Midwest Mysticism

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My Ashram 1920

(actually this picture was taken in a Wisconsin bank, while I was still homeless but with fresh sneakers after a construction gig)

The culture of the American Midwest is known for its no-nonsense approach to living. Midwesterners consider ourselves to be hard-working and practical.

I’ve always thought it would be practical to know the true nature of reality, as opposed to the nonsense people make up about it. Knowing what was true would allow us to pursue the most effective ways of living a good life.

A mystic is a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with some form of “Ultimate Existence.” A Midwest Mystic is practical enough that he doesn’t expect this form of reality to fit in his head.

As some brain scientist on a National Geographic video said:

“Information forces you into this uncomfortable position, where you have to kinda say – okay, I don’t get it, but I know that the real world is more complicated than the way I’m thinking about it.”

When I was very young, I tried listening to what other people said about how the world worked. My mother and father gave me straightforward answers, doing their best to explain Rayleigh scattering in the blue sky.

The only exception to their attempts at rational explanation was what they said about Santa Claus. I wondered why they would pretend a fat man had eaten that plate of cookies and climbed down all the chimneys in the world.

While I was surprised at their behavior, it seemed harmless. I could not see any way in which this disconnection from reality might cause someone to take action that endangered themselves or others. When my mom put out that plate of cookies, my dad would smile at her in a special way. So I let that one slide and asked questions about other things.

They took me to libraries, and purchased an entire set of encyclopedias when I asked for them. It occurred to me as an adult that my mother never bought me a candy bar. When we waited in line at the grocery store and I asked her repeatedly like kids do, she never bought me a single piece of candy. Not once.

Those encyclopedias cost as much as a used car. We were a family that re-used bathwater to save on utilities.

Yet even with the World Book A-to-Z at home, I still ran away from home to ask more questions.

When I was 3, my mother found me at the bus stop after searching in a frenzy. The bus was idling as the driver attempted to figure out what to do. “Lady, the kid told me to take him to the museum. I told him he couldn’t get on alone.”

What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? The mystic, as the most tenacious and hopeful form of philosopher, really wants to know.

He may believe in a spiritual path to Unite with Divinity, which is a way to find answers “beyond the intellect.”

Or, he might believe that “the repeated practice of new ways to think about things” will allow him to relate to some objective reality that exists beyond all belief systems.

A Midwest Mystic repeatedly allows the evidence to change the mind, especially as evidence reveals the patterns of distortion made by a human brain. He allows not only his facts to evolve, but the entire worldview which organizes all facts.

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Rational Awakening – a 2.5min Read for Enlightenment

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“It is good to be alive!” was his first thought of the day, as his mind stirred upon waking and he felt his eyes moving beneath his eyelids.

“What an arbitrary assertion of goodness, based on nothing more than simply being,” was the second thought. “This statement is as arbitrary as what a rock might say – It is good to be inert!”

In his mind, he smiled.

He opened his physical eyes and the sun hit them, shifting the world from a solid mass of red clay to a golden abundance of shape and shade. He pulled the covers off his chest.

“As the fabric of time moves past us, and the texture of a moment is drawn across the sensitive surface of our minds, we feel its passing in ways that may be apprehended as either physical or spiritual.”

That’s what his brain told him, anyway. It often said things like that. He liked that one, so he wrote it down. Then, accepting that he was probably a “philosopher of consciousness” and a fool, he wrote these things:

The buzz of activity in a brain, the roving lightning-clouds that generate awareness through flickering clusters of neon neurons, are fully capable of generating awe and wonder.

When we’re “Homo Sapiens Sapiens” and truly “aware that we’re aware,” our electrochemical activity observes and generates a “self.” We then tell stories of synapses or souls. The words we choose let other people know we are members of rational tribes or religious ones.

We can make the choice to rid ourselves of numinous awe and wonder. We can see ourselves as “only” molecular gears in the accidental clockwork of a universe. To do so, we use the very same apparatus that grants us free will. A fine choice, but not one supported by reason.

As awareness, we prove ourselves to be an awesome and wondrous state of matter. Its essence may be appreciated as either a spiritual or physical phenomena.

Why not both?

