Today, author Joey Avniel shares a sneak-peek of his book, “One-Legged Seagull.” Joey says this is his favorite chapter in the book. You can find out more about the author and the book from his website. Joey will also be appearing in an upcoming Meet the Author feature here on Indies Unlimited. Thanks for sharing this with us, Joey!
Take a journey with Ehud and Simon, as they discover strategies and techniques that help them change frustration and anger into peace of mind. Ehud, a young teenager, meets Simon, a retired vet, after a personal failure. Together they learn how to handle life’s ups and downs with more grace and patience. You wouldn’t be able to put down this “The Little Prince” meets “Karate Kid” fable.
Chapter 16 – The Big Confrontation
I had always been fascinated that the best and worst days started out no differently than every other day. This particular mid-summer morning began like any other, with a mission to get some milk for Mom’s coffee. I walked to the neighborhood grocery store whistling a happy tune. I had forgotten all about the R.A.T.s – the nickname I gave Rafael and Tom, the neighborhood’s scariest villains. Following Simon’s advice, I did my best not to obsess about how painful a meeting with them could turn out to be. He was right, because not thinking these negative thoughts had saved me from all the bad emotions they could have caused. My summer had been great so far.
I entered the store and waved to the hunchbacked clerk.
“How are you doing today, son?” he asked, while tapping absently on the huge cash register which was probably as old as he was.
“I’m good, sir, thanks. What about you?”
“Not too bad myself.” He tipped his head with a little smile. “How is that little sister of yours doing? I haven’t seen her lately.”
I inhaled deeply to enjoy the smell of the fresh bread wafting from the shelves to his right. “Alisa is almost as busy as I am. Last week I had to play the big brother role a few times, accompanying her to some play dates. She’d rather go on her own, but Mom insisted that I go with her.”
“You’re a good kid.”
While he went on to discuss the bratty neighborhood kids and many other unimportant topics, I waited for just one short sentence. “That’ll be eight-seventy,” he finally said. Hearing the price and knowing it meant that I could escape from the store, satisfied me almost as much as the candy I added to Mom’s list. I paid him and took the bag he offered. I liked the guy, but man, could he talk a person into the grave!
I bounded out of the shop with the bag tucked under my arm. Oh, Shit! I swallowed back a scream. What are the odds? Just when I was thinking of a grave, I spotted the RATs. They were standing a block away, by a red-roofed duplex, picking on a small, freckled boy. The few people in the street seemed to all be minding their own business. None of them seemed to care enough to rescue either that kid, or me. Even though the RATs hadn’t seen me yet, fear froze my body.
A few seconds later, though I was still unnoticed, my legs began to shake like the pictures in a homemade video. My mind raced, trying to come up with a good escape plan. I found none. How about becoming invisible? It’d be a great solution, if only I could. How about running away? This wasn’t an option. Rafael, a dazzling athlete and the school’s running champ, was much faster than me. If he saw me trying to run away, it’d only provoke him.
I glanced at them again to make sure I was still off their radar. Even though their backs were toward me, it felt like their shadows were already on top of me. I imagined them sneaking between the SUVs on the street, hiding behind poplar trees and planning their lynching strategy. I could almost hear them whistling the creepy tune that played in my favorite horror movie whenever someone was about to die. What should I do? Simon! Yes, Simon! “I need you here now!” Feeling quite hopeless, I whispered a prayer.
As if by magic, a big hand wrapped itself around mine. My heart leapt. It was Simon! I was so thrilled to see him, that I didn’t even consider how he had again mysteriously appeared out of nowhere just when I needed him. I was saved! I was about to scream with joy, but then a disturbing thought crushed my elation. Could an old man like Simon really help me against those two bullies? Nope. They are going to kick both our asses.
“Simon?” I sent him the kind of look May gives me when she knows she is in trouble, but hopes to get off scot-free. I clutched the paper bag from the shop in one hand, my fingers clenching and unclenching around it, while Simon held onto my other.
“Remember what we discussed the last time we met,” he whispered.
