Microcosms Flash Fiction. Treasured

It was only appropriate his guestroom held trains. Hundreds of them. In specially built shelves they lined the walls floor to ceiling, a miniature world spread out over the whole breadth of the room. Sitting on the ancient couch put us at eye level with the train table. Craning our heads 90 degrees allowed a view of the TV. It never occurred to me to question the expediency of such a set-up.

Grandpop’s trains were center stage, the best guests.

To my sister and me, the train world was not fragile, not expensive, not the offspring of faithful labor, love, and vision. Despots see their kingdoms the way we kids viewed Grandpop’s guestroom: How can we best exploit this for our pleasure? The three tracks of varying sizes begged to be raced upon. Everyone knows, if you run a train too fast around a bend, it jumps the track. But racing grandchildren don’t care a wit.

“Never, ever push the lever hard over,” Grandpop would wag a stern finger. Hard over was the first thing we’d do when he left our sides.

Grandpop, whose ears were trained to hear the sound of a model train wreck, the clack and crunch of precious engine hitting the miniature buildings, the table, the metal tracks… he’d come trundling in before the train had even finished crashing.

“Gald dern it,” he’d grumble in phlegmy despair. And wedging into the tight space between table and bay window, he’d gingerly, lovingly right the engine, holding it like a woman, fitting it back onto the tracks. I’d gaze in horror at the deep cracks in his thick fingertips, filled in with the blackness of years and labor. I didn’t understand how skin could get carved out like that: like a lake basin in drought.

Now I know.

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*A new flash fiction contest: Microcosms. Every Friday they provide character, setting, and genre, and you have 300 words with which to play. Today’s were: grandson/guest house/memoir. I accidentally used guestroom instead of guest house, so perhaps I’m disqualified. Still, it was fun. If the chosen words don’t inspire, writers are free to spin until the muse strikes. Feels kinda like Vegas. 🙂 This is a mutt of truth and fiction. Mostly truth.

Thankfulness: Just Do It

Thankful: conscious of a benefit received.

I don’t love their shoes, but I’d nominate Nike slogan creator Dan Wieden for the Nobel Peace Prize. Just do it–applied en masse could cure obesity, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and empty toilet paper rolls. The downside would be impulse marriages, divorces, suicides, and job walk-offs– impulse suicides notwithstanding, the other issues could be summarily fixed by reapplying the same slogan.

When it comes to cultivating thankfulness, the power of stepping to the plate cannot be overstated. Can a person just-do-it: become thankful?

99% of the time, I think we can. Job (unluckiest man in all of history) and folks like him in the midst of tragedy, inmates on death row, and Hillary Clinton are the 1% exempted from manning up to thankfulness. The rest of us have no legitimate excuse.

I say that because I believe thankfulness is a decision, not a state of existence. But it’s a decision I get to make over and over again in response to each new stimulus that comes my way. Some stimuli are easier on the consciousness than others, but a true cynic can twist any circumstance into cause for thanklessness.

Extreme example: Bob’s work gives turkeys to their employees. One could be thankful for the turkey or one could see the turkey as a frozen boulder of responsibility, the death of a sleep-in, endless leftovers, hours of viscid carcass-picking. One could focus on the PTSD she’ll surely acquire from the pressure of cooking said turkey perfectly and on time. Or how spiritually dark it is to reach into the “cavity” and pull out a bag of slick organs and then stuff it again with wet, stinky bread. What about the dishes? What about the blackened carbon fused to the roasting pan?

A person dead-set against gratitude could complain that if the company really cared, they’d give admittance tickets to someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner. Then said ingrate could complain the menu options were too sparse or the company too dull, etc.

One can almost always choose to see circumstances as benefits received or blows received. The choice is ours, and we get to make it over and over.

When I feel myself seeing only blows, I take the following steps:

  1. Pray. I ask God to forgive my feelings of entitlement, which stink like rotting gizzards.
  2. Read Psalm 23 and ask God to fill me with thankfulness.
  3. As a final insurance against ingratitude, I request an appointment with the Ghost of Christmas Future, that I might see the end of the matter and appreciate I am not there, yet. Translation: I imagine my grave and pray God helps me seize the day.

Ever reflect on how thankful a live turkey ought to be? Consider the reasonable complaints of a November turkey: The crowded farm conditions and toxic air, the ever-present poo between his webbed feet, the corn, corn, corn on the menu every day, and the disgusting realization: he inadvertently became a cannibal when the farmer mixed in a carcass with the cornmeal. Oh what a horrid life he has, getting fatter and fatter by the day… until the moment he enters the kill room. Too late, he’d embrace all those “rotten” circumstances if only he could have back that beating heart, that air, those feathers, his organs not in a bag.

If being thankful is consciousness of benefits received, then we can all be thankful to be alive, to have the opportunity of tomorrow and all its possibilities.

Life delivers an array of circumstances to which we can react. With every one are you conscious of a benefit received? I don’t think we have to be thankful for the blows or the sucker punches… but how about being thankful the blow wasn’t death, wasn’t a sucker gunshot wound to the aorta. If you peel it down, cup-half-full thinking is the motto of the day. Nothing profound or philosophical, just the Nike slogan do it. And by do it I mean choose to see the benefit, not the blow.

