Occasionally, a caring presence comes to me while I sleep. He seems to be male in spirit. It’s always the same presence, and over the years, I’ve come to think he watches over me, a sort of father. The encounters seem more a vision than a dream. I’m left with a sense of the man, but the narrative details fade. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the word radius—the straight line between the center of a circle and a point along its circumference. Human lives are bounded by circles—family, community, nation, planet. I see the hate and trouble around us, and I chafe at how limited I am in my reach and my ability to lessen it. I think about my immediate sphere—my family and friends—and don’t know if I should feel happy for the closeness of it, or guilty over how small my circle is.

Consider, for a moment, the photo at the top of this post. It’s of my dad, one of hundreds of family photos that came to my house after my mom passed away. My family is from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which borders Lake Superior on its southern shore. If you’ve never been there, it would be worth your while to visit. My siblings and I think this photo of Dad was probably taken along the Presque Isle River corridor, likely where the river runs into Lake Superior. The way the water rushes and falls, cutting a deep path through that flat, layered rock, is not something a person forgets.

Dad died in 2012. The calendar just reached what would have been a milestone for him. This past week, he would have turned 100. My father grew up a farm boy and continued to love animals and to plow and plant throughout his life. For income, as a young man he worked in the woods at a logging camp. Later, he was a laborer in the local iron and copper mines. Because of those things, as well as having been an airplane mechanic during WWII, Dad had a love affair with machines. Our family would joke that he loved his tractor as much as he loved Mom. He used to say that he wished he could live long enough to reach the century mark. His father had lived to 99, and he’d hoped to beat that. He didn’t, though. Dad’s heart gave out at 88.

I miss him. I moved around a lot in my twenties and early thirties, from the Utah mountains to the saltwater shores of Massachusetts. I got home only once a year—I was still making something of myself and was too poor for repeat trips. When I finally came back to the Midwest for a teaching job in Minnesota, I was able to get home regularly again to our family farm. Mom and Dad had taken it over from my widowed grandmother in the mid-1970s. I loved being able to spend days at a time alone with them. It made up for the decade I was gone. I’m their first-born. Those visits home were sweet—they must have stirred up in me half-conscious memories of our first days together, when it was Daddy and Mommy and me.

On one of those visits home, I stayed up late after my folks had gone to bed and watched a program on TV about the life of a Finnish poet. The area we’re from was heavily settled by Finnish immigrants, including both sides of my family. I don’t remember the Finnish poet’s name, but I’ve never forgotten a particular thing she said.

She was old—her face rich with wrinkles, her eyes watery and half-luminous in that way eyes become later in life. She spoke of her father, long dead. With sudden tears in her eyes, and in her voice, she said she still remembered his smell. She remembered the odor of his collar and neck when he would carry her in his arms—could smell it so strongly, it would make her weep. As she said it, my heart twinged for her, and I smelled the way my own father had smelled when I was small—soap, Brylcreem, and a hint of sweat. I remembered, and I was grateful that he was alive, and well, and by now dreaming in the other room.

* * *

I have somehow come to think that the man in my visions, my protector, is named S.J. I don’t know what it means or where it comes from. What I do know is that he seems to come when I’m troubled or trying to sort something out.

If you’re like me, you worry about the state of things.

The health of the planet, for one. I read the other day that, in Mexico, monkeys are falling dead from the trees in the middle of yet another heatwave, likely from heat stress and dehydration. I was seized with sadness at the picture in my mind of monkeys listless and languishing before they fall, eyes glazed, tongues parched, not knowing why. What can a creature, living its small, precious life, do when the world it inhabits turns against it?

The environment and quality of life where my husband and I live are changing. We’re preparing emotionally for another summer of smoke and toxic air from wildfires to the north. Those of us who live in the northern reaches of the U.S. love our cool, clear summers enough to weather the formidable winters. But the days of pristine air grow fewer each year, and we shake our heads more and more. What could be more important than to understand how modern life is contributing to a decline that affects every creature? What could be more important now than to take steps to reverse it?

It’s senseless and discouraging. Our politicians are indifferent to the declining quality of life, or impotent to take meaningful steps to halt it. Sitting here, writing this and thinking about the hubris and cold-heartedness of so many who are in positions of power, I’ll succumb to a sigh, cradle my face in my hands, and search my head and heart. What can we, living our small, precious lives, do when the world we inhabit turns against us?

It all makes me think of S.J.

I told you at the beginning that I don’t remember the details of the visions. That’s mostly true, but there’s been an exception, one that stayed with me. That encounter with S.J. involved the earth and its creatures. He never speaks. He doesn’t need to—he is love personified. In the vision, he wrapped his arms around me from behind, the way novices wanting to skydive are held secure when they jump from the plane, wrapped in the arms of an expert. The two of us were tethered to a very long cord that was anchored on one end to bedrock. The end we were tethered to suddenly looped up and away from the earth, like a lariat or bullwhip, lofting us into the upper atmosphere.

You would think I couldn’t breathe. But I could.

You would think I’d be afraid—but I wasn’t. S.J. and I sailed above the earth, so blue and green and then dark, wrapped here and there by clouds. We crisscrossed above it, held safely to the planet by the cord. I felt alive, exultant, loved. It was like we were riding an inverted pendulum through the winds of space, back and forth in shifting, sweeping arcs. The earth was beautiful. The earth and its creatures were loved, and beautiful.

* * *



Consider now a second photo, of Dad and me on a seesaw. That’s me, in the little bonnet and jacket. I like to think that S.J. is real—that otherworldly presences care for and guide us—and perhaps they do. But when I recently came across this picture, for perhaps the hundredth time, my mind was instantly grabbed by the memory of S.J. flying with me above the earth.

Given the way the photo cuts off the other end of the seesaw, I’m not sure who it is that Dad and I are balancing with, likely one of my uncles and a cousin. I look at the picture and feel the movement of the board . . . rising . . . falling . . . lifting us through the winds of earth, keeping us safely inside the board’s trajectory. Just the way S.J. and I sailed above the earth in my vision. On the seesaw, Dad’s arms are around me from behind—just as S.J.’s arms were around me.

I stood there holding the photo. Is my father S.J.?

Is my otherworldly protector a product of my imagination, and the vision of our flying above the earth rooted in the memory of being on that seesaw with my dad? Alive, exultant, loved—in the protective radius of his strong arms, his heart the center of the circle. I can’t know, of course. If my father isn’t S.J., it’s lovely to think that his love for me equals in my mind and heart the love of a father-like unearthly presence.

The man who raised my siblings and me had quirks and bad days, like everyone else. But he loved the world and gave us a safe one. Our dad hoped to be around for a hundred years. Celebrating his hundredth birthday for him, I wish I could tell him this—his love for us, the way he loved our mother and cared for creatures and for the earth, will last for many hundreds of years. His children were watching, and they taught their children. It will go on and on that way, for children yet to come.

Donna Salli - Seated - Color

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