The Sand

I dug in the sand in the backyard for hours. The cool grains flowed through my fingertips like tiny dry waterfalls that collected below into miniature mountains. It was satisfying to watch.

Even more satisfying were the little green seeds mixed in. The backyard was sprinkled with them this time of year. They fell from the trees above my head and dusted the earth with their presence, adding areas of color to my otherwise beige sandpit.

I captured great scoops of this mixture into my little turtle-shaped dish, which I used as my imaginary cookware. Taking a nearby twig into my hands, I stirred lovingly this granulous soup. I watched spiraling ridges form with each pass of the twig, and began drawing patterns and letters with gentle strokes.

I wanted to smooth the surface of my mixture so I could begin again. I dropped the twig and, picking up my dish with two hands, began to shake it back and forth to eradicate any signs of my previous creation.

A blank slate.

As I shook this dish, something amazing happened. The surface of my mixture changed before my eyes from a green and brown mottling to a surface completely made of green.

I paused and looked with wonder as I realized all of the little green seeds were now resting on top of the sand.

“Mom, mom! Look at this!” I had run all the way from the backyard and into the kitchen just to show her this bit of magic.

I showed her what happened when I stirred. I showed her what happened when I shook.

“Ah yes,” my mother said, “When you shake the dish, all of the tiny grains of sand fall through the spaces between the larger seeds. The seeds are not magically floating up to the top, but rather the sand is sinking between them to the bottom.”

You don’t always have to struggle and strive to get to the top—sometimes it’s equally effective to just not fall through the cracks when life gives you a good shake.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author

The Pregnancy Test

**This was written one year ago, just a few weeks into the COVID-19 quarantine**

When I was 20 I got pregnant.

I took the pregnancy test in the bathroom of a sandwich shop because I didn’t want my sister to find the used test in the trash. I was expecting it to be negative.

It was positive.

I remember the adrenaline rush and feeling lightheaded as I stared, not quite believing my eyes. Positive.

The first thing I did was grab my cousin who worked at the shop and together we went outside to smoke a cigarette. From the look on my face she knew what I was going to say before I said it.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Positive.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Keep it,” I said, “and I guess quit smoking.”

Quit smoking. Get a better job. Go to college. Learn how to be an adult. What did that even mean?

I told the father. His only response was “ok.” The father and I weren’t right for each other but I hoped we could make things work for the baby. A boy. Our son.

We couldn’t.

I ended up alone with a 5-month-old baby and a job that paid $9/hour. I had been evicted once from an apartment, the one where I had lovingly put together a little nursery for my pending arrival. He only got to see it once—when I went to retrieve as many of my belongings as I could before they got thrown out. The next day the rest would be strewn upon the sidewalk outside, I had seen it happen to others before. After the eviction my son and I moved in with my grandfather who sadly passed away two weeks later. We moved again.

I think about those days now, and how I worked nights and took online classes in the hopes of creating a better life for my son. I think about the people who helped me along the way, and the mistakes I continued to make out of desperation.

I think about my second marriage, as disastrous as the first. A rushed attempt to give my son a father, not believing that I was enough as a mother. The four years of abuse and being told I was worthless. My third child, as unexpected as the first, delaying my getaway by another 2 years.

Still all this time I kept working and I stayed in school. I got my bachelors and then my masters degree. I got a better job. I left my husband.

My oldest son is 8-years-old now. In the midst of this quarantine, I am choosing to celebrate the fact that he and I are spending more time together than we ever have before. He and his two brothers are finally getting to experience the mommy I always wished I could have been for them, even if it’s just for a few short weeks.

But I also think about past me, and what I would have done if all of this happened before the year 2020. What would I have done if I was suddenly non-essential back in the $9/hour days? How would I have fed my son? I think about my grandfather who passed away, and wonder how I would have felt if coronavirus had taken his life. Would I be angry with people for not staying home? I think about my second husband and shudder to imagine how being quarantined with him would have ended.

The fact is, there is no right answer in these situations. We are in uncharted territory and no one can be expected to have all the answers. Like most things in life, there is a trade off—in this case it involves life, death and livelihoods. Of course people are afraid and upset. Nothing but compassion for another person’s point of view will help us get through this.

