A World of One

A World of One June 5, 2023

How can we awaken our superhuman powers to transform the world for good?

This is part 3 of a 3-part series. See: A World of 100 and A World of Three.

A World of One

A woman and teen await a free meal at Haywood House in San Francisco’s Mission District.[1] Unlike many of the homeless patrons, this couple is pert and stylish: The 30-ish woman is dressed in a floral skirt, spaghetti-strap blouse and jangly earrings. The Latina youth has designer jeans, dark gray makeup and long black hair. Wiping their table is a spry old man with an apron and long, stringy hair.

“’Scuse me,” he says, polishing the surface with his rag.

“Quite alright,” the woman says. “Thanks for cleaning up.”

“Much obliged,” says the man. He extends his hand, saying, “Name’s Papaw.”

She is startled by the strength of the sinewy man’s grip.

“I’m Laurel,” she says.

“Mia,” says the teen.

“Glad to meet ’cha,” says Papaw. “New in town?”

“Just got an apartment down the block,” says Laurel, flinging back her auburn bangs. “The manager is a big fan of Haywood House.”

“Sent ya here, did he?” asks Papaw.

“Mm, hmm,” Laurel says. “Said we’d love the food …” She takes an anxious glance around the room. “… and the people.”

“Well, they’ll be serving in about haf’fan ah’r,” he says. “And as y’ kin see, it ain’t yur average San Francisco rest’rant.”

Laurel glances to Mia, then shrugs. “We don’t mind.”

“Where ya’ comin’ from?”

“Near Bakersfield.”

“S’that right?” he says, a yellow-toothed grin crossing his stubbled chin. “Tha’s whar I’m from … mos’ recently, that is.”

He pulls out a chair and starts his descent.

“Excuse me, Papaw,” says a sizeable woman, squeezing behind the elderly man with a walker.

“Why, Miss Franklin,” says Papaw, “ah’d like ya to meet my new friends jes in from Bakersfield. You haf’ta tell me yur names agin.”

“Laurel,” she says, extending a hand.


“And this here,” says Papaw, “is Aretha Franklin.”

Looking skeptical, Laurel says, “The Aretha Franklin?”

“Naaaa,” she says with a playful smile. “But you can call me Miss Franklin.”

“Miss Franklin has the most soulful voice you ever wanna hear,” says Papaw.

“I’s born black,” she says, “but been blue since I was two … and I will be ‘til I’m through.”

Laurel chuckles.

“Y’all come by the service later and I’ll sing you a song. Alright?”

“Alright, Miss Franklin,” says Laurel.

As Miss Franklin shuffles away, Papaw says, “Tha’s one dem fine woman.”

“I could hear the music in her voice,” says Laurel. “And what’s your story, Papaw. Where’d you get the accent?”

“Originally from Oklahoma.” he says, “Moved out west nearly 65 years ago. Beggared for work all ‘crost California when I wasn’t gittin’ three hots and a cot in the state pen. Lived in Kern Patch camp during the war, and we’s so poor we had tumbleweeds for pets. Then got to farmin’ near Bakersfield.”

Laurel laughs. “And what brought you to San Francisco?” she asks.

“Hmm … Apart from my sister Rosasharn an’ her kids workin’ here at Haywood House …” He tosses his cleaning rag on the table. “Penance, ah suppose. Tar’d of the rat race. Feels like fam’ly here. Mostly … ah s’pose ah’m here to save the worl’.”

Smiling, Laurel says, “Save the world?”

“Yes’am,” Papaw says, with gravity and conviction. “Save the worl’.”

Feeling a closeness in the air, Laurel turns to see that the room has been shrinking, with the steady influx of women, men, backpacks, dogs and strollers. A man passes Laurel wearing a button that says, “I pooped today.” In the corner, folks are getting their hair cut while others line up at a sign reading, “Food Stamps & Legal Assistance.” As the ambient noise rises in the room, so does the temperature.

“So Papaw,” asks Laurel, “how exactly do you plan to save the world?”

