Stella Pope Duarte

The debts we owe

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paying-taxesTax time. Every April, millions of Americans face a tedious task – figuring out if they own the IRS any money. For those who get a refund, tax time is a profitable one in which the IRS will send out much needed cash. But, for those who face the disturbing opposite, tax money that must be paid, April can be a time of added stress and anguish. There are few things that can make law-abiding citizens more nervous than having to contend with the IRS. Just receiving a letter with “Internal Revenue Service” given as the return address is enough to send a person into a tailspin. The word “audit” can make the strongest American tremble. 

When I was a child, there was a tax man who would come to our house on 7th Avenue and Pima Street and sit with my father with a small calculator and papers that made no sense to me. My father would invariably get a refund and that made me happy; el gobierno was sending us money, so life was good. I had no idea that we were receiving a refund because my father’s income was low, below the poverty line, or close to it. 

Over the years, I have wondered about “tax time,” with a new anticipation and, certainly, with great concern. Millions share that concern as they try to figure out how much money they made, what percentage of that is taxable, and how much tax they might still owe? The numbers are often not in their favor, and they discover they must pay more tax even though their take-home pay had been habitually diminished by various tax obligations.

Several years ago as I wrote my novel, Let their Spirits Dance, I sat at a table in a small restaurant off Central Avenue in South Phoenix. As my hand rested on the table top, I felt a warm spot on the surface and thought perhaps someone had placed a warm plate or hot coffee cup on the table. However, there was no evidence that anyone had sat there before I came in. I even ran my hand under the table, thinking there might be an electrical outlet under the table that was shorting out. There was none. Understanding that, as a writer, things come to me from “left field,” I immediately took a small notebook and wrote a reflection that fit into the story of Sergeant Jesse Ramirez, the Vietnam veteran who had been killed in 1968 during the Tet Offensive. His sister, Teresa, was voicing her pain over losing her brother, and it came in the form of a debt she owed the universe.

There was a balance owing in my life that day – a debt of tears, pleas, cries, energy pushing to the surface. How can you owe a debt to the universe? But I did. And the universe wouldn’t be conned into taking anything less than the cold chill in my heart, strange payment for the warmth that was to follow.

At tax time, millions of Americans owe money. But what does a person owe when a cold, hard chill exists within? Teresa owed a debt, but it had nothing to do with money. It had to do with the bitterness and anger she felt over her brother’s death. Her debt was to be an exchange: the cold chill for the warmth. Sometimes the debts we owe have little to do with tax time, or the IRS. We owe hatred, anger, revenge, remorse; the list is endless. Until we pay the debt by giving it up to the universe, we will not receive the opposite – love, forgiveness and peace. 

Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her award-winning career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Contact her at

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