March 26, 2015
I’ll say I’m a writer because I can’t speak. At least not well and not in front of large groups of people I do not know. I’ve done so anyway, and many times. And truthfully, I do just fine as long as I don’t count the “aint’s” and dropped g’s that come out of my mouth.
The invitation to speak that I received recently wasn’t one I could pass up. It wasn’t a fancy conference, wasn’t in a fancy city. It didn’t pay well (actually, it didn’t pay at all). It was instead for career day at the local elementary school.
It isn’t often that I get to play author, much less play one for an entire day. Despite the props I brought along—five books, a typed manuscript, and one bulging notebook—I knew it would be a rough road to travel. After all, I was going up against firemen and police officers and radio personalities. A writer would have a tough time competing with that with a bunch of grownups, much less a hundred fourth graders.
But as it turned out I didn’t have much to worry about at all. Sure, they were fourth graders—that peculiar brand of kid to which both reading and writing are anathema. So I started with the fact that when I was their age, I hated reading and writing, too.
It was all downhill from there.
I’m smart enough to know that kids aren’t much interested in publishers or first drafts or the horror that is the adverb, smart enough to know that adults aren’t much interested in them either. But I’ve found over the years that everyone, regardless of age or interest, perks up whenever I mention a writer’s primary gift to the world.
Not wisdom. Not inspiration. Not tight plots or moving themes or even memorable characters. No, writers do what they do because of one reason and one reason only—
They get to create magic.
They didn’t believe me, of course. Not right away. One kid asked me to make his pencil disappear if I knew magic. Another wanted me to guess the number she was thinking. I told them I couldn’t and that it didn’t matter, because the magic writers do was better. It was the greatest magic of all.
It was the magic of writing words down on a page that make pictures in other people’s minds.
It was the magic of being able to create entire worlds from scratch and put anything I wanted to in them.
It was the magic of being able to touch another person’s heart, a person who might live far away, someone you’ve never spoken to and likely will never meet.
And best of all, I told them, is that everyone possesses a bit of that magic. Anyone could be a writer. Didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, didn’t matter what color you were, didn’t even matter if you went to college or not. That magic was still in us.
It takes time, of course. All magic does. But I told them that if they did three simple things, that magic would grow and eventually spill out.
You have to read, I said. Every day.
And you have to write. Every day.
And most important of all, you have to believe you’re special. Because there is only one you in this world, and the way you see life is different than the way anyone else who’s ever lived has seen it. That’s why your story is so important. So needed. After all, that’s what the magic is for.
Turns out that an informal poll conducted by the teachers placed me second of the day’s top speakers. The winner was the radio guy. I wasn’t surprised. I can’t compete with someone who’s met Taylor Swift and Trace Adkins. I wouldn’t even try.
But a teacher told me that the next day when it came time for her class to do their journal writing, there was much less grumbling than usual. They were ready. Eager. When she asked why, her kids told her they wanted to make some magic.
March 23, 2015
How it ended up like this I cannot say. I know I didn’t intend for it to happen. But happen it did. Not all at once—these things never unfold all at once—but slowly, like how spring turns to summer or twilight melts into full dark.
And it’s dark now, oh yes it is. Metaphorically, anyway. It’s just after one in the afternoon on a beautiful Saturday, and in this, at least, I’ve found a blessing. It’s early still. Which means if I get started now, I can get this mess cleaned up by tonight.
It started simply, as most messes do. And also like most messes, I went into it with the absolute best of intentions. And yet what was to be a quick trip upstairs to straighten my office has resulted in an apocalypse of papers and books the likes of which seem almost Biblical. My wife nearly called 911 when she walked in a few minutes ago. My kids dared me to ever tell them to throw away a notebook again. FEMA may have to be summoned.
I don’t know how this happened.
I promise you.
But that’s what we always say when we make a mess, isn’t it? Me, anyway. They’re often the first words out of my mouth—“I don’t know how this happened.” Followed closely by the points I’ve already mentioned:
I don’t know how things got this way.
I never wanted this.
I had the best of intentions.
Of course none of those matter, at least not now. All that counts is the mess. The whys and hows are irrelevant.
The only question is how I’m going to clean it up.
It won’t be easy. Messes never are. It requires digging through the garbage you’ve made for yourself. Cleaning up a mess hurts so much because along the way you always discover those things that should have mattered but were somehow forgotten instead (like the I love you Daddy! card I just found mashed into a novel I never finished reading). It hurts because so much damage has been done that you think things will never really be fixed—the mess will always be there, and things will never be the same again.
And in that moment of absolute remorse, a part of you believes that’s the way it should be. You messed up. You—the one who is old enough and wise enough to know better, the one who’s witnessed friends and family and strangers on the television news make their own messes and said “That’ll never be me.”
So here I sit, in my mess.
For me, in this moment, it consists of little more than notebooks and papers and half-finished manuscripts and, amazingly enough, a half-eaten box of Fiddle Faddle. For you, things may be much worse.
Trust me when I say that makes no difference. When it comes to a mess, there are no degrees. A mess is a mess. And you and I will get through our messes together. We will fix things.
For me, it’s book by book. For you, perhaps relationship by relationship.
Paper by paper.
I’m sorry by I’m sorry.
