The Unspiritual Spirit

A Buddhist gardener risks his life to remove creeping foliage from the pinnacles of Angkor Wat. He believes he is protecting spirits that live within the temple.

A Catholic man, one of 242, lifts the 11,000-pound throne of Virgen de la Esperanza, parading it through the streets of Malaga, Spain on Holy Thursday. He endures the pain because, “Life has no meaning without going out under the Virgen.”

An initiate at China’s Shaolin Temple practices Monkey Stick routines and memorizes scripture, hoping to be ordained as a Kung Fu Warrior Monk. His goal is to reach enlightenment.

A young Palestinian man volunteers as a paramedic at Al-Aqsa—the Dome of the Rock—during The Night of Power, Ramadan’s crescendo. By caring for those who have collapsed in the crushing crowds, he seeks to prove himself to Allah.

These religious practices come alive in the PBS documentary series, Earth’s Sacred Wonders: Closer to the Divine. My wife and I marveled at the color and passion of our human family. We have so many rituals, prayers, disciplines, and metaphysical systems designed to deepen our awareness of the One. The forms are as diverse as the plumage on our planet’s species of birds!

I respect faith expressions no matter how foreign they seem to me. But lately, I’ve been gripped by a simple, profound intuition. T.S. Eliot summed it up perfectly in words that many of us treasure, found in Little Gidding, the final of his Four Quartets.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

For me, this knowing, this waking up, is more than just living in the moment. It is an awareness that Presence, Tao, Spirit, God—whatever term you use—surrounds us with love, encouragement, and serenity. It is like inhaling sustenance and light, letting our Source heal us in the deepest recesses of our spirit.

As soon as we start dissecting this experience, giving it names and developing disciplines to grasp it more fully, it can easily slip away. Seeking the “spiritual” often buffers us from Spirit. In the Tao Te Ching, we find these words:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

How hard this is for human brains that want to categorize and control!

Could the end of our explorations really be here, right now? Is it ultimately so simple, so obvious? I believe it is. And this awareness can infuse every task with new meaning. Thich Nhat Hanh says this about his fellow community members at Plum Village.

“When we wash dishes…it is to live every minute of the washing. Wash each bowl…in such a way that joy, peace, and happiness are possible. Imagine you are giving a bath to the baby Buddha. It is a sacred act. I have arrived. I am home. Through these two phrases, you can experience a lot of joy and happiness.”

Eliot’s words are probably true. We will not cease from exploration. We will continue to invent elaborate rituals designed to find the One.

But what if, sooner than later, we discovered we are already home?


(Image credit: First by Angelica Gudino. Find her here)

Don’t Tread on Me!

The Gadsden Flag, an early American banner of the Revolutionary War, has been co-opted by the Tea Party and far-right factions. Forget that static and focus on a central question. Why does it feature a Timber Rattlesnake?


The answer comes from a piece written in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin for his Pennsylvania Gazette. Great Britain was dumping convicted criminals into the colonies, so Franklin satirically suggested that we show our appreciation by sending rattlesnakes to England. You can read the full text of his 18th century prose here, but consider these highlights about the magnificent Crotalus horridus.

  • Franklin praised her bright eyes, calling her an “emblem of vigilance.”
  • Though her fangs are formidable weapons, she “never wounds till she has generously given ample notice, even to her enemy.”
  • If she is engaged, however, she never surrenders, showing “true courage.”
  • He concludes by calling her a “strong picture of the temper and conduct of America.”

Whatever you feel about his metaphor for our country, I love it for one reason alone. It gives dignity to this beautiful snake! The Gadsden Flag’s motto should come to our minds whenever we see a serpent of any type on our planet: Don’t Tread on Me!

I’m an amateur herpetologist. My collections of reptiles and amphibians have waxed and waned over the years—once filling a two-car garage!—and have always included snakes. Because of this, I try to erase the prejudice summed up as “the only good snake is a dead snake.”

Blame it on the Garden of Eden myth, where Satan incarnates as a serpent. Blame it on their slithering mobility. Blame it on how they hide in cracks and crevices. Blame it on the fact that even though a tiny percentage of species in America are venomous, that sinister shadow gets cast on all of them.

Primordial fear of snakes, ophidiophobia, afflicts about a third of adults, the most widely reported phobia. If a swashbuckling hero like Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes, we’re in good company, right?

Wrong. Did you know that Americans are 600 times more likely to be bitten by a dog than a snake?

