The Evolution of Eden
A. J. Williams
April 23, 2009
The Evolution of Eden: A Preface
in nature may simply be the evolution of an imagination.”
Tempest Williams, Leap
me, creative nonfiction writing is about more than a mere digression of thoughts from one topic to the next; although it accompanies
all of these, in part, my writing goes beyond mere “I” statements that fulfill the ego’s need for self-aggrandizement,
psychological self-flagellation, or even the soul’s desire for public introspection.
What writing has become for me is the reflection of evolution itself, both the physical, literal evolution of our species
as well as the metaphorical, interpersonal evolution of the individual as we relate to our species, one human’s often
times feeble yet noble attempt to better understand the world by seeking within it reflections of the self. From the beginning of my existence, an entrance onto the biological “stage” of the world marked
by innocence and naivete, I have been imprinted in many ways, some good and some bad, that have formed the creature readers
see today: both narrator and narrative. Many figures have influenced my writing,
family and culture, friends and enemies. Yet perhaps the most significant influence
on my prose and the manner in which I have attempted to craft this story – this ongoing draft of my life – has
been that of Terry Tempest Williams. In fact, in much of Williams’ work,
I find myself spotting parallels in theme, style, and evolution of craft that mirror my own.
Williams seeks to call attention to some of the more pressing issues of cultural encroachment on the natural world. The seemingly senseless and insensitive human impact on
this planet, our Mother Earth, becomes a central theme in works like Refuge and,
as shown below, Red:
Without feeling. Perhaps these two words are the key, the only way we can begin to understand our
abuse of each other and our abuse of the land. Could it be that what we fear
most is our capacity to feel, and so we annihilate symbolically and physically that which is beautiful and tender, anything
that dares us to consider our creative selves? (108)
Indeed, what I strive to do
in my own work is not altogether dissimilar to Williams. Without attempting to inject too much pathos or sentimentality into
my writing, I do work to take scenes and imagery of beauty in this world – the bees, butterflies, and baby bird, to
name a few – and show how curiosity and even good intentions often work to destroy.
Even my own narrative here, the story of childhood bliss and innocence, has been affected by a destroyer of another
sort: my molester.
And nature, too, becomes a central theme in
my thesis, much like Williams in Refuge:
If the desert is holy, it
is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps
that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There
is no place to hide, and so we are found. (148)
My “desert” is
the prairie of the Great Plains and Midwest, the scenes of my childhood and subsequent adult spirituality that awaken and
unfold just as a bird unfolds its wings and leaps into the great sea of air, trusting in its ability to navigate the flows,
currents, and sudden eddies that sweep across its outstretched wings. When I
make my pilgrimage to the “desert,” it is a desert of grass where
I, too, can find myself, unhidden in the rolling hills that stretch on for mile after mile after mile. And just as in my travels across the prairie, so is my writing reflective of my travels both physical
style, too, of my creative nonfiction resembles that of Terry Tempest Williams, as the latter often plays with syntax, word
choice, and tone, particularly in Leap, to craft a canvass of sentences sometimes
both new and meaningful:
It is never enough.
God forbid. God forbid. (126)
the blank page as my own canvass, I dabble into my own sort of syntaxical experimentation,
not that any of this has not been done before, but experimental because I therein test the boundaries of my own writing, devising
ways to be unique and genuine, while offering the reader substantive work that is not beyond their grasp. Had Williams chosen to compose her entire book in this form, it is likely that she would have created
something unique yet untenably twisted and unapproachable for readers, whereas choosing carefully where to sprinkle such little
grammatical gifts lends her work a uniqueness and readability that is still honest
yet universal. Thus, by writing, we make a covenant with our own readers, a
covenant of approachability and universality.
came. I saw. I wrote.
all, the evolution of my craft of writing – what I like to call my Art –
has come full circle much like Williams’ work has. Intermixing elements
of experimentation with standard narrative, what has begun as narrative, been sprinkled with exposition, and dipped into experimentation
has returned to narrative, the telling of a story. My story. A story in which everyone can hopefully find some reflection of themselves, if not now, then in future
generation, as in what Williams observes in Red:
There is a man in Boulder,
Utah, who buries poems in the desert. He is an archaeologist who knows through
his profession that eventually his words will be excavated, that although they may not be understood now by this community,
at a later date his poetry will be held as an artifact, mulled over by minds that will follow his. (37)
my journey as a writer is not over, has barely just begun. This thesis, this
humble attempt to mold so many experiences, to include so many ideas and words, into one thematic experience is, for me, the
beginning of something alive and breathing . . .
. . it marks the next stage of my own evolution, journeying into Eden itself.
can be heard in the chilly darkness from down below.
I cried out.
but soft sobs echo down the corridor.
The first, alpha, the first
letter of the alphabet, numero uno, alpha male, Alpha, the First, Prima Genitor, the Creator of A, a in and of itself.
“Who are you?”
I am not an Alpha male . . .
God. Not “God.” He never said it. But that’s not what they teach . He is God.
“Then why didn’t He say, ‘I
am . . . God?’”
“But if not ‘God,’ then who?”
“Who do they say I am?”
Trillions. Three in one, tertiary, Trinity, Completion.
“Then why are there four? If Three is enough, or even One, then why are there four?”
Cataclysm. I. Me. One
in a cast of billions, billions and billions, of planets of stars of galaxies. Letters,
letters all. Hydrogen, H, the first letter, not of the alphabet but of a higher
order of building blocks. The building blocks of the universe. Helium, He, the next letters. Together, they comprise 99%
of the universe, these two gasses, lighter than air, air to breathe, can’t breathe with ‘em, can’t breathe
without ‘em. From the gasses of space, condensed, to form the heart of
stars, spewed forth in cataclysmic thunder, rocking the universe, an organism, an orgasm, itself created – birthed –
in the aether, like bubbles in a seething pot of nonexistence. Water, can’t
breathe with it, can’t breathe without it. Another, like the four Elements
– air, earth, water, fire – that itself is a union of two elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen, we can breathe in this.
I take my first breath, welcoming the world
with a cry, a cry that anticipates tears, tears shed in anticipation of pain, the pain of birth and loss and death and quiet
acquiescence into the night. Do not go gently into that good night, good night darling,
sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.
From cataclysm to Me. Just like that. One tiny cry, one blink of an eye, and 15
billion years later, I awake from the slumber of atomic being, particles, sub-atomic particles, all dust, star dust come to
life, staring into the light of day and the starry sky of night.
“Where have I been all these years?”
Trillions of stars, each composed of trillions
of molecules, trillions of atoms, living, breathing, dying, fleeing, until just a few million find themselves enwrapped around
one another, tighter and tighter, in a molecular twist, a circle of life,
Perfection, awareness, sentience,
the building blocks of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, composed not of Three but of four, a holier number. Holy if only because “I am” and nothing more. I
think, therefore I am? No. He
was wrong. I am, therefore I think! For
I cannot think unless I am, and if I am not, who can say if I think, here or anywhere?
Centuries of Cartesian philosophy turned inside out, out of time, out of sync, in sync with time, with space, with
existence, with me. I am, therefore I am.
Adenine, guanine, thymine, cytosine, A, G, T,
C. these four little letters, and I am, we are, everything that lives and breathes
and breeds and dies. And all of these are constructed of other letters, the
Building Blocks of building blocks. We play with our blocks, blocks with numbers,
letters on blocks, letters, letters, must learn our letters
We play we learn we learn
We live we love we love to
We laugh we cry we stand here
Now I know my A B Cs, why
can’t the World
They say a child’s earliest memories are formed about the age of four,
some a little earlier, some a little later. Some claim they can remember experiences
in the womb; I number among them. Whether real or imagined, the memories I have
seem eerily surreal, unearthly, like a globe circling the black, black space of a starless heaven.
What’s that light? Not
light, but an image of light, red, orange, yellow, as though seen through membranes of flesh and uterus, like first light
from the pale, pink, eastern sky an hour before sunrise.
The Demarcation of Innocence
was an only child.
“Capricious, wanton, bold, and brutal Lust
Is meanly selfish; when resisted, cruel;
like the blast of Pestilential Winds,
Taints the sweet bloom of Nature's fairest forms.”
- John Milton, Paradise Lost
we first noticed when we walked down the long flight of descending stairs was that it appeared as an otherworldly castle,
replete with knights, demons, heroes, and fire-breathing dragons. Well, at least it was in the mind of us, a five year old. For
us, though, tagging along with either mama or nana, our grandmother, down the long flight of stairs into the “dungeon,”
this was the greatest adventure we had ever experienced. We would sing and skip
or dance along our mama's side, “helping” her in our very five-year-old fashion.
Looking back, the long, cement hallway seemed almost as wide as a street in our mind, dark and cool, with only a couple
of light bulbs strung from fixtures dangling willy-nilly from the high ceiling. The
flick of a switch along the wall at the top of the stairwell turned utter darkness into a realm of long, deep shadows which
seemed to creep alongside of us like some dark, otherworldly companion from the nether realm. We were not alone.
