Anchorite

She looked out of the small window in the door, her only connection to the outside world. For over two decades she’d been kept in this tiny apartment, alone to work. It would be nearly another decade before she would be released, her job done.

It wasn’t quite imprisonment, but there was some truth to the monastic term “cell” that was used to describe her place. It had the basics –toilet, tub, and a kitchenette, along with a bed and a desk. Just enough and not too much. It was hers and hers alone.

Only that which could fit through the tiny window in the door could be given to her or from her. That was fine because she made most of what she needed from raw materials – fabric, grain, it made no difference to her.She had the time to sew or bake as the occasion warranted. She learned it was useful time – it didn’t take away from her writing. When she felt that the well of words was dry, she filled it up by being creative in other ways. Plenty a solution was found when her hands were busy making.

It looked dark in there to outsiders but that was to dissuade them. It wouldn’t do to have people want to follow her in this life. It wasn’t easy or for those who had no discipline. It was a quiet life, with tiny pleasures that came when they wanted to. There was little glory in it, but there was a lot of grace. Here she learned the value of patience and of practice – the slow sure path to the only kind of perfection available on this side of eternity.

In her cell was all the light she needed, provided by the Light of the world. Every day the Spirit of God would descend like a September cloud upon her chest of drawers, between the two angel candlesticks. No one else ever saw this. No one else would ever believe it either.

Her bureau wasn’t just a place to keep her clothes. It was also the Ark of the covenant, the site of the mercy seat. Plenty of folks thought it was lost, but that was because the trail had gone cold all those centuries ago. God knew it wouldn’t do to keep such a thing around. Even then it had become an idol, a stand in, a replacement for the One who visited there.So God hid it from people’s minds, making it lost to those who sought it.

It had been in Jeanne’s family for a century or more. Her great-grandfather found it in an antique shop in Normandy and knew right away what it was. A modest price, and to the casual eye it was just a chest of drawers and nothing else. Certainly not a holy thing, the holy thing.

It hadn’t been brought to Normandy. Truth be told, the shop owner was surprised to see this item when Jeanne’s ancestor asked for help loading it onto his wagon. But she was always misplacing things in her labyrinthine shop anyways. Maybe her partner had brought it in on one of her rare days off. Perhaps it was time for a real vacation, she mused, but how to find the time? The shop wouldn’t run itself.

Jeanne’s ancestor could see the Ark for what it was because he wasn’t in a hurry to be anywhere else. It appeared to him, showed him what it truly was, only because he was content in a way that the world didn’t teach.He wasn’t in a hurry to be anywhere else, be anyone else. So when it came time to pass it on, he did nothing. The chest / Ark would find the right person, or it would leave the family and go somewhere else. Wasn’t that the way with the Spirit? It made no sense to assume the mantle of glory would pass on to the next generation. It wasn’t hereditary like a monarchy. The only monarch was God, not a human. It was only logical that God would crown any one of his children – or none at all.

Jean was grateful the Ark had made it to her, but it wasn’t an accident. Her parents and grandparents in that line had been very centered and calm and had taught her how to live the same way. It was like a double inheritance, now that she thought about it – a calm presence and the presence of God. It was how she was able to be locked away in her cell all these years.And yet, she looked forward to the time when the harvest was right and she could teach the world all that God had taught her face-to-face.

(Written 10/8/18)

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Gateway

The house was built up around the doorway, not the other way around. Much like how paved roads developed from foot paths, it was easier to follow the path of least resistance, or the path that was most efficient.

That doorway had been an arch, a gateway to an elevated position. It worked a change in status, a never going back. Those who walked across that threshold were forever transformed.

Was it the place itself that caused the transformation, or the act of it? Was simply walking up those steps and under the arch enough of the sign – a decision made and cemented by the physical act? Or was there something to the years of bare feet crossing this threshold with the same firm intention, the same true heart? Like water wearing a groove in a river bed, the channel simply grew deeper and more sure, more able to hold true to its path.

