After merging onto I-35 South, I flipped the sun visor around to the side to block the Saturday morning glare, and that’s when I saw the road crews in their orange vests out bagging litter along the shoulders, leaving the full plastic sacks at the edge of the asphalt to be carted off on some later occasion. It made me think to myself then, yes, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who litter and those who clean it up. My ex-husband was of the first kind, in every respect—which is why, after thirty-five years of his scattering “trash” across my life, he was now my ex. And, perhaps, if there’s such a thing as poetic justice, assigned to a prison work detail picking it up for a change. Even though such thoughts would flash across my mind now and then, he wasn’t, in any way, something I wished to dwell on. That was past. Closed. History.
So I was thrust into the world again, adjusting to and dealing with all those complexities of “freedom” that had been denied me for so long. The foray at the moment being my attending a breakfast and lecture at the Turkish Cultural Center at the invitation of Daniya, my co-worker at Seeble’s Outlet store. To be perfectly honest, I felt ambivalent about any such “interfaith activities,” but I knew I needed to push myself into engaging life once more. And Daniya’s Middle-Eastern graciousness and gentle insistence had been so disarming, I’d have felt it rude to decline. Consequently, I’d accepted, planning the grocery shopping and vacuuming for later.
The Cultural Center stood on the corner of 72nd Street and Solomon Way, the entry at the corner of the one-story building. I pulled into the lot and parked my Toyota facing the street amidst about a dozen other vehicles. A cool breeze rustled the leaves of the red maples lining the exterior as I hurried up the sidewalk past the petunia and tulip beds, my patent-leather heels clicking against the concrete, and went in. Immediately inside, I glanced about for some provision, or hint of an expectation, for removing one’s shoes—the Muslim religious custom I’d heard about—but I saw none. A reception counter, unmanned, faced the doorway and beside that stood a glass case displaying a host of Turkish artifacts—beads, onyx stones, pottery, a tea set, some colorful dolls in native attire. Positioned opposite, on the right, were two chairs and a side table, the top of which offered an array of magazines and what appeared to be tourist brochures. The wall was decorated with oil paintings of mosques, and a plush, maroon, arabesque carpet stretched nearly the whole length and breadth of the room.
I hesitated a moment, then edged forward and peered down a hallway leading away to the left. Closed doors lined the walls, but the door at the end was open, revealing furnishings somewhat reminiscent of a sitting room. I took two or three halting steps in that direction, and suddenly a young man appeared in the open door, a young man perhaps in his late twenties, wearing a salmon-pink jacket and charcoal slacks. He motioned for me to continue down the hall in his direction. Doing so and entering the room, I was profusely greeted by three other young men, dressed variously in slacks and sport shirts, each politely introducing himself and welcoming me in Middle-Eastern accents.
“We’re so happy to see you,” the young man in the jacket affirmed once more, speaking for the group. “Please. This way.” And he gestured toward a folding door on the right.
Upon entering that next room, I discovered it to be of a conference or classroom design, tables end-to-end down the middle in seminar fashion with chairs arranged all around, a projection screen at one end. Mingling about were the other guests, nearly two dozen or so I surmised, some standing and talking, others seated. Mostly of the male gender. Along the far wall on two tables that were topped with white cloths stretched a steaming breakfast buffet.
I found an empty chair beside an older woman, dressed in a gray pants suit. A particularly stunning antique brooch sparkled on her lapel. We introduced ourselves and she volunteered she’d come alone and gathered I had also. I confirmed her speculation. She confessed it still seemed strange doing so; she’d been widowed only two months before. I offered a perfunctory condolence and explained that I, too, was a “widow” of sorts, a “grass widow.” That my ex, Jack, and I had been divorced six months. Not wishing to extend that discussion further, however, I promptly diverted to another subject.
“How long have you been involved with interfaith activities?” I asked.
“Oh, many years,” she replied. “My late husband was a minister. A Methodist. He helped organize the Council of Interfaith Activities here in the region.”
“I see. Then you’ve been to events here at the Turkish Center before?”
