Posts Tagged ‘Kindness’

sharing everything this Christmas

December 11th, 2017    -    15 Comments

unwrapping-gift-cropped

Sharing the good stuff all over again.

It was close to 7 p.m., pitch dark and cold by California standards, and I was stopped at a red light on the way to pick up my daughter from math tutoring. The light was long and I let my gaze drift to my left, across the street, where I watched two men waiting for the bus. One wore shorts, the other jeans, both in dark hoodies. I knew they were strangers because they stood apart and ignored each other. In the same moment, each raised a cigarette to their lips, an orchestrated pair invisibly attuned. And then the traffic moved.

Earlier that evening my daughter asked me how we used to Christmas shop. “When you were little did you order from magazines?” she asked, stretching her imagination to conceive of a life without computers. For Hanukkah she was given money and the same day spent most of it on Christmas gifts for friends. The spree had made her happy and it had made me happy too, being much more fun than my grumpy sermons on generosity. She ordered everything online (with my help) and the UPS man delivered the first box today. She went to the front gate and took it from him. I think that was a first, too.

I told her about my grandparents, who seemed crazy rich to us but crazy poor to everyone else. There was a book in those days called the wish book that was really the Sears catalogue. Since my grandparents lived far away from a department store they waited for the wish book to come every year. Then they handed it by turns to three little granddaughters and told us to make a mark by anything we wanted. I’m serious. That’s what they said, and then they went in the other room. It was a big book and a tall order for us little girls, but knowing that I could have it all made me less greedy. I remember pausing my pen over a page, empowered with a Midas touch, thinking of my grandparents, and not wanting quite so much as I thought I did.

Last weekend we saw A Christmas Carol at a local theatre.  My daughter was in four such productions since the age of 8, so I have seen and heard Mr. Dickens’ tale brought to life dozens of times. On Saturday I saw it and cried again. I cried because you cannot receive that story and not have it tenderize your heart. There can’t be one of us who isn’t afflicted by anger, frustration, cynicism or a shitty mood around the holidays. There isn’t one of us who isn’t sometimes blind to goodness or stingy with sentiment; who isn’t isolated or afraid. To see a human being transformed by joy, generosity, and belonging — and to feel it for myself — I don’t want anything else just now.

When people say they like the work I am sharing, I look around for the work. This doesn’t feel like work. It feels like life, which is inseparably shared by all of us. If you’re not sure you have anything to share, I will understand. I feel like that sometimes, too. Then I see differently, and my heart is bared. There is good in this world. We have to see it to share it. To start, take a look right here: The Week in Good News.

walking to rite aid

March 7th, 2017    -    14 Comments

When Friday rolled around I didn’t much feel like doing anything special. Just about every day I haul myself to a certain place for yoga, or another place for a workout, or charge up my Fitbit and conjure up a route by which to “get in my steps.” But it seemed to me that I should just use my body in an everyday way and so I decided to walk to Rite Aid and pick up a refill that was ready. I didn’t know how far Rite Aid was from me but it was far enough that I had never been there without driving. So after a half day of doing regular Friday stuff I set off.

Before I’d even walked to the end of the block I’d noticed how much was going on in my neighborhood. Three folks were having new yards put in—yards without any grass and with a lot of wood chips and rock— and two more had already completed theirs. Driving by, I’d seen it all happen, but I hadn’t really taken it in, focused on getting somewhere. Because I know what even a small landscape re-do can cost in time and money it seemed to me that my own street was a pretty hopeful example of good citizenship. It’s now fairly common in California to rip out a lawn, given climate change and water rationing, but these new yards are more than a way to save on a utility bill. Each one is not only an investment in a single household’s water savings but also an investment in the whole world’s water supply. Everyone benefits when one person does the right thing.

After awhile I noticed that a lot of rain gutters need cleaning, including mine. It’s not so bad to feel as if you have something like a mucky gutter in common because it’s, well, common. There’s grace in realizing that we all have a responsibility to take care of something messy without blaming anyone else for the trouble.