For centuries there was just this place. No steps, no archway – and certainly no door or walls. Nobody questioned it. It was never used accidentally or irreverently. But then times changed. People moved away from the village. Customs were not passed down intact. Things that adults took for granted as fact were not taught to the children. They assumed they knew, forgetting or never realizing their own quiet and subtle indoctrination.

Ways of being together in community, the ways that marked each group as separate and distinct, weren’t automatic. They could not be presumed to be known. They required careful and deliberate teaching, but not the overt kind. You couldn’t teach someone how you lived together the same way you’d teach the rules of the road or a language. No, that teaching was hidden in the unspoken language, through tone, through how you held your body, through the look on your face. That was taught in the under-language, but it still must be taught.

Had the communication breakdown happened when the families became decentralized? New couples moved away from hometowns, in search of jobs or change. Both wife and husband worked instead of just one, because there were so many more things they had to buy. If they’d stayed put they could have gotten family to help instead of having to hire it out to strangers. Babysitting or home repair weren’t cheap, and caused a strain on already meager resources.

Or had the transmission of culture disintegrated because of the influx of others from elsewhere? While one group of couples left, another came to fill in the gap, both in search of greener pastures, not realizing that one person‘s trash was indeed another one’s treasure.

Perhaps it was a bit of both, or something more. No matter, the fact was a fact – and the fact was that the majority of the town didn’t know the whys and the wherefore of the village’s unique tradition. Rather than have someone accidentally be changed, the older villagers chose to enclose the area, to make it impossible to cross unless the initiate was truly ready. It wouldn’t do to have someone accidentally become something they weren’t ready for.

And what exactly happened at that gateway? What did initiates become? They were not given a new title or a new name. Their new membership in this unique club was never notarized. There were no meetings, fees, or dues. But there was most certainly a change that came over them, a palpable difference. Perhaps it was the lightness of the heart, or a twinkling of the eye, but they were different.

Once they crossed that threshold they ceased being alone. All fear left them, all doubt, all pain. Once they crossed over they were not the same person because they were more than just a person. They were joined, made whole, reunited. They were one with the Creator. It was Nirvana. It was heaven on earth. It was Zen. Sure, they still carried water and chopped wood. It wasn’t like they sat around all day thinking about God. They didn’t have to. Once they crossed over, they shared the mind of God, which was even better. There was no need to stop working, because work itself became a delight, a way to yoke action with thought – a way to bring forth God’s light into the world.

But why wall this up? Why put a doorway? Wouldn’t everyone want this bliss, this grace,? It turned out that the person had to be prepared and willing to accept this change. Otherwise it was like trying to move a dozen people into an efficiency apartment. There was no room for you to move around, no space to think or rest. Unprepared, a newly expanded person often went mad. Some had delusions of grander, when in reality they weren’t even adequate. Some thought they were God. Some thought they were Moses, or Elijah, or Jesus. The mental hospitals and homeless shelters in the big city begin to fill up with these lost souls, these broken vessels, because the people of the village shunned them. They didn’t know what had happened, didn’t know that these people had crossed through the gateway prematurely, unready, unknowing. All the villagers knew was that they suddenly had strangers in their midst, people who looked like their friends and neighbors but acted like aliens. They no longer fit inside their bodies or community, so they left, pushed out. A village this small could not function with people that broken. So to prevent further losses, the elders made the gateway into a sanctuary, a shrine, unlocked only on ember days and solstices. Those who had already become whole would wait inside on those days and welcome their newest members.

Not everyone crossed the threshold. Not everyone wanted to. Not everyone was up to it. Not everyone knew what it was. But for those who crossed, their lives were never the same again.

Written mid November 2017

Morning has broken

The mist lay over the land like a comforter smoothing away the edges. Sounds traveled less at these times, but few beings knew this. Those who were nocturnal were already snuggled down, deep in their burrows. Those who were diurnal had not yet roused by this time.

The chill of the October air swirled about the massive buck, and steam poured from his nostrils. They tested the air, flared a bit at an uncommon scent. Sharp, like fear, like the smell of anger. His ears perked up now, alert to this new concern. He could hear nothing amiss, but his nose had never been wrong.