Obviously, I (and you?) have a lot of work to do. That’s why I invite fearful people to try handling specimens in my collection. When I hear someone sounding the alarm about a snake on their property, I help them identify it and highlight its role in controlling rodents. If they show a deeper interest, I introduce them to the colors and shapes of some of earth’s 3600 species of snakes, truly among the most vibrant creatures on our planet!

I’ve had a few breakthroughs.

  • My wife, naturally suspicious of snakes, now sees their beauty and holds them.
  • A class of fourth grade students once visited my “Zoorage” for a field trip. We watched a female corn snake lay her eggs, and the amazement in their eyes was priceless!
  • I used a female Ball Python for a sermon one Sunday, telling parents that their children could come forward and meet her. Many of them had never touched a snake, and for months afterwards they pleaded, “Please bring her back!”

Bottom line? Next time you see a snake, imagine it saying to you, “DON’T TREAD ON ME!”


Where is the Habitat of Your Heart?

Studies show that our favorite music—the tunes that stir us the most—come from the soundtracks of our younger years. Musicologist Nolan Gasser, architect of The Music Genome Project, says that even though our tastes evolve, “The music people listened to at an early age becomes their native home comfort music. It will always be a part of who they are, tied in with deeper memories. It becomes a stake in the ground that says ‘this is who I am.’”

This rings true for me. My playlists are eclectic—new age, ambient, 70s/80/90s, jazz, metal, reggae, flamenco, bluegrass, folk—but there are certain classic rock tunes that transport me to another time and place. As Boston said, “It’s more than feeling.” I see this in my parents. On a recent visit, they asked me to sit with them and watch a rerun of an old Lawrence Welk episode. I squirmed in my chair, but they were enraptured.

This kind of organic resonance also applies to our favorite places. In a book I recently co-authored, one of the chapters begins like this:

“Think of a place that has a powerful hold on you. It may be a family homestead, a setting in nature, or a venue in your city where you spend quality time. These locations evoke more than memories; they stir our spirits and connect us with memories of times past.”

Where is this habitat of your heart, past or present? Specifically, where is that place in the woods, the fields, the mountains, or along the seashore that stakes your heart powerfully in time? Tell me its sights, smells, sounds and textures.

For me, the chaparral hills of Southern California, mingled with orange and avocado orchards, will always lay claim to my spirit. This was the playground of my childhood. It’s Mediterranean climate, Santa Ana winds, sage, manzanita, scrub oak, and “warm smell of colitas rising up through air.” Its kingsnakes, alligator lizards, roadrunners. The intoxicating aroma of orange blossoms on a summer evening.

As a geographical transplant, I now have a new heart habitat. 15 years in Texas has led me to a lasting kinship with its Hill Country, especially its cypress-lined rivers. When I feel restless, experiencing what Richard Louv calls “nature deficit,” I drive a half hour north to Bandera. I park at a secluded place on the northern edge of town, then walk to the banks of the Medina River and wander slowly along its course. I am learning the names of trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses in this biome. Its birds, butterflies, reptiles and mammals are becoming family members.

I have taken this walk countless times, savoring every season, but it is always fresh. Here is an image from a recent trips.

Medina River banksI ask again: where is the habitat of your heart? If it’s a childhood place and you still live there, immerse yourself! If you live in a new locale but have not discovered a habitat to cherish, get out there!

As Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”




The Sunday that Lepers Became Leapers

When ABC announced it would reboot Kids Say the Darndest Things, hosted by Tiffany Haddish, I chuckled for a couple reasons.

First, I’m old enough to recall the original, a segment of The Linkletter Show which aired until 1969. Even then, I marveled at what sprang from the lips of children when Art Linkletter coaxed them into sharing.


Second, I chuckled because many of us who attend mainline churches have our own version of this phenomenon every Sunday. We call it The Children’s Sermon, a few moments when young people are invited to hear a simple message crafted at their level of understanding.

I remember so many times when extroverted kids went off on tangents—blurting out surprise (sometimes bizarre) answers, or revealing household secrets that made their parents squirm and blush.

Which brings me to a recent Sunday…

One of the teens of our congregation volunteered to deliver the Children’s Message for the first time. I was thrilled at her courage. When the moment arrived, she had a written transcript in hand, based on Jesus’s healing of the ten lepers recorded in Luke, chapter 17.

She smiled at the assembled children in the front pews and began, “Once, Jesus was travelling through a village when he came upon ten leapers.”

Immediately, many of the adults smiled, our eyes meeting with a wry, unspoken acknowledgment that “kids say the darndest things.”

But it was more than that for me. Even as part of my brain listened to the familiar story of ten who were healed, only one who gave thanks, another part vaulted through the portals of imagination.

Leapers! Yes!