When I’d made it about half a mile west, I turned south to head down the hill to the shopping center. I started thinking about the last time I had made a long walk sort of like this one, not just to mark off the distance but to get somewhere. It was during the summer when I was 15 and I had a woeful crush on a boy who would never like me, and I lived invisibly in a small tract house on the barren side of town while he was living large on the leafy side, and I set out one day in the 500 degree heat that is a peculiar feature of your North Texas anguish to walk the 3.5 miles in his general direction for no other reason than I thought he might drive by and see me, the only person out walking on the sidewalk anywhere in town. Or maybe it was that I might see him, because he was someone you couldn’t help but see, being a spoiled son of an airline pilot who had given him a yellow 1973 Jaguar XKE for his 16th birthday. I try to think of how that day went and I can’t remember anything except the long stretch of hot sidewalk along Finley Road because nothing at all happened. I just made the seven mile round trip without anyone ever knowing what I’d done or how sad and silly I was. This boy’s name was Pete but a long time later I learned that his real name was an old-fashioned one, after his dad, a name that would have killed a teenage boy to say out loud, and I only learned that fact from his obituary which I certainly wasn’t thinking I’d come across anytime soon, having a persistent sense of my own youth. Reading between the lines, he appeared to have died without a family or a home of his own, no job, no biography, in his early 50s, and I saw it as the sad end of a dissolute life, a long flight from fear and pain. But what the hell do I know? I didn’t even know his name.

Then I got to Rite Aid where I couldn’t give a dime to the guy sitting at the table outside the entrance because I didn’t have a cent, but I gave him a decent hello.

How long is the walk to Rite Aid and back? About 12,000 steps and 45 years.

Today I’m starting on the gutters.

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not back

February 28th, 2017    -    22 Comments

I did something a few weeks ago that I hadn’t done in awhile. I took a post from this blog and put it on Facebook. I deactivated my Facebook account on November 24 as soon as a woman I don’t know got fed up with me and wrote, “Why don’t you delete this account?” So I did. Sometimes a remark can strike out of nowhere like a clap of thunder, and you know it’s time to get out of the storm.

The new post that went up, in my typical roundabout way, seemed to be about my ancestors but was really about immigration. I put it on Facebook so that people would see it, because not many people come to my blog any other way. Nowadays a lot of people never see anything that’s not on Facebook. That’s OK, as far as it goes, but it’s also not OK. Specifically, I wanted people to see themselves in the story, to see the larger, human need to belong that makes people leave everything behind and travel a vast and terrifying distance. These days, Facebook seems to fulfill that feeling of belonging without having to do anything at all. There are nearly 2 billion active users of Facebook, nearly a quarter of the world’s population and close to half of all Americans. Nearly 70 percent of all the time spent on Facebook is via a mobile device. I’m gonna guess that’s because the mobile device is simply never out of reach and Facebook is the only “place” there is to go on it.

Pretty soon folks began to say things on Facebook like “You’re back!” and “I’ve missed you so much.” Those messages are really nice and a lot nicer than some of the other things people put on Facebook but still they seem mistaken to me. I’m not back from anywhere because I didn’t go anywhere because there really is no place that is Facebook, other than the screen of your mobile device, and the fact that people see it as a place where real live people do real live things is what scared me off of it in the first place. We have to do a better job of seeing reality than that. We have to do a better job of living in the real world and taking responsibility for it.

Just to reiterate, the place where real, live stuff is happening is not on Facebook.

I guess it’s hard to imagine that there is a way other than Facebook to reach a person with a public website and an email and a street address and a mailbox and a telephone. I started to notice this a few years back when publishers began sending me messages through Facebook and I would think to myself, “You’re a publisher for heaven’s sake,” but people always explained it by saying “I didn’t know the best way to reach you.”

We used to know the best way to reach people. I don’t know when it got to be so confusing. When I was in sixth grade I was assigned to do a report on New York State and so I looked up the address and wrote to the information people in New York State and they sent me a big envelope full of everything anyone could ever want to know about New York State and I did a fine report and put it in a blue report cover decorated with photos I’d cut out from the brochures they had sent. Obviously, in 50 years I’ve never forgotten how easy that was. How straightforward and yet, miraculous. The whole world used to be like that, and maybe when you come right back to it, it still is.

