Portrait of a Missionary

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As a writer, I am fascinated by people.

No two people carry the same stories. Their life experiences, their worldview, and their hopes and dreams are uniquely their own. No work of fiction can compare to the beauty and complexity of the world around us, but, caught in our jobs, our routines, and our day-to-day tasks, it’s easy to lose sight of the richness of life amidst the mundane.

In this series, I would like to reawaken your awareness of the extraordinary.

A.R. Geiger

Not everyone has the privilege of a returning missionary sitting at their dinner table.

As I was setting out our plates and sitting down opposite my visitor, I was very aware of this. Even in my unique position as this particular missionary’s sister, I only get the chance to have dinner with him once every other year or so. Armin Geiger is a youth pastor in Vanuatu, a collection of islands in the South Pacific, and he returns to the United States very rarely.

When he does, I like to make sure I have at least one evening with him.

He didn’t hesitate when I told him I wanted a story. His life in Vanuatu is a strange mix of the mundane and the fantastical, of office work, a regular job, and schedules, and, scattered throughout, adventures worthy of a far longer post than this one. He always has a story ready when I ask.

“We were in west coast Santo on the medical ship last year,” he told me, already forgetting his dinner. “Giving care to the local communities. But their clinic location was set up in one village, and all the other people had to travel to get there. We knew a lot of elderly and disabled people needed medical care. So a local, one other girl, and I took a tender—a small speedboat—and drove forty minutes up the coast from where the ship was anchored.”

He sat back in his chair, pausing to remember. “We arrived and the waves were stronger than we anticipated. So I hopped off with this other girl, and we go off with the local to find these two old ladies. In this small woven hut, we find this one lady who was practically deaf, hunched over, frail as a bone, with this stick that she used to walk. She was in her seventies, I think, dressed in a classic, flowery gown that they wear in the islands. My friend began to walk her toward the shore, while I went to get the other patient, who ended up being an old lady who had no legs. Not as old, probably in her forties or fifties, but she had no legs and some sort of odd, wheelchair type thing that didn’t work so well.”

“So we half-carried, half-wheeled her to the shore, which was probably 200-300 meters away, and when we arrived, the waves had gotten even bigger.” He ran his hand through his hair, looking out the window. “And so the challenge was to get these two old ladies into the boat with waves that were up to my chest and not kill them or drown them. Cause at that age, you’re very frail. The guy on the boat had it running because you had to keep it running continually. So he’s running it with prow pointed out to sea, hitting every wave and riding it out. We’re timing it with the waves. So I scooped up the old grandma with the walking stick, and when a wave comes and it runs down, I run in and chuck her on board.”

I laughed, and he grinned, continuing, “She’s sitting there, freaking out,” he lets out a yell that sounds as much like an older woman as a twenty-something man can sound. “Then we go back for the next lady. I’m carrying her in front of my chest and the boat comes down—‘cause when it’s on a wave it’s up high, like above my head—the boat comes down, and I go for it to put her in. Then the wave comes a little sooner than we anticipated, so I lift the lady up high above my head, and the wave hits me in the chest, drenching me, ruining my phone.”

He lifts his arms above his head, demonstrating for me, totally caught up in his story now. “So I’m holding her as high as I can, and the waves are still coming, and then the boat comes down again and I chucked her onto the side and the guy on top grabbed her and pulled her up.”

“Pretty intense couple of moments,” he tells me, pausing again as he remembers the boat trip and the struggle to get the women aboard and back down the coast, “because if she fell in, that would not have been good. But we got them safely to the location, where they got medical care and glasses.”

I got up to refill his plate, marveling that, to him, his story is a fairly normal part of his life in Vanuatu. To me, it sounds as outlandish as one of the history books I grew up on, and the realization serves as a reminder that the extraordinary still remains hidden among the mundane.

But, as I said, not everyone has the pleasure of a returning missionary sitting at their dinner table.

Go To Sleep

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I come when the library closes.

The lights are out, except for the lamp Mrs. Wilfe leaves on just for me. The doors are locked, and the windows have been shuttered. Even most of the reading desks are cleared. No one is left.

Only me. Because I have to put the stories to sleep.

