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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Midnight Stops

by Eugene Durante

The Manhattan bound train is empty as it lurches forward and begins its midnight journey out of Coney Island. Winter winds whip through the train when its doors open as passengers board at the elevated stations. Most are headed to a night shift job or New York night out. My police radio is dead silent. With only one year on patrol I have yet to learn the best crime fighting efforts do not come from police executives or politicians, but from the tendencies of Mother Nature.

My assignment to late night train patrol was precipitated that winter by a ‘lush worker.’ He was cutting open the pockets of passengers to remove personal items while they slept. The crime is not atypical for the hour or area, and the eyewitness description of the perpetrator was a black male eighteen to thirty years old wearing a black jacket, black jeans, and armed with a box cutter. My platoon had been briefed numerous times about the robbery pattern, and with rookie ambition we certainly generated many stop and frisk reports that winter for the NYPD.

As the train pulled into the Neck Road station, I saw a figure on the opposite platform. He was a tall black man with braided hair, and he wore a full length black jacket and black pants. His hands were in front of him and he was facing the wall while awkwardly pivoting left to right. I could not tell if he was kicking the wall, marking it with paint, or moving back and forth while urinating.

Utilizing the advice of veteran patrol officers, I exited the train and stepped down a few stairs to tactically survey the cloaked figure out of view. Fortunately, his train had also just left and there was ample observation time. His behavior persisted, so I quietly approached for a closer look, but while crossing to his platform I made a common rookie mistake.

My radio had begun screeching and I quickly muffled it with my hands. The male froze, then looked around. I was surprised he heard the noise from the distance, but Neck Road is an eerily silent place at night. Prior to renovation, the train station was a spawning ground for rats and pigeons, and to this day there is not enough revenue to justify staffing the token booth overnight.

Broad shouldered, the curious figure turned my way and stood silent as I slowly approached. His hands were at his sides and his fingers were spread apart. He looked about forty years old from the sporadic gray hairs in his braids. I sensed he was no stranger to being stopped by the police.

“How you doin?” I casually asked, utilizing a common Brooklyn greeting.

“I'm lost,” he said. “I fell asleep on the train.”

Getting closer, I noticed black dress shoes and a black suit beneath the trench coat—not the common attire of a lush worker.

“Must’ve been a good sleep,” I said. “You’ve drooled on yourself.”

He started wiping his coat with a handkerchief, yet he awkwardly looked away and not at the stain as most people would. Then I noticed his walking stick and backpack on the floor next to a garbage pail.

“I know my home station perfectly,” he said gathering his articles, “But I have no idea where I am now. Thank you very much for being here.”

“Just check your belongings, Sir. Unattended items grow legs quickly in Brooklyn,” I replied. “These scummers will steal your walking stick if you weren’t looking.”

He smiled, and with that we broke the ice.

We made small talk as we walked toward the Manhattan bound platform. He reminded me to let the blind person grab your arm for better guidance. We exchanged names as I led him to a bench.

“So how long are you on the job?” he asked while using air quotes. I replied, then I enquired if he was born blind or lost his vision over time.

“My sight has diminished in the last decade,” he said, “but I can still see silhouettes.”

“That's very fortunate,” I encouraged.

“Sometimes I wish I never had vision though,” he said while adjusting his long coat in the thick wooden arm rests of the bench. “I think I'd have less anxiety overall.”

He continued; “Instead of earning my independence as a man in this world, I'm forced to live with my mother and sister for support. I'm blessed that I still have family, but I always dreamed of moving out of the ghetto after college. It's sad enough that I've changed, but I have witnessed myself become a different person to others.”

His voice then cracked, “To the outside world I’ve become a ‘he,’ as in would ‘he’ like a chair or booth, or would ‘he’ like another cup of if ‘I’ never existed. You have no idea what it feels like when I go shopping and I ask the salesman if a shirt is a lighter or darker tone of black, and his response is, ‘Does it really matter?’”

“I used to always date hot women,” he said, “and now I'm alone. Heck, I don't even know what the Spice Girls look like.”

The blind man became silent and looked away into the darkness. The rattle of a distant train started vibrating the tracks. We then boarded the train together, arm-in-arm, toward his home station. On our way we discussed our experiences growing up in Brooklyn and how the city was changing. Upon arriving at Newkirk Avenue he softly pushed my arm away.

