Billy Coffey

writer, observer, learner

The endless grind of the everyday

time clockI was seventeen when I entered the workforce in what was likely the most unglamorous job possible—a gas station attendant. The reasons why I ended up at the local BP are any and not very relevant twenty years later. This, however, is:

I wanted to make a difference.

It might seem strange to think such a thing would be possible. After all, I wasn’t spending my days healing the sick or teaching the young or shepherding a congregation. My eight hours were spent wiping windshields and asking, “Fill her up, ma’am?”

But still, I thought the gas station would be the perfect place to bring God a little closer to folks who didn’t normally get a good look at Him. The BP was a busy place. I wasn’t sure if God could call someone to pump gas, but I was sure He expected me to do the best I could with what I had.

And I did. For a while. I smiled. I was the polite gentleman. I invited people to church. Once I even prayed with someone as I checked her oil.

And you know what? It was nice. Very nice. For the first time in my life, I felt useful. I may have been making minimum wage and driving home with more dirt and grime than I ever thought possible, but I didn’t mind.

God was using me, and I was right where I wanted to be.

But then something happened.

The days grew longer and the nights shorter. The work became harder. And the people…well, somehow the people turned into customers to be herded in and out as fast as possible. My mood soured. I said as little as possible. My life went from being one of service to being one of clock-watching. I felt like a prisoner that was paroled at 4:00 every afternoon but had to report back promptly the next day.

My job became just that. A job.

How this happened still escaped me at the time, but experience has given me the answer. The newness wore off. The shine that was purpose, even calling, was covered by a gray film of the same old.

It doesn’t take a life-changing event to rob us of joy and faith. Not a death or a sickness or a job loss. No, all it takes is the endless grind of the everyday.

It’s our menial tasks and not our extraordinary ones that challenge our calling. It’s those things we do and those people we see every day that lull us into a false sense of who we are and what we God expects us to do.

Our jobs can become a highway if we let them, an endless expanse of pavement with nothing but the thump-thump of time to let us know we’re not holding still. But it doesn’t matter much that we’re simply going, does it? What matters is Who’s doing the driving.

And that’s a lesson I’ll learn and relearn for the rest of my life.

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Meredith’s Christmas Wish

Meredith's ChristmasInsofar as Christmas Eve traditions go I have many, each born from years upon years of practice, whittled down and streamlined for maximum effect.

This year is different. And as it’s turned out, I’m not alone. For proof, I offer the hundreds of people on either side of me.

We’ve been here on Main Street for about two hours now, some standing, others sitting, our signs and American flags at the ready, waiting for news. At some point in the very near future, an off-duty policeman will steer his car into the intersection of Routes 340 and 608 just up the street where, lights flashing, he will block all traffic. Santa is here and at the ready. To my right, a crowd has gathered in front of the elementary school. Fire trucks, gleaming red and decorated with wreaths, ready their sirens.

Meredith is coming home.

She’s been gone for months, trading her quiet home for the busy hospital at the University of Virginia in order to battle her Stage IV cancer. Her one wish was to come home for Christmas. The doctors granted her two days.

Word spread.

Here we all are.

This is what small towns do. We’re constantly up in one another’s business, as separated by race and religion and politics as anyone else, have our own sorrows and our own burdens to carry, but we love each other. And the harder our times come, the deeper our love gets.

There is no other place any of us would rather be than here. Right here, where only a few weeks ago our town’s Christmas parade eased by. We celebrated then in the midst of floats and candy and fake snow pumped from the back of lifted trucks bearing American flags and names like Country Boy’s Dream. We celebrate now for deeper reasons, as evidenced by the tears in so many eyes.

Word is that Meredith has just exited the highway. Ten minutes.

There is joy here. Should there be one thing you must know, it’s that. Christmas joy, the purest kind. The sort which bubbles up from a hopeful expectation that lives inside us all, whether buried or visible for all to see. A joy that defies hardship and pain, one that bears us up under the hard things. Doesn’t matter who you are or what your story is, we’re all hope-shaped creatures. We need it, no less than air.

Far off, a siren wails. A police car ready at the intersection. Chairs shuffling. Everyone stands.

Across the street, I hear someone say: “She’s coming.”

I think about this little girl, ten years old. A baby. And I think about that other baby as well, whose birth we will celebrate a little over twelve hours from now, that miracle wrapped in a baby boy.

Hope fulfilled.

