Up a Tree

Another Sneak Preview from The Merry Mystic

Back in January, I posted a sneak preview of a new book I’m working on. I haven’t said anything about it since then. But I’ve been working away on it.  I’m just finishing the first draft, and I’m having so much fun with it! Today, I’d like to share another little preview. Just so you know it’s still cooking.

In this passage, our hero, Mark Collins, has been having some strange experiences with his new Wiccan acquaintances. In our last sneak preview, he had an encounter with a spirit fox, which ended with him spending the night asleep in his office. In this excerpt, he’s feeling the effects. He has a vivid dream of flying, and when he wakes up … well, read on.

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I’m enjoying writing it. This project is saving my life right now.

Blessed be!


In the morning, Mark woke slowly. At first he was aware of birdsong—it seemed to fit with something he had been dreaming. Then he was aware that he wasn’t very comfortable—he’d been sleeping in a sitting position, leaning back against something. His neck, his back, and most of all, his behind, were telling him that he’d been in the same position for too long.

Then Mark opened his eyes and realized why his body hurt: he had been sleeping in a tree. High up in a tree. He was straddling a large limb, leaning back against the trunk of the tree, and he was not holding on to anything.

Suddenly wide awake, Mark froze in a panic. He desperately wanted something to grab, something to wrap his hands around, but there was nothing within reach—nothing but the limb on which he sat, and the trunk on which he was leaning. He reached down and behind himself, pressing his palms against the broad trunk. It was solid and soothing. He squeezed his eyes shut, and made himself take some slow, deep breaths.

Eventually, curiosity overcame panic, and he opened his eyes enough to have a cautious look around. He could see where he was: that was his yard and driveway below, and his car, and the roof over the porch. He was in the old tulip tree, about on a level with his own second-story bedroom window. Overhead, he could see the next limb up—too far away to grab unless he stood first. But standing up was problematic. For one thing, he couldn’t feel his feet. His legs had fallen asleep.

Okay, then, that was step one. Mark slowly lifted both knees until he got both his feet on the limb. It was a big limb, and he found that he could easily rest both feet on it, side by side. He wiggled his feet and pushed down against the limb, trying to encourage some circulation to return to his legs. He wondered briefly how he got up in the tree, but he firmly suppressed the question. Time enough to think about that later. The main thing now was to get down.

Once the pins-and-needles feeling left his legs, he tried very slowly to stand up. By keeping his back firmly against the trunk, and by pushing with his hands as well as his feet, he was able to stand until he was within arms reach of the limb above. He grabbed it and held on tight. His legs where shaking—whether from fatigue or from fright, he wasn’t sure—but he felt better with a firm handhold.

He began looking for a way to get down. There was a ladder nearby, but it was no use to him—it was on the ground, where he’d left it when he’d cleaned the porch roof gutters. There were no lower boughs to climb down on. He was barefoot, and wearing only a T-shirt and shorts. Climbing further out on the limb wouldn’t help much—the bough might bend down a bit lower if he went out far enough, but that would also place him over the hard asphalt of the driveway. It was, he guessed, about fifteen feet to the ground. He could jump—surely a person could fall that far without serious injury—or could they? It would probably be better to hang from the limb by his hands, and then let go from there. Yes, that seemed like the best option. He even resolved to try it, but at the critical moment he found that he couldn’t bring himself to release his present handhold.

That left only one thing: waiting to be rescued. At his lonely end of the street, it wasn’t likely that calling for help would be any use. But anyone who came up to the front door would be within hailing distance. And someone would come by eventually. Yes, he remembered: Sandra was coming at around ten o’clock. He had no idea of the present time, but it was just a question of waiting. Waiting, without anything to drink. He wished he hadn’t thought of that.

He thought back to the night before. He’d come home tired. He’d checked his email, plugged in his cell phone, changed into his sleep shirt and shorts, brushed his teeth and washed his face, and climbed into bed. Then he’d had that dream, that remarkable dream, about flying. It came back to him in a rush: you don’t make yourself go up, you make everything else go down. He had felt so confident in flight, so fearless—not at all like he felt now. It was a compelling dream, but what did it mean?

