19 Jan

Morning Hunger

The air is bitter, its winter wind brutal, and barren trees feel the cold not only in their branches, but in their trunks as well, creaking to their core. The tamed timbers of the house creek too as the wind outside thunders by like a train. The house shivers.

Steam rises from the mug cupped in my hands. I breathe in its warmth and await my morning guests.

Outside the window, a frozen tundra blankets the yard. Snow has fallen overnight, and in the morning light snowflakes dance with the wind. I wonder whether the snow has, in fact, stopped falling from the sky. Such is the power of the wind, its spirit seen only in the movement of those it touches. I watch the snowy dance.

Before long, my guests begin to arrive. Where they came from I do not know, but they approach on feathered wings and they too dance with the wind. One by one, they alight on the branches of a nearby tree like perched ornaments. Then, taking turns – and sometimes not – they begin to feast at the feeder swaying outside the window.

Dark-eyed juncos are the first to feast. They look like a community of mendicant monks just back from morning prayer. Dressed in feathered black habits, they dine together, leaping from branch to feeder and back to branch again. Black-capped chickadees soon join the banquet, and before long word has spread to the tufted titmouse. Even the nuthatch, creeping down the trunk of the tree in his oddball way, sneaks in for a bite.

A flash of red darts through the sky and perches in the tree. The lone cardinal watches and waits. I do the same. He looks familiar, this bird dressed in red. As if we’ve met before. Perhaps we have.

Without warning, he bounds on the feeder and the smaller birds take flight. He pecks at the sunflowers, but not for long, for the backyard bully is in flight. The blue jay arrives, crashing into the feeder and sending seeds scattering like a torn piñata. Chickadees and juncos plod along the snowy ground, scavenging for birdfeeder flotsam.

A howling gust of wind soars by, sending the birds back to their hiding spots. I take a sip from my mug. Warmth pours through my body.

The banquet never gets old, and day after day it feeds my soul. Why, I wonder, as I take another sip.

Perhaps it is because somehow, birds have found a way to harness the wind, capturing its spirit and giving them the gift of flight. Angels have wings, after all.

And so it is that I find myself returning to this daily feast, in envy and in awe of our winged brothers and sisters, and longing to capture the spirit as well.

With their banquet over and the feeder and trees deserted, I slip on a hat and coat and retreat to the yard. The door almost blows off its hinges as I leave the house behind.

I force it shut, and join the wind.

01 Aug

God Must Be An Introvert

Rock Creek Park


“Listening to the sounds of silence” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (August 14, 2016).

The sound of stone and gravel crushing under tires signaled my escape was at hand. The small lot sat empty, as it usually is, and the trailhead stood in front of me, waiting patiently as it always does. The asphalt road, with its winding path to the impatient world I was running from, lay behind me. I stepped out of the car, and soon my feet touched unpaved earth.

My solitary sentence began.

Such prison breaks have become increasingly necessary for my soul, as day by day it seems this extroverted world into which I was born grows more and more extroverted, thriving on ever-increasing noise, exposure, activity, and connectivity. It’s Times Square sprawl, its echoing din far-reaching.

I run from the neon lights, and envy early man and the quiet he must have known. Imagine a world so quiet that the sound of a shooting star echoes across time as the past streaks by in the night sky. Our ancestors knew such quiet in their souls. That quiet, however, both in the world and in our souls, seems to be rapidly disappearing.

As are our ways of escaping it.

The park benches far away from the crowds where the misfit introverts gather to be independent together? They used to be relatively safe spots for quiet. Our open-carry permit for cellphones has changed all that. Today, I find myself increasingly playing the role of the involuntary eavesdropper. The stage changes — the waiting room, the check-out line, ballfield bleachers, or the bus — yet the noisy play goes on. Perhaps we could bring back the phone booth, those all-but-extinct props from the past. Not to provide privacy to the caller, but to give quiet to the rest of us. Need to make a call? Enter the booth, no quarters needed. Herman Munster was onto something when he installed that coffin phone booth in his hallway. I may even follow suit myself, just to bury the noise.

In the meantime, I run away from it, and escape to the woods.

