given the chance…


The invitation had surprised her. In fact, she had stared at it in disbelief for a full two minutes before re-checking the name on the envelope and its return address. Still using conventional mail, she had mused. 

The change since her departure from this privileged, self-assured, megachurch context had been dramatic; her life had taken twists and turns few knew about. But here she was: keynote speaker at one of the largest charismatic evangelical conferences in the south. 

Preparation for the speech had forced her into murky recesses of experience, and had demanded her return into a once familiar theology. 

As she mounts the podium, glaring lights of television cameras focus on her. For an instant she hesitates, but her determination is emboldened by secrets neatly stored in dank church memories, propelling her forward. 

“Good evening, people of God,” she hears her own voice, suddenly strong and clear. 

“Thank you for the privilege of addressing this rally of distinguished world changers and history makers who get up every day fulfilling purpose,” she turns to acknowledge the dozen or so men and women on the stage behind her. Their perfectly artificial faces gleam. 

“It’s time for gratitude,” she continues. “We are here for such a time as this.” 

After these opening words she becomes blessedly unaware of everyone and everything around her. 

“Thank you! Thank you for the mess we’re in in this country — for delivering a vile, hateful, unscrupulous president who routinely utters language and makes decisions that would have previously caused the most calloused among us to cringe. Thank you for enshrining a cadre of his clones to do his bidding. Because you support them all, I owe you a debt of gratitude. 

Thank you for protecting the strong, the powerful, the rich, the white, the males — for allowing them to enjoy their protected positions, while sometimes taking time out to allege horror at ‘false’ accusations leveled against …themselves. 

Thank you for mocking the disabled, survivors of trauma, those struggling in the aftermath of national disasters, those whose sons and daughters have given their lives for our country. 

Thank you for disbelieving women who come forward in our homes, schools, places of work, communities, and churches to share their stories of assault and abuse at the hands of men. 

Thank you for separating small children from their families under the pretense of national security. 

Thank you for causing so much fear that now everyone looks over their shoulder, assuming those who don’t look like us pose a threat.

Thank you for ensuring that more people of color than ever before will be incarcerated or dead in our communities. 

Thank you for paying lip service to caring for the marginalized while giving enormous breaks to the wealthy again and again. 

Thank you for making it easier to destroy our already fragile and reeling planet by cutting environmental protections and allowing violations to public lands and national treasures. 

Thank you for giving hostile powers free access to manipulate and control our masses while making it increasingly difficult for our own citizens to vote. 

Thank you for being tone deaf to millions who demand justice whether it’s for women, people of color, the immigrant, those who’ve been the target of indiscriminate killings, or simply any group who isn’t you!

Oh, you didn’t do this? That’s interesting. You go to great lengths to re-define Scripture to protect those in power, going so far as to call them men of God. 

We owe a debt of gratitude to YOU, the leaders of evangelical, charismatic, and denominational Christian churches who have spent decades deliberately re-wiring your flock spiritually and mentally; paralyzing them; destroying their ability to discern!

You know just how you’ve done this—but in case your flock doesn’t, let me be explicit.

Because you routinely lie to your people, yet demand complete and unquestioning allegiance, your flock has come to disconnect truth from quality leadership. 

Because you steal from your people, yet demand more and more, your flock believes it’s part of their ‘covenant’ to give and give, and to allow the recipients to use, spend, and live indiscriminately. 

Because you do not hesitate to take what is not yours sexually by way of prostitution, pornography, child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, or any other form of power, your flock no longer sees this type of behavior as disqualifying for anyone regardless of which level of office is in question.  

Because you show no restraint in spending parishioners’ donations to expand your empire without input from anyone except your inner circle, your flock discerns no disconnect when trillions of potential tax dollars are cut, benefitting the very wealthiest while education and healthcare deteriorate to alarming lows and costs become insurmountable. 

Because your personal and church life moves from one crisis, one scandal, one accusation to another, giving no space for process, your faithful find the folding of one scandal and horror into the next an everyday affair; personal survival necessitates turning a blind eye. 