“I got this,” he said, and he breezed up the stairs and out to street level. I followed him up the steps, and we stopped together on the sidewalk. I offered to walk him home, but he insisted on walking alone.

“No problem,” I said. “I understand we both have reputations to protect in these parts.” We shook hands and extended that half-a-hug gesture that men do so well.

“Hey, Gene,” he said, “thanks again for being there, and more importantly, thank you for treating me like a regular guy.”

He walked away as my radio reverberated off the buildings on Marlborough Road.
Though I do not remember his name, the man’s heartfelt compliment was poignant and lasting. That appreciation is rarely experienced on patrol any more. Yet after two decades in public service, I’ve learned to embrace the lasting value of small deeds. Helping many people in little ways, with empathy and compassion, can be more beneficial to the spirit than helping a few people in big ways. Such interactions benefit the public by breaking down barriers and cops’ professional selves by promoting positive solutions. As police officers, we’re conditioned to think our careers are defined by newsworthy events, but too often we overlook the touching moments that help us become better cops, and better human beings.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Eugene Durante is an NYPD patrol officer and front row observer of the offbeat. City University of New York educated, Durante received his B.A. in Criminology and his Master's in Public Administration. "Gino" is well-known for not stroking others and not getting stroked in the process. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Taking Refuge

by Marjorie Maddox

          The sixty-year-old volunteer in a coyote T-shirt wipes the sweat from her brow with a brown bandana and then turns to us. “This morning at 10:00 am,” she says, “there were fifty people on this tour.” 
          It is almost 2:00 pm and nearing 100 degrees. There are only four of us waiting on two paint-peeling benches. My daughter and I look around at the large, faded sign and near-empty lot, which we passed twice before deciding we had reached the entrance to our destination. “I guess this is it,” I said just fifteen minutes earlier, as I pulled alongside a still-locked gate. A smaller sign read, “Tour starts here.” A minute later, an elderly man in jeans had strolled out, smiled, unlocked the padlock, and swung wide the gate.
          Since my eighteen-year-old had slept until noon, we would have to suffer the hot sun for the second and last tour of the day. We are joined only by a sporty grandmother and her pre-teen grandson, who is visiting her from California. They have hit the local amusement park they tell us, and tomorrow they will hike under the waterfalls in the nearby state park. Today, though, today is animal refuge day. The grandmother, who is younger than I am, shields her eyes from the sun and nods towards us. “Want some cold water?” she offers.
          “Yeah, sure!” I exclaim, and she retrieves a bottle from the cooler in her nearby SUV.
          “To Cats of the World!” we toast.
          In a sense, my daughter is on vacation as well. At home for a week from her pre-college summer job a few hours away, she has been joining me for day excursions, impromptu adventures in between medical appointments that brought her back to our suburban Pennsylvania home before she begins college classes. “This will be great, Mom,” she says as we pull away from the dentist’s office, the GPS on her iPhone now set to “T & D’s Cats of the World: Animal Refuge Specializing in Exotic Felines and Wildlife.”
          And so she and I, the animal lovers in the family, are off on a last hurrah to explore a thirty-five-acre wild animal refuge way off the beaten path. The site has been open since 1985, but we only just learned of this place, and—although we have ventured out as tourists—we are surprised to find we are not at a tourist attraction, but at someone’s expanded home, a home that has been opened to over 200 abused, rejected, abandoned, or otherwise mistreated animals.
          The elderly owners’ adult daughter, one of the children who has taken over the day-to-day management of the refuge, appears with feed bucket in hand, quickly introduces herself, then turns back to her chores. She nods goodbye to the guide.
I look at my daughter, who is looking at me. “Kinda cool,” I tilt my head and whisper, “It’s just you, me, and them.
          The animals come from circuses, zoos, government agencies, people’s apartments—these lions, tigers, bobcats, but also bear, fox, lemurs, monkeys, parrots, and other creatures. Almost immediately, our guide tears up. She has been driving here twice a week from the next town over for twenty years. Her tears show the volunteer work continues to change her life. As she points out the spider monkeys, she tells us about the pet primate that was dressed up and treated like a baby, the raccoon that was fed primarily candy, and the black bear that was chained for years in a man’s front yard. “What’s the matter with people?” my daughter leans over and asks. What, indeed?
          Near each animal is a sign that lists its donors, who are contributing to that animal’s food and care. “If it could,” I ask my daughter, “what would that otter write on the sign about its own life?”
          My daughter counters, “What, if it could talk, would that skunk tell us?” We giggle, but our questions also are serious. What, we wonder, have the rescued animals learned from the strict teacher of experience?
          While we stare in the eyes of a particularly mischievous monkey, I think of the TV commercials for sponsoring wide-eyed, thin-boned orphans. Yet, though many of this refuges’ animals arrived scared, malnourished, often with bones broken, today they are lazing in the sun, scurrying up and down ramps, swinging from tires, or hiding in the vast expanse of tall grasses. Our guide looks on admiringly. I don’t ask if she has children of her own; clearly she has “adopted” several of the “grown-up kids” at Cats of the World.