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Photo by Kevin Klima Photo on Etsy

 

follow

September 26th, 2016    -    3 Comments

 

A road leads deep into a  Kansas cornfield in late July.

Follow the humble. They will lead you to dignity.

Follow the gentle. They will lead you to strength.

Follow the kind. They will lead you to gratitude.

Follow the silent. They will lead you to truth.

Follow the simple. They will lead you to wisdom.

Follow your heart. It will lead you home.

Follow the path. It will lead you everywhere.

sharing the road home

April 6th, 2016    -    11 Comments

 

Cajon_Pass,_wide_angle

We were about 300 miles from home in stop-and-go traffic in the middle of the Mohave Desert just inside the state line when the dashboard lit up.

Brake Malfunction!
Stop the vehicle immediately and contact dealer.

It’s trouble enough to be in stop-and-go traffic in the middle of nowhere 300 miles from LA, but the slow homestretch of a Spring Break road trip had just turned from hypnotic boredom into naked terror.

To the touch, the brakes seemed fine, but the failures were spreading. A new light screamed Check ABS/VSC! (Like we knew what that meant.) I flipped through the 400-page owner’s manual for clues. It didn’t tell us anything. We pulled off on the shoulder and checked the emergency brake. Not it. And the brake fluid. Not it. There was nowhere else to get help. So we flowed back onto the crowded road, dash warnings blinking, up the high pass through the San Bernardino mountains and down the steep grades of the San Gabriel mountains, through thicker and faster traffic until we pulled into the driveway and exhaled.

We are lucky to have an honest mechanic in our town, and I stopped by his place the next day. I was surprised he wasn’t there. It had me more worried when no one answered the phone all afternoon, but he answered when I rang in the morning.

Is everything OK? I asked because I knew it wasn’t.

It’s really not.  Last month he was working on a car while the engine was running, and he put his hand where he shouldn’t have, nearly cutting off a finger. Since then he’d been at doctors and hospitals, desperate to save an otherwise useless finger that he thought would cost him his work, his business, his home, and the future. He talked for 30 minutes, and I wanted him to. I wanted to listen and let him be afraid and angry and unsure. I wanted to be more than a customer. I wanted to be a decent human being like him. That’s really what his job is, just being decent, so he said, go ahead and bring the car down and I’ll check it while you wait.

Turns out there was nothing wrong. Maybe a low battery charge in the hybrid engine while we were stalled in traffic caused a bad sensor reading or something that I didn’t really catch the gist of. He wouldn’t let me pay him, but he let me listen while he told me about the hassle of scheduling a blood test before the next surgery, how upset and distracted he felt, and how unfair and impossible things were looking for him today. I believed him.

Let’s just see how it goes, he said then, and it caught my ear. He meant I should drive the car around town and see if the warnings came on but he was pretty sure everything was fine. I said I’d be back to check on him. It didn’t sound like much, but it’s all that decent human beings can do for each other when life is spinning out of control: share the road home.

not the story you wrote

September 27th, 2015    -    61 Comments

lista

A couple of weeks ago I saw one of those charity appeals scroll past on my Facebook feed. Someone was sick and needed help. I let it pass at first, and then it came back again. So I clicked on the link. It was for this fellow I’d never met, who lived across town, a Facebook friend who was always kind and—get this—encouraging. He’d been hit with a triple whammy on the health front: lymphoma, kidney disease and congestive heart failure. I hesitated before I signed up. My choices were to give money, make a meal, or ignore it altogether. His location wasn’t exactly convenient, so maybe money would suffice. Or I could drive a meal over. In the end, I decided that if I couldn’t do that little, my friendship wasn’t worth that much. So I put my name next to a date, cooked that morning, and showed up on his doorstep.

I apologized when I got there, because the food I brought didn’t even taste good. There were dietary restrictions to follow, and anything cooked without salt ends up tasting like wet cardboard. But it turned out we had a lot in common and had a nice visit. The meal I brought, and the meal he needed, wasn’t my tasteless stuff in the plastic containers. The meal was the company we shared. I told him I could drop by and hang out anytime, and I meant it.

