I Took a Drive

Instead of the nightly routine of putting the baby to bed, watching the same TV shows with the wife, and fulfilling my life’s unspoken demand for a harmonious relationship between obligation and self-fulfillment, I did something different. On this warm Spring night I got in the car and started to drive out of the city. Out of the orange cones and construction, out of the thousands of men and women racing home. Out of the routine.

I wasn’t running away or making some great escape. No, it was much less interesting than that. I was simply headed for Hutchinson, KS where a work conference was being held. After all, I love being with my family. I love nothing more. But as a new dad locked into the obligation side of the above mentioned yin and yang, this felt good.

I drove west 2 hours into the Kansas flint hills.

On a two lane highway I rolled the windows down and smelled the sweet country air and smiled. I slowed through little country towns with craft fair signs and that day’s abandoned veggie stands. Trucks on gravel roads formed long dust clouds in the distance that crossed the land between farms. This was a different life style that during my drive I imagined, and envied.

In front of me a newer black Ford Thunderbird convertible had been forging the path ahead into the sunset. There was a woman behind the wheel wearing a brown fedora style hat tapping her fingers to the beat of some country song I could hear playing from the car. Her and I were about the only ones on the road for over an hour besides the occasional semi that swooshed by.

The flint hills really are special. As flat and boring as Kansas is portrayed, this land of rolling green hills spotted with cows, oil rigs, and grain silos holds some real beauty. I contemplated stopping on the side of the road to take some pictures but the countryside beckoned me in deeper so I continue driving.

After a while the sun finally set and the land turned dark. I pulled into the hotel in Hutchinson for the night and as I got out of the car to check in I smiled thinking about my drive one last time. Sometimes it’s important to, even if by accident or obligation, leave what you know behind and head just past the fringe of your routine. It’s there that you can rediscover the forgotten beauty of a world outside your own.

A Night in New Orleans

Boarded backyard fences, crumpled lattice wood and dry brush. A few Roosters stalked about in yards oblivious and content. Screen doors smacked open and shut as folks entered and exited their piece of the neighborhood. Pastel painted shotgun houses with green painted porches cracked but sturdy. Lemon trees and lizards, beads hung from limbs, feathers and masks left neglected from nights past.

It was the weekend before Mardi Gras, and a big parade was to begin a block down the street.

A small party of friends and a baby gathered on the porch across the street; loud laughter could be heard breaking in between the sounds of cliché Louis Armstrong playing from a stingy music player on the floor of our rented unit. We were visitors after all, attempting to fit into the culture. A few bottles of beer and a fair amount of wine consumed, Trevor began poking at the giant lemons with a wooden arrow discovered near the front door. Posing like a cajun gladiator, he finally speared his target. Walking inside, he proudly held his lemon. It smelled delicious, and would be cut and juiced for lemonade procured in an old dusty coffee pot found in the kitchen.

We drank our lemonade outside watching the freaks and musicians stroll behind long shadows towards the parade route in the street. In an hour it would be dark, and things would begin to change.

The ladies gabbed inside. I cheered Trevor to a day well spent- riding bikes into the Garden District, gawking at tired mansions and family grave yards, drinking coffee and beignets covered in powdered sugar.

Now by the Mississippi, in the Bywater neighborhood that slipped us effortlessly into her oddities and charm, like a frog placed in a pot of water set to boil, we had unknowingly been consumed. Down south, past and present fading when all that mattered were the people and this place. As if we grew up in the little white house that sat quietly behind us, whose history pressed against our backs, past alluded only by the haunted high-heeled footsteps we heard above us late at night as we tried to sleep, and the sudden smell of red beans and rice that would fill our nose around midnight.

All of us willing to travel thousands of miles, addicted to being misplaced for a few days.

Now in the dark of night, our modest Louise Street with working class folks and lazy roosters clamored with sounds of bass drums and blown speakers hitched to wagons and bikes. Swirly lights and disco balls, aliens and cone-heads approached dancing and swaying, possessed by spirits and quite possibly drugs and alcohol.

