in the national wrestling competition. Ray took the opportunity to drive all three of his sons in a camper to attend the competition and enjoy the weekend together. Upon their return, Ray took his oldest son on spring break and took the time to bond with his firstborn one-on-one. It seemed his life had resumed its proper course.

It was three years since his snowmobile accident and Ray was only at his new job for six months when he dropped his son off at college following their trip. Ray heard of a rock concert being held that night and decided to go directly there before heading home. Knowing he had not seen his wife in a week, he called to see if she minded him going out that night.

She reluctantly replied, “You do whatever you want to do,” knowing from experience that if she forbid him, he would rebel and go anyhow. Such was his nature.

At about two o’clock the following morning, a teenage girl was driving along a lonely stretch of road. She was heading home from a friend’s house when she came upon a harrowing scene. She saw before her a crumpled car overturned in the ditch and she decided to report the accident to the police without stopping. As she grabbed her cell phone and continued forward, conscience urged her to pull over, so she did. The frightened young girl made the call and stepped out of her vehicle.

“911, what’s your emergency?” a hurried voice answered on the opposite line.

“Yes, I was driving on Route 44 in Newbury and I found a car overturned in the ditch.”

“Okay, I’ll have units dispatched there immediately. Now, are you able to tell me how many people are involved and if anyone’s hurt?”

The terrified teen quickly knelt down outside the vehicle and tried peering into the windows. “I can’t tell if…”

Her eye caught something several yards behind the vehicle near a twisted telephone pole. Her legs nearly buckled beneath her, but she bravely ran within a few feet from her discovery, too afraid to step in close.

“There’s one man. He’s lying outside of the vehicle and asking for help,” she said, her voice shuddering. “I actually know who he is. His name is Ray Porter.”

Ray’s sister was still asleep when she heard the phone ring early that morning. Upon answering, she learned that her brother had been in an automobile accident after drinking at a concert. Somehow, as she listened to the call, she knew with a sick feeling in her heart that it would be the accident that would take his life. The other early morning calls had alarmed her, but in the same sense, she knew he would be fine. Yet with that last call, she was certain that there would be no more chances for Ray. As she had unknowingly predicted, he could not cheat death a third time.

The teenage girl that discovered him was a longtime family friend and knew Ray well enough that she could tell the responding officers the names of his immediate family. At the scene of the accident, Ray was conscious and aware of where he was. Nonetheless, by the time he was life-flighted to the hospital, he did not interact with his family who had rushed there to see him. They never knew if he was aware of their presence before he slipped away. Ray’s carelessness finally succeeded in ending his life. His impervious nature told him it would be okay for him to get behind the wheel of a car after several drinks, but his nature had fooled him.

A large memorial service was held in the gymnasium of the local high school Ray’s sons attended and where he coached many children. There were dozens of flower arrangements filling the stage where photos of Ray had also been placed in his honor. These photos showed a giant of a man interacting with the kids he had coached. In some, the children were hanging from his shoulders as they laughed together. This man had an entirely different side than what most could see. His own siblings had known only limited facets of their brother, including Ray’s greedy business side and reckless nature. Yet here in these photos was a man with a love for sports and the children who played them. Here was a man whose passion for athletics and childlike heart made him an excellent coach and father. Ray had related more with children than he did adults because he had never truly grown up himself.

As Ray’s siblings listened to the comments from other mourners and to the speeches made at the podium, their perception of their brother transformed. They immediately wished they had known the man hidden from them throughout the years.

“Ray was a great person, a great coach and a great friend,” a fellow coach relayed. “I can’t believe he’s gone and I don’t know what we’ll do without him. He’s left a gigantic hole.”

A former student stated, “Ray used to coach me in wrestling. I remember him as a great guy who would stay and work with us as long as we needed. Sometimes he would hang around and talk wrestling with us after practice. Most coaches put in their time and left, but not Ray. He was dedicated and wanted to see us succeed.”

“I go to school with his sons and they’re first class just like their dad,” a current student declared. “Ray was truly there for his family and children. He was there for the young men he coached. A great man has been lost, but not forgotten.”

From every event is a reaction; a ripple effect that reaches the multitudes, to some only a small degree, while to others more significantly. Such was the result of Ray’s life and death. Many questioned why Ray’s life was ended just as it was taking a turn for the better. Tragedies seem to occur purposelessly, but there is reason often beyond comprehension. Many lives were transformed from this single life that was lost to the world. People with no known connection to Ray benefited for the better. Some were affected either by the goodwill he spread through his coaching, his advice, and others became more thoughtful of their own reckless lives after hearing Ray’s cautionary tale. Most people cannot begin to understand how the vibrations from a single life spread to others through the veins of the earth. Most people can only believe in tangible evidence that can be touched and even they agree Ray’s memory lives on, be it in the form of a family man, mentor, or daredevil.

By Chance (Short Story)

In this short story, a woman takes a step into her past seeking contrition, but instead discovers a humility that would change the course of her life.

With her manicured fingers tapping her steering wheel, Ava pulled into the cluttered city street. It was a two hour drive home, but she could not shake the feeling that she needed to go somewhere first. The open house she had hosted that day was a success and Ava was certain she would close on the property by the end of the month. Of course, homes in the sprawling harbor town did not sit empty long, especially the prime real estate along the lakefront. The town was a typical coastal tourist destination complete with summer rental condos, a dozen seafood restaurants, and a vivacious nightlife, but Ava had once known it as her second home. She had spent every childhood summer there at her family’s lake house. Ava had not visited the cottage for over fifteen years after her parents separated. It had been on her mind ever since she had begun picking up properties in the area.  She was not even sure she remembered its location, yet felt a sudden urgency to locate it. Despite her exhaustion and long drive ahead, she changed her route.

Ava clicked on her signal and turned onto a side street leading toward the lake. Jeremy and the kids would be expecting her home by six thirty, but the nagging feeling would not relent. While heading towards the shoreline, she allowed her instincts to take over and lead her there. Coasting down a hill that curved towards the shore, she spotted the rows of white sailboats tied along the dock and acknowledged the familiarity of the harbor. Continuing forward, she headed up a steep hill hedged with trees that led into a lesser populated area. The lake homes that followed were more private and the views more scenic, leading her to believe she was on the right track. After several minutes of traveling deeper into the forest, she came upon the entrance to a dirt road. The large pine trees framing the drive seemed familiar and she was certain the destination was near. A few minutes into taking her sedan down the rough uneven road, she came upon a fork. The drive to the left beckoned her in its direction and after proceeding for awhile, there it was.

Ava’s old lake house sat there lonely and abandoned. As she shut off her ignition and stepped out, she was surprised by the extreme calm and quiet in the forest. Walking up the stone path clumsily in her high heels, she soaked in the sight of her childhood haunt and noted how it appeared much smaller than she remembered. Much of the olive green paint had chipped off the weatherworn plank siding and the repurposed wood shingles were in need of repair. Some of the white window shutters were torn off from a recent series of storms.

Walking around to the front of the cottage facing the lake, she stepped onto the wooden deck and soaked in the scene of the boardwalk stretching down towards the shore. The waves lapped gently at the wooden posts supporting it and Ava inhaled deeply, delighting in the musty scent of the lake that transported her to another time. Turning towards the entrance, she noticed a scrap of paper tucked into the storm door. Curious, Ava opened the door and released the paper, then took it in her hands and unfolded it. It was a note written in woman’s handwriting, addressed to her.

Ava Cain,

If you find this letter, please contact me as soon as possible. I have something for you.

 -Mattie Gleason

Beneath the signature was a phone number and address.

Ava was stunned. Memories of the little girl next girl came crashing forward from the deep recesses of her mind, memories she was surprised to have stored. It had been nearly twenty years since she and Mattie had last played together on the shores between their neighboring lake homes.  They were fond memories of two carefree little girls collecting seashells and building stick forts, but they clashed with memories of anger and deception. Ava knew what Mattie wanted to give her and then realized she had never forgiven her friend after all those years.

It had been the summer of 1989 and the season was at its end. Ava’s family had begun packing for home where Ava and her brothers would return to school. Ava would soon say goodbye to her seasonal friend and they would go their separate ways until the following summer.

It was the last day at the lake and Ava brought Mattie to the cottage after a morning of outdoor play. While Ava’s mother fixed the girls a light lunch, Ava was at her side, pleading, “Mommy, Mattie wants me to sleep over at her cottage tonight and her parents said I could, so can I?”

Her mother sighed while spreading mustard across a slice of bread. “I’m not so sure about that, sweetie. We have to leave early in the morning, but I suppose since it’s your last day with your friend, it will be alright as long as you’re ready to leave by eight o’clock.”

“I will, Mommy! I promise!” Ava shouted with excitement.

While the girls sat at the table eating their sandwiches, Mattie and Ava chattered on about their plans for that evening. They were not thinking about the next day when Ava would leave and they would not see each other until the following summer. To them, the hours ahead would last forever.