The hallway turned, then, and after walking what seemed hundreds of feet, we found ourselves outside the huge, dark
metal door, like the gate of some mystical castle where adventure waited beyond. Excited
to help mama open the door, the dark room – lit only by the tiny shards of light which shown through a few cellar-like
windows – opaque and dirty from years of inattention, stood ominous. Shadows
reigned like ancient kings immersed in the antiquity of mystery and horror. We
were unwilling to enter.
Yet with a flick of another switch, the room suddenly brightened, the shadows fled to the safety of the corners, and
inside was revealed a massive, open room filled with, perhaps, fifty years or more worth of washing machines and equipment,
like a hidden museum silently dedicated to the last century of women’s
Instantly, we ran across the room, exploring all that we had seen many times as we had accompanied our mama or nana
to this unconventional laundry room, actually created as a bomb shelter, a cultural remnant of the Cold War era. Wringers with wooden hand cranks, well worn from decades of manual use, over hung large, ribbed, cast
iron buckets from which the laundry was presumably pulled, squeezed, and hung to dry on any one of the dozens of clothes lines
strung across the room. We were fascinated each time mama demonstrated just
how people used these strange devices, struggling to crank the wooden handle ourselves, like knights preparing for mortal
combat by practicing first with wooden swords.
Every wall, every contraption, every corner was filled with exploration and adventure.
Whether it was dusty, metallic clothes presses or walls filled with metal ironing boards that folded out magically
from alcoves in the walls, the musty smells of mold and detergent or the residue of gears, the dust accumulated from years
of disuse or the enchanting feel of dark and rusted metal cold to the touch, the massive room provided hours of play for us. Sometimes, we would play for so long, that our mama would leave us alone for a time
to explore while she would drag huge, hamper-sized loads of clean or dirty clothing up and down the dark hallway and stairs. It was at these times, alone but for the scattered shadows, echoing sounds, and strange
smells, when we were to discover the
in the shadows unknown.
This is our story. It is not a fairy tale. This is the story of our “fairy horror.”
Often the child would sit upon one of the folded down, heavy, metal ironing boards to watch his mama working in the
dungeon, her tasks of washing and hanging, folding and drying, never really done. In
addition to her own laundry and that of her new husband, the child’s mama worked as a maid in the six-story, red brick
apartment building. Thus, her work – including the washing of bedding
– often brought her and her preschool son down the long, shadowy hallway and into the massive laundry room, sometimes
several times a day. The boy attended his mama faithfully, even expectantly,
on each of these forays into the dungeon. There was always something new to
find . . .
Yet the child found something he had never expected, something he would not be able to define or comprehend until many
As the little boy danced wistfully around the room, he heard sounds coming from the long, shadowy hallway. Mama had often left the “gates” to the “castle” open just a few inches, and as
the sounds drew nearer, the child could tell it was footsteps, though the pace and tone of these steps sounded different from
the gait of his mama or even his nana.
Slip . . . slip . . . slip . . .
It was slow, methodical, almost as if something was
crawling, slithering in the dark cavern, preparing to lurch at the first sight of a tasty little meal – namely, him.
The boy stopped what he was doing, listening, intent. He walked slowly
toward the door and called out, “Mama? Nana?” But the only response was the shuffling sound of the unseen creature that slithered nearer the metal door
as the child stood motionless, his heart beating faster in his chest, his little palms growing moist and cold. Slip . . . slip . . . slip . . . slip . . . He withdrew
a few steps before turning to run, his eyes darting from object to object, evaluating, as a child does, which item would afford
him the most protection as he sought shelter from the unknown danger. Slip .
. . slip . . . slip . . . slip . . . slip . . .
Finally choosing a suitable spot, the child huddled beneath one of the large ironing boards, staring at the door from
beneath his meager cover. His shallow breaths were coming quicker than he wanted,
and he held his breath, watching, waiting. And all the while the sounds of the
beast grew louder, closer. Now, they were almost at the door.
Slip . . . slip . . . slip . . . slip . . . slip . . . slip. Then all grew silent.
For a moment, all was quiet, and the child, huddled beneath the ironing board, watched in fear, not knowing what was
to happen next.
With trembling lips, the boy called out, “Mama?” then more
Lips closed tight, face red, with tiny veins bulging in his forehead,
the child sat motionless as the door began to move, slowly, it’s metallic hinges creaking softly as they always did,
as though resentful at being disturbed. All the boy could do was watch, powerless.
But instead of a fang or tail, a hand appeared, fingers wrapped around the edge of the door. Next, the boy saw one foot, a leg, and then another, but from his vantage point, the child could not make
out the upper body. Dipping his head lower, his eyes never leaving the creature,
the young boy exhaled, smiling. He crawled from beneath his hiding spot and
approached the serpent, oblivious to the danger lurking behind the reptilian smile that met his own.
“Now, shhh. Don’t tell anyone,” hissed the serpent,
zipping up his pants and wiping the crack of the boy’s bottom clean. “It’ll
be our little secret!”
The child pushed himself up from the large, heavy ironing board, turned, and leaned his feet over the side until his
toes touched the floor. He felt the wet fluid running down the side of his buttocks
and inner thighs, and he touched it with his hand, then wiped his hand on his shirt.
He quietly pulled up his pants while the serpent helped him buckle his belt.
The boy didn’t run. The boy didn’t hide. The boy didn’t cry out. The boy simply stood there,
the serpent telling him to be a good little nephew and don’t tell mama. She
wouldn’t believe him anyway.
As mama returned to the washroom, loads of laundry in her hands, the serpent chatted with her for a while, smiled,
and exited the castle, the first of many, many visits he and the good little boy, the quiet little boy, the obedient little
boy, would share together in the dungeon below.
Fishie, the young child’s favorite stuffed animal, had been sewn together so many times
that its stuffing had to be replaced in several places along its soft underside. The
child’s stepfather had won it for him at a carnival when the boy was almost six, and the animal never left the boy’s
side when mama would lay him down to sleep in his little bed.
was always there whenever the serpent wasn’t, and at night, the child would hold the soft, plush animal close, rubbing
it gently against himself much as the serpent had touched him. There was always
the tingling sensation that rose and subsided, and soon afterward, the child would fall asleep. Though unable to understand what it all meant, the feeling left him relaxed and tired, sometimes chasing
away the demons that haunted his nightly foray into the world of sleep. Fishie
was there long after the serpent had left. Fishie was the reminder of everything
the child had learned from the serpent, and fishie gave the child comfort almost every day of his adolescence. Fishie’s soft touch was the boy’s inheritance from the reptile.
wasn’t there, though, when the young boy would dream at night. He dreamed
often, the same dream, over and over again: shadows, something moving from out of the darkness, the pain, then rolling uncontrollably
until he was struck again, unable to stop, unable to control anything around him. Rolling,
rolling, rolling until he sometimes awoke, crying and screaming, unable to discern reality from the dream as his mama came
inside his bedroom and held him tight, rocking and singing him to back to sleep. And
always behind the shadows, behind the illusions of night’s terrors, lay the Daemons.
Data In, Data Out
From the time we’re born – even
before – others are planning for us, what we’ll wear, what we’ll learn, what we’ll think, what we’ll
be. Ones and zeroes. Data in,
“What is it about pink that’s inherently
‘female’,” I ask my blank-faced class. “Is there some
genetic code in us that chooses blue or pink, or is there something in the spectrograph itself that denotes pink as girl and
blue as boy?”
One of my more talkative students blurts out,
“It’s genetic.” Others in the class chuckle quietly for a
“So,” I say, following up, “there’s
a gene in our DNA that is pink or blue.” It’s more of a statement
than a question.
Some in the class nod. Others remain motionless, quiet.
“Then, it’s not society or our culture
that dictates this?”
No one said a word. The echo of ignorance was profound.
I remember, in junior high school, how peers
argued over whether the penis was a bone or something else entirely Many reasoned
that since it was called a “boner,” it must obviously consist of a bone that springs up when excited. “That’s why it gets hard,” they claimed.
When I explained to my schoolmates that it was
actually soft cartilage that becomes filled with blood and feels hard when aroused, they stood and stared at me, dumbfounded. No one said a word.
Perhaps ignorance is genetic, too.
Human brain development is said to follow one
of two paths. Nature versus nurture.
One theory is that we are all “blank slates,” like empty sponges, waiting for someone to fill us. Data in, data out. We have no preconceived
notions, no ideas of our own, perfectly clean recorders upon which others imprint all that we see, hear, touch, taste, and
“You can grow up to be anyone you want,
Jimmy. Even president!”
The other theory is that, although nurture plays
some role in affecting our nature, we are born with a personality already intact. Whether
we are raised in an environment that fosters our core self or inhibits it, we are who we are.
An outgoing child who tends toward abstract thought will still be outgoing and abstract, regardless of how he or she
Nature versus nurture. Data in, data out. Or genetics. You decide.
Disclaimer: Although you have the free will to choose which theory you favor,
choosing one over another does not necessarily mean that you are right.