No one had appointed him protector of the forest. This was a job he had inherited when the last old buck died. Every forest had one – a keeper, a protector. He simply knew to patrol the boundaries,to protect the sanctity of the forest. Nobody else knew his task. It was silent, secret. He insured the peace of the forest home for all the residents –animals and plants.

The trees were his wards too. When he marked them with his scent he was bringing special attention to them – this one needed healing by being noticed. Or this one needed to be left alone by the other deer.

The moose and bear weren’t the same – theymarked what they wanted, when they wanted. No rhyme and certainly no reasonthere. But they were asleep in many ways.

He had the burden of being awake, and being alone. This was a task that was best performed with full attention, or not at all.

It was time to check out that smell. It wasn’t going away and it felt like it would only get bigger. He walked towards it,carefully, slowly, eager to not make a sound. His tall slim legs deftly maneuvered around the branches in the forest, placing his hooves precisely, no sound created to alert others. While he was unwilling to call attention to his duty, he was also unwilling to alert whatever was making this scent – not until it was time.

It took nearly an hour to make his way there. By then his ears could hear the noise. And then he saw it – some huge yellow monster, with round feet and a huge single arm, grabbing at the dirt in massive, greedy grabs. Another yellow monster, arms wrapping around 40 foot trees and stripping off their branches as if they were saplings. His eyes grew wide – what were these beasts who were eating his home? They were the source of the smell, that burning, the smoke, the terror.

The blood that ran through them was from the remains of animals who died long ago – long before this forest was populated with his kind. It was from larger animals, ones that lived in warmer times. The blood of these yellow monsters was made from death, from decay. And yet, the breath from these immense yellow animals would bring about the change that made life possible for them again.

The dinosaurs were having their revenge, now, a millennia later. They had been reborn as the fuel that powered these machines that were destroying the earth for mammals – making it too warm for warm blooded animals, making it perfect for reptiles and larger-than-life lizards.These ghosts had possessed the people, making them crave oil, haunting them to create gasoline, pursuing them to make more and more, to destroy more and more.

The ancient stag knew madness when he saw it. It had stalked his forest in years past. He knew it was a force that was beyond reason.It was a hunger, an emptiness, a vacuum. It was an empty void that could never be filled. Things could never ever be enough – food, power, property. That kind of emptiness only lead to more cravings, not less. It was like scratching at hives – it only made you itch more.

The stag returned to the forest and thought about what to do. The machines could be destroyed, but the people would only bring more. A show of force from the bigger animals – the bears, the mountain lions – would only bring hunters with guns.

The next morning he knew. He went to talk to the trees in that area and explained to them how they needed to give up their spirits. The wood needed to be rotten inside and for that the tree spirit had to leave. Then the wood wouldn’t be valuable anymore. Then he talked to the soil around the area, to soften up to the two legged, to make it impossible for them to scout deeper into the forest. Not quite as bad as quicksand, but better than mud for grabbing it shoes. Enough of that and maybe the people would leave.

He had no way to ensure they wouldn’t come back in the future, but by then he would be gone. Another stag would have taken his place as guardian of these hills, his home. Another stag would have to stand against this incessant encroachment, this greedy grabbing.

(Written early October 2018) (inspired by artwork by Dan McCarthy)

The red door.

The red door was the door of his remembering and her forgetting. Seven simple steps up to reach it that he knew intimately. Every crack and crevice was as familiar to him as the back of his hand. He’d seen them often enough in the 18 years he wandered up the steps, always looking down.

One never entered this sanctuary any other way. It just wasn’t done. Not until she came along.

Perhaps it was because of the lapse in her religious instruction. The years between when her parents left that church when she was 5 to when she returned on her own as a young adult might have been the important difference.

He never left the faith, never saw a reason to. So he didn’t understand when she balked at going to his church when they got married. He didn’t see anything wrong with the rites and rituals, didn’t think anything was broken and in need of fixing.

He didn’t see how harmful it was to see only men up front, only men leading the service. Even boys were allowed up there, but never women. A boy of eight could stand closer to the altar than she could. There was more than just the altar rail standing between her and the central focus of his faith. Over 2000 years of tradition, of “we’ve always done it this way” stood between her and God too.