Peering down at Ava’s throat, Mattie commented, “I really like your necklace. I never noticed it before.”

Ava bent her head to look towards the beautiful aquamarine pendant hanging from her neck. “Thanks. My parents got it for me for my birthday. I guess it’s my birthstone.”

“It’s really pretty,” Mattie said.

The girls spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the forest and swimming in the lake. When darkness fell, the two families came together on the beach and built a bonfire to celebrate the Cain’s final night. It was a perfect ending, and after the families returned to their cottages for the night, Ava curled up on the floor of Mattie’s bedroom, snuggled up in her sleeping bag. She had removed her necklace before retiring because its sharp edges made for an uncomfortable sleep. She placed it next to her other belongings on a chair in Mattie’s room. The wooden floor beneath felt hard on Ava’s back, but she was so tired from all the day’s activities that she hardly cared. Though the girls began their idle chatter and laughter as soon as they switched off the light, it did not last long and both were asleep in little time.

At morning’s light, Mrs. Gleason was gently shaking Ava awake. “Get up, Little Miss Sunshine! You’re going home this morning and your mother wanted me to roust you now!”

Ava sat up groggily and began gathering her things before heading to the bathroom to change out of her pajamas. Once she was ready, she crept back into Mattie’s room and dove on top of her sleeping friend.

“Mattie, I have to go now!” Ava cried out, hugging Mattie tightly. “I’ll see you next summer.”

Mattie looked up at Ava with tired eyes and pouted. “I wish you didn’t have to go already.”

“Me neither,” Ava replied. “Bye, Mattie. I promise to write.”

“Me too. Bye, bye,” Mattie muttered, her bottom lip jutting out.

While Ava was leaving the room with her night bag in hand, she suddenly stopped. “Oh wait!” she cried. “I almost forgot my necklace.” She walked over to the chair and did not see it on top of it nor beneath it. “It’s not here!”

“Is it in your bag?” Mattie suggested.

Ava dropped her bag on the floor and pulled out her sleeping bag, pajamas, and toothbrush. Her search through the bottom and in the pockets came up empty. “No! It’s not,” Ava responded, her voice becoming frantic.

“I’ll help you look,” Mattie offered, crawling out of bed and onto the floor to look beneath it. The girls searched in every corner and under every piece of furniture, but the necklace could not be found.

A sickening thought entered Ava’s mind and lodged there like a parasite. Looking at Mattie directly, she asked, “Did you take the necklace?”

“Of course not!” Mattie gasped in disbelief.  “Why would I take your necklace?”

“I don’t believe you,” Ava growled. “You liked it so much that I bet you stole it.”

Mattie’s sun-browned skin suddenly turned ashen and her appearance became forlorn. “No,” she denied. “I swear I didn’t.”

At that time, Mattie’s parents entered the room. “Ava, your mother is here wondering if you’re ready to go,” Mrs. Gleason announced.  “Did you girls say your goodbyes?”

Mattie and Ava fell quiet, their eyes narrowing and mouths formed tight lines.

“What’s the matter?” Mr. Gleason probed. “Are you two sad because Ava is leaving?”

“No,” Ava replied firmly. “Mattie stole my necklace and she won’t give it back.”

“Mattie!” Mr. Gleason shouted. “Why did you take Ava’s necklace? Give it back to her so she can go!”

With wide eyes, Mattie bellowed, “I didn’t take it! She’s lying! She just can’t find it.”

Mrs. Gleason turned to Ava and said, “Honey, if Mattie says she didn’t steal your necklace, then she didn’t. Your mother is waiting and you have to go now. If it turns up, we’ll mail it to you, I promise.”

Ava snatched her bag and after offering Mattie the most formidable glare she could, stomped out of the room.  Her mother was too irritated by Ava’s lateness to notice her daughter’s ill humor.  The drive home seemed to last an eternity and Ava’s anger heaved and boiled inside her.  She internalized it, allowing her rage to seep into her skin and race through her veins like poison.  As time passed, the anger remained, having burrowed deep, so much that whenever she thought of that morning at the lake, the memory conjured wild waves of fury and she wished every affliction upon Mattie.

That was the last time Ava would see Mattie.  She had received one letter from Mattie following her departure that professed that she had not been able to find the necklace before her family returned to their winter home. She wrote that she was very sorry and promised that she had not taken it. Mattie ended the note by proclaiming her wish that they remain friends and hoped Ava would write back to her. Ava never replied.

As Ava stood on the boardwalk of her deserted cabin and looked down the shoreline at the neighboring cottage where Mattie’s family had lived, she reflected on the passing years. She realized that she had not spent an entire summer at the cabin since then. She had begun playing summer sports which kept her in her hometown and had only traveled to the lake house for a few weekends out of the year. Never once did she walk over to the Gleason’s cottage to play with Mattie. It was only a few years later that Ava’s parents divorced and her father had won ownership of the cottage. Ava never had a close relationship with her father and never took him up on his invitation to spend time at the lake. By that time, the cottage had become an object of her childhood and her focus fell on more important matters like soccer and boys.  The cottage along with Mattie gradually fell into the category of forgotten memories.

Ava stared down at the scrap of paper in her hands, noting that Mattie’s address was about an hour away, but Ava would be in the area later in the week to stage a home. Ava decided that she would drop by Mattie’s place as soon as she was finished. She knew Mattie wished to return the necklace and confess to taking it. Ava could not care less about the necklace now, but was curious to see Mattie and hear her much delayed confession.

It was Friday afternoon and the time was slowly slipping into evening when Ava punched Mattie’s address into her GPS, certain that Mattie would be home at that hour. Sure enough, when she pulled into the driveway of the two-story Victorian style home, she saw lights through the windows and parked behind an old station wagon.

Turning off the ignition, Ava sighed nervously, mustering the courage to face her childhood friend. She studied her reflection carefully in the mirror and touched up her lipstick before getting out of the car. She walked up to the front door and smoothed out the wrinkles in her pencil skirt before pressing the doorbell.

When the door opened momentarily, Ava was surprised to see not a mature Mattie, but a much older and grayer version of Mattie’s mother. “Hello?” she said softly, a confused expression on her face.

“Mrs. Gleason?” Ava asked and when the old woman nodded, she continued, “Hi! I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Ava Brown, formerly Ava Cain, the little girl who–”

“I know who you are,” Mrs. Gleason interrupted politely. “No need to explain. Mattie told me she had attempted to contact you and had hoped you would come or call. She thought it was a long shot that your family still owned that cottage, but had no way of getting a hold of you.”

“As a matter of fact we do, but I have not been there in years and it was just chance that I was in the area and had gone to the house earlier this week and found her note. Is Mattie here so that I can talk to her?”

A shadow fell across Mrs. Gleason’s face, “Oh my dear, she is not. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mattie passed away on Sunday. In fact, her funeral was this afternoon. We’ve had so many visitors that I thought that’s why you were here. Oh, Honey, please come inside and have a seat.”

As Mrs. Gleason pulled Ava inside and closed the door, the former pit of nervousness in Ava’s stomach transformed into a heavy boulder. It could not be possible. Surely, Mattie was playing a cruel prank and would jump out of her hiding place at any moment to surprise her.

Mrs. Gleason led Ava to the living room where she offered her a seat and the old woman sat herself down on a worn recliner. A cold sickness flooded Ava’s body as she lowered herself onto the sofa and took in her surroundings. She immediately saw a hospital bed in the corner with all sorts of wires attached to medical machines and an IV drip beside of it.

“She was in hospice care,” Mrs. Gleason explained. “She had terminal pancreatic cancer and I was helping care for her up until the very end. We had some time to say our goodbyes but it doesn’t make it any easier.”

Ava’s jaw was slack, unable to find the right words. “I…I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

“The truth is, Mattie left you that note a month ago when she was still able to get around,” said Mrs. Gleason. “She wanted to see you, but I’m afraid you came too late. As a matter of fact, she had something to give you. Wait here and I’ll see if I can find it.”

The aged woman slowly raised herself up and shuffled off to a back room, returning after only a moment. There, dangling from between her wrinkled fingers was Ava’s aquamarine pendant.

“My necklace!” Ava said, feigning surprise as she clutched it in her palm. “Thank you so much.”

“It was under the floorboards,” she said.

“What? I don’t understand.”

“In Mattie’s room at the cottage-it must have fallen between the floorboards. We found it a few months ago during some remodeling before we discovered Mattie was sick. She had lost your old address and had no idea how to contact you, but when she was diagnosed and given a month to live, she knew she had to find you and make sure you got it back.”

Ava’s hands were trembling and she could not look Mrs. Gleason in the face. The tears ran freely while the guilt twisted her soul like a wrench. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am,” Ava cried. “I was so horrible to Mattie, accusing her of stealing it.”

“You were just kids then and Mattie forgave and forgot long ago, but she knew she could never be at peace unless you knew of her innocence.”

