My Christmas Fable

December 11, 2017 — Leave a comment

“Lani. Slow down! You’ve got four legs, I have two!”

mountaintopMy beautiful black Lab can sure motor when she wants. The brick-red shale crumbles under my feet as I try to keep up. We’re hiking up a steep grade to one of our favorite vantage points. The sounds of the valley accompany us. I can see my neighbor’s barn in the distance, a little beat up but a marvel nonetheless. Artists would love it if they could find it; within the confines of a farm, it’s taken for granted. As it’s early in the Christmas season, it’s an uncommonly warm day and snow remains a stranger. But when it arrives, the newly hung festive lights on the ranch house and barn will reflect magically off the whiteness.

I stop to catch my breath and look back to our starting point. I can see my house posing under a spectacular day. Surrounded by cottonwoods, oaks and aspens, it’s quite a sight. A picture of stone simplicity trimmed by green grass, western elegance nonetheless. Seventy-five yards in front of it, a fly fisherman scours the great serpentine creek. Big fish can be found but it will require intuition and skill.

We arrive at our destination; a rock cropping that never fails to amaze me. A frenetic coloring of gold, red, tan, grey, black and brown, the synergistic moss has sculpted itself into abstract paramecia. I sit and admire the vista. Incredible. Rolling hills in the foreground, mountains in the distance. Last season’s snow isn’t entirely vanquished from the high points as stubborn orphans cling to the shadows.

My breathing has calmed. “You trying to outrun a tsunami? What’s the hurry?” Lani is sitting like a Westminster show dog. Expectant. Searching.

I follow her gaze to an adjacent ridgeline. Grazing cows and calves are lethargically going about their business. Below them, a flock of sheep slowly enters into view from the saddle.

“Busy place.” I do nonchalant sarcasm well.

Lani glances at me briefly and then bounds across the side hill, jumping the chokeberries and oak brush, taking aim on the ruminants. If I commanded her to stop, she wouldn’t. She’s on a quest.  I follow but lose her from sight as I scramble through higher brush. I hope she’s not expecting to play with the sheep; a gun-toting shepherd might shoot her. I reach the low ground between the ridges and trot up to the flock’s main body. Lani is nowhere to be seen.

“Lani!”

No here-I-am bark in response. A short distance away is a solo cottonwood. A perfect spot for shade. Perhaps she’s cooling down. As I round the tree, still peeved at my missing dog, I find her. Comfortably relaxing. “Doggonnit Lani.” Usually she reacts to my scolding, not now. She nods serenely to her companion resting on matted grass.

“Hello. Nice to see you.” Piercing blue, sky-reflecting eyes are the mesmerizing feature of a white lamb that just greeted me warmly.

Lambs don’t have blue eyes, do they? They’re not known for conversation, either. “Exactly when did I wormhole to a parallel universe?”

“There’s only one. That should suffice, don’t you think?” The lamb said. “You doing well?”

Talking to my dog isn’t strange because it’s always a short monologue––mine. Okay, I’m all in. Let’s chat with a lamb.

“I’m doing okay.”

The lamb is studying me. Is he wondering if I’m being truthful? “I’ve been getting an update on your life. I understand you have a new home. A step up from the trailer, yes?”

An update from my dog? Paging Dr. Doolittle.

“You can actually heat the place. And there’s a real kitchen. It’s quite charming,” I said.

The lamb’s warm gaze seems to be taking an inventory of my being. “And yellow roses I understand. What about your other needs, your health?” he asked with concern.

“Blessings are everywhere. In spite of everything, Lani and I are not lacking. I teach school on occasion, I help out some friends in town to earn a few bucks, my body hasn’t crashed. I can’t complain.”

“Subtle miracles?” he asked.

“If you only knew.” That’s odd, he’s using my term. I’ve always characterized subtle miracles as the wonders that filter through happenstance––only understood when connected retrospectively. Something that is beyond circumstance and clearly demonstrates God’s touch. Never the mind-blowing, heaven-rending variety. Those are for Moses and Bernadette.

I’m well aware,” he said compassionately.