Though not yet dusk, the Earth is quickly spinning away from the sun as I set foot on the trail. Immediately the canopy branching out above me seems to quicken the Earth’s rotation toward darkness. Rain from the night before has left the ground slick, soft, and shoe-suction muddy. It is not long before my presence is noticed.

A fly buzzes by my ear and I swat it away, continuing down the path. He follows me, though, and whizzes by my other ear just a few steps later. I swat again and quicken my pace. He comes at me still, louder and faster, whizzing and whirring — and taunting too, I am certain of it. The game continues minute after minute as I maddeningly slap, swat, and thwack at the air, a madman alone in the woods. I walk faster still, but the fly, an extrovert himself, is persistent, demanding attention, buzzing in my ear.

In nature I had sought refuge from the extroverted world outside it, and yet nature’s chief extrovert was sabotaging my retreat. Each buzz was another Marimba ringtone; each whirr a banner-towing airplane turning the ocean horizon into a billboard; and each deafening drone just another device spewing noise from our ever-connected, mute-neglected, wireless world.

Again, I ran from the noise. Slipping and sliding along the trail, I came to a stop a quarter of a mile deeper into the woods. Above my panting breath, I listened.

All was quiet. I had outrun the extrovert, and I smiled.

Standing in silence and breathing in the stillness, the slightest sound behind me caught my attention. Turning, I saw a black and red butterfly fluttering directly in front of me. In the quiet of the woods, I could actually hear her wings beat together. Nature’s quintessential introvert was talking — perhaps even singing — and my smile grew. Like listening to a shooting star, I thought. I watched her extemporaneous dance into the distance. Dance as if no one were looking. A butterfly must have said that.

Continuing down the path, I became convinced that God must be an introvert. To hear her, we simply need to escape the noise, notice the beauty, and listen to the sound of silence.

When I left the trail and pulled off that gravelly parking lot, darkness had already enveloped the Earth.

But my soul was shining.

22 Nov

A Murder in the Backyard

“Autumn thoughts of roots and roosts” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 22, 2015).

The late November sky, cool grey as it begins to surrender to the approaching winter, hangs low, lonely, quietly foreboding.

The marching band, the loudspeaker, and the cheering crowds — they no longer carry across town as if one were eavesdropping on a party to which you weren’t invited. Snares and sax are packed and lugged away for the winter, and cold bleachers are left behind to hibernate beneath ice and snow.

Trees, naked, show off their form, reminding us that beneath their leafy cover is a raw, imperfect beauty much like our own. Woody arms grasping, bending, clawing for heaven, but with roots holding them back. The trees want it both ways — heaven and Earth. We all do. Reaching for one while grounded in the other — it is a lifelong struggle measured in the worn and ringed timeline found within.

And without warning, they begin to arrive, landing, lumbering on the limbs.

First, one comes cawing. Then two, and then two dozen. And dozens more. Within moments, a flash mob of countless crows descend upon the bare trees, taking roost, clamoring and cawing. The November sky shrieks and trees grow black with winged leaves. And still they come cawing.

Rake at my side, crackling leaves underfoot, I watch and wait. Those in their perch seem to do the same. Minutes pass and still more arrive, and as their numbers grow, tree after tree turns to crow, limb after limb alight with darkness. Their schoolyard chorus echoes through the air, each dissonant shriek a competing caw.

I picture their cousin, a wayward raven, roosting atop a lonely alcove high above Grand Central Station, looking down at the throngs of travelers far below. Trains and buses to catch, cabs to hail, and flights to make. The mob migrates with its own cacophony of hurried and harried voices while station announcements conduct their marionette movements. Homeward bound, thinks the raven, I wish I was. Soon the station will go still; travelers home, tracks silent. Separated from his flock, the lonely and lost raven will scavenge for fast-food flotsam, carrying a French fry or two to his cornice roost and eating the loneliest of Thanksgiving dinners.

I gaze at the roost surrounding me.

As suddenly as they came, the crows above me begin to take flight, as if one caw from one crow stood out from all the rest, conducting the raucous choir. Their maestro had spoken, and the murder takes off.