I start in the children’s section. I like it back there best, because I can still hear the murmur of little voices reading aloud, and the rustle of turning pages. It’s not so silent, not so lonely.

I switch on a desk lamp as I step inside, and pick up a book lying on the floor. The Biggest Bear. An old, old favorite. The pages are stained with fingerprints, and the cover is a little torn, but it’s happy. Its story has been told today, many times, actually. It’s a little out of breath, a little tired, and I set it back on the shelf where it belongs.

The books in this section are the rowdiest, but they go to sleep fairly easily. Their stories were told, and they’re worn out from being dragged from shelf to table, table to floor, and back again. I stroke their spines, set them back in order on the shelves, and they fall asleep when I turn the lights out and leave them. They don’t have trouble sleeping, not like some do. I’m never sorry to see them awake when I come.

The adult books are harder. I can hear them murmuring when I flick on the light, their voices rustling like burning paper. They sound angry tonight, and I wonder who has been woken this time. It’s hard to tell. The stories are being whispered from shelf to shelf, passed on, overlapping each other, desperate to be heard. Old forgotten voices, caught in the dust between the pages. I can’t tell one from the other, not when they’re all talking at once. Grief and love, war and hate, treachery, betrayal, reunions, mystery, and horror. They all have a story to tell, but for some of them, it’s been a long time since anyone bothered to listen.

I walk through the shelves, running my fingers along the weighty spines. Quite a few are awake today. Awake, stifled, and frustrated. Who woke them up, I wonder? Who yanked them off their shelves, pulling them so unceremoniously from whatever dreams they were having, to page through their chapters and silence them again?

I pick up a heavy volume from a reading desk. Nearly a thousand pages, and whoever woke it up read less than three of them. I pass my hand over the cover, blow some of the dust from the pages, and set it back on the shelf. Another day, I tell it, although I’m not sure if I’m lying. Some of them have only been woken like this, for a page or two and nothing else, for a long time.

Some of them have been silent for so long that I’ve forgotten what they sound like.

I switch the reading lamps off as I go, stroking spine after spine. Go to sleep, I tell them. Forget the stories you tried to tell, the people who woke you up. Rest.

For some of them, it isn’t so easy. They’re angry, and angry books are hard to settle. I spend a long time among these shelves, soothing them, quieting the arguments. I can’t listen to them all at once, and I certainly can’t be the one to read every book, although I try to give the loneliest a chance. They know when I’m humoring them, of course, but most are grateful anyway.

But I can’t read all night. They have to sleep, and so do I. They listen to me at last, and their whispers fade into silence. I flick off the last light and listen to them breathing. Someone will come to read them eventually. Every book has a story that someone needs to hear. Every book has a heart it needs to heal, a mind it needs to open. Someone will come.

Until then, I’ll do my best to coax them back to sleep.

Heartsmith

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They say the best shops are the easiest to find.

I don’t agree with that. I’ve known many good shops in my time, shops that were hidden away, that took me all day to find. Sometimes the hunt is half the fun. But these days, people prefer main streets and wide roads, and convenience is more important than quality.

To some people. Not to everyone.

My workshop is an example. It’s not so easy to find me. I work where I’ve always worked: a little corner shop in a back alley, with a sign on the door that says, quite simply, Heartsmith. Inquire within.

Really, unless you know just where to look, I’m very difficult to find. I like it better that way. Heartsmithing is a complicated kind of work, and it’s harder to have done than most people think. If someone is determined enough to find me, they’re usually patient enough to last through the process.

Most of the time, anyway.

The shop is empty when I come down in the morning, and the workbench is cluttered with the tools I was using last night. I don’t close my shop after six o’clock. I’m always open, even in the middle of the night. Actually, I get a good portion of my work after midnight. People get a little desperate when the world is at its quietest. Sometimes they’re braver then too, brave enough to bring their troubles to me.

I let them in, of course. I live upstairs, over my shop, and I always hear the bell. Sometimes I’m up late anyway, working on a tough project. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I never turn anyone away.

No one is here now. I sweep the floor, tossing wood shavings and coal dust into the stove, then open the shutters and let the morning in. The village is waking up now, and I can hear the sounds of shops opening, roosters crowing in back gardens, and the milkman making his rounds. It’s a lazy, peaceful kind of morning, and I leave the door open and set out a plate of scraps for the cats that like to wander through.

I’m upstairs when the bell rings. A woman is waiting in the workshop, crouched down and petting one of the cats. She stands up when I come in, trying to smile at me, and I know what the trouble is before she says a word. But I don’t tell her so. People need to talk about these things themselves.

So I sit her down on one of my stools and ask her what the trouble is. She’s nervous and fidgety, and I can tell she’d like to leave, but she doesn’t. She takes a small, battered heart from her bag and puts it on my workbench.

Can you fix it?

It’s the question they always ask. Every time, as if they really expect me to say no. They’ve tried to fix it themselves, that’s the trouble, and when they can’t—well. Too many people give up hope.

I look the heart over while she talks. Most of the hearts come to me with a single crack, a sharp blow that nearly broke them in half. A few have a half a dozen cracks, blows that have happened over a series of months or years. Those are harder to fix, but not impossible.

This one is different. It isn’t cracked, not the way hearts that have been broken usually are. It’s been worn down, dented several times in several places. The exterior is brittle, as if she’d tried to harden it herself to keep it from cracking under the strain, and it’s light in my hands. As if it were nearly hollow.

I listen while she tells me about herself, about everything the heart’s been through. About the husband who doesn’t meet her eyes, and the son who hasn’t called. About the empty life and the dreams she set aside and the hope she’s forgotten how to feel. She can’t remember a single blow or a moment that started the damage, but I can see that already. For a heart to dent and wear like this, it needs a subtle kind of pain, one that rubs and chafes but doesn’t crack. That kind of damage is harder to repair.

Unfortunately, it’s also easier to miss. I see it often enough when I go out walking or meet someone new on the beach, but it isn’t one I see in my shop very much. People ignore it. It’s not cracked, they say, not broken. So why fix it?

They don’t realize just how much damage has been done.

She’s waiting for me to tell her that it can’t be fixed. I can see that. Instead, I set the heart down on the table and ask her if she’s brought a case with her. Any clothes? She tells me she has a few things. I nod and tell her about a house that I own a few streets away. Next to the sea. It’s got a garden, and flowers growing in the windowsills, and a kitchen. The job will take a while, I tell her, and she’ll have to stay nearby. Is she willing?

Her yes is all the answer I need, and I set to work immediately.

She’ll like my house. I bought it for people like her, who need a bit of time to let me work. Heartsmithing is a complicated kind of business, and hearts aren’t fixed in a day.

A Year of Gardening

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I love the freshness of a new year.

Really. It’s one of my favorite things. I love the feeling of having a clean slate ahead of me, of days and weeks and months that have so much potential and so few mistakes. It’s like having a brand new notebook to write in, or a new set of pens to replace the old, scratched up, inked out versions.

And believe me, as a writer, both of those things are hard to beat. Bliss.

I’m not much of a party person, and I like to spend my New Year’s Eve, and, if possible, New Year’s Day at home. I brew a cup of tea, light a fire, and spend some time with my journal and my bible, discovering what I want to see from this new year, and what God wants to see.

This year, I’ve discovered that what I would like more than anything else, is to garden.

No, not actually garden. It’s January, there’s snow on the ground, I live on land that is classified as high desert, and any water poured on this dry, packed earth is immediately sucked straight to the center of the earth and devoured.

Colorado is brutal.

No, I mean I want to garden. In my life, in my soul. I want to till up the habits and routines that I’ve established in the last few years, pick out the rocky bits, and start fresh. I want to pause, to dig into what this year is going to be, and to scatter some seeds.

I have a lot planned this year, and a lot of uncertainty ahead of me too. I know where my priorities are, I know what I want and what I’m after, but I also know that life has a way of sending the unexpected. And, sometimes, the unexpected isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it really is the best thing in a garden. So I’ll leave a bit of ground open for what’s coming that I haven’t planned for, and focus on growing and tending what I know I want to cultivate in the year ahead.