The lamb and Lani exchange a knowing glance.

He is? How? Could an animal be an angel? Or maybe my guardian angel’s pet? No, he’s gotta be a messenger.

He continues: “I wanted Lani to bring you here. There are aspects of your journey worth talking about. Why don’t you have a seat?”

A broken tree limb looks like the perfect candidate. I find a comfortable spot. A glance at Lani. “And exactly how do you guys communicate? You don’t text,” I flippantly remark. She gives me a look.

“How would you characterize the dark moments of the last few years?” The lamb asked.

How do I take all that emotion and pain and succinctly answer? “Agonizing,” I respond.

“But you’ve become a man of strong faith, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Strength comes from meeting resistance, from overcoming obstacles. The stronger the opposition, the stronger the faith. You’ve been tested. Your faith was compelled to grow. Do you understand?” he asked.

I pensively nod.

“As clay in God’s hands, you had sharp edges, irregular form. As well as a hardened and misdirected will. You were determined to live your life as you saw fit. God, as potter, needed to remold you without breaking you. This shaping process, as you’ve learned, is arduous and time-consuming.”

“Was the hellish fire of the kiln necessary?” A bit of sarcasm in my voice.

“Every degree had its purpose.”

“There were times when I wondered how much I could take.” Momentarily, I lose myself in memories not so sweet.

“You received no more or no less than what was required. And now. Has your life changed by walking with Christ?”

Such a simple question. My eyes begin to well but fortunately they’re hidden by my sunglasses. “So much of my life has been focused on empty pursuits. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising in that I was living a hollow existence. Not anymore. With Jesus, there’s fullness to my life. The chaos has been muted. The contrast is startling, thankfully so.”

“Has life become easier?”

“Problems still remain. But they’re manageable and they don’t send me over the moon. I’m both grounded and supported by God. I’m also at peace. I know who I am and why I’m here. There’s a wonderful wisdom in that.”

“Are you happy?” he asked. This seems to be important to him.

There are seven billion types of happy. Nevertheless, I know what he’s asking. “In that I have a right relationship with God, I’m truly happy. Joyful. But I’m really not the jovial type, so my happiness is contentment.”

I pause for a moment to gather my thoughts.

“I was telling Lani that ‘all the world’s a stage’ is perhaps more insightful than Shakespeare intended. Because of my faith, I see life as a moral drama where even ordinary events have great significance. I’m never not aware of that.”

“A sense of purpose,” the lamb said.

“Absolutely! It can be exhilarating. I tell people I view the world through a spiritual lens. That I’m always trying to find connections to God’s plan. At times, I succeed.”

The lamb gets up from the grass and walks to the trunk of the cottonwood. He peers around it to check on his charges. Content that their grazing is as it should be, he returns to his resting spot. “Despair, cynicism, frustration. Are they still a stumbling block for you?” he asked.

“I may have a little regression now and then but never the all-out wars of before. Life can be unfair. Sure. But if you live in the shadow of eternity, this life isn’t the only life.”

“So does your life on earth have less meaning because you anticipate the hereafter?” He knows the answer.

“Not at all. The way I live my life has extraordinary consequences. It determines what my eternal fate will be. There are no throwaway days.”

“You couldn’t be wrong about this, could you? Perhaps guilty of wishful thinking? In much of the culture, Christianity is seen as a convenient coping mechanism.”

Is he really playing devil’s advocate? Of course I’ve heard this criticism. I would love to get in the heads of those people who espouse it. What are they afraid of? Are they worried about a disruption of their lives? A surrender of so-called freedom?

“Maybe I daydream too much and perhaps I’m prone to over analyze things. However, I’ve been able to embrace Christianity’s claims about God and the nature of reality with absolute conviction. They make sense to me. Their reasoned clarity never fails to impress. But don’t take my word on their truthfulness. Brilliant erudition through the ages attests to those truths. As well as some of the greatest scientific discoveries.”

The lamb stands and walks toward me. Stopping, nose to nose, care and love pouring from his eyes, he asks, “What about your nightmares?”