Papaw says, “That’s a question for Pastor Sim.” With a beckoning hand, he calls, “Hey Sim!”

A bearded man with a toboggan and lumberjack shirt approaches, greeting Papaw with a half hug.

“Now this lil’ lady here,” says Papaw, motioning to Laurel, “is askin’ how we fixin’ to save the worl’.”

Laughing, Sim pulls out a chair and takes a seat.

“Are you planning to save the whole world, Papaw,” he asks, “or just part of it?”

“You know what ah mean,” says the old man. “At least savin’ a street or two.”

“One neighborhood at a time,” says Sim.

“Tha’s right,” says Papaw.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done,” says Laurel, “but lots of people say they want to save the world. Like that guy who was skimming millions of dollars from that foundation, buying yachts and mansions and who knows what all.”

“Happens all the time,” says Sim. “It’s like the champions of world peace who want to beat the crap out of their kids or their neighbor.”

“Sounds like som’pin ah might’a done when ah’s younger,” says Papaw, “’cept I din’t do it fur worl’ peace.”

Sim draws his chair closer. “If you want to fix the world, then start right here.” He taps his chest. “You can’t change the world if you aren’t willing to change yourself.”

Laurel’s stomach churns when she sees a man across the table remove a bandage to reveal a nasty wound on his forehead.

“Careful there,” says a leather-skinned woman with a husky voice. Grabbing a fist-full of napkins, she says, “Lemme see if they got some antiseptic.”

Glancing across the room, Laurel thinks, Oh my gosh! The EMTs are putting that guy on a stretcher and I didn’t even know they were here! There’s blue lights outside the window

“Tell ‘em ‘bout yur pitchur, Sim,” says Papaw, capturing Laurel’s attention.

“My picture?” asks Sim.

“Yur pitchur a’ hell.”

“Hell?” he says with a laugh. “You mean that dream I had back in 2001?”

“It’s a good ‘un, Sim.”

“It’s been awhile … but, hmm …”

Sim closes his eyes, sharpening the focus on a fuzzy picture. Nodding, he begins.

“I was walking through this gray landscape. Not a sign of life as far as I could see. Looked like it’d been flattened by war in the middle of winter. The ground was bare dirt, except for some mounds, like molehills or piles of manure. As I walked, I noticed that each mound had these tiny sparkles of light.”

“Sparkles of light?” Mia repeats.

“Yeah,” says Sim. “It was strange, these sparkling piles of manure. Then all of a sudden — like Alice falling into the rabbit hole — I shrank down to the size of a mouse and I was looking up at these clods of manure … which turned out to be little dirt houses. And the sparkles were windows with all different colors coming through.”

“Like stained-glass,” says Mia.

“Yeah. So I wandered from pile to pile, looking into the windows, and in each one I saw a man or a woman — never more than one in a house — just sitting there. I remember one man with a fancy coat and vest … a pocket watch on a chain. And he’s just sitting there with his chin in his hands and his elbows on the table. And in each house I saw the same thing: lonely people with huge mountains of clutter heaped up all around them.

“But the thing that struck me most was the tragic looks on their faces. Some looked like they were about to cry. Others were angry, or frustrated, or ashamed, or frightened. Mostly, it made me feel sad because they looked so lonely.”

“If that ain’t hell,” says Papaw, “then butter my butt and call me a biscuit.”

“It’s dreary,” says Laurel.

“Sounds like hell to me,” says Mia, her gray lips and eye shadow bringing intensity to her emotions. Leaning closer, she demands, “Then what happened?”

“Well … I kept walking. And you know how things can take forever in dreams? Well, it seemed like I was walking for weeks and weeks, and all I saw were these dung heaps. And some were really huge, like palaces and castles …”

“And all of them had only one person inside,” says Mia.

“That’s right. Then the land started to rise and eventually I came to the crest of a hill. I looked ahead and saw …”

As he pauses, Mia’s eyes seem to grow as wide and round as her face.