Flashing lights. A county sheriff in the lead, a silver car behind. And trailing a mass of fire trucks, honking and blowing their sirens.

People waving, cheering. The crown of a little girl’s head.

Meredith, come the calls.

Merry Christmas. We love you.

And as she passes all the questions that have preyed upon me in these last hours fall away. I no longer wonder why God would allow this sickness to befall a child or why the world must be as broken as it is. Instead I think of that babe again, lying in a manger. I think of how so much has changed since that night in Bethlehem and also how so little, that the world is so different but the people in it are not. The things we pine for now are the very ones pined for then. Peace. Purpose. Healing. Life.

Should you have a mind, do me a favor? Say a prayer for little Meredith. I know I will. She has warmed my heart this year. She has touched us all. And because of her, my community has given me a gift this Christmas that I will not soon forget. We are bombarded each day with stories of just how much humanity gets wrong, but we can get a whole lot right, too.

Merry Christmas, friends.

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Joseph’s gift

image courtesy of photo

image courtesy of photo

I have always held a soft spot for the little guy, that nameless and faceless mass of everyday folk who make little noise and little splash but without whom the world would fall apart. I’ve always held a soft spot for Christmas as well. Mostly, I guess, because the one has very much to do with the other. Christmas is a little guy time of year.

It’s always about the baby, have you ever noticed that? As it should be, don’t get me wrong. It’s the baby and the angels and the shepherds, the virgin who kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. Among all the stories I have ever read or been told, the one of that first Christmas will always remain my favorite. Hope, wrapped up in a little boy.

For me, though, it isn’t only about the Christ child. Not the shepherds in the fields, those poorest of the poor who were the first recipients of the Good News. Not the heavenly hosts, ten thousand angels gathered where a single one could lay waste to an entire world. Not the magi, following a star. No. The one I most often think of this time of year is the one least mentioned, not only in the story of Christ’s birth but also in much of the Gospels.


Poor, neglected Joseph.

It began so well for him, this man who was a descendant of King David and Abraham. Engaged to a young girl named Mary, who, as it happened, came to be with a child not his own.

A man in Joseph’s position in that culture and at that time could have done some pretty horrible things to an unfaithful fiancee. Could have had her publicly humiliated for certain. Stoned, if that had been his inclination.

Joseph, though, had nothing of the sort in mind. Matthew says that instead, Joseph “was minded to put her away privily.”

Quietly, so as not to cause Mary further burden. It is an example of Joseph’s righteousness according to Matthew, but I’ve always thought there was more to that decision than Joseph being a righteous man—a description, by the way, that is a supreme compliment in Jewish culture. I think it was just as much that he loved Mary, loved her deeply, in spite of what had happened.

But of course like most plans, Joseph’s did not line up exactly with God’s. He was visited in a dream by an angel who said Mary’s child was indeed the Holy Spirit’s, and the child shall be named Jesus.

Let that sit for a moment. The woman you were to marry—the woman you love—has betrayed you by getting herself pregnant by someone else. You’re brokenhearted and not a little bit angry. But then an angel visits you, scaring you half to death and telling you the most amazing and inexplicable story you’ve ever heard. What do you do?

Says Matthew: “And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”

I often wonder what Joseph thought and felt the night of the Child’s birth—a Child not his own.

The naming of a Jewish boy was the father’s prerogative. Joseph did not name Jesus. In the genealogy of Christ that comprises much of Matthew’s first chapter, Joseph is rendered little more than an afterthought: “Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

I wonder how it would make a Jewish man of that time feel, not being known as the father of a son but the husband of a wife.

Those early years must have been a frightening time. Humbling and confusing. Maybe even lonely.

After the wise men who visited had gone, the angel came again to warn that Herod was looking for the child. He told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Joseph obeyed.

The angel returned after Herod died to tell Joseph to return his family (not “your wife and son,” but “the Child and His mother”) to Israel. Joseph obeyed.

The angel then returned again, telling him to settle in the regions of Galilee.

Joseph obeyed.

When Christ was twelve, Mary and Joseph took him to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. Jesus remained behind to listen to an question the teachers. Mary and Joseph, no doubt being as tired and stressed as any parent, assumed the boy was somewhere in the caravan. They found him a day later. Joseph didn’t understand Jesus’s explanation.

I bet there was a lot of that.

I bet there was a mess of things that Joseph never really understood.