Perhaps he had been … what … sleepwalking? Could he have gone downstairs, set up the ladder, climbed the tree, pushed the ladder away, and settled down on a limb for the rest of the night—and all in his sleep? It was hard to believe. But the only other explanation that came to mind was impossible.

Mark waited an uncomfortable hour for Sandra to arrive, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting on his perch in the tree. In the end, however, it wasn’t Sandra who arrived first at the house; it was Tom Bradford, the mail carrier, climbing the steps to the mailbox by the front door.

Oh, well, thought Mark. Any port in a storm.

“Hello, Tom!” he called from the tree. Tom looked around, but didn’t see him.

Mark released one aching arm from the limb above, long enough to wave it in the air. “Up here, Tom!” he called.

Tom looked up. “Pastor Collins! Whatcha doin’ up there?”

“Trying to get down! Can you help me? The ladder’s right down there.”

“Sure. Just a minute.” Tom put down his mailbag and got the extension ladder. “Pushed the ladder over, huh? Whatcha doin’ up there, anyway?”

“I don’t know, really. I must have been dreaming.” Damn, damn, damn! That would have been a really good time for a little white lie, Mark thought. Would it have been so hard to say, I was trying to rescue a cat?

“That must’ve been some dream! Here, how’s this?” Tom had extended the ladder fully and now propped it against the trunk, next to the big bottom limb. It didn’t quite reach, but by sitting back down, Mark would just be able to get his feet on the top rung. He found even this maneuver intimidating, but it was either that or calling the fire department. And he didn’t want to look like a coward. So he sat down on the limb, lowered his feet to the first rung, and swung himself out onto the ladder. The rungs of the ladder hurt his bare feet, and his legs were trembling embarrassingly as he climbed down.

“Thanks, Tom,” said Mark when he got to the bottom, shaking hands with the man. “It’s a good thing you came along when you did. I was starting to get thirsty up there.”

“Glad to help. Hey, you don’t look so good, Pastor. You better sit down—or maybe lie down.”

“No, I’m fine. Thanks again, Tom. I’ll just … I’ll just get a little breakfast, though.”

“Right.” Tom looked as though he was going to ask a question, but then changed his mind. He picked up his mailbag, and handed Mark his mail. “Here ya go. I’ll just get back to it then. Be seeing you.”

He began to walk away, but turned back after a moment, and said with a broad smile, “Hey—maybe you dreamed you was climbing Jacob’s ladder!”

“Maybe that was it. Thanks again, Tom.” Mark had a brief impulse to ask Tom to please not tell anyone about the whole tree thing, but decided against it. Trying to hush it up would only make things worse. Sharing stories was Tom’s favorite pastime, and this one would be too good to pass up. Might as well get used to it: half the people he met in town would soon be ribbing him about Jacob’s ladder.


Sandra woke up feeling bleary. After the officer had taken her report, she’d sat up reading for another hour before she’d felt like she might be able to go back to sleep. Now it was already nine o’clock, and she was running late. Not a good way to start the day. She did her morning routine on the yoga mat—a fifteen-minute flow that was part of her daily practice—and it helped her to feel more like herself. But by a quarter to ten, though showered and ready to go, she was still feeling a little tired and stiff, with a bit of a headache coming on. I need a vacation, she thought.

Then she thought of the next best thing to a vacation, and it cheered her up immediately. She’d promised to see Mark at around ten, which left plenty of time to pack a few things in her gym bag, make a quick phone call, and stop at the bakery for a bagel. She’d get something for Mark too, just in case. She couldn’t wait to see his face when she told him her plan for the rest of the morning.

