They say ‘Life is a journey,’ but how many of us take the time to pay attention to the sites? Sometimes the best invitation to discover one’s own path is to slip into the mystery of another’s. Marie Laure’s Chances Are . . . offers readers a window into the spiritual exploration of a soul moving through everyday life. On the way, one quickly realizes how intricately woven sacred moments are in the mundane, like riding the subway, sitting in class, and in getting lost. And one easily discovers connections and echoes from the page to one’s own life. In that way, this story grows beyond a mere window into a compelling invitation.
— Reverend Gregory Morisse
Senior Pastor, The Plymouth Church in Framingham, MA
The United Church of Christ
Marie Laure’s recognition of God -- whom she calls the ‘Presence’ -- at an early age is prescient and powerful.Her description of continuing to love, even those whom we think we have lost, hits home for anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one or the indifference of intimates. Her story is a ‘must read’ for anyone struggling to make meaning of an insufficient inherited religion and finding a new way forward in faith.
— B.R. Bodengraven
Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.)
Weston Jesuit School of Theology
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Read an Excerpt
Chances Are ...
By Marie Laure
Balboa PressCopyright © 2016 Marie Laure
All rights reserved.
The first day of the year, Jessica is reflecting on the past. She's sipping tea in a window seat overlooking Boston at sunset, but she's also elsewhere, wandering through the years.
"I am a fundamentally changed person," she says out loud over and over. For her, it's been like changing from a caterpillar into a butterfly after being all wrapped up for a time in gauzy darkness.
For most of us, the beauty of a butterfly opening and closing its wings is a given, a gift we take for granted. We don't think about what that butterfly has lived through. We see only what is. Of course, butterflies have no need for others to understand the solitary process leading to a changed state of being. It isn't so simple for people. We want to be understood. Changing ourselves seems impossible for all those practical reasons we are constantly telling ourselves. Nonetheless, it begins with thought. Our thoughts are like arrows we shoot with the strength of hands and arms. But too often, we hold back, instead of letting go. Hitting the mark requires seeing it first. Imagining it in thought, helps make it sure. Without either, our arrows will surely miss. And without believing, we will surely misfire.
"Have I changed that much?" Jess asks the empty room. Sunset has subsided, leaving the room in darkness. City lights twinkle in the distance, steam rises from her teacup, and her thought drifts disjointedly into the past ...CHAPTER 2
Summer at Six
Milk bottles lightly clanged together as they slipped from the milkman's pudgy fingers into a slate-gray insulated box on the back steps outside the door. Inside the screen porch, pretending to sleep, Jessica watched his black rubber-soled shoes turn toward the street. She stayed perfectly still until she heard the ignition of his truck. Then she put her bare feet on the cool damp linoleum. Blue jays were collecting the white "Wonder Bread" crusts she and her sisters had scattered in the driveway the night before. Feeding the birds was part of the ritual of sleeping on the porch.
What the day had in store mattered little to Jess. She loved her life, her parents (especially her father), and her two sisters and two brothers. They had no pets, because Ma was afraid of animals. Whenever the children begged for a kitten, she said: "No. I don't trust them."
Neighborhood cats who dared to stray into the backyard through the abutting woods were met with cold water. First Ma would yell out over the kitchen sink: "Go home!" Their tails high and curled at the tip, the cats seemed oblivious to the stern tone of her mother's voice. She would then fill with water whatever bowl or jug was handy. The screen door slamming behind her, Ma would move within striking distance and let the trespasser have a full dose. Jess always felt as bad for herself and her siblings as for the cats. Why couldn't she just let it be? Why couldn't they have at least a single pet?
One day a kitten wandered into their yard unbeknownst to Ma. Jess and her sisters took turns petting it behind the garage, out of sight. The more the kitten meowed, the more they convinced themselves it was hungry. They decided to sneak some milk from the kitchen to feed "the poor thing." Being extra careful not to make noise as she took a bottle out of the refrigerator, Jess managed to get past the screen porch without slamming the door or spilling the milk. "Mittens," as they named the kitten, lapped up every drop. Then, without regard for their generosity and the big risk they had taken, Mittens ran back to the woods. That such a moment can teach something about giving and receiving was lost on the three sisters, who lingered long after Mittens disappeared, trying to decide if it was a boy or a girl.
"She" they decided, needed them. They had a bowl ready for her the next time she came out of the woods through the low brush. It seemed that their wish to have a kitten had come true! And, for the first time ever, they were in collusion against their parents. Without speaking of it, they were drawing a distinction between their world and that other grown-up world. They knew they were lying to their parents and therefore to God. Jess' older sister's catechism book, memorized by rote, reinforced that unspoken thought. It also assured them that they would be forgiven by both their parents and God, which seemed to mitigate any incentive to cease and desist. When Jess overheard Ma asking the milkman for one extra bottle of milk a week, she wondered how long they would get away with it.
"They're growing up," he said, writing something into a small pad and thrusting it into a shirt pocket.