Sociologists and psychologists like Freud, Pavlov, and Maslow changed how
our world looked at personality. Their research, which explored the patterns
of learning and behavior, undermined a couple thousand years worth of assumption that human nature was comprised of generally
four types. The Roman physician, Galen, noted the four “humors”
in the second century AD as, namely, the Sanguine (optimistic), the Melancholic (solemn), the Choleric (passionate), and the
centuries before Galen, Greek philosopher and naturalist Aristotle divided human personality into four types based upon happiness. There were those seeking Hedone (sensual pleasure), Propraietari (monetary pleasure),
Ethikos (moral virtue), and Dialogike (rationality). And before Aristotle, Plato
divided humanity into four types based on virtues. There was the Iconic (artistic),
the Pistic (caretaker), the Noetic (intuitive), and the Dianoetic (reasoning).
of these descriptions recognized that among the vast diversity of mankind, there existed four, core temperaments, an idea
that was discarded with the advent of modern psychology. In the mid-twentieth
century, however, this theory has been revived by Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers and is being further expanded by David
Keirsey. Keirsey likens human personality to a computer, where temperament is
the hard drive and character is the software. People are born with certain,
genetically determined temperament traits that comprise the core of their personality.
Then, environmental influences such as family, peers, and culture shape our individual character within the margins
of our temperament.
were born special, Jimmy. You can be anything you want. Even president!”
knew at an early age that I would never be class president or an athlete. I
had fewer friends than I could count on one hand, and I never passed the president’s physical fitness test, administered
in schools annually for the ritualistic humiliation of children like me. One
more child “left behind.”
recall the first flickering of realization that I would never be president . .
you ever told anybody this?”
. . . ”
couldn't. You didn't see them. They'd
think . . . they would think . . . ”
what do you think?”
think . . . I think . . . ”
The first ones, I thought, were vague, illusory,
appearing only in my dreams as a five-year-old boy. They played with my Spirit
as pool players play with billiard balls, shooting them across the thin, pliable fabric of my conscious mind, where below
the veneer of idyllic, child-like green pastures lay the strata, the multiple layers, of my underdeveloped subconsciousness. They would come and go as they please, chalking their cruel pool cues with fear and
terror, watching and laughing as the little boy's mind tried desperately, ineffectually, to understand what was happening,
to attempt to process through the mind's eye of lost innocence and abuse the very fear which gripped his heart many, many
are not real. They are in your head . . . ”
why did I hear them, see them, even feel them, sometimes?”
. . . you were so young.”
come on. Even you don't believe in them anymore.”
silence is golden.
The child's eyes opened wide, staring at
the darkened ceiling high above his bed.
you hear that?
Lifting his head from his pillow, the boy's
gaze peered outside the doorway of his spacious bedroom into the shadowy hallway adjacent to his room.
it is again!
Slowly, ever so slowly, the child, perhaps seven
or eight-years-old, heard a sound, slow, distinct, coming from the stairwell in the hall.
Mommy and Daddy traversed the stairs many times a day, and each time, the century-old house would creak and groan under
the weight of its inhabitants. So this night, when the stairs began to recite
their old, familiar tune, creaking and groaning as if a heavy foot was treading each step, the boy was certain that somebody
was on the stairs.
Creeping from under his covers and tiptoeing
across the carpeted floor of his room, Jimmy made his way toward the entry, intent on discovering the source of the sound. His parents had been asleep for some time, but as he stopped by the doorway, he heard
it again. Clear. Distinct.
“Mommy?” the boy whispered into
There was only silence. A long silence.
“Mommy? Daddy?” his call grew louder,
Without thinking, Jimmy stepped out into the
hallway and approached the top of the stairs, peeking his head just over the banister at the top of the stairwell. He looked down into the near blackness below.
mommy or daddy . . .
Panicked, the child hesitated before finally
turning and fleeing into his room, jumping onto the bed and hiding under the covers, his head buried just beneath. And still, the being ascended the stairs, slowly, step by step by step.
Carefully pulling the covers down from his head
until only his eyes appeared, Jimmy lay as motionless as he could, watching as the darkened figure appeared over the top of
the banister, first its head, then its neck, then torso, until it came to the top of the stairs and turned to peer at the
boy in an eyeless stare. Jimmy shrank again under the blanket.
Without looking, the boy knew that the figure
turned toward his room and walked to the entry, then stopped. Jimmy felt it,
sensed it, in all its malevolence. Slowly, the demon entered the room, moving
steadily toward the boy’s bed until the creature stood beside it, leaning, towering ominously over the shaking, blanket-huddled,
tiny figure beneath. Somehow, Jimmy knew, it would have taken his very soul
that night. Yet it didn’t. That
was the first sign. The first real sign, both of its power and of its powerlessness. The child would not be able to understand the event – and others like it –
until much later in life . . .
“Did you see it?”
“The . . . the . . . the Monster?”
“Oh Jimmy, it was just a dream. Go back to sleep, honey.”
“No. It was real—”
“Jimmy . . .”
“You are imagining things again.”
“No. No, I’m not.”
“What did it look like?”
“It looked . . . it looked . . .”
“Go on. Tell me, darling.”
“. . . it looked like . . .”
* * *
child awoke suddenly, panting and shaking as though the very foundation of his bed, his house, his very world, would split
apart, engulfing him into the Inferno of which he was certain could consume his very soul.
His head was still rolling, still reeling, from the game being played with his mind, unable for a brief moment to distinguish
between reality and imagination, between this world and the Other. He felt like
his heart itself had been rolling across a table, cracking into other balls, sending him careening uncontrolled. Like peering down Alice’s rabbit hole from his world into another, curiouser and curiouser, the
window between the adolescent child’s two realities was always blurred.
the onset of puberty at the age of twelve came the cessation of the night terrors, the dark dreams. But one terror that still haunted the adolescent was the Daemon itself.
Without knowing how, the white, creamy fluid that pasted the young man’s palm and fingers that very first time,
and many more after, were antidote to the terrors that rocked his nights. The
inner demons were laid to rest.
demons from without were another story altogether.
“Come here and help me carry some things
out of the basement, Jimmy.”
followed my uncle down into the basement of his new rental home. Even at the
age of twelve, I was still “a good boy” and acquiescent to the will of adults.
Yet as I followed the originator of all my night terrors and visitations down into the very poorly lit lower level,
I heard them. They were as distinct as any fingerprint. The creek, creek, creek of our footsteps along the old, wooden stairs which led into the basement threw
my heart into a panic, and by the time we had reached the bottom of the stairwell, my imagination was gripped with that old
fear, as the eyes of creatures all along the walls of the near empty basement stared in leering, twisted pleasure. They had returned.
uncle walked ahead, then turned to look at me, bidding me to follow. There were
no boxes at the far end of the enclosure, only a furnace that stood in the middle of the large, musty-smelling, open room. I took a few tentative steps, the sound of my shoes tapping lightly against the cold
cement floor, reverberating ever so slightly off the dark, cinder block walls.
uncle stood watching me from the shadows on the other side. “Come over
when I heard them, too. The hissing. It was not the hissing like snakes but, rather, like myriad voices whispering all
at once, no single voice rising above the others. Among the cacophony of sounds,
my uncle’s voice stood out, calling to me softly, as he had once done years before.
at this, Jimmy. Come here and . . . help me.”
had expected the figures along the wall to come forth and prod me, pull me, drag me toward my offender as they had lured me
nearly seven years earlier. But I turned and ascended the stairs, slowly, step
by step by step.
Daemon was thwarted.
Outside stands a little
boy of about eleven years of age. He is standing beside a lilac bush.
It is a hot, humid, and sunny
day. Bees buzz all about the blossoms as the boy watches intently.
You know, of course, that you’re going to get stung.
Yes you will.
Oh, stop it!
I mean it . . .
You little bastard! I hope you get stung, then.
not very nice.
Then listen to what I tell you . . .
. . . What are you doing now? Crying?
Don’t deny it. I just saw you wipe your
eyes. You’re crying, aren’t you?
Don’t tell me to shut up, young man.
. . . I hate you.
What was that?
Did you just say, ‘I hate you?’
Look at me. Turn your head and look at me! Did you just tell me you hate me?
. . . I’m . . . I’m sorry.
Oh, come here. It’s OK. I just worry about you, that’s all . . .
. . . There, there, don’t cry. I love you, Jimmy.
love you, too.
Now be a good boy, and don’t touch the bees.
Well, whatever. Bees. Wasps. You’ll get stung either way. Please don’t pick them up.
I’m not picking them up. I’m catching
I don’t care what you call it, you shouldn’t be doing that. You might get seriously hurt.
. . . What are you doing?
You’re not doing what I think you’re doing!
be quiet. You’ll scare them away.
I should scare all of them away. It’s for
your own protection.
if you scare them, then I really might get stung.
Then just leave them alone.
Ohhh, I don’t like the looks of this. I
can’t watch. We’re going to get stung!
. . . Gotchya!
what I caught!
Let it go!
open your eyes and look! See? It
ain’t going nowhere. I got it by the wings. See it? See?