Because you groom women, men, teenagers, girls, and boys to see males as superior to females, even some women will rather side with an abuser than stand up for those who rise up against patriarchal oppression. 

Because you ensure your ongoing grip on your flock by touting the grim, incorrectly applied warning, ‘touch not God’s anointed,’ your flock is silenced through fear. 

It’s on YOU — it’s yours to embrace and defend. Every leader of an evangelical, charismatic, and denominational church who still supports what we see played out on our national stage every moment of every day bears responsibility for the devastating results. 

Own it. 
Explain it. 
But please don’t claim Jesus as being any part of your leadership or church.” 

She mops her face with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. The cup in her shaking hand is cold, but it contains coffee, not kool-aid.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2018
Photo credit: Jametlene Reskp via

❤ Happy Valentine’s Day ❤

Hello, friends!

I’m taking a break from my usual posts to let you know that it won’t be long until my pre-publication photography and poetry booklet will be ready for you. I’m so excited to share it! ✍🏼📚

In the meantime, I’m giving you a Valentine’s Day offer you can’t resist!

My book, “Behind Each Face”–twenty-five Flash Fiction stories honoring women’s and girls’ lives–is available NOW at deeply discounted prices. But only between now and Friday, February 16th.

  • $0.99 (USD) for your Kindle copy here:
  • Or half-price–$7.50 (USD)–for your Audiobook here:
  • Or give your partner/spouse, mom, daughter, grandma, or friend a paperback copy for Valentine’s Day here. Or simply treat yourself! 😊

I’m even more committed to these stories now than when this book was first published. Why? Because we are hearing more and more women, girls, and vulnerable populations speaking their truth–very much like those told in these short stories! Don’t miss this opportunity! 

follow me on Instagram: @julia_penner_zook
© Julia Penner-Zook, 2015 publication release.


She blinked twice, gazing toward the flaming orange ball which kissed summer’s western horizon, blue eyes, narrowed to half their usual size, partially hidden behind circular wire spectacles. She stood outside a freshly stained garden fence, and though she leaned lightly on a wooden cane,  everything about her frail form vibrated with vigor. Her white curls, cropped to within inches of her scalp, were a dashing contrast to the swirling emerald silk blouse, which draped daringly over form fitting denim capris. One would think this an odd fashion choice, given her age and diminutive frame, but those who knew her would tell you that none of her choices had been remotely conventional or predictable.

She had left her hometown as a very young woman, filled with dreams, vision and a hefty dose of naïveté. Judged solely by  outward appearance, she could have been labeled a risk taker, a jetsetter,  possibly even someone who basked in the smile of the Divine.

With little apparent effort she achieved what many craved: marriage to a young man of endless possibilities, two beautiful children, opportunities for education, travel, and a career in a field heavily dominated by men. Her life seemed to float on azure waters toward an alluring destination, just as sleek ocean liners sailed away toward a dream world, created in the minds of those left to pine on confining shores.

Years plodded on. She visited on occasion, mostly to spend time with her aging, always doting parents, intentionally or quite by accident neglecting those with whom she had shared school desk, musical bench, science lab, church choir. Her steely focus and preoccupation stemmed from her drive to make a difference. Succeed. Survive.

This drive eventually deposited her at the edge – the precipice of more demand, more investment, more production, more nurture. The first time she found herself precariously dangled near the slippery cliff, she recoiled in terror at its cavernous depth. What was this? She could not move, completely dependent on rescue teams that swarmed around. All she could do was wait. Wait and fear. Quietly, over time, she reeled herself in unobtrusively, strapping an invisible harness around her soul, determined to secure herself in fervent devotion.

This experience left her guarded, however, ever watchful for signs of its return. None came, and slowly her body and soul loosed their grip on all protective trappings.

It was a cloudless night, the culmination of a midsummer festival when a jarring dissonance snaked its way to her again, first beguiling, then tearing at the protective layers of talent, humor and abandoned engagement. Her eyes darted from one to the next, trusting no one, retreating. She pulled an invisible veil about herself – an effort to create safety from the dreaded exposure the cunning trickster forced upon her. Nakedness! She could not bear derision and disdain, as one discarded as a fraud. She resolved to remain hidden behind grace, goodness, gentleness.