Chris Shelby Philosopher and Fool Halfsize 2

 

 

She just dropped trou and whipped it out

Personal Experiences, Uncategorized

I lived in Seattle for a couple of years, across the street from where 3-million dollar condos hovered over the water.

mad park

Because I have never felt myself to be a part of any specific group of people, cultures have always fascinated me. Japanese people and American people and sports-fans strike me as curious and exotic.

In Seattle I wondered:

What is normal in this upper-class Northwest American culture? Are my neighbors happy?

To a middle-class way of thinking, the assumption is “yes, of course THOSE RICH PEOPLE must be happy.” Just look at those tennis shoes. They’re as white as Greek houses.

Think about what it would be like to walk a mile in those brand-new shoes, knowing you didn’t have to walk at all. Hell, take an UberLUX, and toss the dusty-soled shoes in the trash when you get home. When you never have to work another day in your life, isn’t it an awesome feeling to wake up in the morning and know you can do whatever you want?

I am the type of person who will actually sit on a park bench and ask someone that sort of question.

If you try communicating with the “leisure class,” you might get a hazy smile as their head pivots slowly in your direction. I began to notice a pattern, and time after time I’d wait about five seconds after saying “hi,” and watch to see if their eyelids could do the heavy-lifting.

Lots of rich people are on drugs.

By the sparkling waters of Lake Washington, I did absorb some profound lessons on life through conversation with the wealthy. Many were erudite, full of the intricate and plodding whimsy of the heavily medicated. Often these observations were offered just after benzo-naptime and before oxycontin-naptime.

It might be awesome to dream of waking up rich one day. But a lot of actual rich people don’t spend their day being very awake.

Like any make-believe group of human beings we can label, it turns out that THOSE RICH PEOPLE are still human, and they have their own problems going on.

I once met a woman who woke up in a hospital unable to remember the previous seven years. She hadn’t even exceeded her prescription dosage of tranquility.

Recently, I’ve been waking up in a Midwest manufacturing town. This is a blue-collar place that has been turning into a low-income place. The modern problem faced by American manufacturing towns isn’t about demand-for-US-made goods or even Mexicans. The problem is that less and less manufacturing is done by human beings. Not only did the jobs move away – they don’t exist anymore.

When people stopped making six-cylinder engines for Chryslers down the street, it was robots that started making them somewhere else.

What was once a bustling factory with thousands of callous-hardened hands cranking out engines, is now a sort of post-apocalyptic concrete wasteland surrounded by taverns.

former Chrysler plant

Us low-income folks have our own problems to deal with. There are cultural issues that are often seen along with fundamental shifts in an economy. Low-income does not mean “criminal,” yet the two are often seen holding hands.

While running a rooming house in a ghetto, I thought about this a lot.

winter manager uniform

The leather jacket and beard were uncomfortable to wear, but it was more comfortable to intimidate crackheads than physically remove them from the premises. I always thought beards were stupid, but it was a vital part of a “Ghetto Rooming House Manger” uniform.

One day, some local gunshots still echoing in my mind, I walked over to a neighbor’s house. I was thinking along the lines of creating an informal sort of “Neighborhood Watch” thing.

I believe that people are what make up a neighborhood, and having little-income does not necessitate theft and violence. Correlation is not causation.

As I got to my neighbor’s steps, a lady walking up the sidewalk made a beeline for the yard.

When she got onto the grass, she said “Hi” to me and pulled down her pants.

In the time that it took me to process what she might be doing, I caught a glimpse of something not quite like the end of an elephant’s trunk. She urinated on the lawn.

My neighbor came out on the porch and yelled a friendly “Hello” to both of us. Her friend pulled up her pants and climbed the porch.

 

Hmm.

I wondered:

What is “normal” for my new socioeconomic class, the poverty-class?

Just a couple of days before, a lady strolled past my porch in a heroin haze, having forgotten to fasten the front of her slacks. It occurred to me that this was the second set of floppy labia I’d seen that week.

That would never have happened by the lake in Seattle. Those ladies might nod off, but they kept their pants zipped up.

Some fundamental agreements, such as “we won’t pee on the lawn,” had not been reached by this culture. I didn’t like that.

I must have picked up some “American cultural norms” despite myself.

What about stealing? What about violence?

Were my neighbors happy?