Uh, huh. What are you going to do with it now?
gonna study it!
And then what are you going to do?
going to let it go.
It’ll sting you.
You don’t think I wouldn’t sting you
if you held me captive like that?
not a person. It doesn’t think
that way! When I let it go, it’ll fly off, scared.
I don’t know about this.
worry. I’ve done this before. I
haven’t gotten stung yet.
There’s always a first time.
keep saying that.
Well what else to you expect me to say?
always say the same thing, over and over again.
Ohhh, I do not.
Why don’t you behave?
do behave. I just don’t do what you
want me to do.
That isn’t behaving.
sound just like her.
I am her. Well, not her her, but I am her, kind of . . .
. . . Well, actually I am you, but I’m her, too. Sort of . . .
. . . What are you doing?
. . . I said, ‘What are you doing?’
not listening to you.
I heard you.
You should care!
don’t care about anything . . .
. . . I don’t even care about you.
You don’t love me?
No. Not really.
Take it back.
Alright! Be that way!
. . . Ohhh, I’m sorry.
Are you really?
. . . No.
I hate you.
know. I hate us, too.
“Uggggh, I’m bored.”
bored’ means ‘I have nothing to do for me,’” my mother
more than once astutely observed as I lay on the couch thinking of something to do.
My teen years were unlike most others my age. I would awaken each morning
by five, sometimes earlier, and ride my bike to Stone State Park along the outskirts of my hometown of Sioux City, Iowa any
morning there wasn’t snow on the roads. There, I would walk the trails
and visit the pond – my pond, I considered it – and watch nature in all its beauty. I would return home just in time to make it to school during the fall and spring, and in the summer months,
I wouldn’t return home until hours later, my inquisitive thirst for meaning temporarily slated. On days I couldn’t go outside, I would read books, book about ants or stars, birds or rocks, just
about anything the local, downtown library had to offer on the natural world. When
I grew up, I told myself, I was going to be a scientist. If it moved or breathed,
bred or bled, I was fascinated and had to learn more.
fact, I had many interests as a child: insects, plants, rocks, and a collection of each that would make even the avid amateur
naturalist jealous. No bug was too small, no leaf too insignificant, no member
of the plant or animal kingdom – even fungi or algae – too inconsequential to escape a curious child’s notice. Inside my home, jars and jars and books and books were filled with oddities: leaf
collections, bark collections, aphids and aphid-tending ants, and cicada shells shucked by these melodious, late summer insects
dislodged tenderly from the bark of trees to find their way into a young mind’s world.
The world seemed abuzz with delight.
after summer, I perfected the art of capturing bees. At first, I would stand
patiently among flowers, waiting for a winged, stinging marvel to alight on a trumpet or other such tubular flower, watching
carefully until it plunged deep into the pollen cavern.
Quickly but cautiously, I would grab the flower with one hand and close its
petals with the others, breaking off the bloom at its base while my chitinous treasure buzzed and hummed confusedly within. Wasps or hornets, honey or bumble bees, it made no difference to me. Once captured, I would drop the bloom into a long-necked jar and rush to screw the metal lid on tightly
before the insect had regained its orientation. Each lid had been punctured
with tiny holes from a steak knife, allowing just enough space for air but not too much so that tiny bugs would escape. From there, I would observe my captured prey for hours, enraptured with the beauty
and detail of each winged creature.
time, my experiments grew more complex and a bit dangerous. Thrilled by the
prospect of holding nature, literally, in my hands, I began to catch bees by their wings.
First, I caught honeybees and their more bulbous, slow moving cousins, the bumblebees, before moving on to more challenging
catches like paper wasps and hornets. I had been catching butterflies by their
wings since my earliest memories, and I assumed capturing bees would be no different.
I learned very quickly that the trick to capturing stinging insects by hand was to nab both of their largest wings
together. Then, the insect could only move its head and abdomen, but not enough
to bite or sting my fingers. From there, I could closely examine the living
creature with a magnifying glass before growing bored and releasing it to the wind.
Of course, when I was successful grabbing just one of my victim’s wings, the result was always painful, but the
joy and excitement of holding such an animal in my hand was insatiable and worth it, even when I was stung repeatedly by a
have been stung many, many times by nearly every species of wasp except for two: the cicada killer and the blue mud dabber. It wasn’t, of course, for lack of trying, as I caught these insects just as
readily as any other. The cicada killers, though, were large, unwieldy insects,
nearly as slow as the bumble bee. The females were about two inches long and
the males about a half-inch shorter. The males would dig underground burrows
into the soil along slightly elevated hillsides or gentle embankments, then advertise their bachelor’s burrow by flying
around the entrance, soliciting available females from the local area. When
a female would find a male attractive enough, she would mate above ground, then fly off in search of a cicada into which she
would lay one or more eggs for the larvae to consume. It was really nothing
to watch the entrance of a cicada killer burrow for an hour or more on a late summer day, jar in hand, until a female would
alight, prey often in her clutches, and carry it into the nest. I would simply
take the jar, place it over the entrance, and wait for the intended victim to emerge from the hole into the jar. As easy as that.
other insect I never even attempted to catch by the wings was the cagy blue mud dabber, clearly my favorite stinging insect
in the world or wasps. If anyone has ever observed a mud dabber sitting on the
hot, mid-summer cement of a sidewalk, they will understand why I was fortunate to even get close enough to catch them in a
jar. They are fast, very fast, and dart back and forth in very quick, hard-to-predict
motions. Only wide-mouthed jars would do for capturing these insects, and failing to slam the open jar down upon them before they flew or moved usually meant having
to flee, and flee quickly. Many jars did I crack or break in attempting to time
their movements just right, but once caught, I would marvel at what I considered the most beautiful of all flying bugs.
remember being so filled with curiosity that I wondered which of these stinging wonders would win in a battle for survival. Several times, I collected various species of wasp or bee and place them rather adroitly
into the same jar, taking care that my previous captives would not inadvertently escape their glassy confines. I would sometimes place as many as eight different species into a jar, all within minutes of catching
the first one, and watch “the action” within as if it were an episode of NOVA on PBS – or the animal kingdom’s
version of Thunderdome: two bugs enter, one bug leave.
for all of their size, the cicada killers did not fare well in a pitched fight. They, honey bees, and bumble bees seemed to fade rather quickly, although the smallest
of contenders, the hornets, would hold out for a long time, grabbing onto the legs or other appendages of their much larger
foes and not letting go, no matter how many times they were bitten and stung. The
best fighters, though, were the paper wasps and mud dabbers, although some of the solitary wasp species were adept enough
to occasionally avoid the fray altogether. In the end, after a few hours in
the glassy dome of death, exposed to the hot summer sun, I would open the lid and dump the beleaguered contestants onto the
ground, then sit and watch to see what would happen. Occasionally, a victor
would seemingly emerge from the array of broken, tangled, and mangled bodies, limping away from the pile – sometimes
a smaller opponent still attached to a leg in a grip of death – sit patiently awhile, then crawl slowly away.
of the things that interested me most about bees was their ability to hibernate. I
always thought it must be very handy to shut one’s body down for the winter and reemerge in the warm spring weather
as if it were only yesterday. I obtained a large, iced tea jar from my mother
early one summer and set about capturing a blue mud dabber. I went to the hose
outside in the yard, cracked the lid open just a bit, and proceeded to fill the jar with water, completely to the top. I tested the jar several times by inverting it to see if there were any air bubbles
still left inside. When I was finally satisfied that virtually all of the air
was gone. I screwed the lid tightly, wrapped tape around the seal, and dug a
hole into the ground. Then I sat and observed my specimen. At first, the deep blue insect spun and sputtered in the watery tomb, but after awhile, the poor mud dabber
stopped moving altogether, and I placed the jar about a foot down into the soil, covering it and stamping the earth down with
my hands and feet. My experiment was well underway.
autumn, after school began, I decided to dig up the jar to observe the results of my experiment. I dug where I remembered the jar was buried, found it after several minutes, opened the container, and
poured the contents out onto the sidewalk. The mud dabber spilled to the ground,
motionless. I waited.
waited . . .
And waited . . .
it began to move. Almost imperceptibly at first, a leg, an antennae, another
leg. I sat on the cracked concrete steps of my house, watching, amazed that
the creature could still be alive. Perhaps an hour later, maybe more, the wasp,
warmed and dried by the autumn sun, crawled and then finally flew away. For
no recognizable reason, I felt . . . elated.
“There ain’t no Santa Claus, stupid” the boy in the lunchroom
declared aloud for everyone sitting nearby to hear. “Hey everyone! Four-eyes
over here still believes in Santa.”
laughter, which filled the lunchroom of my elementary school, seemed, to my eleven-year-old ears, as though it could have
filled an entire stadium. I knew that practically everyone agreed that Santa
Clause didn't exist – at least not the “Santa” portrayed in fictional children's shows on television. Oh, he had been a historically “real” figure at one time, but that was
not the Santa for which the children were ridiculing me today. I still believed
in Santa. Thee Santa.
home that day from school, I was filled with thoughts about all of the things that the kids on the playground and in the lunchroom
had been saying. Teasing, occasionally even cruelty, had always been a natural
part of life for me at school, but never with the intensity that there had been today.