Again and again – without warning – she endured the rampage of the destroyer, each time wearing an unknown mask, as if on a medieval stage. With every encounter she feared the loss of yet another fragment of her soul.

Face down she searched what still remained of that soul. What had been the warning signs? Could she have seen, known, predicted? Why could she no longer recognize herself? Years passed; worry etched furrows into her once youthful face; the light of her eyes dulled to a gray haze.

There was no panacea, no respite, not even a random thundershower in a prolonged drought. The blazing heat of the emotional desert baked her soul, scorched her spirit and deposited fine sand into the once active gears of her fertile mind. She sat as one lost to the world – even to herself.

All was still. The oven-like heat was mitigated by cool nights, the shade of scant desert vegetation, and drastically reduced expectations. One season gave way to the next as her spirit grew accustomed to a lack of external nourishment. Her heart felt the burden of suffering, the magnitude of death, the embrace of loneliness. But nothing obscured the daily sunset with its kaleidoscope of color, the harbinger of a bejeweled nighttime sky which, strangely, she came to anticipate. Hot winds shriveled the extraneous from her soul’s skeleton, leaving her with only the core essence of what it means to be human.

Emergence was so gradual that neither she nor those close to her could re-create a timeline. It was a release, a metamorphosis, like a climb up a stone stairway into the brilliance of noontime, out of a dark underground space similar to where pottery is regularly carried for firing. She emerged in otherworldly color, mesmerizing simplicity, resilient texture, finally rendered indestructible. The ravine, the fire, the desert no longer carried menace. All that had fallen over the precipice, the ashes left charred at her feet, the stripping of the desert had done nothing other than create undying beauty and extravagant new life. Like the forest floor after a ravaging fire is filled with seeds, all willing to carry it forward into an eternity of splendor, so she held within her soul the life which only danger, pain and loss could have set free.

So here she stood, enchanted by the sight at the garden fence. They had come for her, though none would have been obligated to do so. They had come because of her. They were young. Old. Every color and creed. Big and small. Opulent and oppressed. Self absorbed and self abased. A vast chorus of etherial melody.

A hush fell upon them, until she flung the gate wide, propped it open with her cane, and threw her arms out in welcome. Or was it they who welcomed her? She did not know, nor did it matter. They were her people. They were one.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2017
Photo Credit: © Stacey L. Rhoades. Used with permission.


This story was originally written in 2015. It’s part of 25 flash fiction stories published in June, 2015. At that time I was reluctant to include it in this collection, wondering if it was simply too extreme–that it would seem too sensational.

A mere two years later, on January 20, 2017, Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke tweeted the following:


At this point I’m convinced this story is far from extreme. This stark reality represents an existential threat to many.


It was an uncomfortable day in early June—the second day of summer vacation after Kenya’s first year of middle school. Whatever that was. She lay sprawled on the living room floor, in direct line of a weak fan, vacantly paging through a book she’d been encouraged to read. She loved to read. That wasn’t the problem. But she would have loved to decide what she would read during her free time.

The sharp pounding on the front door, mere inches from where she lay, jerked her body to attention. Terror instantly invaded her dark eyes. The last time this had happened in their economically depressed neighborhood, their house had been targeted by a loud, demanding group of hooded men. Who were they? What did they want? Why were they dressed like that? Her mother had been vague and had tried to brush it off, but her blue eyes had revealed her own panic.

Her heart pounded as her stepfather strode to the door. “Kenya, get outta here. Now!” he barked as he passed. Quick as a hummingbird, she flitted under the table in the adjacent room.

Her stepfather was a minister in a small rural church made up exclusively of white folk. Except for her, of course. She was “black”. At least that’s what he had told her years ago. She never referred to her stepfather by his given name and she refused to call him Dad. Her real dad was a pharmacist in the city. She saw him on holidays.

