Friday, December 4, 2015

The things we didn’t choose

I don’t recall having ever asked for a pony. I remember Dad being angry when my grandmother’s car pulled into the driveway of the farmhouse my parents were renting, followed closely by a truck towing a horse trailer.
It was my 6th birthday and I remember Dad rushing out the door into the yard shouting, “I told you no!”
There was a big discussion that followed, but my sister and I were sent upstairs and out of earshot of most of the conversation. When I was finally allowed to come downstairs and called into the front yard, the truck and trailer were gone from the driveway and there was a pony tied to a tree.
“Happy birthday! It’s your pony,” Grandmother said, grinning ear-to-ear. “Do you like it?”
“It’s not saddle broken to ride, so you are going to have to break it,” Dad shot back, looking me square in the eyes. “Do you know what that means?”
Of course I had no idea. I just turned 6.
What I wanted for my 6th birthday was a pair of cowboy boots.
Instead I received a pony.

I’ve been playing that memory over in my mind a lot lately — a childhood memory I had repressed for most of my life because of what happened in the weeks that followed the birthday gift I didn’t ask for.
I’m just starting to realize it, but as I replay that memory, I now know it was Dad’s way of teaching me an early lesson on how to handle the things we didn’t choose.
I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way), we are the sum of our cumulative experiences. How you react to any given situation can more times than not be predicted based on how you handled similar situations in the past. We try and repeat our successes, and if we’re lucky, learn from our mistakes.
It’s human nature.
No doubt, I’ve lived a blessed life.
I’ve made mistakes and had my share of disappointments, but thanks to the lessons and values I was taught by my parents, my life has almost always followed a trajectory of my choosing.
During both success and the failure, I’ve been able to hold my head high and accept the outcome because I chose the path I would follow when my journey reached a fork in the trail.
That is, until recently when I found myself nearly overwhelmed by a series of situations and incidents that was not of my choosing.

It was the first Sunday afternoon following my 6th birthday when Dad told me to follow him out to the barn to saddle up the pony and walk her into the pasture. I distinctly remember having a jacket on and the wind blowing beneath an overcast sky as I walked my horse through the gate Dad had unlocked and opened.
I think I gave the pony a name, but I honestly can’t recall it.
I remember Dad putting me on the pony and almost immediately getting bucked off.
He picked me up and put me back on the saddle, and I was immediately bucked off again.
I don’t recall if it was the third time or the fourth time — it may have even been the first time — I began to cry and told Dad I didn’t want to do it anymore.
He kept putting me back on the horse.
I kept getting bucked off. I remember at one point I was sobbing hysterically.
When the pony bucked me off and stepped on me, I demanded to quit.
Dad wouldn’t let me.
At the time, I couldn’t comprehend why Dad was so mean. The more I cried and tried to quit, the more determined Dad became that I was going to break the pony from bucking and he would put me back on the horse.
For the next month or so, we repeated the process every Sunday afternoon.
I came to hate that pony.
As I recall, I wasn’t all that fond of my father, either.
After four or five Sundays, I remember my attitude began changing. Instead of dreading Sunday afternoons when I would have to get on the pony, I made up my mind I was going to stay on her back until she would let me ride around the pasture.
That’s all it took. All I had to do was change my mindset — how I perceived the situation, and in the process, turning what I felt was a miserable, impossible situation into an achievable goal.
If Dad was going to make me go out to the pasture every Sunday until my pony was saddle broken, I was going to do it. Not because I wanted to, but because I knew if I rode her without getting bucked off, Dad would have to stop putting me back in the saddle every time I fell off.
Eventually I broke the pony and she let me ride her around the pasture as I rode tall in the saddle.
I remember Dad had a smile on his face and he told me that he was proud of me.
I’m embarrassed to admit it all these years later, but I didn’t care.
At that point I didn’t want anything to do with that pony and, as best as a 6-year-old boy can convey to his father, told my Dad as much.
He sold the pony shortly after and it was nearly a quarter-century later before I rode a horse again. Not because I was afraid — far from it. It was because at the age of 6, I made up my mind from that point forward if at all possible, I needed to avoid getting into situations that I didn’t choose.
It was decades before I would allow myself to even think about horses. It worked, because it’s been nearly a half-century since I last thought of that experience.