Suddenly standing, Ava said, “Mrs. Gleason, my apologies, but I must get home to my kids. I’m so sorry for everything and promise to visit again. I’d love to hear about Mattie’s life. I only wish she were here so I can tell her how sorry I am.”

As she led Ava out, Mrs. Gleason replied, “You can still tell her. She’s buried in South Cemetery.”

With some daylight left, Ava found the cemetery and easily spotted Mattie’s grave, the fresh dirt piled high in thick clumps. Her feet were heavy as she stumbled towards the grave and crouched down, nearly collapsing from the shame.

“Mattie, I’m sorry,” she said aloud. “I am so, so sorry for what I did to you. I was cruel. I know you’ve forgiven me, but please help me to forgive myself. “

As Ava wept over Mattie’s grave, a deep calm settled over her. She had set out that afternoon seeking a confession from Mattie, but instead received conviction. As the week’s events replayed in her mind, she became aware that Mattie’s death had fallen on the same day Ava discovered the note.  That strange urgency to find the cottage formed an eerie awareness inside of her.  As Ava drove home towards the setting sun, the necklace dangled from her review mirror, a constant reminder of lost chances.

Seeking Fulfillment Where There Is None

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, serving its modern purpose as the springboard for Americans to catapult themselves into the commercial craze that has become the Christmas Holidays. It serves as the go-ahead and key holder for the buying madness that will consume the next four weeks. It is the dam that opens the spending waters in a fury, inundating every corner and crevasse of the retail channel.

America. Once a nation built under the name of God – the great name that is being wiped away in every governmental and educational district across the country. In its place is greed, lust for money, lust for objects, and the ache for instant gratification at any cost. Our Holidays that were founded in order to celebrate God and our love for Him have fallen to the throng of commercialism. How has it come to this? Let us take a step back and review the shift that has occurred with the time between the fourth Thursday in November and the 25th of December.

When the Pilgrims first landed in America in 1620, they were ravaged by starvation, unfamiliar with how to survive in the foreign land. Fortunately, in 1621, a kind Indian named Squanto came to their aide and taught them how to grow corn. In turn, the Pilgrims taught the Indians about God and His merciful ways. The Indians learned how to pray and ask for rainfall in times of drought. They soon witnessed the endless blessings that came from prayer, one being the plentiful harvest that year.

“Today, many of our public school children are taught that we celebrate Thanksgiving because the Pilgrims were thanking their Indian neighbors for helping them; but the evidence of history shows that on that first Thanksgiving Day the thanks of both Pilgrims and Indians went to God for His great goodness toward them all. But the story does not end there.

Even though the Pilgrims hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner in America, the holiday itself actually has its origins almost 170 years later, after the Revolutionary War had been won and our American Constitution had been adopted. In 1789, Congress approved the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. Congress then “recommended a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to thank God for blessing America. President Washington declared November 26, 1789, as the first national day of prayer and thanksgiving to the Lord.

Another 75 years later, after the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln established the last Thursday in November as a day to acknowledge “the gracious gifts of the Most High God” bestowed upon America. Every president did the same until 1941 when Congress officially made Thanksgiving a national holiday.”

-www.jesus-is-savior.com

It’s amazing to hear the way Congress used to talk, unabashedly proclaiming God as the true founder and reason for America’s blessings. Nowadays it seems that Politicians do everything in their power to erase all traces of God’s name to present an unbiased view in light of freedom of religion. Yet, doing so has only allowed corruption to creep into its place and that is a whole other story and issue within itself. What began as a holiday set aside to give thanks and count blessings is slowly but surely being swallowed by the greed and pettiness of commercialism. It all begins with Black Friday.

We know Black Friday as the day to hit off the Christmas shopping season. The name Black Friday originated before the 1960’s in Philadelphia to describe the hectic rush of shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving and the profit retailers made from the sudden jump in sales. From that time up until more recently, Thanksgiving was divided from Black Friday in that it was the final day of the year before the holiday madness began. I predicted several years ago that with Black Friday beginning earlier and earlier each year, from 6AM to 4AM and starting last year at midnight, that it would soon encroach upon Thanksgiving. Sure enough, this year, doors began opening at 9pm, 8pm, and even 7 pm on Thanksgiving Day. Shoppers lined up outside stores on Wednesday, preferring to save $100 on a television than enjoy time with family over a Thanksgiving meal. Even the people that did spend Thanksgiving with their family spent it combing the Black Friday ads and plotting out their plan of action. What is most shocking is that these behaviors are becoming the new state of normalcy. More and more people with each passing year thrill at experiencing the adrenaline rush of crowds and chaos. The insanity is celebrated and it is Corporate America who is at fault. The newspaper, internet ads and television commercials scream, “Huge Savings! Doorbusters! Lowest Prices Ever! Buy, buy, buy!” and we are quick to follow the siren call.

Some will argue that the hype keeps the economy alive, but when it is at the cost of transforming the meaning of our Holidays into the worship of objects and money instead of our Savior, how is that commendable? America is rapidly turning into a modern Sodom and Gomorrah where idols are worshiped, but instead of golden statues, we are slaves to our ever-evolving technologies and constant accumulation of “stuff” to fill the void in our lives. When will we realize that it is the love for God and for one another and not things that provide the most fulfillment?

Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness. (Psalms 97:12)

 

Forward Thinking (Short Story)

Life is supposed to be a wondrous adventure, but for some, life can be a burdensome experience, full of fear and sadness. In cases such as these, it is often the inner demons that must be battled before a soul can live in the outside world and learn to healthily process external challenges. This fictional story of such a young woman tells of a life that has been overcome by unbearable depression and the urge to put it to an end.

By this time tomorrow, I’ll no longer exist, she promised herself. She hugged her knees to her chest, sighing deeply, but could feel nothing of her decision to end her life. Her suffering would end tomorrow and she gave herself the next 24 hours to build up the courage to go through with it. She sank deeper into her sofa and closed her eyes, imagining her death for the thousandth time. Her tiny apartment was cramped and quiet, the silence unsettling. She grabbed the remote to her secondhand TV and switched it on, but did not browse the channels or watch the shapes that moved across the screen. She increased the volume and allowed the noise to drown out her thoughts. She would try to sleep, she decided. Unconsciousness would steal her away for awhile so that she would not have to deal with the pain. The overwhelming angst that had ruled her life had melted into an eternal numbness, but even the numbness proved unbearable.

The high pitched tone of her cell phone interrupted the monotonous drone of her television. Groaning, she reached her fingers towards the coffee table and snatched the phone forth. Squinting at the brightly lit screen, she sighed and took the call.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Piper? Oh, Honey, I’m so glad you answered.”

Piper said nothing, but closed her eyes in irritation.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I need a big favor. I need you to drive me to the eye doctor.”

“Why?”

“I can barely keep my eyes open, I’m in such pain,” her mother frantically explained. “I’m sure it’s an ulcer. Please, there’s no way I can drive. Any amount of light is unbearable!”

“Okay,” Piper caved.

“Thank God!” her mother rejoiced. “Can you be here in twenty minutes?”

“Yep.” Piper hung up the phone before she had to hear another word.

After pulling into the driveway of her mother’s modest suburban home, Piper watched the round figure of her mother stumble towards her, open the door and plop into the passenger seat. While pulling the door closed, her mother squinted in her direction, displaying her level of discomfort.

“Thanks Honey,” she said. “Just back out and go left, then I’ll tell you when to turn.”

Piper pulled the car in reverse, saying nothing. Her mother continued, “Gosh, I woke up in the middle of the night and my eye was killing me. It’s my contacts, I know, but I’m so busy and always forget to take them out. You’d think I would know better by now, but here we are again. You’ll want to turn right up at the second light. So, what’s new with you, honey? I’ve checked the paper every day for photography jobs. I know you don’t want to work in a studio, but you need solid employment. Have you booked any weddings yet for this summer?”

“No,” Piper replied, shaking her head.

“I know you’re talented, but you need to build clientele. Start from the bottom and work your way up. Work for cheap, work for free, whatever you must do to break into the business. Turn right again at this street and the clinic is on the left. Is your dad still sending you money? I wouldn’t rely on him much longer, you know. You’ve been out of college for how many months now?”

Piper tried to drown out her mother’s words with her thoughts for the twenty minute drive. She had heard it all before a hundred times. She was relieved when they pulled into the parking lot of the clinic so that the conversation would at last end.

“It may be a while, so you better come in with me,” her mother suggested.

Piper rolled her eyes and they went inside the clinic. After checking in, her mother went off with a doctor’s assistant and Piper sat down in the waiting room as far away as possible from other people. She felt the anxiety rush through her veins as she avoided eye contact, dropping her head in her hands. She could only imagine what people were thinking of her and she felt suffocated by their presence. It was as if she was a prisoner in her own body. It was these moments where she was forced into being a member of society that she wished to have never been born. She was overwhelmed by the smallest amount of responsibility and knew that her past hopes and dreams had been too far-fetched to possibly become reality. She did not fit in anywhere. No one understood her.  These thoughts looped through her head for what felt like an eternity before she finally heard her mother’s voice, but her hopes of going home were immediately dashed.