We ran to the corner of St. Claude Avenue where crowds of grown folk, children, and dogs formed. Adjacent to our stakeout was an open-air tire shop filled with people. A sign above the shop read “No Selling Cat, No Selling Crack, No Loitering! Be Nice or Leave”, the message illuminated by a big metal light. Standing to our right, a pink haired dancing gypsy woman begged for hand-outs from parade participants. Standing to our left, a short black woman cursing and mumbled in between fits of laughter and a rotten-toothed grin.

Waves of groups passed us by along the parade route, aptly named Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, sci-fi characters dressed to the nines, painted eyelids and lavish glittering floats with giant E.T. heads and star wars battle ships. Beads and nicknacks flung about into the greedy hands of hoarders.

After an hour of screaming and music, loud drums and dancers, the last group of goblins passed by. Crowds thinned and people scurried back into the dark corners of the neighborhood.
Trevor, Kelly, Melissa and I needed food and heard about a local joint off the beaten path called Bacchanal Wine, known for their stinky cheeses and live outdoor music. With no access to a taxi we walked block after block, passing graffiti-covered fences and parked cars. A member of the Chewbacchus Krewe would occasionally zip by us on a bike towards a local bar. We headed east, hugging the Levee containing the Mississippi river. A giant barge moved through the night.

We finally arrived and joined a lively crowd of young people gathered in a big back yard. In every corner overgrown jungles of palms and tropical plants; a small wooden stage hosted a trio of musicians improving a slow-rhythm blues scale. Trevor and I climbed stairs to a tiny bar with an eclectic whiskey menu and ordered our group a round of drinks. We watched the bartender carefully mix each cocktail with painstaking precision before joining the ladies at a table. For several hours we sat and talked, enjoying lobster, beef carpaccio, drinks, while fantasizing about our next adventure. It became late and time to leave.

Together we made another long walk home to the little white house on Louise.

The next morning we woke early to fly home. Melissa and I cleaned the trail of glasses and beads that had begun to decorate our living room. Somber and tired, we hugged our companions good-bye, vowing to travel once more to a place where we could all feel misplaced, if only for a few days.

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A True Story… The Power of the Human Spirit

I would like to tell a true story that impacted my life; a story I believe will impact yours, too. The names of the people and places in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

My only regret is how long it took me to share this story.

Last year my wife and I had the opportunity to volunteer at a domestic violence shelter in our community called Hope House where battered women and children could go and be safe from their abusers and start a new life. It is a program through our Church called FaithWorks.

When we arrived at the shelter we were picked to help sort food for the kitchen in a small cluttered pantry room in the basement of the building. We diligently separated the cans, bread, pastas, and sauce onto metal shelves. Frozen turkeys went into the freezer, and donated boxes were stacked against the wall. After a few hours we got done with our work and it was time to leave. But before we said our good-byes, all the volunteers gathered in the conference room upstairs to allow the staff members to say “thank you for coming”. The director of the shelter, a sweet woman in her 60’s, had something on her heart she wanted to share with us. It was a story.

It went something like this…

A boy and his mother lived with a man who abused them. Noah, the little boy, was only 6 and 1/2. The mother, Shirley, did her best to take care of her son, but Noah’s father was angry and often aggressive towards his family. Over the years, things became increasingly worse in the home until one day, Noah’s father did the unthinkable: he violently shoved him and his mother down the flight of basement stairs, and as they toppled head over feet, they finally hit the concrete floor at which point Noah’s father shouted from above “…and stay down there!” He slammed shut the door and locked them into darkness.

For five agonizing days Noah and Shirley huddled together, prisoners below their own home with no food and little water. During the daytime they were forced to wait in fear for their abuser to return home from work where he would run down into the basement and beat them. Hearing his keys rattle open the front door and his heavy feet stomping into the hallway signaled unbearable pain was approaching. It was a terrifying nightmare that played out each day and night over and over.