It had been a long discussion, but I had a strong feeling I knew what he was talking about. “We all want happiness, success, love, serenity, respect and health. The difference lies in our idea of how to achieve these things. This is what makes us all seem so different; that’s what makes some people seem good, others bad, what makes some seem right and others wrong. That’s what you want me to remember now, right?”
“Exactly!” he confirmed. “Keep in mind that Rafael and Tom are kids, just like you. Not only do you share similar goals, but you have all three experienced suffering, disappointment, grief, sorrow and failure on your life’s journeys. We’re all taking this journey; and sometimes while we’re trying to avoid being the prey, we unintentionally become the predator.”
I knew what he was trying to do. The moment I started repeating these ideas in my head, and really feel it, the brothers changed shape. They were no longer as chilling as before. Rafael wasn’t as big as I had always perceived him. They were both just kids, like me. It reminded me of a line I once heard, something like, “If you prick them, do they not bleed? If you tickle them, do they not laugh? If it’s raining, do they not get wet?” For the first time, I didn’t see the RATs as enemies.
Then, just when I started to feel better, a car passed us and the driver almost hit a careless pedestrian. The scream of the wheels made Tom turned around. He saw me and tugged on Rafael’s sleeve, pointed at me and whispered something in Rafael’s ear. Rafael looked in my direction and motioned for me to wait. He crossed the street between two parked cars and strode toward me and Simon quickly, ready to rumble.
“It’s show time,” I said. I watched Rafael, and my eyes wavered between perceiving him as a kid, like me, and a mad engine, racing at full throttle to crash into me.
“Who you talking to, Owly?” The nickname I hated so much sounded less like poison this time. I turned to look at Simon, but he was already gone. Unfortunately, it seemed that magic could work both ways. I felt my stomach tighten and realized I couldn’t get any words out. I encouraged Rafael to continue speaking with my eyes.
“I heard you have a new hobby these days, beating up smaller kids,” he barked at me from a few inches away.
I stopped breathing and just stared at him. Thanks to my conversations with Simon, I could now see that from Rafael’s perspective, I might be the bad guy in this story. I had been the one to knock Tom down on the last day of school. It was an accident, but they might see it differently. Maybe Rafael is just playing the role of big brother, protecting his younger sibling exactly like I’ve done many times for Alisa. What a weird world! Each person has his own viewpoint and therefore views any situation differently from those around him. But we many times assume that our perspective is the only one, and that therefore everyone shares it.
Rafael cut into the thread of my thoughts, “So is this your new thing, jackass?” he asked, pulling on my shirt collar, the rage in his eyes piercing through me.
I ran through Simon’s ideas over and over, it was like Mom searching every possible location for her lost glasses. My mind went blank. I should say something quickly, I thought. I looked at the RATs. Rafael stood there overly confident in a ridiculous purple flowered shirt, and wild upright hair. Tom wore an elegant green, and probably fake, Lacoste shirt; his dirty blond hair was combed and slicked back neatly. He half-hid behind his brother’s back. Since I was less terrified than usual when faced with a confrontation, I was experiencing both of the boys differently. To my surprise, I noticed that Tom exuded insecurity, and it kind of reminded me of myself.
Still wordless, I examined Rafael’s eyes. I saw anger floating in an ocean of pain. Where did all of this pain come from? I asked myself. Then, without warning, my mouth started talking. “Your brother has a steel head.” I couldn’t believe that I dared to answer Rafael, the frightening Kung Fu fighter, in this way. But even more surprising than that, I had spoken to him while looking him straight in the eye, as an equal.
“What are you talking about, dude?” he asked, puzzled. There was no doubt that I had surprised him. I could see his eyes slightly shifting. I had captured his interest so that some of his anger was taken over by curiosity.
“On the last day of school, I was the first kid to leave my classroom,” I began. “I boogied the freedom dance out of the room to welcome the start of the summer break. I didn’t expect anyone else to be in the hall, so I rushed out without actually looking around. That’s when I accidentally bumped my arm into your brother’s head. It still hurts a bit.” I rubbed my left elbow with my right palm for effect. Rafael listened and I gained confidence. “I think that Tom was so shocked by the fact that he hurt me, that he took off before I even had a chance to apologize for running into him. Now, when I saw you guys coming over, I thought it’d be a good time to say how sorry I was for being so careless. I also thought Tom might be glad to know that my elbow doesn’t hurt as much anymore… even though his head is really hard.” I finished, hoping that the bully had a sense of humor. If not, I’d be in big trouble.