          It is the hottest day of the summer, but my daughter, who hated any family vacations that forced her too long in the sun for “educational” tours, is mesmerized. She squints in the bright light to read each creature’s story. The names, we learn, are only known by the owners and volunteers, whose relationship with each allows them to best care for their adopted clan. They, alone, have earned this communication. Visitors calling out bears’ monikers, whistling loudly to the Macaws, throwing bread at the coatis—none of this is allowed, and for good reason, the guide explains. Animals’ well-being over entertainment is the mantra. Diverse places to hide from spectators allow animals the choice of whether or not to be “on display.”
          “These animals are wild, wild, wild,” the volunteer reminds us again and again. She waves her arms for emphasis. “They are not—and never should be—“pets.”” I think of our local SPCA and, even there, of all the returned Christmas presents of rabbits, cats, and dogs—animals that turned out to be too much work for a young child or a busy family. But here, on this family plot turned sanctuary, over 200 creatures leap or growl or splash in a safe environment. If we listen closely to their healing, what will we hear about ourselves?
          On our windy path down dirt roads and around wooded bends, it becomes increasingly obvious that such consistent and safe care of so many is a lifetime of hard work. “Whoa,” the grandmother walking alongside us jokes when she sees the expanse of the property, “What kind of allowance did their kids earn growing up?”
          My daughter rolls her eyes. “Nothing, I’m sure.”
          I wonder at what moment the owners decided to commit their lives, and in turn, their family’s lives, to the nurture not of a few goldfish, guinea pigs, or hamsters, but to this diverse fur-and-feather community. Some parrots, we’re told by the tall and rather cute grandson, live sixty to eighty years. “Eighty years!” my daughter and I exclaim in unison. Eighteen years of raising my daughter zoom past. Eighteen years of preparing her to “fly the nest.” Multiply that by almost four and a half—not exactly a passing fancy.
          Soon, however, we find out that Cats of the World wasn’t a one-moment decision at all. Instead, it was a series of small choices that snowballed. It began, the volunteer tells us, when the father, Terry (the “T” in “T and D’s Cats of the World”) took in injured wildlife discovered by locals. An avid animal lover, he nursed the creatures back to health, then returned them to the wild. Later, when he rescued cougars and bobcats from illegal sales, the word spread. Here was an individual helping abandoned and abused animals. Calls came in from around Pennsylvania, from neighboring states, and then from even farther away. Cats of the World, which started out with wild cats but now hosts much more, unfurled into the homegrown refuge that it is today.
           As we walk along, my daughter and I talk about how—day in and day out— the owners communicate to the animals through action. The fox darting in and out of its man-made den doesn’t bark its gratitude, but it knows its food comes on a long pole through the fence. The brown bear scratching against a tree knows that someone will clean and refill the small swimming pool of water he uses on especially hot days. What really grips us is how many of the animals were captives their entire lives; they can survive no longer on their own in the wild. Others are too weak. Some are rescued birthday entertainment, “photo animals” that were too expensive to keep and would otherwise be put to sleep. We try to look in their eyes, but they are too quick, too busy with their animal lives to heed us. Their communication is made of furtive stuff.
          The owners’ wooded trail provides respite from the heat, so we take another gulp of water and continue with our five-some past wolves, coyotes, lions, and leopards. Our companions, the grandmother and grandson point at a yawning tiger and share a joke about an uncle. My daughter and I marvel at the lanky and beautiful servals, which pay us no mind. They are too busy slinking past each other, communicating in some way with their own family.
          What we also see throughout our trek is the owners’ family. In the background or off to the side, they are sloshing out food, cleaning pens, mowing fields, repairing animal “playgrounds,” and building new shelters. Like their charges, they also pay us no mind—that is, until we ask about the animals. The creatures’ habits, food source, life span: the owner’s daughter is an especially rich source of information.
          The last time I see her, I have one more question. “How,” I ask her as she refills a water trough for the Binturong, “do you ever go on vacation?”  
          She looks at me as if the idea has never occurred to her. “Well,” she says, continuing on with her work, “we don’t.” Then she heads back to a small cart for a shovel. “If I have to be away for a day, I just call my brother. He knows all our routines. But I don’t need to call him often.”
          On the last leg of our educational hike, we stop to see the parrots—all sixty or so. In huge cages, some are huddled together in twos or threes as if conspiring ways to save the world. Others flap from one branch to another in great paintbrush strokes of reds, greens, blues, and yellows. A few, perched alone and aloof, peer out at us: the families displayed on the other side of the bars.
          Social creatures, almost all of the birds are singing. Some are even talking. A Blue Fronted Amazon blurts out what could be “What’s up, pussycat?” but sounds more like “Wasp at?” My daughter takes out her iPhone and begins filming.
          As we finish our journey, my daughter and I bid adieu to the birds and thanks and farewell to our traveling companions. We toss our water bottle in the supplied bin, thank the grandmother again for the drink, and—for the drive home—buy another bottle from the small but well-stocked gift store. Cranking up the air conditioning in our Elantra, we head back to our almost-quiet and cooler home an hour away.
          There Gizmo, the lineolated parakeet that has traveled home with my daughter while her boyfriend vacations with his extended family, whistles his loud Welcome Home song. Automatically, my daughter translates: “I missed you! I missed you!”
          We do our best to whistle back: short, loud bursts, then quiet, breathy ones. It is the rhythm of our communication. After a few minutes, we open the cage and let him fly around the room. When he settles on my daughter’s head, we take turns telling Gizmo the tale of our day. I wonder what, in his smart bird brain, he will think. I wonder what he already knows. About us. About the world. About cats.