Shirley did her best to protect her son. She tried to appear strong, but it was nearly impossible not to reveal to her son the fear she felt. It was crippling.

On the fifth day, before the father left for work, he opened the basement door and shouted down to them something different: “I don’t care what you do or where you go, just get out!”

He would leave the door unlocked.

Shirley knew this might be her only chance to save her son’s life, so she grabbed Noah and fled to the neighbor’s house.

When the police arrived fifteen minutes later, they took Noah and Shirley away.

They drove with the officer to a nearby police station where he promised Shirley and her son that they would be OK, that someone was going to take care of them. To Shirley, the officer’s words carried little meaning or encouragement. Every man in her life signified lies and empty promises. And sadly, physical abuse, too. But, Shirley had nothing left and nowhere to go.

The two were homeless, hungry, and frightened. She thought about her young son and what the future might hold for him. “Noah is supposed to grow up believing he can do and be anything he wants in this world,” she thought. “He’s supposed to be told he can be the next President if he works hard and gets good grades. But now I have nothing for him.” This, it seemed, was the end of the road.

As Shirley contemplated their future, a van arrived at the station. A woman emerged and introduced herself to Noah and his mother. She helped them climb into the back seats and then they drove off. They were headed to Hope House.

When they arrived to Hope House through heavy iron gates and security cameras, Noah and Shirley were carefully escorted inside and assigned a team of people who attended to their most pressing needs. They literally had nothing more than the clothes on their back. They were given a warm shower, clean clothes, medical attention, and a meal. Shirley was ashamed that life had led her to this, but felt blessed that she and her son were surrounded by people who seemed to care for them.

That first night at the shelter was hard for Shirley and her son. There was however, a peace in knowing they could close their eyes and feel protected by the walls that surrounded them. Finally safe from harm, they slept.

Weeks at Hope House turned into months as Shirley and her son slowly became accustomed to a life of non-violence. Shirley even began to open up to members of the Hope House team, as she began painting for them a picture of the life they ran from in order to survive. Shirley found peace in sharing her story, knowing these were other women with similar circumstances. They had each other now to lean on.

Noah, however, stayed quiet.

He kept silent around the staff that desperately tried to communicate with the boy. He kept quiet around other kids his age that played with toys and ran outside. He spoke only to his mother, as she was still the only thing in his life to provide him comfort and peace.

One day, Hope House began bringing in therapy dogs to sit and play with the kids. There were different types of dogs of all shapes and sizes. A fluffy Golden Retriever, an old Beagle who hobbled on a sore leg, and a two Chihuahuas. One dog though, scared most of the kids… he was a large brown and black Rottweiler. Most folks think of Rottweilers as mean and aggressive, but you see, that’s really not so. It takes a human to make them that way. By nature they are actually very sweet.

You hear about dogs that can sense the way a person feels. Whether it’s sadness, happiness, fear, or excitement, a dog just seems to intuitively understand. This brown and black Rottweiler at Hope House was no different. In fact, he had a better sense than any of the other dogs did. As the pups and children played, the Rottweiler walked up to Noah who stood motionless against a wall watching the others. As the dog approached him, Noah cautiously extended a hand towards the animal. The dog sniffed his fingers and began to lick his hand.

Noah started to smile.

One of the staff members noticed the exchange and walked up to where Noah stood and kneeled beside him. “Noah, I want to introduce you to our friend here. His name is Hero.”

A few times a week, Hero would come to visit and Noah would light up. As they got to see more and more of each other, the staff could tell they were making progress with the boy. Even though he still rarely spoke, you could tell that a visit from Hero breathed a little more life and light back into Noah’s quiet and dark childhood.

One of Noah’s favorite things to do with Hero was read books. A staff member would sit down on the ground with Noah while Hero laid his head in Noah’s lap. Then they would read a story. Reading with Hero took Noah away from the pain and the fear caused by his father. He was with his new friend, and for those precious moments, nothing else mattered.

Then one day, something very special happened.