 

House of Insignificant People – Part 1

Personal Experiences

a house that was a home for awhile

A sex offender stole my chicken. That chicken was the only protein I owned. My tenants told me they saw the small man cramming bags of meat in his mouth.

He looked like a tiny wolfman. I imagined shreds of chicken hanging off his wrap-around beard and the connected bushy eyebrows. Why was he in the rooming house I managed, crouched on the floor of the empty room upstairs?

A rooming house is like an apartment with shared bathrooms and kitchen. If a New York penthouse sits at the top of the American ladder and fulfills need for “shelter,” the rooming house is the very bottom rung. It’s the one homeless people are grasping at and slipping off of. It’s for people who can’t afford first and last and deposit. 

A big part of my job was using my “sense of people” to figure out who to let in. That was important when screening applicants, because I never once saw a background check without criminal convictions.

Being at the socioeconomic “top” of America does not guarantee that person is a good person. Nor does being at the bottom mean a person is bad. Most people want money. If they don’t have it, it doesn’t necessarily mean theres something wrong with them. But usually there is.

Before managing one, I lived in one for a few months. There, I was responsible for nothing more than a bed and a table. I used them for drinking seven hundred beers and mourning loss.

Sometimes I’d notice I was still conscious late in the day. When returning from a second trip to the store one evening, the owner of the rooming house asked me to have a seat in the kitchen.

Those first sixteen drinks could have gone either way. But on that day, they had brought convivial good cheer. So I sat down at a wide countertop that filled the room as it erupted from the center of the floor.

She asked me how I had ended up in her rooming house. She was open and honest. I was drunk. The conversation quickly deepened because of these things.

For a few years, I had been sober. I started there. A business I had created, and the mind of a person I loved, had thrived for awhile and I had loved them. Consciously, I had made the choice to be alive, and it was easy to continue making that choice as it brought gifts.

When I lost what I loved, I headed back to the Midwest with nothing but a backpack and my sobriety. The hard feeling of pavement distracted me from feeling much else, for awhile.

Cooking donated food in a commercial kitchen for rows of men and women, and sleeping on the floors of churches alongside them, made me feel a part of something. I had not felt that before. That was an unexpected gift.

A few weeks later, cutting steel for twelve hours before collapsing in a trailer parked somewhere in Minnesota, I lost the feeling of gifts. Days were spent swinging a sledgehammer and knocking down a store, then sawing and drilling a new store in its place. Nights were spent in a box at the end of a trailer. The smell of booze from the coffin below me woke up a part of my brain that had tried killing me many times before.

When I rode back to the Chicago suburb locals called “Kenowhere” with a pocket full of hundred dollar bills, I got my own room and alcohol.

I looked at the owner of the rooming house, over my folded hands. She sat across the kitchen table, eyes large and calm. I admitted to her that my rent money was running out.

Armpits of America

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Adams Street House

There are good reasons that we associate things, even if we’re often wrong about how they relate.

Being sweaty isn’t the same as having BO. People just think the two have to go together.

Funky-smelling bacteria grow in warm areas with water. Armpits are half-sealed pockets of skin that sweat while being cut off from the flow of air. So they stay warm and damp. Sweat doesn’t smell – but it is wet. Armpits stay sweaty and warm, so they’re a great environment for stinky bacteria to grow. They’re full of benign sweat. And also stinky bacteria.

Being poor isn’t the same as being larcenous and quick to violence. A lot of people believe that poor people are what make ghettos dangerous.

I know why people believe that.

When I wanted a piece of gum as a kid, I’d walk down to the corner store. A single piece of Dubble Bubble cost a penny, back when Stegasaurus-sized boomboxes roamed the sidewalk. Every time, I’d leave the house with a penny in the pocket of my shorts. About half the time, I came back with bloody knees instead of gum. Sometimes, they got the penny. Sometimes they got me as I was unwrapping the gum. Even the 11-year-olds around Brookside Park seemed larcenous and prone to violence.

Those two blocks between my house and the corner store have a higher percentage of children living in poverty than 99% of the United States. There was no question about whether those violent kids were also poor.

It isn’t the poverty though, it’s the misery.