Outwardly, I felt justified in my belief. My parents always said there
was a Santa Clause, and it had been easy to take them at their word. Parents,
after all, were infallible. Right? In
fact, whenever I had begun to think over the years about questions like "How does Santa visit millions of homes on several
continents in one night?” and “How do the reindeer fly?” or “How do the elves survive on the North
Pole?” I had always justified them in my mind by assuming it was magic, something special. My parents had never led me to believe otherwise.
evening after taking my bath, my mom came into the room. The day’s events
had upset me rather terribly, and she noticed it since I had arrived home from school.
When she asked me what was wrong, I hesitated . . . It was fear. Inwardly, I dreaded the answer to the question I was about to ask.
is there really a Santa Clause?”
course there is a Santa, honey!” she replied cheerfully, though something in her voice no longer seemed quite convincing
to me. I pressed further.
mean, is there really a Santa?”
There. It was out. I anxiously awaited her
looked at me with tilted head and fading smile as she seemingly contemplated her answer.
Yet already, I could see the words written in her eyes. She didn't need
honey,” she finally said in a softened voice, “there's not really a Santa.”
teary eyes, I hugged her close. Still, something – something my eleven-year-old
mind could not quite define – was gone. What that something was
I couldn't quite say, yet I mourned the loss nonetheless.
They were flying everywhere as they did each year, flocking by the thousands
around my friend Tim’s hackberry trees. He lived in a brick house next
door with a huge front porch, and the butterflies would alight on the sun-warmed, marbled-maroon bricks, sunning themselves,
their wings moving back and forth, back and forth in the hot, summer wind. They
were dull brown little things, with some striping and a few lighter colored, almost white, dots on them, and I was always
enchanted by the sheer number of them each summer, more butterflies than I had ever seen in one place anywhere. We would always catch and release, catch and release, sometimes placing them into jars, often not, but
this year, we decided to try something different.
Tim and I began catching the fluttering insects when they would land on the
porch, then pinch the tips of their abdomens, not enough to kill them, but enough to ensure that they would be unable to mate. I don’t know how many hackberry butterflies we did this to, but after several
days, most of the ones we caught had already been “pinched,” so after a time, we subsided, curious what would
next summer, and for several summers thereafter until we both moved away, there were never more than a few dozen, maybe a
few hundred, spotted, dull-brown butterflies. I felt . . . guilty.
ignorance of the world’s children,
has probably done as much to decimate the natural world as anything else.
A Bird in the Hand
“Look mom, look!” I cried one day, coming away from the open window where I had carefully removed
the old wooden screen. “I caught a house sparrow!”
were all manner of wild birds and mammals in my home as a child, and I guess most adolescents with a natural inclination toward
the abstract and esoteric would naturally gravitate to Nature when exposed to this environment.
of the first memories I have as a child are of three baby squirrels my mother and grandmother rescued after a tornado had
ripped down our street, toppling trees and making a general mess. I was four
or five-years-old, and I clearly recall the three little red-furry darlings climbing all over the curtains and furniture of
our living room after my mother weaned them from a tiny baby bottle of milk. We
eventually had to release them back into the wild, but I can never forget my fascination with these fuzzy, lithe, and playful
little rodents. It was a fascination I would never lose.
the age of thirteen or so, I began to hand-feed the squirrels in my neighborhood. It’s
a task that requires absolute, impeccable patience, but I had proven to be a patient little boy, and my self-training proved
to be a virtue with squirrels. Within a couple of months, several of the furry,
red rodents would run into our fenced yard every time I came outside, and I got into the habit of carrying cookies or other
such treats to greet them. My mother has pictures of the creatures on the screen
door, tapping on the glass to get our attention so they could be fed. Invariably,
the new litters would learn from their parents, and every year for as long as we lived there, we fed the birds and other animals,
and I was even able to hand feed black-capped chickadees who would land on my palm and pick safflower seeds from my open,
unmoving hand. Yet regardless of how “tame” these animals appeared,
they were still wild.
I had the desire to try to get closer to one of my squirrels. I had often attempted
to pet one particularly tame female, with mixed results, but I thought that if, perhaps, I held the cookie firmly in my hand,
she would sit there and eat, providing me with the opportunity to pet the creature.
But when the squirrel tugged on the cookie with her teeth several times, and I did not release the food, she came closer
to my palm and nipped me. I drew my hand back sharply, and the squirrel took
the treat and ran off a few feet to eat. In exchange, she left me two tiny puncture
marks that were bleeding.
All in a Day’s Work
Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off
sluggard, take thou the ant for thy example . . .
Ants. Hundreds of ants. Thousands of ants. Maybe tens of thousands of ants. Covered
with ants, I spent more than a day digging out an ant colony just across the street in a lot where a home had been recently
leveled in the name of progress. It doesn’t take long, really, for an
inquisitive adolescent, obsessed with nature, to locate the entrance to an ant colony, and this nest was so expansive, that
it covered nearly a yard worth of openings amidst tall, twisting roots of grass. There
were several species among this genus, but this particular ant colony was the black type, about three-eights of an inch long. Other genuses had developed castes of ants, some evolved with heads and pinchers
so large – the soldiers – that they had to be feed by the workers. The
ants I began to unearth here, however, had evolved with a different method of defense: formic acid. They were one of my favorite
species, from the genus Formica, containing a tiny amount of formic acid in their abdomen which they would employ against
an enemy by first biting, then swinging their lower section underneath their long, back legs to squirt a tiny, almost microscopic,
amount into its victim’s wound. The effect was adequate to deter most
invaders, including other ants, from bothering them. Not me.
with nothing more than a shovel, a small spade, and several glass jars, I worked diligently that late spring day digging and
until I had to stop. The openings, tunnels, and chambers continued
more than two and a half feet down into the earth, and the width of my excavation had covered seven or eight feet, all to
no avail. Oh, I found ants. More
ants than I knew what to do with, worker ants and larvae, larvae and pupae, pupae and eggs, thousands of eggs, many crushed
into the soil around my feet, knees, and hands. Many placed into jars. There were winged ants, too, drones and fertile females that would have one day flown
from the nest in nuptial flight, the species’ way of passing on their genes, their heredity,
An endless cycle, an endless circle, spilling from the ground, spiraling into the air, spiraling and spilling,
spilling and spiraling, an aerial dance that has not changed considerably in a hundred million years, drones spilling their
genetic seed into females, only to die, while females fall to the ground, falling tumbling, rolling falling, end over end
over end over end . . . No more.
I never found the prize for which I sought: the Queen. She must have been hidden
so deep in tiny, subterranean caverns that she was seemingly beyond my reach.
1. Human 0.
I awake from sleep again, crying out loud, the memories of tumbling, rolling,
end-over-end still vivid in a child’s mind. Nightmares? No. Terrors they call them.
Night terrors. All of my consciousness, all of my being, wrapped up,
rolled up, enveloped into a ball, a billiard ball, a bouncing ball, a rolling ball, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling until
struck by another ball, and another, and another, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling, no direction, no control, powerless
to act, powerless to not act. Screams in the night. Shaking. Tears. Mother’s
arms holding me tight, cooing, singing, softly wooing, wooing me to sleep, to rest, to slumber into a bliss, the bliss of
childhood tainted by the terrors I never understood, hoping, longing, praying, yearning, to face a dreamless sleep.
I think there’s a Monster under my bed.”
honey, it’s OK. There’s no such thing as monsters.”
a lie commonly told to little children. My monster lay not in only my dreams,
but in my reality . . .
always said there were no such thing as monsters, not really. But there are.”
Newt, in James Cameron’s Aliens
Jimmy. Don’t tell mommy. It’ll
be our little secret. She won’t believe you anyway.”
Girls: The Final Frontier
Home from school!
There was nothing like coming home from junior high school every day, running to my room, and turning on the television
set to view another episode of Wonder Woman with the curvy Lindsey Carter. Being
thirteen years old, the realm of girls and the female body opened up before me like the pages of some pedantic tome suddenly
making sense. What used to be “yucky” was now interesting, and I
began to take sensual delight in being around girls.
I remember, as a first grader, chasing my female peers
around the playground, threatening to kiss them as punishment for some wrong, real or perceived. It was fun, to a seven-year-old, to make them run screaming to Sister I-Hate-Children, who often punished
me for my atrocious behavior by making me stay after school or visit the parochial school’s principal’s office. Many a paddling did I receive for my social, anti-social acts, but there was a devilish
joy in wielding some power over the girls by making them flee at the first sign of puckered lips. Now a budding teenager, I wanted only to wield another power over the female sex, namely kissing them
in earnest. Even the thought of sitting next to a pretty classmate of the opposite
sex sent tingles throughout my mind and body.
All that would have to wait, however. It was time for Wonder Woman!
