Leaves

Blue sky fractured between gold and red foliage flaking from the branches above. Soft brown eyes followed the leaves as they made their final descent to rejoin the earth and gradually decay into nothing. Her mind wandered to thoughts of the past as she lay feeling the cold earth between blades of struggling grass. Blades of shoulders connected with tree roots, gently reminding her that this patch of earth was theirs. 

There was no patch of earth that belonged to her and her wandering mind. Borrowed patches of earth quietly tolerated her existence, waiting for her to move on. A nearby can of some off-brand cola, crushed and abandoned by its previous owner, reflected her pain. Half buried in the dirt, aluminum gleamed in stark contrast to the natural landscape surrounding it. Rust crept from its sharp edges, spreading outward. 

She wanted to keep the leaves from falling. She wanted to gather up the leaves that had already fallen and put them back in their place. They didn’t belong where they would be mindlessly trampled, forgotten, turned to unrecognizable brown and then to dust. 

The stem of a leaf twisted and spun between her warm fingers in the chilly air, its life seemingly prolonged by her own being. The moment she let it slip from her fingers it would join the others in their fate. Yet even in her grasp she would eventually watch the colors fade. 

She wondered if the leaves minded fading and falling. Was her heart crying out for something that could not even recognize her pain? 

Who was she kidding. This wasn’t about leaves. This was about life. What was the point? Seriously? Why bother being born, bursting with life and color only to fade and fall, to be pushed and pulled and tormented by experiences and emotions that she couldn’t understand. The distance between branch and earth mirrored the distance between life and death, here and there. This world and the next. 

How could someone love you one instant and be gone the next? Unlike the fading of the leaves, there had been no warning other than the slight feeling of unease within her chest. Nothing outward had changed, yet she underestimated the invisible changes that can occur deep within a heart.

“Do you still love me?” he asked.

“Of course.”

Then the pause. 

The gap between the branches and the earth. 

“Do you still love me?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

Her whole world shattered by the words “I don’t know.” 

Who knew life could be so fragile?

The sound of a far-off engine turned her face skyward to see the silver speck of a plane flying southwest, a thin white trail following behind. She had never been on a plane before and watched curiously, wondering what it would be like to just go somewhere. Do something for herself for once.

A single leaf drifted from a far off branch, yet this time she realized the leaf didn’t simply fall to the ground–it danced.

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

The Black Hole

Dust and grime stuck to fingertips as they slid across hardwood floor. The edge of a faded flip flop revealed its location behind sagging shoebox, just barely out of reach. A cold nose nudged his shoulder as he wondered how the footwear had gotten pushed so far under his bed

Belly to floor, he lunged forward and grasped the strap. In his haste to remove it from its hideaway, his elbow made contact with cardboard. The shoebox spilled its contents across the floor. 

A momentary hesitation indicated his desire to leave everything in the dust and proceed with his mission, but experience had taught him better. With a sweeping motion of his arm, he drew the scattered objects from the blackness beneath his bed and into the glow cast by his window.

Staring back at him were little trinkets and scraps of paper. These were reminders of people or events that were important. A barely legible ticket stub reminded him of the first concert he had ever gone to without his parents, and the feeling of freedom that came with it. He silently named the faces in a photograph taken outside his highschool, shining with the naive belief in all the wonderful opportunities that life had to offer. His mouth twitched into a half-smile when he saw the Star Trek action figure–vintage, 1974. It was Spock. 

Spock was rotated in his hands a few times. The chipped paint and mildly disproportionate facial features did not take away from the serene expression on his face. 

He wished he could be like Spock sometimes. 

Emptiness began to open up inside his chest as he felt his body grow heavy with emotion. Eyes scanned the room, seeking relief, but finding only more pain. Dirty laundry strewn across the floor in lifeless heaps, giving off the odor of disappointment. An empty carton of chocolate milk on his bedside table smugly reminded him that he had spent the entire previous day binge watching TV. Amazon boxes, gutted and abandoned, packing material drooping from the side, seemed a summary of his existence.

Closing his eyes, he unwillingly confronted the darkness of his own mind. It was vast and crushing. It was a black hole within his very being, threatening to suck him in and annihilate him. It was extinguished motivation. It was despair. It was death.

Spock resisted the crushing force of his left hand. As he loosened his grip, he felt the phrase from Season 2 Episode 1 ignite the darkness within him. 

After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but is often true.

Most of the people in his high school picture were married now. A few had kids. All had good jobs and beautiful homes. Still, in their eyes he recognized the black hole. 

Happiness was not wanting or having. It was a choice made in every moment. 

Cold wet nose nudged his shoulder. 

He made his choice.