Violence grows in areas where people are miserable. Ghettos are neighborhoods full of people who are half-sealed off from jobs and education and role-models. They are culturally cut off from real-life examples of people who make their way through life without beating on each other or selling drugs. Ghettos are cut off from the rest of the economy, but television signals make it through just fine. So ghettos stay full of people who don’t own much, yet believe they’re supposed to.

People without many posessions aren’t necessarily bad people, but they often become miserable when they feel shame for being poor. They do not own the Cadillacs and iPhones that all Americans are supposed to own, so they feel miserable about life. Ghettos stay full of this misery and shame, so they’re a great environment for violence and theft to grow in. They’re full of poor people. And also crime.

A ghetto doesn’t have to be a shithole. It just usually is.

Things Midwesterners Know

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hilarious blue collar

I grew up in Indianapolis, where people work with their hands and know that doing anything else isn’t work. But I’ve spent most of my life in Seattle, where people work with their MacBook and turn the air conditoner on when it hits 74 degrees. Here are things I found out about after returning to the Midwest:

When drilling through a steel girder, you need more than just a hammer drill. You need WD-40, or the oil that drips off your butterburger, or at least something greasy on the girder. Otherwise, the bit will bite and the drill will leap like a wet leopard.

A magnetic screwdriver is useful for removing shards of metal from your friend’s eyeball.

To drive a forklift out of a hole it has fallen into, you must shift its weight onto the drive wheel. Try rocking it by using its fork to lift another forklift. Just don’t drive that one in the hole too.

Duct tape and paper towels make the best bandages.

When cutting hundreds of pieces of metal framing, use a sharp pair of cutters. Otherwise, it’s not like your arm will “get tired.” At some point, your hand will simply refuse to perform the task.

Making a building out of metal and drywall takes sweat and hard work. Also, aside from the primal satisfaction that comes from affecting the physical world, it’s just as silly as making a “financial derivative” out of numbers and bullshit. The guy wearing the tie points at his bank account to prove he did something truly valuable with his time. The guy with the tool belt can point at a wall.

Physical labor is just as arbitrary as anything some slick California-type ever did with a laptop to make money, but we all need to justify whatever it is we do all day.

People With Guts Showing

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simpsons halloween

 

When I am in public, I am often amazed by people. There is so much variety in our process of interacting with the world. Consciousness shines in a rainbow with so many shades. When that lightbulb goes off in our heads, it blazes outward in prismatic colors and shapes that often look strange to me.

Some of us have no “inner dialogue.” For a chosen few, whatever they think they say.

She’s sitting at a lunchtable by herself, looking up at a TV that’s blaring news. “Oh a fatal shooting. Look at that. Good.”

Whatever she may have meant by that statement, the fact that she said it out loud fucking amazes me.

It’s a phenomenon that I can witness over and over without quite being able to believe it. Not only do some people not think twice before speaking, I’m pretty sure they don’t even notice that a thought became words.

What I can’t believe, is that it doesn’t bother some of us to spurt and drip words. We all have half-formed ideas, and it’s one thing to drool half-formed ideas. But to never, ever, wipe your chin?

How can a human being be built so differently than I am?

It’s like seeing a body turned inside out, blue veins glistening and pulsing, white eyes staring out from behind the meat. Yet it all functions just fine.

In fact, sometimes other people react warmly to those turned inside-out.

It does make for an easy way to relate:

“Hey, you got blue veins too!”

I think that what has freaked me out about this for most of my life, is that when all of somebody’s thought-juices are flowing on the outside, I can see the places in their minds that aren’t getting circulation.

There is no self-reflection.

Her “id” and “ego” are obviously well-formed. I can hear her sorting out what she wants to do with her afternoon: “I’m gonna kill that bastard.” But no superego? No checking in with the self? No thinking about what you’re thinking, or saying?

Of course, a lot of my day is spent thinking twice, or sixteen times. Maybe I’m just jealous.

A Life Powered by Want

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“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

It has been said that people run towards a goal for only one of two reasons.

1) They want the gold medal they perceive at the end of the race

2) They’re being chased by a rabid dog

 

The human brain evolved as a tool to help us find food and shelter and resources. You gotta outrun the sabre-toothed tigers while dodging the golfball hailstones so you can grab the fruit off the tree. Yes, ancient life was like a video game only with real death.