One time, while watching my favorite show after school,
the star must have appeared particularly dazzling to me, with her powerful lasso and the very revealing – for a 1970s
children’s show, that is – outfit that she wore. I sat on the floor,
only a foot or so from the television, entranced, and in my enthusiasm soon after the show began, I whistled aloud –
a “wolf whistle” – in anticipation of another hetero-erotic episode.
That’s when things changed.
Jimmy!” a woman’s voice called from below the stairs. It
was my mother. “Jimmy! Come
down here this instant!”
She was mad.
This didn’t bode well.
Quietly I stood up and moved to the stairs, seeing
the shadow of my mother’s figure standing at the bottom. I took each stair
quickly, not wishing to miss too much of the show, and thinking, perhaps, that if I somehow tumbled down the stairs and broke
my neck, she’d feel guilty for yelling at me, and then everything would be ok.
I reached the bottom of the stairwell and found her staring at me, lips pursed, standing perfectly still.
“What did I just hear?” she asked, pointing
a finger upstairs.
I remained self-consciously quiet.
“What did I just hear you do?” she asked
again, her tone higher, sharper.
“Nothing,” I responded, cowed by her angry
demeanor. “I was just watching Wonder Woman”.
That was all she needed to hear. For the next twenty minutes, my mother scolded me for treating women so terribly and for making “objects”
out of them. Only a few days earlier, she had rummaged through my dresser drawers
and discovered pages of women in lingerie that I had removed from a JC Penney catalogue.
Now this? Enough was enough.
I stood there with my hands in my pockets, head down,
afraid to make eye contact. I was only half-listening, embarrassed and angry.
When the lecture was finished, I tramped upstairs,
shamed and humiliated. I had nothing to say to her. What could a young man experiencing the psychological and physiological changes typical at this age say? I turned off the television, any thought of arousal now wiped clear from my mind. I felt ashamed and dirty. I felt .
. . alone.
“Do you know what other kids will one day call the nerdy kid in school?”
my mother quizzes me one day after I complain about maltreatment from my high school peers.
advice, helpful though it was meant, did little to appease my wounded pride. I
was a nerd in school. Not a geek. Not
a dork. Geeks were those kids who seemed to possess an eccentric, often anal
retentive, talent in something that one day would actually make the world a better place.
These are the Bill Gates of the world, the kind of kids who tinker in their basements and garages, inventing things
of which the vast majority of their peers would have never dreamed. Four-eyes
or two, introverts or extroverts, they dream of things and put those dreams into motion.
Geeks possessed both the desire and the initiative that most kids never understood.
Then, there are the dorks.
were good at nothing and had nothing really to offer the world. They may have
been smart in school, but even that was debatable: if they were, they never let it show.
A dork’s idea of invention was inventing ways to get by doing as little as they could and do so with few others
around. Often loners, the dorks had neither the desire nor the initiative to
do anything but vegetate, like moss on a tree, like lichens on a rock. But the
nerds were different.
like me were the sort of kids who were bright like the geeks but completely inept when it came to socialization. Even extroverted nerds tended to be quiet in social situations, preferring to express themselves only
with like-minded individuals, like the geeks and, occasionally when desperate, even the dorks.
I was a nerd. And everyone knew
I had never given a flower to anyone before, except,
maybe, my mother. It was February, and I had been in the tenth grade since autumn. Everything was so different in high school, yet not much had changed since junior
high. Most of the kids here, growing up together and attending the same schools,
knew each other already, but a recent move – I had lost count of how many different homes we had lived in and schools
I had attended – and a rezoning of school districts left me virtually isolated in a sea of strange faces. Although most of the other teens were not as cruel to me as I had experienced as a younger child, they
were not particularly friendly, either. They were, at the best of times, indifferent.
Nonetheless, I had a terrible crush on one person in particular, Cheryl, a brown haired girl who sat in my biology
class. She was quite lovely, at least to me.
Her pimply complexion, full lips, curvy body, and deep set, brown eyes were accentuated by her very quiet nature, and
I longed to get to know her better. She was mysterious to me, like a beautifully
wrapped package waiting to be opened up and discovered. She sat in the front
row while I sat two seats down from her. All the geeks sat in the front row,
and I detected in her a familiar spirit. I could hardly make eye contact whenever
she casually looked over at me, which in itself was rare. She usually kept to
herself, speaking to few. I had gotten up the courage a few times to talk
to her, but her shyness was a barrier that I found too challenging, thus far, to surmount.
I knew little about girls, and even less about this courting thing, and I am certain that I appeared as awkward as
she was shy.
But today would be different. It was “give your love a flower day,”
and I had brought a couple of dollars with me to purchase a rose and have it delivered to her.
We had the option of presenting the flower ourselves or having it delivered during any class period of the day. Since I did not have the courage to present the rose myself, I opted to have it delivered
to her while we were in biology class, my excitement and anticipation growing exponentially as each hour, each minute, drew
closer to the appointed time.
Sitting in class, now, sweating and trembling with anticipation, I could not stop watching the clock on the wall tick
minute-by-minute, second-by-second. I heard nothing that my biology teacher,
Bill Klein, said; my thoughts were elsewhere. Time passed, and it grew progressively
closer to the end of the period. I tried not to make eye contact with her or
even look at her at all. I knew that to do so would risk spoiling my surprise,
as I was certain that she would read it in my eyes. Where is it? I thought
inwardly, wondering if the sign of my affection would even arrive on time. But
a few minutes before class ended, my hopes fading quickly, the door to the classroom opened, and in stepped two people, wrapped
flowers in their hands. I sat up straight in my desk and watched closely as
names were called out and flowers delivered. Several girls had already received
theirs, and I worried that somehow my own token of affection had been overlooked, forgotten.
Then, they called one last name: Cheryl.
It was surreal. It seemed as if everything had slowed down, nothing else
existed but I and the rose and Cheryl. They handed her the last flower and departed,
and I watched intently, breathing heavily as she looked at the flower, searching for something. One of her classmates, a girl sitting behind her, whispered aloud, “Who’s it from?”
Who’s it from?
She carefully searched the pastel paper in which the flower was wrapped, looked around, and shrugged her shoulders. There was no card.
Shit! I forgot to include the card.
I was devastated as Cheryl glanced briefly around
the room, her eyes alighting on me for only a moment before scanning the others. She
had no idea who had given her the token of love, had never suspected that it was I.
I wanted to stand up, to look at her, to scream out, “It’s from me!
Me!” Everyone would laugh, to be sure, but all my effort, all of
my overtures throughout the year, would be for nothing. And what if someone
else, equally sweet on her, claimed that they were the one who had given her the flower? Who could contest them?
The bell suddenly rang and kids began to rise, collecting
their books, and heading out the classroom door. I waited behind, stunned, unable
to rise as chaotic thoughts flooded my reasoning. How could she know
it was from me? We had done little more than look at each other occasionally,
either on the bus on in class, and the few times I had spoken to her would have given her little indication of my feelings,
All through the remainder of the day, I could not concentrate, could think of nothing but what an idiot I was. I despaired, and as classes let out for the day, I made my way wearily to the bus,
intent on going home and drowning my sorrows in root beer. I took my seat on
the bus, always the front row, and watched as Cheryl made her way down the sidewalk and onto the bus. She took her seat on the first row just ahead and perpendicular to the other rows, and I watched carefully
as she held the still-wrapped flower in her lap, her book bag and purse lying on the floor between her feet. I was always able to get a good view of her as I sat on the opposite side, and I sat quietly, brooding,
as I tried to decide what to do.
The bus finally departed, and with each stop, my anxiety grew as I knew Cheryl’s stop was always before mine. I struggled within to say something, anything, other than simply sitting there, silent,
morose. We were only two stops away, now, before she would rise, pick up her
purse and book bag, and head for home. It was now or never.
“Did you like the flower?” I trembled visibly and was certain
that my voice broke, choking over the words and my own cowardice.
Cheryl looked at me, and shook her head, confused. The bus was quite
noisy, and she had not heard what I had said. Several other kids had heard,
though, and I was more self-conscious than ever. I repeated my words, louder,
oddly unconcerned whether or not others would overhear. I needed her to know.
“The flower. Did you like it?”
Cheryl peered down at the rose, lifting it slightly as if discerning its true origin.
She raised her head, then, and looked at me.
“It’s from you?”
I nodded eagerly, and several on the bus snickered, but I was paying them no heed.
I watched Cheryl’s eyes closely as the bus stopped to let off some more kids.
She was quiet, too quiet, and I suddenly felt completely unnerved. I
felt as though I had just swallowed a cactus, my throat dry, my guts in pain. She
lowered her head and began to gather her things as the bus made its way to the pretty, brown haired girl’s stop. Almost imperceptibly, her head down, she whispered, “Thank you.”
That was it. The bus stopped.
Cheryl stepped off, and I turned my head to watch her walk down the broken sidewalk as the bus pulled away. She never looked back.
I didn’t know what to say, what to do, or what to think.
It was the last time we would ever talk.