Wow, a mind reader too. As I try to remember the last one, I realize that my nights have been undisturbed for some time. Interesting.

“They just kind of stopped,” I said.

“I’m delighted. What about your loneliness and thoughts of hurting yourself?”

I have this overwhelming sense that he wants assurance. An acknowledgement that I trust God and that I’ve indeed surrendered my life to Him.

“Thankfully, I’m beyond that­­––I have a relationship with God. I trust and accept His will completely. And unlike all the other relationships in my life that have their own tidal currents, my bond with Him is permanent, glorious and faithful. And He’s forgiven me. For the pain I’ve caused, for my inimitable pride and for all the other sins I’ve committed.”

I’ve been reluctant to share these thoughts but giving them life in words is calming. I smile.

“Are you ever upset by the mysterious ways of God?” he asked.

I would love insider information, but it’s not in the cards. “If I consider the mystery of suffering, even mine, and death for example, intellectually I can understand them as part of God’s plan. But when I’m confronted with either one, well, it knocks me for a loop. However, I trust there are reasons and God is the only one that has the script. That’s okay with me.”

“You wanted to be a good man. Are you?” he asked.

“I’m always trying to be a better person. Not because I have to but because I want to. That’s what God intended. Love Him and love my neighbor, which is the thrust of the Ten Commandments. Liberating truths that free us from the slavery of immorality.”

Sounds from the flock interrupt our conversation. The lamb looks over at Lani, then to the sheep and back to me. “I think it’s time. My drove is on the move and I’m the designated shepherd. I want you to know I’m pleased with you. It appears I can worry less.”

The lamb begins to walk toward the other sheep. As he approaches a lone flower, he hesitates for a moment to take in its fragrance and then turns and looks at me with his big blues. “God loves you beyond measure. We all do.” He nods his head slightly and continues on his way.

Lani and I both stand and watch him. Regal, this one.

I look back at Lani. “And that was…”

I swear my dog is smiling.

“C’mon, you can tell me. Was that just a lamb or maybe even… The Lamb? Epic difference, kiddo.” I’m thinking I should drop to my knees. Then out of nowhere, I yell in the Lamb’s direction, “Merry Christmas!” And instantly felt like a total goof.

The vortex from Lani’s wagging tail could blow a house down. And then she starts toward the saddle and distances herself from me immediately. So athletic and quick – she’s almost doing cartwheels. Suddenly, she skids to a stop and looks back at me with incredible affection, her eyes sparkling. It’s an extraordinary moment­­––as if love and companionship has been compressed into a singularity of infinite value. Then, with irrepressible joy, she turns and races for home.

I follow at a leisurely pace.

So many years ago, like a kid in a sandbox, I played in the clouds. It was as though God threw white fluffy lamb’s wool into the sky just for me; misty cumulus forms that reached for my body. I was alone in my jet, alone over the Pacific and except for ocean and sky, not anyone or anything could be seen. I could have been the only person on earth. It wasn’t frightening or intimidating. It was intoxicating. I felt important, unique, as if I were given an honor.

God presented the world to me.

I had forgotten those moments. They were lost in a faithless life. Yet, the sublime joy of seeking Him has been rediscovery. Although it seems everything has changed, some things haven’t. I’m as unique now as I was then. Loved now as I was loved then. And my life, the world, gifts from God, are still to be treasured.

Alright everybody, gather round. Something monumental has come to my attention – and I can’t wait to share – but I thought I’d take a few moments to address some of your concerns and frustrations. I’m seeing a lot of long faces.

First. Yes, there are some unbelievable jackasses out there and they are indeed monopolizing the news. Who are these lugnuts who think that their miserable behavior is no problemo. Were they raised by pre-Neanderthal apes? No “pass the potatoes please” at their family gatherings – it was grab the scrawny monkey and violently pull it apart like a wishbone.

Second. Yes, we are all sinners but there are gradations of sin. I have at times been lost in a dark wood but I didn’t get too far off the beaten path – thankfully, mercifully. But the aforementioned jerks (producers, actors, directors, politicians, businessmen, teachers, insert favorite occupation) somehow left county lines and beelined to Dante’s ninth circle all the while dipping their toes in the other eight ones.