“Let’s go, Piper, we have to go pick up a prescription for my eye drops and then I was thinking we could grab a bite to eat since I never get to see you anymore.”

“I thought you were in pain?” Piper asked, seeking a way out. She preferred to return to her apartment to wallow in her misery.

“I am, but that won’t keep me from eating dinner with my daughter.”

Piper could not refuse her mother’s invitation. Though she had always been closer to her father, she began sympathizing with her mother after her father had left them to start a family with a younger woman. Piper was her mother’s only child and she decided that she had better fit in some quality time with her before following through with the plan to end her life.

After fetching the prescription, Piper and her mother walked into the local family diner and were seated in a booth. Her mother was wearing sunglasses to protect her eyes from the light as she scanned the menu and as soon as mother and daughter made their selections, they placed their orders.

“Just a cup of chicken soup for me, please,” Piper told the waitress.

“That’s all?” her mother gasped. “Piper, why don’t you get the salad bar or something with more substance?”

“Nope, that’s all I want,” Piper replied.

After the waitress collected their menus and left, her mother scolded, “Piper! Really, you should try to eat more. It’s not healthy to be so thin and you look like you haven’t seen the sun for months. I’ve been so worried about you, Honey. I hope everything’s alright.”

“I’m fine, Mom,” she said, sipping on her water nonchalantly. She was anything but fine, but could not tell her mother that.

When Piper finally dropped her mother off back at her home, she was relieved to be unleashed from the responsibility that she despised. She could return to her apartment and spend her final hours in peace.

“Goodbye Sweetie,” her mother said while getting out of the car. “Thanks again. And don’t forget, the doctor wants to see me back in a few days, so in case I still can’t see, I may need you to drive me again. I’ll call you soon!”

When the door shut, a wave of disbelief flowed over Piper’s countenance. She was not yet free from the responsibility. Piper knew that she had no business going through with ending her life when her mother needed her. What would her mother think? She pictured her mother telling her friends, “Piper was supposed to take me back to the doctor but then she killed herself. Now what am I supposed to do?” Piper would have to bear life for a little longer.

It would be over two months later when the darkness returned to suffocate the life force from Piper’s body. Piper had slipped back into the isolation that felt safe and familiar to her. For her, hope became the merest of flames, but was snuffed out before she could ever feel its warmth. She had been called in for a few interviews at various photography studios and though a couple seemed promising, she was ultimately passed over for others with more experience. Despite her obvious talent, the competition was severe and she was sure that she came across as too desperate, shy and awkward to qualify as a likely candidate. No one would want someone like her taking photos of families and children. The rejection and despair that followed were unbearable and it did not take long for Piper’s resilience to crumble. She soon found herself back on the dark path leading to her own destruction.

There was a 24 hour drugstore a block away from her apartment where she often went late at night to buy her groceries and sundries. It was after midnight one day when she decided to journey to the store but this time she was not in the market for ramen noodles or toothpaste.

Shutting the apartment building’s entry door behind her, she turned to walk along the deserted sidewalk that was dimly lit by streetlights. A fresh rain had fallen earlier that evening and she listened to her footsteps as they padded lightly against the damp concrete. There was a slight chill in the night breeze and she felt her lungs fill with the cool air and then rush out warmly against her cheeks when she exhaled. She looked down at her thin hands, watching her knuckles form sharp ashen angles against the blackness of night. She saw the white of her bones through the skin and the blue of her veins pulsing with blood. The thought that all these aspects of her would forever still and fade away at her death gave her pause. What a worthless waste of a human body she was. She pressed on, her mission clear.

The automatic doors of the drugstore screamed open at her approach, and grabbing a basket, she made her way to the rear of the store towards the painkillers. Upon finding them in their neat rows, separated by brand and color and strength, she was perplexed. How many did she need? Just one bottle or two? Perhaps a dozen bottles? How was she to know? Fear overcame her as she stared at the bottles, empty basket in hand. What if she did not take enough and become violently ill? What if the pills did not immediately lapse her into the sweet incoherence of death but rather an excruciating, burning, retching end?

“Piper?” an eager voice from behind echoed through the aisle, shattering her reverie. Spinning around in surprise, she found herself staring into a familiar yet long-forgotten face. She had long, blond hair and golden skin complete with a permanent cheerful grin. Piper scanned through her memory bank before finally selecting the name from a long lost file.

“Rebecca!” she uttered, her voice sounding strange to herself. The shock of her situation and the looming anxiety closed in on her, strangling her vocal chords.

“Hi Piper! I haven’t seen you since graduation. How have you been?” Rebecca’s voice was high and bubbly, the voice of someone confident and certain of her place in the world.

“I’m okay,” Piper said, stumbling over her words. As Rebecca searched her face expectantly, Piper automatically returned, “How have you been?”

“Wonderful! I’m getting married next Saturday! To Greg, remember? We’ve been together since Freshman year. I can’t wait!”

Piper nodded mechanically. “That’s great!” she said with artificial interest. Rebecca’s enthusiasm was putting a damper on her misery. Who did this girl think she was, popping into a drugstore at one in the morning and interrupting a perfectly peaceful suicide? Stifling her annoyance, she asked, “What brings you here at this time of night?”

Rebecca shrugged and said, “I’ve picked up a second job working as a bartender at The Dry Martini and just left work. Sometimes I stop here after my shift because it’s more convenient. How about you?”

“Same here,” Piper replied. “I like to avoid the crowds too.” How was she going to get rid of this girl and her probing questions? “Look, I…”

“Hey!” Rebecca broke in with excitement. “You were a Photography Major, right? Yes! I remember your work-it was stunning! You have an eye like no one else!”

“Thank you…”

Rebecca’s eyes were wide as she continued, “Wow! What a coincidence because my wedding photographer all of a sudden flaked out on me and I have been looking everywhere for a replacement. Is there any chance that you could do it?”

Piper’s first instinct was to tell Rebecca that she would be busy that night. No, not busy, but dead. She scoffed at the ridiculous thought of telling Rebecca that she would not be able to attend the wedding because she would be at her own funeral. She and Rebecca had not been close in college, but were certainly friendly. How unfair it would be to Rebecca if Piper returned home, committed suicide and ruined all the gaiety of Rebecca and Greg’s upcoming nuptials. Piper imagined Rebecca hearing the news of her friend’s demise and crying, “I was the last one to see her alive!”

“Sure,” Piper heard herself utter.

Rebecca grabbed Piper’s hands, jumping up and down ecstatically. “Fantastic! I’m so happy! Give me your phone number and I’ll call you with the details.”

The following week, Piper was standing at the back of St. Robert’s Church with her large digital camera in hand, snapping shot after shot of Rebecca looking ethereal in her white gown as she walked towards her eager bridegroom. Piper had brought herself to buy a new dress, wishing to appear as a professional photographer and had even put effort into her hair and makeup. It was strange when she had looked in the mirror before leaving her apartment because for once, she liked what she saw.

The wedding day went by in a blur of activities. Piper had not slept at all the night previous, anxious that something would go wrong, but she surprised herself with her natural abilities. Her angst threatened to break her near the beginning, but as soon as she saw several familiar faces from college, she became less tense. She had forgotten the thrill of being behind her camera and it molded to her hands, becoming part of her, hiding her from the demons that had taunted her for months.

At the wedding reception, Piper was grateful that she did not have to dance or try to make conversation with the other guests. Her photography was her conversation piece and she realized that when she was in her element, her social awkwardness melted away.

Her spirits remained high as the evening wore on and the guests trickled out. As the last songs were played, Piper began packing up her equipment knowing the reception was drawing to a close. Suddenly, a cloud of doubt settled upon her as she wondered what she would do with herself after this night. Though she had been caught up in the day’s excitement with the adrenaline pumping through her body and giving her a euphoric high, she knew it would fade. Would she return to the darkness and allow it to plague her before she finally decided to go through with her suicide? Or, would she take this night as proof that she was valuable, talented and completely capable of responsibility?

As she pondered this perplexing question, a group of her old college acquaintances approached her to say goodbye.

“I can’t wait to see the photos,” one young man said.

“As soon as I finish editing them, but not before,” she replied playfully. She remembered this young man from her Social Science class, mainly because he had stood out from the rest. He had a quick wit and biting humor that Piper had always thought was endearing. They had only talked a few times during college but Piper had not forgotten him.

“I’ll have to be patient then,” he smiled. “Hey, it was so nice seeing you today. So, I’m having a fourth of July party at my parent’s lake and we will all be there. I was just wondering if perhaps you’d like to go too. Rebecca and Greg will be back from their honeymoon by then and said they’d come. We’re all going out on the boat to watch the fireworks from the lake.”

