September 18, 2014
She stared at me, jaw straight and chin high, and said the three words. I stood there looking back at her, my jaw not so straight and my chin normal, not exactly knowing what to say other than to ask her to say it again. In a slow cadence that enunciated perfectly each of the three syllables, she repeated—“God. Hates. Me.”
“God hates you because your mail isn’t here?” I asked.
“Yes. If He wanted, He could make sure it got here. It’s not here. So God hates me.”
It was the sort of logic I’ve gotten accustomed to here at work, a place full of higher learning and lower thinking. And I had no doubt the student in front of me really didn’t mean what she said. She was angry. Frustrated. Down.
“You know the mail’s backed up,” I told her. “The hurricane and all.”
“Didn’t God make the hurricane?”
“Doesn’t the atmosphere or something make the hurricane? Something about the air off the coast of Africa?”
“Doesn’t God make the air off the coast of Africa?”
I could see where this was going.
“I don’t think God hates you,” I said. “The U.S. Postal Service, maybe. But not God.”
My attempt at levity did little to resolve the situation. She grunted and walked off. I told her to check back again tomorrow. She said she would if God hadn’t killed her by then.
That was yesterday. I didn’t see her today—I’m assuming God hasn’t killed her—which is good, considering her mail still hasn’t arrived. I’m still of the opinion that she was kidding about the whole God-hating-her thing, assuming she knows a little about God. You don’t need a lot of knowledge about the Higher Things to know He doesn’t hate anyone, that God is love.
There have been times when I’ve caught myself thinking that same sort of thing. Maybe not that God hates me, but certainly that He’s ignoring me. That He’s more concerned with keeping the universe expanding and the world turning than little old me. I suppose that’s not as bad as thinking He hates me. I guess it isn’t much better, either.
Aren’t we all at times like that, though? So much of life is fill-in-the-blank. Things are going badly because _________. Often what we give as our answer is more pessimism than optimism. We hurt and we take sick, we fall on hard times, not because others have done so since time immemorial, but because God hates us.
A few months ago, I got the chance to observe a professional jeweler polish silver. The process charmed me. He walked me through the entire process. The secret, he said, was heat. A good silversmith knows just how hot to get the silver before it is molded. Too hot, and it’s ruined. Too cool, and it spoils. The piece he was polishing? Perfect. Just enough heat.
I think God is like that with us. We’re made for better things—Higher Things—than to simply exist. We must be good for something. We must be molded in a fire neither too hot nor too cool. We are all pieces of silver in the Jeweler’s hand.
It is true this world is cracked and made for suffering. But it is also true that by suffering, we are made to heal what cracks we can.
God does not hate us, He simply loves us too much to fill our lives with ease.
One final thing about that jeweler. He told me he’d been sitting there for hours shining that piece of silver. That fact seemed a bit pointless to me. I couldn’t imagine it shining any brighter. I asked him how he would know when it had been polished enough.
“The silver faces the fire,” he said, “but it isn’t done. Then it is molded and polished, but it still isn’t done. The silver is only done when it casts the Jeweler’s reflection.”
September 15, 2014
I had no idea how far we’d walked—when you’re tromping through the woods with two kids, time drags on until it becomes irrelevant—but it was far enough that we were ready to turn around and go home. After all, it wasn’t as if we had a map to go by. All we had were stories.
“Maybe we should just pray,” my son said. My son, who announced last week that he wanted to be a preacher when he grew up. To him, praying is the answer to everything.
“I think God would rather we walk than pray,” I told him.
“Why, did you ask him?”
I didn’t answer. We pushed on through the brambles and found the river—at least that part of the story had been proven right—then decided to sit and watch the water. My daughter tried to spot fish, my wife tried to spot spiders, and I tried to figure out where we should look next.
My son, the future Preacher Man, looked into the blue sky peeking through green trees and said, “Our Father, whose art ain’t in heaven, Halloween be your name.”
“This way,” I told them. “I think it’s over here.”