She could hear his voice, low and tersely appeasing. “No, brothers,” he spat out, “I am with you. I am one of you! Don’t forget that!”

Kenya slowly peered around the corner, then pulled a breath in sharply. Hoods! She disappeared and slunk to the far end under the table. More loud, almost indistinguishable sounds from under formidable hoods. She could only make out a few words. “… she has to go …” and “… she’s not one of us …” was all she could hear.

Instinctively she knew whom they were talking about. A cold shiver ran down her sweaty back. Horror gripped her. She had once wanted to check out a book from the library that had a picture of people dressed in white hoods on the jacket, but her mother had quickly snatched if from her, stating it was “unsuitable.” And because she didn’t go to school, she had never had the opportunity to ask anyone about it.

The voices hissed and droned, rose and fell. They were not giving in and neither was her stepfather. She could tell by his voice that he was getting angry.

But why? Why her? “Not one of us”? Why not? Her family lived here; they went to church here; she went to the store with her mother and four half-brothers and sisters here.

“You’re black. You’re black. You’re black.” The words she’d heard from him years ago reverberated through her brain.

“No, I’m not!” she had argued, looking down at her pale cappuccino colored arm. She had been four. “I’m not black! I’m … I’m beige,” she had insisted, having just learned various nuances of color.

But there had been no arguing. She was black. That was it. He had said so.

Kenya’s entire body shook with humiliation and fear. She hated who she was. When she was old enough to run away, she would go to the hair salon and have them put light brown dye into her hair. Like her granny’s hair.

But, of course, she hadn’t seen her granny in a very long time because she had been there when he had called her black. Granny had said that black was lovely, but that she could be beige if she wished. Granny had fought for her. For her “Baby Kenya” as she’d called her. No one called her Baby Kenya now and she longed to hear that voice again. Not that she was a baby, but because her granny said she would always love her no matter what.

He stormed back into the house, slamming the door. Rage was in his step. Her thoughts quickly went to what to do next. She never knew.

“Ken? Where are you!?” She hated being called Ken. That was a boy’s name, but he hated Kenya, as he said it made her sound like she belonged in Africa. And that must always remind him that she wasn’t white. Not the perfect, holy, Sunday-school-picture color that he said he and her mother and siblings were.

His shoes appeared next to the table near her and he stooped to peer under. “Get outta there,” he snarled, grabbing her right arm even though she was already wiggling her body out.

“Stop that! That hurts,” she wailed, not even looking into his steely eyes. “Robot eyes” is what she called them. But only to herself. Never out loud.

He shook her again. “You! You’re to blame for all of this! If you weren’t … black.” He heaved her arm down with disgust and turned to leave the room. “If that damn girl weren’t …,” he spat at Kenya’s mother, “…a…a fuckin’…,” he paused again. Furious.

Kenya knew all too well which word he meant to use. He’d used it so often in the past and it had broken her. “If we didn’t have her,” his words were laced with contempt, “We wouldn’t have these problems.”

Her head dropped, tears collected in her eyes, fists clenched. Every time he lashed out, he left her destroyed. Humiliated. Violated. Discarded.

Something moved in the doorway he had just roared through. Without even lifting her face, she knew it was her mother. When she did turn, she saw her weary mother mouth the words, “I’m sorry.”

Quickly Kenya turned and went to her room. She threw herself onto her bed, sobs wrenching her body. She wished more than anything that she could go far, far away, color her hair and read any book she wished.

One day I will, she vowed. You wait–one day I will.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2017
Photo credit: Twitter feed

Dark Witness

img_1523Panic leaps into her cerulean eyes as her attention is suddenly diverted away from his earnest, dark face, beyond his left shoulder and through the floor to ceiling glass panels. Her eyes are transfixed. There he is! Proud. Confident. The one who mesmerizes the masses. Words lodge unspoken in her throat while an invisible chisel slowly carves a deep, questioning furrow into the brow of the man directly opposite her.