For the first time since those Sunday afternoons so long ago, I now find myself in situations where I’m being bucked to the ground every time I get in the saddle, dealing as best I can with things I didn’t choose.
Hardships and crisis are part of the human experience. I’m certainly no different than anyone else when it comes to having to overcoming adversity. Dealing with an isolated moment of misfortune is certainly difficult, but I’ve learned to persevere and get through it — often coming through the other side stronger than I was beforehand.
But this is different.
I thought anyway, I was unfamiliar territory, finding myself overwhelmed while being confronted by adversity in multiple directions — all while walking on a path I didn’t choose.
For me, I find it true what they say about finding strength in your darkest moment. I also find it amazing the unexpected ways in which God answers prayers. In response to my prayers, God reminded me of that long forgotten memory — as well as the lesson my Dad tried to teach me so long ago on how to deal with the adversity I didn't choose.
If you want to change your life, all you have to do is change your mind and find a way to get back on the path of your choosing.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

To sleep: perchance to dream …

A short story by N.R. White

© 2015 by N.R. White

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is the first fictional piece I've written since Crosswinds. An idea popped in my head and this is what came out. It's a departure from my normal style of writing, but it felt good watching as an idea evolved into the story below. — NRW

I had the most surreal dream this morning. I say this morning because it’s usually somewhere between 3 and 4 a.m. before I slide beneath the covers and attempt to find rest.

Rest — I don’t know what that’s like anymore.

Regardless of how tired I may be or how much I pray for sleep to find me, it remains an elusive and unattainable objective. Most nights after work I retire to the patio with a glass of Patron, a pack of Marlboro Lights and my iPod and stare up into the night sky as the music takes me away. The first hour is always the most difficult. Sure, there’s the clearing out the clutter tossed about the mind from the day’s activity. But the big challenge is the mosquitoes. During the first hour you feel the sting followed by the inevitable itch from every bite. I don’t know if it takes the Patron that long to numb the senses of the skin or the mosquitoes are so drunk by that time they just quit biting, but if you can hang on for an hour, it’s usually easy sailing from there.

No doubt, it has been a difficult year. I feel like the past 12 months I’ve been tossed about, drifting aimlessly without a rudder on a small boat at sea riding headlong into a hurricane. The whys and hows are not important — I mention it only to provide prospective into my chronic insomnia. The days seamlessly blend from one to the next with no distinct line of separation or break in momentum. The alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and I promptly turn it off, roll over and drift back to sleep, only to awake abruptly on my own an hour or so later to realize I have less than a half hour to shower, shave, dress and drive to work to begin a new day. The workday ends around 11 p.m., ending with a glass of Patron, a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights and tunes on the iPod sitting on the patio while gazing at the stars and waiting for the Patron to win out in the nightly battle with mosquitoes.

And yes, I’m depressed. I don’t need to pay a psychologist $165 to tell me what I already know. I am proactive about it, too. I think happy thoughts. I practice exercises in which I visualize the positive outcomes I want to achieve. When that doesn’t work, I practice breathing. Breathe in, breathe out, let it go and move on. When that doesn’t work, I sit on the patio with a glass of Patron, a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights, plug the headphones in to my iPod and gaze at the stars.

Most nights, or rather mornings, I usually slide into slumber sometime between 5 and 6 a.m., only to have the alarm go off at 7 — which I promptly turn off before rolling over for a few more minutes of rest — only to jump out of bed an hour or so later in a panic realizing that once again, I’m running late for work.

For the past several months, if I have dreamed at all, I can’t remember a single one.
That in itself makes this morning’s dream so special.

It was surreal, however, in both context and perception.


In describing the setting, it was more of a time than a place. There were no dimensions, no shades of light or hues of gray, no distinguishing landmarks of any kind. In fact, the eyes couldn’t see at all. That’s not to say there wasn’t stimulus that allowed the mind to process information into comprehensible images. Instead of being guided by the eyes, here, only the heart could see.