Sage Graduate Fellow of Cornell University (MFA) and Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, Marjorie Maddox has published eleven collections of poetry—including True, False, None of the Above; Local News from Someplace Else; Transplant, Transplant, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize); Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award). Another collection, Wives’ Tales, is forthcoming in 2016, and the short story collection What She Was Saying is forthcoming in 2017. She has published over 450 stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. Co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania, she also has published four children’s books. For more information, please visit

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


by Siri Liv Myhrom


Raymond hasn’t eaten in five days. He will go on dying of dehydration, starvation, and cancer for five more days, and we’ll take turns keeping vigil by his bedside, watching him incrementally disappear until we wish him gone, for his sake and ours.

It will finally happen on a stormy, slate-sky Tuesday afternoon, six people surrounding him, earnestly resting flushed hands on his sallow rawboned limbs.

He’ll breathe in—we’ll wait, holding our own living breath—but no exhale will come. And that will be his exit: mouth slightly agape, eyes steady and skyward, a Renaissance saint in rapture. I will sit for an hour beside him afterwards, almost more in awe of this terrible beauty than in grief, wonder for weeks what he saw, wonder still.

Outside, the crab apple trees will be at their fullest, the arching, wind-blown branches crowded and busy with sturdy white blossoms that keep shaking off the rain.


Four months later, it will be my mother. Some floodgate will open in her brain, some explosion of light and blood at the base of her skull, a bright flash. She will look at my brother and say, I feel so tired. He’ll say, Come in the living room and sit down. She’ll say, But it’s so far, even though she’s only ten feet away from the chair.

Then the blood tide will rise too fast and strong in her brain, and she will drown right there in my brother’s living room, ninety seconds from start to finish.

I’ll sit with her in the hospital room, every part of her that mattered already snuffed out, but in the absence of her, I’ll cling to what’s left: those artist’s hands, the soft flesh of her upper arms, the long, warm space between jaw and collar bone. I’ll sing to her all the hymns I know by heart, the ones she loved, because it is the only way I can figure out what to say to her about what I am witnessing.