What had been the chances? How could she have known he would walk in – into what should have been a safe place? Her frantic mind thrashes here and there as she second-guesses her decision to seek out a trusted friend in public. Now, anything could happen!

Her heart beats wildly, breath coming in short spurts.

“There he is! What will I do now?” she manages to utter, her voice breaking.

She feels heat crawl up her neck, then snake it’s way across her face. His only response is a calm, reserved silence. Her eyes narrow, trying to discern what is transpiring in his active mind. Is he sifting through potential scenarios? Allowing memories to file by? Is he fearful of what may happen? She cannot tell, but she needs some directive – guidance in how to handle whatever it is that will happen when he opens the door to this mountain lodge.

Time stalls. The squeak of the front door being flung wide open slices into her thoughts.

“Mornin’ doll!” the newcomer, stamping snow from his boots, croons toward the shapely bartender. “The Prince will have his usual.” His smile flashes, perfect and white.

In a corner seating area, slinking low in her chair, she shudders. “Prince” indeed – shimmering and dazzling, unlike the lodge’s inconspicuous other imbibers! Before she has another chance to inhale, he turns sharply, facing her directly. She withers!

“Well, look who dragged themselves into this sublime little spot!” he shouts with inflated bravado. He doesn’t wait for his drink, but rather strides to the corner where they are seated, still facing each another. She realizes in horror, that her words are trapped – muffled under years of subservience, demanded allegiance and desperate feelings of inferiority. He was the master; she, a mere serf in the Empire.

“You!” he bellows, not to her, but to the poised man who sits with his back to the assailant. “You betrayed me! You’ve stolen right out from under me! You low-down SOB!

An unholy hush settles on the place as every person speaks earnestly to the one across a table, works busily, or stares intently into the blazing fire. The tall man across from her rises, pivots to face his accuser, holding his gaze with resolve.

“Excuse me, sir. I’m in a meeting – in a public place. You have no right to address me in this way. Please contact me personally if you wish to speak to me.”

Humiliated that someone dared call out his behavior – and, before many witnesses – the aggressor’s response reflects rIssing hostility.

“You shameless swindler,” he seethes, his face contorting, “I have nothing more to say to you! I’ll see you in court!” And with that he spins around, leaving his White Rascal untouched at the bar, and storms back outside.

She shrivels further, shrinking to a mere fraction of who her already diminished person had become. All is still. Her entire body is tense, her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth and she is painfully aware of furtive glances coming from other customers, who, moments earlier, had simply enjoyed the same enchanted space. She lowers her head, ashamed. She wishes she could evaporate instead of needing to consider the long walk of shame out of the bar.

He clears his throat. She wishes she could ignore his presence, feeling she is responsible for his public humiliation. Her mind searches in vain for justification. For a reason. What had possessed her to invite him to talk here? Now? She raises confused eyes.

There is no blame in his face; his ebony eyes reveal kindness that cannot be fabricated. “It’s not your fault. How could you have known?” was all he said.

She is haunted, day after day, and night upon dreaded night. She ponders, questions, seeks explanations and cannot find peace. Why is this incident so unsettling? she asks herself over and over again.

The rumors that this “Prince” – this highly revered leader – was not only arrogant and proud, but also led a double life, were many. She had been vehement in her refusal to believe them. She had defended him, given him the benefit of the doubt, sworn he was ethical, respectful and authentic, always having the best intentions. But after that day, she was plagued. Why was she so tormented? Had she been duped? Had they all been systematically deluded? That possibility paralyzed her.

Insomnia encroached on her nights. Debilitating self-incrimination for her lack of faith to manage her life added to her guilt.

She sees their kingpin walk into the glaring lights. Standing before a large gathering of the faithful – men and women; diverse in race and economic status. The hush is broken by his words:

His eyes dart from left to right. “You’re all traitors! Every one of you…but especially…” his voice trails, hissing into the microphone.

Terror is tangible. They confuse it with respect.

“I know you won’t betray me again! I know you’ll all be there for me now,” his eyes narrow; his words slow, nearly inaudible.