“Oh, indeed. Many times. These Turkish hosts are wonderful people. The whole purpose is to encourage better understanding among faiths, less prejudice. A search for common ground. My late husband was devoted to that mission. And, heaven knows, the world is in such need of it now.”
“Yes, I should say so.”
A gentleman, balding and rotund, wearing a dark suit and blue tie, pulled up a chair across the table opposite my place and sat down, nodded and smiled at the lady beside me and spoke her name. Following that, he directed his gaze at me.
“I’m Chet Hensworth,” he declared. “And with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“I’m Judy,” I replied. “Judy Singleton. Nice to meet you, Mr. Hensworth.”
“Please. Call me Chet. I haven’t seen you here before.”
“No. This is my first visit.”
“Do you like Turkish cuisine?”
“What little I’ve had the opportunity to sample.”
“Then you’re in for a treat this morning. They go all out here.” He laughed heartily.
With that, one of the young men who had greeted me in the sitting room stepped to a lectern beside the screen and welcomed the guests. Then he invited everyone to form a line and help themselves to the breakfast buffet. Following the meal, he explained, there would be a brief program.
I rose and fell in line behind my new female acquaintance. Upon reaching the buffet tables, I could see this Chet fellow had spoken accurately about the food selection. The first tray was heaped high with both peta and corn bread. Next came a broad assortment of dishes of fruits—grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives—and various cheeses and yogurt and nuts. Beside that were baking dishes of what appeared to be spicy scrambled eggs, and another dish of white rice mixed with vegetables and meat. Also boiled eggs and jam and butter and sweet rolls. Then just beyond that was a huge green-salad bowl. Finally, a tray of flaky pastry, filled with what appeared to be a sort of minced meat. At the end were urns of Turkish tea and orange juice.
Having indulged in only a restrained sampling of most preparations, trying to maintain some semblance of diet-mindedness, I reclaimed my place at the table and began to partake of the meal with the others. Another gentleman introduced himself and sat down on my left. George, I believe he said his name was, but I simply didn’t feel receptive to making new acquaintances and chit-chat with too many men at this point, and I directed my attention to the plate before me and the minister’s widow on my right.
When the assemblage had seemingly satisfied their appetite—some having gone back for seconds—the moderator returned to the lectern and addressed everyone once again.
“May I repeat, I want to thank everyone for coming,” he said. “We hope you’ve enjoyed your meal. Please, there’s plenty. So if you want more, do help yourselves.”
There was a titter of laugher from the group at that point, and a wave of satisfied sighs.
“We are fortunate to have a very special speaker with us today,” he continued. “Mr. Steven Youngblood from the Center for Global Peace Journalism. He brought copies of the magazine The Peace Journalist, which you’ll find placed about the table. Everyone do take a copy. But before his presentation, we’re going to show some slides of the recent trip to Turkey. If there are those present who would be interested in participating with the next group, do let us know and we’ll provide you with specific details.”
“The trips are wonderful,” the minister’s widow whispered in my ear. “They’re sponsored by what used to be called the Institute of Interfaith Dialog. Now the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest, I believe. A Muslim organization headquartered in Texas. It’s an all-expenses-paid tour. My husband and I went years ago—and it was the trip of a lifetime!”
The slide series began then, pictures of landmarks in Turkey such as the beautiful Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, the ruins at Ephesus, the Grand Bazaar—all with smiling couples grouped in the foreground. Husbands and wives. Husbands and wives. Probably like a second honeymoon for many, I thought glumly to myself. But the scenery was indeed awe-inspiring. The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Fethullah Gülen schools. The series ended with an overview of the Interfaith Peace Garden project in Houston, Texas, a center promoting harmony among the Abrahamic faiths.
Following the slides, Steven Youngblood began his presentation. A middle-aged man with curly hair and glasses, casually dressed in blue jeans and a pullover, he spoke with an energetic, professorial authority about a cause to which he was obviously devoted.
“Our choice of words in describing an event can be neutral, calming or inflammatory,” he began. “We as journalists need always be mindful of that. And mindful too of our own personal bias in approaching any topic. This is particularly true when reportage concerns areas of conflict, upheaval or war. As journalists who share a global goal of peace within the human community, we can make linguistic choices in our work that further that aim without becoming open peace advocates. ‘Peace journalism,’ then, is when editors and reporters make choices that, while objectively presenting the facts, also improve the prospects for peace.”