That is the last mention of Joseph in the Bible. It is assumed he died, but no one knows for sure. Maybe it’s fitting that a man portrayed as little more than a bit player in the greatest story ever told exits the stage in such a manner. No bows, no curtain calls. That sounds like Joseph. Play your part, then leave quietly.

I’m sure that’s not the way it all happened. I’m certain Joseph played a big part in the life of Christ. Wouldn’t be nice to have a glimpse of that, though? A single verse of Joseph the carpenter, showing the boy how to build a door or a wall.

Because in the end he spent his life in the greatest of pursuits. Joseph was a father. A step one in a heavenly sort of way, but a dad nonetheless. So here’s to him this Christmas. That unsung hero, the ultimate little guy. A man who did nothing more than what we all should do—ponder not what role we play in history’s long and winding tale, only obey, and take care of the little ones.

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Tidings of comfort

Evernote Camera Roll 20131229 090031Two years ago:

This Christmas began what I hope will become a new tradition for the Coffey house. On Christmas Eve, my daughter sat at the grand piano in the equally grand foyer of the local hospital. For forty-five minutes, she provided background music to the steady pulse of whispers and footsteps and intercom pages.

“Silent Night.” “Joy to the World.” “Away in a Manger.” The notes shaky at first, timid, only to gain in both confidence and volume as the moments drew on.

I sat with my son and wife on the worn leather sofa in the middle of the foyer. The perfect spot to listen and nod and smile in support. Also, the perfect spot to see what would happen when those songs of hope and joy were played in such a setting. To see a bit of light cast into such a darkened place.

We were alone for a while. There is a current to every public place, one that flows and meanders of its own accord regardless of what attempts are made to alter it. So we all settled in, us on the sofa and she at the keys, joining the crowd rather than ask the crowd to join us.

The automatic doors leading to the parking lot squeaked with a certain poetic regularity. The people who entered did so with a slow purpose, as if walking through molasses. Their arms ladened with ribboned bags overstuffed with gifts. Plastic smiles that sunk no deeper than the first layer of skin greeted us. Their thoughts were plain enough that I saw them well. It is Christmas, these people thought, and I am here—not at home, but here.

My daughter played: Let every heart/Prepare Him room.

In those small spaces where the elevators clustered, those coming in met those going out. These people, too, could not hide their thoughts. I watched as orderlies pushed the freed in wheelchairs as worn and tired as the smile on the patients’ faces. They were greeted at the doors by family members who rushed in from the circular drive just outside—rushed in, I thought, not to escape the cold, but to rescue their loved ones before some unknown doctor reconsidered the discharge order.

My daughter bolder now, smiling down at the ivory keys: And heaven and nature sing.

A nurse stopped on her way to some far-flung department to listen. An old man sat in the chair across from us, drawn there more by the music than the promise of comfort. The December sun glinted off the wall of windows in front of us. Puffy clouds raced overhead, molded into shapes by the wind. More people stopped—patients and visitors, security officers, doctors. Not for long and only to smile as those notes rang out (Round yon virgin, mother and child) before walking on with a nod and a smile.

And slowly, ever so gently, that current changed.

It was not diverted, nor could it have been. This was a hospital, after all. In such places where so much life mingles with so much death, the heaviness in the air is both constant and unchanging. And yet I saw smiles during my daughter’s recital, and I heard the hard sighs of comfort and the sound of applause.

And I knew then this great truth—we cannot heal what has been irrevocably broken. We cannot bring peace in a life where there will always be war, nor healing to a place fallen from grace. Such things are beyond our ability. We have no such power.

Yet even if we are powerless to change this world, we still have the power to nudge it a bit in the direction it should go. To bring joy to another, even for a moment. To inspire and lift up. To give hope.

To endure.

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Busyness, beauty and light

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On January 12, 2007, over a thousand commuters passed through the L’Enfant Plaza station of the Washington, D.C. subway line. A rush of people, reading their morning papers, talking on their phones. Hurrying out for another day of the grind. The vast majority of these Everymen and Everywomen never noticed the violinist playing near the doors. Panhandlers are common enough in the subways, playing their instruments for dimes and quarters that will feed them for another day.

This particular panhandler remained at his spot for forty-five minutes and collected a grand total of $32.17. Of the 1,097 people who passed by, only twenty-seven paused long enough to listen. And only one recognized the man for who he was—Joshua Bell, one of the most talented violinists in the world.

I wonder about all those people who passed through the subway station that day. I wonder if they ever saw the newspaper articles and television reports and figured out they had been there, had walked right passed him, without even knowing who he was.