When she parked in his driveway at the end of Amber street, she paused a minute to look at the house. She’d always thought of it as a charming place, a romantic place. But now, thinking of the man who lived there, she was more aware of its drawbacks. It looked very large and lonely, for one person. And it looked like a mammoth undertaking to rehab a place like that single-handed, on what was presumably a pitiful pastor’s salary. The house seemed to have a fresh roof, but in other respects it reminded her of that house in “It’s a Wonderful Life”—the old Granville house, where you made a wish and then threw a rock to try and break some glass—the house George Bailey said he wouldn’t live in, even as a ghost.

She went up the concrete steps to the porch and rang the bell by the front door. She waited, and then rang again; waited, and then rang, and knocked, and called Mark’s name. No response. But she’d seen his car there in the driveway. She looked around. A extension ladder was leaning up against a huge old tulip tree. She went back down the porch steps and over to the tree, and she looked up to see whether perhaps Mark was doing something up there, but there was no sign of him. She continued up the driveway and around to the back of the house. There was a screened-in patio at the back, and she knocked on the screened door there and called Mark’s name again. This time, she thought she heard a distant reply. She couldn’t quite make it out, but she let herself in. There were stairs from the patio going up to a back door, and another flight of stairs going down to the basement. The basement door was open. Sandra called again.

Mark’s voice came up from the basement. “I’m down here. Just a second!” When he appeared in the door, he was wearing boots, paint-spattered jeans, and a ragged sweatshirt, and there was a bright headlamp strapped to his forehead. She blinked when the light of it hit her in the eyes, and he switched it off.

“Sorry,” he said. “I was just doing a little wiring project in the basement. Come and see.”

She followed him down into the basement. It was a massive space, with a cool, humid smell of brick and dust like a separate atmosphere that enveloped Sandra at the bottom of the basement stairs. She looked around in wonder. It seemed surprisingly deep—she couldn’t have reached the bare bulbs that hung down to illuminate it, not without a step stool. It was also oddly massive. No mere posts or pillars held up the floor above, but solid brick supporting walls. It made Sandra think of a movie set: a movie about hidden Nazi art treasures, or maybe a horror flick involving an abandoned sanitarium.

“Wow,” she said. “You could fit the whole Rose and Feather down here, four times over. They don’t build them like this any more, do they?”

Mark smiled proudly. “That’s for sure. In fact, I don’t think they ever built them like this—not residential buildings, anyway. This was originally meant to be a town library, and the floors were built to hold a lot of weight. There are a lot of things in this old house that need work, but structurally, at least, it’s incredibly solid. You’re probably safer here in a tornado than anywhere else in town.”

Mark grabbed a thick black cable to show her. “Now, this is my project this morning. I’m doing some wiring for a new cooktop in the kitchen. Pulling new wire through these old walls and floors is always a challenge, but this stuff—6-gauge cable—it’s really intractable. It’s so stiff and thick—it’s like three heavy wire coat hangers together in a plastic jacket. It comes down there from the kitchen,“ —he pointed to a spot in the basement ceiling— “and I’ve run it over to there, where the new breaker box will be.”

So he had run wire from a cooktop that didn’t work, to a breaker box that didn’t exist yet. He seemed so boyishly enthusiastic about the work that she had to smile. But she could only say, “I don’t know enough about wiring to admire your work properly, but it sounds like a tough job. Do you do a lot of your own wiring?”

“Only the bits that I understand. I’m going to get a real electrician to put in the new service entrance and breaker box, if I ever get the money saved up. Come on, let’s go back up where there’s some better light.”

Back out on the patio, Mark said, “Let’s go up to kitchen. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Yes, thanks. And I’ve brought some bagels—raisin and cream cheese.”

“Great.” Mark slowly climbed the stairs to the back door and led the way into the house.

“You’re limping!” said Sandra. “Did you hurt yourself down there?”

“Oh, I’m sore all over. My feet hurt, my back hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts. The wiring project added my hands to the list, but everything else is from earlier this morning, or from last night, or something. The project was really just to take my mind off my troubles, I guess. It’s a long story.”

“I’ve got a story, too. But start the tea, and tell me yours first.”