It seems my yard is just a stop on their travels, a rendezvous as feathered friends and family from far and wide gather together for the flight home. Trees go bare, branches once again show off their form, and the sky is peppered with thousands of thrashing wings. Soon the soaring congregation is but a thousand distant specks on the horizon. And before long, they are only echoes.

Their winter roost awaits. Gathered together with kin, they will find sanctuary high atop tree tops still stretching for heaven. A congregation, a community, homeward bound.

Silence returns to the yard.

I breathe in the incense of autumn’s decay, and a prayer of gratitude takes shape in the form of a solitary smile.

I give thanks for my kin, those rooted to Earth and those who have already taken the holy flight toward heaven.

I give thanks for my roost.

And I trudge through the leaves, homeward bound.

15 Apr

Field of Dreams

Two boys and their field of dreams.

“One baseball field, two different dreams” on Philly.com (April 15, 2015).

Lying on the grass, heads perched on palms, the boys gazed through the chain link fence at the field before them. Older versions of themselves stood guard at their positions: adjusting caps, pounding fists to gloves, jawing on Hubba Bubba. An army of nine, ready to protect their turf.

Soon enough my boys would join their ranks. They would be the ones in the big leagues, standing tall as twelve-year-old boys and kings of their diamond domain. Baseball and boyhood are never better than at age twelve, a secret learned only long after one has retired from both.

At twelve, a boy darts from home at the crack of dawn, but just as eagerly runs toward it at the end of the day. The innings between seem to go on forever, for there is no time clock in baseball or in life. When one lives in the moment, the game is unending, for it makes the now eternal. Such is life at twelve.

For now, though, my boys could only watch and wait. At ages eight and four, the big leagues were still a few years off. In the meantime, they were sidelined to the smaller fields. Their dreams, however, were not.

I stood back, not so much watching the game before us as watching them watch the game.

The older of the two gazed intently. I did not need to guess what was going through his mind: the pitch count, the box score, where the ball would likely land, what the pitcher should throw, when the man on first would steal. “I’m gonna play on that field when I get big!”

Baseball is his life, and has been since his tiny fingers first fondled the stitches of a baseball. All his heroes wear numbers on the back of their shirts, and he collects their life stories in countless playing cards strewn about his bedroom. He follows their every move, falling asleep to the radio’s play-by-play each summer eve, and spending his days replicating those moves in the backyard.

The mechanical double-call of dads brought me back to the game:





A CRACK cut short the bleacher’s broken record, and a sharp line drive came our way, dropping in the gap in right-center. The centerfielder sprinted toward us, cut the ball off just before it could reach the fence, then turned and hurled it to second.

Stand-up double.

And a little front row action for the boys, hands still perched on palms.

It was not so obvious what the younger of the two was thinking. While his brother hit fly balls in the backyard, the four-year-old would be cutting that very same yard with his plastic lawn mower. Each hour spent by one at play was matched by the other at work. The lawn mower was followed by a toy weed-whacker, followed in turn by a rake to collect the imaginary clippings. While one collected calluses from a wooden bat, the other did so from shovels, shears, and spades.

What was he thinking? The little one did not keep me guessing long.

“Dad,” he said, jumping up and clutching his fingers around the chain link fence as he peered through.

“What’s up?”

“I’m gonna mow that field when I get big!”

I laughed, and then smiled.

Two boys. Two dreams.

They’ll make a good team, methinks, each making the other look better.

28 Jan

As the snow falls, time to shut out the world

Snow Mutes the Earth

“As the snow falls, time to shut out the world” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (January 28, 2015).

The night is silent save for the compression of snow as my shoes slog through the yard. God mutes the world with snowfall, and suddenly the slightest sound I make is an intrusion on that peace. The snow below talks with each step I take, just as the snow above begins to take its place.

I reach my destination and set to work. Wind-fallen branches have been stacked together, a depressed and discarded collection of woody arms that once reached out to the sky in leafy coats of color. I grasp and lift, bend and take; the branches give, crack, splinter, break.

Quickly a mound forms in the center of the stony circle. Stick by stick it grows. The higher the mound, the higher the flame.