I wonder of Joshua Bell, too, and what he was thinking. All of those people so near on that gray January morning, too hurried to hear the music he played. It was Bach, mostly. And the sound—the most beautiful sound a violin ever made. A sound like angels. That day, Bell used the 1713 Stradivarius he’d purchased for nearly four million dollars.

You might say you’re not surprised by any of this. You’ll say it’s the modern world we live in. People are always in a rush to get from point A to point B. There’s so much we have to keep track of, so many things to do. So much vying for our attention. It’s a generational thing. Our parents and grandparents were the ones who enjoyed a slower life. We don’t have that luxury.

Maybe so.

And yet the very same thing happened in May of 1930. Seventy-seven years before Joshua Bell played inside the D.C. subway, Jacques Gordon, himself a master, played in front of the Chicago subway. The Evening Post covered the story this way:

“A tattered beggar in an ancient frock coat, its color rusted by the years, gave a curbside concert yesterday noon on an windswept Michigan Avenue. Hundreds passed him by without a glance, and the golden notes that rose from his fiddle were swept by the breeze into unlistening ears…”

Jacques Gordon collected a grand total of $5.61 that day. Strangely enough, the violin he used on Michigan Avenue was the very Stradivarius that Joshua Bell would use in L’Enfant Plaza station all those years later.

I ask myself what I would have done had I been present there in Chicago or Washington. I wonder if those golden notes would have reached my ears and if I would have paused to listen.

I want so badly to answer yes.

I want to believe that I’m never so busy that I have no time for beauty.

I want to know that in such a dark and shadowy world, I will still make room for music and light.

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Finding hope in the hollows

image courtesy of photo

image courtesy of photo

I remember hearing an old Thanksgiving story first told to me in the dim past of the 1970s, back when most everyone here was poor but didn’t care because if you were rich you were crooked in some way, and at least we were honest. It was a tale of the mountains, and how there was once the Childresses and the Campbells and you were on one side or the other.

Theirs was never a famous feud on par with the Hatfields and McCoys, nor did their disagreement involve gunfire and murder. Mostly, it was a war of words. This in no way means the situation was any less dire. You will never know a hate more pure and powerful than the sort that burned for a Childress in the heart of a Campbell. Unless, of course, it was the enmity for a Campbell in the mind of a Childress. A whole generation was raised up in it, kids taught from birth that whichever family across whichever holler was an abomination to the Lord and all goodness.

I never did hear back then how it all started. In fact, I doubted then (and still do) that anyone knew. The Hatfields and McCoys went to war over a stolen pig. I expect it was something similar in this case, a small thing that got twisted into something large either through an abundance of boredom or the brokenness of the human heart. Really, that’s about what all wars come down to, isn’t it?

Anyway. About that Thanksgiving:

Right along with turkey and pumpkin pie here is the tradition of the Thanksgiving hunt, when most of the men and not a few of the women take to the woods in the early dawn to shoot something they can brag about at the table. Being good mountain folk, the Childresses and Campbells were much the same. And so it was on that long ago Thursday morning that a Campbell tracking a buck came across the distant shape of a man who had fallen from his tree stand. Thinking the injured was either kin or Christian, he ran to offer aid. It was only upon turning the man over that he realized the victim was neither. He’d done caught himself a Childress.

Yet rather than leave him there to limp out of the cold wood alone, the Campbell gathered the Childress up and piggy-backed him all the way to his truck, nearly four miles off. Once safe, there was no invitation from either for anything further. No request to come eat, certainly no offer of prayer and blessing. Still, the story was told and told again by both parties. There were a few dissimilarities, but both parties involved managed to say the same thing: “Shoot, he looked like kin.”

I’ve been thinking about that story a lot lately. Not whether it was true or not (it was a tale told by an old man, after all, and old men are never so interested in truth as they are in Truth), but how it applies all these years later. As I wake this Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, I find country and a world that hasn’t been more divided in my memory. People are scared, and because we’re scared we’re mad, and because we’re mad we’re saying all manner of crazy things and spotting all manner of lurking monsters. We’re not speaking to each other more as much as shouting. More than anything else, we see one another as set in boxes not of gender or race or religion, but ideology, and in so doing we lose a great deal of the empathy so lacking in our public discourse. People are a lot easier to hate when they’re not seen as people at all, but the sum of their opinions.