He’d never been on the outside, so he didn’t know. He didn’t know how harmful it was to exclude half the population, because he’d never been on the other side.

Perhaps if she hadn’t spent those years away she never would have noticed. Perhaps, like a lobster in a pot, she wouldn’t have noticed she was being slowly killed, her spirit squashed into a state of compliance and submission.

But she had left and she knew better. She knew that the truth wasn’t up there at the altar. Heck it wasn’t even in the pews.

So his holy place, up the stairs and through the red door – painted red to indicate the Holy Spirit, wasn’t home for her.

She tried to get him to see the error of his church, how Jesus never intended service to be a ritual but a real thing. 2000 years of wrong is still wrong, no matter what they said.So she didn’t go anymore. 

She went, at first, to please him, to go along. When she was in the middle of the Mass she’d feel an odd homesickness, the same ache she had when she came back to her family home after her parents died. It just wasn’t the same. It couldn’t be.

When she was sitting in those familiar wooden pews she forgot who she was, forgot about all the lies being told about her and about God, forgot that original sin came about because Adam didn’t stop his wife from breaking a rule she’d never been told.

Wasn’t that always the way? A secondhand story, a game of telephone where the stakes were so high they included eternal banishment and pain and work. If only he’d stood up to that serpent and defended her as a husband should, instead of mutely watching to see if she’d fall for the bait. Perhaps she was his canary in the coal mine, his measure of danger. Perhaps he didn’t believe God was that serious about the penalty, but wasn’t willing to risk it himself.

It was too dangerous to forget this. Forgetting that betrayal made her forget herself, made her betray her own sovereignty. So she stayed away.

And him? He kept going, week after week, not even minding that she didn’t go. He prayed for her to change, of course, to wake up, to see the error of her ways. He knew that one day she’d have to submit to God‘s will and stop being so obstinate and self-centered.

(Written before October 2018)

The back 40

The back 40 was beyond the saloon doors but nobody ever went there. The doors had been barred these last dozen years, the bottom opening sealed shut with a rough assortment of stones and mortar. All that remained open was the view over the top and through the spindles. It was tantalizing, a forbidden fruit.

Eight more years and the land would be open again, free to roam or graze or harvest as needs saw fit. But for now, it would rest.

The huxster came to town all those years ago, peddling his snake oil and palm readings. He was the one who warned the town about the saloon, telling them to tear it down but leave the door. He wasn’t clear about the curse he felt rested on it, the hungry ghosts who roamed the space. Were they ghosts of gunfighters who lost their tempers when they lost their poker games? Or maybe the saloon had been planted over Indian graves, not like they were marked. The whole of the west might as well be an Indian burial ground once you thought about it.

Whatever the why, the what was certain – the place couldn’t be used by the living for at least two decades, and that started that day. It was unusual that the town acted so quickly on the medicine peddler’s declaration. Normally they would hem and haw and wait for the circuit rider judge to make his way through and make a decision for them on something so large. But no, they started to tear down the saloon themselves, brick by brick and board by board, the moment he made his declaration. Perhaps he’d finally spoken aloud what they all knew in their hearts. A truth finally let out has a power unequaled.

Now the lone prairie stretched out past the front walls of the saloon, occupied by saguaro and sagebrush. No animals would step hoof or paw on the land for miles around. No fences were needed. They just knew. Animals had more sense than people all along anyway.

And what about after the decades had passed? Then the same man would return, or someone sent by him, to assess the land, to see if it was safe to use. Some hauntings have a half life that is only as long as the number of years they were alive. Some remained as long as there were still people who remembered them. Some never left on their own, their spirits so unsettled and violent that extreme measures were required to evict them. 

The first test to see if the land was clear was to see if animals would walk on it. They couldn’t be led. It had to be voluntary. If the curse still remained an animal with simply turn away from the invisible boundary. It was as if they suddenly became disinterested in whatever they had seen on the other side. It wasn’t forceful or aggressive, this turning. It wasn’t like a wall. But it worked like one regardless, gently keeping out all animal life. Even birds wouldn’t nest in the cactus there. They could fly through, but not touch the ground or anything attached to it. All they could do was fly through on their way to somewhere else.