Even after the breathing tube is pulled, she will work so hard to die, for hours, through the entire night and into the morning, her whole sternum heaving, the gurgling inhalations and the sour exhalations fluttering and halting. This is a sound, along with my father’s muffled sobbing into her chest, that will relentlessly revisit me in memory.

The last moment will be just that: a moment. She’ll let her breath all out, finally letting go, her ribcage depressed, my ribcage on fire. Nothing but white and the faint beeping in the room. I’ll think, Even if this is it, even if there is no heaven, this painless quiet is enough. The blazing blue September sky outside the window, and all the embered trees, will bow in agreement. 


Jeff will choose to die at home. We will take turns sitting with him during the night, having our own surreal and mundane conversations about ordering pizza, feeding the cat, washing dishes—all this brash talk of living things in the presence of the dying.

Finally, his breath will soften and slow. He will bring his teeth lightly together with each inhale, his mouth barely open, like he is tasting and chewing the very last of life. His new bride, Marti, will put her head on his chest, will hold his wounded head—the source of all this misery, the surgeries and still the insistent tentacles of tumor. She will kiss him over and over, will give him permission to finish this one last meal of air.

And he’ll listen. That last breath will be a holy trailing thread that holds him here one moment and then just releases him into the embrace of some soft compelling Invitation. It will be so tender a passing that she will have to ask, Is he gone? Did he go?

Then in the brittle winter morning light, we will wash his still-warm skin with cloths dipped in a metal bowl of steaming soapy water and lavender oil, a sacred offering on this All Saint’s Day. We’ll dress him, awkwardly heft his bony body from bed to wooden coffin. We’ll weight his eyes with quarters, tie his jaw, arrange his arms and legs, line his body with ice packs, line the coffin with sunflowers and lilies, adorn the room with a summer’s worth of flowers. Other than the rare whispered question, we’ll move mostly in silence, so gently, so gently, knowing we are inside a consecrated moment, that we have stood at the temple door between Here and Not Here.


On a warm June evening, I will open the garage door to get the reel mower, and I will see a baby robin with his head tucked under his wing. I will know something is amiss when he doesn’t startle or try to escape at my approach, when he lets me pick him up with little protest. I won't know how he got in or how long he's been there.

I will take him out in the back yard, hoping the fresh air and close light will revive him. I’ll give him a few eye droppers of water, which he will quietly drink.

My three-year-old will hold him so gently and say, He looks tired. Maybe his momma will come get him soon and snuggle with him. I think she will. But his breathing will be getting erratic by this time, and he’ll keep closing his eyes, and because I believe in telling her the truth about these things, I’ll talk about the fact that he is probably dying. She’ll take this news with a kind of sagely acceptance: it is what it is.

Is his brain hurt? she’ll ask, reaching back almost nine months to the conversations I had with her, when she was two, about my mother. I’ll marvel again at how kids don't miss a thing—and how they resurrect moments and make connections in the weirdest, most clairvoyant ways.

She will go inside to take a bath, and I’ll hold him again, press him up to the warmth and pulse of my neck.

And how can I not think of every creature I have ever loved, every being I’ve held as it left, everyone I love right now with such a ferocity that I hardly know what to do with it? As soon as I commit to sitting in one small moment where I’m paying attention and not flinching or distracting or numbing myself, I’ve committed to sitting with all of it, and it's always a little bit like drowning.

I’ll make a bed for him in the mulchy leaves under the dense hosta. His eyes will be closed and his feet curled, though his chest will still be moving—but I will know by now when there's nothing left to do. There's so much I can't do a thing about except be a witness. And it will seem strange to me, since so much of life is letting go—most of it, really—that it is still such an awfully hard thing to do.