Hero and Noah were sitting on the floor together playing with a toy. All of the sudden, Noah stopped what he was doing and slowly lifted up one of Hero’s big floppy ears and whispered to him, “If you were my dog, no one would hurt me again.”

Noah’s mother watched her son share his secret with the big animal, and was overcome with such great emotion that she began to cry. She was witnessing Noah’s emotional scars beginning to heal, something Shirley didn’t think was possible in a life where she and her son had been kicked down so many times.

She ran up to her son and scooped him into her arms kissing his cheeks. Hot tears ran down her face as she smiled and laughed, twirling her son in her arms. “I love you Baby,” she told him. “I love you too Mom.”

This would be the break-through moment that carried Shirley and her son through the next couple of months until they were able to find safe housing outside of the shelter and start a new life. Noah adopted Hero officially as his new pet and the three of them would walk out of Hope House stronger than ever before. Shirley, Noah, and Hero- a new family. It was nothing short of a miracle.

Hero gave Noah belief that his young life had meaning and purpose. That despite the pain and sadness in his world love still existed.

Stories like these are what FaithWorks and Hope House are all about. When darkness can reign in someone’s life, we all have the power to break in with light, liberation, and love- to walk in faith and be the light of the world. To change the direction of someone’s story forever. To punch holes in the darkness.

I have learned that it takes immense courage and strength to meet people where they are; to risk your soul’s happy equilibrium by facing people and stories so dark you are left speechless. But I think it’s here, in the turbulent waters of someone else’s soul, where faith can shine. Where trust can be found. Where lives can be changed.

Here are the questions I try and ask myself: Have I intentionally asked God to take me deeper? Do I trust where his spirit can lead me? Where and how is God calling me to live outside of myself? And finally, what am I risking to discover fulfillment?

I often think back to Shirley, Noah, and Hero when I need to be reminded about the power of the human spirit and the power I have to make a difference. I hope you will do the same.

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Waterdrops

The other night I was on a plane flying from Newark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas. The flight had actually been delayed several hours due to thunderstorms over the East coast. Once we were finally airborne, I glanced outside the passenger window and became fixated on the red navigation lights flashing from the wing. I peered closer, seeing as how the light illuminated, just for a brief second, the thousands of descending raindrops falling towards the earth. “What a journey they must have, from 25,000 feet” I thought to myself. “A 10 minute free-fall.”

…eventually they must land.

Perhaps atop a small Redbud tree in someone’s backyard. That’s where I noticed these particular drops anyway.

Days after my trip home, I had wandered outside and into the backyard to play fetch with Bonnie when the bright little water beads caught my eye. “Fascinating” I thought. With their odd elasticity, the droplets clung to tiny buds, leaves, and pine needles for dear life, refusing an inevitable fate of being absorbed by the soggy ground below.

From 25,000 feet they had recently fallen, and it was here they had landed; suspended freely above the earth in a perfect balance between gravity and the upward force of a delicate leaf. It was in this brief moment of time I started taking pictures- before the wind or more rain could disturb their fragile resting place. Before the tug of the Earth, with it’s grip on heavy water molecule that began a plight high up in the clouds, could force the droplet to finally fall.

Leap of Faith

It’s okay to be afraid of change and to fear the unknown. Just don’t sell yourself short. Don’t over-think things. Trust your heart. Most importantly, belive in the possibilities that come from taking action. Identify your strengths and rely on your character. Act on ambition and accept the challenge, for those that risk what they know gain strength and wisdom.

Sometimes (maybe a lot of the time) it’s hard to understand where you ought to be in your life. But, to get where you want, where you deserve… where God intend for you to be… requires a leap of faith.

So take it.

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I Am a Grape. (A Short Story)

I am a grape. But before I was born…

Farmhands cultivated and raised a deciduous woody vine. From the tilled earth my little parent plant slowly pressed from the darkness of ground toward the light of day, all the while maturing and growing.

Want to know the most exciting part of my story? This vine eventually gave way to hundreds of fruiting berry clusters!

You may have guessed that in one of those clusters you can find me- with my brothers and sisters of course.