Which wasn’t true at all. I had no idea where it was or even if it was, but you know about men and directions. Besides, it wasn’t like we could pull over at the next gas station.
My daughter said, “Maybe we should just go home before we get eaten,” which brought more prayers from the little boy in the back.
I reminded them of the value of a story, of how the whole world was made of them and sometimes they’re true and sometimes they’re not, and how sometimes the ones that are not have more truth. And when you come across a story about an old home forgotten somewhere in the mountains, you have to go look. You just have to.
So we trudged on—me, my wife, my daughter, and the Preacher, who was now calling down the Spirit to keep Bigfoot away.
Truth be known, I didn’t think we’d find a thing. Though the mountains here are littered with the remnants of pioneer homesteads, their locations are masked by either wilderness or the foggy memories of the old folk. But the directions I’d received turned out to be pretty darn close. It wasn’t long until the woods opened up a bit into an ancient bit of clearing, and wouldn’t you know it, there was something up ahead.
Of course that something was hidden by a couple hundred years of changing seasons. Trees and bushes and plants had reclaimed the area that was once taken from them. All that remained to be seen was a bit of foundation. The rest was enclosed by an impenetrable wall of overgrowth.
“Let’s try to break through,” my daughter said, to which she received a chorus of no ways.
“I don’t want to go in there,” my wife said.
“I’m too tired to try to go in there,” I said.
“We should really pray first before we go in there,” my son said.
Simply going back was no longer an option. We’d found it now, and to leave without at least a look around simply wouldn’t do. So we looked. All of us. We poked and prodded for weak spots, we tried to peek into what had likely gone unseen for centuries. We stood on tiptoes and jumped and, once, even tried to make a human pyramid. But it was no use. The mountains would not give up their secrets that day.
“Hey,” my son said, “I see something.”
He was knee-bent, face almost in the dirt, peering through the undersides of thorns and thickets.
The rest of us followed. Knees bent, faces in the dirt, peering through the thorns, we found holes just big enough to peer through. What lay on the other side was nothing more than the remnants of a stone foundation, but to us it was Machu Picchu and Stonehenge and Easter Island rolled into one.
It was then that I realized what my son had done. The little Preacher Man, too little to jump too high or tiptoe too up, had decided to use his smallness to his advantage.
He’d gone to his knees.
“You can see more if you get on your knees, Daddy,” he’d often said. “If you stand up, you just see what you can. But if you bow down, God will show you what you can’t.”
Those words, profound as they were, had always gotten him a rub on the head or a squeeze on the shoulder. Nothing more. But then I knew just how right he was, and I wondered just how much I’d missed in my life because I’d been standing instead of kneeling.
September 12, 2014
I listened as well as I could, though I’ll admit she nearly scared me to death at first—Die? Why die? What happened?—but then I managed to get the entire story. She’s 12 now, my daughter, an age I’m quickly beginning to see as Not So Young Anymore. The world is opening up to her, and not just the good stuff, either. She’s learning that not all of life is so wonderful and that the future doesn’t always seem rosy.
It was strange at first that what bothered her so much wasn’t something that would happen, but something that already had.
“Do you know how the dinosaurs died?” she asked me.
“No room in Noah’s ark?”
She looked at me like I was the kid and she was the parent. “It was a meteor!” she said.
“So why are we all gonna die?”
“Because there’s more,” she said. She waved her tiny arms around her head as if she were trying to beat them all away. “It like happens all the time.”
“They hit our planet and kill everything.” She slumped down on the sofa beside me and sighed. “One could be coming now.”
“I hope it waits until this ballgame’s over,” I said, “because I really want to know who wins.”
“I’m being serious, Daddy,” she said. “Aren’t you scared?”
I told her I wasn’t, and that seemed to satisfy her enough. Nothing else was said about things falling from the sky. Mission accomplished, I would usually say. But the fact is that I kinda/sorta lied to her when I said I wasn’t scared.
Because I kinda/sorta was when I was her age.
