The Pain in His Eyes

I could see it in his eyes, there was a deep seeded pain there, one that was planted under fire, when the world had gone dark and thoughts of home and green grass and Sunday dinner had faded from faint memories to fantasy.

His hands were calloused and so was his gaze. If he looked at you it was circumstantial, he wasn’t really focused on you but something far off in the distance behind you. There was a darkness shrouding him, he seemed uncomfortable in his skin, like a tag on a shirt that wouldn’t stop itching your neck, something bothered him, something that continued to hurt and wouldn’t go away.

Sometimes as we talked, he would disappear, I don’t mean from sight, physically, but he would drift off, into the shadows of a place only he understands, a place the hurt welcomes him, comforts him. It’s a place he has grown to feel more comfortable than in the lighter places where people expect things from him, where they want to know what it’s like and how he feels.

What would you know, how could he explain? You stand there wanting him to speak, wanting to punish him for things he’s done, as though he hasn’t been punished enough.

Just when you think you understand him, he says something that makes no sense and you laugh, and he laughs, and you both stand there looking at each other like you’ve lost your way and don’t know where to go. In that silence you can feel his anxiety, it’s palpable, it’s tainted with shame and mistrust.

So, as you stand there, the silence quickly becomes awkward, uncomfortable, and as you peer out of the corner of your eyes at him his gaze has turned downward, his scarred and tangled fingers move against each other, rubbing, searching for something in his hands and he closes his eyes tightly. For a moment you can almost hear the wretched screams inside his head.

You want to touch him, hold him, comfort him, but you can’t hold a reflection, that’s when you clear away the fog and realize its you in the mirror you’ve been talking to, and it scares you.

You attempt to take a deep breath and then get dressed, and think about those fantasies, thoughts of home, green grass and Sunday dinners.

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The Blessing

In his well worn and weathered left hand he held a bundle of sage, between his right forefinger and meaty thumb he held a single wooden match. He stood among the tall grasses and wildflowers at the edge of Minnehaha Creek, closed his eyes and listened to the songs. He heard the bubbling of cool dark waters rushing over rocks as it caressed the shoreline near his feet. He heard the rustling of the leaves in the Oak trees on the rolling hills around him. He listened long and silently, hearing the celebrations of Sparrows and Mourning Doves. And whispers from spirits haunting the wooded acres surrounding the Burwell Mansion, good spirits, wholesome and kind, spending their days dancing in sunbeams pouring through the canopy over the property and swinging on the tender branches of the willow trees next to the bridge over the wandering creek.

When again he opens his eyes the morning sun begins to warm his neck. He scratches the match against a rock and it ignites with a searing note, a flash and then a flame. He touches it to the sage bundle and flames begin to crawl over the end of it, he pauses, watches as the flames lick at the open air and then blows it out. The bundle smokes now, thick and sweet, he raises it above his heart and out in front of him and pulls a large turkey feather from his pocket. To the North he nods, and waves the feather in back of the sage, embers glow and the smoke travels out and swims away on currents of air over the gardens and among the trees. He begins his prayer…

“Smoke of air and fire of earth,

Cleanse and bless this garden and earth,

Drive away all harm and fear;

That only good may gather here.”

Then he turns clockwise towards the East, raises the sage and wafts behind it with the feather and repeats his prayer, a blessing…

“For the garden

For the land

For Mother Nature and for the spirits.

Smoke of air and fire of earth,

Cleanse and bless this garden and earth,

Drive away all harm and fear;

That only good may gather here.”

Afterwards turning clockwise to the South and finally to the West, each time sending smoke from the burning sage into the air, watching it swing around above his head and float off into the trees, over the grasses, through the flowers, over hill and dale and delivering once more his entreaty to all that live and thrive in this place, all whom shall enter here, pass by and meditate upon its rolling and wild hills.