But sticks alone will not do. With snow covering the earth, wetting the wood, something more is needed to help the spark along – perhaps the wood’s more opinionated offspring. I reach into my back pocket and pull out the folded newspaper. This will do.

First to go is the front page and its reports of death, disaster, discord, and discontent. Line after line of depressing ink shares stories of violent deaths, missing airliners, wrangling legislatures, and baying protesters. I grab the page with my fist and crumple.

Then, tucking the newsprint under the pyre as if making a deathbed, I reach for section after section.

One after the other, quickly the pages crumple, and quickly the bed is made. Terrorist plots, mass kidnappings, beheadings. Droughts, fire, toxic spills. In they go.

Next the talking heads of the opinion pages. Right-wing blowhards shout it out with left-wing malcontents, and never the twain shall meet – except in the fire. Common sense and compromise fall by the wayside as shouting voices forget that it takes two wings to fly a straight and steady course.

I grab them all and crumple their words.

The sports page provides no reprieve. Monday-morning quarterbacks critique and crucify, demanding perfection from coach, player, and owner alike. Perfection is a fable, and around these parts, so is winning.

I continue to clutch and crumple. Hollywood breakups, Twitter feuds, and mass hysteria about an actress’ new look.

TV listings and weather reports are of little use when snow descends upon the land. No better show can be found, and we are meant to join in it.

I grab the last page of newsprint and pause. Charlie Brown, the Foxtrot family, and Calvin and his snowmen stare back at me. I carefully fold the colorful pages and place them back in my pocket.

Then, bending down, I strike a match to the paper. Immediately the ink, the words, the letters, they begin to turn to ash; and within minutes the entire world has disappeared, replaced by the warmth and light of burning timbers.

I stand back and watch.

Snow is falling.

Flames are rising.

And the world is mute.

19 May

The Smiley Face Flag

“Passing the flag to a new generation” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (May 19, 2013).

It hung from the house like a beacon. Unlike most flags on the block, however, it paid no tribute to country or ancestral motherland. Rather, it honored a state of being: the simple, yellow, smiley face flag, broadcasting its message of happiness. Regardless of weather, and sometimes even in spite of it, the flag flew, an eternal smile on its face.

Just as the lighthouse guides the lost traveler at sea, the flag hung proudly on the home for all to see. It spoke of the nature of the home, and the man who put it there.

It was also the first thing my children spotted when we turned onto the street. “We’re there,” they’d shout, their faces reflecting the flag itself. “Grandpop’s!”

Over many years and countless visits, my children learned that flag had many messages to share.

It was a pronouncement: Happiness found within!

As well as a commandment: Only smiles allowed!

And if you broke the commandment, it was also a prescription: Smiles and hugs heal!

Such were my children’s visits to that house with the flag – memories filled with smiles. After all, their grandfather insisted.

The flag not only greeted them upon their arrival; it was also the last thing they saw during their departure. Having taken the flag down from its perch on the house, their grandfather would stand in the starry night, waving the flag like a crazed signalman at an airport. It seems the flag had more messages to share.

It was a request: Remember the smiles!

As well as a directive: Go forth and smile!

And, waving that flag in snow or storm, it was a gospel proclamation: Happiness reigns!

Looking in the rearview mirror as we drove away, the man and his flag would follow, walking down the middle of the dark street and waving that smile for the world to see. Slowly, the yellow would fade away. The smile would not. Someday, I thought, my children would come to appreciate the message of the flag – and the crazed man waving it.

Sometimes, someday arrives sooner than expected.

It was a cold, winter day when the grandparents came to visit. Stories and smiles were shared, laughter heard, and bread broken.

When the visit was drawing to an end and my three-year-old son saw his grandparents gathering their things, his eyes popped with sudden remembrance.

Wait!” he hollered, then disappeared to the garage. He came back with a three-foot stick he had collected in the yard weeks prior. I wasn’t sure what its intended use was at the time of its collection – sword, bow, brother-whacker – but it quickly became apparent.

Dad, I need tape!” As I went in search of tape, he retrieved an oversized piece of paper adorned with impressionist-style crayon artwork.

Quick, Dad!

He rushed to tape the paper to the stick, grabbed his shoes, and hurried outside in time to give his grandparents a proper farewell.