I thought of Isaiah’s prophecy that in the days of the Messiah, “the lame will leap like deer.” I thought of the power of God’s healing love, focused so clearly by Jesus. How it raises up the lowly, empowers the disenfranchised, brings hope to the downcast.

I thought of countless people whose journeys I have shared during my ministry. Addicts and alcoholics who turned back from the abyss to find joy in serving others. Grieving loved ones surprised by resolution and new life. Lonely folks who discovered a faith community of gracious fellowship. Homeless immigrants who found a pathway to sanctuary. Souls suffering from depression who experienced a dawning of God’s light. Young and old, gay and straight, people of all classes and colors lifting their voices and hands in worshipful celebration!

Then another thought entered my mind that can only be filed under “adults think the darndest things.” I saw Shadow, a pet goat I had as a child. When I let her out of her pen, she would follow me around, just wanting to be close. One evening at twilight, she couldn’t find me until I called her name. I saw her silhouette turn, orient to my voice, then gambol towards me. Gambol, meaning to leap with boundless joy. She seemed to be clicking her heels in mid-air she was so delighted!

Back to that Children’s Message. When the teen closed with prayer, many of us spontaneously applauded. I was tempted to go a step further. I almost stood up and blurted out:

Yes! You had me at LEAPERS!

Praying for Donald Trump

There’s a scene in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi that I will never forget.

Gandhi is strolling along a sidewalk in South Africa with his newfound friend, Anglican priest Charles Andrews. Up ahead, some thugs gather to enforce a law that prohibited people of color from travelling on public pathways.

Gandhi strides resolutely forward, but Andrews suggests that they turn aside. Gandhi replies, “Doesn’t the New Testament say that if your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the left?”

“Why, I, uh, think perhaps the phrase was used metaphorically,” says Andrews. “I don’t think that the Lord would…”

“I’m not so sure,” interrupts Gandhi. “I have thought about it a great deal, and I suspect he meant you must show courage, be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back, nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that, it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred for you decreased, and his respect increased. I think Christ grasped that, and I have seen that work.”

When they reach the ruffians, Gandhi will not yield. There is a fierce clarity in his eyes, a mixture of determination and love that causes his would-be attackers to relent.

That moment bored into me like one of Jesus’s parables.


You see, in my 32 years of ordained ministry I have aggressively refuted Biblical literalism. I have challenged those who use “proof texts” to oppress women, discriminate against my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, or demand allegiance to unjust authorities. I question those who treat ancient myths like science. I insist that scripture is story, a collection of writings conditioned by their times and places. We must read them with both historical knowledge and current insight through the Holy Spirit. Literalism is often the death of evolving spirituality.

Yet, there was Gandhi, internalizing the most seminal teaching of Jesus—love your enemies–and applying it SO literally that he eventually sparked a nonviolent revolution that ousted England from India

It begs a question. Are we sometimes remiss in not taking scripture at face value?

This brings me to Donald Trump….

I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say that Trump is an affront to everything I hold dear. You could even say that, symbolically, he is an enemy of mine.

I also have a confession. Except in perfunctory petitions for elected leaders, I have never prayed personally for our president. This is true even though I know Jesus said, “Do not return evil for evil,” “Love your enemies,” and “Pray for those who persecute you.”

I wonder what would happen to the polarized climate of our country if every one of my progressive Christian friends prayed daily for Donald Trump. I am not suggesting that we dampen our struggles for justice. I am saying that we do so even as we pray sincerely for our enemy.

Many of you will dismiss or disdain this suggestion. What’s the point of praying for someone whose narcissistic personality will never change?

If you are among those, I ask you to remember these words from Soren Kierkegaard, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

And so, I have begun to pray for Donald Trump with sentiments similar to these.

“Loving God, Giver of Life, you cause the rain to fall on all of us. A thousand years are like a single day in your sight. You are the final arbiter of justice, and you call us to practice love even when it is difficult. Right now, I pray for Donald Trump. I pray for your Presence to enter his heart and the hearts of his family members. Fill them with a surprising new awareness of your love and grace, those gifts lavished freely on each of us, even when we don’t deserve them. I pray this in the name of Jesus, the one who modeled love for his enemies. Amen.”

Will you join me?


In Defense of Perla

Early morning, a colonia on the outskirts of Reynosa, Mexico. Chilly winter air tinged with smoke from trash fires. The neighborhood is mostly shacks cobbled from old wood, tin, and cardboard. There is no running water; the city has promised electricity, but so far those pledges are hollow.