For once, Piper did not have to think it over. “Absolutely, I’d love to come!”

As Piper drove herself home that night, she could not suppress the happiness bubbling up inside of her. She wondered if the string of events throughout the summer had been some sort of divine providence, impeding her from going through with ending her life. She had never realized before how much she was needed.  It made her happy to feel wanted and as much as she wished to hold onto the feeling forever, she was aware of her pattern with darkness. Piper knew that she had to change her way of thinking completely. She would need to promise to herself that whenever she felt the need to take her life again, that she would have to come up with something to look forward to, no matter how far into the future it was. It was the forward thinking that pulled her through the darkness.

The next morning she awoke content, but realized that it would require more than her positive thinking to keep her alive. She truly did not wish to ever again have those dark thoughts about taking her life. She wanted to live, to flourish, and above all, she wished to enjoy everything that life had to offer her. Yet her mind was still fragile and unpredictable.

She picked up her phone and dialed a number, the familiar anxiety flooding through her as she did so.

The opposite line picked up after a single ring, “Dr. Thompson’s office, how may I help you?”

Piper opened her mouth and froze in silence.

“Hello?”

“Ah…yes,” Piper stuttered. “I would like to schedule an appointment please.”

These were the most difficult words she would ever speak in her young years, but they would prove to be the difference between life and death.

We Are One

I used to be a self-proclaimed Transcendentalist and though I still am in a way, it took me years to realize that I was going about the movement the wrong way. My Transcendentalist personal quote once was, “I’d rather transcend above the rest than be lower than the best”. In my young, immature mind, Transcendence was about being better than everyone else and rising above the dredge and filth of imbeciles and the ignorant. True, Transcendence should be about rising upward and self-improvement, but should not be a selfish motive. Transcendence is not bettering oneself over others, it is bettering oneself FOR others. Transcendence is about rising above the filth and dredge of the world to improve ALL of humanity, not only ourselves!

About five years ago I had a dream where I saw the image of three Asian women with gray faces, gray clothes and melancholy expressions. Their hair was braided together, the ends of their braids weaving into the braids of one another, with a red ribbon woven in. I was so struck by the imagery that I set out to produce an oil painting of my dream. It took a few years to complete and even then, I still didn’t quite understand the symbolism behind the image. I named the painting “Three Sisters” and decided that I would allow my viewers to take from it whatever they saw the meaning to be. It is only now that I have finally come to understand the meaning of the image.

"Three Sisters", oil on canvas. By Ashley Armstrong, 2010

“Three Sisters”, oil on canvas. By Ashley Armstrong, 2010

In our modern society, we see one another as separate beings, competing against one another for love, for acceptance, or for money. It is extremely difficult for us to see inside one another and understand the spiritual essence of another being. We have grown further and further apart through the centuries and we have become selfish, self-serving entities. It is our selfish ways that have narrowed our vision and we see only the singular path that we alone are too take, no matter if the path to our own personal happiness is at the expense of others around us.

As the centuries have passed, the world population continues to grow and there are more and more people to have to “compete” against and also to have to try to understand. Our personalities are so different because God gave us an individuality to make us unique. However, we have forgotten that our individuality is meant to complement and blend with the other souls of this world-not to separate us and attempt to “one-up” one another. Surely, God gave us our unique traits so that we can express them, but when we use our individuality to serve darkness, we are straying far from his intentions.

Another key insight that has left us through the centuries is our ability to communicate with the spiritual realms. At one time, we were all very spiritual beings, vastly connected to the universe. We were familiar with the place we originally came from and would eventually return (preferably in higher form), but as the years have passed, we have fallen away, enraptured in the materialistic ways of earth and the fleeting gratifications of the flesh. The ray of light connecting us to the spiritual realm has dimmed or closed to most of us. We have forgotten all that is important to us and instead become disillusioned in our incarnation of this limited dimension. That’s not to say that this dimension is wrong. It is in actuality, vital to our growth as souls because our time on earth is where we learn and develop. By resisting the temptations of darkness and overcoming the endless obstacles of being human, we earn the discipline and wisdom we need to ascend to the next level of spirituality.

This brings us to our key truth: we are all made from God and come from him, therefore we have the same bloodline and the same veins of connection to one another. It is that simple. Our spirits, our souls, are intertwined, so we must return to the way of thinking as such. As my painting illustrates, we all have invisible ribbons tying each of us to the other and though we look different on the outside, we all share the same lineage-God’s lineage.

Nowadays, I see Transcendentalism in a new light. Transcendence is not about improving oneself to improve status in human society, but transcendence is about improving one’s soul-not to benefit us here on earth, but to bring us closer to God. We humans are all at different levels of development, yet we must begin to work together to wake up the disillusioned so that TOGETHER, we can transcend to where we are meant to be-with God!

Never Give Up On Me (Short Story)

A husband takes the first steps towards salvaging his relationship with his estranged wife. This fictional story was inspired by observing married couples and the one essential that makes marriage work: communication.

The moment David opened his front door and stepped foot into his home, he knew she had been there. The faint scent of her perfume hung in the air, though she departed long before he was expected to return from work. He was overwhelmed by the emptiness of his two-story Cape Cod style home and though it sat in an upscale suburban neighborhood, his was the loneliest house on the block. Inside, all of the expensive furniture and décor they had purchased together remained, but she was gone.

Anger and sadness welled up inside of him, but he wrested it downward. Dropping his briefcase in the foyer, he made his way into the kitchen contemplating what to make for dinner. He decided he would open cans of tuna fish and green beans, mix them together and hope the concoction was palatable after a nuke in the microwave.  David was not keen on domestic matters, having left experimentation with food back in his youth.  He was determined to create a semblance of the life he was used to and though it was nearly impossible, he would not become crippled just because she had left.

While clanking the car keys down on the counter island, something caught his eye. There, in her writing was a message scribbled on the backside of a piece of junk mail.

I came by to get some of my things. After being at the house tonight it seems as if you’ve moved on, so if you’re not interested in making “us” work, I understand. No hard feelings.

-Beth

David scoffed. No hard feelings? It was clearly a dishonest statement. He turned away to make his dinner, shaking his head all the while. He brought his dinner to the counter and stood to eat while rereading her short letter half a dozen times.  Despite what she thought, he had not moved on and was nowhere close to doing so.  Sure, he had removed all of the photos of them together and placed them in storage because they made him uncomfortable. He had also dismantled her project niche in the dining room where she kept her sewing machine and scrapbooking supplies since the clutter overwhelmed him.  He had even pushed aside the overstuffed chair that faced the entertainment center to make room for his broken-in, decades-old recliner. Beth had never allowed his dingy old chair outside of his man cave in the basement, but she was no longer there to object.

When David finished eating his bland supper, he walked upstairs to the master bedroom to change out of his work clothes. He noticed that she had collected most of her clothing, but a few dresses remained in the walk-in closet along with several pairs of her shoes on the shelf. He knew she would be back at some time for the rest of her belongings but would never show up while he was home.

David stared blankly into their closet, replaying the last several weeks of complete upheaval in his mind. He was aware that it was mostly his fault. His stubbornness and selfishness had caused her to leave and though he was angry with himself, he was livid with her for giving up on him. She was the one who had walked out, taking their young daughter, Maddy, with her.  Beth had moved in temporarily with her parents and Maddy spent the weekends with David.  It was a raw deal not seeing his daughter every day, but he could only blame himself.

David returned downstairs and sank into his comfortable old recliner. He pulled his laptop towards him and drafted an email.

Beth,

I saw you were here tonight. I don’t know why you think I’ve moved on. I miss you. I miss us. I’m not sure what you want me to do to make things better, but I’d like to try. 

-Love, David

He hit “send” before he could change his mind. It was probably the most sentimental words he had said to her in years and they felt foreign to him. It was almost as if he expressed weakness but perhaps a new approach could work. Nothing else he said seemed to improve their circumstances.

As he tried to fall asleep that night, memories of the past filled his consciousness. He recalled the day he asked her to their senior prom many years before and the ensuing puppy love that filled the following summer. Between visits to the county fair, afternoon swims in the local lake, and late night talks over milkshakes at the nearby family diner, they had fallen quickly and hard for one another.  It was an insatiable desire that could only be quenched by getting married within a year, which he realized was a mistake. Because of their hurriedness to the altar, their relationship had never been able to properly mature past the stage of puppy love.  He was aware that this had been the case all along and that communication was the weakest essential in their marriage. What he did not know was how to move forward to amend all the hurt he had caused and how to form new habits in communicating.

He awoke early the next morning to prepare for another long day at the office. After showering, he turned to the bathroom counter to brush his teeth and was shocked by his reflection in the mirror.  The man that stared back at him appeared aged, the stress hanging onto his countenance like a mask. This was not the virile, self-assured man he once was, but a new version of himself he hoped would not stay.