I looked at the scene before me and smiled: the pint-sized boy and a flag just his height. He waved it in the winter wind. His grandparents pulled out of the driveway and disappeared down the street. The flag continued to wave until their car was completely out of view, broadcasting a message of its own:

Smiles are contagious.

27 Mar

Walking in the Air

“The light is out there… somewhere” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (December 14, 2014).

I imagine a boy on a plane, flying through the night sky, holiday travelers sitting side by side and row by row. Save for a few overhead spotlights shining down on crossword puzzles and magazines, the cabin is dark. The muffled hum of the engines outside lulls the passengers to sleep. The child would not join them. Sugarplums could wait.

He looks around in disbelief: eyes shut, heads bobbed, pages turned. It seems he alone appreciates what could soon dwell on the horizon. It’s just as well, for in the quiet darkness, he feels as if he is the keeper of a great secret. Back at home, he often hides beneath a fort made of blankets and sheets, leaving the adults in their world while disappearing into his own. Such is the cabin now.

He turns to the window and watches. The red strobe on the wing slowly blinks, casting the only light in the dark sky. As he stares, the boy’s mind becomes a metronome, conducting the orchestra’s silent waltz:

On-2-3, Off-2-3, On-2-3, Off-2-3.

He surveys the darkness as he counts, looking for another red light.

It has to be out there. Somewhere. Even if I can’t see it yet. It has to be!

He hopes, prays, and watches.

On-2-3, Off-2-3, On-2-3, Off-2-3.

The window fogs up with breath. The child takes his finger and traces his name backward in the condensation. If he appears now, he’ll know it’s me! Just as quickly, he squeaks the window clean with the side of his hand and refocuses.

The light is out there . . . somewhere. He is out there . . . somewhere . . . flying . . . with me!

The boy gazes.

Some 35,000 feet below, faith is just as strong in a young girl. The house is festive and noisy, but the hour is getting late. Soon it would be time to call the celebrations a night and head home.

“Do you think he’s close, Dad?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Let’s go check!”

With that I follow my daughter out of the house and into the wintry eve. Standing on the sidewalk, we look toward the heavens. The sky is clear and the moon new, giving the stars a chance to shine this holy night.

“Look, Dad! Look! There he is!”

I follow her gaze.

And there it is, a blinking red light making its way across the sky.

I kept time:

On-2-3, Off-2-3, On-2-3, Off-2-3.

My daughter stands transfixed at the awesome sight above her, stunned yet not surprised, in disbelief yet believing. After a magical minute or two, the light fades into the night. She quickly retreats into the house, excited to exclaim the good news.

I simply stand there and smile, thinking to myself, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

27 Jan

Building a fire in the snow

Guest column in Delaware County Daily Times (February 27, 2014).

The night is silent save for the compression of snow as my shoes slog through the yard. God mutes the world with snowfall, and suddenly the slightest sound we make is an intrusion on that peace. The snow below talks with each step I take just as the snow above begins to its place.

I reach my destination and set to work. Wind-fallen branches have been stacked together, a depressed and discarded collection of woody arms that once reached out to the sky in glorious leafy coats of color. I grasp and lift, bend and take; the branches give, crack, splinter, break.

Quickly a mound forms in the center of the stony circle. Stick by stick it grows. The higher the mound, the higher the flame.

But sticks alone will not do. With snow covering the earth, wetting the wood, something more it needed to help the spark along – perhaps the wood’s more opinionated offspring. I reach into my back pocket and pull out the folded newspaper. This will do.

First the front page: death, disaster, discord, and discontent. I grab the page with my fist and crumple. Then tucking the newsprint under the pyre as if making a deathbed, I reach for A2 and do the same. Fire and fuel join death and destruction.

One after the other, quickly the pages crumple and quickly the bed is made. He said-she said pages! Buy this-do that pages! Blame him-sue them pages! Pay me-watch me pages! Fear all-change law pages! Kiss her-want him pages!

In such heavy snowfall, I use almost the entire newspaper. Having read it all, the ensuing warmth will feel even greater.

I grab the last page of newsprint and pause. The characters of the comics stare up at me. I carefully fold the page and place them back in my pocket.