The next day he learned that his lymphoma had progressed even further throughout his body. He was devastated.

This isn’t the ending you’d like for this story, is it? And yet, it’s the ending we all share.

There’s a New Age mantra that tells us if we own our story and reframe the story we can rewrite the story. We can turn down into up, failure to success, pain into promise, and fear into courage just by changing the way we talk to ourselves. It’s true up to a point, and it’s not a bad way to spend a few days if you find yourself in a career or lifestyle funk. But the suffering I see all around me is too real for that.

The other night I flipped open a Buddhist magazine and saw what are called the Buddha’s Five Remembrances. These are the remembrances that we spend our whole life trying to forget.

  1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.
  2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
  3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

With every true thing staring me in the face, I stopped flipping through the pages.

***

The response American crowds gave to Pope Francis last week was not surprising. We are drawn to his being because we suffer deep ills that cannot be fixed by ego’s clever devices, wounds that cannot be healed by the shallow salve of American self-help. We need a real priest for real times. The times we’re in.

So here’s the purpose of this post: I’ve been handed two beautiful books that I’m going to give away to folks who are ready to read them. If you’re interested in winning either one or both, leave a comment on this post by this Saturday, Oct. 3. Let me tell you what you’re in for.

410mchq-dOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Taste of Silence: How I Came To Be at Home With Myself  by Bieke Vandekerckhove. This is the most profoundly brilliant book I’ve read in a long time, and it took me completely by surprise. When she was 19 and in college, the Belgian author was diagnosed with ALS and quickly became paralyzed from the pelvis up. Facing the certainty of approaching death, she took refuge in the silence of a Benedictine monastery and Zen practice. Remarkably, she experienced an unheard-of remission, and from her extreme forbearance came this small book of shining teachings. A week after I read this long-awaited English translation, I learned that Bieke had died after 27 years with the disease.

41HyRSSg4xL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness by Toni Bernhard. Fourteen years ago, Toni was traveling in Paris when she fell ill with an acute virus. She never got better. She is still sick. Toni is no longer a law professor or college dean. She is instead a tireless author of books about the unavoidable presence of pain and the power of sickness. Her work is wonderfully honest, practical and wise, proof that living ill can be living well. From the midst of suffering, Toni is generous and clear. This book is a bountiful gift to caregivers too, so they can keep giving when they’ve given just about everything.

A taste of hard wisdom offered with love and delivered to your doorstep. If you could use the company, just tell me so.

coming home grateful

May 21st, 2015    -    1 Comment
COME-HOME

 

Not long ago, the artist and writer Susa Talan contacted me with what has become an unusual courtesy: asking permission. She was assembling a small book of her drawings to illustrate things she was grateful for, especially as they arose in her daily life. She had come upon some stray words of mine she wished to include. Was that possible?

I said yes. Saying yes is itself the practice of being grateful for what appears.

Now the book is all done, a collection of simple, daily reminders to be kind, to feel something directly and not just think about it. It is called Wear Gratitude (Like a Sweater). This is how Susa explains the title:

“If I wear gratitude, it means that I carry it with me, and I’m surrounded by an outlook that says, There are so many reasons to be grateful and notice the good.”

Her intention reminds me of something we say every morning in formal Zen practice. After the sun rises during dawn meditation, we repeat an old chant called the Verse of the Kesa, which means verse of the robe. At this point, some people put on their rakusu, which is a bib worn by lay practitioners, or an okesa, which is the sari that priests wear over their robes. Even if you don’t wear either of those things you’ll say the verse just the same. Long or short, on a priest or a plumber, what you wear — head, toe, earth, sky — adorns the Buddha, the awakened mind. The whole universe is your sweater.

Vast is the robe of liberation.
A formless field of benefaction.
I wear the Tathagata’s teaching.
Saving all sentient beings. 

It is a song of love, a vow to transform our habits of greed, anger, and ignorance into a selfless field of compassion. Not by just saying it, but by wearing it. Not by just thinking it, but by doing it. Not by just wanting it, but by being it.