David quickly checked his email before leaving the house, but there was nothing in the inbox from her. He would have to spend the next twelve hours in suspense. By the time he returned home that evening, he was overwhelmed by anticipation and the minute he pulled up his inbox, he saw that she had much to say.

David,

I’m happy to hear that you are interested in working things out. I’ve given a lot of thought to what we need to do to fix this. First, I think you should know that I’m still upset and it will take time for me to trust you again with my emotions. I have so much hurt inside of me. I’m angry with you for how you’ve treated me and angry with myself for allowing it to go on.  With that being said, we need to address our issues before we have any hope of moving on. We need to spend time together and hopefully reconnect. We need to learn a new way to communicate because I won’t stand for days of not speaking while living in the same house and the passive, nasty words and actions we have been throwing at each other.  It’s no way to have a marriage and certainly no way to raise our daughter. I will tell you right now that things need to change if we are going to try to save this marriage because I have no interest in coming back and having things be the same. Frankly, it would just be a waste of time when we could be moving on, not that’s what I want to do. I still love you despite everything and I want to give us a chance. I first need to know if you are willing to change because I personally know that I have been working on changing. I can no longer stand to be your doormat and a sounding board for your aggressions.

-Beth

David’s heart raced as he quickly scanned through the contents of her email, taking it all in at once.  He then went back to carefully reread the email, allowing her words to digest.  He realized that she had abruptly ended her email right as she was breaking into the roots of her unhappiness. He knew she did it so that he could weigh out her words before proceeding into new territory. He hit “reply”.

Beth,

Of course I’m willing to change because that’s not how I see myself and I hate myself for allowing things to get as out of hand as they have. Please, if there’s more you’re not divulging, just let me hear it. I need to know everything you feel.

-David

Two full days later, her response sat in his inbox. He anxiously clicked open her email and read the contents.

David,

If you want me to tell you what went wrong, here it goes. I have always supported you in everything you do in life. I have been by your side physically, emotionally, and financially, allowing your goals to become mine. However, you have not returned the favor and because of this, I have so much resentment. In the future, I would like to be able to freely express my opinions and desires and for you to listen. I’ve encouraged you in all your ventures and now it’s time for you to do the same for me because I have plans for my life too. If you want us to work, you need to help me instead of holding me back. I won’t have you shutting down my dreams the moment I voice them and putting your own desires before mine. It’s not fair and our marriage cannot survive if it continues on. I no longer wish to have to agree with you about everything to keep you happy. I am my own person and you need to respect that. For so long I have been numb and have simply been going through the motions, walking on eggshells because I’m afraid of you becoming angry with me over trivial matters. 

I would really like us to try and work together, to move beyond the past, beyond the anger. I know it will take time and effort for us both, but I have faith we can do it. We have been through so much together, good and bad.  We have been blessed with stable jobs, a beautiful home, an incredible daughter, and so much more. The thought of us sharing them with someone else is terrifying but so is the thought of returning to our previous situation. If you’re willing to put in the effort, I would like us to build a new future together.

-Love, Beth

David was stunned. He knew he had been selfish, but had no idea he had demeaned her to the point that she would walk out.  He was thankful to be made aware of it but realized it would be a tremendous undertaking not to regress into his old ways. He had to truly change, wholly transform the way he saw the world. He had to remove the lenses that saw only what he wished to see and replace them with ones that saw the world from the perspective of Beth, Maddy, and then himself. He could not go on with his self-serving attitude from before, but learn to serve his family instead.

Beth,

I’m ready to see you so that we can work this out. Please meet me tomorrow at our diner at 7:00 p.m.

-David

This time her reply was instantaneous.

David,

Make it 6:00 p.m. It is a work night after all. I can’t wait to see you.

-Beth

David’s heart swelled with emotion. She was already calling the shots and for once it was fine with him. He laid awake that night thinking of all the things he wished to say to her, nervous to finally see her after so many weeks.

When he left work the following day, he drove straight to the diner. As he walked inside, he saw her sitting in a far corner of the restaurant where it was quiet. Her eyes met his and a spark he had not felt in years jolted his heart awake. A shadow of a smile crept onto her face and in that moment he knew their relationship was worth the fight.

Ascending to Our Higher Selves

As of late, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time in the local graveyards, researching my genealogical line as well as the history of the pioneers that settled this beautiful stretch of land I call home. As I walk among the the weather-worn stones, I feel an extreme sense of peace that I can find no where else. Despite being surrounded by death, I feel only the life-energies of those that have passed on. I feel no pity for them only because they know what I do not. They have experienced what is beyond the the heavy veil of this life. It is only I who is the unfortunate because I-like everyone else-can only make assumptions and theories of what lies in the great beyond. All I can ascertain is that the people that lay beneath my feet have been freed from the shackles of “life” and have experienced the knowledge of the “true life” that is beyond our comprehension.

As I place my hands on the ground where my grandparents lay, I lament softly how much I miss them. How I wish they could converse with me and tell me the mysteries of life so that the suffering I live and witness every day will end. I feel that this dimension of life, though important, is not our true life. This life is a school of sorts, where we learn our purpose and our true tests aren’t on math or language, but how we respond to all the negative energies that attempt to throw us off-course. Our virtue is tested, our patience, our resilience, our selflessness, our honestly, our forgiveness. I feel that the vast rows of stones are merely markers for the graduating class. They learned what was required to proceed to the next dimension of our consciousness, none at the same level as others. True, they still have much to learn in their next life, but what they have learned is much more than we will know in this incarnation.

What if we could begin reaching to our higher selves now without having to first shed this human shell and pass through death’s door? If we could only envision what we see in the great beyond and hold it closely, believing in it and living it day by day, perhaps we can truly begin our ascension. I can glimpse what lies beyond and it is reassuring. I am comforted that this suffering is only temporary. Yet I can see more of what will not be there than what will be because my mind is too young and lacks the capacity to completely understand the beauty of the beyond.

However, I have sensed that love is to be the currency of existence.

LOVE is the breath of life, the food that fuels us in this higher dimension than what we subsist in now. We must set aside all pettiness, all trivialities, and the negative mindset that has become ingrained in our current existence. These aspects must be left behind in the place where we were our lower selves.

We must desist the hope for a better future and instead make that future what we wish it to be. In this new place where we are our higher selves, there will be no hunger, no poverty, no despair. Every living thing from the elephants of the Serengeti, to the tiny ant, to the single blade of grass the ant climbs upon will be treasured. All will have meaning and a purpose. Every ounce of matter will have value and significance.

There will be no slander or slaughter, no harmfulness or hatefulness, no corruption or crime. We will operate as one, with every molecule of ourselves serving a purpose for the greater good. Nothing will be wasted or wanted for. Suffering will end abruptly and completely.

There will be no fear, which is the father of ignorance and hate; the pioneer of hopelessness and despair. Assurance and confidence will take the place of fear. Fear will die to love. Depression and angst will be unheard of as well as jealously, resentment, and spite.

The notions of suicide, murder, and abuse will be inconceivable because every life big or small will be valued as precious.

Let’s put aside the maybe’s, if’s, perhaps’, would’s, could’s and should’s by making this happen, not only for ourselves but for all life. If we all adopt this way of thinking, we will find ourselves in a higher place wishing to never look back on what we were. Who would not wish for complete, pure, unadulterated happiness as the new norm? Why yearn and pine for the things that may or may not happen, living life day to day and getting nowhere when we can change the world just by changing our way of thinking?

As I traverse the graveyards, mourning the plot of the day-old infant or congratulating the century-old matriarch, I am convinced that they each had a reason for being here and the length of time they were in this incarnation. Some graves have large monuments, some small, some none at all. But, I know with a surety that the size of the stone that sits on the soil is only a worldly view of the deceased’s importance and that every being is equal, noteworthy, and cannot be measured by the weight or volume of their headstone.  As their bodies lay below us, their souls look down on us; some actively watching and attempting to communicate, others merely observing, yet all knowing that they can only help us so much before they begin to interfere with our “education”. As difficult as life can be, we have much to learn from it, and we can improve our circumstances just by transforming the way we think about one another. Our largest obstacle is to discontinue the thinking of self and that the self is the most important. We must begin to think about one another as a complete unit, tied together by spiritual bonds and working together to learn what we need to know before moving forward to the next life.

Our individuality is important, but only when we use it for the benefit of others, to help all of humanity. It should not be used to self-serve. To abuse our right for individuality is to go against our purpose for existence. Our purpose is to love and learn, not to self-gratify.

As of late, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time in the local graveyards, researching my genealogical line as well as the history of the pioneers that settled this beautiful stretch of land I call home. As I walk among the the weather-worn stones, I feel an extreme sense of peace that I can find no where else. Despite being surrounded by death, I feel only the life-energies of those that have passed on. I feel no pity for them only because they know what I do not. They have experienced what is beyond the the heavy veil of this life. It is only I who is the unfortunate because I-like everyone else-can only make assumptions and theories of what lies in the great beyond. All I can ascertain is that the people that lay beneath my feet have been freed from the shackles of “life” and have experienced the knowledge of the “true life” that is beyond our comprehension.