Which is why if I have one Thanksgiving wish this year (and if there is even such a thing), it would be that all of us could go out in the woods or a little while. Walk among the ridges and trees and see that this old world is still a pretty nice and peaceful place. And especially to run into each other out in the hollers, stripped of all that anger and fear, and see that shoot, we all look like kin.

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The lost art of snail mail

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 6.33.49 PM“Can you help me?”

A common enough question in the course of my workday as a college mailman. Asked by the old and the young alike, but mostly the young. And I am generally in a well enough mood to reply Yes, I certainly can help you, even if I am generally not in a well enough mood to be excited about the prospect. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned in my long and storied career of postal delivery to a bunch of 18-21 year-olds, it’s that they often need a lot of help. A LOT.

So, just a bit ago—“Can you help me?”


Young lady, nineteen-ish. I pegged her as a junior. Not because I knew anything at all about her, but because I’ve been here long enough to be able to guess such things with a modicum of accuracy. It was the way she dressed—pajama bottoms and a raggedy sweatshirt, which told me she’d been here long enough to not care anymore but no so long that she understood it just may be time to start growing up a little—and the way she addressed me—in the eye. She’d laid the envelope, pen, and stamp on the counter in front of her. When I walked up, she was staring at all three as if they were all pieces to some exotic puzzle.

I asked what sort of help she needed, which could have been anything from needing a zip code to how much postage was needed to mail something to China. But no, neither of those.

Instead, she said, “I don’t know how to mail this.”

“Just fill it out,” I told her. “I’ll mail it for you when you’re done.”

“No. I mean, I don’t know . . . how.”

“How to what?”

“You know. Like, fill this out.”

She pointed to the envelope and stared at it. I stared at it, too. Because I had no idea what she was talking about.

“You mean,” I asked, “you don’t know how to address an envelope?”


“You mean, No, that’s not it? Or do you mean, No, I don’t know how to address an envelope?”

Now she looked at me. Her brow scrunched. I got the image of her seated in some classroom desk, trying to split the atom.

“I don’t know how to address an envelope,” she said.

I’ll be honest—it took me a while. Not to show her how to address an envelope (which, as it turned out, took much, much longer than a while, took what felt like an eternity), but for what this young woman told me to finally sink in. She really didn’t know how to address an envelope. Had no idea where to put the stamp, where to write her home address (it was a card, she said, to her mother) and not only where to write the return address, but what a return address was.

Nineteen years old. Junior in college. I can assume this young lady was bright, or else she wouldn’t be in college. And resourceful. And driven. Capable, too—she whipped out her iPhone and danced through so many apps to find her mother’s address that it nearly gave me a seizure. But when it came to something as commonplace as sending a letter? Nothing.

“Nobody sends letters anymore,” she told me. “It’s so 1800s.”

She finished her envelope and affixed the stamp (after being told where that went, too). I had to sit down for a bit afterward. My head was killing me.

Now I’m thinking:

Is this really where we’ve come? Have we really raised a generation of children who are so dependent upon technology that anything without a button is an unsolvable mystery?

But there’s something more as well, something far worse. In our instant world of texts and emails and Facebook posts and tweets, that poor girl has missed out on one of the true pleasures of life. She has never sat at a quiet desk with paper and pen to write a letter. She has never pondered over the words that have leaked through her hand and fingers, never slowed enough to find the rhythm of her words and her heart. She has never felt the trepidation of folding those words (and her heart) into thirds and stuffing them in an envelope sealed with her own saliva—her own DNA—and placing it in a mailbox. Never worried that her letter maybe wouldn’t get to where it was meant to go. Never felt the exhilaration of finding a sealed reply waiting for her days or weeks later.

Give me the new, the world says. Give me the shiny and the bright. I say take it. I’ll keep my paper and pen.

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A day’s work

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image courtesy of

Though I’ve never been one to engage in talk both detrimental and salacious, I will say this: There is trouble down at the Howard farm. That in itself is not gossip, but fact; things between Clive Howard and his son Darrell have been spoiling for years now, ever since Darrell proclaimed his intent to leave, and you don’t have to be a farmer to understand what spoils eventually rots, and what rots will inevitably die.