And no, I don’t have a solution. I wish I did. But since I don’t, all I can do is show love for others and express gratitude for what I still have.

After all, sometimes in life the things we expect to be negative end up inexplicably positive.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author

The Poem

Are we not all

A mixture of love

And self-loathing?

A combination of pure

And defiled

Of the tame

And the wild?

Are we not animals

In conscious form?

Are we not spirit

With bodies warm?

Are we not moral?

Are we not corrupt?

Are we not flowing beneath the surface

Waiting to erupt?

Are we not in all

And of all

And above all

Both love

And the fall?

Are we not the light

And at once the shade?

Are we not in the image of God made?

Are we not weary of illusion

Of purposeless thought

Are we not drowning in delusion

Left barren with what we bought?

Those with ears may hear

And eyes may see

Yet few seek the knowing

Of the eternal Be.

The Two Doors

Jason frowned at the app on his phone and felt the frustration grow inside his chest. The red line pointed jaggedly downard, indicating a loss of close to $14,000 in one day. 

“Daddy? Can you push me on the swing?”

“Not right now,” Jason replied, “Um…I’ll do it in a minute. I have to finish something here first. But go ahead, I’ll catch up with you.”

Jason was vaguely aware of his four-year-old daughter’s figure bouncing away into the distance. He was engrossed in his stocks, trying to decide what his next move would be. He glanced up for a moment when he heard his wife come through the back door and watched her silently as she went to push their daughter on the swing.

He should have gotten out sooner. If he had gotten out sooner, he wouldn’t have lost so much. In fact, if he had never gotten in at all, he would be much better off right now. He would have to try to make up for these losses tomorrow, there was probably no fixing it today. 

Jason was getting ready to put his phone away when he felt it vibrate with an incoming call. Who did he know in Oracle, Arizona? Out of curiosity, he tapped the green icon and put the phone to his ear. 

“Jason speaking.”

“Hi Jason. You don’t know me, but I have a story for you.”

“Uh…who is this? What kind of story?”

“I don’t go by any name that you would understand. But the story I have is one you need to hear.”

Jason smirked, but decided to humor this mysterious caller.

“Go ahead,” he said, “I’m listening.”

The mysterious speaker began.  

Not so long ago, there was a boy who grew up poor. He wandered the streets of his neighborhood shoeless, unwashed and unattended. No one paid any attention to the boy or the others like him, just let him pass them by like another shadow cast by the setting sun.

The boy resented being poor. He resented the way he went unnoticed. The boy often found himself wandering down roads where the big houses sat like great proud beings. He eyed their large square roofs and columns reaching for the heavens. He watched from the corner of his squinted lids the figures that exited the ornate front doors, and wondered what it would be like to stand on those porch steps. He wondered what it would be like to see himself pass by like a weed carried on the summer breeze. 

Like a weed his thoughts grew tangled, frustrated and confused. He wondered why some people lived in great houses and others lived in great despair. He felt the great despair carve its way through his heart, creating a vast emptiness within that he was desperate to fill. He carved the great houses in his memory and felt the warmth of the setting summer sun give life to the determination that grew there. 

Someday he would be rich. 

The boy lay in his bed at night itching from the fleas that infested his sheets and itching with the desire that ensnared his thoughts. 

Rich. 

It was not enough to have enough. Someday he would have everything. He drifted into slumber and in his dreams it was so. In his dreams people noticed him, not as a weed, but as the rarest form of flower, jaws dropping in awe as he passed by.

The boy slowly grew into a man. As his heart expanded with age, so did all within it. The cavernous emptiness tripled in size but even greater was the burning desire to do better. The boy who grew to a man was determined to play professional football, encouraged by friends and family members and coaches who all said he had what it takes. Someday he would be a millionaire–he knew this with an aching intensity that matched the ache of hunger that still tormented the pit of his stomach.

One night the man drove home from football tryouts in his car that glared back at him with a maddening drabness he tried hard to ignore. Tryouts had gone well. The man was entangled in thoughts of millions of fans and millions of dollars and failed to notice the millions of raindrops accumulating in the sky above him. 

The rain fell. 

It fell quietly at first, then grew with a sudden ferocity that even an attentive driver would have failed to foresee. The man wondered why the car drifted left even though he was tugging the wheel to the right. He did not have time to wonder anything else before a sudden impact left him senseless. 