As I place my hands on the ground where my grandparents lay, I lament softly how much I miss them. How I wish they could converse with me and tell me the mysteries of life so that the suffering I live and witness every day will end. I feel that this dimension of life, though important, is not our true life. This life is a school of sorts, where we learn our purpose and our true tests aren’t on math or language, but how we respond to all the negative energies that attempt to throw us off-course. Our virtue is tested, our patience, our resilience, our selflessness, our honestly, our forgiveness. I feel that the vast rows of stones are merely markers for the graduating class. They learned what was required to proceed to the next dimension of our consciousness, none at the same level as others. True, they still have much to learn in their next life, but what they have learned is much more than we will know in this incarnation.

What if we could begin reaching to our higher selves now without having to first shed this human shell and pass through death’s door? If we could only envision what we see in the great beyond and hold it closely, believing in it and living it day by day, perhaps we can truly begin our ascension. I can glimpse what lies beyond and it is reassuring. I am comforted that this suffering is only temporary. Yet I can see more of what will not be there than what will be because my mind is too young and lacks the capacity to completely understand the beauty of the beyond.

However, I have sensed that love is to be the currency of existence.

LOVE is the breath of life, the food that fuels us in this higher dimension than what we subsist in now. We must set aside all pettiness, all trivialities, and the negative mindset that has become ingrained in our current existence. These aspects must be left behind in the place where we were our lower selves.

We must desist the hope for a better future and instead make that future what we wish it to be. In this new place where we are our higher selves, there will be no hunger, no poverty, no despair. Every living thing from the elephants of the Serengeti, to the tiny ant, to the single blade of grass the ant climbs upon will be treasured. All will have meaning and a purpose. Every ounce of matter will have value and significance.

There will be no slander or slaughter, no harmfulness or hatefulness, no corruption or crime. We will operate as one, with every molecule of ourselves serving a purpose for the greater good. Nothing will be wasted or wanted for. Suffering will end abruptly and completely.

There will be no fear, which is the father of ignorance and hate; the pioneer of hopelessness and despair. Assurance and confidence will take the place of fear. Fear will die to love. Depression and angst will be unheard of as well as jealously, resentment, and spite.

The notions of suicide, murder, and abuse will be inconceivable because every life big or small will be valued as precious.

Let’s put aside the maybe’s, if’s, perhaps’, would’s, could’s and should’s by making this happen, not only for ourselves but for all life. If we all adopt this way of thinking, we will find ourselves in a higher place wishing to never look back on what we were. Who would not wish for complete, pure, unadulterated happiness as the new norm? Why yearn and pine for the things that may or may not happen, living life day to day and getting nowhere when we can change the world just by changing our way of thinking?

As I traverse the graveyards, mourning the plot of the day-old infant or congratulating the century-old matriarch, I am convinced that they each had a reason for being here and the length of time they were in this incarnation. Some graves have large monuments, some small, some none at all. But, I know with a surety that the size of the stone that sits on the soil is only a worldly view of the deceased’s importance and that every being is equal, noteworthy, and cannot be measured by the weight or volume of their headstone.  As their bodies lay below us, their souls look down on us; some actively watching and attempting to communicate, others merely observing, yet all knowing that they can only help us so much before they begin to interfere with our “education”. As difficult as life can be, we have much to learn from it, and we can improve our circumstances just by transforming the way we think about one another. Our largest obstacle is to discontinue the thinking of self and that the self is the most important. We must begin to think about one another as a complete unit, tied together by spiritual bonds and working together to learn what we need to know before moving forward to the next life.

Our individuality is important, but only when we use it for the benefit of others, to help all of humanity. It should not be used to self-serve. To abuse our right for individuality is to go against our purpose for existence. Our purpose is to love and learn, not to self-gratify.

The Human Touch (Short Story)

Peering out into the perfect blackness, Beatrice could discern nothing but the vibration of small movements around her. Her remaining senses told her lunchtime had arrived as she felt the weight of a tray being placed on her bedside swivel table. Smells of artificial mashed potatoes and sour gravy from a can filled her nostrils along with the smoky aroma of green beans and the faint tang of grape Jell-O. In the past, such fare had caused her stomach to lurch, but after five years of ingesting nothing but the soft repast served from Glenhaven’s kitchen, she could barely remember the taste of real food.

She felt a pair of familiar rough hands grasp her own and place them on the tray. Beatrice’s fingers reached out, searching from side to side until they slid into the warm cloud of mashed potatoes. Using her index and middle fingers, she scooped up the potatoes and brought her hand towards her mouth, sucking every gritty morsel from her fingers before repeating the action. Utensils were useless to her when she could not see the location of her dinner in each pocket of her tray. Her fingers acted as her sensors and they examined the various textures of the meal before her. She would have once considered such poor etiquette for the heathen, but had lost her dignity long ago.

Beatrice had been living her life from day to day in the prison that was her body. Her one remaining goal in life was to die, and she waited for death the way a person waits in anticipation for a package in the mail. It was not as though Beatrice was sickly or crippled-she had her health and her sanity. She even had use of her feet, despite being confined to her bed, save for the few times a month that a decent person would guide her from her room for some exercise. She almost would have preferred to be lost in the deep sleep of an ill person or in the delusions of Alzheimer’s than to be trapped in her perpetual silent darkness. She could speak to no one, hear no one, and see no one. She had been completely cut off from any shred of human connection by the betrayal of her own body.

She could remember vividly what it was like to see, to look in a mirror and examine her reflection. The sight of that pretty young woman with a wide smile and chestnut curls was embedded in her memory. She could only imagine the horror she would face, were she now able to see herself. She had only her fingers to study her countenance and it was enough to know the dreadful truth of what she had become. Thick, crepe-papery folds fell loosely from her jowls, swells sagged beneath her eyes, trenches carved into her face, and ghastly course hairs sprouted from her chin. It was the outward transformation that had occurred while she remained trapped inside, screaming for acknowledgment.

She tried to speak but had no idea if her words came out coherently. She could not be sure if she was even recognized as a human being. For all she knew, she could be openly mocked and would remain oblivious. The nurses and other residents around her were ghosts. Beatrice was never aware of their presence unless they outright touched her, and those touches were cold and thoughtless; the touch of someone performing their duty. She longed for a lingering caress, to be held in an embrace, to clasp hands tightly with someone, even a stranger. Her most intimate contact came from the aide that bathed her. Even then, she shuddered in ignominy as she felt the warm wetness of a sponge slide over her skin, embarrassed by her sagging old body. She inwardly wept, begging for the shame to end. Despite it all, she was grateful for those personal moments; the only human bonds she possessed.

She had at one time experienced the human touch profoundly, but it was long ago before her husband died unexpectedly. She remembered walking along the boardwalk of the port town they had inhabited with his warm hand clasping hers. The resounding squall of the seagulls filled the sky above them and he grasped her arm gently, landing a lingering kiss upon her lips. Some nights they would walk to the local ballroom and dance late into the night. He held her closely as they swayed in slow rhythm to I’m in the Mood for Love. He had been so affectionate. She never took those moments for granted, but had relished the love and warmth passing between them, a distant memory now.

Beatrice sat up in her bed. Was reminiscence all she had while not truly living each day she had remaining? She could hardly bear the waste she had become. She clasped the cold metal bedrails, feeling the mechanics beneath her fingers. She managed to wrest one rail downward. Swinging her legs around, she brought her bare feet down to the cool tile. It felt like freedom. She anchored her heels to the floor and tediously straightened her legs to stand upward. She stretched her arms out into the darkness and methodically stepped one foot in front of the other until she felt a doorframe. Excitement filled her heart as she reached out into the forbidden air of the hallway, but her euphoria was brief. A pair of hands clutched her arms and led her back into bed. The vibration of the bedrail lurching into place announced her defeat.

For days, Beatrice commiserated her situation and gradually came to realize that she could no longer attempt adventures of her own. She lay in her bed, spending as much time as possible consumed by sleep, but even her dreams had lost their shapes and colors. She never knew that a person could feel as utterly unwanted and disposable, but she no longer had reason to believe otherwise. Her entire life had been spent preventing others from feeling that way; she had been the living example of love and acceptance. Beatrice had befriended all of the outcasts of society. She had volunteered her time willingly to the poor and to the sick. She had been the person who took in all the stray animals. Now, it was she who was like an old cast-off dishcloth, worn-through and useless. Who would ever want an old, blind, deaf woman? She began to pray that her pain and loneliness would end. The pleading words that first were foreign to her became increasingly comforting. They gave her something to cling to, a hope that soon she would be released from her prison.