I wasn’t alarmed or concerned.

In fact, I was overcome with a sensation of comfort and peace. I felt absolutely no pain. I noticed that immediately because it was the first time in years — even in my sleep — I had experienced a truly pain-free moment with full mobility and what felt like a tank full of energy.

I knew exactly where I was. Well, I didn’t know exactly where I was, but I knew my spirit had crossed over into the next phase of my journey.  The smells — oh my goodness. The smells were so vivid. They were all good smells — the smell of the forest after it rains; the smell of Granny’s kitchen when she made Sunday dinner; the smell of Dad’s Aqua-Velva aftershave and the smell of the harbor when your ship docks into port. The smells were so intense, each created an image for the heart to see with bold and beautiful colors that covered me like a down comforter on a cold winter’s night. It was truly amazing. I never knew that smells could be so colorful.

And then I saw Granny. My grandparents were the center of my universe. More than 30 years after their passing, I still grieve as if I lost them yesterday. My heart filled with joy as I approached and the picture it revealed was of a young woman in her early 50s, beautiful and vibrant with a head full of raven hair. Though the image was different — much younger than I had ever known her to be — there was no mistaking the fact she was my Granny. Regardless of what the eyes see (or doesn’t see), the heart always knows. And the smell, oh my. I could smell the smoke from the wood stove she used for cooking mixed with bacon fat, just a hint of pepper and a dash of Martha White flour thrown in for good measure. I had forgotten (or my nose has gotten too old to tell) that flour has its own unique smell. In an instant our spirits merged into what I guess what we call a big old hug. I was overcome with a sense of comfort and peacefulness that I didn’t want to let go and I wished I could have stayed in that embrace forever. So swept with emotions, I wanted to cry as she began to pull away.

“I miss you, Granny,” I said, as the image slowly began to fade just as I sensed another presence standing nearby.

It was my PawPaw, only he, too, was a lot younger than I had ever seen him. He was in his mid-60s when I was born, so I only knew him as an old man with a worn-out body and skin creased with as many wrinkles as the Blue Ridge Mountains had ridges. As the image came into focus, I saw this strapping man who could grow anything, fix anything and what he couldn’t grow and fix, he invent using whatever materials he could find. I never got to speak. He was virile in a rugged sort of way. I had seen old black and white photos that have long since faded to faded to tones of yellow and brown of him in his World War I uniform. The pictures didn’t compare with the picture of the man my heart was feeling.  Then his image was gone as quickly as it appeared.

That’s when I saw Dad. Or rather, I felt his presence. As my heart processed the information into a visual reference, I didn’t see the sick Dad that I remembered during the last few years of his life. Nor was it the Dad during the years after he retired from the Army — the Dad who tried to overcome his anger and bitterness with alcohol. It wasn’t the “Great Santini” Dad, either — the larger than life, honest to God true American hero who in the face of the enemy saved more lives than I’ll ever know about (and the same Dad that kept his combat skills sharp during peace time by declaring war on his son). The face I saw was that of a young man in his early 20s with his entire life waiting to unfold — smart enough to know there was a lot he didn’t know, yet cocky and confident enough to know he could figure it out as he went. As I approached, I could “see” that all of his pain and anger had disappeared. There was a peaceful, content aura surrounding him as I moved in to touch his spirit. That’s when the smell of his Aqua-Velva nearly caused me sensory overload.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

But his image vanished before he had a chance to answer and for the first time, I began to experience a feeling of uneasiness.

That’s when I felt my cousin Beverly approaching from what I perceived to be my right. We were the same age with only a few weeks separating our birthdates. Beverly was my hero. She has saved my life, yes, but that isn’t why she’s heroic. For more than a decade she battled cancer. She had undergone multiple surgeries, multiple rounds of chemo treatments, multiple rounds of radiation treatments — just about any indignity that could be done to a human body, she endured. Not once did she complain. Not one single time. When the doctors told her they thought they had gotten all the cancer and she would be in the clear, it came back. Did she complain? Not once. When it came back again after being given a “we think you’re in the clear remission” prognoses, still, not one complaint. She handled it with a dignity and a level of grace that if I live a thousand lifetimes could never achieve. Me, if a tweak a muscle reaching for the television remote I’m bitching and moaning like it’s the onset of the apocalypse.