When the man opened his eyes, all was quiet. He was standing in a hallway filled with light. Two identical doors opposite him ominously loomed–on each, an inscription. The man stepped closer to read. 

The inscription on the left door read: Here lies ten million dollars. Open and it shall be yours. 

The inscription on the right door read: Here lies inner peace. Open and it shall be yours. 

The man read each inscription aloud and laughed. What an easy choice. With ten million dollars, inner peace was a given. He grasped the left doorknob and pulled. 

When the man stepped through the door, the hallway faded and he found himself in a hospital bed. He had been in a car accident and suffered a head injury. During his hospital stay, his left leg had been amputated in a case of mistaken identity and, as a result, he was awarded a ten million dollar settlement. 

Rich.

The man lay awake at night and felt the emptiness on the left side of his bed where his leg once had been. With his ten million dollar settlement he had purchased the finest prosthetic that money could buy. Professional football was no longer an option, but he was finally rich. Nothing else mattered.

He went back to his hometown and shared his wealth with his family. He paid off their debt, bought them cars, sent them to school. His family was grateful, but they often came back to him for more. Some squandered his gifts by going back into debt immediately after he had paid it off. Some used the money he shared to indulge in substance abuse and partying. Some failed the classes he had so generously paid for.

The man felt the emptiness inside him grow. 

He became less generous over time. His initial ten million was now down to seven million, which he carefully invested and tended to, determined to grow it over time. Maybe if he could get to one hundred million dollars he would feel the glow he had been expecting to feel from ten million. At night he watched football by himself, or played video games. 

He awoke one morning to a ray of sunlight warming his cheek. He had been focused on his finances for days, barely taking a break to eat or shower. He should probably leave his house today, at least once. 

The man walked down the street, unwashed and unattended. Though he had shoes on his feet, he went unnoticed by those he passed. 

Unsure why, he felt resentment grow within his heart. He was a millionaire. He owned the nicest house in the richest neighborhood, and still these people paid him no more attention than as if he were a weed carried by the wind. 

The man felt the empty space in his heart fill with anger. 

“Look at me! Why won’t you people look at me? Do you know who I am? I could buy your souls if I wanted to!”

The people on the street around him began to murmur. Several took out their phones and made hushed calls, casting concerned glances his way. The police arrived. 

The man was taken into custody for failing to cooperate when questioned. Noticing his missing leg, unshaven face and unwashed clothes, the police assumed he was homeless. Likely mentally ill. 

Defeated, the man allowed the officers to lead him away. Tears burned the corners of his eyes, and he looked with loathing at the pitying glances cast upon him. Anger slowly turned to worthlessness inside his millionnaire heart. 

Jason waited in silence after the caller had spoken the final words of the story.

“What do you think of that man, Jason?”

“I think the man was a fool,” he responded without hesitation. 

“Why do you think that?”

“Because, why would you choose ten million dollars when you could have inner peace? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I want ten million dollars as much as the next guy, but everyone knows inner peace is more valuable.”

“Jason. You are the man in the story.”

“No I’m not,” Jason shot back, offended. “What do you even mean by that? I’m not a millionaire, and I know the value of inner peace.”

There was silence for a moment before the voice began again.

“The hallway facing the two doors in the story represents the present moment. In every moment you are presented with a choice: inner peace or striving after something external. Every moment that you spend worrying about your stocks instead of focusing on the peace found in that moment, you choose the left door. Every time you look to the past with regret, you choose the left door. Every time you believe that wealth will bring you happiness, or that happiness can only be obtained in some future moment, you choose the left door.”

Jason felt a lump grow in his throat and thought of his daughter.

“When you choose the right door that leads to inner peace, all other things will fall into place. This is a choice that does not happen once in a lifetime, but happens in every moment throughout your entire lifetime.”

The line went dead. 

Jason looked at his phone. The little red graph was beginning to creep back up again. If he got back in now–

“Daddy! Look how high mommy’s pushing me on the swing!”

Jason looked up at his daughter. Her tiny frame soared through the air and became silhouetted by the sun for an instant before she swung backward again toward her mother’s outstretched arms.

He was stunned by the sight of her. All thoughts left his mind as he watched her, glowing like a tiny Angel.