The truth is that the history of our fair world isn’t fair at all. There have been five mass extinctions in our planet’s history, the last of which occurred just over 70,000 years ago after a volcano almost wiped humanity from history before it had even started.
Just weeks ago, two meteorites passed within just a few thousand miles of Earth.
You get the picture.
I remember when I was about my daughter’s age hearing a preacher on the radio saying he’d received a vision from God (which, heard through his Southern accent, sounded more like GAWT) that the world would end in exactly seven days and thirteen hours. I can’t recall who the man was, but I remember the panic he caused among the few who actually believed him. Me included, of course.
I sat out on the hood of my father’s truck that night and waited for Armageddon. Didn’t come, of course. And even though predictions of The End will stick on me like a burr from time to time, I learned my lesson that day.
I learned that no matter how hard we all may try, none of us can keep the bad away. We can lessen its impact, we can fight it, we can even turn some of it into good, but the fact remains that it’s still there and it’s still coming. The world’s full of trouble, and whether that trouble comes from earthquakes or madmen doesn’t really matter.
If that sounds submissive, I didn’t mean it to be. My daughter fell into the very trap I’ve found myself in so many times—she was worried about something she couldn’t influence. In the age of twenty-four-hour news channels and the internet, that’s something we can all struggle with sometimes.
But I’m older now. I can let solar storms and the ebola go.
It’s the other, personal forms of destruction I want her to worry about, and that’s what I’ve learned to concern myself with more, too. Because it doesn’t take a meteor or a volcano to ruin our lives, especially when we can do that just fine on our own.
We can give in to pain rather than get through it.
We can surrender to temptation rather than fight it.
We can yield our dreams rather than cling to them.
Those are our choices to make, those small decisions that perhaps have no influence on the world outside but make all the difference in the world inside.
That’s what I want my daughter to know. Because planetary destruction is in God’s hands, but self-destruction is in ours.
September 9, 2014
Some friends of ours moved last week. Traded one set of blue mountains for a set of rocky ones. It’s something they’ve wanted to do for a while (he has family in Colorado, not twenty miles from their new home, and she grew up in nearby Boulder). Their move had less to do with the economy than a simple desire for a change of scenery. I nodded when they told me that, but I didn’t really understand. Who would want to leave rural Virginia?
I’ve known them for about fifteen years now. They’ve been to my home, I’ve been to theirs. We’ve shared meals and Christmas presents and birthday parties for our children. It’s a sad thing that in a world defined by hustle and bustle and there’s-always-something-going-on, few people slow down enough to make good friends. That’s what I’d call them—good friends.
But they’re gone now, a thousand miles westward. They will find new lives, and I will keep my old one.
Their leaving was a bit anti-climactic. That surprised me. I suppose deep down I knew what I had yet to consider, which was that they’d still be around. There’s the phone, of course. E-mail. Facebook and Twitter. Skype. No matter that two mountain ranges and a great big river separated us, they’d still be no more than a few button pushes away.
That’s when I realized how much the world has shrunk. Never mind that our technology has made it possible to cure disease and peer into the deepest reaches of the universe and know within moments what has happened in a tiny spot across the world. It has done something more profound than all of those things together.
It has lifted from us the heavy weight of ever having to say goodbye.
I’ve read stories of families separated during the Great Depression, of parents and children cleaved apart as some remained behind and others struck out for new territories and better hope. They had to say their goodbyes. Many were never heard from again. Can you imagine?
I remember looking around at my classmates during high school graduation and thinking that I’d never see or hear from most of them again. These were friends, many of whom I’d known since third grade. They’d shared my life, I’d shared theirs. Yet as I sat there I knew all of that was slipping away. I knew that to live was not about being born and dying later, it was to endure many births and suffer many deaths, and sometimes that birth and death happens in the same moment.
I was right. Twenty years later, I’ve not seen many of them. But more than one have friended me on Facebook, and from all over the world.