When, at the table of extravagant feasting, the turkey is dry, the hostess is crotchety, the cranberry sauce is canned, republicans are on one side and democrats are on the other, just do it. Be thankful you’re all together. Alive. Free. Thanksgiving 2013 036

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6,7

Considering Death This Christmas? Read T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”

I’ll never forget the first time I read “The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Elliot. Think: Passion of the Christ, sub magi. This poem is deep and dark and human, revealing the grit that’s glossed over by art and centuries. All I knew of the magi is they were funny-looking little men-dolls we set up each Christmas, and there they stayed, their gifts outstretched toward baby Jesus for all the month of December.

Enter poetry to save the day. Enter “The Journey of the Magi.”

Turns out there’s much more to their story besides a manger moment and a savvy decision not to tell Herod where Jesus was because they had the sneaking suspicion Herod was a psychopath. They’re not called “wise” for nothing.

Tradition says there were three wise men, but only because there were three gifts. The Bible records it in Matthew chapter 2:

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;

For out of you shall come forth a Ruler

Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

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If writing is about creating empathy, Eliot gets you so close you can smell the goat cheese curdling in the travel bags, taste the sand in your mouth, and smell the sweat and camel dander. He clothes with human skin these porcelain men who live one-twelfth of the year on our fireplace mantels. They were complainers, cynics. They lost heart, lost their money, lost sleep over it all. Like us. They found Jesus. And the find was a loss as well. Follow their journey and note the change Jesus wrought in the lives of these wisest of men. The last line of the poem makes a curious statement– the magi would be glad to die. Most people won’t be able to figure out what on earth the man is talking about… can you?

The Journey Of The Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

by T.S. Elliot

Tickled Slink, A G-Rated Story

“So where is it?” Jude asked as he spun me and gathered my hair in his fist, exposing my neck. “No ‘on’ button here,” he whispered huskily, “How do I turn you on, Kate? I’m so very hungry…”

I stared flatly into his eyes, barely holding my stoic mask.  Suddenly he jerked my arm straight up. “…Here?” He asked, tickling me with artful precision until I squirmed and shrieked, breathless at the silken touch.

“Let me go!” I screamed with zero conviction. Jude cinched me to him, and with one thickly cabled arm pinned my writhing form to his.

“Found the ‘on’ button, Kate. Any chance I can program you to do my bidding?” Jude swept his arm around the disheveled area like he was Vanna White displaying my prizes, as opposed to the gross accoutrements strewn around the tiled room, evidence of just how much he needed me to “do his bidding.” My jaw dropped open as I understood what it was he wanted me to do. He couldn’t possibly think I’d lower myself to this paltry undertaking, overcome my ascetic nature and touch those things, did he– just because he was charming me inside out? Jude, the enemy of my better sense, the man who crushed all sound thinking with a flash of his disarming smile. Jude had only to ask, and I’d fold into his will.

But this was too much.

My disgust must have shown on my face, for he began his assault afresh, sending me into spasms and giggles. “A friend would do it…” he pressed.

Where we were joined his body seared me, melting my willpower, overpowering my nerve.

“Never!” I said.

“Come on, Kate. Make me an omelet.”

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Credit: Gabe Griffiths

 

Cracked Flash Fiction entry, modified.

We’re Almost There, America

Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. – Winston Churchill

Election Day 2016: Half the country will be going from failure to failure today. May we be enthusiastic about it– you know– good sports. If nothing else, it will be over soon. Remember The Passion of the Christ? Jesus trudging and falling under the excruciating weight of the beams he dragged while his life’s blood flowed out hundreds of whip slices, thorn stabs, and even his facial hair, ripped out like so many weeds. Simon of Cyrene told* him, “You’re almost there.” The there being the hill of crucifixion. Not the same as you’re almost there about the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Still, it was meant to encourage. This particular hell is almost over. Focus on that.

Same with today: we’re almost there. But there isn’t going to be pretty either, like as not.

I cast my vote. Life marches on. I fill my tank with gas, get groceries, get my hair cut. The deus ex machina I hope will turn our nation’s story around, but that I also fear will turn our nation’s story on its head– may or may not come today.

When the election looms too large, I’ll remember my walk in the woods. I’ll go there in my memory the way one returns to vacation or a kiss or a victory, and I’ll visit it again and again. I’ll recall the crunch of leaves under my feet, how they fell twisting to the ground like confetti, orange spades the size of hands spiraling through the branches and down past ancient trunks. It only took a slight breeze to touch off the kamikazes, a million deaths fluttering to the ground in a moment, gorgeous. Their smells enter my nose like jazz music, barely realized hypnotism. I am one such leaf, not aware I’m mid-fall, not special, one of a million. Our vast numbers make us marvelous, but not special. Except to God. How masterful is God to orchestrate such beauty in death? The most beautiful image God ever created was a death, was it not?

As the sun sets today and the polls close, it will be the death of this election. We’re almost there. God’s will will be done in America today as it is every day.  That is a great mystery– our free will doesn’t trump God’s will, and death is not the end of a matter. History has proven that over and over again. If our next president means we go from failure to failure, let us do so enthusiastically. This is the victory that has overcome the world, our faith. – 1 John 5:4

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*Mel Gibson’s The Passion (2004) rendered that speech. The Bible records no words between them, only that Simon was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross.