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The Measure of Greatness

The Measure of Greatness

I think continually of those who were truly great. Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing……..

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
- Stephen Spender I do not believe greatness is defined by wealth or fame or accomplishment. I see greatness instead as something much more demanding. True greatness is meeting the demands and responsibilities of daily living with an open heart. True greatness is diligence, compassion, care, and most of all kindness, and it is exceedingly rare. I first met Jerry Evans 25 years ago. I had been seeing his magnificent daughter for a few weeks and had fallen crazy in love. Lynn’s suggestion that I meet her parents hinted that I may not have been alone in that heart-based journey, so we all agreed to meet for dinner at a slightly upscale local restaurant in Minnetonka. Meeting the parents is enough to chill the veins of even the fiercest romantic warrior. I knew myself to be perfectly capable of dismantling the entire process, either through a subconscious effort to be impressive, a misplaced or inappropriate remark, or just a nervous awkwardness that would make me look as juvenile as I sometimes am. So much was at stake. I had Lynn, and I couldn’t bear the thought of alienating her parents. I was Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series waiting for the ground ball to go under my glove and down the right field line. We arrived first and were at our table when Jerry and Marlys arrived. And I knew at once that I needn’t have worried. With a firm handshake, a genuine smile and a twinkle in his eye that I would later see to be his constant expression of amusement, interest and welcome, we became instant friends. When the server came by, Jerry led the ordering by asking for a scotch. How could I not like the man? Two scotches, a fine but unmemorable dinner, nearly three hours of stories and questions and reminiscences all mingled with Lynn’s laughing radiance and Marlys’s gentle humor……I felt I belonged with them, and to them. That feeling never changed. Jerry Evans became my second father, and, like everyone else who knew him, I came to look forward to the time we would spend together. Jerry made a career with Western Electric after a fairly hardscrabble youth and a reluctant tour of duty near the end of the Korean War, where he lined up to be a target of a North Korean sniper until, sensing his vulnerability, he willfully disobeyed the orders of his lieutenant and ended up capturing the sniper and a few of his pals himself. He loved a wife and raised two splendid daughters. The neighborhood friends he made in his twenties remained close friends all his life, and get-togethers with Jack Carlson, John Kissel and Walt Harle marked his calendar for more than five decades. Through it all Jerry never wavered, never strayed, never violated the ideas that he held most dear – that all he met were entitled to trust and good humor, that every problem had its solution if we looked hard enough for it, that good times inevitably followed good work and were to be savored when they came. That love itself was life’s most precious flow. That each day, each person, each situation, should be met with kindness. Our son Michael had a special relationship with his grandfather. The visits were too few, even if Michael would sometimes fly to Minnesota on his own to spend time with his grandparents, to eat Grandma’s ginger cookies and to hear Grandpa’s stories. Michael loved the stories, loved the wisdom. Loved the man. He referred to Jerry as “the purest man I’ve ever known.” Who would disagree? In this springtime of sorrow, we lost Jerry Evans. We had watched his health take a series of hits through the years – arthritis, a weakening heart, some other more minor afflictions. While his vitality waned, his love of life never diminished. The stories continued even as the naps became more frequent, and he so clearly loved being with his family. The twinkle in his eye never faded. He remained our father, our husband, our grandfather. Our constant friend. The virus took him the day after his 92nd birthday. He passed in isolation, tended to by a loving hospital staff that never made him feel alone and a family tied into several “visits” a day through video calls. He passed quickly, and, I like to think, without undue pain or discomfort. If anyone on this planet merited a peaceful passing, it was Jerry Evans……. We cannot know where we go when our bodies finally set us free. All faiths aside, we cannot ever really be sure. But I believe that any realm where Jerry Evans’s soul has traveled must be a peaceful place, a warm place where the soul can at last rest, and gather itself again. When I take the trip he has taken, when my own soul steps away from all it has ever known and I cross that same bridge, I imagine Jerry welcoming me there on the other side, perhaps saying, “What kept you?” with his eyes twinkling once again, and I will shake his hand, laughing. And I will tell him the things that reside deep in the heart’s core, and too often go unsaid during our lifetimes. I will tell him that I love him, and that I missed him during our time apart. I will tell him that I missed hearing his stories when he was gone, and ask him to tell me again about being a boy in South Minneapolis during the lean years, about the war he never wanted to fight, and about seeing Willie Mays and Ted Williams play AAA ball at Nicollet Park . We’ll talk of baseball, and cold winters, and summers where the fireflies shone on the trees like Christmas lights. He’ll tease me again about never having caught a fish. I will tell him that I would never have been the person I became without his unspoken, subtle guidance. And I will tell him that I am nowhere near alone in that gratitude, that he walks ahead of a family shaped by his gentle good humor, his unqualified acceptance, the constancy of his affections, and his unending kindnesses. We can aspire to nothing better than to touch the lives around us with gentility, respect, kindness and love. At the end of it all, we rest. Rest well, Jerry Evans. No one deserves it more. “The only word for goodness is goodness, and it is not enough.” - Pat Conroy

The Indecency of Silence

The Indecency of Silence

We have passed the time for silence We have passed the complacency of safety and sanctuary. We can no longer convince ourselves that everything is all right, that we are the way we should be, the way we always were…… A young father receives seven bullets in his back. A white knee chokes off the life of a black man, already restrained and on the ground. Tamir Rice learns a permanent lesson at the tender age of 12 that it really doesn’t matter whether your gun is a toy when your skin is dark. Ahmaud Arbery finds out that he cannot outrun the insidious hatred of racism. We know the stories, and we see the rage. In the deepest recesses of our hopes, we tell ourselves that these are aberrations, that the fabric of who we are as a people remains untorn, if a bit frayed, that the things we were told as children still hold true – Land of the Free. All Men Are Created Equal. To Serve and Protect. We speak of our exceptionalism, and sing our hymns. But we are not okay. We have never been truly whole…… Tonight I sit at my desk in a horrified amazement at what we have become. I cannot recognize the tribalism that pits us against one another, that intentionally obscures the commonality of shared experience. I’m continually stunned by rhetoric that triggers our worst impulses rather than our highest aspirations. I cannot grasp a 17-year-old heart that carries an assault rifle across state lines to end the lives of people who think differently than he does. And I weep, truly and actually weep, for the callous indifference that so readily snuffs out hope, and joy, and community, and life itself. We are not okay. During this season of sorrow, I have tried to insulate myself against the devolution. I have wrapped myself in my own writing, and the editing of words written by others. I have sought the lyricism of the great authors that I will never approach, those voices that make the language sing and float like playful birds. As the world has darkened, I’ve sought the brightness of letters. This is a luxury, I know. But there is no escaping where we are, no way of ignoring the disintegration of what was once firm and whole. We do not deserve the comfort of blindness. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador dedicated his priesthood to battling his country’s poverty, social injustice and political oppression. Shortly before his assassination, he wrote: Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous,
tranquil contribution of all
to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
it is right and it is duty. We share our space with almost infinite diversity, with people who do not look or act or speak like us, with ideas that sometimes challenge the way we think or the way we live. Yet through it all we share the same struggles, the same desire for belonging and acceptance. The same desire for peace. But know we have a duty to that peace we seek. We cannot sit by and indulge our mythologies. Peace is dynamism, beyond the reach of any measure of silence, or complacency, or smugness. For Jacob Blake, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and the thousands whose names we do not know, we can no longer pretend that as a country, as a society, we are something that we are not, and have never been. We have passed the time for silence. A correction is in order. And well overdue.

Dancing with Anna Livia

Dancing with Anna Livia

There are fourteen river Gods in Ireland, though, in typical Irish style, one of them is the God of the Atlantic Ocean. Of these Gods thirteen are hairy men and one is the epitome of female beauty, Anna Livia Plurabella.……. On that morning years ago, the morning of the crowded airport and the dawnings of time and life, when he first heard her voice, when he turned and first saw blue eyes that would become for him a constant beacon, Conor Finnegan recognized that the matrices of his narrow, focused existence had shifted. He knew this instinctively, the whisper of a soft and subtle voice telling him that his axis had just been displaced, slightly at first, but with an immense potential to whirl around in increasingly wider arcs. There had been no place else for her to sit, or so it seemed. She stood there balancing a travel bag, a briefcase and a Starbucks latte, frazzled, disjointed, and perhaps the most beautiful woman Conor’s eyes had ever found. It took an act of concentrated will just to be able to stammer out a response, “Please”, as he jolted to his feet, bumping the table as he pushed back his chair and sending a few drops of his own latte over the edge. Adrienne, her name was. Conor had never known an ‘Adrienne’, and the name itself burrowed into his delicate psyche with a lyricism that would never leave him. Later he would marvel at the prescience of her parents, who at her birth found for her a name that echoed the grace and elegance that every movement, every phrase seemed to carry. So then, on that faraway morning, this dance had begun. As time passed, Conor mused at the series of accidents, curiosities and whimsies that had created their space. What if the airport that day had not been so crowded? What if his plane had come in late, or hers? What if the man in line ahead of him had taken more time to make up his mind – latte or double espresso? – and Conor would have been standing in a queue instead of claiming the next-to-last of too few seats? What if she had looked at him then, and seen him for what he really was? But life’s elliptical journey is defined by the accidents that intertwine our destinies, and this was no different. Hadn’t Thomas Wolfe written that “Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.” It was love, indeed, and everything that went with it – the struggles of two arcing careers, where to be, what to do, how to live. Children and schools. The arguments, and then the gentle repairs. The worries and frets of money, and relationships, and that greatest of all concerns, the specter of time. Conor Finnegan sat now in a well appointed living room and gazed across at Adrienne, reading her book, a blanket tucked around legs drawn under her delicate form. Still thin and light after these years. Conor sipped his wine, then looked out the back window to the woods, shadowed now in a setting sun. The sun was in fact setting, for both of them. It had been twenty-five years since the flusters of an airport morning had thrown them together. Conor had not broken her, although he was sure that there were times when he had come close. He was, after all, who he was. Let the sun set, then, and let the tyranny of time sweep down the last of their years together. There was no sorrow in this, no sense of loss. Conor Finnegan had married Anna Livia, the most beautiful woman he could ever know. He looked to her again, as he always had, and the river of time flowed through them, and around them, more softly than he could ever have anticipated.

Hosanna In The Highest

Hosanna In The Highest

A cold night, one of the coldest he could recall, and cursed by a wind that whipped and snapped off the river to rob all feeling from fingers, toes and hearts…. Matthew Cooney crumpled up the newspaper that served as his pillow and nestled as best he could under the overcoat that doubled now as his blanket. Enough of an overhang from the tacky tobacco store, closed now behind an iron grid, kept him from absorbing most of the snowflakes that shot on the wind like tiny darts. He had seen nights like this, far more than he cared either to count or remember. He would face this dark night as he had faced every night for the past two years, resolute simply to see the next morning. Almost no one was on the streets, the combined effect of cold, wind, snow and Christmas Eve, which, if nothing else, promised the rarity of a White Christmas. Christmas Eve meant little to Matthew Cooney. Christmas was just a day, the same this year as any other Friday. He would spend it as he spent most days – shuffling among strangers who chose not to see him, wending his way to the mission where, at the end of the priest’s blessing, he would find at least a cup of hot coffee and a muffin, then setting himself up in the park with a paper cup in front of him and a look of quiet pleading in eyes that scoured each passerby for sympathy and spare change. If he were fortunate, he might collect enough for a meal at McDonald’s, filling his stomach with grease and gristle and quieting his mind enough to allow him to get an early start in his quest for the perfect door front. It would have to be recessed from the sidewalk, dark enough to afford him some bit of privacy, and close to a heating grate. Those were hard to come by. Cooney’s Christmases had always been a blur. Even as a child, one blended into another, and none of them held any enchantment or wonder. The yelling, the slaps, the cold were indistinguishable one year to the next. He had grown too old too soon, the excitement of holiday meals and Christmas carols and cards sent or received obliterated by poverty and the resentments it engendered. The best Christmas gift he ever received was a carton of smokes from his father. His mother rarely left her bottle long enough to give him anything. When Cooney’s father left them and his mother passed the point of all concern, Matthew set off on his own. He was 13 at the time, incapable of sustaining himself without the usual crimes – theft, some petty and some not so petty, a few drugs bought at wholesale and sold at retail, and, in a grand gesture of hubris, an attempt at armed robbery. He was an amateur, though, and no match for a liquor store that was a regular target for those on the edges. The owner stepped on a hidden alarm and feigned confusion and fear long enough for the squad cars to roll up to the door. The police drew their arms, Matthew Cooney threw his down, and he found himself a temporary home through a six to eight year sentence. When his sentence finally ended, it was back to the streets. No one hires an ex-con, he thought, especially one with no schooling, no skills and no hope. Cooney knew his lot, and he accepted its heartbreak. There was, he believed, no longer a heart to break. And now, on this bitter Christmas Eve, Cooney settled into his doorway. No miracles. No bright star to light his way. Nothing but the cold and wind and snow. In the early evening of it all, he drifted into what passed for slumber. - - - - “Cooney. Matty Cooney. Is that you? Cooney roused at once as a man’s hand gently tapped his shoulder. Instinctively he reached for the knife he kept in a side pocket of the coat. “What the hell? Get off me,” he barked, squinting against the darkness to see who this was. The man drew off at once. “Jaysus, Matt, it is you. What the hell are you doing out here on a night like this? I knew you once, don’t you see. Johnny Duncan, you recall. I’m Johnny Duncan.” Cooney peered upward, scowling as he wracked his memory for a Johnny Duncan. Maybe, once, a few years back. When he was another man in another time. When he was a boy, there might have been a Johnny Duncan. “My family and I lived three doors down from yours. We ran together a bit before, well, before you left. A bit of mischief, a game or two, all that. D’ye remember at all?” Cooney grunted as the vapors of recollection put a face to the name, and he saw the grown version of that face kneeling before him now. “Johnny Duncan,” he whispered. “Yeah.” “So what the hell are you doing out here, Matty? You’ve no place to go? No place to be? Christ, man, it’s Christmas Eve.” “Just the way it is, Johnny, and nothin’ to be done about it. Go on your way now. There’s nothing for you here.” Duncan reached down and placed his hand under Cooney’s arm, then pulled him upward. Cooney resisted, stumbled as he tried to pull his arm away, but found himself too weak. Duncan got him to his feet. “And there’s nothing for you here either, Matty. I don’t have the first clue what happened to you, but I’ll tell you, lad, I don’t give a damn. I see a man I knew sleeping in a doorway on Christmas Eve and I know he shouldn’t be there, no matter who he is or what he’s been. You’re coming with me.” Cooney stepped away as best he could but Duncan held tight to his arm. “I’m goin’ nowhere, Johnny. Leave me be.” Duncan let go his grip and turned to face Cooney fully. He sighed, shook his head, then said, “Do you recall that we were in the same catechism, Matty? Do you remember what we learned? More than just a few chosen words, the rubbing of the beads and Sunday Mass. That teaching gets into your blood and you can’t ignore it. Christmas, Matty. It’s part of who we were as boys. Part of who we are. Even if it’s only for one night. You’re comin’ with me, Matty. You’re not sleeping in this cold. Not tonight.” Cooney said nothing and looked hard at the other. “I have a flat not far from here, with a spare bedroom. It’s yours for the night, along with a hot meal. Tomorrow you can sort things out. Stay or go, as you choose. But every Christmas Eve demands a stable for those in exile.” “Those in exile. I’m hardly the Christ child, Johnny.” “You’re as close as any of us from what I can tell. Come along, now. For old times, and for who we used to be. There’s no star, and no wise men, and you won’t have to sleep with the goats. But there’s a manger for you tonight, Matty, if you’ll have it.” Matthew Cooney hesitated, then gathered his overcoat and a small bag of belongings. With an unsteady step he came to Johnny Duncan’s side. Together, then, into the night, through the wind and the cold and the snow, to hear the angels singing hosannas in soft and gentle voices.