Most of the residents are migrants from Chiapas, lured to jobs in maquiladoras along la frontera. These are not squatters. They have purchased their tiny lots with a mortgage through Habitat para la Humanidad, and now they hope to build their dream homes: 500 square foot, cement block structures with 2 bedrooms, a living space, a kitchen, often housing large families. Latrines remain outside.


Our crew of volunteers is inspecting construction sites. We will work alongside members of the community, a day of labor and fellowship, but first I have other tasks. Word has rippled through the dirt streets that a pastor is present, and I have received invitations to bless homes recently completed. One family asks me to pray for their newborn child.

I am glad to oblige, even though my bendiciones are clumsy mixtures of English and broken Spanish. It doesn’t matter. I have friends who translate, and my smile and eyes communicate more love than my words could ever convey.

One house after another, joining hands, lifting our hearts to God with petitions for abundance and safety. I receive many more blessings than I give, especially when I arrive to pray for the infant. Her home is a one-room shack where she lives with her parents and two siblings, walls of scrap plywood, a roof of rusted tin. Outside is a cooking fire, and they share a pit latrine with an adjacent family.

An old bench seat from a bus is near the front door, listing slightly, its surface torn to reveal the springs beneath. The parents ask me to sit as they bring their tiny daughter to me, only two weeks old.

Que preciosa,” I say. “Come se llama ella?”

Perla,” is the answer.

I cradle the girl in my arms, bundled in blankets. She is quiet, her dark eyes staring up at me, and though she will never remember this moment, it is sacramental for me.

I make the sign of the cross on her forehead. I pray for God’s guiding hand to be upon her and her family all their days, giving them strength, safety, and abundance for this new life they seek to establish.

Then I hold her against my chest for a moment, encircled by her family and smiling neighbors.

Our work that week was a triumph for all of us. Yes, we helped two structures rise from that neighborhood, but more importantly we joined our hearts across cultures, time, and space.

Months later, through my Habitat connections, I received a photograph and a brief note. Perla’s family was standing proudly in front of their new home, and the words said: “To Perla’s padrino. Muchas bendiciones.” To Perla’s godfather. Many blessings!

In over three decades of ministry, I have occasionally been asked what drives my passionate efforts for justice and peace. I could give answers complicated by theological jargon, socio-economic statistics, or political convictions, but my reasons are far simpler.

I act in defense of Perla and countless others I have met. I stand in unity with those struggling on the edge, joining hands in our one human family.

You see, Perla is also my daughter. She is your daughter as well.


Born Again?

There are people with stellar IQs who are short on common sense. People who exhibit genius within the narrow bandwidth of their expertise but lack any breadth of cultural literacy.

Conversely, there are human beings who will never be labeled brilliant by societal standards, but who startle us with insights about life. I know this firsthand as Father to a “special needs” son. Kristoffer often voices simple nuggets of wisdom that awaken me to what is truly important.


I believe there is one definition of intelligence that is sorely needed in ALL of us. It is the ability to get outside ourselves and our given culture. The ability to see our reality in time and place, then respond (not react) to it with a fresh, objective perspective.

Sociologists say that when it comes to our cultures, we are like fish in water. We swim in the conditioning of our upbringing, our genetic makeup, our juncture in history. Often, we never rise above these determining factors. We never decide what to claim and what to reject, what to shed and what to make part of our flesh. Examples are rife in our world.

  • People who adopt the spoon-fed religion of their tribe or nation, then wield it as an exclusive truth that trumps the faith and beliefs of others. James Fowler, in his Stages of Faith, called this Stage Three—Synthetic-Conventional Faith—a closed mindset that prevents us from celebrating the mystery of spirituality in all its diversity.
  • People reared with a righteous sense of patriotism, an idolatry of their country’s identity and flag. American Exceptionalism is a tragic example, but history is replete with examples of dangerous nationalism.
  • People indoctrinated with racism, sexism, or homophobia who never rise about the fear that promotes their exclusion and hatred.
  • People whose skin color or class has afforded them a privilege that traffics, consciously or not, in systemic injustice.
  • People raised to put their trust and security in material things.
  • People trained to gauge their worth by the hollow standards of power and prestige.

In his clandestine meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus famously said “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:7) It’s a pity that these words have been coopted by Christian fundamentalists, a pat phrase that means conversion to Stage Three Christianity.

I see them as a deeper call to wake up, to be born outside the determinates of our lives, to recognize the timeless existence of God’s liberating presence that permeates everything around us.

When this happens, the scales fall off our eyes like they did with the Apostle Paul following his conversion. I believe we ALL need this transformation. It helps us evolve into citizens of the world, not just the territories of our genetic and cultural conditioning.