In that moment, Jason realized he was already in the heaven he had been striving for.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

The Boy

“You should have lied, boy,” the man he called stepfather had said.

Now sitting in his room, tears still burning in his eyes, the boy thought about the leaves slowly turning to ash. He had been fascinated by the amber glow of the flames steadily creeping across the dried edges, little by little eating through the leaves until there was nothing left but a pile of gray dust and skeletal remains. He had burned each leaf slowly, one by one, studying it until it disappeared. In that moment, he had felt powerful–as any child of five would–with the discovery of taking something and turning it into nothing.

He didn’t feel so powerful now.  

“You should have lied, boy,” his stepfather had said. 

The ominous clink of the belt buckle had made the boy freeze in his tracks, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He had known what that sound meant even before his stepfather’s shadow fell across the stem of the burnt leaf, still held proudly in the air for all to see.

“Look at this!” he had said, waving his trophy toward his mother.

“Were you playing with matches?” was the only response he got. 

I should have lied, he thought, gingerly perched on the side of his bed. He thought of the leaves turning to nothing. He thought of the crack of the wide belt, still felt the sting of leather against flesh, the blows he didn’t understand. He thought about how his mother had avoided his tear-filled gaze–didn’t seem to hear the cries that burst from within him involuntarily.

Why wouldn’t she look at him?

The boy imagined the fire spreading. He imagined the ashes. 

I should have lied, he thought. 

Wiping his nose on his sleeve, the boy determined not to make this mistake again. He felt the rage grow inside his chest. In his now clenched fist he still held the charred stem of the leaf, his fingernails digging into his palms as he attempted to crush it in his little hand. Releasing his grip to check the damage, he was disappointed to find the stem still largely intact, in spite of having previously been made brittle by the fire.

His rage dissipated into despair. 

This was no trophy. This was a mistake. The boy now looked with shame and anger at the remains of his leaf, wondering how he could have been so stupid to think anyone else would appreciate it the way he did. No longer a source of pride or interest, the boy saw only a reminder of what had just occurred.

He cast the stem to the ground and with all his might he stamped his foot on it. He picked up a toy truck and smashed the stem over and over. He dropped a heavy book on it, and even tried punching it a few times.

Still there it remained.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

The Dark

“Barbara, can you get a new bottle of ketchup from the basement? I’m pretty sure I have more down there.”

I gave my mother a surly glance and willed myself to my feet without a word.

The basement.

It was an unfinished basement, littered with homeless objects. Tools that rarely got used. Toys that had been outgrown. Broken things that someone was going to fix “someday.”

My mom used the shelves in the basement as overflow pantry space, given the size of her kitchen and number of mouths to feed. I tried not to think of the food down there in the musty dark. The very thought of the thick air made my throat itch and my skin crawl.

I listened to the dull thud of sole against wood as I descended the stairs. I kept my hands to myself, never sure what cobwebs I would encounter if I touched the railing or brushed against the wall. The light from the kitchen grew dim behind me with each step.

I reached the bottom of the stairs and turned the corner to face the food shelves, tugging on the string above my head to cast a warm dusty glow across cans and bottles until I had located the ketchup. I grasped the smooth plastic in my hands and tried to convince myself it wasn’t contaminated by the harsh dust and rich mildew permeating the environment.

Now for the return journey.

I reached for the string above my head once more and pulled until I felt the familiar click.

Darkness.

The darkness of the basement was a special kind of darkness. It seemed to penetrate my very bones and reach into my soul. My eyes could no longer detect the faint glimmer of light emanating from the stairwell and, although I knew it was still there, the fear that I was trapped gripped my heart and set it racing.

Don’t run. If you run, it will know you’re afraid.

I slowly placed one foot in front of the other, treading carefully toward the stairwell that seemed to have disappeared. I made no sudden movements so as not to disturb the darkness and risk getting swallowed whole. I knew if I ran I would feel the icy jolt of fear zip through my entire body rather than sit contained as it was in my chest for the time being.

I took a single slow, deep breath with each step until I reached the middle of the staircase. As I sensed the safety of the light fall upon the top of my head, I raced the remainder of the way up the stairs, taking them two at a time until I was once more bathed in light and the smell of dinner.