While waiting for Rafael’s response, a deafening silence fell over the neighborhood. It drove out the sound of car horns, tweeting birds, and the conversations of people around us. For the moment, it was just Rafael, Tom, and me in a bubble that was on the verge of explosion. They examined me for a long while, and the silence seemed to last longer than the time it takes to drive through midtown Tel Aviv during rush hour.
I glanced at Rafael, looking for any sign of what he was thinking, but his face remained expressionless. Years ago, I had heard my dad calling it, “a poker face.” When I asked Dad why it was called a “poker face,” he grinned at me and offered the most annoying answer of all, “You’ll understand when you grow up.” Now I feared there was a chance that my growing up was never going to happen.
After a few more seconds, which seemed more like months, Rafael changed his facial expression. His face softened, muscle by muscle. His eyes lit up and his lips formed a smile, pushing away the angry leftovers. “You are funny, Owly chump. Next time, I hope you look where you’re going. Another guy might not have as good a sense of humor as I do. You were lucky this time, but you don’t want to test someone else,” he said, with a slightly paternal tone to his voice.
Tom, still behind his brother’s wide back, seemed confused. On the one hand he seemed amused by the conversation, but on the other hand he wasn’t getting to see the conflict he had probably hoped for. Eventually, humor won out over disappointment and Tom chuckled as well. Rafael landed a friendly slap on my chest. My whole body shook. I couldn’t stop myself from imagining how a less friendly meeting with a guy like him might have ended. No one would want to upset this mound of muscles.
“Be less clumsy, Owly. Don’t forget – not every dude is nice like me.” He repeated his friendly warning in a deep and pleasant voice. He turned to Tom and said, “Chop-chop bro, we’re done here. He’s funny, this Owly boy. I don’t think he’ll ever mess with you again. He’s too afraid of you, Mr. Brick-Head.”
Tom didn’t look amused at all by the new nickname he had “earned.” He obligingly dragged himself behind his brother like a shadow. A few steps later he stopped for a second and turned his head toward me. We fixed our eyes on each other. His look was different; what I had always perceived as demon eyes appeared now to be just regular kid ones.
* * * * *
I couldn’t believe my luck. If it wasn’t for Simon showing up at the last minute to rescue me, the RATs would have eaten me alive. I looked around and identified Simon seated on a shaded bench across the street. I felt like jumping on him and smothering him with hugs, but I was too embarrassed to do that with strangers all around. Instead I said, “Thanks, man. The magic you pulled really saved my backside!”
“I didn’t do anything. You did it all. The compassion you felt when you realized that they were kids just like you, helped you to see them as people, not enemies. You used humor to break the tension; you were able to transform their anger into amusement in an artistic way.” He seemed to be almost as happy as me. “Compassion is so powerful that it not only changed your attitude, it changed Rafael’s as well. You were a real artist today, I’m so proud of you.”
“Did I do all of that?” I blushed. “Still, I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“You deserve all of the credit,” he insisted. “You avoided a fight, thanks to walking the artist path. I could only introduce you to this path, but it was your choice to walk it. Not everyone is brave enough to abandon the warrior’s way. It’s not easy to change old habits after being a warrior for more than twelve years.”
I slumped down on the bench next to him. “Yup. Today I could see the difference between the two paths. As a warrior I’d have gotten defensive with Rafael and maybe even tried to blame Tom. Neither of them would’ve appreciated that. The alternative, artistic approach worked like a charm. Tell me more about the artist path.”