And maybe, while I’m at it, I’ll try my hand at some real gardening and see if I can get a few lavender sprouts growing. Maybe Colorado will agree not to kill them right away.

What are your hopes for the year ahead? What would you like, more than anything, to see from 2019? Tell me down below!

2019, Goals, and Celebrations

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I have an announcement to make.

Ehem.

It is now . . .

2019!!!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!

I’m guessing some of you are still asleep after a very long night and some wild parties, but you’ll wake up sometime this afternoon, and I’ll shout at you then. Or possibly just make you a pot of very strong coffee and leave you to recover in peace.

That might be kinder.

We’re one day into 2019, and already the year is in full swing and jam-packed with new adventures.  For Christmas, my sister gave me a pass to Gordon Ramsay’s masterclass, and I’m seriously excited to spend some time learning proper cooking techniques and recipes from a chef who has so much knowledge. Besides that, I will be stepping into coaching for the first time, welcoming a new child into our house, starting a new job, and preparing for the Fall release of my new book, Of Bullfrogs and Snapdragons.

Besides that, I am also planning on expanding this blog, continuing to post my stories and blogging more about mental health for writers and my own journey as an author. My full-length book series is still with agents and publishers who are considering it, and I will continue to send it out until I have a contract under my belt. 2019 promises to be a year of expanding my boundaries and experiencing new things, and I am EXCITED!

So tell me! What are you excited for in 2019? What are some of your goals and resolutions for the coming year? Any changes coming up that you would like to share?

I Knew

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The house had a basketball hoop in the driveway.

I remember that most of all. That day, the day we had a house, is too fragmented to remember perfectly. But I remember a few things. The real estate agent’s dusty car. The cracked pavement. The weeds. The peeling paint on the front door. And the basketball hoop.

I’ll get you a ball, you promised us, and I knew you would. You’d promised us a house too, and we had that now, although grandpa said we’d never keep it. You’ll be back begging at our doorstep in a week, he told you before we left, and I didn’t tell him goodbye.

I don’t think you did either.

The real estate agent had you sign some papers before he left. I remember how your hands were shaking. I was too small to read what they said, but whatever it was, it made you cry when he left. We all cried together, on the floor in that empty house. I think it was a happy kind of crying.

You made me a nest that night. I had a whole room to myself in that big, empty house, and I felt like a princess in my palace. You tucked my blanket and my sheet together on the floor and told me stories about the mice who made nests just like mine. I’ll get you a bed soon, you told me, and I knew you would. You tucked me in tight, and I used my teddy as a pillow.

We had a picnics in the kitchen. I remember that too. You spread out a sheet on the floor, and we had breakfast and lunch and dinner there. We used to pretend that we were eating breakfast at the beach, and lunch in the mountains. Cade used to complain that there were ants in his food, so we’d think the picnic was real. You always laughed when he said it.

The first thing you bought us was a basketball. I remember when you brought it home. We didn’t have a table, or beds in our rooms, or pictures for the walls, or even a couch to sit on, but we had a basketball. I remember you sitting on the front steps after dinner, watching Cade teach me how to play. I couldn’t reach the hoop, even when he lowered it all the way down, and he’d lift me up so I could score. You clapped for us. I don’t remember who won, but we played until the fireflies came out and the moon was peeping in to watch through that old oak in the front yard.

Don’t worry, you told me when we inside that night. You’ll grow into it.

I knew I would.

We didn’t go back to grandpa’s that week. Or the next one. You said we never would, and I knew you were right. We had a house now, and a picnic blanket, and a basketball.

We didn’t need anything else.

When school started, you made Cade and I go. You’d walk us to the bus stop every morning, and when we left, you’d walk to work. You said you didn’t need a car, that walking made you happy. I knew it did.

You were never home when school was over, but we played basketball every night until you came. You were right. I did grow into that hoop, and so did Cade. He grew into it so much that he could raise it right to the top and still score, and I had to learn to jump high enough to block him. I still don’t remember who won those games, just that we played them.

We all used to do our homework together. Cade and I used to laugh about Mama having homework too, and you’d just laugh with us and keep right on working. I think you got better grades than we did. I know you stayed up later than we did. I remember you shooing us to bed, but the light never switched off before I went to sleep in my nest.