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

Dark Magic

Toes blanketed in warm sand, face turned upward absorbing the energy of the sun, a gentle breeze whispered this is heaven. The sentiment was echoed by the melodic voices of the gulls overhead, harmonizing with the distant hush of waves against shore. The faint taste of salt on lips and hair made wild by the wind closed the separation between body and environment.

This was heaven on earth. 

Heaven on earth was now a heaven that existed only in memory. Summer vacation had come and gone as if it had never been more than a wish. Back in the wasteland of first semester, nothing remained except patches of peeling skin, souvenirs from days spent with too much sun and too little sunscreen. 

The cold gray prison block euphemistically referred to as “school” had thoroughly eradicated any sensation of heaven–or freedom for that matter. With its humid classrooms that smelled of sweat, dust, bleach and the occasional fart, this was either hell or at least purgatory. 

High school is such a magical time someone once had said. 

Magic? Maybe dark magic. 

High school did have a certain power. It had the power to make time itself slow to a sickening pace, each tick of the clock on the wall smirking at its own laziness. This dark magic manifested as the slow droning of the chemistry teacher’s voice, invisibly closing eyelids and setting hands to doodling. It was the instigator of tapping feet under tabletops, nails chewed to the skin and contagious yawns. It was the wandering attention, the tears secretly shed in bathroom stalls and the smoke rising from cigarettes in that one corner everyone called “the pit.” 

It was the mechanical pencil that had run out of lead.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Eyes silently counted. 

Dark magic was channeled by the jarring emittance of the bell and the resulting rush for the door. It was the cacophony of chairs thrust backward, zippers yanked shut and voices breaking out into nervous chatter. Dark magic was embedded in the rush for a door that did not spell freedom. 

It spelled lunch. 

Dark magic weaved its way through the narrow hallway of competing elbows and toes and spread itself throughout the large space occupied by slabs of compressed wood generously called tables. It sank into the cold metal bars attached to benches and chewed into the cold gum stuck underneath. It was the smell different from all other smells. It was the merging of the aroma of cheap pizza, chicken nuggets and sweaty socks. It was the clinging of sticky floors to soles of sneakers as bodies made their way to unspoken assigned seats. 

Dark magic coerced soggy-breaded sandwiches into grudging mouths. It traded bags of crushed Cheetos for broken pretzels, celery sticks for carrots and sweaty juice boxes for cartons of lukewarm strawberry milk. It inspired rushed conversations, flirtatious encounters and hurt feelings hidden behind folded arms. It wove its insecurities and fixations on imperfections into developing brains. 

Dark magic was–

Ringgggggggggg

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

This is My Powerlift

“Why would you want to look like that?”

It baffled her each time she heard it, especially coming from another woman. Far from wanting to be more masculine, she strove to add to her existing femininity—that of a strong, healthy, capable body.

“Why would you not want to look like this?” she shot back as she walked away.

The echo of metal on metal matched her thoughts. With 255 lbs at her feet, she grasped the bar.

One—

This is my brand of feminism. My rebellion. My refusal to be seen as you want me to be seen. This is me being seen for who I am.

Two—

This is your discouragement shattering under the weight of my determination. Your disbelief proven unfounded. Your insecurities reflected back to you instead of projected onto me. 

Three—

This is my silent refusal to participate in the charade of your dialogue with one of two possible outcomes: the outcome in which you are right, and the outcome in which I am wrong.

Rest.

Most debates have no winner. The purpose of most debates is to soothe the person on the other end who can walk away feeling accomplished at having been so open-minded.

No longer a glass ceiling, she felt the bonds of an invisible cage surrounding her. Society had granted permission to rise to the top, yet still insisted she stay within the limits of the acceptable. Sit at the table, but speak no controversy, speak with a tone that questions its own right to be heard. Better yet—do not speak at all.

So much for a free country.

One—

Is your freedom my freedom? Is your pain my pain? Have your assumptions like cookie cutters reshaped your perception of my experiences? Of me?

Two—

Is your flag my flag? Are those my stars scattered across your field of Navy Blue? Which of these stripes belongs to me, or do they all belong to you?

Three—

Am I sensitive or am I jaded? Am I irrational or am I angry? Am I that stereotype for feeling, or am I simply what you made me? 

Rest.

She was the one who refused to take minutes at meetings filled with male faces, peering at her as if it were her duty or at least it as if it wasn’t theirs. With each refusal, eyes rolled and thoughts crossed faces. Overly sensitive. Angry feminist. Words unspoken yet loud enough to be heard.

One—

I am not servant to your belief system. I am not here to enable your blindness to truth. I am not here to spare your feelings at the detriment of my own.