This is hard work. It begins with a sobering analysis of our own habitual thinking. It often requires repentance, amends, even restitution. But the resulting freedom is well worth the effort.

How did Jesus describe this freedom? In that same conversation with Nicodemus, he said “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Or, as my son, Kristoffer, recently said, “Dad, there will never be peace unless people change.”







Box of Darkness

From the introduction to “Box of Darkness…” Here is a link for the entire book.

Photo for Crowdfunding campaign

“The title of this book comes from ‘The Uses of Sorrow’ by Mary Oliver, beloved American poet who died on January 17, 2019. She wrote it following the death of Molly Malone Cook, her partner for 40 years. With her usual straightforward imagery, Oliver reminds us that the darker aspects of life can offer surprising inspiration.

We invited the following artists to share some of their work, prompted by simple questions: ‘How do you receive inspiration from the darker fringes? How are you drawn artistically to the shadows?’

“The result? A box of darkness, presented through paintings. photographs, collages, and poems. Our images and words are eclectic—a multiplicity of perspectives—but together we invite you to become more familiar with your shadow side, finetuning your eyes to its presence.”

Krin Van Tatenhove and Angelica Gudino, Editors/Curators
March, 2019

The Beauty Seer

sanantonio-8040The day would climax like no other, but Alma Fuentes didn’t know that as she unlocked the entrance to her studio at 9:00 a.m., a ritual as regular as sunrise.

She stepped outside to make sure her hanging sign wasn’t tilted, dusting it with a red bandana. Orange and black letters announced, “The Beauty Seer, by Appointment or Walk-ins Welcome,” her phone number beneath.

She glanced along the sidewalk towards downtown San Antonio, early sunlight slanting through gaps in the buildings. It would be a typical summer day in south Texas, hot and humid, suffocating tourists along the River Walk. Grackles whistled from nearby trees, and the exhaust from a recent bus lingered in the air.

Down the street, Alma could see Carlos, a homeless man already on his panhandling circuit, holding court with the voices in his head. Sometimes, he would stand across the street and protest her practice, holding a sign that read “Repent from witchcraft! Only Jesus can save you!” She talked to him once, trying to explain that her craft had nothing to do with the dark arts, but he wouldn’t listen. He fixated on the word seer, quoting an obscure verse from the Old Testament prophet, Micah: “The seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips.” Impressed by his wit, she tried to show him that seers were used positively by other Biblical characters, including King David, but she made no headway. Now they had a truce. Carlos stayed on his side of the street and she stayed on hers.

She smiled as she thought about him. In a harsh way, he was simply giving voice to the skepticism people had always expressed about her profession. Did she really think she was some kind of fortune teller, astrologer, or soothsayer? Wasn’t she just a quack who trafficked in people’s narcissism and naiveté?

Her only rebuttal was to engage them in conversation, gently probing the details of their lives. If they were willing to share at meaningful levels, she would find it. She would see the beauty in their lives, the reasons—more numerous than they imagined—to be grateful, to seize each passing moment and savor it with a full heart.

Even as a child growing up in Reynosa, Mexico, her parents and friends marveled at her temperament. “How can you always be so positive?” they asked. Or, on a cynical note, “There’s Alma. The world could be burning down around her and she would see the splendor in the flames.”

As she became conscious of her uniqueness, she realized she had a gift. It was an unfailing optimism, an inner wellspring of hope, and its power filled her with joy and determination. By the time she was a teenager, people who had previously ridiculed her began to seek her counsel. They laid out their troubles with family members, love interests, or peer pressure, and she would calm and encourage them with words that focused the assets in their lives.

After her family moved to the U.S. and became citizens, she chose to cultivate her talent by attending classes on counseling and psychology at a local college. But clinical theories left her cold; she found them divorced from the flesh and blood individuals she encountered in daily life. Further, there were certain words those theories rarely mentioned, especially the word love.

Love. On this day, her sessions would provide ample opportunity to practice her art.

At 10:00 a.m., Vanessa arrived, her face lined with the stresses of her busy life, the pressures of parenting, marriage, and a law practice. She felt she was losing herself, her life slipping away, swallowed up by others who didn’t appreciate her. She greeted Alma, then sat down on a couch across from her, checking her watch.

“Same as every day, she said. “I’m afraid I don’t have a full hour. I’m slammed. I’ve got an important deposition this morning.”

Alma let her catch her breath, then said, “It’s hard to be someone who cares enough to give the fullness of their lives. Not everyone does that, Vanessa. Let’s pick up where we ended last time. Tell me more about your parents. What were they like?”