Simon’s eyes twinkled. “The artist walks the journey with awareness. He’s aware of the feelings of others and respects those feelings. His honesty and integrity make him recognize that he’s responsible for his own choices and the outcome of those choices. He’s wise, tolerant of what is different, and he looks for peaceful resolutions to conflicts. He doesn’t take anything for granted, appreciates all of the gifts that the world offers him, and constantly asks himself questions. In fact, a good artist must make sure to have more questions than answers. It’s these questions that encourage him to stay on the path and keep learning and experimenting. He’s never right or wrong. He steers his way skillfully along the river of life, yet never drifts.”
“Sounds like the way I want to live. How can I be an artist too?”
Simon flashed one of his widest smiles and said, “Being an artist is exactly what we practice in our meetings, kid.”
Surprised, I had to think about that for a second. “Okay, but I don’t have the patience to wait and learn the slow way. Are there any shortcuts? Can’t I become an artist faster?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” He grinned. “I spent years looking for shortcuts, and I only found frustration. You become an artist when you think and feel like one naturally and without effort. Until then you have to practice the path.”
“Practice what we have learned. For example, practice feeling more compassion for others. Challenge yourself everyday to see just how compassionate you can be, exactly like what you did today. It’ll help you to avoid the feeling of separation between yourself and others.”
“What do you mean by feeling of separation?” I asked.
“Every time you identify a difference between yourself and someone else, you subconsciously pull yourself away, and separate yourself from them. You automatically tell yourself, ‘This is like me and this isn’t like me; this is good and this is bad; this is more something than I am, and this is less something than I am’. The story of separation is always the same, it’s just the something that changes.”
I scratched my head. “So you are saying it’s bad to compare? But we get graded at school. The temptation to compare is too high. I want to be the best.”
Simon chuckled. “I know what you mean. Sometimes it’s difficult. I want you to think of a basketball team. Each one of the players has a different position on the court, they have different qualities and heights. They can’t compare themselves, they need to play as a team. What would happen if one of them said: ‘I’m the tallest, and therefore I should have the ball all the time’? No one player can win a championship without the help of his teammates.”
“You mean that we all have different roles in life and therefore have different qualities, right?”
Simon gave me a thumbs-up and a wink, the same gesture I use with my friends when they know the answer for a hard question. “I love the way you put it. By comparing, you notice, create, and then expand your experience of separation. When you feel separate from anything – a person, an idea, a feeling or a situation, you become indifferent to whatever you have separated yourself from. If you make this a habit, then eventually you don’t care about anyone that isn’t like you; this is one of the reasons that there is so much hatred in the world.
“People start to adopt the idea that if something isn’t similar to their way of being, thinking, living or believing, it’s wrong or bad and so it doesn’t matter. When you feel separate from another person, you’re losing your connection to them as a fellow human being. When this happens, you squash your ability to imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes or experience their suffering, so you don’t feel care or compassion for them.”
I squinted up at him, curious. “So should I pity them?”
“Pity isn’t compassion. It’s a way of feeling superior. Pity says, ‘I’m better than poor, weak and unfortunate you.’ These feelings don’t benefit anyone.”
“I think I can see that,” I said. “And I’m familiar with separation. It’s how I felt about Rafael and Tom until today. They were different. They were bad.”
“Right. Unity, on the other hand, creates harmony. Compassion has the ability to disarm the negative energy that forms obstacles. That’s how you triumphed today. You were able to diffuse a frightening situation without fighting and without designating any roles of winner and loser. You overcame negative energy and you conquered fear. You defeated anger and you prevented both yourself and your enemy from suffering. Great job! This is the artist path, the compassion path.”
“It’s the same thing I found before my last practice with Alon. The artist works with people instead of competing and struggling against them. This is why the artist never loses and never becomes a victim, right?”
“Very well said. Your wording of this idea is inspiring,” he said. He almost looked surprised at my unexpected wisdom, but it was clear he was pleased, too.
My head felt clear. I was thrilled. It was as if I had just won a new belt. This was the most impressive victory I could ever remember, and the best part was that there were no losers. Everyone was a winner. After that day, neither Rafael nor Tom ever bothered me again. None of us would’ve guessed it then, but a few years later we all became good friends. Many things had become clear to me after that encounter, yet I was still too young to understand my father’s saying, “just because you win a battle, doesn’t mean you win the whole war.”