Two—

I am not here to be weak so that you can feel strong. I am here to take my power back. I am here to lift myself up. I am here, not to grow strong, but to celebrate that I am strong already.

Three—

This is my brand of feminism. This is my rebellion. This is my powerlift.

Rest.

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

The Idea Man

He ran weathered fingers through receding hairline, subconsciously taking note of how far back it had retreated the last few years. Once known for his gleaming waves, he was now more gleaming forehead. No matter. Immersed in wandering thoughts, he had no care for the trivialities of life, receding hairlines being among them.

There was once a running joke in his family that if he had learned something useful, like math, he could have been an Einstein. Or if he had dedicated more of his time to a craft, perhaps a Picasso. But he never seemed to do much with his thoughts other than jot them down on scraps of yellow paper which he pinned to his walls or folded and tucked into crevices or stacked in piles throughout his house.

For this, they called him the Idea Man.

The Idea Man sat on his porch, beads of sweat forming on his bare head as the late afternoon sun made itself known. He secretly liked to be called the Idea Man, even though it was derogatory. His friends and family laughed, but ideas were his greatest treasure. Each idea he jotted down became a souvenir of the long, winding rivers that brought him there. Each yellow scrap of paper like a butterfly resting on his wall, ready to take flight should a stranger’s gaze ever be cast in its direction.

The Idea Man had been engaged in excogitation for so long his eyes barely perceived the sun sinking toward the horizon until it reached the edge in a blaze of color.

The beautiful sunset, his mother once called it.

Memories flooded in, and soon reflections of his mother seated beside him on porch steps arose in a tide of nostalgia. Her sheltering arm around him, they watched.

“Look at the sky,” she would say, “Look at how beautiful it is! You see that cloud? Doesn’t it look like you could swim in it? Look at how the sunbeams are streaming down from beneath that one!”

His mother had a beautiful imagination. Beautiful like the sunset. Full of color and life and beauty. His mother was a star now, floating somewhere high above the beautiful sunset, looking down on it even as he looked up.

Moisture gathered in his eyes. The Idea Man allowed the emotion to wash through him and shifted his now blurry gaze toward darkening sky. Almost imperceptibly, the stars had already begun to appear across the lake of black above him.

Brave stars, he thought.

Stars must be brave to exist in space like that, shining brilliantly despite the darkness and emptiness. The stars seemed to shine with all their might, casting lifelines on anything within reach.

He read somewhere that when a star collapses it becomes a black hole. It seemed to him the star’s final attempt to quell the loneliness—to pull anything and everything into itself, yet resulting only in destruction.

People were both stars and black holes, shining and grasping at various intervals.

He paused. Receding hairline soon bobbed up and down as the Idea Man fished in his pocket for a crumpled scrap of yellow paper.

He wrote.

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

Life and Death

I went for a walk with my son.

We were discussing the nature of life, and it’s brevity. He made some comments about how he was afraid to die, and afraid of when I would die.

“Yes,” I said, “Dying is part of life. But when you think about it, even death is life.”

“What do you mean?” He asked.

I looked around on the ground and spotted a dead beetle. It had been infiltrated by an army of ants, crawling through its corpse and carrying bits and pieces back to their nest.

Gruesome. Right?

“Look at this beetle,” I said to my son, “Is it alive or dead?”

“Dead,” he responded without hesitation.

“Now look at these ants. The dead beetle is their food. So is it really death or is it life?”

“Life,” he responded as quickly as before.

I smiled.

“And what the ants don’t eat will decay. And the decayed bits will feed the plants around it. So is this death or is it—“

“Life.”

I smiled again.

“All things are connected. Not even connected, but intertwined. You cannot find death without life and life without death. They are, in a sense, one. When death visits, it is not only to make room for new life, but provides the very means for new life to spring forth.”

We continued our walk in silence.

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

The Crow

I passed a crow along the way
He helped me keep the dark at bay
The dark that once was in my mind has
Turned to light
I think you’ll find

I saw the crow perched in his tree
I saw the crow as he saw me
The crow I saw with solemn stare
Stillness hung
Around him there

The crow who saw my spirit cry
Before I chanced to pass him by
The crow he looked and made no sound
Yet heard my steps
On hardened ground

I looked at him
He looked at me
From flimsy branch
From leafless tree

That’s when I felt the darkness break
A caving in—a sudden shake
A shake within but still outside
The crow he looked at me
With pride

He spoke no words
He cracked no grin
I heard a voice come from within
“You’re not alone” he seemed to say
“I’ll be here along the way.”

And though I walked and passed him by
I felt my spirit start to fly
Soaring up past clouds of white
The crow and I
Outfly the night ~ ~

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

Blood of Sunshine

It was cloudy today.