You graduated the same day Cade did. You bought us a table, and Cade came home wearing a uniform that made him look ten feet tall. You cried, but it was a happy kind of cry, and you sat on the steps to watch us play basketball before he left.

I played basketball by myself after that, and rode the school bus alone. You brought work home with you, and we sat at our table while I did my homework and you graded papers. I didn’t tell you I was proud of you, but I thought it every night. I was proud of you for your new job, and for the homework you did after I fell asleep, and for the house you didn’t lose. I was proud you didn’t have to go begging to grandpa anymore, and that you had a car, even if you still liked walking.

You never told me how scared you were, but I remember that too. You never told me you were brave, but I knew you were.

Christmas Books

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Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year.

It’s time for Christmas lights, peppermint-flavored everything, Christmas carols, fudge, peanut brittle, and mistletoe. This season can be a hectic one, and my favorite way to counter that craziness is to keep my evenings to myself.

It’s so easy to commit to caroling, numberless Christmas parties at work, and shopping trips with friends, but I prefer wiggle out if I can manage it. Instead, I keep my evenings for quiet moments. Wrapping presents (or making them), baking cookies, or—best of all—reading.

My favorite nights are the ones when I light candles and spend the evening curled up with a cup of peppermint hot chocolate, a fire in my wood stove, and a good book. My kitty will come read with me too, and is there anything better on a cold winter night than a cat purring in your lap?

Choosing books that fit perfectly with a night like this one isn’t easy, but some of my favorites to pair with a roaring fire and a cup of good cocoa are:

A Christmas Carol

This charming classic has been adapted into plays, a million different movies, and episodes of every cartoon you can think of, but have you ever read the original story by Charles Dickens? I hadn’t—at least, not until a few years ago. Then, I was utterly blown away by a story for the ages—and one that fully deserves the notary that it has obtained over the years.

Little House in the Big Woods

Family and Christmas go hand in hand, and I can’t think of a better story than Little House in the Big Woods for both. This sweet book encompasses an entire year of Laura Ingalls life as a very young girl—including Christmas in the big woods. Her descriptions of life in the 1800s and of their Christmas together as a family are vivid and beautiful, a definite addition to any Christmas evening.

Little Women

Comfort books are a must for me during the craziness of the Christmas season, and Little Women is high on that list. The book spans a large number of years in the lives of the March sisters, and their Christmas seasons are simple, heartfelt, and filled with a richness that illustrates the depth of their regard for each other and the community around them.

The Tailor of Gloucester

Beatrix Potter weaves magic with her illustrated stories, and The Tailor of Gloucester is—in my opinion—one of her finest books. This Christmas tale has charm, compassion, a naughty cat, and a lovely, inspiring ending. Her pictures are vivid and heartwarming, and it’s a book I will be reading aloud and to myself for many years to come.

Christmas is a season for wonder and thankfulness, for pausing to reflect, and for appreciating the quiet moments. These books carry a thousand memories of years past, and I will continue to enjoy them for many years to come.

Knitting Prayers

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My grandmother kept prayers in her knitting basket.

To me, it seemed an odd place to keep them. Prayers are meant to be kept in a Bible on the parlor shelf, or stuffed away in a church, gathering dust with the rest of the relics. At the very least, they’re supposed to be kept somewhere that’s just a little reverent. Somewhere solemn and quiet, like a graveyard or a room you don’t visit every day.

But my grandmother keeps them with her knitting, and sometimes they get tangled up in her yarn.

She knits in her sitting room, in her rocking chair beside the fire. It’s bright and sunny, with a rag rug on the wood floor and flowers on the windowsill. I come to sit with her sometimes when my mother is working and the house is empty. She’ll send me after fresh daisies from the field outside and a pitcher of well water for the two of us, and I’ll lie on the floor and color while she talks to me and to God.

I don’t think the preacher would like the way she prays much. He uses fancy words when he prays, thees and thous, and he always spreads his hands out wide as if he’s trying to push the prayers right into heaven.