“You will do as I say,” his half-smile drapes over a crooked snarl, “because you know everything I do is for you!”

Her own shrieking voice pierces the night as she bolts upright in bed. Oh God, how could she have missed it? Her inability to function after the disquieting exchange in the lodge is not about her at all. It is bigger; deeper. She is ashen. It will be years until she begins to comprehend.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2017
Photo credit: Robin T.


Dance of the Divine

A photo by Tyssul Patel. day had dawned gloriously; bright and full of hope. A breathless troupe had huddled over her slippery, squirming, screaming form. She, too, had been perfect. So much potential and promise. There was nothing she could not reach for, achieve, contribute. At least this was the message that now echoed in the remote chambers of her active mind.

Nothing indeed! She had been presented with a combination of nurture and demand, a plethora of opportunities, experiences, mentors, coaches and professors! She was destined to flourish! Be a success. Eclipse the ordinary.

Valiantly she had complied; exerted herself; risen higher than any of them had dared dream. Her reputation as a relentless debater, along with her skilled interpretation of securities law had brought exclusive opportunities and unsolicited attention.

Every day she had forged ahead, focused and driven, unaware of envious glances and muted voices, which either predicted her next success, or lay in wait for any sign of misstep. At night she would collapse into her threadbare, musty army-green couch, unable to comprehend the unrest within her. Without pulling the chain to illumine the lone bulb under the lopsided lampshade, she had sat in growing gloom, legs folded beneath her. She had done this every night, at midnight!

“What drives you? What serves as your inspiration?” Had anyone ever questioned her incessant push towards excellence, she would’ve had no response. She had no idea what energized her. She knew she had a fortunate blend of intellect, attractive athleticism, advantaged connection and confidence.

And she had memories. Memories that were continually being resuscitated with an endless display of awards, degrees, file folders stuffed with articles which had appeared in prestigious professional journals, and pictures taken with the influential.

While memories nourish some, they debilitate others. But her memories more resembled rivulets, which had carved rugged canyons into her soul. They had created narrow paths with steep, impenetrable walls on either side. There were no forks in the road, no trails that beckoned into obscured intrigue, not even markers that indicated miles traveled or distances to future destinations, such as she had come to rely on when she still hiked. Nothing. Just the present; having never owned her past and without vision for the future.

She had shifted – her knees drawn to her chin, arms securely clasped over calves, eyes wet with tears. It was unclear for how long or for what reason she had not moved.

She had remained unresponsive in a secluded cabin retreat, surrounded by anxious faces, voices which battered her with invasive questions, involuntarily ingesting handfuls of prescribed medications multiple times daily. Day after dismal day had served only to further secure her suffocation. Impatience and blame from those around her had replaced fear and concern

One day her place was vacant, her belongings deserted. She vanished without a trace.


She left no clue as to her whereabouts and submerged herself in the colors, smells, textures, tastes and sounds of another life. Another world. There was no need to speak – to explain, to justify, to rationalize, to win. There was only space without the measured passage of time. Smiles and simple gifts enfolded her beleaguered person. Salve which was neither tangible nor applied massaged every part of her being.

She would later be able to point to the exact moment in which radiance dawned. Her steps had taken her over a seldom traveled, dusty path, behind hovels and amidst soggy vines covered with insects. Their eyes had met as one bent over the other. Instant recognition, not of outward identity, but of kindred spirit. The tall woman had lifted the bundle out of the tangled shroud of weeds and held it to her beating breast. Time, love and laughter, music and dancing knit the two together. Unlikely and inseparable. Words were born to replace the rigid, lifeless utterances  that had once served to entrap her; colors exploded as they created vibrant meaning; community consisted not of competition or conquest, but of kindness and compassion. Two entirely new lives emerged, inextricably linked, yet fiercely independent. It was a dance of the divine in solidarity with those abandoned; discarded.