“… a sunrise coming up over a vast forest of light green trees. And I knew exactly what it was. They were aspen trees, because when my wife and I were out in Utah, we saw one of the largest living organisms on the planet, which is a grove of quaking aspens called Pando. It’s nearly 50,000 trees … all connected by underground roots.”

“And it’s one organism?” says Laurel.

“Only one plant. All one root system, with thousands of trees.”

“Then what happened?” asks Mia.

“I don’t mean to disappoint you,” says Sim, “but after that sunrise, I woke up. And as I lay in bed, I knew that forest was strong and growing and spreading. And a big smile crossed my face, because the force behind that One bunch of trees was infinitely greater than all those hellish houses of glittering manure put together. And that made me happy.”

“Wow,” says Laurel, nodding her head. “So these little trees are like underdogs that rise up to save the world.”

“Yur talkin’ ‘bout me, Sweetheart,” says Papaw with a sassy wink. “I’m that underdog.”

“You might think you’re joking,” says Sim, “but that’s how you do it, by helping one person at a time.”

“I warn’t jokin’,” says Papaw.

“So your dream is like an epic battle between good and evil,” says Laurel.

“A battle between the forest people and the shit-house people,” adds Mia.

Sim laughs. “I don’t know about that, but if it is a battle, it doesn’t start out there somewhere, but right in here.” Again he taps his chest. “It’s a war against our own self-centeredness. It’s a struggle for love. And the way I see it, the heroes are people like Paula over there, cleaning up Monk’s wound. Or those heroes taking out that stretcher. Or Zandra …”

He points to a person in gender transition dressed in bright colors.

“She’s feeling great today because some unsung heroes cut her hair and helped her pick out new clothes. They’re heroes too, because they love her and they lifted her up and they gave her the human dignity she deserves. These are the gutter heroes I’m talking about. They’re the ones who take up the battle for truth, love and justice.”

“So, Sim,” says Mia with eyebrows furrowed, struggling for words. “What if you’re up against something so big and ugly and evil that … that you feel completely helpless?”

With compassion on his face, Sim says, “There’s no easy answers, Mia, but you can’t do it alone. You need a few good people who love you and will help carry you through. And never give anyone the power to rob you of the things that matter most like love … or peace . . or joy. Those are yours, so don’t give them away.”

“Love will a’ways win in the end,” says Papaw.

“There’s nothing more powerful,” says Sim. “God is love, while self-centeredness is a little pile of manure. As long as you’re in this world of One — with these selfless heroes — you have hope. And honestly, I can’t help but feel sorry for the big bullies, because all they have in the end are sparkling palaces of shit.”

“Haw, haw, haw!” says Papaw. “That’ll preach, Pastor! That’ll preach! Haw, haw, haw!”

“It’s a great message,” says Laurel.

“Love endures,” says Sim.

While the others stir their thoughts, Papaw drums his fingers on the table. He nods, then says, “When folk ask what they ken do t’make the worl’ a better place, I aw’ways tell ‘em the same thing. It’s my own personal Golden Rule.”

Mia turns her eager face toward the wiry old man. “What’s that, Papaw?” she asks.

“I aw’ways tell ‘em that the secret to savin’ the worl’ is these four simple words …”

A boyish grin crosses Papaw’s face.

“Jes’ give a damn,” he says.


“What barrier is there that love cannot break?”

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

— Mahatma Gandhi[2]


The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To comfort those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.

… For I, the Lord, love justice …

— Isaiah 61:1-3; 8 (New King James Version)


“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a foreigner or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’

“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”

— Matthew 25:44-45 (New King James Version)


“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.”

— Samwise Gamgee in The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien[3]

Image by David Lee, Flickr.

[1] Many thanks to my friends at Haywood Street Congregation, Asheville, NC, whose likenesses are featured in this chapter. See http://haywoodstreet.org/. This is an excerpt from my novel Tears to Water the Garden, by James Werning, © 2018 – All rights reserved.

[2] “460 Mahatma Gandhi Quotes to Bring the Best out of You,” Wisdom Quotes, http://wisdomquotes.com/gandhi-quotes/.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (New York: Random House Publishing, 1954), 321.

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