Looking up at the sky through dirty windshield, she felt an inner sigh of disappointment. Cloudy days meant cloudy moods.

She was never sure if it was her mood reflecting the weather or if she was picking up on other people’s moods related to the weather. It was hard to tell. She spent a lot of time trying to appreciate and even romanticize the cloudy day. She pictured the water accumulating in the sky, droplets grouping in a magical dance to form the haze that from below appeared so tangible.

Impenetrable.

But still all she could feel was the heaviness of a wet blanket. No one around her seemed to make an attempt to appreciate this mysterious gray, and so it must be the drivers in the surrounding cars interfering with her mental space. She wished they could at least try to be as enlightened as she was—for everyone’s sake.

“To the sun, it’s always daytime,” she thought to herself.

Be the sun.

She envisioned the sun, hidden behind the clouds. She remembered the sunny day of yesterday, rays warming her skin with an almost tender touch. She imagined the rays of light had sunk down through her flesh and into her very veins. She imagined her blood turning brilliant gold and shining outward through her body.

What if she had blood of sunshine? What would that be like? How would that change her?

The thought was oddly energizing and she held onto it. Blood of sunshine would mean carrying the light within her to share with those in the dark and the cold. It would dry out this gray, humid day and leave trails of glowing amber in her wake. She envisioned flowers and trees sprouting up behind her as she walked, fed by the glow of her being.

She imagined passing by crowds of people, all turning to stare in silence as she entered and then exited their field of vision. Each would later question what they had seen yet remain forever changed by the encounter.

She felt the warmth of the sunshine inside her veins, flowing with loving energy.

When she arrived at work, she parked in her usual spot but walked with unusual ease. Each step was both blessing and gratitude to the earth beneath her feet and the sunshine poured outward from her heart. It poured with such radiant, invisible energy she became convinced it was real.

As she walked into her building the sunshine still followed. Making eye contact with an older gentleman, he stopped in his tracks.

“Good morning,” he said, with a strangely earnest quality.

“Good morning,” she replied, with radiant sunshine smile.

And it was.

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

The Lucid Dream

I had a dream that I was walking along a beach, watching waves of pale blue green crashing onto the shore.

It was beautiful but I recognized the unnaturalness of this particular beauty as not being of the material world. I recognized this shoreline for what it really was—a break between physical reality and material nonexistence.

“Hm. A lucid dream,” I thought to myself.

I knew what would happen next, as I’ve had these dreams before. I was surrounded by a presence, or multiple presences not of this world. Invisible yet somehow known to me, they propelled me upward from my place on the shore and into the sky. I felt my body begin to vibrate with this presence, as if I were being immersed in an atmosphere of higher pressure than my body was designed for. This heightened pressure gave me the sense that my spirit was being released from my body.

This is where I normally wake myself up, too frightened to want to know what happens next.

But that night, I decided to stay asleep and see what would happen.

I rose higher and higher into the sky, moving faster than the speed of light. I resisted the urge to close my dream eyes, and watched as the earth grew smaller beneath me.

“Fear is an illusion,” I repeated to myself over and over, trying to calm my racing heart.

Then I saw it below me. The curve of the earth itself as I floated in space above it. I saw bright white clouds and amber storms below. I saw the stars in the distance. Awestruck by the sight, I wondered why I was here.

The beings that had brought me here sent me the wordless message that there was no purpose for this trip. This was a gift that was being given to me because I wasn’t too afraid to accept it.

I smiled my wordless thanks and found myself back in my bed.

Not a bad way to start the new year.

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

The Nightmare

In her dream she was with him again.

They were back in the old house. The nightmare house she secretly called it.

Arguing. Senseless arguing. Arguing about a topic.

What topic?

The blue front door with brass doorknob. If she could just reach it—just pull it open—

Heart racing.

He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her backward, back into the nightmare house, back into the nightmare.

Nightmare.

Could this be? Yes. It must be. If he was here this must be a nightmare. He shouldn’t be here anymore.

He was going to kill her this time, she knew. She could sense the fate that she couldn’t avoid creeping up on her like the shadow of a cloud passing across the sun. Did it matter if it was only a nightmare?

Wake up. Wake up. Please wake up.

Wait. What had she learned?

Sit with the discomfort. That was the phrase. Learn to sit with the discomfort. Stop avoiding pain.

Deep breath.

Blinding light.

The dreamscape around her transformed. Where there was darkness, now there was light. Though no door had opened she found herself outside on the familiar sidewalk. The sky an unnatural deep blue. The atmosphere comfortingly hazy like the mist of a just-ended summer rain.

He was still there, but he was no longer a threat. Back turned. He walked away from her down the sidewalk.

It was so beautiful she cried.

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