These days, what used to be called “common courtesies” are few and far between. Person-to-person, face-to-face connections are rare. More and more it seems like a sterile and distant world, where blessings are hard to find. But home is always closer than you think, and gratitude is the warmth you find just by looking inside.

Copies of the book, along with Susa’s charming cards, prints and calendars, are available in her Etsy Shop. Right now she’s offering everyone 10% off anything and everything using the promo code: GRATITUDE2015

Illustration © Susa Talan

shoveling gutters

February 22nd, 2015    -    10 Comments

18335467I’m biding my time today until the sun is higher in the sky, the air warms a bit, and I can get out and clean the rain gutters. This is a chore that stands in for all the snow shoveling that might go on where you live. It is a solitary job. No one but me notices that it is time to do it. No one but me will do it. It does not diminish me. On the contrary, cleaning the gutters will give me power and purpose, direction and rhythm: spiritual guidance that doesn’t come when I spend the day merely thinking about what I could be doing, say, tomorrow.

My dear and sensitive friend Katrina Kenison recently sent me a marvelous book, out of the blue, which is what makes something a gift, descending like a bird into your hand from who-knows-where, a memoir by Mary Rose O’Reilley, a poet and author hitherto unknown to me, who once apprenticed herself to a sheep farm. Going to work every day in a barn made no sense in a literal way, her lofty mind knowing nothing about sheep or lambing or castration or shearing or sudden virulent sickness and death, any of the activities that make up the muddy substance of a sheep farm. Perhaps she had an inkling that the experience would spiritually ground her, rescue her from the reaches of her poetic inclinations, and it did. The farm rescued her, and reading about it rescued me too.

I haul the ladder from the garage and put on oversized gloves. I always start by using a trowel to dig out the gutters but before long I’ll pitch the gloves and tool because they don’t quite get at the depth of the matter, the sweet oozing muck, the marriage of last summer’s dust, wind-brittled leaves and December’s forgotten rain. You have to use your hands.

Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel greatly alone and sad. Especially these days, I have to remind myself that I keep company with the earth and sky, and that I alone mother the myriad things in-between. That I am a farmer and a friend, and still an apprentice at both. I have to come back to this wholesome earth and shepherd myself in the best way I can. That’s about the time a gift arrives, and I am saved.

The ladder is shaky because at no spot around this house, which sits on a mountain, is the ground level. I’m not afraid. This old path is muddy, but my aim is straight, and maybe I’ll see a bird.

Going out now.

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how to peel an orange

February 6th, 2015    -    2 Comments

Grandpa showed me how to peel an orange.

Hold the fruit in one hand and the pocketknife in the other.

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First, score a circle in the rind around the navel below and the stem on top.

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Draw the blade down the sides in vertical strokes all around the whole, no deeper than the skin, an inch between each cut. Be careful. Go slow. Do not harm the flesh.

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Lift off the top and bottom pieces.

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Pull each section of rind away from the fruit. It will come easily, and with it, the pith.

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Wedge your thumb into the center and splay the fruit wide open.

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There will be ten or so segments—enough to share.

Once you taste the living truth, you are never again fooled by the imitation flavored drink in a carton.

A lesson from my garden to yours, via my newest book,  Paradise in Plain Sight. Order signed copies of all my books here.

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rules for a mindful garden

December 9th, 2014    -    1 Comment

rules for a mindful garden

Available as a print by visiting here.

the truth about lying

March 9th, 2014    -    3 Comments

buddha

Or, what a buddha does not say.

An untroubled mind,
No longer seeking to consider
What is right and what is wrong,
A mind beyond judgments,
Watches and understands.
— The Dhammapada

Why would a Buddhist have to think twice about lying? Admittedly, lying is disagreeable. If we don’t agree on that, there’s no sense having a conversation about honesty. “Right speech” is codified into the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s teaching on the way out of suffering. It’s there in black and white: “Don’t lie.”

Only it’s not black and white and it’s doesn’t say that. The “right” in right speech (and each element of the path) does not mean the opposite of “wrong.” It is not a dualistic comparison. Right speech is whole, perfected, wise, skillful, appropriate, necessary, and non-divisive. That’s a lot of words to describe the language that arises out of the nondistracted awareness of your awakened mind, free of judgments about this or that, right and wrong, if and when, you and me. That’s why right speech is so often expressed by silence.