That structure sculpted the form of human consciousness, and these fear/reward mind-structures are why we like playing Pac Man or poking endlessly at a screen of Angry Birds. Our brains are wired to go after points and chomp as much as we can while staying ahead of the ghosts.

Notice the difference between how you feel when you plan a trip or talk to an insurance agent for too long. “I’m not saying the sabre-tooth tigers are going to get you, it’s just that if they do…” Either re-directs the focus of your mind. It is just as good at “getting excited” about what you want, as it is about “getting afraid” of what may harm you.

We all know what it feels like to rub palms of anticipation, or to wring trembling hands of worry.

Either emotional state is natural, and we usually think that these feelings are determined by outside forces. Life offers real triumph and real defeat, doesn’t it?

Yet most of our time is not spent in the moment we reach a goal and find our destination, or fall on our asses. Most of our lives are experienced in the hours we journey towards those outcomes.

This brings the human being who notices their own emotional states and what causes them, to a fascinating choice:

Would you prefer to spend most of your waking hours being excited or afraid?

Yes, this is a choice. It’s just not one that people often talk about. Because it has nothing to do with the type of success that other people can see.

Instead, this choice determines whether or not you live in hell.

Making this particular choice doesn’t affect whether or not you’ll reach your goals. Just how you feel on the way there. Some billionaires wanted the freedom they perceived as only possible after grabbing a billion dollars. So they eagerly grabbed it. Others were afraid their fathers would be disappointed in a non-billionaire. So they feverishly grasped at money.

The free ones are the happy billionaires.

Choice can determine the color our lives will be painted, the shit-brown we smear ourselves in because of fear/anxiety/shame or the brilliant orange of fiery exhilaration. The very essence of our own personal inner experience of life, is up to us. Which is, itself, a lot of responsibility.

We must accept the possibility that our lives are up to us. Not the wins and losses. Not the outcomes. Those things are beyond anyone’s control. The emotional reality of life is up to us.

That possibility can be terrifying.

 

Seeing your life as a choice, getting that epiphany or intellectual realization or spiritual awakening or whatever your existential cup-of-tea may be – doesn’t change how your emotions are wired. And if you’re like just about anybody else, with choice comes the possibility of guilt.

Didn’t your parents teach you that if you choose wrong, whatever happens next is your fault?

Face up to the fact that you choose the flavor of your own life, and all sorts of questions fall right on your head.

Why didn’t you choose sooner? What if somebody had shown you? What if your parents had taught you that? What have you missed out on all these years?

A life powered by want is a more exciting choice, and choosing it is worth noticing that you had the option all along.

Halfpoem for Hoarders

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Look left, and you will see assorted shapes amid haphazard shimmering metal and gleaming arcs of glass. Snippets of dull thread hang between these things. Behind the bright bits lurk other shapes.

The one thing you will not see in this room, is space.

Look right, and you will see a dark box. It sits on many colors of boxes. On top of each box will be an object. Boxes provide “horizontal space” which must be filled. A field of dissimilar things descends into a valley of variegated stuff.

Look any direction your head can turn, and you will find more. Much more. Some of it is old. All of it is different.

Now, breathe in.

Is your allergy to space hereditary, or do you just need to find the right object? Can you find the real thing, the thing that means something to you? The surface cradled by rough hands? Memory glints. The form of the real thing reaches for light. Passion struggles in shadows.

On top of that passion sits an object. Beside it, is an item. A thing sits in front and obscures its view. Below your passion, is a valuable gadget that needs only to be fixed.

All of these things have “purpose.”

Each and every object is a symbol of waiting purpose, standing patient. On one day, a day out of all the others, each object could find a purpose.

Look at the stack, the sea. Choose any item from the pile.

This one goes in the trash! Force yourself! Use your hand and lift it up.

Of course, when held up to the light reflected in the mind’s eye – this one cannot be let go. Here it is, and I have found it! Cling to the use it will have one day. Someday. Each object has its use, in the mind.

Look at how nicely the atoms fit together. See how they make plane and angle of this physical thing. Does this shape have meaning?

Meaning must be manufactured, and the brain is a factory. The mind machines meaning out of any material supplied.