Together they eventually emerged on what now seemed foreign terrain; disbelief descended from everywhere with brutal force. It nearly absorbed her companion, but since she still recognized the turbulence and cacophony of this former life, she intervened swiftly. There was no welcome, not even relief. Disapproval, disregard and disdain began to join an already rushing stream of consciousness, which had thundered through her years like a freight train in a narrow mountain pass. Earlier her psyche had buckled under this force; now it was unshakable.

She had found her marker, a beacon, a guidepost which had led her out of the torturous cavern and brought her to a magnificent outlook from which she could witness not only this deadly serpent winding its way through unsuspecting, tormented lives, but the brilliant splash of color, which opened her heart again and again. Without further word, they turned, melting into the oranges and fuchsias of the sun that was setting on the land.


© Julia Penner-Zook, 2016
photo credits: Tyssul Patel, Dương Trần Quốc, Matthew Wiebe and Carolinie Cavalli via (in order of usage)


imageWith orange variations sweeping into hues of rich plum, the expansive sky heralds encroaching nightfall. She does not notice. She rarely does when her tumultuous mind allows for no calm – succumbing to the incessant internal chatter and all-consuming hiss of options, lists, reminders, responsibilities, commitments, desires, hopes and yes – regrets. There is no escape. Not alone. Not in a crowd. Not awake and definitely not in the sheet-twisting joyless hours of the night. Not even her beloved can help her now.

No one notices her pull on heavy footwear, wrap an oversized scarf around her almond face and slip both arms underneath a long, rough tartan cape. Noiselessly she eases the door, releasing her to the fading light on the country estate. Her lungs recoil sharply at the air she slowly sucks in, stinging her forehead, as if from an ice cold drink sipped hastily through a straw too wide.

Once no longer visible from the gleaming golden portals – all-knowing eyes within the ancient edifice – her muscles relax and pace slows. Her feet move toward the brooding pine forest just beyond the perimeter of the remote property. She takes no note of imminent nightfall, hastening its steps after the unmercifully short days of winter.

The gentle sway of pine tree arms embraces her as she succumbs to the mystical stirrings of this holy place. Surrounded by wordless giants, she feels no further need to twist and turn, agonize and brutalize her mind into forms that make her thoughts somehow appear appropriate. Understandable. Rational. To others, of course. This sacred space gives the gift of ultimate acceptance.

She walks, but keeps no record of where nor for how long. Nothing matters except this moment of respite. Time ceases to exist in the company of friends.

An unfamiliar shape to her left, half hidden by a spindly juniper, causes her head to turn. How was it that she had never noticed this rugged, wooden bench before? Instinctively she stops, peers at the structure, recognizing it as an invitation for silence. She nestles into it as some would curl into an overstuffed chair before a blazing fire. Her lips turn up slightly, musing that what one may consider cold and bleak, another receives as an intimate caress.

As moments pass, her immobile frame loses its rigidity; her face radiates peace into the crisp, welcoming stillness. Her closed eyes refuse to register the waning daylight, waiting rather for the twinkling radiance of the troupe of stars, appearing as silent dancers against inked velvet.

She does not see the Presence approach, but she feels it. It does not frighten, coerce or question. Without murmur or movement, she acknowledges the vibrancy of companionship. A glowing warmth begins to trickle from the back of her head down her spine, enveloping her ribs, soaking into her lungs, filling the crevices of her heart and seeping into each extremity.

The rhythm of her breath, causing the imperceptible rise and fall of her breast, offers music for the glistening dancers of the sky. The chaos of her mind is soothed and smoothed in the Presence of Love. Grace. Embrace. Without greetings extended, words exchanged, or dilemmas examined.

Solitude marks no passage of time; indeed it is inconsequential. She allows healing Wisdom to permeate the recesses of her heart unhurried. Secluded. Transforming.

The Sanctuary has offered its best: stillness, confidence, strength. She opens her eyes to all she has seen within her soul. Great horned owls – sentinels, witnesses – nod in reverent benediction. She gathers her wraps around her, rises – stately and poised – and moves toward the familiar scene she had left behind. She now leaves warmth, communion, music and beauty to rejoin those who have settled for its faint reflections.

© Julia Penner-Zook, 2016
photo credit: