Thief

Peter, a tall skinny kid in my fifth grade class had sunken eyes, a snaggle-tooth and hollowed-out cheeks. His arms flopped from his shoulders, unhinged. Kids called him the scarecrow, but not the one without a brain. He grasped opportunity and sought to outflank the wide-eyed among us. I sensed his edge and knew him to be meaner than the sum of his skinny parts.

He brought a new game to school one day – quarters. “Do you want to flip?” To play, you and one other player had to flip the coin at the same time. He would call heads or tails. If his coin matched what he called, he kept both. If they didn’t, you went again. If they matched but were opposite of what he called, you kept the coins. That didn’t happen much.

One Tuesday I noticed Peter’s coin-stuffed back pocket. A line of boys faced off and went down. Flip after flip, Peter cleaned each boy out.  I was last in line. Three times in a row we flipped, and in three, my pockets went empty. But, wide-eyed as I was, I knew something was off.

On Wednesday, I watched him work. He asked a lot of questions and popped out with his loud laugh. I plugged my ears and kept my eyes on his hand until I saw it – a fast flutter with the knuckle of his middle finger used to flip the coin just before he lifted his hand for the reveal.

The little thief! I didn’t want to believe it. I called him out and cursed him out. You’re stealing everybody’s money! To my outburst, he asked – what did you expect? With a big oh-well-too-bad he walked away, coins clinking. Since I’m holding this story decades later, I know that though he walked away, I am still here.

When something gets taken, something takes its place. For me, I held onto a promise not to get taken twice. What got taken away was an abiding sense that in this life, I could count on my brothers and sisters to take care of me. What’s your game? What do you want? I’m onto you. Not today, thanks.

Any time you move on with hardness in your heart, even hardness well earned, it makes the way forward harder still. And now, a pack of old stories, full of hard lessons and cynical proof points, want to talk to me again – to tell me that I need to give them another look.  I see reconsideration of this kind as my own way of joining in this change called the Great Turning that writer and thinker Joanna Macy speaks of – mine being more of an inside job culling from the misty playground of my boyhood.

This time around, a grasping hand has to reach not for the familiar, but for the hand of someone unknown or someone I once hated. I ask myself how I would react if I were to reach back to find that it’s Peter’s hand in mine. Coming to grips with my internal Great Turning – that’s how I can participate in my own quiet way.  Where we go now, we must go together. As above, so below. As within, so without. Thieves and saints alike. I can’t see how we’ll get there if we insist on going one by one.

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