This should make me feel good, I guess. Aside from death, there are no farewells now. There is always “Talk to you soon” or “Shoot me an email” or “DM me.”
But I don’t feel particularly good. I think we’re missing out on something if we never have to say goodbye anymore. I think it robs us of the necessity of truly understanding the impact some people have on our lives, and the impact we have on the lives of others. To have to say goodbye is to know a part of you is leaving or staying, either scattered through the world or planted where you are.
I say this because just a bit ago, I received an email (plus pictures) from my friends. Things are well with them. They’re settling in and getting used to things. They’re happy. And that’s good.
But rather than casually shooting an email back, I think I’ll sit down and take my time. I think I’ll treat it as a farewell, even though it isn’t. I think I’ll tell them just how much I’ll miss them even though it’ll be as if we’re still just down the road from each other.
I figure somewhere deep down, they’ll need that goodbye. I know I do.
September 5, 2014
If you would by chance happen to knock at my front door and ask to see where I keep my most prized possessions, I would lead you to my upstairs attic, pull the string on the exposed light bulb, and point to a spot along the far wall just beneath the vent leading outside.
There you would see an old toolbox, battered and rusty from years of use. The chipped green paint and rusted hinges may lead you to believe its contents are inconsequential at least and forgotten at most.
You would be wrong.
What’s inside that toolbox represent my life’s more memorable moments. A gum wrapper, some pine needles, a spent ring from a cap gun, and so on. Like I said, my most prized possessions. Knowing they’re up there makes me feel a little more comfortable being down here.
My mother has something similar, though her toolbox is disguised as a hope chest that sits in the corner of her bedroom closet. Inside you’ll find old report cards, forgotten toys, and pictures. Lots of pictures.
My father opts to store his keepsakes in the top drawer of his dresser, which had for years been strictly off limits to my prying hands until last week, when I summoned the courage to ask permission to rifle through its contents. I found old coins and older knives, one gun, several bundled letters I did not read, one wooden cross, and more old pictures.
I asked around, and most everyone had their own places for such things hidden somewhere out of sight. People have confessed to stashing their tokens of both past and present in socks and safe deposit boxes, cookie jars and coffee cans. One friend even stored his the old fashioned way—under the mattress of his bed.
Each admitted that no one else would be much interested in their private treasures. Again, none of them could be defined as valuable. Not on the surface, anyway. But beneath? Beneath they were priceless. I could tell they were by the hushed tones and soft smile they would offer along with their confession, as if the telling conveyed some holy secret.
Which I suppose is exactly the case. Handling those relics of the things we hold most dear often takes on the appearance of religious ritual. Touching a memory can be a powerful experience. An old photograph may not represent a mere moment in time, but a token that love is something worth holding onto. And a trinket may not be a trinket, but a symbol that faith does indeed move mountains.
We should consider these things holy. We are, after all, the sum of our experiences. We need those reminders lest we blur our today and cloud our tomorrow. We need to know where we’ve come from if we’re to know where we’re going.
One person I asked had things a little more figured out than the rest of us. A full-blooded Sioux, his people have had much experience in placing great meaning on physical objects. When I asked him where he kept his most precious things, he pulled his T shirt down and pulled out a leather necklace. On the end was a small beaded pouch that was fringed at the bottom.
“Here,” he said. “I keep them here.”
I told him about my toolbox, about the hopes chest and dresser drawer and socks and coffee cans. I even told him about my friend the mattress stuffer. He nodded and smiled, then said, “We all have our sacred things. But you keep yours hidden and far away. What good will they do you there? Why not keep them visible and close instead?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out. He was right. Everyone I had talked to kept their treasures hidden away in the darkness of a chest or drawer. Myself included.
Why? Was it because we felt them too valuable to risk the light of day? Or too fragile to be handled often?
I wasn’t sure. But I began thinking about the things our treasures represent, the love and the faith. And I began thinking that often they, too, go hidden and unused. We tuck them away for fear that they are too valuable or fragile, when they are the very things we should carry close to us every day.