Pennies From Heaven – My story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s new book, Miracles and More

 

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I was at a yard sale looking through a box of old books when I saw a 1936 yearbook from Glendale High School in California. The name “Ben” was written at the upper right corner of the first page. The yearbook was full of the usual notes from classmates and also some newspaper clippings about Ben’s academic and athletic achievements. I looked around for the owner of the house and found him carrying more boxes out of the garage with the help of his two young sons.

I asked him, “Are you selling this?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I’ll take three bucks for it.”

I asked if he knew who Ben was. He said he was his grandfather.

I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to get rid of such a precious family memento, especially for such a paltry amount of money, so I asked if he was sure he wanted to sell it. He said yes again with a slightly impatient tone as he began talking with another customer.

Though he obviously had no interest in it, I still wanted to encourage him to keep it, if not for himself, for his children, but then thought maybe he had his reasons for letting the yearbook go. Family emotions are complicated. I felt sorry for his sons who would never get to look at this window into their grandfather’s life, and almost didn’t buy it for that reason until I heard him tell someone, “Anything that doesn’t sell is going to the thrift shop.”

I handed him the three dollars, got into my car, and set the yearbook on the seat beside me. I wanted to find someplace quiet and explore every page immediately, but I had to hurry home because I was repainting the interior of my house that day. My wife had taken our two daughters to her father’s house to get them away from the paint fumes. I worked all day but the job took longer than I expected so I called my wife and asked her to stay overnight there so the paint would be dry before she and the girls returned.

I worked through the night and looked at the yearbook during breaks. I learned that Ben, the yearbook’s owner, was no average Joe. He was the Student Body President and Yell Leader, as well as a track and football star. Leadership also ran in the family because his younger brother succeeded him as president, which was a first for the high school at the time and probably hasn’t been repeated since. They were both exemplary students, full of boundless energy and ambition.

The first thing that impressed me as I flipped through the pages was how well-dressed and groomed everyone was. The next was the penmanship and eloquence of the comments. I had to keep reminding myself that they were written by teenagers. The language was charming and full of terms of endearment unique to the 1930’s like “good egg” and “swell fellow.” By all accounts, Ben was both.

But I couldn’t help feeling sad as I looked at the photos of Ben and his classmates, their young faces so full of high expectations for their futures, because I knew their lives had been lived and they were all either gone or very, very old. It was a lot like the “Carpe Diem” scene from the movie Dead Poet’s Society. Looking at photos of young people from another time has always stirred unsettling emotions in me and made me meditate on my own mortality.

Before I returned to my work, I found a playlist on YouTube of hit songs from 1936 and said, “Here’s some music from when you were young, Ben. I hope you enjoy it.”

As I worked, Bing Crosby crooned Pennies from Heaven, Billie Holliday sang Summertime, and dozens of other enchanting tunes from the brightest lights of that era such as Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, and Tommy Dorsey transported me to the year when Ben was a high school senior on top of the world and destined for great things. As Fred Astaire sang The Way You Look Tonight, I imagined Ben slow dancing with his girlfriend across the floor of my living room. The fact that my house was built in 1939 and hasn’t been changed much in the years since only added to the ethereal effect.

With such wonderful melodies playing, work was easier and time passed quickly. When I finished, it was four o’clock in the morning. The music ended and the house was quiet. I sat down, returned to the yearbook, found Ben’s photo and said, “Thanks for keeping me company, Ben. I wish I could have known you.” Using the vernacular of the era, I added, “You seemed like a swell fellow.”

A few seconds later, there was a knock at the door, but not just any knock – it was a knock with the “shave and a haircut – two bits” cadence very common to the era Ben lived in – five knocks, a pause, then two more. I was startled because of the late hour but figured my wife had come home early with the girls for some reason. I was sitting close to the door so I rushed over and opened it. There was nobody on the porch. Thinking it might have been kids pulling a prank, I went outside and scanned the front yard. No one. I walked to the middle of the street, looked both ways and listened closely. It was as still and quiet as one would expect in the hours before dawn. None of my closest neighbors have children so there was no chance some kid quickly ducked into a nearby house.

Completely bewildered, I went back inside and sat down with the old yearbook again. A few moments later, it dawned on me with a chill that the knock on the door was Ben’s answer, his way of thanking me for playing the music of his youth, and for turning the pages of his yearbook so he could see the faces of his old friends again.

The curtain between this world and the next is thick, but every now and then, if we’re respectful and receptive enough, and if all the conditions are perfect, I believe we can be given a “penny from heaven” – a greeting from someone on the other side who is determined enough to reach us somehow. I was certain in that moment that Ben had been there, and that his happy, musical knock at my door was his way of saying, “Thanks, pal. You’re a swell fellow, too.”

– Mark Rickerby

(There are 100 other stories in this book about modern-day miracles and unexplainable events, available now in stores, online, or directly from me. 