Notes of an Invisible Man

Notes of an Invisible Man

‘A man could live for years in this swarming mass of streets and time and never be seen,’ Cooney thought to himself. The blinders that we wear, the obsessive focus on what’s directly in front of us and what must be done, those to whom we owe allegiance or money or time - all of it the clutter of obligation. And the streets teem with it all, a jumbled mass of interchangeable bodies with interchangeable parts and interchangeable worries. No room for anyone else, and no call to notice what has no immediate value….. Matthew Cooney thrived on invisibility. ‘Nothing to it, really,’ he would tell himself. ‘Just go about your day as if you knew every move to be made. As if you owned the city and everyone in it. No one pays any mind.’ The mistakes came about when one tried not to be seen, or thought himself too bold. Lurking in doorways or clambering down dark alleys – any unnatural action – drew suspicion. Cooney detested attention, unless he were the one to be paying it to complete whatever task was at hand. His one great mistake had been an attempt at daylight robbery, right in the open, hoisting a small gun in the face of the owner of a store that he frequented. Youthful exuberance, it was, mixed with a touch of hubris. It cost him two years behind bars, although even those dull months were not without their rewards. With a youthful charisma Cooney had made friends among the others with whom he shared his time. Some of them came in handy on the outside, providing contacts, leads, and sometimes even partnerships in enterprises too grand to be pursued by one man alone. He had been invisible for years, and had made a living of it. Cooney the Hustler. Cooney the Petty Thief. Cooney the Entrepreneur. The streets provided his sustenance, even as they hid him. Cooney the Invisible Man. On a sunlit late winter morning Cooney walked through the square where he usually spent his days. He surveyed this day – sunshine and enough warmth to keep away discomfort, the chatter of birds, the ever present white noise of car traffic and the shuffling of the swarms coming and going to their places, heads down, absorbed and unsmiling. Cooney had become familiar with the neighborhood and knew the surrounding houses well enough to identify those that might be worth a clandestine visit. The best thieves were patient, and really, there was no need to rush things. He had enough for the day, and for the next several day s. The last house he had visited had proven generous. Again, he had taken just enough, but not so much that the losses would be noticed right away. Cooney set off down the street adjacent the square, the one where the fattest houses stood in sentrylike rows. A reconnaissance mission, that was all. No need to press things today, on this glorious morning. Whatever he might see he would catalogue for future reference, for those days when things might not be so flush. For now he was a happy man. On the way he stopped into a convenience store, the same one he had sought to rob those years ago. “Mornin’, Joe”, he said to the man behind the counter, the same man at whom he had pointed his small gun. They had become friends. “Mornin’ back at ya, Matt,” came the reply from one of the few people on this planet who knew his name, who recognized that Matthew Cooney walked this world. “The usual smokes?” “Indeed. And I’ll take a pint of the Four Roses, too. Something to warm me against a winter’s day.” When the goods appeared Cooney reached into his back pocket and drew forth the bills to pay for it all. This day he had money. It had been a good week. Back to the street, then, and into his walk. No rush. No hurry. He had the day to himself, and he might fill it with anything that caught his fancy. And, best of all, no one would notice him, this lone figure walking the dense streets, owning the city. This blurred human cipher, Cooney the Invisible Man.

A Country In Need of Repair

A Country In Need of Repair

I spent Saturday morning embedding bricks into the muddy rim of our garden, the first layer of a decorative divider that would highlight the lovely things growing there. The day dawned hot and grew hotter, the remnants of the previous night’s thunderstorms lending a cover of humidity that pressed down into the lungs. Hard work on a hot morning, one of the privileges of still being well and strong enough to do such things. And usually such tasks provide a type of quiet, a time when my thoughts can focus on the simple acts at hand, the product of which is a tangible improvement – something new, something better in place. Something repaired. Such work can quiet the mind. But these are the not days for quiet. There are still things that need to be repaired. When I had done all I cared to do for the day, I came back inside and showered away the dirt and sand. I put on cool clothes and made myself ready for the day’s best and most important task. We did not go to Washington, my son Michael and I. With tens of thousands of people on the streets, Washington would not be easy to navigate. We chose instead to rally in Manassas, which, in the end, is our community. We arrived to a wide green lawn with free water, disinfectant and music. One of the songs played was “Wake Up, Everybody”, sung by Teddy Pendergrass. Michael, whose tastes run along different lines, liked it, and asked me what it was. I told him, and noted that we’re still chasing the same notes of a song written nearly fifty years ago. So there we stood, masks on in the heat and the humidity and the crowds, and listened to the voices of commitment and promise. The voices who have not let their fear override their courage. And I added to my life’s experiences during those hours, chanting through my own tears the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, chanting “Black Lives Matter” with a raised arm and a clenched fist, standing next to my son, whose own passions were stirred by what he saw that afternoon. It never goes away. I marched against the insanity that was the Vietnam War when I was in college. I sat down with dozens of others in the middle of College Avenue to block midday traffic and command attention to what we were saying. I gazed into the visors of riot police and heard the threats of tear gas. Much of all that was personal. Thousands of my generation were being sent to that meaningless, brutal war, and I had no intention of joining them. I marched against the injustice of it all, but I was marching to save my own ass, too. I do not know what it is to be black. I do not know what it is to leave home each day with the realization tucked into a far corner of my mind that I could be a target simply because of the shade of my skin. I do not know the fear, and the frustration, and the vulnerability, and the rage. I will never know these things. But I know what justice is. And I know passion, and grace, and the love of community. I know the peace that comes from seeing and doing the right things, not because they are comfortable or expedient, but simply because they are the things that affirm the dignity and worth of every soul. During his remarkable Day of Affirmation address in South Africa at the height of apartheid, Bobby Kennedy said, “Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is…enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town and views and the color of his skin. It is …the task of the young people of this world to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man.” Most of the voices who spoke were young voices, flamed by the ideals we have yet to come close to achieving. Their words were complemented by older voices who leavened the passions of the young with the wisdom of those who have experienced the failure of those ideals. But it was the young people who carried the day. We stood on the same ground where slaves had been sold two centuries prior, ghosts stirred again to life and honored by those who accepted the responsibilities of memory and commitment. Afterwards I spoke with one of the organizers, Brian, who is eighteen years old. He had put this day together four days earlier with others no older than he was. I told him that he had made me feel better that day than I had in a great while, and that he was our future. “Keep the fight.” He promised that he would. I am more than willing to pass whatever commitment I have to these young people. We have done what we could, and for the most part we have failed miserably. The world is still a harsh place, overrun with violence, poverty, injustice and racism. We still live our lives through our tribes rather than our communities. We’ll stay in the fight, the older generations. We can draw from the strength and humanism of leaders like John Lewis who’ve sailed into their later years with their voices strong and their ideals intact. We cannot discount the wisdom that comes from our failures. But it’s a deeply flawed world that we’ve created, in desperate need of repair. Our best hope lies in the energy, compassion and courage of those who must deal with its legacy. . Youth is more than a time of life – it is a state of mind. Our best hope lies with Brian, and the thousands across this country like him who live by the passion and idealism of youth.