Sandra took a seat at the kitchen table and and looked around. It seemed like a kitchen better suited to a big family, not a single man or, for that matter, his elderly grandparents. There were six mismatched wooden chairs around the big kitchen table, and there was a heavy hutch displaying a large collection of blue willow china—enough for twenty hungry relatives. An old double oven was built into one wall. Next to the oven was a big hole in the counter. Apparently that’s where Mark’s new cooktop was going to go. The rest of the countertops were clean and clear. In fact, looking around, Sandra saw that almost every surface in the room was clean and clear. Mark seemed to be a tidy fellow, but with no interest in decoration.

Mark washed his hands, filled an electric kettle at the sink and switched it on, and then brought down a tin of tea bags, two mugs, and two teaspoons. He was indeed moving very stiffly, Sandra thought.

“Well, here it is,” he said, bringing the tea things to the table. “The reason I’m sore all over is because I spent part of the night sleeping in a tree. In fact, I woke up there this morning.”

“I saw the ladder set up outside—was it that tree?”

“Yes, that’s the one. Only, the ladder wasn’t set up there when I woke up. And here’s the thing: I woke up in the tree, but I have no idea how I came to be there. I’ll understand if you’d like to run away now.”

“Oh, I don’t think you’re crazy,” said Sandra. “At least, not dangerously crazy. Go on.”

“Thanks. Well, I went to bed almost as soon as I got home last night. I didn’t drink; I didn’t take any drugs; I don’t even have any drugs. I did have a powerful dream.”

Sandra suddenly thought she knew where this was going. “Let me guess: a flying dream?”

“Yes, a flying dream. At first, in the dream, I struggled, and I couldn’t quite manage to stay in the air. I kept sliding on my stomach through the grass. But later, I figured out how to do it better, and it was amazing. I dreamed I flew all over town. I was on top of the high school. I flew up to the tulip tree. It was very … liberating.

“But then, when I woke up, I was actually in the tree. The ladder was on the ground nearby, where I left it a couple days ago. The only thing I can figure is that I must have used it to climb the tree in my sleep, and then pushed it away.”

“Oh, that’s the only thing you can figure, is it?”

“Yes, it is.” But Sandra thought that the note of belligerence in his voice gave it away: he had thought of another explanation, but he didn’t want to believe it. “Tom Bradford—he’s my mailman—if he hadn’t come by this morning, you’d have found me still trembling in the tree. I couldn’t bring myself to jump.”

“Of course not! You’d break an ankle, at least, from that height.”

“Well, thanks for that. I meant to do it; I just couldn’t bring myself to let go.”

“That’s just your common sense winning out over your stupidity.”

“Hmm … thanks for that too, I guess. Anyway, Tom extended the ladder, set it up against the tree, and watched as I limped pitifully down. Right now he’s spreading the story all over this end of town. I don’t doubt you’ll be hearing some version of it through the grapevine, later today.”

“So then, what? You decided to do a little wiring?”

Mark laughed sheepishly. “I had a bite to eat, and a shower, and changed my clothes. And I sat in the kitchen for a while, feeling sore, and sorry for myself. So then I thought I’d better pull myself together. Working on a project with my hands always makes me feel more … grounded.”

“So, a little therapeutic wiring.”

“Exactly.”

“And now,” said Sandra, “feeling better?”

“Yes, actually, a little. Physically worse, but mentally better.”

“Good,” Sandra said. “Sorry you had such a rough morning.” She looked at Mark closely. He looked okay—quite nice, really, with his hair tousled, and the morning sun shining on his sensitive hands where they rested on the kitchen table. But he didn’t seem comfortable, somehow—not the way a man should be, in is own home, in his own kitchen. Whatever he might say, she thought he looked a bit tender, and not just physically. She decided not to push him on the question of how he ended up in that tree. At least for now.

The tea kettle whooshed and clicked itself off. Mark put a tea bag into his mug and offered the tin to Sandra. “Do you take milk or sugar?”