The last time I saw Beverly she had been in remission for about a year. While there are never guarantees with cancer, her doctors felt confident she was finally in the clear. He strength was returning and her hair was starting to grow back. I would say she was smiling again, but Beverly never stopped smiling.

Then her husband came home one night after work and told her he was leaving her for another woman. In her hurt and her pain, my cousin Beverly took her own life that night. I’ve never accepted it. I’ve never come to terms with it and I can’t understand why, after all that she had gone through during her courageous battle with cancer, could she possible kill herself because her husband wanted a divorce. It never made sense to me. It was a shitty thing for him to do. I just wish that she had called me that night. I would have told her that she’s better off without him and she was getting a “do over,” a second chance to get it right.

I sensed her spirit touch mine and in that second I saw her face again. A beautiful face framed with flaming red hair and a smile that could light up the room. At first, she didn’t say a word. My heart, though, could feel her thoughts and in that silent talk she told me that she was OK, she wasn’t in pain anymore and this is where she belonged. She also told me that she was at peace.

“You need to let it go,” she vocalized, allowing my ears to hear as well as my heart. “I know you’re upset because you feel like you weren’t there for me, but there’s nothing you could have done. Back when we were kids, there was a reason I was in just the right place to save your life on the mountain that day. It’s up to you to find out what that reason is. I know you feel like you let me down, but there’s no reason for you to feel that way. You don’t always get to return a favor. That’s just the way things work.”

I began feeling more than a little uncomfortable as the image of Beverly faded, replaced this time by another familiar face.

“Top!” I said, as his image came into sharp focus. He looked exactly the same as he did when I last saw him — spit-and-polish with a high-and-tight haircut and ready for combat. I had seen pictures of him as a young man and other than a few pounds, his appearance had changed very little since the Army became his life at the age of 17. From the final days of World War II, through the Korean War, Vietnam War and most of the Cold War, Top had seen and done it all. He was gung-ho Army, someone made the joke he was born in BDUs with sergeant stripes tattooed on his forearms. While mean in jest, it was so believable it became a perceived reality.

Top also paid me one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. To this day, I vividly remember each and ever word the day he lowered the gates and allowed me to step inside to one of the outer layers of the many fortresses he had constructed around his true persona.

“You don’t act like a shithead.”

For Top, that was high praise — especially when given to anyone from my generation. Top had no filter between his heart and his mouth. Whatever he felt, that’s what he said. Warm, nurturing and gentle were not part of his vocabulary — nor could were they among his many character traits. While greatly respected and admired in military circles around the world, Top was what most would call one mean son of a bitch. The kind of man everyone wants to go into combat with and the kind of man that scares the hell of you when you’re not in combat. He wasn’t the kind of guy you could (or even want) to buddy up to. However, he was one of the most direct, brutally honest men I’ve ever met in my life. I always respected that about him. It didn’t matter if you were a private or a general or a civilian, if you were doing something stupid (which at any given time included approximately 99.9 percent of the human population), Top felt it was his duty to point out your shortcomings. There were several colorful adjectives and nouns he used to describe your stupidity, but “shithead” was his favorite.

While I’m sure there are others from my generation that has received his highest praise, I’m also certain that number can be counted on one hand. Top always seemed a little too eager to point out that my generation was “too lazy, too stupid, too coddled, too this, too that.” He was equally convinced the future of our species had been entrusted to a bunch of tree hugging, dope smoking morons.

To receive a, “You don’t act like a shithead” compliment from Top was high praise indeed.

As our spirits neared, my natural reaction was to tense and come to full attention — which is usually how everyone greeted Top. It became apparent in this realm, though we were “here,” it was more in spirit form than physical. I sensed he was pissed, but then again, I can’t recall a single time when I sensed Top not being pissed.

“I don’t know what in the hell they taught you in the Navy, but in the Army, a soldier never abandon’s his post until he is relieved!” Top shouted. I can’t really say he shouted, but that’s definitely how my senses received his message.