             Angels In The Dark Days

Angels In The Dark Days

In early April in 1994 a missile shot up from the hillsides near the Kigali airport and brought down a small plane holding Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s president, and a few others, including the president of neighboring Burundi. Much of the wreckage crashed into the presidential palace, perhaps a fitting symbol of what was to come. The western news media paid little mind to the incident, and most of us went about our daily routines without even a passing curiosity. Rwandans had no such luxury. The presidential assassination unleashed an ethnic turmoil that had burbled sporadically for generations. In the coming weeks, the western press came to analyze and debate a relatively unusued concept – genocide. No one really knows how many were killed before a fragile peace was won three months later. Some estimates runs as high as a million, and the floor seems to be set at 800,000. No one knows. What we do know is that most of the killing was intimate, committed through machetes and clubs, neighbors slaying neighbors. Piles of bodies lined the roadside checkpoints where the militias exercised a drunken authority over life and death. Churches where the targets sought sanctuary became killing centers, places where God turned his back and the worst impulses of the sorry creation of man acted out in violence and despair. Now, nearly three decades later, almost no one pays heed to the Rwandan genocide. Our lives have gone on from the news, as they should, and we regard now the challenges and crises that mark the new days. But I cannot do so, and each April on the anniversary of the onset of this incredible slaughter, I think back to Rwanda. A few years after the genocide I visited Rwanda for a week in the springtime. I was working with the American Refugee Committee (now renamed Alight) and was sent to tour the work done in the conflict’s aftermath. What I saw – what I felt – during those days changed who I was forever. In my second novel, Through the Waters and the Wild, I drew from that trip to dwell on those changes. Conor Finnegan, the immensely flawed central figure in the narrative, visited a Rwandan refugee camp and encountered a small girl, no more than six or seven, who came to represent one of the book’s central themes. This girl exists, or at least she did then, and continues to haunt my thoughts and flare my conscience. While I fictionalized parts of the encounter, I did not fictionalize her. When she first saw me she rushed to me and grabbed my hand. For the remainder of my time in the camp she did not let go. She did not speak, or smile, or laugh, or do anything one might expect from a small child encountering the new phenomenon of a white man walking through her world. I knelt before her several times to ask her name, to smile at her, and to pat my own heart as I tried to bring her out. No response other than an intense stare through dark eyes beneath a furrowed brow. The other children teased us, telling me that she was ‘votre cherie’ – my sweetheart. Still she held on to me until I reached the point where I had to leave. I turned to her one final time and whispered words that I hoped she might understand, that I was going but that I would never forget her. As I climbed into the truck to drive away, at last she gave me a response: While all the other children had run back up the hill to the camp, she stayed to continue looking at me through the fencing. Two giant tears ran down her face. To this day I see those eyes, see those tears. And I have no idea what to do with that. I’ve tried to ascribe meaning to the incident, tried to make sense of it and use it as some type of impetus – for thought, or action, or even just feeling. But what impetus can there be in the suffering of children caught in the crossfire? What possible value is there in the sacrifice of this young girl’s childhood – and the childhoods of millions of young people around the world – who become the currency of conflict, and whose lives are nothing more than the byproduct of hatred, greed and the violence that goes with it all? I have no answers. None of us do. And so each April I regard the genocide in Rwanda, and think of this little angel who had no chance to be a child. I cannot imagine the trauma she faced in her young life. I wonder what it is she had lost – a home, perhaps her parents, a family dispersed, the identity, security, discovery and joy of being a child as the world opens up. I wonder where she is today, and what became of her. At the end of these days when Rwanda comes back to me, I try to sleep while the images float through me and around me. And before I make the effort to sleep, I will say another prayer for the soul of this girl, and thank her, although she could never have wanted to proffer the gift, for making me wiser by showing me what I cannot know.