Safe until next time.

I still get that feeling now and then. That even though I’m moving forward and I’m moving up and I’m moving toward the light, I might still get swallowed up from behind by that massive darkness.

Don’t run. If you run, it will know you’re afraid.

One deep breath. One step.

Fear is an illusion.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

The Milkshake

Growing up in a big family, I was used to sharing. When you are forced to constantly share, it can do two things: it can make you more generous or it can make you more sneaky.

I fell into the latter category.

The thing is, it was hard for me as an 8 year old to be sneaky at a restaurant with the milkshake I was told to share with my sister. Everyone was around the table watching, I had no way of running off with the milkshake or offering to split it “evenly” with her into another container.

I looked at the tall narrow milkshake-filled glass. It was served with whipped cream and a cherry on top. There was a straw stuck in the center as well as a spoon off to the side.

Ah, there it was. Opportunity.

I looked at the straw and the spoon and thought for a minute. I pictured taking a bite of the ice cream with the spoon and broke the action down into its various steps. First you take a scoop of ice cream. Then you lift the spoon to your mouth. You insert the small portion of ice cream into your mouth. You lower the spoon back to the ice cream. Repeat.

But what about the straw? If the ice cream was the right consistency, it would easily pass through the plastic tube in a delicious continuous stream from source to destination. No need to waste time scooping. No need to portion out small bites. Indeed, using the straw, the entire milkshake became one portion.

“Here Margaret,” I said to my unwitting younger sister, “You can use the spoon I’ll just take the straw.”

It was not until a few hours later that I discovered I was lactose intolerant. My greed was well rewarded.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

The Walk

I went for a walk with my son.

We were discussing the nature of happiness and the tendency for humans to dwell on the past.

“Look at the trees.” I said to my son. “How old do you think they are?”

“Very old,” my son replied.

“Think about what they’ve seen,” I said.

He was quiet for a moment, looking. Then he said, “They’ve probably seen hurricanes and tornados. Maybe even wars.”

“Yes,” I replied, “And listen to them. What do they say? Do they sit there and say ‘Oh, woe is me, what storms I’ve seen, what hurricanes. I’ve been through so much, poor me, poor me!’”

“No,” my son responded without hesitation, “They don’t. They don’t say anything at all.”

I smiled.

“We should be more like the trees.”

We continued our walk in silence.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

The Magnolia

The little girl looked up at the branches of the tree sprawling above her head like so many fingers grasping for the wind. Throughout its branches were clustered the loveliest flowers she had ever seen–magnolias, grandma had called them.

They grew thick amidst the branches, as thick as the waxy petals themselves, which she picked up from the ground and pressed between her thumb and forefinger. Each white petal was streaked with the perfect hint of pink and as she dug her nail into the fleshy perianth, she curiously examined the brown halfmoon left behind.

“Barbara, it’s time to go!” her mother called from the shade of the kitchen.

Casting one more glance at the pale bouquets brilliantly illuminated against the bright blue sky, the little girl silently and obediently headed for the car. She knew they would be back next week.

But by the next week something terrible had happened. The little girl gazed up at the tree and then down at the ground surrounding it. The substrate in which the tree dwelled was now carpeted in a thick layer of magnolia petals in various states of decay. The few that still clung to the branches appeared as brave soldiers breathing their last breaths, dutifully awaiting their turn to drop.

The little girl was devastated.

She looked up at the tree again, but this time she spotted one last full blossom at the very top, still radiant and full of life. She was determined to save it.

She hiked up her little pink Sunday dress and paid no heed to the dirt that coated her white stockings as she grasped the lowest branch of the small tree and pulled herself upward. It took only a few moments to reach the blossom, perched precariously on its thin branch.

The little girl stretched out her hand.

She grasped the specimen by its base and applied enough force to break it away from the source, but in doing so she shook every single petal to the ground. She was left holding nothing more than a stem.

The little girl observed the remains in regret. She realized that in trying to preserve the blossom, she had instead expedited its demise.

We are all that little girl. We cling to temporary things, wanting them to last. But everything in life is, in fact, temporary—any amount of clinging is fruitless and leads to sadness and anxiety.

True joy is found in letting even the most beautiful moment go, peacefully making room for the next.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.