We are a lucky bunch, I’ve come to realize.

Every morning we watch the sun rise. From our vantage point we look down upon rows and rows of other vines. Thousands (if I had to guess). Just like us.

Morning is my favorite time of day, when the Sonoma valley below draws in moist air from the Pacific.

Our hanging cluster catches this cool air and from our hillside perch, we sway and bob, albeit ever so slightly, to the damp breeze. Like napping in a hammock.

The daytime, especially in the Summer, can get very hot though. To pass the time we play games like ‘I Spy With My Little Eye’ or Charades. One day I pretended to be a blueberry. That one got some laughs.

Then, at the end of a long day of ripening, when the sun touches the ground and shadows fill the valleys, a fog sometimes forms and covers some of us. It’s not scary to me- in fact, the fog feels safe…

Then we sleep. My skin is stretched tight, having acted as a permeable sponge to absorb the tasteful elements of the valley. I’ve been told that’s part of our charm-

Overall, it’s a happy life. The life of a grape.

Weeks and months go by- the days tend to blend together. The subtle changes in weather help to denote the passing of time. But the end of Summer has finally arrived.

Although the air is cooler, everything else is predictable. The rising and setting of the sun, the farmhands that occasionally check our vine, and the valley itself. We are all but one.

Until one day…

Everything I thought I knew about the world came crashing down, all at once! It was harvest week. I was yanked from my roost- separated from my brothers and sisters and thrown into a spinning vortex of metal machinery and loud noise.

My light went dark.

…I don’t know how much time passed in between, but I eventually woke up from the harvest. When I did, I felt funny.

I smelled an enticing aroma, and was surrounded by a warm and fuzzy pool of purple. I was light-headed, a floating spirit completely detached from the physical fruit I once was. Once I got used to this new feeling, I began to really like it!

My purpose, it turns out, was something much different from what I had ever imagined.

Wine.

The Owl

In the evening we walk the dog. One night last week while approaching the house at around dusk, Bonnie stops in the street- she hears a noise. The usually tight leash droops as she looks up both curious and startled. Melissa and I stopped too. “What is that sound?” A hissing whistle, loudly shouting from the tree tops. At first I thought a raccoon or squirrel, but suddenly it moved, gliding to another tree. It was too dark to see. A bird?

The next few nights I walked out the front door onto our col-de-sac peering up into the trees hoping the noise would return. Like clockwork, around 9:00 pm every night, it did. It came from the neighbor’s big oak tree. I heard it again, from another tree, and then another. There were several.

It took a few nights of investigating but finally, last night while walking the dog again, we found ourselves directly below the noise. The thick oblong body and monkey-faced bird looking down on us was a beautiful Barn Owl. It hissed. I pulled out the iPhone and got some video of the noise, and while on record, another huge owl flew right by my head! They are all over our trees and inspired me to do a little research. The Barn Owl never hoots, it screeches. It’s a silent and mysterious night-time killer. It inspired a poem.

Here it is.

“The Owl” – By Will Palmer

A summer’s day gives way to dusk
The chorus of birds follows a timely decrescendo
Oak trees silhouette against a dark blue sky
While most sleep, someone opens up it’s eyes.

It’s not the stars
It’s not the moon
It’s not the mice
It’s not the coon

It’s the owl.

His black iris, pointed ears
Sharp talons, and heart-shaped face
Barely visible to the naked eye
It if weren’t for his screech, piercing the silent skies

It’s not the cricket
It’s not the child whining
It’s not the car
It’s not the siren

It’s the owl.

His ridge of feathers, startling glare
From atop the branch, his silent stare
Mask-like face watch the world below
Even the firefly’s dainty glow

It’s the owl.

The day his enemy, in the night he thrives
Long-winged terror of silent flight
Another screech to terrorize the night
Where last they see, the heart-shaped white

It’s the owl.

When the sun first breaks through his darkened trees
The mysterious bird flies quietly away
To vanish into the revealing light
Until dusk begins another plight.