Way it was told to me, Darrell knew long before high school that farming would not be his future. His first trip to the cemetery guaranteed it. The Howard farm rests along two hundred acres of bottomland, in a holler just off the ridge road in the western part of town. Beautiful place, that farm. Wish you could see it, the way the willows curl up along the riverbanks and how the wood there carry the scents of cedar and pine in the winter and honeysuckle come summer, the deer that gather in the fields just as the sun dips over the ridges, the barn, a red so bright it looks slick. And at the border between corn fields and pasture, the four oaks rising like thick fingers into an empty sky and the white gravestones beneath them. Nearly twenty of them all told.

The Howards have farmed this land for generations; most of them are buried beneath those oaks, from Nathaniel Howard (“b. Dec 3, 1758 d. Mar 20, 1819,” reads the stone) to Robert Howard, Darrell’s own grandfather, who passed from this life to the next the summer Darrell turned ten. There are moments in all of our lives that come with a kind of slow focus that will define all the moments after. That’s what happened with Darrell that day. Standing there with his momma and daddy, tugging at his Sunday suit under a hot morning sun as the preacher read the Psalms and they all cried and sang, Darrell looking out upon all those bleached stones set against hard earth, knowing there would one day be others. There would be his daddy’s and his momma’s. One day, there would be his own. That’s when Darrell made the quiet promise that he would never be a farmer. He would break free of that hollow, make himself a life.

He’d seen enough of the future Clive had for him already. The early mornings spent milking the cows and feeding the hogs, the slop and the mud, the cold, the heat. Planting in spring and praying for rain and warm weather, only to watch as God said No and sent nothing but a scorching sun that turned the green corn a withered brown. The calloused hands, the aching back. Sunburn in August, windburn in January. All of it to scrape by as the prices of beef and corn plummeted, the only security what Darrell’s momma had canned to store in the pantry. For Darrell Howard, that was no sort of life. He wanted more from the world, and that’s why he’s leaving come summer. The university first, and then a proper job. Someplace in the city. Downtown, with a view of the skyline instead of the ridgeline. Suits instead of coveralls. Early retirement. The country club.

In Darrell’s own words, “An easy life, because that’s what living should be.”

Thus far, Clive Howard has not taken well to this news.

It isn’t that he views his son’s goals as less than the life Darrell had been born into. Whether sitting in a corner office or plowing the back forty, so long as Darrell works, Clive will be happy. And yet Darrell’s decision cuts deeper than mere employment, deeper than even carrying on the generations who have farmed the bottomland. It is work itself, and the place it will have in the life of Clive Howard’s son.

We are meant for toil, that’s what Clive would say. He would say the land is in his son’s blood, the fields and pasture as much of Darrell as the marrow to his bones. He would say the sweat that stains his brow and dirt packed hard beneath his nails, that ailing back and those calloused, hardened hands, are not the mark of a life spent in hardship, but one spent with purpose.

The Howards have always worked their acres believing such. They have been raised up in that same bricked farmhouse and laid down beneath those same towering oaks since the Revolution, and in all those long and lean years between, saw little more of this world than what lay between the ridgetops. None of them enjoyed what Darrell would call an easy life, and yet they each found this one truth: This world is not meant to be easy and our work in it is not meant to be short, because that work becomes a living prayer.

(This post originally appeared on the High Calling Blog, November, 2014.)

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Missing me

image courtesy of photo

image courtesy of photo

It was laying in an old box marked BILLY’S STUFF in a forgotten corner of the attic, near where the insulation had been bitten and chewed by a family of long-ago mice. The words were faded and the cardboard brittle. When I pulled the top off, both one corner and a cloud of dust flew.

Normally, I would have moved on. It was only one box among dozens in my parents’ attic and one that was not marked CHRISTMAS, and thus not of interest. Normally, I would have gone on to the wreaths wrapped in trash bags and the candles that have gone in their windows every year since I was a child and the other boxes of ornaments and decorations and pushed them to the door, into my father’s hands.

Normally. But I didn’t this time, not with that box. Because this one said BILLY’S STUFF.

There is a kind of magic in such situations, as though time is blurred such that the past and present become the same in one small tick of life. That’s what I felt right then, crouched down under the eaves. This was the Me I once was tapping the Me I am now on the shoulder, wanting to sit for a while. Wanting to talk. Given all that, I had to open the box. Even if Dad was hollering into the attic, wanting to know where I was.

So I reached down and folded back the remaining sides, feeling like I had just discovered some long lost tomb. Inside were memories long forgotten—notebooks and newspaper clippings, an old T shirt gifted to me by someone who must have been important but whom I’d forgotten, an old fountain pen. And buried beneath it all, a single cassette tape with the word LIFE written on the label.