Third. Civil discourse has somehow decided to hang out with Big Foot and Yeti. Good luck finding it anywhere. So we find ourselves in a very sad place of not being able to discuss problems and solutions without shouting and condescension. In today’s world, that is not good.

So. Where have all the heroes gone to show us the Way?

Let me answer by sharing a life moment. I was talking with a dear friend about my upcoming surgery – nothing ominous – and she suggested that I send a prayer request to her favorite religious Sisters for a safe and successful surgery (see link below for the Norbertine Sisters).

Key point number one. I’ve never done that in my life, ever. There are great Catholics out there like my friend that do that kind of thing (as well as regularly attend Mass, fast, confess, etc.), but I’m not one of them. I hope to do better, it’s a constant battle.

Now key point number two. I love God, I talk to Him every day, and it might take me twenty years to figure out all this Catholic stuff (I converted in 2001 from atheism). So, writing the Sisters wasn’t a terrible idea – just a bit outside of my comfort zone however. But I decided to soldier on and emailed Mother Mary Augustine.

I will say that my surgery prayer was only a small part of my email. I requested what I would characterize as team effort “shoot for the moon” prayer for two people I love and since this was all new to me, I did not know what to expect in reply, if anything. To my surprise, in a matter of a few short days Mother responded. And her response was magnificent on so many levels.

Mother’s email was of course prayerful, but also warm, thoughtful, personal, humble, and edifying. But her comment that prayer is the heart of their life as Norbertine canonesses and they intercede for the needs of the world helped me understand why God loves us. The Sisters exemplify humanity at its best – loving, selfless, communal, serving, tireless, industrious. Combine that with a life dedicated to God’s honor and glory and the saving of souls and you have the Norbertine Canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph. Saints-in-training would not be a hyperbolic declaration.

It’s disconcerting that headlines of immorality, pettiness, and selfishness bombard our senses. We almost don’t know which way is up. That is the nature of so much of the world. But knowing the Sisters are out there in the hills of Tehachapi doing what they do fills me with peace, gratitude and hope. I’m rebalanced.

Maybe you should reach out to them. Zero downside by the way – infinite upside.

Lastly, the Sisters have a gift shop (perfect for Christmas) as well as a building fund for their future chapel. They would love your support. Please click on http://norbertinesisters.org.

On this very special day, I can only hope that it was heavenly. Knowing you, I’m sure you had an early tee time – perhaps you had an opportunity to play Cloud 18 – had to have been spectacular. I’m curious as to how far the ball travels in the divine dimension.

 

Matthew, I miss you more than you can imagine. God willing, it may be a while, but please reserve a spot for me in your foursome. You’ll need to give me two strokes a side since you’ve been practicing. And by the way, we are not going to be in a hurry. I have a million questions for you.

I love you brother. Keep an eye on me please.

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”   St. Therese of Lisieux

**********

In the days following Matthew’s death, there was barely a moment when I wasn’t thinking about him. It will soon be five months and not much has changed actually – I’m still shocked. One would assume that the waves of such a bombshell would dissipate but they haven’t.

But I have a theory. Yes, he was my little brother and I mourn him. But if he had been a bad man, would the grief be the same? No, probably not. (I doubt Jeffrey’s Dahmer’s mum was inconsolable and boozy for months and months after hearing her little boy was beaten to death in prison – but what do I know). The fact that the pain of Matt’s loss for me and others is so overwhelming is the result of him having been a good man, a very good one at that – a testament to his magnificent heart.

Did he hold some honorific position which by its nature would command attention? Not at all. Had he achieved something singularly unique which made him remarkable – where admirers would simply migrate to him to bask in his fame? It would have been nice, but no. Was his wealth a magnet? He’d laugh at that, his relationship with money was adversarial – he didn’t have any. So, from a worldly perspective, not so special. However …

A man’s greatest treasure is his soul grafted to God. And with that comes the grace of humility, character and a giving nature (love). One would hope then that he is measured by who he is and not what he has. If these are the standards as I see it, then my brother – and I’m clearly biased – was blessed.