Siri Liv Myhrom is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis, MN with her husband and two young daughters. "Vanishing" is part of a larger nonfiction collection of conversations with grief. She can be found as an occasional guest contributor to the OnBeing blog.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Masters of Universes

by Ryan Harper

          It was a regularly televised conversion. Adam holds aloft the mystical Power Sword and exclaims, “by the power of Grayskull….” The sword draws fire from heaven, and it enters Adam—blowing his clothes off and transforming him into He-Man. Before the scene ends, the bare-chested hero lowers the sword, holds it horizontally, and finishes the sentence in a reverberating voice: “…I have the power!” The conversion was always sudden, and it was usually late.
I watched He-Man and the Masters of the Universe religiously as a boy. It was one in a series of after-school cartoons that provided the content for my young imagination: G.I. Joe, Transformers, Voltron, Thundercats. My parents and grandparents furnished me with the action figures, even Mattel’s playset masterpiece, Castle Grayskull. In addition to playing with the toys, I started dramatizing He-Man episodes. After constructing a passable replica of the Power Sword using my erector set, I—Adam, He-Man’s Clark Kent—would run wildly around the house, as if I were being chased by He-Man’s arch nemesis Skeletor and his henchmen. Then, finally cornered by the imaginary adversaries, I would stop, settle myself, and rehearse the moment when Adam put away his old self: By the power of Grayskull…quickly dropping the sword, removing my shirt, picking up the sword again…I have the power! Shit was about to get real.
My mother stayed at home during my formative years, so she bore witness to this spectacle. One day, after hearing me perform this incantation the fourth or fifth time, she took me aside and gently informed me that she did not want me saying those words. She then smiled as she suggested what she obviously regarded as a plausible alternative: “Why don’t you say, ‘by the power of Jesus?’”
I knew enough to tilt my head and nod reflectively, as if her suggestion seemed plausible to me. It was not. I was embarrassed, horrified, and a little bewildered at her proposal.
This was not because I did not believe in the power of Jesus. I was a good young evangelical. I already had been “saved”—prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I spent most of my weekends traveling to revivals and church homecomings, singing and playing drums in my family’s southern gospel singing group. Rather, I felt uneasy about my mother’s suggestion because, it seemed obvious to me, He-Man’s world, Eternia, did not include Jesus as a character. Eternia was make-believe. A different set of powers and principalities were in play there—“good” and “evil” forces that I recognized as having analogues in the real world, but fictional forces nonetheless. To introduce Jesus into the drama—who was made and remade real for me at every weekend Pentecostal revival, every dinner conversation, every moment lived in a region in which even the profane citizens lived inside the broad shadow of the evangelical cross—would have been like introducing my grandpa or my dentist. Giving Jesus an explicit role in Eternia, I thought, made him less real.
My mother did not share my view towards fictional realms of play. She had a radically holistic view of the Gospel’s reach. For her, the spirit of Christ was at work in even the seemingly innocuous, recreational aspects of life—including the imagination and its products. Naming Jesus in Eternia was simply identifying he who had been active, anonymously, the whole time, like Paul revealing to the Athenians the true identity of their unknown god. We were conservative evangelical Christians—not fundamentalists, who shunned all worldly entertainments, whose households would not have contained Mattel’s Castle Grayskull. As such, we did what believers had been doing since Constantine, if not Paul: we converted the accoutrements of paganism into Christian icons. My mother responded to my dabbling in the black arts of Grayskull by transforming Grayskull into Golgotha.
Of course, the transformation only was worth undertaking if the paganism in question had some usable features. It certainly was important for a young evangelical male to have manly heroes. He-Man became a mass-market sensation in the early 1980s, which Reagan had wrested from Carter. For most evangelicals, a warrior of dubious religiosity seemed preferable to a pious but soft patriarch. A year before my He-Man controversy, I requested a Cabbage Patch Kid for Christmas. My father, who refused to let me have a “girl’s toy,” compromised and selected for me a doll from the feline section of the Cabbage Patch—a “Koosa” whom I named Prince, after a secular musician about whom I knew nothing, on whom I could lavish a fictive love more akin to a pet owner’s than a mother’s. No one in my family had the equipment to understand that the bob-haired, hot-pants-wearing hero of Grayskull and his various life partners (characters with names like Man-At-Arms, Man-E-Faces, and…sweet Jesus…Ram-Man) undermined evangelical gender norms much more seriously (and, I now see, much more hilariously) than did Xavier Roberts’s homely creations. Having supplied me with the action figures and the playset, my parents obviously thought that, with a slight rewrite, the man from Eternia was a serviceable evangelical hero for a boy.