Lessons From My Dog

Lessons From My Dog

Lucas bounded into our lives several years ago, an eight-week old puppy with one floppy ear, the fluffiest tail I had ever seen, and a heart filled with wonder. I first saw him on Petfinder when we concluded that our son was finally old enough to care for a serious pet. His first experience with Sam and Sookie the Goldfish had ended well. Michael had won them at the County Fair and was so excited as he held the water-filled baggies up to regard his new piscatorial friends that he rushed right home, foregoing the rides on the midway so that he could get them into a bowl before the baggies broke. He did well with the fish, and they lasted as long as goldfish tend to last. One morning we found them floating rather than swimming, bade goodbye, then placed them with care under a rose bush in the garden so that they could play their part in the cycle of life. Shortly afterward, I concluded that it was time for a dog. Lucas spent the first weeks of his life with his mother in a shelter in eastern Virginia, the small part that tucked below Delaware on the Delmarva Peninsula and a good three hour drive from where we lived. But when you know something is right, time and distance have little meaning. I saw his picture and my own heart melted. We were off to Austria for a week, though, so it made no sense to adopt him then. The shelter made no guarantees. In fact they said that they were getting a number of inquiries about the puppy they had named Butterball. Still, I should call when I got back to see if he were still available. I spent the week in Salzburg conferences, drinking Gluhwein, marveling at the grandeur of the Alps, listening to Mozart, and hoping each day that the small dog in the photo would still need a home when our plane finally landed. We got home late Sunday night, and first thing Monday morning I called the shelter to learn that they had some concerns about the family that had put a claim on Butterball, and had denied their adoption request. Some things, I know, are meant to be. Butterball yipped in his crate the entire three hour drive back home the following Saturday. I had been amazed at how small and delicate he felt when the shelter director placed him in my hands. He looked up at me quickly, then turned to whimper back toward the director, who just as quickly turned to walk toward her own car. In a gesture his whole existence was overwritten, and he was thrust into what was completely foreign. The drive back was a symphony of anguished puppy sounds, not softened by my own attempts to sing, to coax, and to whisper soothingly from the driver’s seat. To this day, he remains the best single Christmas gift I ever gave my son. He would not wear the red ribbon I had gotten to tie around his neck, but he bounded around the corner of the living room where Michael waited for some unnamable surprise, excited to be out of his crate and expecting that he was on the verge of some great new adventure. He saw Michael, they jumped together, and a timeless love was born in a breath. Michael renamed him Lucas, and everything that was Butterball – the shelter, the small cage, the security of his mother – was gone forever. I watched him then, mixing love for my son with love for my dog, worrying about keeping the two of them safe and healthy, wishing with all my heart that their days would be filled with happiness, discovery and laughter. I walked Lucas, fed him, cleaned up his messes, and with Michael played with him daily. We all went on together. God, it was bliss. As time moved on, I came to look at Luke through different eyes. He’s in his twelfth year now, and I know, sadly, that he’s probably passed three-quarter mark, and possibly more, of what I hope has been a joyous and peaceful sojourn. Even though he’s healthy, his eyes are bright and his sense of play intact, I can feel a clock ticking away these precious days, and so I’ve come to look at Luke more carefully, and more openly than ever before. I dread the day when he’s not here with me. We walk in the morning, and those are the best times. These are the times when the best lessons are learned. He does not prance and pull as he did when he was younger. He walks more slowly now, sniffing at mailbox posts and patches of grass that have been visited by other dogs. Sometimes he stops and pricks his ears. Nothing there, then a turn of his head to look up at me, almost smiling, before he resumes. His best friend is a delightful little Pug about his age who lives four doors down. Some mornings he’ll stop in Maile’s yard and wait for her to come out with Diane, then together we’ll complete the morning walk. But if she does not appear, Luke will turn up the sidewalk without complaint. Lucas does not love what he does not see. He is content in the moment, content with those around him. He sees only what is there, without interpretation or adornment. That is enough. Whenever someone comes to the door, he explodes in anticipation, yelping with joy until the door is opened and he can welcome whoever walks through, whether a neighbor, a repairman or the guy delivering the pizza. He tells me that there is immense pleasure in simply being together, that every living creature carries a dignity worth celebrating, that we are social beings who cannot do without one another. Because of this, Lucas is a poor watchdog. If asleep, he would not be likely to stir or make a fuss over an intruder except to wag his tail and bark his happiness that someone new had come to call. But if I open the refrigerator door, Luke usually comes running. He’ll sit there and watch whatever it is I’m pulling out, lick his muzzle and stare. Sometimes it works – I might share a piece of chicken or a tortilla - but most times he gets nothing. Still, he comes each time, and I’ve seen in his gentle eyes hope without expectation. For Lucas, hope is enough. For a dozen years Lucas has been confidant and comforter. In the darkest times, he senses despair, or loss, or grief, then seeks out the one who is suffering. He’ll do what’s needed, following along until there’s an opportunity to curl up next to the one with the sad eyes. The press of his warm body, the sincerity of his eyes and the gentle lick of a tongue offering unqualified affection has melted away sorrow, despair and angst, always bringing me higher, bringing me back to the moment, back to the realization that all despair carries with it limitless possibilities. For years I have strived for an elusive mix of simplicity and passion, to strip away everything that is unnecessary or cluttering or distracting, to live simply enough so that I can pursue the things that really matter. Lucas has done this. He does not procrastinate or rationalize or lie. Luke sees that love is life’s most precious flow, that being with those we love is enough, and that it is all we can do to provide for one another. If I am fortunate, someday I can come close to who and what he is.

Cleaning the Shattered Bits

Cleaning the Shattered Bits

"I’ve something to tell you, Gina.” Donal Mannion took a sip of his scotch, the pathway to his courage and the herald of his greatest mistakes. It was wine that soothed his soul, and scotch that fired it. This had always been so, from the days of his first taste of each, a 13 year-old boy running the streets with his equally wild friends. He had formed a quick and lasting relationship with both, wine his confidant and scotch the instigator of mischief, of boldness, and, in the end, of honesty. Tonight was a night for the scotch. Gina sat back in her chair and held her own glass. The banter of the evening had been tense from the start, none of the easygoing back and forth between lovers accustomed to the other’s moods and rhythms. Gina had prepared a simple dinner of salmon and rice, most of which Donal had uncharacteristically left on his plate. “Something to tell me, is it? I can only imagine.” “Ah, Gina,” Donal took one last sip, then leaned forward. “It’s hard enough to put it out there without your darts. Please just listen.” Gina said nothing through a thin smile, then sat back in her chair, cradling the wine glass. “Okay then, here it is. You know we’ve made something of a path together these past months. I’ve tried to tell you how I feel, tried to crawl inside that locked vault that passes for your heart. I still don’t know what’s in there, to be sure. “But I’ll tell you what’s in mine,” he continued through another small sip. “You know me for who I am. All the flaws, all the tempers. All the losses. You’re perhaps the first woman I’ve ever known who’s seen me away from any romanticism or idealization. Not that there’s ever been much to idealize. So I know to you I’m no ideal, and God knows I’m no Adonis.” Gina held up a hand. “Wait, Donal. Just wait. I don’t want this to go any further,” but Donal plunged on. “You recall that afternoon when I took you to the airport when you flew home for your mother’s illness. I was trying to bark out these things then, but the time ran out and I lost the nerve. Same things on my mind today, and in my heart.” “And I don’t want to hear them, Donal. Damn it, man. I’ve told you from the start that commitment leads to tragedy. We have no need to punish ourselves through a false bonding. So stop it, and let’s carry on as we are. There’s enough in that for both of us, I think.” “Ah, Gina. I know all that. But this is you and me.” Donal paused, then continued slowly. “And next month the lease on my flat runs out and I was hoping maybe I could join you here, a place for the two of us.” Gina Morelli sipped the last of her wine, fingered the round glass, then flung it into a far wall. The tinkling of shattered glass reverberated for several seconds. If this were not her own apartment, she would have headed for the door. Instead, she turned to her man. “So what’s in your heart is rental space, is it, Donal? Perhaps a place where you can lay your head and ride your lover after she cooks you her meals and pays for the very place you claim as your own. Damn your ass, Donal Mannion. You’ve just put the blessing to all my notions. And all my fears.” Donal sat back in his chair shyly, and let the quiet return. “It was just a thought, Gina. Just a notion. Might do us both some good.” Gina nestled deeply into her chair, quietly brooding. “Christ, you didn’t think I was going to suggest marriage, or something foolish like that?” He gave a small laugh. “I’m fond of you, lass, but I’m not suicidal.” “No, Donal,” she sighed. “You’re not suicidal. Just a user. And very cunning at it.” “Aren’t we all, darlin’ Gina? Here, you sit back. I’ll fetch the broom and pan, and get this mess cleaned up.”