When she prays, I have to glance up to make sure God isn’t sitting right there next to her. Some days, I don’t think she’s praying at all. At least, not the sort of praying that I know. She talks to Him the way she talks to just about anybody. She tells Him about my new haircut, or the families who’ve been coming to live with us from the cities, or about mama’s new job in the factory. If I don’t look up every now and then, I’ll forget that He isn’t sitting in the rocking chair across from her and maybe whittling or something.

She’s knitting socks today. The sky is gray, and it’s snowing hard enough that I should have started for home an hour ago. But she used up a whole tea ration for just the two of us, and I’d rather not wait in a cold house until six o’clock. So I watch the fire crackling and the cardinal pecking at the snow outside the window and listen to her talking to God about the snow in Russia and the man who’s going to be wearing the socks she’s making. Her prayers get caught up in her needles, and by the time she’s finished the gray wool is just a little silver too.

I’ve lost count of how many socks she’s sent out. She keeps them in a basket, and when she’s got ten or twelve pairs she sends them off. We never find out what happens to them, or to the prayers she’s knitted in with the wool, but she always tells me that God keeps track of those things.

I hope he does. I haven’t heard that knitted prayers keep a man’s feet warm, but I’d bet they’re good for something.

Ranger’s Apprentice

Do you want to know the strangest thing?

I have the hardest time reviewing my most absolute favorite books.

Is that weird? They should be the ones I rave about right? The ones I yell about in the mall and the library and shove in people’s mailboxes so that they’ll read them.

Right?

But, with my favorite books, I have a hard time talking about them.

Strange, right? In some ways, I’m afraid that I won’t do them justice. They’ve meant so much to me over the years that it seems impossible to tell people just how important they are. They’re a part of my childhood, my teen years, and even now I continue to treasure them, and it’s hard to come up with a way to explain to you or anyone else how much these stories have meant to me.

Ranger’s Apprentice, The Ruins Of Gorlan, is one of those books for me.

I started reading this series when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I wasn’t the only one. At least five of my siblings became obsessed with the books at the same time I did. If you’ve never lived in the same home with multiple readers, you will never understand the struggle of taking turns with a book that just arrived in the mail.

It was rough.

But, at the same time, it was also wonderful. Having people to share the magic of an ongoing book series with is a very special thing, and helps to conquer some of the impatience of waiting for the next book to be released.

And, with The Ranger’s Apprentice, that couldn’t happen fast enough for us.

The Ruins Of Gorlan, Flanagan’s first book in his dynamic series, introduces us to Will, an orphan under the guardianship of Baron Arald. But, at fifteen, he’s now too old to be a ward any longer, and he is set to be apprenticed to one of the fief’s Craftmasters.

That is, if any of them are willing to take him.

When Will is placed with Halt, a member of the elusive Ranger Corps, he isn’t sure what to expect. Rangers are renowned as black magicians and sorcerers, men who guard the kingdom and keep law and order within the fiefs, but not people to cross or mingle with.

As Halt’s apprentice, Will finds a very different reality than he expected. Soon he is embroiled in a world that fascinates and entrances him, a world where he finds himself far more accepted than he ever was as a ward in the Baron’s castle. But war is brewing in the kingdom, and as an apprentice Ranger, Will has a far greater role in the impending conflict than he ever would have expected.

“People will think what they want to,” he said quietly. “Never take too much notice of it.”

Soul Colors

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I have a secret. I see colors.

I don’t mean that I see the leaves turning red and orange and yellow in the fall or the glitzy flashing neon signs blinking over the supermarkets and restaurants after dark. Everyone sees those colors, and frankly, they’re not very impressive, as far as colors go. They’re faded. Washed out, like paint in dishwater. I barely notice them anymore.

No, I see people. Their soul colors. The ones they hide from everyone else.

I don’t think they’d like it if they knew I could see. Colors are private things. People hide them underneath bulky jackets and floppy hats, behind newspapers and smartphones. They like to believe their disguises are enough to mask their colors from the world, and they are, mostly.

Just . . . not from me.

The colors are the first thing I see when I wake up on my park bench, or behind whatever dumpster happened to be handy when I finished hawking my wares. People are everywhere in the city, in every alley, packed into every street and every building. It’s why I came here in the first place. I came for the colors.