Dad hollered again, telling me Christmas would be over by the time I got all the decorations down. I felt the stuff in the box. I took the tape. Partly because it was the only thing I could fit in my pocket. Mostly because it intrigued me. I had no idea what was on there, and I wanted to know what LIFE meant to a seventeen-year-old me who believed the world lay at his feet.

I got back home and dug out an old cassette player from the closet, amazed not only that I had one, but that it still worked and I’d remembered how to use one. I sat it at my desk, popped the tape in, and pushed Play. What came over the speaker wasn’t my own voice expounding upon my adolescent wants and dreams. It was music.

Of course it had to be music.

Back then, at that age, everything was music. I had so many of those cassettes back then my truck couldn’t hold them. Half were kept in the glovebox, half in my room. Mix tapes, we called them. I guess you can do the same with CDs now, but I don’t know what they’re called.
Honestly? I was a little disappointed. Was I really so shallow that long ago to think sixty minutes of spandex-pantsed, makeup wearing, hair metal music was the one thing of my past worth preserving for the future?

It wasn’t the first time the person I am shook my head at the person I was and called him an idiot.

But I kept the tape playing. One song melted into the next, and before long I wasn’t only playing air guitar and singing along, I was remembering. Where I first heard that song. Who I was with. What I was doing. What I felt.

Then I understood. And suddenly I realized it wasn’t the person I am cursing the person I was at all, it was the other way around. These weren’t songs at all. This was the background music to a former life.

I’ve just spent the last hour on iTunes, downloading every one of those songs. I miss cassette tapes (heck, I’m old enough to still miss vinyl records), but digital really is the way to go. Right now, I’m turning my past to my present and plan to enjoy the person I was while listening to those songs on my phone while I mow the yard. Listening and remembering.

Because you know what? I haven’t talked with that old me in a long while. Sometimes, I miss him.

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Catching the sun

graphic depicting reflected sunlight in Rjukan, Norway.

graphic depicting reflected sunlight in Rjukan, Norway.

The day is gloomy as I write this, rainy and chilly and overcast—the sort of weather that makes summer feel far behind and winter just around the corner. The leaves have gone from green to bright yellows and reds, but even now there is a crunchy blanket of dead brown ones on the ground. The robins are gone, as is the garden. All that’s left of both are the empty nests in our trees and the canned vegetables in our cupboards.

You would think I’m used to it, this shifting of the seasons. Four times a year for forty-three years, that means I’ve gone through this 180 times. I should be a pro. I’m not. Aside from Christmas, I’ve never liked winter. I’ve read there are more suicides between October and March than any other time of year. I can understand that. The cold and dark can get a person down. Around here, people say winter is a season that gets inside you.

I was thinking about all this a little bit ago while digging through the stack of papers on my desk. Midway through was a story about a Norwegian town called Rjukan, whose people know all about the cold and dark. Settled deep in a valley floor, the sun moves so low across the sky in winter that it leaves the entire town in perpetual evening. The sun doesn’t shine in Rjukan at all between September and March. It gets so bad that locals take a cable car to the top of the mountains just to stand in the light.

Sounds like a pretty horrible way to spend half your year, doesn’t it? But if things go according to plan, all that is about to change.

Over the summer, helicopters hoisted three massive mirrors 450 meters above Rjukan and anchored them to the sides of the valley. Called heliostats, the mirrors are controlled by computers to follow the path of the sun and reflect a day-long beam of light that will fall directly into the center of the town square. No more cable cars to the mountains, no more endless gloom. The people of Rjukan will only have to take a short walk to the square to catch a bit of sun. They will all gather there and be together. They will all stand in the light.

I’m thinking about that little town a lot on this gloomy morning.

I’m thinking about how it really is true that winter gets inside you. It can hunch you over and make you wince, it can steal your smile, and oftentimes it doesn’t matter at all what the season is on the outside. I know people who walk around in July, but it’s still winter in their hearts. I guess that’s sometimes by choice. More often than not, though, I really don’t think it is. This world’s a tough place. It can hurt.

But I’m thinking about those three mirrors most of all, the ones now sitting high in that Norwegian valley and catching that sun. I’m thinking about how that’s what you and I should be—reflectors. Shining a light into the dark places. Bringing warmth to the cold around us. Not a light and a warmth of our own making, but ones greater and eternal.

Yes, I think so.

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