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 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 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.

The Rope

When I was a kid, my sisters and I played outside with the neighbor boy nearly every day. I remember those long summer nights like they were yesterday–itchy with mosquitoes and freshly cut grass.

We mostly got along, but like all kids we fought from time to time. 

One particular fight I will never forget. We had found a long strand of rope that we used to play tug-of-war with or tie someone to a tree for a mock execution. You know. Normal kid stuff. But for some reason, the neighbor boy didn’t want to share the rope that day. 

It may have started as a legitimate game of tug-of-war, but quickly devolved into an “us against him” battle to retrieve the serpentine object. The neighbor boy had wrapped the entire rope around his arm and was hunched over it like it was a football, kneeling on the ground to keep anyone else from getting to it. 

He was bigger than us, but we were many. And so we pulled on his arms, we kicked him, we tried to poke him with sticks to get him to let go. To no avail. Our struggle continued for what felt like hours but was likely barely twenty minutes. The neighbor boy refused to give up, and so we did. 

The next day, there was a handwritten note on our front door. It was from the neighbor boy. He stated in his note that he was not happy with the way we had treated him the day before. He did not like being pulled on, or kicked or poked with sticks. 

I remember the guilt flooding my chest, as I had been the one to introduce the sticks–though in all fairness, I didn’t poke him hard. More of a jab to the ribs that was meant to trigger his reflexes and catch him off guard. But still, I realized it had hurt him. 

At the same time, I felt his feelings were unfair. He could have let go of the rope at any time. In fact, if I remembered correctly, he had taken the rope from someone else in the first place. He had set the precedent that this was the game we were going to play, and then he apparently didn’t have the hardiness of spirit to see it through. 

For many years, I judged him based on that incident. 

But as I have grown into an adult, I have watched many people endure all kinds of pain and punishment, always blaming those around them, somehow not realizing that all they have to do is let go of the rope.

Sometimes I am even surprised to find a rope in my own hands.

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