“They were salt of the earth,” said Vanessa. “Hardworking and responsible. I would even say they were selfless. But that’s just the point. When I sat next to my father’s bed during his final moments, I kept asking myself ‘Is this all there is? Working yourself to the bone to provide for others, then dying in a hospital bed with tubes running out of your arms and impersonal nurses changing your bed pan?’”

“Were you with him when he died?” Alma asked.

“Yes,” said Vanessa, tears welling at the corners of her eyes.

After some silence: “Was he conscious?”

“Almost to the end,” said Vanessa. “And I’ll never forget the last thing he said to me.”

“What was it?” asked Alma.

Vanessa’s tears flowed more heavily, and her chest seemed to spasm. She looked away, gathering herself.

“He said, ‘Mija, you are a deep soul. I am so proud to call you my daughter.’”

With those words, Vanessa let out the depths of her grief, tears flowing freely in the sanctuary of Alma’s studio. Alma said nothing, just reached across the table and gently laid her hand on Vanessa’s. After a few moments, Vanessa looked up and gazed into Alma’s eyes, her face vulnerable. It was the moment Alma had been waiting for.

“Vanessa,” she said, “You are an intelligent, capable, and powerful woman. You know that you can always choose to lighten your schedule and take more time for yourself. You can set boundaries to make sure that others pick up their fair share of the load. I encourage you to do so. Meanwhile, I see such beauty in you and the memory you shared of your father. What a treasure to know that this man who poured out his life for others felt a love for you that he could barely express. It’s a blessing, an anointing, and please hear me when I say this. In a world where so many people are concerned primarily with their own selves and personal gain, you have discovered one of the deepest reasons we are created—to bring joy to the world. This makes you a wealthy woman in the realm of the Spirit.”

Vanessa lowered her gaze and took a deep breath, and as she did, her hand grasped Alma’s and squeezed it in a gesture of gratitude. Time stood still.

Then there was the session with Victor at 1:00 p.m.

He entered the room with an air of confidence, an outer façade that he usually chose to drop when he was in Alma’s presence. A recovering alcoholic with four years of sobriety under his belt, Victor managed a local Tex-Mex restaurant and art gallery, often displaying his own photographs, including some that had gained national notoriety. He was a tall, handsome man with dark hair and full lips. The crow’s feet around his lustrous brown eyes added character to his face, speaking of hard paths and difficult lessons.

Victor had a sponsor in AA, a man who helped him remember to never take another drink; it would only resuscitate the nightmares of blackouts, hangovers, and suicide by degree. But the sponsor was rigid and harsh in applying the principles of The Twelve Steps. Alma knew that Victor came to her for a listening ear that was gentler and more affirming.

Once he settled in his chair and greeted her, Alma noticed that he looked more haggard than usual.

“You’re struggling with something,” she said.

“Yeah, I’ve been having trouble sleeping,” he said, “Intellectually, I know that regret is a futile waste of time, a self-centered vestige of what we AAers call stinking thinking. But at night I wake up and I can’t go back to sleep. I get obsessed over pieces of the wreckage in my past. The images of people and situations swarm over me like mosquitos. There has to be more to sobriety than this…”

“That’s true,” said Alma.

“It is,” replied Victor. “And even though I don’t have the urge to drink again—honestly—I know I have to find a way to quit these thoughts and return to serenity. I just can’t seem to get there.”

“You are very hard on yourself,” said Alma.

Victor smiled with a tingle of sadness.

“True,” he said. “Self-criticism comes naturally to me, a dubious inheritance from my seriously fucked-up family of origin.”

Alma chuckled, then gently changed the subject.

“When those nighttime regrets come rushing at you, is there one memory in particular that is especially painful?”

She instantly hit a nerve.

“Yes,” he said. “My regrets over losing Mary Ann.”

“Who was she?”

“A romance I enjoyed for a couple years. We had this amazing connection, physically, intellectually, creatively. I sometimes feel that our time together, especially our love-making, spoiled me for anything in the future. It was that good…”

He drifted away for a second, wandering in a garden of memories.

“What stings the most when you remember her?” asked Alma, bringing him back to the present. He looked at her, almost reluctantly.

“I lost her because of my selfishness, this gnawing need for affirmation inside me, this pressure that fueled so much of my drinking. I directed it at her. I became more and more demanding of her attention until she felt suffocated. I don’t blame her, but when I think of losing her, a fissure of grief opens up inside me. It’s connected to all the other losses in my life. I don’t know…it’s hard to describe. It’s like a wave of melancholy.”

Alma let the wave roll over him for a moment.