Where was this purchased? Zzzzt! What does it do? Brrrap! Could its shape be useful in another way? Ka-chink!

How much did I pay for it? (a glossy paint is sprayed over this now-priceless widget)

Somewhere in the forever day of the mind, the purpose of every object will come.

In decades, the imagination will be ash.

It will take centuries for the object to be carried away as dust.

The mind knows this object has purpose, and must be protected from the wind. Will you allow it?

Now breathe.

Can there be open area? Is it safe?

Can there be breadth and width, a distance between points?

Is it safe in a wide flat space, or must you be wrapped in stacks?

Is a house a home for stuff or living?

Is there headroom for thought and headway for motion here?

Reach far, stretch outward – is this house a home? A place to relax the soul?

What if the width had no objects within – could you fill it with you?

If a stretch of wall did not grab at the eye with clutches of color, where would your attention drift and travel?

There is a space for you. The space is filled with open breeze that sweeps the room. Peace blows between an open door and a wall. A volume of nonentity expands.

A place blank and white and open spreads its arms and expands for you. It is a place where minds stretch and souls may breathe.

It can be made from the cherished one. Yet not the useful two. This you is built from the unstacked.

Where naught is caught on snags of nothing, and the soul is untugged.

This is the place where the heart expands.

Breathe in this clear space.

 

Kill the Honky (a short true story)

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This is what happened to me one day when I was very young:

The flesh of my face is smooth and it feels every tip of soft hairs dancing across it. I tuck my chin to my chest, and the familiar fur of a small stuffed animal cushions and yields there. This is how I like to hold him, and his spongy head is okay with that. His fur is always touching me. He never moves and he is always where I want him.

I am pulled toward the earth in its most comfortable embrace. The slats of the swing are wide and firm under me. I lay on my side and hover. I can look through and see the floor of the porch below me. The world floats underneath and sways back and forth.

I fall asleep just as I do in my bed, with the small fabric animal pinned to my upper chest. The world slips and there is peace. There comes a darkness I do not see after my eyes have drifted closed.

The lack-of-me continues for some short forever. There is quiet nothing.

PAIN

Something smashes into my face. I feel my hands shoot up to catch it.

My belly goes tight from a blow and screams. My hands whip down in reflex.

Bleary light as my eyes try to… my face turns into pain again before I see. My eyes grip shut and my arms try to wrap my head.

My ears open wide and the whole of the outside world is in them:

“Kill the honky!”

I try to open my eyes. To see a honky. Pain smashes my face and my hands try to catch it again.

The world rocks and turns as more fireworks burst against my side. I tumble down and slam. I hear the wood thud as the porch catches me.

The world inside is pain.

The world outside is only this: “Kill the honky!”

Then, somewhere out there, I hear metal jingle and scrape.

Something cuts a searing red line across my leg. It burns.

The red line cuts across my ribs. I open my eyes.

They are over me, left and right and all around me. One has a chain.

“Kill the honky!”

A continent of a shoe stretches across my vision and my eyes squeeze shut and I clutch my everything.

My hands choose to protect my eyes over my body and they wrap my face. My knees try to find my forehead. What I am becomes smaller, tighter. Pain from my back joins my side and my belly and my leg and it all sings together with my head and hands.

Bright sharp perfect lines cut my legs. My side. My back.

“Kill the honky! Kill the honky!”

Everything is pain that pulses. A swell, retreat.

Then, somewhere, a sound.

A worse sound.

It is an animal howl.

The howl rises.

The howl of the animal is cold and still rising and something in my ears begins to rattle with it. It is the most terrifying sound I have ever heard.

I open my eyes.

It is my mother.

My eyes are pulled to her open mouth. Her lips wobble as a force cuts through her and out. Her head quivers with it. Her body shakes as the force pushes through her.

The boys all look because there is no way not to. The sound cuts through us all. They are transfixed. Fists uncurl.

My mother’s arms shoot straight up. Both hands clutch a broom held high above her head. It is a battle axe. She swings it down. The boys jump left and right. The chain slaps the wood floor.

The broomhandle cuts the air. Sneakers whip white lines. Flat rubber soles fling over the brick porch and disappear.

It is quiet.

A small fabric animal lays on the wood with its arms spread wide.
Everything is tight and closed in me.