Sometimes I feel like I see the number 1 everywhere. Has that ever happened to you?
I have a special friend - a prayer warrior - who loves those number 1's like nobody's business. They are up all over his Facebook page. He posts shots of his i-Phone screen at 1:11 and 11:11. Some days he has a penchant for 3's, but most of the time, it's all about the 1.
Here's an 11:1 for you: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." - Hebrews 11:1.
We look for God's fingerprints on things. We know He's there because we can feel Him, we can smell His fragrance. We can feel the fine touch of His hand brushing softly across the fuzz on our cheek just as we fall asleep. If I should die before I wake.
When my daughter moved away at 21, her first apartment was number 11 in building 1A. When she got an upgrade, it was to number 101 across the courtyard. My baby surrounded by 1's. As my friend would say, just sayin'.
Is it Him brushing against our cheek, or is it just us looking for Him, looking for faith? Maybe both. Only He knows.
Recently I wrote about a goose who snatched a toddler out of a drowning pool by his pants, only to expose himself to the zone code inspector and sacrifice his neck in the process. For the toddler, that goose was his number 1 that bright blue afternoon. The substance of things hoped for, a gift of life from the Great One. Fear not; I am here. Have faith.
Today I am going to tell you a similar story, one I referenced in my last column.
It had been a long day, and my husband back then was driving us back from San Diego. It was the day before New Year's Eve in '10, and our marriage was in the dying days. The trip was a mandatory one.
We had come up over the Grapevine, ink black sky to match the pavement, rain slanting sideways. A man pulled up beside us and waved at us, pointing. Turns out we had been driving without our headlights on.
My husband softened for a while after that. Just for a while.
We continued to amble over the rise, down into the flat, up the long stretch flanked by redwoods either side, center lane, idle chat, mostly silence.
As we came into the heart of the Valley, my husband's love of the back roads and the hinterlands got the better of him. Sharp hook off the 99 into the dark parts unknown, the places where I get lost. The rain had subsided some.
But this time he got lost. Narrow potholed roads, tight with barbed wire dairy fences and abandoned clapboard storefronts. Vineyards. No lights, no curbs, no gutters. Plenty of mud to turn around in. Plenty of time to think.
Once long ago when we were first dating, he had taken me to the Woolgrowers, a Basque mainstay on the west side of the county known for its Portagee diesel and lamb stew (I have lived in Merced County long enough that I get to say Portagee diesel, and people know not to take offense).
On the way home from dinner, warm with diesel, again a rain-slanting-sideways night, we hit a tumbleweed the size of Texas, then bunny hopped through a puddle that nearly covered the hood of his truck. He chatted me through it, patting my hand like a grandma while he steered with the other. That's how we found that we had been born two days apart in the same year, and had gone to the very same Disneyland grad night in 1971, the night Smokey Robinson had played. That time, our hides dried out to drive another day. Prelude to a traffic accident. I teach this to my English students as foreshadowing, or in this case, flashback.
But I digress, as I often do. Still, there's a theme here.
Back to my story. On the drive back from San Diego, I finally lost count of how many times we had doubled back, the vineyards seemingly new ones, but then we would see a landmark and know we had only driven in a circle. Finally over the rise, we saw it: the freeway overpass in the distance, shimmering and fresh with rain, a shot at the 99, freedom, safety.
I know a road, he said.
About an hour later, the warm glow of Dinuba showed on the horizon. Breathe. We were on the main street of town.
Straight, I said. The freeway's ahead. Left, he said. It's quickest, and the freeway is right there.
Inky road, two way, no traffic, black as hell. Clapboard cottages, blustering winds, ravines either side, black. Thickness of black.
In the road, the headlights unveiled something, nothing. Half a second, and we were in it. The highest winds of the season had laid it down, a dry leafless silver branched eucalyptus, the dry color of cloud and winter sky, and we were through it.
Brakes locked, whipping left, right, over, galloping down, snap behind me, branches grazing the back of my neck, shatter of glass, twist, and we were nose down, 180 degrees around, backward and teetering an inch from the ravine. Scratched against the dead black wet silence, cree-ee, cree-ee, we rocked. Elbows locked, hands still on the dashboard. It's ok. I haven't left you. Rocking. Smell of coffee all over the front of me.
We popped the doors open and somehow were out, the car lurching and scraping as we climbed. The branch had shot through the right rear window and stabbed through, an inch behind my head. Up twenty, maybe thirty feet, was the road.
And then the glare of headlights were in our eyes as we stood in our depths, and he was there, cut out in silhouette on the horizon of the ditch. His beret I noticed first, then the broadness of his shoulders, and his hand outstretched.
"Are you ok ma'am, sir? Take my hand." One by one he hauled us up light as air from the ditch so deep we could not see the road. Could his arm really have been that long?
I don't remember his face. I only remember wondering if I was really dead, and I was being invited into Heaven. I remember his silver grey camo fatigues, not a drop of mud, color of the tree we had just been birthed through. Us staring aimlessly, turning in circles, disoriented. Meanwhile, he laid out flares. "I hit it too," he said. "I was right behind you." I didn't notice his car, not at all, just light. And him. He waved traffic around the tree, waved it to safety.
Cherry-on-top and blueberry lights spun in the distance. We turned to look, camo soldier still waving behind us. When we looked back, deep in our minutiae of statements, he was gone.
"Did you see him?" we asked the officer. "The soldier. He hit it too, helped us out of the ditch."
No, he hadn't seen a soldier. No car. No waving. No beret. Only the flares, and the cars filing neatly around the tree, safe.
And all the way back home in the tow truck, I continued to wonder, am I dead? Is this Heaven? Or is it merely the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen?
I don't know if our soldier was real or not. I don't know if he was an angel. I don't know if he was just on his way to the airport, back to duty, and didn't dare miss his flight. All I know is, his arm was long enough, longer than common sense would allow. And there was not a drop of mud on him.
If we trust just one iota - one mustard seed - He shows us the evidence that there is something we cannot see, without fail. 1's. Geese. Silver camo soldiers. He brushes our cheek ever so softly with His hand just as we are falling asleep, and thereby feeds us substance. He feeds us faith.
His arm is long enough, longer than common sense would allow, long as hope.