“No thanks,” she said. “I’d take a slice of lemon, if you have one.”

“Yes, just a minute.” He found a lemon in the refrigerator, sliced it, and brought it to the table. “So now, tell me about your morning. You said you had a story, too.”

While they had their tea and bagels, Sandra told him the story of her prowlers, and her encounter with the police. She ended the story by saying, “So I told the officer all about waking up, hearing prowlers, and chasing them away, but I didn’t offer any information about the Rose Feather Community, and he didn’t ask. He did say he’d be calling on the neighbors today, to let them know there’s been a prowler and to ask if they’ve seen anything unusual. After that, I couldn’t go back to sleep right away, so I’m a bit of a mess this morning. But not as bad as you.”

“You think this is all connected—your prowlers, and the things your other members have reported?”

“Yes. I guess if I hadn’t scared them off, I’d have had my tires slashed or something, like Timi did last month.”

“You started to tell me about this last night. Who else has been vandalized?”

“Besides Timi, there’s Otter and Star. Theirs was the worst, I guess: someone threw their porch swing through their front window. They’re a couple, as I’m sure you gathered, and they’ve been hassled before about that, so it’s hard to be sure. But then Tabby had her mailbox shot up—that’s Tabitha, the mother of Joni, the little girl we helped last night. And maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I can’t help feeling like these things are all connected, and all aimed at us—us as a pagan community.”

“Hate crimes, in fact,” said Mark.

“Yes.”

They ate and drank in silence for a while. Finally, Mark said, “So, about the circle last night—“

“Hold on,” interrupted Sandra. “I want to talk about that too, but I have something to propose first. You’re sore all over; and for my part, I need a vacation, but I have to be back at the tavern by three. So, I have the perfect plan for both of us.”

“What’s that?”

“Soaking in a hot tub. Leone has a really nice spa in his house. He’s pretty generous about sharing it, too. I called him this morning to ask if I could use it while he’s at work, and he said to help myself.”

“Leone?” asked Mark. “Was he at the circle last night?”

“Yes. Strongly built guy, thick beard. So, here’s my plan: let’s postpone the tour of your house, and go have our talk in the tub.”

“I … that sounds heavenly, but …”

“Come on, give it a try. You’ll feel better.”

“You do realize that if anyone found out that I went hot tubbing with a pagan priestess, I’d probably be kicked out of the Corwin Area Pastors Association?”

“Of course—especially since we’ll be skyclad.”

“What?!”

“Why not? As long as you’re going to be defrocked anyway, right?” He was totally falling for it, and blushing like mad. Sandra had an impulse to find out if he’d go through with it, but she restrained herself and let him off the hook. “Just kidding, actually. I brought a bathing suit. Knowing how you Christians are so hung up about nudity.”

“I’d deny it,” he said, still blushing, “but what would be the point?”

“None at all. And just so we’re clear, Pastor, I wasn’t thinking of this as, you know, a romantic thing at all. Think of it as therapeutic. Like wiring, only actually enjoyable.”

“Yeah, okay … I’m in. Hang on a minute while I get my bathing suit.”

Often, Often, Often

The Merry Mystic on Surprise and Hospitality

In this edition of The Merry Mystic, I sing a song about two things God really seems to love: surprise and hospitality. And, hey, it turns out that they’re not unrelated. You can’t really welcome strangers without being open to learning something surprising from them.

One Great Hour

A Merry and Mystical Jingle for the One Great Hour of Sharing

Next Sunday, my church will receive a special offering we call the One Great Hour of Sharing.  My denomination, the United Church of Christ, participates with seven other denominations in this ecumenical relief effort that helps with water projects, food, disaster relief, and building healthy communities in a hundred different countries around the world.  It’s a nice way for a little church like mine to do some good in a bigger way.  We get to feel like we’re part of a worldwide movement, coming together to work together to heal the world in the name of Jesus.