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Twitter Launch Party for Chicken Soup for the Soul’s New Book – Miracles and More

Join me and many of the other contributors to Chicken Soup for the Soul’s new book, Miracles and More, today at 11:00 A.M. Pacific Time. The information is below. Should be fun and inspiring!

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More Kindness Than Danger (travel story)

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Here’s my story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s latest book, Step Outside Your Comfort Zone. There are 100 more stories in the book about living life fearlessly and accomplishing your dreams. You can buy one online, in your favorite bookstore, or order a signed copy from me here through Paypal. (Message me for payment info, etc.) I hope my story inspires your next great adventure.

More Kindness than Danger

Another spring had arrived and, with it, my familiar and frustrated wanderlust. I had waited years for my friends to go to Europe with me, but there was always some reason they couldn’t. I proposed the trip once again to the same friends and received the same excuses. I wasn’t going to let another year go by without making this dream come true, so I decided to take the trip alone. I bought a one-way ticket to Copenhagen and told my friends I would send them a postcard.

On the day of my departure, I was excited but also surprised at how worried I felt—not just about being lonely, but also about the dangers I might encounter. My parents also questioned the wisdom of walking around Europe alone for months. They warned me not to be too trusting, to stay out of bad neighborhoods, and to avoid going out by myself at night. In retrospect, it was cruel to subject them to such torment, but they eventually understood that I just wanted to see the beauty of the world while I was still young.

My own worry was more difficult to assuage. Maybe I had watched too many movies that showed the darker side of man’s nature. Conflict is the essence of drama, after all. All those movies about naïve vacationers being attacked, kidnapped or thrown into abusive prisons had taken their toll on my trust in people. Watching the six o’clock bad news didn’t help, either. But there was no turning back, so I hugged my parents goodbye, got a ride to the airport from a friend, and flew into the big, blue sky and complete uncertainty.

It was early April, but snow was still on the ground in Copenhagen when I landed. Determined to be frugal, I chose the cheapest youth hostel in my travel guide. As I slept that first night on an ancient, unpleasant-smelling mattress beside a cracked, graffiti-covered wall, homesickness began to overwhelm me. I thought, What am I doing? I could be home in my clean, comfortable bed. But even that wasn’t there anymore because I had vacated my apartment and sold most of my belongings to finance this trip. I sat up, took out a miniature flashlight and found a note in my pocket that a friend back home had given me. He had written down the name and number of someone he knew in Copenhagen named Lisbeth. He said she would be happy to take me in for a few days. I decided to call her the next morning, and then fell asleep from exhaustion.

When I arrived at her door, she welcomed me like family and showed me the sights of Copenhagen for several days. I felt so accepted by her and her friends and had so much fun that I forgot to feel homesick.

One night, they took me to a karaoke bar. Word got around that I was from California, so someone asked me to sing a Beach Boys song. I chose “California Girls” but changed “California” to “Copenhagen.” The syllable count was a perfect match. The first time I sang “I wish they all could be Copenhagen girls,” everyone cheered, and I made a hundred friends instantly.

That’s another thing about movies. Nobody can sit in a bar in a movie without some group of drunken nincompoops harassing them. But this bar was filled with the nicest people imaginable. It was just another example of the skewed reality of cinema. Travel was working its magic. My faith in human beings was being restored.

I stayed in Copenhagen for a week before moving on. I was alone again, but invigorated by a great first week away from home. My solitude didn’t last long, however. I found travel companions everywhere I went, especially on the trains. My backpack was a silent invitation to other wayfarers to join forces and see something new together.

With only four thousand dollars, I didn’t know how long I would be able to travel. I ended up stretching it out for six months. When I wasn’t sleeping at youth hostels or the homes of new friends, I saved money by sleeping in train stations or on moving trains between one destination and another, roughing it for the sake of extending the adventure. Besides, with so many new people to get to know and so much world to see, sleep wasn’t much of a priority. It wasn’t just that, though. I wasn’t tired anymore. The continuous excitement of exploration freed me from the weariness that often plagued me at home.

While my friends back home repeated another typical summer, I awoke to the view of cotton clouds drifting through a pastel blue sky above Venice, Italy, as opera students practiced arias in the square below my hotel window. I dipped my feet in the cool water of the Trevi Fountain in Rome and imagined I had discovered the fountain of youth. I watched the sun rise over the red tile roofs of Florence. I held hands with a Parisian beauty at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I sat silently in the cool air of a mountainside prairie in Switzerland as spring exploded around me. I parasailed over Swiss Alps so fertile that the lake below them was bright yellow with floating pollen.