He went on to delineate ten peace-journalism principles that spelled out practical guidelines for accomplishing those peace values. Guidelines such as rejecting official propaganda and instead seeking facts and viewpoints from multiple sources. Or providing depth and context to events rather than merely superficial “blow-by-blow” accounts. As he spoke, I paged through one of the magazines and found quite a range of articles representing this journalistic philosophy worldwide. The colored photographs revealed youthful faces imbued with passion and determination. How lucky, I thought, to discover one’s life’s ambition early and then pursue it with vigor and clarity.
At the end of Mr. Youngblood’s talk, there was a brief question and answer session, and then the moderator thanked everyone again for attending and bid the group good day. I told my new acquaintance how nice it was to have met her, and perhaps our paths would cross again one day. As the crowd had clustered to mingle and visit near the door I’d come in, I opted for a side exit leading down another hall. I made my way along behind two couples who’d chosen the same egress.
I passed a utility room and the restrooms and rounded a corner of the passageway leading back to the main entrance. As I proceeded down the hall, I glanced into an open door to my left. And abruptly halted midstride in complete amazement. There were the young Muslim women, the wives, the little children, together in a combination workshop and nursery, the women’s heads covered with colorful scarves, the cherublike children playing on blankets on the floor, everyone smiling and laughing and animatedly conversing. A feminine community of seemingly unstifled bliss. The air of an exulted sanctuary.
I returned their friendly gaze toward me with a nod and a forced smile. Then I heard my name called. Daniya emerged from the crowd and rushed toward me.
“Judy!” she exclaimed again as she reached out and grabbed my hand. “I’m so happy you could attend today! Did you enjoy the food?”
“Hello Daniya. Well, yes. My, it was delicious.”
“Did you like the lamb pilavi? The rice dish? That was mine.”
“Oh, yes. It tasted the best.”
She laughed and gave a playfully dismissive wave of her hand. “You’re too kind,” she said. “Did you meet Mustafa?”
“Yes, Mustafa. My husband. He was wearing a pink jacket.”
“Oh yes. He greeted me when I first came in.”
“And this is my little Javid.” Daniya turned and pointed to a little dark-haired boy, about three or four, cheerfully sitting on the floor popping Legos together. A small, bright-eyed girl with ribbons in her hair watched him intently.
“Did you enjoy the pictures of Turkey?” Daniya asked.
“But of course. What a beautiful country. So much ancient history.”
“If you’d like to join a group going there, I can help arrange it.”
“Well . . . I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that. But thank you.”
“You let me know. I’ll see you Monday on break at Seeble’s?”
“Yes, Daniya. And thank you again for the invitation this morning. Have a pleasant weekend.”
I hurried down the hall and around through the entryway. Past the oil paintings and the display case, out the open door into the bright sunlight. My eyes were burning with tears now—I was fighting back a sob, and I wanted to reach the Toyota before anyone could see.
Damn you, Jack, I muttered through clenched teeth. You and your lies. Your deceptions. Your cheating. Gambling away everything meaningful to both of us. It might have been so different. You had your options. We could have adopted. We could have been a family. But no. That wasn’t your style. Oh Jack. Damn your rotten soul forever!
The tears were flowing freely now, washing the makeup down my cheeks. I slammed the car door and snatched a tissue from my purse. Dabbed my face. Took a few deep breaths, then forced my teeth down hard on my tongue. After a few minutes, my vision cleared. I blew my nose. Brought my breathing back to even.
There was no sense crying over spilt milk, as the old saying goes. What wasn’t going to be, wasn’t going to be. That was past. Closed. History.
I stuffed the tissue back into my purse and started the engine. After backing the Toyota up and driving out of the lot, I paused at the corner and contemplated what needed to be done next. I had coupons I wanted to use before they expired. And they were having a sale on laundry detergent and cleaning supplies at the south Hy-Vee I didn’t want to miss.
About the Author
Mark Scheel is the author of And Eve Said Yes: Seven Stories and a Novella and the recipient of the J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award.