I’d like to share the following comments about my brother from people who knew him and were affected by his death. I could have included so many more, but these selected sentiments have been very comforting. They present a theme, a narrative of a good soul who impacted his world.

“I am devastated. Matt was one of the most generous men I know, with his smile, his kind and complementary words, and his genuine concern for how you were doing. He was also one of the most fit men I knew. So very unfair.” Mark

“Matt’s Christ loving attitude towards others will never be forgotten. I will miss Matt.” Sean
Continue Reading…

A Brother’s Farewell

November 10, 2016 — 2 Comments

The plan is to have a Celebration of Life event for Matthew. Since I’m far away, the extended family is point for the arrangements. Hopefully, they do what’s right in a timely manner and respect the wishes of the entire family. Anything short of that dishonors Matt – as a former Marine, honor is fundamental to my worldview.  But I have to say I’m not encouraged by their efforts. So, as I’m sitting here, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be able to eulogize my brother, at least in the traditional sense. It appears we’re heading for a Hatfield McCoy inevitability.

matt

But I’m writing one anyway … warming up in the bullpen just in case. And if the baton is dropped and languishes in the dirt, this eulogy will nonetheless be out in the cosmos.

You see, there’s nothing else I can do for Matt other than share memories for those that loved him – or would have had they met him. In the scheme of my life, it is a very important job and I want to do it.

As I begin this, it’s been two weeks exactly since that dreadful bike ride in Ojai. The healing process has sputtered along, but I’ve been startled by those quiet and alone moments in my otherwise busy days. Matt crashes through the normalcy, I see his face, grief pours over me as if from a cloudburst, and I cry. And then the sorrow quickly retreats as though my subconscious – or God’s grace – yanks it back to spare me the pain. I’m left with red swollen eyes as a searing reminder that my brother is gone.

I remember 1991 when our mother died. The Steele boys managed to get through that first week dealing with her affairs, concerned friends and the logistics of death. We laughed, reminisced, cried, took pills, drank beer and playfully split up her treasures – not the material stuff like lamps and couches, but the cherished things in her life; family pictures, letters from Dad, her sons’ baby shoes and report cards, her silly tools, her favorite ice breaker. In fairness, the pill popping, beer drinking and wailing like a newborn may have been all me but those seven days were an absolute blur.

The brothers didn’t argue that week, but we might have been tempted when it came to the expense for Mom’s funeral. We were sitting around a conference table, the typecast funeral director mumbling something quasi consoling, he looked like Lurch, and he placed the invoice on the table. As an aside, for you young mortuary entrepreneurs, hire grief counselors that look like Hooters waitresses; you’ll have bodies stacked like books in the prep room as the bereaved jockey for facetime.  Continue Reading…

I have been asked to write the obituary for my younger brother Matthew. I just checked my bucket list and confirmed that this particular item was not in the top 42,000. But, I can’t punt this away. I have to do this for Matt.

Version 4

The usual obit methodology – or death notice to be precise – is a placement in the local newspaper, and we’ll do that. That will be the formal one. In that case, the writer is on a mission with limited time, a broken heart, pure motives and a checklist of obituary do’s and don’ts. One might be inclined to write a biography but buying a Tesla would be cheaper (death notices cost money).

But I think we also need an informal, unpretentious one. A similar mission but with a bit of a twist, and less constraint. One that mirrors Matthew’s personae and one he would encourage me to write.

And I might as well combine both here.

Matthew Raymond Steele, 59, died unexpectedly on October 22, 2016 while riding his cherished mountain bike near Ojai, California with a friend. Not far from his home in Ventura, he was able to spend his last moments experiencing two of his great passions, the splendor of nature and the exhilaration of working out.

Obit mistake #1 – Writing about the loss rather than writing about the deceased. Well, Miss Manners, your point is well taken but maybe we shouldn’t be so strict. Matt is absolutely my focus here but acknowledging our broken hearts is not just stating the obvious. I just wrote “MATTHEW…DIED…UNEXPECTEDLY.” Three words that are usually harmless but taken together are devastating. Continue Reading…

My brother Matthew is the handsome man in the middle – it was his wedding day. He’s younger than me so he’s my kid brother whether he likes it or not. Our oldest brother is Greg who would rather not be getting his picture taken.

greg-matt-marcus

I once coerced Matt to get on a sled when he was six and dared him to make it to the bottom of the hill without falling off. Of course, the challenge lay in the path we had selected. We had pounded down the snow, created little snow banks to help maneuver in and around the minefield of trees, and it was definitely going to be a speedy run. He climbed on, looked at me, trusting as always, and away he went. A little dude in a puffy winter coat screaming down the hill.

He did a great job on the first turn, a real pro, probably a thirty degree change of direction to the left. I was really impressed as I ran and skidded after him to see how he would manage the next corner. Yep, you heard it right. Corner. I think it’s safe to say I did not do a good job in setting up the course. I had zero training for god’s sake! Ninety degrees to the right was a bit much – okay, impossible. But how did I know he would be breaking the land speed record as he hit that next turn.

So, since the laws of motion are what they are, he and the sled parted company. The sled did okay as it turned out, but my baby brother slammed into a rather large tree trunk. He was definitely airborne when he hit and as I got to him, his little burrhead exposed, his snow cap beanie ten feet away, he was holding his arm.

I told him he was fine, you can’t just walk away after a crash, you gotta stare that demon right in the face and get back on the horse. Even a pained six-year-old can roll his eyes at trite clichés, so back up the hill he trudged. Two hours later he’s wearing a cast.

Mom and Dad were not happy.

About fifteen or sixteen years ago, for no real reason that I can remember, we spent a weekend together. We went hiking and as the endorphins kicked in, Matthew asked me if I was proud of him, again trusting me in what I might say. I won’t share why he felt compelled to ask me that. But none of our lives are straight tranquil lines; events and choices – good and bad – that characterize the human experience always create a succession of peaks and valleys unique to every one of us.

Here’s what I didn’t say, but I should have.

Matthew, of all the people I’ve known in my life, no one has a more magnificent heart. A soul is our greatest treasure and God blessed you with a remarkable one. Unfortunately, like so many blessings – and you are a cherished one – they get lost in the fog of life, such as mine I’m disheartened to say. But please know that I’m not only proud of you, I’m in awe. You’re a very good man.

Lord help me. Our Matthew died today. No warning, he was mountain biking. His glorious heart gave out – mine is broken.

Mom and Dad, he’s yours now. He’s going to need all your comfort. Brother, I know you’re watching. We love you.

The Checkerboard Wars

February 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

T H E    C H E C K E R B O A R D    W A R S

Screenplay by Marcus Allen Steele

——————————————————————————————————————————–

Kids’ VOICES, LAUGHING and JOKING. Drawers and cupboards OPENING and CLOSING, the CLINK of a knife in peanut butter and jelly jars. Bread EMANCIPATED from cellophane, PLOPPED in a toaster. Plates and glasses SET on the table. A refrigerator door exuberantly SLAMMED shut.

racism-and-discrimination

FADE IN:

INT. PACER HOUSE – KITCHEN – SAN LUIS OBISPO – 1990 – DAY

A whirlwind of movement. Three children prepare their lunch. SARAH and SAM PACER, 13 and 12, are sister and brother who actually get a kick out of one another. They’re white. KATE, 13, the last of the fearsome threesome, is Sarah’s best friend. She’s black. They all sit down.

SARAH

Sammy, let Kate grab the first one.

Sam is reaching, but stops short.

SAM

I’m starving.

KATE
(to Sam)

You must have worms.

(pause)

It’s okay Sarah, you go first.

SARAH

Awright already. Where’s the juice?

SAM
(enthusiastically)

I got it.

Sam heads for the refrigerator…

FATHER (O.S. – off screen)

Sam! Get your butt in here.

Continue Reading…