But as soon as my mother suggested her rewrite, by the power of Jesus, it was clear to me that I would no longer play He-Man out loud in the house. The prospect of saying “by the power of Jesus” inside Eternia, even when I was playing alone there, sent an embarrassed shudder through me—that sort of shame over an unrealized iteration that occurs when you think some horrible thought during a job interview and realize how easy it would be to open your mouth and let the thought pass into a world in which it does not belong, thus spoiling entire realms of possibilities, irreparably. I disassembled my Power Sword and summoned Prince from my shelf.
I was miffed at having to reroute my playtime, but I never harbored resentment toward my mother. She and I have gone over this episode in my adulthood, and she now laughs at her excessive, if well-meaning, parental policing. I am now the age my mother was when the episode occurred. It occurs to me how easily my late-thirties self—now equipped with one graduate degree in theological studies, one more in religious studies—could offer a much richer, more systematic, and consequently more joy-killing gloss on He-Man than she did. She taught me well. Was not Adam’s animated transformation, with Grayskull in the background, suggestive of the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice on Golgotha, available to all who would call on its power? Was not Adam transformed by the power of Golgotha into the new Adam? Was not He-Man’s turning of the Power Sword from its vertical to its horizontal position emblematic of justification and sanctification: a Christian is made well by power from above, and then is called to use that power to lead a holy life “horizontally,” in this world? Was not Adam’s decision to share his superhero identity only with a select few akin to the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus, who instructed his few open-eyed followers to tell no one he was the Messiah? Imagine a boy being subject to such a parental disquisition!
I would not state these cases to my child because I no longer think such matters are all that important. But I do think some matters are just that important. I may no longer be an evangelical, but I retain my old evangelical disposition to read, interpret, and criticize all aspects of my culture. I retain that sense that whatsoever all of us do (and take in) constitutes us as moral beings—even, perhaps especially, the quotidian endeavors. I am a writer. I still believe words possess concrete and concretizing power; I might believe this more expansively, if less metaphysically, than I did as a child. I’d like to think that growing up in an evangelical universe equipped me to detect hard-to-see patterns of injustice in the world and its various tongues. I can imagine harboring my own misgivings over a child watching a show like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe—the thirty-minute toy advertisement, the Anglo-Saxon heroes pitted against animalian or dark-skinned villains, the equation of muscle with virtue. How much more obnoxious would I be than my mother was, in my attempt to route the fantasies of a life under my charge?
          I hope I would not be obnoxious. But I hope I would care, as my mother did, about how inner and outer worlds converge. I hope I am sensible to what arrives in a life, to how a life arrives, to the processes of arrival.
Or perhaps I am still an evangelical. For all their Damascus Road rhetoric—their altar calls, their singular born-again moments, their rejoicing at the tales of sudden deathbed conversions—evangelicals do not play fast and loose with dramatic denouement. I was brought up to understand the sanctified life as a long slog. My evangelicalism had an Emersonian edge: the soul becomes. My favorite boyhood cartoons, animated at the height of American mass consumerism, the age of immediate fulfillment and quick, short-term gains, suggested the opposite. Although his individual might was never enough to vanquish his foes, Lion-O, protagonist of The Thundercats, always summoned the rest of the Thundercats when he was cornered, late in the game, with great fanfare and sudden success. Although individually the heroic robotic lions in Voltron were never a match for their antagonist du jour, the lions only merged, to form the super-robot Voltron, in the episode’s final minutes—again, with great fanfare and success. It was the same with Adam, who typically conjured Grayskull’s power when the enemy was right at the gate. I suspect that if you did the tally, you’d find that Adam spent a lot more time as Adam than he did as He-Man in those cartoons.
On some level, the arc of those stories must have grated against my mother’s sensibilities, even as she found usable features in them. In imagination and in reality, there is something profane about coming intentionally late to the fullness of your power, about thinking you can postpone the achievement of your higher self until a sudden, final moment. By the power of Grayskull—my mother was right—I would be raised better.  

Ryan Harper is a visiting assistant professor in New York University’s Religious Studies Program. Some of his recent poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming at Kestrel, Mississippi Review, Appalachian Heritage, Berkeley Poetry Review, Killing the Buddha, Urban Farmhouse Press, and elsewhere. Ryan’s ethnography of contemporary southern gospel music will appear via the University Press of Mississippi in late 2016 and his poetry chapbook Memphis Left at Cairo is available through Finishing Line Press. He lives in New York City.