The words awoke something in him that had been dead so long, he had forgotten it ever lived. It was uncomfortable, this being reminded. He tried to distract himself with less disturbing thoughts; traffic is a mess today! Isn’t that a tasteless advertisement? It’s cold enough to start hunting for my winter gloves again. These were things that presented no real challenge, no contradiction of opinion, no disruption of routine.
            There was a tiny part of him that recognized this as cowardice, and this he shoved away, too. He did not want to catalogue himself as anything in particular. At least, nothing beyond “good citizen” or “content survivor.” And had he not survived? Did he not deserve this rest at least? Should he feel guilty for wanting an extended reprieve from such difficult things? Had he not fought, in his own way, as hard as he could?
            At first, he had thought she was a woman—he saw her when he walked by, saw the way she stood close to the man with her. A husband and wife. Nothing unusual. He hardly registered them at all except as fellow passengers. He sat in front of them on the bus, without regard for how close or far they were. Why should it matter? Who were they to his day?
            She was whispering, a low soft steady whisper that sometimes grew suddenly too loud but only on certain words, the way people talk when they are soothing themselves and not quite right in the head. This made him uneasy and he scooted toward the left, away from the window. Even then he didn’t think of her as dangerous. Just distracted—and who wasn’t distracted now and then? And even if something was wrong with her head, what was that to him? She was just a woman, another person to avoid eye contact with.
            Then the bus’s brakes hissed and screeched with a sort of yawning, reluctant noise and it was his stop. He stood, twisting to look out the window out of habit. And then he saw out of the corner of his eye the clumsy motion of her as she stood and he realized, a bit startled and then not startled at all, that she was not a woman but a young girl. A tall young girl, but not at all with the body or face of maturity. Maturity was what he thought—age is what he meant. She was twisting, too, craning in the space between the seats to stand on tip-toe and whisper in the man’s ear. Not a husband, then—a father.
            Somehow this made him feel better about the whispering. In an adult, it marked a sort of unbalance or unawareness of the world at large. Her youth excused this. They were in line behind him to get off the bus and she began whispering again, but this time they were closer and her could not help but overhear.
            The girl was reciting.
            “Lord, I am lonely
And the sun is shining
Listless, while the wind…”
And then she was gone. They stepped off the bus and she and her father went one direction, he another. He stopped on the sidewalk, letting the foot traffic stutter around his still form for a brief second, regroup and swell away. The bus groaned and pulled away from the stop and then he was alone there, standing and not turning. He did not look back to see where they had gone.
The newsstand attendant across the street, who kept the day’s paper as an artifact in the midst of his fast-moving stock of gum and cigarettes and energy drinks and crinkly bags of over-salted potato chips more than anything else, noticed him standing there by the bus stop, staring down at his shoes and chuckled. The laugh was half pity and half bored amusement.
“Old man just remembered he left the kettle on, that or he’s pissed himself,” he said to no one in particular. Of the stragglers on the sidewalk, the thin crowd before the next bus stop collection began to grow, no one gave any sign that they heard him.
What was actually going through the man’s mind was not about the kettle or urine or even the girl. It was simply,
“Shakes…shakes the…something leaves. Shakes the something leaves.”
The heart inside his chest was pumping away at a steady pace, but the heart of his mind, the heart of him was fluttering with a stormy mix of excitement and dread. The thrill was that he knew it was recited poetry because he himself had once known that poem. Not as a particular favorite, but as something little and elegant and lovely  and worth reading whenever it turned up or when the mood took him. And dread because he had known it, no longer knew it, and did not want to remember either of these facts.
And still there was a surge of frustration at his inability to finish the next line. Or even remember another word, beyond what he had already heard and thought. He couldn’t even call to mind the name of the poet. What the girl was doing reciting poetry while walking around never occurred to him as a subject worth pondering, so wrapped up in his own thoughts and internal struggle was he.
It was the struggle that bothered him. The poem was now filling his head, banging at the doorways of his memory in search of its missing words. And even without them, the first few lines were the death of his content.
“Lord, I am lonely,” he mumbled, as he walked forward. Then, as if trying to rid himself of a nasty insult, he slammed the words out and forced himself to think of other things. The traffic is a mess today, he thought, observing the stop-and-go procession of quiet cars.
Once, this would have been noisy, he thought.
            He did not give himself the consideration of a reply. He shifted his attention.
            That is a tasteless advertisement, he thought, when his eye was caught by the vivid greens of a digital billboard—the mother in the ad wore a neon dress that contrasted with the blood-shot eyes of her children as she force-fed them bowls of sludgy dirt with toxic waste stickers on the side. All the children were crying. There was a line, some line, about feeding babies garbage, but then it was behind him and he realized he’d been thinking about the poem again and hadn’t really read the board.
            The wind that whistled through the streets curled around his fingers and he flexed them, his old joints aching with pain seconds before it registered that they were cold. At first, it felt like being burnt—the opposite of scorching his leg on a metal playground slide that felt freezing for that first half-second, years and years and years ago. His children had played on plastic and rubber slides and he had always checked them first anyway. They had never been the same kind of hot.
            I should get out my winter gloves soon, he thought, making a mental note for himself.
            Shaking the ageless leaves.
            And then it came to him, just like that. There was triumph in that small moment, the triumph of something lost becoming found.
            The door to his office was a block behind him before he realized he had missed it. He backtracked, feeling sheepish and awkward for the distraction. He did not nod at the security guard—he had long since given up such niceties, feeling no purpose in them for how infrequently they were returned.
            Inside, the walk to his assigned cubicle was a long one. He did not remember the walk at all once he reached his desk, because he was in such turmoil over what to think about that he couldn’t think at all. If he was the sort of man who ran for exercise, he might have thought that a run would clear his head. If he was the sort that turned to food for comfort, he might crave a bag of chips or a pizza (but in the older style, the kind with real cheese that was hard to find anymore).
            But no, his greatest hobby and habit and comfort was his blankness. He enjoyed sitting and thinking of nothing; of staring at a screen at work or the back of a seat on the bus or at the kitchen wall at home as he drank a glass of water and thinking about nothing. He drifted through conversations with small amiable smiles and nods, letting the speech of others enter his mind, dance around, and flit back out like little harmless bugs. His was now a mind unused to discomfort, because he had gone so long without allowing any such thing to settle there where it might require thought or effort or action.
            And sitting now at his desk, the screen before him full of work he did not choose and would not have ever chosen for himself, symbolizing nothing but the further years of toil and mundane, sweat-less work to merely function—to sleep, to eat, to continue, to continue having a place to sleep, and things to eat—his heart, his real and physical heart, skipped a beat and then began racing.
            It felt seized, as if in a vice or a death-grip and in the peak of that panic he just barely kept himself from crying aloud with a wordless groan. He wanted to shriek and beat his fists against the floor—he wanted to bury himself or turn himself off again. Whatever piece of him that snatched poem had awakened, he wanted to beat it back into the inner closet it’d crept out of when it received new breath.
            Where he had been able to pacify himself with triumph at remembering words, there was now no consolation. Only a certainty of death, of uselessness. A dark dread came upon him, casting a shadow over everything—the packed lunch he had been looking forward to in its own small way, the sweet lounging rest of the half-nap he’d take at home before dinner. They were now soured and seemed insignificant.
            His hands gripped the arms of his desk chair and he willed, willed, willed the feeling to pass. He remembered it now, from long ago—things were rushing back to him as if the poem had unlocked a floodgate.
            But his will was weak. It did not pass.
            He put his head upon his desk, now not caring who saw or noticed or commented.
            “Oh, God,” he mumbled, his breath stirring up tiny motes of dust near his keyboard. “Oh, God.”
            Stop sleeping.
            It was a gentle, quiet voice, far off, while louder and angrier voices shouted a chaos of instruction, of interpretation, of opinion. I am crazy, he thought, for the first time in years. I am crazy.
            Wake up.
            Then it came to him in its entirety, unbidden, a remnant from a day when he loved words and beauty and mystery, days that seemed lifetimes away and sort of foolish now. He could not tell if it was a crucial part of what was happening inside him or a distraction. He spoke the whole poem without noise, moving his lips as in silent prayer.
            “Lord, I am lonely
And the sun is shining
Listless, while the wind
Shakes the aging leaves.
The harvest has been gathered
All is bagged and barned,
Silos burst with grain.
Why, Lord, must I still stand
Dropping blind seeds
On to a barren soil?