I was about to respond when I heard the voice.

It wasn’t an electronically distorted voice like the sound effects used in movies to illustrate the communication between this world and the next. It was sharp, pitch perfect and crystal clear as if it were coming through an open door separating two rooms.

“Moonshine, where are you?”

I recognized the voice immediately. I waited for the next image to appear, but there was nothing. All I could see was time without space.

“Moonshine, come back,” the voice called out, as I began moving toward the direction of the sound. It felt like it had been eons since I last heard the voice of my Soulshine. The feeling of warmth and comfort within this realm define by time without space had cast an inviting spell that made it difficult to leave. I wanted to stay in this place where your heart guided your vision and it always smelled like the forest after a rain or Granny’s kitchen during Sunday dinner.

But the voice, well, it pulled me with a force more powerful than anything I’ve experienced.

“Moonshine, come back. You made a promise.”

And as suddenly as my eyes had closed and the dream began, it was over as I found myself lying in bed, eyes wide open staring at the blades of the ceiling fan above. I don’t know how long I stared at those blades spinning in the early light of the morning. While I was definitely back in a realm of space, I wasn’t so sure about time. I did notice that after a few minutes my normal aches and pains had returned, making it quite apparent that my physical body was back in tact. While bearable, the pain was intense enough that I didn’t need to see to know that all limbs were still there.


I was struck with the realization this wasn’t an ordinary dream — well, I suppose no dream is ordinary. What I mean is, it didn’t feel like a dream. It included all of my sensory perceptions and I felt as if I had actually experienced the beginning of a new journey we all must someday make. What was most overwhelming were the emotions. They were so strong and powerful that mere thoughts and memories are incapable of producing such powerful feelings.

I think surreal is the best word to describe it.

I suppose some might have been shaken at the thought of such a powerful dream. It might have prompted some to begin a quest of exploration to find out the meaning behind the dream, in addition to what message it was suppose to convey.

Me, I never took my eyes of the blades of the ceiling fan spinning overhead. I never felt one ounce of fear or the slightest urge to find out the whys behind the dream. I just stared at the blades of the fan as they spun around in a circle. I don’t know how much time passed. Ten minutes? Twenty minutes? An hour?

All I knew, as I continued to stare at the blades of the fan, is that I couldn’t go back to sleep.

I really don’t know how much time had passed.

I just know the alarm went off and I reached over to turn the damned thing off.

That’s when I started thinking about the dream.

In an instant I was awash with all of the emotional bliss I had experienced in the realm of time without space. I actually felt the warm embrace of Granny’s spirit wrap around me like a down comforter on a cold winter’s night. I could even smell just a hint of the scent of Dad’s aftershave. And when I thought of Beverly’s words, it was like a ton of bricks had suddenly been lifted from my chest.

But it was the voice that haunted me the most.

Whatever sins I may have committed during my lifetime — be they real or perceived — I’ve more than paid the price for during this year I describe as my purgatory on earth.

“I’m ready to come home now,” I said, loud enough to be heard above the whir of the spinning blades from the fan above.

“Could such a complex issue really be that easy to resolve?” I thought to myself as I reached over to check the clock on my phone.

Realizing I still had another 15 minutes before I reached “panic mode” to prepare for work, I put the phone back on the table and began thinking about Dorothy.

“No, it couldn’t be,” I thought to myself, comparing her Land of Oz to my land of purgatory where I remain in exile.”

Then I closed my eyes and clinched them tightly shut.

“I’m ready to come home now,” I said aloud, clicking my heels beneath the covers, repeating the same words and action two more times.

As I got out of bed and headed for the shower, I said a prayer asking that my message get through. If there was anything real or prophetic about the dream, I hope it was that. Soulshine is the only force I know that’s more powerful than an eternity of Granny’s hugs.

It’s time to stop drifting aimlessly into the storm.

I’m ready to come home now.

To Joe Constancio — Thanks for the bottle of Patron!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A wonderful review from Paul O'Rear

Fellow author Paul O'Rear just posted the following review for "Crosswinds" on his blog. What truly kind words. Please take a moment to visit Paul's blog.