One day, a pair of hands came to rest on hers, but these hands were different. They were tiny and soft, a child’s hands. A memory of her daughter appeared: a little girl with big brown eyes and a small round face. A little girl who played in mud puddles for fun. A little girl who kept her mother on her toes hour after hour. The daughter whose vibrancy suddenly dulled as she complained she did not feel well. The child who faded fast in her arms despite Beatrice seeking all the help she could find for her. Beatrice had watched the tiny coffin lower into the ground and wept enough tears for an entire lifetime. Her little girl had been a lively flame burning bright and snuffed out in a single breath. Her stay on earth had been brief, but Beatrice would never forget those little hands.

The tiny hands guided her up out of bed and onto her bare feet. With one little hand clasping hers, she was led carefully out of the room. It seemed an endless walk down the hall. Beatrice was fearful that at any moment those rough adult hands would snatch her and force her back to her room, yet she was not apprehended. She became lost in her world of darkness, feeling only the sensation of the child’s hand clinging to her old, bony one.

All at once, a burst of fresh air fell upon Beatrice and with it, brought the crisp smell of the outdoors. Venturing onward, cool blades of grass tickled her toes and vibrations from her throat told her that she was laughing. She experienced a giddiness and excitement that she thought she would never again feel. The wind blew gently across her face and she could smell the sweetness of flowers in the air. The heat of the sun pleasantly caressed her skin. She lifted her free hand up to the sky and drank in its warmth. The brightness pierced into her endless night, nearly overwhelming her. She breathed in deep, closed her eyes, and clung to the little hand as happiness enveloped her, filling her heart with joy.

After a little while, the hands tugged her back inside, returning her to her room. At that time she recognized a second pair of hands helping her back into her bed. These hands were larger and soft like woman’s hands, but were not hands belonging to any staff that she could remember. They two pairs of hands clung to hers and Beatrice smiled, nodding into the darkness in appreciation of the two unseen figures. Their hands squeezed hers, but eventually released and were gone.

Beatrice was sad for the presence of these kind souls to depart, but they left her with a heart bursting with love and warmth.  She was not accustomed to such heightened emotions and she was moved to tears. Though they were strangers, they had given her enough hope and love to sustain her for whatever time on earth she had remaining.

Beneath her breath, she muttered a prayer of thanks for the visit from the angels. Whoever they were, they had become healers of her heart and she imagined that they remained with her as guardians, comforting her. The tears continued to stream down her face and she was overwhelmed by the incredibly selfless act of human kindness. It was in that moment that she began believing in a God that she had pushed away after the death of her daughter. Only He could have compelled a stranger and her child to visit an old, unwanted woman in a rest home. Beatrice decided that she would spend the remainder of her life pouring out the love that had been frozen inside of her ever since she lost her daughter and her husband.

The following morning, the familiar rough hands shoved the tray beneath Beatrice’s fingers. Instead of reaching for her breakfast, she reached for one of the hands. As if startled, the hand attempted to pull away at first, but Beatrice enveloped the hand between both of her own. She pressed it tenderly, feeling its warmth and closed her eyes, sending love to the nurse’s aide in the only way she knew how. It was her way of saying, Thank you.  After she released the hand to go on with its daily duties, she felt it come to rest back on top of her own and pat it gently, as if to say, You’re welcome.

I wrote this short story from the perspective of a nursing home patient. I have a lot of experience being inside nursing homes having an ‘adopted’ grandma that I visited weekly as a child, offering her gifts and small talk. As a teenager, I worked for an outside senior rights company and went into all the local nursing homes to make sure my clients had everything they needed, were comfortable, and even took them on walks or wheelchair rides through the halls and outdoors to get them more active. Because of these experiences, I have always felt sympathetic with the elderly condemned to face their final years in a prison of sorts. I feel especially bad for the people confined to their beds who have no channel of communication. It’s a heartbreaking scene to witness. I wanted to tell a story through the point of view from a lonely patient to open the eyes of the rest of the world to the souls forgotten in nursing homes.

Crossed Wires

At his inaugural speech, Franklin Roosevelt stated, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Easy for Frank to say. Our 32nd president had probably never experienced the crippling anxiety that plagues at least 18% of the U.S. population today. He was celebrated for his infinite optimism and confidence, traits that are far-reaching for those of us suffering with anxiety disorders. There are many classifications and causes of anxiety, but living with the illness is the same ruthless, uphill climb.

I have had chronic anxiety for six years. Part of the cause was genetic, since depression runs rampant in my family and the rest due to environmental causes. I started out as a shy child and being a fraternal twin, I experienced extreme separation anxiety whenever I was apart from my brother. I developed codependency early on, but I believe that a chemical imbalance was the basis of my anxiety. In youth, my anxiety was mild, largely overshadowed by intermittent bouts of depression, dejection, and feelings of not belonging. Then, a traumatic event as a young adult truly awoke the debilitating angst that haunts my waking hours.

Our brains have been wired with a built-in security system to ensure our survival and the alarm will sound in any situation where high-stress is involved. Because our brain can only handle so much stress at one time, it can shut down as a defense mechanism during a traumatic event. We have been hard-wired this way since the birth of man, as evidenced by the so called fight or flight mechanism instilled in our ancestors. However, the precise dose of trauma to the right person will cause a future onslaught of anxiety. Generally, the brain will short-circuit and the damaged wiring can no longer work as it used to. As a result, the brain is on constant high-alert, even when we are resting in the security of home. It is when a genuinely stressful event occurs that the pressure becomes more than we can bear and is often followed by confusion, shortness of breath, and even a panic attack.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can happen to anyone and can subside on its own with time or therapy, but for those who have an innate sensitivity to anxiety, our neurotransmitters can no longer process information correctly and we require sometimes years of deep psychiatric therapy and treatment to reroute our wiring. This deep trauma can be a result of death, disaster, abuse, an accident or any frightening or harmful incident. Those of us suffering from anxiety will revisit the trauma in our day to day lives. The tasks that most people can complete with ease become critical and frightening for the rest of us. My heart races at the sound of a phone ringing and I dread picking it up unless I know it is someone I am very familiar with. Driving is a monumental task and I constantly second-guess my every move, avoid left-hand turns, and my hands often lose feeling because they are clenched so tightly to the steering wheel. I rarely enter a store by myself. When I do, I try to make my selections as quickly as possible, never ask for help, and sometimes circle the store a dozen times until I find –or don’t find- what I am looking for. At the check-out counter, I am always extremely awkward with the cashier. My voice becomes high-pitched, tremulous, and I say “thank you” more times than is adequate. This may sound absurd to a healthy person, but for people like me, it is reality.

Whether anxiety has resulted from a chemical imbalance, troubled childhood, or traumatic event, the symptoms are often the same. In a case of severe anxiety, an alarm palpably sounds; a pulsating, screaming. Edginess, heightened senses, depression, lethargy, suicidal thoughts, despair, and insomnia are common realities for those of us with the illness. In my case, I often feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and I close inward on myself in times of stress, avoiding confrontation at any cost. I am over-dependent on my closest friends and family, allowing them to take charge and make decisions for me.

The cause of my anxiety is unique because my trauma originated by no ordinary circumstances. My sense of reality was forced to shift and the level of betrayal was colossal. I was misled, manipulated, and ultimately deceived by an entire group of people I had come to know as close friends. As a result, I suffered a nervous breakdown. The moment I felt the disintegration of my trust in people and all that I had perceived as reality, my brain shut down. My entire body became numb. Unable to eat, I became anorexic and longed for death to release me from the pain. This continued for months while I attempted to repair myself. I relocated, completely disassociated myself with the people who had hurt me, and I made new friends who counseled me through the traumatic period in my life. It took nearly a year and the meeting of my husband to fully recover from the trauma, but the anxiety remained.

I know that I have great talent and potential, but my fears have held me captive from realizing my dreams. When my anxiety began to seriously interfere with my work performance, I decided to seek help. Taking daily medication and attending a weekly support group have improved my life more than I could imagine. My fears of driving, large crowds, and talking to strangers have subsided. The lethargy and depression have vanished and I find myself accomplishing more tasks and goals with each passing day. I am clear-headed and able to tackle issues head-on. I still struggle daily with anxiety, but take each day in stride. The significant point is that my good days outnumber the bad, which truly is all I can ask for.

When you are smothered with despair, it can be hard to see past the overwhelming nature of anxiety and look forward to a brighter future. Please know that it can and will get better and that there are so many wonderful experiences in life yet to be savored. Do not succumb to the shackles of the disease and hide yourself away or take up unhealthy vices such as drugs or alcohol in an attempt to numb your nervous tension. If you feel that you have anxiety and are unsure of how to deal with the illness, tell your family doctor some of the symptoms you have been having. They can investigate whether your anxiety has been caused by a medical issue or if it is the result of a chemical imbalance and/or trauma. For the latter, your doctor can often prescribe medication to make the illness manageable and can recommend a therapist to help uncross the damaged wiring. Simply taking those initial steps will send you on your journey to a better life.

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