As the sun hovers high above him now, he gazes out over the rippling waters of the creek as it flows towards him, he steps through the tall grass, his bare feet sinking into the mud at the edge of the water, and he sets the Turkey feather and smoldering sage down on a rock and then steps into the water, he takes a few more steps to the center of the creek and turns facing the water rushing against his thighs. The pressure threatening to push him over and swallow him up, but he stands, strong and proud and lets his old fingers trail in the stream. His mind wanders to a different time, a different place, his chest swells with a spirituality that engulfs him, his eyes shine with the sparkling reflection from the sun.

His jeans are soaked, his legs cold, he touches his wet fingers to his face and his lips, and the water is sweet and tastes like iron. Off somewhere in the distance he hears his ancestors singing above the rising current, he closes his eyes and begins to hum, and then his lips part and he sings, he sings loud and he sings true. He raises his arms skyward and the sound of many drums echo in his mind as a single tear rolls from the corner of his eye and falls into the water, he leans his head back and he falls, the water consumes his body quickly and he disappears below the surface, the creek carrying him away.

And upon the afternoon breeze all along the creek today, under the rustling leaves of the poplar and the oak, against the sounds of the creek and the birds in the trees you can hear drums, and somewhere among them he sings, if you close your eyes you can hear him standing strong against the current singing the songs of his ancestors, and if you taste that water, it tastes sweet, and hard like iron, and pure like the blood of Mother Nature.

Have You Seen a Ghost?

Have you ever seen a ghost? I don’t mean the type of apparition that floats through the air in the stairwell and gives you the shivers. Or the muse for many old country songs that is seen in the headlights of your car, standing on an otherwise deserted, wet, forest lined road under the light of a full moon. I mean the kind that you see when you look at a photograph, you can feel the old print between your fingers, it’s faded, it’s been folded and maybe it’s got a torn corner. In the photograph there might be some family members or a group of old friends from days long gone by, and in that scene, is an image of you.

As you look at that image of you, you may recognize the clothing you wore, the dull, washed out jeans and you might even remember how they felt, maybe they were too short. You can remember the mood in that shot in time, how the sun felt on your face that day and what was happening then, where you were and whom you were with. Maybe they are your friends, or your cousins and you remember that earlier that day the one with his or her arm around you made you mad, but the two of you made up before the picture was snapped. You remember how warm their smile made you feel every time.

When you look at that person, your cousin or your friend, you can remember laughing together, you can recall a conversation you two shared that day, perhaps they’d sought solace with you and you comforted them. Then you find yourself reflecting on your relationship with them and missing their place in your life, their warmth and their touch.

When we share or hear ghost stories we think of spooky tales, fright and ominous specters always witnessed by someone else, cautionary anecdotes to save us from an almost certain demise, but today, holding this old photograph in my tired, calloused hands, looking at the image of me, looking at my contorted face, eyes squinting in the sun, I recall nothing about how the boy felt then. I try and see deeper into those dark eyes, I scan the scene in this picture, and I look to the faces of those around me for a reflection of my mood. But I feel nothing, I run my thumb across the old Polaroid as if to evoke or dredge up some sort of feeling from the face of me, trying to call up the spirit, trying desperately to remember. Alas there is nothing, nothing but a ghost, an image but with no soul, no revived memories, no story.

I know that there is a history there, I know it happened, I know the location, the clothes, the hair, I know where I got that scar on my arm I can see in the picture, but I cannot remember the feeling I had that day, the emotion I felt then or what my concentration, my preoccupation was at that time. I was a young boy then, I remember my dog and I remember sisters. I remember my mom passed out on the sofa and I remember the pocket knife my dad left me on the counter when he left before I woke for school. I remember that was the last day my dad ever stepped foot in that old house. I remember his bottle of Old Spice I kept in my dresser for years, he’d left it behind and I grabbed it from the trash when my mom threw all his stuff away. I have memories of trying to be tough for my little sisters when I tucked them into bed, and I remember sitting on the couch watching Johnny Carson with my mom until she fell asleep, then drinking the rest of the scotch in her glass. I even remember being sent to counseling in grade school and being molested by the guy in the corduroy jacket.