Then, bending down, I strike a match to the paper. Immediately the ink, the words, the letters, they begin to turn to ash; and within minutes the entire world has disappeared, replaced by the warmth and light of burning timbers.

I stand back and watch.

Snow is falling.

Flames are rising.

And the world is mute.

19 Jan

Life lessons for the superhero apprentice: Lessons 1-6

A repost, a refresher, and a revival – with more superhero lessons to follow soonish…

At 4 years old, my son has just one problem in life, and it plagues him night after night. Lying in bed, a never-ending debate runs through his mind over which superhero he should be when he gets big.

Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk. Even Plastic Man remains a viable option. Each, after all, is unique, offering a child endless possibilities in the way of costumes, superpowers, weapons, vehicles and villains.

I may not be a superhero, but as a parent, I hope I’m providing him with the lessons he needs to become one. Here are six that were handed down to me:

Superhero Lesson #1: Things Just Happen: Sticktoitiveness and the Superhero

Superheroes aren’t perfect. Sometimes they crash—and it’s not always the cape’s fault. Or the villain’s fault. Or anybody’s fault, really. Things just happen. Superheroes don’t waste time blaming. If they crash, they brush it off and get back into the air.

Superhero Lesson #2: Trust Your Spidey Sense

Always trust your Spidey sense. If you’re ever unsure about a situation, it’s best to follow your gut. It could be what superhero move you need to make to capture the villain. It could be what to say to someone who is upset with you. Or it could be whether or not you should do something someone is asking you to do. Not sure what to do? Follow your Spidey sense. It’s why superheroes have it, and it’s usually right. With a little practice, and a lot of faith, you’ll learn to trust it.

Superhero Lesson #3: The First Step: Visualization

Visualization. To be successful in anything, first be successful in your mind. Visualize yourself making contact with that baseball before you even step up to the plate. Picture every moment of the event. Your hands gripping the bat. Your legs balanced and ready to step forward into the pitch. The crack of the bat as the ball flies through the air. Your legs darting out of the batter’s box as you sprint along the base paths. First picture it in your mind, and your body will know what to do when the time comes to face that first curve ball.

Superhero Lesson #4: Prayer: The Superhero’s Ultra-Top Secret Weapon

When you hear an abulance siren as it races down the road—be it close by or far off in the distance—take a second and say a little prayer for whoever is in need. Superheroes can’t be in all places at all times, but their prayers can be.

Superhero Lesson #5: Words

Choose your words carefully. Most mere mortals assume that the greatest of superhero powers come from radioactive accidents, genetic mutation, or intergalactic immigration. The truth of the matter is, superheroes master the most common and yet most difficult skills first. Chief among these skills is one’s ability to choose words carefully. For example, certain words should not be uttered by any superhero. These include the words “never,” “can’t,” and “I give up.” Other examples include words such as “hate” and “kill.”

Just the same, there are certain words in the vocabularies of all superheroes that should be said now and again, and sometimes these are even more difficult to master. Examples that fall into this category include the words “help” and “I don’t know.” The thing is, superheroes can’t do everything on their own, and they don’t know everything there is to know. Superheroes are aware of this imperfect quality, no matter how super they may be. Choose your words, and the words you choose not to use, very carefully.

Superhero Lesson #6: The Ultimate Lesson: Gratitude

Gratitude. If there’s one thing superheroes do well, it’s appreciating how lucky they are. After all, it’s not everyone that can fly, sling webs, or turn green with bulging muscles when danger looms. Superheroes are lucky, and they know it. That’s why they end each day with a prayer of thanks. So as you lay in bed at night, eyes closed and ready to recharge your body for another day of saving the world, spend a few minutes thinking about everything you’re thankful for. God. Your family. Your friends. Your home. Anyone and anything that made your day better. This is one of the most important exercises a superhero can do, and like all exercise, it makes you even stronger.

I look over at my son, fast asleep, and say a prayer of gratitude for this little superhero-in-training. My dream is that he achieves his. I say a prayer too for the superhero who shared these lessons with me – my father. Though he may be gone, he lives on. After all, superheroes are immortal.