And perhaps that was part of the haunting – an unsettledness, a homelessness. Perhaps it was possessed by a spirit of dispossession – a gnawing grasping to have and to hold forever, an empty hunger for more and more even after the plate has been emptied and the belly filled. Perhaps that was why a saloon was built on this site in the first place – a sanctuary to the lost souls who searched for spirits in bottles, not knowing the true Spirit could never be contained or controlled.

Ardashir

Ardashir knew that he had to leave the palace, and soon.

He was tired of being asked how to do everything and anything. They should know better. They didn’t need his advice or opinion on everything. Or maybe they did. He was the Shah, the King of Kings, after all. There was none higher than him. But even he had started to question this. From birth he had been groomed for the role, passed to him at 23 when his father left his body.

The Shah never dies. Only commoners died. Everybody knew that.

He’d been born in the palace, like the rest of his family. He had never been a commoner. H was told, and believed without question, that he was the human incarnation of God, God himself in human form. Everyone else was created from the Earth – basically dirt. He was entirely spirit, a quantum singularity, unique and holy. This is why he could never be touched, except by his wife. Alas, he didn’t have one – a suitable candidate having not yet been found.

Marriage for the Shah was never easy. He never got to pick who his mate was. That would be absurd. How could he have time to find her – and how could he leave the royal grounds? No, she had to be carefully selected, interviewed, groomed. Sometimes there were choices. Sometimes they were up to a dozen wives, so he could pick who suited his fancy that day.

Each wife was made holy, coequal in Divinity for as long as he lived. The moment he died they all (except the one who had been lucky enough to bear the male heir) were immediately de-consecrated and summarily kicked out of the palace, reduced to scrabbling commoner status again. Every other unlucky wife was sent penniless , with only the clothes she wore, to the street.

Some were savvy enough to sell their royal clothes to make enough money for food for a month. Some were vain enough to keep them, wanting to retain their former glory. Yet their family and neighbors remembered how they had treated them upon attaining divinity. Sometimes this didn’t go well.

Ardashir envied these women, his father’s and grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s widows in their cold anonymity. He wished he could disappear to the dusty streets. 

(Written around late August 2018)

Soul gardening

Barred and bolted, the tiny door kept out most of the intruders, the nosy, the curious, the hopeful. They all thought that they were unique, were special enough to have a private audience with her. They were wrong.

She’d hired a guard but he was too easily suckered. They’d claim to be her best friend from high school or from her church, or bringing Chinese takeout. They’d try anything to get to her – well, anything other than being honest. The guard was a babyface of course – she couldn’t have a heel connected to her. It would ruin her reputation. But maybe it was going to have to come to that. But for now, the door was the solution. That and the courtyard. If someone was bold enough to get through the barricade, they’d probably get distracted by the courtyard garden that lay between her and the rest of the world.

It was her own special spot, designed by her and her penpal from Japan. How many private tea gardens were there in the world, especially outside of Japan? We would never know. Thus hers was the only one. In the absence of absolute certainty, the only sure thing was the only truth.

She’d come to this impasse because they flocked to her. She was forever needed by those who were empty, absent – hungry ghosts masquerading as humans. She had grown up in a family of them – the emotionally needy, the spiritually bankrupt. She spoke their language fluently. So others, related by temperament and outlook if not by blood, saw her as a kindred spirit. They confided in her, told her all of their dark secrets, the ones they never told their priest or counselor. They could have healed those voids, these ugly reflexes, but they chose to look outward to others for their happiness and healing. 

They told her she was special and she said no – anybody can do this, but maybe they were right. What made her different was that she’d achieved escape velocity and done it. Yes they could – but they didn’t.

So she had to lock herself away from them from time to time – the gnawing neediness, the game they played over and over where they chose the role of broken or helpless or victim or all three. She could no longer play along – it wasn’t healthy for any of them. So here she retreated to her soul garden to nurture herself, to tend the parts of her soul that were worn.

(Written mid August 2018)