The Abhaya Sutra categorizes what a buddha does not say:

1. Words known to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others.

2. Words known to be factual, true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others.

3. Words known to be factual, true, beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, because it is not yet the proper time to say them.

4. Words known to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.

5. Words known to be factual, true, but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.

Right speech is not only a lesson in how to speak. It is an admonition to practice: to watch and wait until the mind opens and intuitive wisdom finds its own compassionate expression. In the real world, abstract discussion about honesty doesn’t go far enough, because living beings are not abstractions. That’s the most inconvenient truth of all.

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
Then you can care for all things.
— Tao Te Ching

Excerpted from my review of Sam Harris’s book Lying in the March 2014 Shambhala Sun on newsstands now.

why you need a teacher

January 7th, 2014    -    9 Comments

I stayed home in my pajamas this morning filling out forms. My daughter has decided to apply to private high schools and I’m only now realizing what that entails. Rather a lot of forms and questions and tests and interviews, many benefactors, and a slate of events rich with expectation and anxiety.

I support her in this effort unreservedly. After nine years as a precocious public school student, she makes her case convincingly.

“I need a teacher,” she says.

And it is true that since those sweet years in the lower grades when she positioned herself wide-eyed and smiling at the front of a room of darling children, she has been squashed and lost in a class of 41 high-testing kids on whom the burden of excellence is placed without concomitant resources: without time or attention; absent relationship; void of eye contact; empty of personal encouragement; and even shy of enough books, tables and chairs. Not every student appreciates a teacher in the same way, but my daughter says she does and so I stayed home in my pajamas today.

A teacher is important. A teacher is the most important thing of all. Go as far as you need to go to find a teacher. There is a teacher waiting for you.

******

It was near the end of his time at home, and my father-in-law was deep in dementia.

He would sit alone for hours in an empty room, and if you should enter quietly, he would make the kindest conversation.

“You look pretty today,” he said. He said this to all women.

“Did you come with that fellow?” he asked about the son whom he no longer recognized.

“Where did you find that girl?” he asked about his granddaughter. I answered simply, because I wasn’t here to remind him of anything. “She’s my daughter.”

“She looks very pretty today.”

He was quiet, then up from the vacancy came one last thing.

“I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve had many teachers,” he said, giving me another.

*******

Granted, he didn’t look like much—a scrawny fellow, no taller than me, wearing mended clothes. You might suppose it is some grand philosophy that draws us to the spirit — a theory of the cosmos — but it is the feet, the hands, the eyes, this miserable scrap of human life. Luckily for those of us with a wayward sense of direction, a Zen retreat consists largely of following in the footsteps of the person who stands in front of you. I was mesmerized by Maezumi’s sure, elegant footfall. He moved, when he moved, like Kilimanjaro. I would have followed him anywhere. I guess you could say I did, although it led no farther than my own home. Once you realize you are lost, everything you see is a sign pointing home. — Paradise in Plain Sight, May 2014

taizen maezumi roshi

Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

the idea of help

October 13th, 2013    -    5 Comments

3659camel_blanketI’d just posted this list over on Facebook and here it was, playing out in real life. As I slowed at the light, I rolled down the window, knowing there was fresh green in my wallet.

In the car with me were three middle-schoolers and another mother. I passed the dollar out the window, and in that opening, he took the opportunity to look me in the face and explain himself. He wasn’t going to be here long, he said, but he’d lost his driver’s license and he when he got it back he was going to drive somewhere and work. It spilled out quickly, so long held, the awful jam he was in.

“Do you need a blanket?” the other mother offered from the passenger seat. We’d had fall’s first cold spell the night before.  I wasn’t sure why she had spoken. Was this her gift?

“Sure,” he answered. “Do you have one?”

There was no blanket, just the idea of a blanket, and that doesn’t cover it.

“Now we have to bring him a blanket,” her daughter commented from the back.

“If I bring you a blanket will you still be here?” The mother folded up what had gotten out of hand.

“I’ll wait,” the man said. And the light turned green.

 

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