Mittens, growing fatter, came now each day without fail. Only on Sundays were her feeders absent. After church, the family regularly went to a lake where their grandfather, Pépère, had a cornfield. At the lake, they rode a red wooden train around a miniature amusement park. They also took rides on small boats joined together in a circular caravan. The sandy beach surrounded by oak trees offered shady places where Ma would sit with their baby brother while the other children played on the water's edge and in the shallow water with Daddy. These Sundays, like the train and the boat rides to nowhere, seemed to be without beginning or end. As far as Jess was concerned, these things existed for no other purpose than their enjoyment. Along with following Pépère through high corn stalks, playing in the woods, and slurping ice-cream cones on the way home, these Sunday experiences helped define their childhood.
The owner of the ice-cream stand kept a pet monkey in a cage. They knew through their mother's warnings never to put their fingers into his cage.
"But he's so cute, can't we pet him?" they begged, licking ice cream while watching the brown, long-tailed, wide-eyed animal stare back at them. It was easy to see that his hands could have held those flat-bottom cones just as easily as theirs. In theory, they had two pets that summer: Mittens and Monkey. But when they arrived home after dark that evening, there was no sign of Mittens.
Monday morning, the milkman delivered seven bottles. An extra one had to be placed outside the box, which could hold only six. Jess' eyes, half-open, saw the bottle. She heard the jays screaming for bread, which she and her sisters had forgotten to leave for them. She was still on her stomach, thinking about getting up, when she saw Mittens enter the backyard. The cat hopped up the three steps to the milk bottle, wet with sweat from the morning air, and brushed her body against it. When Mittens let out a loud "MEOW," Jess sat straight up. Her sisters were asleep and their parents and brothers were still inside the house. Soon Ma would open the house door to pick up the milk. Suddenly, Jess felt an unfamiliar pressure. Time, otherwise meaningless to a 5-year-old, was now real, tangible, and inescapable. What to do? Paralyzed and helpless, she sat motionless in her summer PJs, trying to puzzle out a dilemma beyond her capabilities. Her thoughts went in circles like those boats and trains in the park. She knew Mittens was here only because they had decided to give her milk, and that the extra milk bottle was also here for that reason. Without Mittens, there would be no extra milk bottle on the back step. Without the extra milk bottle, there would be no Mittens.
When the doorknob turned, shattering her thoughts, Jess pretended sleep. Before Ma's slippers touched down on the porch floor, Jess saw Mittens bolt from the corner of her eye. Instinct seemed to save the cat from her fate. For a moment, Jessica felt relieved and free, as though the cat had saved them both. Life seemed good again. What she didn't know was that nothing ever again would be quite so simple.
At the time, Jess did not understand that beginnings meant endings, too. After her birthday at the end of summer, she would take her first seat in a classroom. It would be forever bitter-sweet to her that her birthday and the beginning of school should coincide as they did with the end of summer. Even years after her own school days were over, that feeling lingered, as she sent children of her own off to school.
As Mittens took her leave, Jess didn't stop to think how the cat might be feeling or whether she might have become dependent on this milk supply. As easily as Mittens had come into their lives, she had left. Or, had she?
Ma had a habit when she was angry of calling each of her children by name.
"Come here right now, Jessica, Carol, Elizabeth, John, George," she called out. There was no doubt she meant it. Even when things seemed to be going swimmingly in the backyard, that call from the kitchen window would always break the spell. They would drop whatever game they were playing, and run as fast as they could. Sometimes Ma would point to the accused: "You ... Jessica." That was the worst. Other times the whole group would be faulted for something like failing to shut the freezer door, thereby allowing a gallon of ice cream to melt into a messy puddle. But this call was like no other. Standing in the middle of the kitchen, her parents were side by side.
Jessica could not believe her eyes. Ma said sternly: "Look! Look at Daddy's face." Then she held up one of his arms – put it straight out in front of them, and held it there for what seemed like forever. "A cat did this!" Jess's breath stopped. Her heart pounded in her ears so loudly she didn't hear Ma's next words. But she could see that Daddy's face and arms were bleeding from scratches. "Mittens," she thought. "But how?"
Ma was saying Daddy had been attacked in the cellar.
"Daddy, I'm sorry," Jess wanted to say, but didn't. It would have implicated her and her sisters. None of them spoke. Her mother rebuked them relentlessly.
"Now I know where all that milk has been going!"
They were guilty as charged. They did not own up to it. Or deny it.
In their bedroom that night, they speculated about how it could have happened. Her older sister said Daddy had heard the cat crying and when he had reached for her, Mittens jumped on him. It was hard to imagine Mittens' soft black-and-white paws turned into weapons. But then Jess remembered how she had felt those sharp claws on her own arms when she held Mittens too hard or too long. Had Daddy tried to hold her too hard or too long? Whether Mittens meant to do it or not, how did she get into the cellar, anyway? Did she sneak in and then someone accidently locked the door behind her? Might she still be around, or had Daddy caught her and ... killed her? What had mother decided to do to them?