Come, sweet Jesus, cut me down
With the sickle of your mercy,
For I am lonely
And a stranger in this land.”
Cliff Ashby, he thought, the poet’s name now without question in his mind. A small part of his dread abated.
I do not want this, he thought simply, wishing already for sleep. And he knew it was a choice, shoving this feeling away and going back to his screen. A struggle, yes, but he had done it before.
But, a limping part of his inner self argued as it grew in size and strength. It argued things he had known and long locked away, things he had professed to believe and then doubted and wavered and shut up in cupboards instead. But, it argued, you cannot live without Him.
“Oh, God,” he said for a third time. “Sweet Jesus.”
They were still not, and never had been, curses. And despite all the reasons to stay or go, to think or not think, to forget the poem all over again or to tack it up on the wall of his cubicle to look at every day, he knew in a part of him that had been sleeping for years and years that it would be his end to fall back asleep now. There were no other answers. There were no other questions.
“Where else would I go?”
It, too, was a prayer, and with it came rushing into him a ragged breath of hope.


The purpose of struggle and trials is that we be refined like gold; it is to make us more like Christ. Lord, you save me, and ever do I need to be saved. may You develop perseverance in me! Too often, I want to shut out or turn from what God is calling me to do-- to follow Him. But Christ has the words of life-- where else would I go? It is worth it. There is joy in obedience; there is growth and hope in struggle. If you are struggling today, know that He is worth the fight. And He is already fighting for you. 

(this is the first writing I've done in a while! :) forgive typos; it was written and posted in the same few hours. probably going to tweak it some.)