“There are many aspects of The Twelve Steps that I love,” she said. “Especially their reminder that letting go of self-recrimination is a daily reprieve, something we work to achieve through spiritual discipline. With memories like that, I understand your restlessness and stress in the middle of the night,” she said. “But tell me, what are your days like now, especially compared to when you were drinking?”

He thought for a few silent seconds, his countenance gradually brightening.

““They are so much better,” he said. “I’m getting more accomplished and I seem to be doing so in a natural way. My business and art flow out of me rather than being forced. And I have finally begun to have a short time of meditation, early morning walks when I settle into a rhythm and listen to the sounds around me.”

He looked up at her with a smile that was more peaceful. It was the moment she had been waiting for.

“I read devotional literature from many traditions,” she said, “including the Hebrew Psalms. There is a verse in Psalm 84 that I love. ‘Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.’ It tells me that when we begin to live in the center of each 24 hours, uplifted by the Presence that loves and affirms us, time expands dramatically. Psalm 84 uses the hyperbole of a 1,000:1 ratio just to drive home the point.

“I see such positive things happening in your life, Victor. The darkness of the past with its self-destructive behaviors is being replaced with the fullness of the present. Your Higher Power is redeeming your time, and any regrets you have will eventually dissolve in the beauty of this new life, one day at a time. I am sure of this.”

“I hope so,” he said. “Thank you so much, Alma.”

*                                   *                                  *

In the middle of the afternoon, Alma was going over some notes when she heard the bell at her front door. She looked up to see a young man dressed in baggy jeans and a black tank top. His head was shaved, his arms sleeved with tattoos, including one that was all too familiar to her: the black and gold crown symbol of the Latin Kings. It sparked a memory that made her catch her breath.

From the moment he entered, his eyes were locked on hers.

“Walk-ins are welcome. Right?” he said.

“Yes, they are,” she said. “Have a seat.”

He sat down, his eyes still fixed on hers, the rest of his face impassive.

“Can I help you?” she asked, trying to conceal her growing anxiety.

“I’m sure you can’t,” he said. “I’m here because you are the one who needs help. You need to free your mind, mujer.”

She forced a smile and said, “I’m always open to new insights.”

He laughed, a guttural sound that rolled across the table.

“That sounds like something you would say.”

“I’m serious,” she said, not blinking.

“I’m sure you are, and that’s the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ll get to that,” he said. “But first, a question.”

“Anything,” she said.

“You’re from the Fuentes family on Calaveras, aren’t you?”

Her mind began to work, putting his question together with the gang tattoo on his forearm. She did not like the way their conversation was turning.

“Yes,” she answered. “Ellos son mi familia.”

“Then you’ll be happy to know that Bennie sends you his greetings,” he said. “More than that. He asked me to give you a message.”

At the mention of her nephew’s name, something caught inside her chest. A memory came back as vivid as the present.

It was one of those endless days in late summer, heat and humidity lingering in the air. She had returned from a day’s work and was preparing dinner, looking out the kitchen window at her husband, Beto, trimming roses in the front yard. The skyscrapers of San Antonio loomed in the distance.

Suddenly, she saw her sister-in-law rushing down the sidewalk, stopping to talk to Beto, clearly distraught. After a moment, the two of them turned towards the house and fixed their gazes on Alma. The anguish in their eyes was unmistakable.

Bennie had been arrested for murder, and all the fragmented puzzle pieces of his dark descent fell into place. Despite family support, and even professional counseling, he had drifted into the gang life that permeated so much of the west side culture in San Antonio, recruited by the Latin Kings. His whole demeanor had changed, and no one, not even his closest family members, could convince him to alter his course.

Her sister-in-law gave the latest gory details. Bennie has been ordered to warn away a rival gang member. What started as verbal threats escalated into violence. Bennie shot the other young man with his 9MM Glock in broad daylight outside a drug trafficking house. He would have escaped except for the bravery of a witness across the street, an old man who said he was “no longer going to surrender” to the intimidation gang members used to quiet bystanders.

The old man’s identification led to an arrest and conviction. On the day of judgment, with the court packed by the Fuentes clan, Bennie sat defiantly as he received a sentence of 30 years. Once behind bars, he made it clear that he did not want visitation from family.

“What’s wrong?” said the young man, jolting Alma from her memories. “Speechless?”

“No,” said Alma, collecting herself. “I just haven’t heard Bennie’s name for a while. How is he doing?”

El es un soldado fiel. He is one of our most effective enforcers in prison. When we need the hand of vengeance, he is more than willing.”

The young man looked at Alma with a malignant smile, expecting a reaction.