For the first time in her life, Jess felt thoroughly ashamed and really bad. She was thinking:
"I hate myself. The dearest person in my life has been harmed because of something I have done."
Clearly, she and her sisters had tangled themselves up in a situation that had unintended consequences, no matter how innocent they were. Or were they innocent? Their desire for a pet had superseded their collective conscience. Jess' head was full of "what ifs." The notion that acting on impulse could bring something so unexpected was a revelation.
She felt like crying for things lost - the kitten, her father's love, her mother's trust.
Feeling all alone in the world, Jess must have scrambled up her favorite pine tree in the woods behind their house a hundred times during those last weeks of August. She felt safe there, knowing the tree would never reveal her inner thoughts. It became her hide-out, her sanctuary, her place of solace. In this perch, she felt invisible. She could see her house in the distance. She watched her sisters splashing in the backyard pool. She heard them singing and swinging. They seemed carefree in a way that was familiar yet foreign. Some facts were revealing themselves to her almost 6-year-old self. In this tree, above it all, a new sensation came over her. She sensed that she was not alone. This did not in any way frighten her. Instead, she felt protected and sheltered by the tree like the songbirds that built nests in the crook of its arms.
Maybe Mittens had been a "blessing in disguise," a phrase Jess sometimes heard her father say about things she knew nothing about. Though Mittens was gone now for good, they could still expect Monkey to always be there in his cage to greet them.
That very last Sunday of August, as usual, they stopped for ice cream. Jess was now a full-fledged 6-year-old! School would begin in three days. They were counting each one. At the ice-cream stand, Monkey's cage was empty. Like Mittens, he was gone! Jess ran to her father:
"He's gone," she cried.
"I know," he said licking drips from the cone before passing it to her.
"We sent him to the moon with John Glenn," said the man scooping ice cream behind the screen window.
"Really?" she and her sisters asked in unison.
"The Monkey is gone to outer space?" Jess asked.
She looked up to the evening sky. She had seen the launching of the space ship on television. The astronaut, John Glenn, had been completely covered in a space suit. Nobody could tell what he looked like, standing there waving with his huge gloves. When the space capsule was ready to go, she and her sisters had counted down with the TV announcer: "10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-blast off!"
Jess vividly relived that moment as she stared at the monkey's empty cage. She knew the truth. There had been no mention of a monkey, only of a man going solo into space. Monkey, she thought, must have run away, like Mittens. Both were gone. Both were somewhere else. Both had left Jess and her sisters behind. She could not finish her ice cream.CHAPTER 3
Before Jessica's life filled up with other people beyond her large family of sisters and brothers and cousins, her entire world was circumscribed by her backyard and the woods beyond. She loved to wander alone through the pine trees, sticks snapping beneath her feet, pine needles soft as hair between her fingers, leaving a lingering balsam scent and stain-black pitch on the palms of her hands.
Often, when she climbed up to the midpoint of "her" pine tree, she could look back to see her mother hanging sheets on the clothes line, her brothers' yellow Tonka trucks parked in the sand, and her sister swinging in the backyard. Her father, wearing a white T-shirt that harbored a red-and-white pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in the sleeve, might be loading and unloading wheelbarrows of dark loam. He eventually covered every square inch of the yard and planted grass seeds for a new lawn. When evening fell, he and Jess often sat on the front steps, holding the garden hose together.
The ice-cold mist fell lightly over the rich dark dirt, which smelled old and new at the same time. It took a few weeks, but one day thin, bright-green blades of grass appeared. Now, she and her siblings were forbidden to walk in the yard. They were relegated to the driveway or the woods until the grass took root. Jess didn't much care for the concrete, preferring instead the pine-needle carpet beneath the trees. She began to walk alone a little deeper into the woods day after day.
In many ways, all her days seemed the same, yet Jessica began to feel a closeness to something she believed to be God. She began to share her most secret thoughts with this unseen friend. She actually had no other.
This closeness, oneness, was a presence wherever she went. She didn't know loneliness. In fact, she felt and knew that she was not alone. One particular day, Jessica wandered far beyond her usual route, following beams of sunlight through the treetops.
She could see that the woods were much deeper than she had previously been aware. Her curiosity and sense of companionship with the Invisible led her deeper into the woods and away from home. When she looked back for her little white house, she saw nothing but tall trees in every direction. She did not feel scared. She looked down at her new white sneakers and wondered if she might dirty them by going on, but that didn't stop her. She even took the bold step of moving beyond a boundary marker at the end of the woods, something her mother had warned against.
Before her was a field of golden hay-like grass, swaying gently in late-afternoon sun. Standing in that spot, she felt the most amazing sense of "someone" all around her. The light shone brighter than any sunshine she had ever seen. The breezes caressed her face. Joy, sheer joy, unlike any other happiness she knew, filled her senses. Jessica didn't know how long she stood there. She walked home as if floating on a puffy cloud. That evening, when she sat with her father on the front steps, she said nothing about her extraordinary experience. It was her first absolute secret.
Excerpted from Chances Are ... by Marie Laure. Copyright © 2016 Marie Laure. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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