I watched a rainbow form over the Irish Sea. I held my hand against the cold monoliths of Stonehenge and felt their mystery flood through me. I read poetry by candlelight in a cave at the base of the mountain the Acropolis stands upon while colorful hot-air balloons filled the night sky in the distance. I recited a monologue under a full moon at the Theatre of Dionysus. I walked the ancient cobblestone streets of Athens. I danced all night in a Greek disco pulsating with life. I watched a golden sunfish sail past my rowboat in the Aegean Sea and imagined it was Zeus taking the shape of a fish to observe me more closely. I walked through ancient ruins and felt with an ache how brief my existence is, but how sacred and powerful it is for that same reason.

And through it all, I had time—that most precious commodity—to read, write, watch and really see, to listen and really hear, and to savor my life while gazing through the moving church of a train window. I discovered what Joseph Campbell meant when he said people aren’t as interested in the meaning of life as they are in the experience of being alive.

I arrived home with less than a dollar in my pocket, but with a heart and soul overflowing with riches and dozens of new stories to tell. Traveling alone can seem intimidating at first, but the world is full of kindness and generosity, and they are both showered upon us for prices anyone can afford—respect, friendliness, and an open heart.

I’m twenty-five years older now, and those same friends who didn’t come with me on that adventure can’t recall what was important enough to make them stay home back then. My problem these days is not fear of travel or distrust of humanity; it’s being content at home. The desire for adventure only grows stronger with age. How can one have enough fun? Romance? Awe? A world full of wonders, ever-pulsating outside my window, still calls me to new adventures, but now I accept the invitations fearlessly, knowing the rewards far outweigh the risks, and there is much more kindness in this world than danger.

Book Signing / Pajama Party!

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What a great night at Mystic Journey Bookstore in Venice Beach, California. (That’s me on the right.) Look at that crystal behind us! It’s bigger than my first apartment!

The event was hosted by Kelly Sullivan Walden, dream interpretation expert, and Lisa Garr, host of K-PFK’s The Aware Show (and niece of actress Teri Garr.) They both created such a warm, loving, expansive vibe in the room and – okay, I’ll say it – a good time was had by all.  

Since the event was about dreaming and celebrated the two Chicken Soup for the Soul books Kelly has co-published, Dreams and Premonitions and Dreams and the Unexplained, she challenged everyone to wear pajamas. I went full nerd with Harry Potter pajamas and robe. Only five or six of the attendees rose to the challenge and wore pajamas so I felt a bit silly, but as Socrates said, “Pajama parties are like love. You enter into them with complete abandon or not at all.” 

Okay, Socrates didn’t really say that, but he should have. 

I read my story The Warning about my brother visiting me in a dream shortly after he died of a drug overdose at the age of 37. Walter Berry and Debbie Spector Weisman also read their stories A Smiling Journey in Darkness and The Curious Riddle of the Codpiece, respectively. All three stories are in Dreams and Premonitions. I also heard some great comedy and a song (Love is the Answer by England Dan and John Ford Coley) by the multi-talented Shane August. 

You can access The Aware Show interview archives at:

http://www.theawareshow.com.

Kelly Sullivan Walden’s work and books can be found at:

http://www.kellysullivanwalden.com

If you like Hawaiian music, you can hear Shane August flex the golden tonsils at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36bj0sHQatw

If you’d like a signed copy of Dreams and Premonitions, message me here and I’ll send you the ordering instructions. Dreams and the Unexplained is available at bookstores online and at your favorite bookstore. 

Remember, a dream unexamined is like a letter from the self unopened!

 

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone TV and Radio Interviews

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Check out Chicken Soup for the Soul publisher Amy Newmark discussing Chicken Soup’s new book, Step Outside Your Comfort Zone. It contains my story “More Kindness Than Danger.” So proud to be part of this motivating book!

Good Morning, America interview – 

http://wtnh.com/2017/11/22/connecticut-author-amy-newmark-releases-new-book/

Radio interview with more detailed descriptions of the stories in this book – 

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/fmmk-talk-radio/2017/11/28/step-outside-your-comfort-zone-with-amy-newmark

New Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Twitter Launch Party!

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone Twitter Party V1

If you’re like most people in the world, you own at least one of the over 250 Chicken Soup for the Soul books. This is my 18th story published with the franchise, and I’m particularly proud of it because it tells a story I always wanted to tell – about a six-month backpacking trip I took through Europe, Greece and Great Britain.

The book is called Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, and my story title is More Kindness Than Danger. It encourages people to not let fear prevent them from living an adventurous life. There are 100 similar stories by other authors in this book, stories that will inspire you to reach beyond your comfort zone and live the life you are supposed to be living.

Tune in to Twitter tomorrow, November 1st, between 2 and 3 EASTERN time (11-1 Pacific) for a Q&A session with the contributors and the publisher, Amy Newmark. Tell them Mark Rickerby sent you. I hope to see you there!

 

 

Chicken Soup for the Soul Podcast – How to Get a Literary Agent and Get Published.

Click the link below to hear Chicken Soup for the Soul publisher Amy Newmark’s podcast called:

THOUGHTFUL THURSDAY: The Quest for an Agent – How Two Writers Found Theirs and Got Published