“So, that’s it?” she snapped. “You came here to share the sadness and tragedy of my nephew’s life? Why would you want to do that?”

“Because Bennie said your outlook on the world needs some correction, and I agree. I, too, have a family member who lives in a fog, mi tia who comes to see you, wasting her social security money on your brand of insanity.”

Without knowing her visitor’s name, Alma suspected it was Elodia, one of her few clients from the old neighborhood, a widow battling depression, afraid to set foot outside her home because of increased violence in the neighborhood.

Partly from anger, partly because of her basic nature, Alma decided to commandeer the conversation, turning it in a new direction.

Bastante!” she said. “You have delivered your message. Now, you can tell Bennie this the next time you see him. No matter how disturbed his life has become, not matter how far he has descended into darkness, there is hope. No one is outside the influence of love, even the most hardened criminal.”

The young man grew rigid as she spoke.

“Bennie knew you would say something like that. But you’re wrong, and here is the rest of his message. He told me to tell you that the world is NOT beautiful. It is full of violence, selfishness, and inequality. Look at this city. So many of our people live in rundown barrios, struggling to get by, their homes sagging, their schools shabby and poorly funded. Then drive 10 miles north, mama, and see the suburbs, where people live in big homes and seal themselves off from reality. They don’t give a shit. They just want to get their piece, their portion. I don’t blame them. In fact, I agree with them. Find a way to get what you deserve, by any means necessary.”

“But the means do not always…” Alma tried to intervene.

“Shut up!” he nearly shouted. “Bennie and I aren’t finished. We want you to remember the history of our people. Even you, with your idiotic optimism, cannot deny the racism that has existed here since this land was seized from Mexico. It is the same oppression that affects people of color all over the world. It is not beautiful! You hear me? It is evil in a pure form. For too many years it told our children that they are somehow inferior, when in reality they are kings and queens!”

“But this intolerance is not our basic nature,” said Alma, raising her voice. “Inside each of us…”

The young man slammed his fist on the table. “You are no better than the oppressors,” he hissed. “By filling people’s minds with this narcotic of false hope, you keep them from joining the struggle, from demanding what is rightfully theirs!”

He suddenly stood, staring down at her, visibly calming his breath until he was preternaturally still. Alma felt a chill run through her body, as if a curtain of ice had dropped in her studio.

“OK, Beauty Seer,” said the young man with a sneer. “That is all I have to say to you right now. But I am sure we will meet again. Soon. You obviously need additional correction.”

Without another word, he turned and left the studio.

Alma was shaken. It wasn’t so much the young man’s words, or even the memory of Bennie. It was that final stillness, his complete immersion in the glacial atmosphere of his dark world view. He was a true believer. Alma shook off another shiver.

The rest of the afternoon passed without incident or any new clients, and she was able to maintain her composure despite traces of the young man’s presence in her mind and heart. Her final appointment was late in the day, and by the time she locked the front door, dusk was settling over the city. She went to the rear of her studio to exit along the alley where she parked her car. She stepped out, turned to lock the bolt, then heard quick footsteps behind her. A rough hand grasped her around the neck and twisted her body against the wall of the building. She could feel its bricks radiating heat from the summer day.

She turned her head, though she already knew who it was—the young man with the tattoos, a crazed look in his eyes, a smile like a grimace twisting his lips. He lifted a handgun and pointed at a space between her eyes, just inches from her skull.

“Stop struggling or I’ll shoot you right now,” he whispered harshly.

“You don’t have to…” she said.

“Shut up,” he commanded, his hand growing tighter around her throat.

She attempted to swivel her head, to see if there was anyone nearby who could help. A siren wailed from the heart of the city, but it receded. The last light of day bathed the alley in shadows.

Using all her strength, she twisted until she was fully facing him, galvanizing her fear, looking beyond the barrel of the handgun to focus on his eyes.

“If you would only…” she started to say.

“What? If I would only what? I don’t want to hear your bullshit. I don’t want to suffer through your fortune cookie trivialities. You and people like you have no idea what it is like to live in reality.”

“Reality depends entirely on how we…” she tried one more time.

“Enough,” he snarled. “Here’s another lesson from Bennie and me. Think of it as a test. Maybe your final test. Look deeply into the barrel of this gun. What beauty do you see in there?”

Alma focused on the black circle of the gun’s barrel, and it appeared to her like the void that opens in the lives of so many people, threatening to engulf them. The heart of darkness, the cistern of death, evil, and hopelessness.

Simultaneously, there was the answering fountain of her soul, rising up with unquenchable power. Time stood still. It brought a smile to her lips as she said…

“I see….”