What I don’t remember is how I felt the day this picture was taken. How is right that I can’t escape the image of my neighbor, my baby sitter lying face down on her dirty, faded, braided oval rug, her skin blue, her thin house dress crumpled up barring the back of her aged white thighs, as I ate a Nut Goodie candy bar, waiting for my mom to pick me up after her second shift at the factory. But I can’t remember if I had thoughts of a crush that day, whether or not I was scared or elated, if I had dreams or aspirations that day.

Sometimes ghosts aren’t the remnants of those that have passed on and now haunt the living, but those suffering deep inside and can’t break out of the body they are in, it’s the thinly veiled spirit of someone trying desperately to hang on and exist without acknowledging the feelings and emotions they are afraid will kill them if they let them. They are the ones haunted, so they move silently through each day, trying not to disturb the things around them that will alert those that will hurt them, they float through life, learning what gets them by, what people expect of them, all the while losing touch with who they are, their dreams, with the things that validate their soul. Eventually they hone their skills so that others may never know what pain they feel, so that no one may suspect they are knee deep in a roaring, torrid fire behind the walls they’ve built.

Do you recall Dr Seuss’ book entitled Oh The Places You’ll Go? “You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted but mostly they’re darked. Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?” That was my favorite page, I wasn’t afraid of those places, in fact when I was a kid and I read that page I felt validated, I felt like someone knew where I was. You can hide in those dark places, you can make believe you’ll go some place one day for other’s sake, but you can’t hide the darked out windows, you can’t hide the void in your eyes. As I stand here holding this tarnished photograph in my hands, I can see the reason why I can’t remember, it’s because spirits don’t have reminiscences. I look into the eyes of that young boy and they are cold, they are darked out. That young boy is a ghost, an apparition of someone lost long before the shutter snapped. I have seen a ghost and he has my face.

You Know That Feeling?

Have you ever walked past the entryway to a dark alley, the open door to a room with no lights on or underneath an old rambling tree and think or feel like you’ve seen or felt something or somebody close by? Did you get the notion that someone or something was hiding there, watching you? Maybe you wondered if you were to reach out, reach into that darkness, take that little step out of the warmth of the sun or the safety of the light that you’d find it, touch it, feel it?

Have you ever walked past a mirror and not recognize the person looking back at you? Maybe you felt like you knew that person’s eyes, could see inside them and felt like you knew them but that the outside, the exterior was foreign, did you ever feel like you were wearing a suit just a little too big for you, like when you put on your fathers shirt as a boy? Have you ever felt like when someone touched you, you could feel their hands but not their touch? Or maybe at some point if someone touched you it seemed as though you had no skin and their touch hurt even though they hadn’t mean to hurt you, but like you were a solid grouping of raw, unprotected nerve endings, out there, susceptible to everyone, everything, every strange look, every unwelcome glance.

We all have haunts, impressions that have followed us throughout our lives, not all of them are bad, but some are, and they live in the shadows and those dark rooms and behind the trees in the forests and the damp corners of the alleys near our homes. I have learned to live and accept mine, sometimes we get so used to them that they become part of us and established element within our worlds. And sometimes we can convince them to leave, that there is no purpose here for them any longer, even the bad ones can protect us, but eventually if we take ownership we can learn to protect ourselves and even allow ourselves to just be vulnerable, to accept what lies ahead, what lurks where we fear to go. And maybe even find ourselves there, hiding out up in the thick canopy of that tree at the edge of the wood.

When we walk past those empty rooms, we feel the echoes of our shadows, within them are held our greatest fears, our haunts, our innocence and even our greatest desires. Challenge yourself to wander in there and poke around, see what you can find, accept it and welcome it and then celebrate it.