The Black Hand, and Nothing To It

The Black Hand, and Nothing To It

The glass was almost empty now, nothing but the crispy bits of ice chips floating in the final puddle at the bottom. Donal Mannion picked it up and licked out the last bits, then gestured to the bartender. “Another, Johnny, when you can.” “Walker Red is it, Donal?” “Exactly. And be generous with your pour.” Mannion frequented The Black Hand, a small bar three blocks from his flat. Three or four nights each week found him at the bar, bantering with whoever might be near him, teasing the girls who ran drinks to the handful of tables near the back, and trading stories with Johnny the Bartender and Leo the Cook, and anyone within listening distance. While The Black Hand was Mannion’s local, it was not his only resting place. There was Clover and Gold, four blocks over, with its Wednesday drink specials, and The Irish Coup, a bar with a horse racing theme that Mannion found amusing and was only a fifteen minute walk. In each place he knew the bartenders by name and the servers by reputation. Johnny of The Black Hand returned with the scotch. “Anything new for you. Donal?” “Not a bit, Johnny. All these days run together like red pants in a white wash, so that everything comes out pink. Not my favorite shade.” “Ah, but change is the order of things, Donal. Nothing lasts forever. Not even the pink.” Mannion chuckled to himself. “Maybe so, my friend. But in the meantime we make do, don’t we?” He paused to take his first sip of the new drink. The cold, smoky richness of good scotch wrapped his throat, a comforter made of liquid rather than cloth. “You know, it didn’t always seem this way.” “Sorry, Donal, I’ve got to tend to these folks,” and Johnny the Bartender hastened to the far side of the bar, ostensibly to greet some newcomers but in truth relieved to be away from the stories, which never varied, and the self-pity, which never waned. “No,” said Donal, now to himself alone, “It wasn’t always this way.”……. “Damn it, Mannion, this report is five days late and tells me nothing. We need analysis, not speculation, and certainly not fantasy. This may as well have been written in crayon. What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” “You can jam it up your arse, Davis. Or boil it into a stew and serve it to your dogs.” “I’m done with it all, Mannion. Done with your laziness, and your lip. A last warning, this is” “Save it, Champ. I’m done with it all, too.” The clutter on Davis’s desk went flying as Donal Mannion swept it with his forearm. Pictures, papers and books flew to the floor, and Mannion heard the tinkling of broken glass. “Done with it all,” shouted one last time, as he stormed out of his last office, out of his last job ……. Ten years ago,’ he thought to himself. ‘And here I am. Still drawing a breath and a pension. Could be worse, I suppose.’ He nursed his drink in relative silence. As it drew once more to the bottom of the glass, he looked through the wide front window of The Black Hand and saw a young couple looking inside, deliberating whether a drink in such a place might be worth their time. The two held hands, and at one point the girl looked up at her man and laughed, a gentle and genuine burst of glee. Her man smiled back at her, the two shook their heads and walked on. Donal Mannion sat where he was, and watched them head to someplace else. He did not do so. Instead, he gestured once more to the bartender. “Johnny.” He waved his empty glass. “Another, if you please. And be generous with your pour.”