Last week I wrote this little song, to help teach my congregation about the One Great Hour of Sharing.

You can find sheet music for “One Great Hour” in our Free Stuff area.

 

I Remember

A Song of Lenten Remembrance from The Merry Mystic

This week, I’m sharing a new song for Lent. It’s a remembrance of Jesus.

You can find sheet music for “I Remember” in our Free Stuff area.

I hope you enjoyed the song. Now, read on if you’re interested in why I wrote it.

I wrote this song to use in church last week, because I just couldn’t find a Lenten hymn that spoke to me. And the reason I couldn’t find one is because so many of the Lenten hymns in my hymnal include little bits of atonement theory that I’m just not in the mood for.

There’s “Down at the Cross” —

Down at the cross where my Savior died
Down where for cleansing from sin I cried
There to my heart was the blood applied...

And there’s “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” —

Content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.

And there’s “The Old Rugged Cross” —

For upon that old cross Jesus suffered and died
To pardon and sanctify me.

And there’s “Lift High the Cross” —

O Christ, once lifted on the glorious tree
Your death has brought us life eternally.

And there’s “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” —

Was it for crimes that I have done, Christ groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown! and love beyond degree!

And there’s “God Loved the World” —

And justified by Jesus' blood
Your baptism grants the highest good. 

And there’s “O Love, How Vast, How Flowing Free” —

For us was beaten, whipped, and tried,
And taken to be crucified, 
So Love all this for us endured, 
And dying, life for us procured. 

Anybody sensing a pattern here?

Deep in our Christian heritage, going back at least to the Apostle Paul and to the author of the letter to the Hebrews, is this understanding of how Jesus made a difference: that his death accomplished our atonement, somehow paying the price for our sins. I’ve never been a fan of that theory, and last week, I was in no mood to give it yet another airing in church.

Jesus makes a difference for me by his life, by his teaching, by his example, by his continuing presence, and, yes, by his death — by the example of his non-violent acceptance of an unjust and painful death.

And that’s what I tried to put into my song.

The Bible and the HAL 9000

The Merry Mystic Encounters Bible and Computer Problems

So, I had another one of those weeks: another week where, in my work as a pastor, I was called on to try to help someone with a Bible-induced problem. It just makes me so mad—the way so many churches, including mine, burden so many people with these problems. We’re cursing where we should be blessing.

Today I have four simple suggestions about how we can do better.

Goodbye, Cat-Friend

I’m feeling too sad to follow through with my plans for The Merry Mystic this week. My good old cat Justice got too sick over the last couple of days, and today we had to have him put to sleep.

Justice was an ordinary cat in many ways: he loved tuna, watched birds, didn’t like car travel. But one of his extraordinary qualities was his instinct for compassion. Whenever anyone in the family was feeling low or stressed out, Justice would find that person, snuggle down on his or her chest, and purr. He did it for me; I know that he did it for my wife, especially during her father’s final illness and death three years ago. I’ve had a number of cats before, each one special in its way, but I’ll always remember Justice for the comfort he gave to people in need. Well done, thou good and faithful cat-friend.

In his memory, I invite you to re-watch my cat video from last fall, Justice the Ranting Cat.

Letter to Washington

The Merry Mystic Observes a Troubling Contrast

I’m usually more interested in spiritual things than in worldly things. But today, I just can’t separate the two, because I can’t ignore the stark contrast between the teachings of my faith tradition, and the statements and actions now coming out of the White House. I’ve written a letter to my senators and my representative, and I’d like to share it with you.

Meta

The Making of the Merry Mystic

I received two questions this week about how I make my videos. I’m taking that as a sign that it’s time to do a meta-video: a video about how I make videos. Here, you’ll get a quick tour of the hardware, the software, and the production process I’ve been using, at least from the technical end.

From the creative end, of course, it’s a little more complicated. There’s a little hardware and software, but also a lot of wetware and spiritware. That’s hard to describe, because I don’t really understand it myself. Maybe I’ll get around to telling you about it next week.