We saw her so often that it seemed as though she practically lived with us. At times, she did. Grandma Ruthie,
or “Nana” as I was fond of calling her as a young child, was like a second mother to me, always there whenever
I was hurt, sad, or just plain hungry! Her baking, in fact, was phenomenal,
and regardless of how often my mother attempted to meet her mom's unwritten cooking standards, there was nothing quite like
eating at grandma's. No matter what I ever did – good or bad – it
seemed as though grandma was always on my side, always there to somehow help heal with a kiss and a kind word the little pains
Ruthie wasn't a small woman by any means, but she wasn't so large that she couldn't reach down to put her arms around me every
time I'd see her. The plump, supple folds of her body were always soft and inviting
as I put my arms around her, projecting warmth and comfort, and she had the most beautiful, thick, dark head of hair that
I always recall most fondly in one of her many 1970's styles. There was no feeling
in the world like being with grandma, no time of the year that she didn't somehow go out of her way to make special.
summer after I turned sixteen was an exciting time for me. I rode my bicycle
everywhere and was happy just to have more independence and freedom. So, when
I came home one day to find an old 1972 Yamaha 250cc motorcycle sitting in my parent's gravel driveway, I was speechless. She had purchased it for me because she wanted me to have . . . something. That something, as I look back now with a wisdom that only comes to us through pain and experience,
was a memory, a gift by which I would remember her. Yet the only gift I really
wanted most, my nana's time, was no longer hers to freely give.
had been ill for many years, though no one in the family had really known. It
wasn't until the ambulance rushed her to the hospital one day after she collapsed from bleeding that anyone close to her knew
what was going on. To our horror, my mom discovered that grandma had been sick
for many years and had always known it. She grew steadily weaker and experienced
painful bleeding for some years now. The doctors at the hospital diagnosed her
with late-stage cervical cancer. She had, at best, only months to live.
seemed surreal to me, as though someone had just announced that Superman was dying.
It was impossible, I reasoned. This was Nana. She can't die. She was a staple in my life as large as any
role mom and dad ever played. There had to be something . . . something that
I could do, anything, to save her.
it though I would, in a matter of weeks, I watched helpless as her weight plummeted, and her hair fell out. Watching her holding back tears one day as she looked in a mirror, shreds of the once long, black, shiny
hair lay brittle and lifeless in her fragile hands. Before the summer was over,
Grandma Ruthie passed away in the hospital, her once vigorous, hearty frame wasted away to nothing. I was not there to see her take her final breath.
cried uncontrollably, inconsolably for days. I could not move, could not eat,
could not think.
The Path Not Traveled
The first semester of my freshman year at the Franciscan Catholic college
was life changing. I had graduated from West High School in Sioux City, Iowa
as the 1983 Bausch and Lomb Honorary Science Award winner, having taken more secondary education credits in the sciences than
any other Iowa high school graduate up until that time. It was my goal –
no, it was my dream – to go to college and become a biologist. An ornithologist,
to be specific. I had a love affair with birds and nature. During my senior year at West, I had achieved a 4.0 grade point average, and there wasn't an area of the
natural sciences that wasn’t fascinating to me; yet an intense love of the outdoors and everything it encompassed gravitated
my young mind, naturally, toward the life sciences.
was pleased, then, for any time spent together with my new biology professor during the first few weeks of the semester. I had been working on a problem that had troubled me for the last couple of years,
attempting to resolve the apparent contradiction between evolution and Creationism.
Having been raised a devout Roman Catholic with influences from a few fundamentalist relatives and friends, I was bothered
by the fact that Creationism – a literal creation of all life directly by God himself – did not seem to mesh well
with all of the hard, scientific facts I had learned about radiometric dating, evolution, and Darwinism. It seemed obvious to me that the earth must be older than six thousand years, but how to mesh elements
of evolutionary theory with the story told in Genesis chapters one and two boggled my mind.
I was determined to make it all fit. Science, after all, was logical,
and God, the Supreme Being, could certainly not be illogical, right? So the
question was only one of how to make them fit. It felt like assembling
a jigsaw puzzle in the dark.
the summer prior to entering college, I spent much of my time with my high school biology teacher and intellectual mentor,
Bill Klein. He had introduced me to the newest discovery in Iowa, a completely new species of prairie wildflower that grew
only on one hill adjacent to the local college. Fascinated by its uniqueness,
the fact that it had somehow sprung where nothing like it had ever been before amazed me, and I felt as though a wave of awareness
was about to crash down upon my consciousness. It set my mind racing.
interestingly enough, seemed to continually produce life forms from earlier versions, each new species competing in an evolutionary
“arms race” to carve out a niche for itself. As the epics and eras
progress, life appeared to develop greater levels of complexity in an almost unconscious attempt to produce a life form that
can survive every new change or catastrophe that arises. The greater apes, for
example, so similar anatomically, behaviorally and genetically to humans, seem to have been part of nature's unwitting attempt
to produce an increasingly complex, universally successful species.
I reasoned, being created in the “image” of God himself, must therefore be the perfect creation, the perfect combination
of genes and attributes to take “dominion” over the earth. Was nature,
I rationalized, which God apparently created then let loose for billions of years until He placed us on the planet, trying
to do the same thing itself? Was it trying, through the process of natural selection,
to create its own penultimate creature? It would explain why the primates and
we were so similar yet so very different! The feeling of potential insight –
this meshing of the theological and the scientific - was ecstatic.
my college professor one day after lab with what I deemed a well-prepared, hand-written presentation, I explained succinctly
the details of my hypothesis, seeking perhaps praise, a critique of what may have been overlooked or forgotten, or both. What I received, however, was nothing of the sort.
deeply, the professor stopped and turned to face me as we walked out of the lab and into the Arts and Sciences hallway. He shook his head, frowning slightly and said matter-of-factly, “You'll never
succeed in the sciences if you believe in Creationism.” He turned promptly,
then, and strode off down the hall. Standing in the hallway, surrounded by people
yet all alone, I was speechless.
thought struck me like a tsunami on unsuspecting shores: I would never become a biologist.
the end of my freshman year, in deep depression, I had dropped out.
Fish! It’s a fish!”
The cries and taunts of “fish” echoed shrilly down the narrow hallway as inmates from the other cells adjacent
to the corridor watched two battle dress uniformed cadre lead the newest occupant to his temporary home in maximum security
detention. The chains around his legs dragged heavily along the stone floor,
his hands cuffed and clamped to chains that wrapped around his waist and from there attached to the larger links around his
feet. The slow, shuffling gait of the inmate was accompanied by the “click
click” of the guards’ highly polished, black leather boots as they scuffed the floor along each side of the man.
Wolf whistles and jeers that were more obscene were barely heard, barely audible as the prisoner was told to halt and
face the bars of the cell door he was to call home for several weeks before being allowed into the general populace. The shorter of the two cadre lifted a radio to his mouth with one hand while keeping
a firm grip on the arm of the prisoner with the other, as if the young, heavily chained man would somehow burst from his bindings
and miraculously escape. In moments, an electronic buzzer sounded, and the heavy,
steel door of the cell slid open as the inmate was instructed to step into his new abode.
It took about two minutes for the chains, ankle cuffs, and handcuffs to be removed, the cadre staring at the prisoner
who stood silent, peering at the yellow wall with chipped and fading paint.
Instructing the prisoner to assume the position against the wall, the two guards slowly exited the cell, said something
over the radio, and waited until the cell door slammed shut with a resounding thud that shook the bars of the cells all along
The man peered around the four foot by eight-foot cell and sat upon the edge of the steel framed bed which was securely
bolted to the floor. Other than a stainless steel commode and sink, the cell
was devoid of anything that could even be remotely used as a weapon or suicide device.
As the man curled up on the thin, springless mattress, he began to cry. And
all the while, the taunts and derision continued, as cries of “fish, fish” filled the empty, hollow halls of his
If you want to know more about
your inner child: hide beneath his bed and let yourself lie still, quiet, while he rises, naps, rises, sleeps, then rises
again, for seven risings and settings of the sun in all. Do not speak to him,
either words of advice or cries of alarm. When he does something you perceive
loud or annoying, dangerous or ill-advised: Watch. Listen. Learn. And
when he, on that seventh day, sees you, playing on the floor as young boys so often do, his eyes will meet yours, and you
will both stare silently into the gaze of the other. Do not cough. Do not blink. Do not breathe. Be still. Let him smile first. Then smile in return, broadly and genuinely, and he shall soon learn to speak of things under the bed
tenderly, endearingly, remembering always the trust he puts into you and the trust you put into him. Watch, then, as monsters flee wordlessly until only quiet remains, the peace of which his eyes will hint
but tongue will never speak.
Colby. Wanna help daddy feed the fishies?”
knew that was the trick! He suddenly stopped crying and ran into the back yard,
eager to help me with his favorite task: feeding the fish in his modest little pond.