A Bit of Heat, A Bit of Light

A Bit of Heat, A Bit of Light

Winter swept into an April night like a vapor, crawling under doorways and wafting itself into the air, chilling what it touched and numbing those who touched it. April, when daffodils poked their tender heads haltingly toward a nurturing sky and birds hopped from branch to branch, reveling in the simple pleasures of sun and seed and song. When a man’s thoughts might turn to dance and music and love itself. But on this night winter made a reappearance, a final thrust across a city at once too eager to see it go. Families huddled in their homes and turned their thermostats up. Cabbies drove with their windows rolled up tight, and the windows of buses fogged up with the moisture of artificial heat. Grocers sold hot chocolate and marshmallows. In Farragut Square, Matthew Cooney hunched on his usual bench. The iron slats ran shanks of cold along the back of his legs, and he arched his shoulders forward under the tatty blanket that had tried to keep him warm for years. Another night at least before he could stuff it into his backpack and pretend that he might never need it again. Next to him sat one of the other regulars. James, his name was. Never ‘Jim.’ Or, God forbid, ‘Jimmy.’ He would react almost violently if someone called him that “My name’s James, God damn it. James. Jimmy, that’s a boy’s name, or something you sprinkle on ice cream.” Sometimes the teasing would continue, though, the taunts from those younger, and bolder, and stronger. James wore the broken teeth and battered bones with pride that he stood up for something. “I’m a man, Matthew,” he had told Cooney when they had first met. “A man with a man’s name. Don’t ever call me Jim.” Now James sat with his shoulder against Cooney’s, and the two of them tried to breathe warmth into their hands. “Ah, Matty. We should be sittin’ someplace warm. Not stuck out in this damn park with nothing but our wits to keep the blood circulating. And pass me a bit of that bottle, would you?” Cooney obliged, and James took a deep draught of the cheap brandy Cooney had snuck out of a package store around the block. Nasty, it was, but its fire lit the belly. “Nah, James. Nothing warm for the likes of us. We’re living the pure life.” “Christ Almighty,” and James took one final swig before passing the bottle back to Cooney. “Think of all the worthless bastards that are sleeping in warm beds tonight and wrapping themselves around their women. And none of ‘em any different than us. Flesh and blood and dreams, just like us.” “Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, Jamesy. We’ve the flesh and the blood, but the dreams are gone. Don’t really know what happened to them either. But gone they are, and we’re left with what we’re left with. And tonight that amounts to this bench, and this brandy, and blankets with as many holes in them as our souls.” “I’d like to get my hands on one of those rich bastards,” James said. “I’d show him what life is really like. Maybe toss him into a trash can and light it on fire, just to keep us warm for a bit.” “And what would that do, James? You’d show him what life is really like, you said, but what would he learn? We build our own boats, my friend, and it’s those boats we must sail. He sails his, complete with the dreams we’ve lost, and we sail ours.” James looked hard at Cooney, who continued softly. “I don’t resent those who’ve made it, James. They’re part of the game, don’t you see? Every day we play the game, seeing what we can get away with, seeing what we can take. Seeing how we can kick ourselves up a notch, or maybe knock someone else down. If there were no rich bastards, there’d be no game.” “Not sure I understand you, Matty.” Cooney smiled, and sipped from the bottle. “Not sure I understand myself, James. There’s some newspapers under that bench over there. Go grab ‘em up and we’ll see if we can burn up this trash can. A bit of heat and a bit of light. That’s all we need. That’s all anybody needs.”

To See Through the Dark

To See Through the Dark

For Conor Finnegan, the drive north was a drive into his past. Out of Washington on Interstate 95 and through the mangle of Baltimore on the way to the blink of Delaware and the sprawling mess that was Philadelphia, and then changing to the road to the coast, through the flatlands of New Jersey. Each time he made this drive Finnegan felt young again, the spirit of the naïve and wondrous lad who first came to this place so many years ago, this place of departures, where old certainties became banal half-truths and new realities spun him off his self-assured gyrations. Conor Finnegan loved New Jersey. He made this drive now out of confusion and wonder. When he experienced such things, he sought the ones who knew him best, the ones who could strip away the veneer that comes from overthinking things. Dan Rosselli had been Finnegan’s college roommate for four years, both of them emerging from the cocoon of a fallow youth together. They came to know each other as brothers, intuitively sharing their times, their thoughts and the marrow of their souls. Now, thirty years on, their closeness mellowed with age and wisdom, they remained close. Rosselli, a prominent plastic surgeon, still lived near his boyhood home on New Jersey’s coast. Finnegan turned off the highway to the local roads that led to the club where he would meet his friend for dinner. A tawdry, faded blue sign, too large by half, welcomed him to Asbury Park. ‘The town that gave us Bruce Springsteen and Dr. Daniel Rosselli,’ he thought. ‘Who says there’s no diversity in the suburbs?’ Later, after two scotches, a full dinner and countless reminiscences, the two sat in the curved seats of the lounge. Rosselli had been a member of this club for years, twice serving as president. He knew it to be a charade, but it was one he gladly played, a manipulated prestige. But this club had its comforts. It was the only private social club on the Jersey shore between New York and Atlantic City, open to anyone who could pay the outrageous initiation fee. And now, in the corner of the lounge, Rosselli and Finnegan sipped their port and felt the warm glow that Finnegan had anticipated, the glow that would provide assurance, and a safe space. “So tell me about your love life, Conor,” Rosselli said with a Cheshire-cat grin. “Tell me about this new woman.” ‘What makes you think there’s a new woman?” “You’re as subtle as a runaway bus, my friend. There are moons in your eyes. I thought you had passed that stage.” Finnegan leaned back and looked out the window onto the water. “Ah, Danny boy, the central question. This new woman. Adrienne.” “Gorgeous, I assume. You’ve always had high standards.” “Yeah. Gorgeous, and well out of my league.” “As are most women.” “As are most women. But Adrienne is special, my friend. Blond, petite, heart-shaped face. Soft voice, as gentle as a whisper. But it’s her eyes. My God, Dan, I’ve never seen such eyes. As blue as a summer sky. And wise. Those eyes see things no one else has ever seen. Sometimes I think she’s some type of sorceress. She’s told me things about myself that I’ve never acknowledged.” “How’d you meet her?” “At the airport. Crowded morning with no place to sit at the Starbucks. The only empty seat was next to me. We hit it off right there. Had dinner together that very night, then off to it.” Rosselli sipped his port. “Sounds serious, Conor.” “I think it is. So should I dive right in?” “Only you know that. But trust her eyes. If she’s looking at you, if she’s looking into you, then there’s something there that’s far too rare. And it looks like you have no choice in the matter. You’re as stuck as a fly in hot tar. Danny boy can always tell.” They finished their port, then hugged their goodbye in the lobby. Finnegan usually dreaded the three-plus hour drive back home in the dead of night. But not this time. The eyes. He trusted the eyes. His, to see through the dark.. But especially hers, to see through the fool.