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.

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.