Whenever my four-year-old son was upset or crying about something, all I had to do was ask him to help me, and he quickly
forgot all his troubles.
wait! Wait!” he cried aloud, seeing me move toward the gate that separated
the upper half of the yard from the lower half. “I want to help you!” He ran as fast as he could, practically stumbling over his own feet.
a handful of fish pellets from a plastic bag in his outdoor toy box, I motioned for my boy to accompany me down into the “snaky
woods.” He had long ago christened the unkempt, wild-growing area behind
the fence as the “snaky woods” after watching an episode of Miss Spider,
where the little spider creatures head off into unknown danger all alone. Still,
although the woodsy area did, indeed, have gardener snakes, among other creepy, crawly life forms, my boy was fearless. Together, we unlocked the back gate and headed down the thick, overgrown, sloping
when we reached the pond moments later, we saw a small baby bird floating on the surface.
It appeared to have died from exhaustion, falling into the pond after seeking a cool, refreshing drink. Bobbing in and out of the water, unable to find purchase on the smooth, pre-molded plastic edge of the
pond, babies like these were virtually helpless against the forces of nature, with no one there to guard them or to warn them
against unseen dangers. It wasn't the first time we had found a baby bird in
the pond, mostly grackles, but this one was different. Bending down, pulling
it out of the pond by its tail feathers and holding it upside down, I could see that it was, perhaps, a young wood thrush
or brown thrasher, the water-saturated feathers partly disguising its features. Colby
stood by my side as we both looked at the hapless victim, until he said, “Daddy.
I agreed, and I gave the bird a gentle toss a few feet from the pond, certain that the same creatures that came to hunt the
fish each night might enjoy this instead. Yet when the bird landed in the soft
bedding of wood chips and soil that surrounded the pond, I watched incredulously as the creature jerked, spread its wings,
and opened its mouth wide before lying motionless, eyes closed. Could it still
I tossed the fish pellets from my other hand into the pond and quickly reached for the baby bird, gently picking it up from
the ground. It was cold, I noticed, as I cupped the creature in my hand. Very cold. With my boy in tow, we headed
back up the ravine and through the gate. I didn't know what to do, but I felt
great pity for the castaway animal and felt some urge to help. But how?
instructed Colby to go inside the house and get daddy some rags “to wrap the baby birdie in.” I held the creature in my hands, wet and cold, until my son appeared at the door, rags in hand. Carefully, I laid the rags out upon the patio furniture and set the animal down, wrapping the makeshift
blankets around the bird until the only part of its body we could see was its eyes and beak.
Its chest was moving, slightly, but I didn't know how much longer it had to live.
I held the creature at an angle and watched as water and slime oozed from its nostrils and beak. After a few moments, it blinked its eyes a few times, tentatively, as I gently blew warm air from my mouth
through the rags.
the while, Colby watched as I held the bird, but the creature was barely moving, and I let my son hold him for a while. It was getting darker outside, and the patio motion sensor lights turned on, providing
dazzling light and warmth on a cool spring evening. We both sat very still, holding the hapless creature.
Then the idea hit me: it wasn't exhaustion that brought the bird to the threshold
of death, it was hypothermia. The pond water was very chilly, particularly for
an animal which normally has a body temperature around 110 degrees F. Perhaps
it was hypothermia that was killing the creature.
that thought in mind, I gently bent down and took the little bundle of rags from my boy, then stood erect, moving toward the
two floodlights. Holding the bundle just over the lights, I found that the heat
from the bulbs was blazing, and I had to position my arms and hands so as not to get burned.
The heat, I knew, would soon permeate the tiny spaces of air between the makeshift blanket, warming the helpless animal
it held within. I held it there steadily and waited . . .
it was time for Colby to get ready for bed, and his mom was calling him inside. My
boy was very concerned about the health of the baby birdie, and it took some coaching to convince him that I wouldn't let
the birdie die, if I could help it. Finally, he went indoors, and I stood outside,
considering the fragility of all life. And still, I waited . . .
I began to sing, quiet little songs to sooth the injured creature, to comfort, if it was possible, its very soul. I waited a long time, patiently, as the sky darkened and the moon rose, a shadowy silhouette against the
cold darkness of the night. After some time, my arms numb from the effort of
holding the bundle above the lights over my head, I felt a stirring in the rags. When
I turned the bundle to gaze at the tiny creature, its eyes were open, its beak closed.
The feathers on its head were dry and puffed out in every direction, the avian equivalent of Einstein, I thought to
myself. And still I held the young creature, and waited . . .
perhaps another hour, the animal was sleeping. Its breathing was measured and
even, the rags hot to the touch. I carefully walked into the garage and set
the animal in one of many large cardboard boxes I had been using earlier in the day.
I unwrapped the rags, and the baby bird hopped out eagerly, pooping once before settling down in a corner. I closed the lid. Since it was chilly in the garage, I pulled
out a portable lamp and hung it over the box, to provide more warmth. I had
nothing to do, now, but wait until morning to see if the baby bird would live through the night.
next day, my son and I pulled open the box and found the tiny creature alert and active, flapping and peeping loudly as I
reached inside to capture the soft, feathery thing. Once outside, my boy and
I walked to the back gate and held the bird, standing quietly (as quietly as a four year old could stand) as the baby
began to peep. Within seconds, first one, then another winged form swooped overhead
and landed near the ground at the bird feeder just behind us. The large, brown
streaked birds eyed us intently. With each peep the baby would make, the two
birds, adult brown thrashers, would reply with a loud smacking sound. This was
a good sign.
the baby bird down upon the ground, Colby and I watched as the young thing flapped precariously toward the fence, one of the
parents flying quickly to land next to the young bird and immediately feed it. Before
long, the two larger birds flew off into the dense foliage in the ravine below, followed closely by a small, feathery thing
flapping in uncoordinated fashion as it flew off, following them.
following evening, while preparing to dredge the pond bottom of filth and debris accumulated over the long, long winter, I
spied something brown and streaked floating on the surface of the cold, dark, murky water.
It was familiar: small, feathered, hollow-eyed, and unmoving.
sat on the tree stump adjacent to the pond and pulled a pack of smokes from my rear jeans pocket. I took out my lighter from the half-empty pack, removed a slender, brown stick, and tapped the little
cigarillo a few times before lighting it. A single trail of dark smoke
wafted into the cool, spring air. I inhaled that first puff deeply, staring
at the ground and thinking about . . . something. But the sound of a large,
brown streaked bird delivering a melancholy dirge from somewhere on the branches above me broke my train of thought. The song seemed to say something, something important, but I couldn't quite understand.
awhile, as twilight began to set in, I arose. Then I danced, and I sang.
Tonight I danced.
I danced with
myself outside, all
alone, under the stars.
I danced and I
laughed and I
wept. I danced
for lost loves
and for past
regrets, I danced
for new lives and for
I danced for
I danced for
I danced for all
I danced with
the heart of a bird
Tonight I danced
alone, no more
shall I hide
pain, fly free,
like all I hold
dear to me
I release you
“Come on little Jimmy, it's ok.
I'm here now.”
little boy stared wide-eyed and wonderingly at the image before him. Neither
person – the boy nor the man - could hardly recognize the other. The child
lowered his head to see the face of the man talking to him, then smiled.
out from beneath the large ironing board where he had been hiding for almost forty years, the little boy approached, tentatively. After observing the man for a while, satisfied, the little boy spoke.
“Hi. I'm Jimmy. Who are you?”
man smiled tenderly, tears flowing down both cheeks to spatter across the dungeon floor.
“Everything's going to be alright. I'm here to take you from this
. . . place.”
hung gloomily all across the room as opaque windows filtered the light of day. The
two stood silent, looking at each other. Outside of the almost closed door,
sounds could be heard from the hallway, a slithering, echoes of another place, another time.
The young child started, peering towards the door and shivering.
know, Jimmy. I know about the . . .” the man paused, moving forward to
touch the child's flushed cheek. “ . . . the serpent.”
the ensuing silence, only the sounds of distant steps, retreating into the nether realm, could be heard as the two stared
at one another, unblinking.
“What's your name?” the young boy asked, softly.
man smiled and held out his hand. “I'm Jimmy, too.”
the child whispered, taking the man's hand and staring in awe. The two of them
turned and opened the metallic door, shadows and reptilian images scurrying, fleeing down the passage. They walked down the long, shadowy hallway to the base of the stairs.
Light streamed in from the entryway above. “That's my name!”
man smiled, bent, and kissed the boy upon his head.
know, little Jimmy . . . I know.” Together, the two of them walked up
the stairs and into the light, leaving the dungeon behind, for a while.
In my special place, that in which my Inner
Child resides, that place where I enter to restore my spirit to faith, faith in me, faith in my world, faith in our shared
humanity, no demons can enter. There is a garden there, as lush and untouched
as the very Garden of Eden itself, where no evil can touch. Those demons
which racked the recesses of my dreams, haunted the halls of my mind, and flew across the fabric of my soul throughout the
dead of night no longer visit us. They are there, still, to be certain. They lie in wait along the corridors of reality itself. Yet their power is stripped. Time and introspection have
robbed them of their ability to visit me, to visit Jimmy, to torment our very existence.
I have healed.
I have survived.
I have . . .
. . forgiven . . .
. . . myself.
“Can you hear that?”
I don’t hear anything at all?”
Jimmy looks up and smiles.