Mostly, I came to see if I could change them.

If I was a better businessman, I would find one place to sell, maybe right outside the subway station or in the park, where people are more likely to browse through my wares instead of hurrying by.

I can’t do it. I’ve tried. But I like to move around. To see different places. People who live uptown have different colors from the ones that live in the slums across the canal. Different, and yet, strangely, very much the same too. It’s all the same, no matter what city I’m sleeping in. It’s only rarely that I catch a glimpse of a color that startles me.

In the springtime, I sell lilacs and lilies on my corner, or paper tigers and cranes and frogs, or kites painted with stars and snakes and dancing women. I’ve sold perfume a few times, in the fall, and when Christmas rolls around, I sell holly and snowflakes.

Today, I’ve got balloons.

Balloons are really my favorite to sell. People don’t know, but I always try to give them a color that matches their own. It’s usually the one they ask for anyway, and I like to see them walking away, tracking green or blue or lemon-yellow on the sidewalks and carrying a balloon of the same color.

That’s really the funny thing about colors. They mean different things for different people. Blue might mean contentment for one person and sadness for another. Red can mean a thousand different things. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the colors over the years, and I can usually guess. But sometimes, even now, I’m dead wrong.

The first sale I make is to a couple. They’re holding hands, and he’s getting his red all over her. Bright, cheerful, infatuated red. It’s dusted on her hands like pollen, on her cheek where he’s kissed her, in her hair. I try not to laugh.

She’s happy too. Powder blue. A little less passionate, a little softer, but very, very much in love. I sell them the right colored balloons and watch them wander off.

The next is an old woman with a walker and white hair. She smells like cinnamon, and everything about her glows coral pink, with a few gold flecks here and there and some silver in her eyes. I sit and talk with her for an hour or so, listening to her stories and admiring the colors. When she leaves, at last, I send a pink balloon with her and refuse the dollar she tries to press on me. I should be paying her.

Three rich colors in one morning means a good day, but the next customer is flat gray. A man with a suit. I think his tie might have been red when he bought it. He buys the balloon without looking at me, mumbling something about his daughter, and walks away. I give him a green one because it’s my strongest color, but before he’s gone ten steps it’s as gray as he is. He won’t notice, of course, but I do.

It takes me an hour to get over that one. I’m hoping for a better color next, but the woman who appears is gray too. Soft, ashen gray, with a little knot of painful black beneath her left shoulder. She’s got a toddler with her, a little boy who is clinging to her hand and sucking his thumb.

I love seeing children’s colors. They’re confused, because children aren’t one thing or another quite yet. He’s got orange and yellow and silver and green and a grumpy, tantrum red blotched all over him, like he got into the paint box and made a mess.

I’d laugh, but he’s holding her hand. His little fingers and his wrist—all the way down to his shoulder, really—is as gray as she is. And I don’t feel like laughing.

She seems to know, somehow, what her color is doing to his. She won’t meet my eyes, and she fumbles in her purse looking for a coin to buy his balloon with. I let the man with the fading tie go, but this time I’m more prepared, and she isn’t in a hurry. I get her talking, first about her son, about preschool and peanut butter in his hair and sleepless nights. Then about herself. About the man who abused her and the leaky faucet that her landlord won’t fix and the job that hasn’t paid her bills in two months. Her son plays with his balloon while we talk. He gets purple on his fingers.

When she’s finally run out of words, I give her a balloon too, a sea green one, and the money I made selling roasted chestnuts the week before Christmas. I’ve been saving it since. I wasn’t sure for what until just now.

When she cries, her tears leave splotches of color on her hands and cheeks. Sea green. She tries to protest, but there’s a reason I sleep on park benches and behind dumpsters. The money is definitely for her.

She’s still gray when she walks away, and that black knot doesn’t disappear. It’ll take more than a little extra cash and some kindness to dig that out. But the balloon doesn’t lose its color, and there’s a little sea green nestled around the black where her heart should be.

I’ve always liked sea green. Everyone is different, of course, but I’ve found that sea green usually has a bit of hope about it. If I look hard enough.