Minute by minute.
Day by day.
We will straighten and clean. We will dust off the important things we’ve misplaced and toss out those things we thought we needed but didn’t. We’ll put away and take out.
We will make things sparkle again.
March 20, 2015
Dorothea will tell you she and John would have been married 47 years come June. That’s how she always puts it—“would have been” instead of “will be”—past tense instead of future, even though John is still alive and they are still married. They still live in the same brick house two blocks from the Food Lion; are still seen driving the same gray sedan, though these days it is Dorothea driving John. He still gets around, she’ll tell you that as well. She’ll say her husband still reads the Richmond paper each morning and still takes his coffee strong and black and that both are absolute. What is not absolute, and in fact what Dorothea now questions every day of her life, is where her husband has gone, and who has taken his place.
They have four children, each of whom are grown and two of whom have moved away. Ten grandchildren, four great-grandchildren. The entire family gathers twice a year at the old home—every Christmas and Fourth of July. Those are festive times. Dorothea says there must be some special magic when the whole family is together, something about the sound of conversation and giggling children, that makes her husband feel like her husband again.
Those other 363 days can often be long. Sometimes they can be frightening, such as the afternoon last November when John went to check the mail and never returned. Dorothea found him three blocks and fifteen minutes later, sitting in the middle of the road, his bathrobe open and tossed by the breeze.
It began sudden, a year ago now, the same way so much bad in the world begins—with something small and ordinary. John had a history of migraines, and while the headaches that had plagued him for weeks were neither strong nor lasting enough to be called those, they were enough of a nuisance that Dorothea scheduled a doctor’s appointment. Tests were done. The doctor called them both back into his office three days later with the news. There was a tumor on John’s brain. It was inoperable.
The doctor said three months, six at the most. John’s outlasted both of those predictions. He always was a tough man, Dorothea will tell you. That’s how she’ll put it—“was” rather than “is.” Because she doesn’t know if the man she would have been married to for 47 years come June, the man who has given her four children, a brick house, a gray sedan, and a good life, is really John at all. She thinks that person left. Most of us in town would agree.
He was always a nice man, a kind man, easy with praise and concern about how you and your family are and if you’re still going to church every Sunday. In all their years together (much more than 46—John and Dorothea dated five years before they married), she had never heard him cuss. Three days after that fateful doctor’s visit, John came inside the house and said the damn key wouldn’t fit in the damn ignition of the damn car.
The cussing has grown worse since—horrible words that Dorothea never thought her husband capable of uttering. He’s grown impatient with the world, cursing the neighbors and the government and “the whole damn thing.” Once, he grew violent and pushed Dorothea against the kitchen sink, screaming at her, wanting to know what she’d done with his wife.
Though she remains strong and faithful, Dorothea has said she often wonders why she must sit idly by, watching as what remains of this man’s life slowly slips away. She wonders too how it is that a mass of deformed cells pressing against her husband’s brain can turn him into someone else. In all outward ways, he is still John. It is still his face and his body, the same hairline and mole just below his right ear. And yet he is no longer John. He has become someone else. He has become a stranger.
And Dorothea is left to wonder this: What makes us “us?” What is that quality that defines us and renders us unique? Where does that quality lie? And perhaps most important of all, where does that quality go when it appears to be taken away?
I don’t know the answer to that question. It breaks my heart that John and Dorothea must endure such a thing, and that there are so many others who must endure it as well. It hurts. It’s not fair.
But Dorothea isn’t angry. That’s what has struck me most about her these last months. She’s not mad at John, nor his tumor, nor even the God who doesn’t seem interested in healing them—in bringing her husband back. It’s remarkable to me, though not to her. To Dorothea, the question now isn’t Why. It isn’t How. It’s only What.
“God wants me to take care of him,” she says of the man who used to be John. “That’s all I need to know.”
And so she will, until some near or far-off day when Dorothea will say goodbye to him for now. Only for now. And the faith she has that God will equip her to care for her husband now is the very faith that allows her to know that when they meet again, it will be John she sees. The old John. And he will thank her.
March 16, 2015
Here’s one of those seemingly random and inconsequential facts about the human body: your nose is always in your field of vision. Cross your eyes. See? It’s right there, right where it’s always been, centered as a ridge just below and between. And yet uncross your eyes again, and it’s gone.
I read that seemingly random and inconsequential fact about the human body about a half an hour ago. Now, I can’t stop seeing my nose. Nothing has changed about me or my field of vision. The only thing that’s different is that I know my nose is there now. I’m aware of it, just as I’m now aware that the only reason we never really notice our noses is because our brains basically edit them out.
That last point—that our brains edit out our noses—is maybe what’s bugging me most of all. I can’t let it go.
Blind spots are things we all no doubt learned at some point in our schooling, but also something that gets misplaced as the years wear on. They are considered meaningless when it comes to real living, like the Pythagorean theorem or the capital of Turkey—trivial things that lose their value in an adult life that revolves around keeping one’s head above water. But I think this particular bit of trivia is very important indeed, if only because it teaches us so much about ourselves. It means that the world we perceive isn’t the world as it is, isn’t even really the Truth at all. It’s just our brain’s best interpretation of Truth.
So now I’m wondering what else I’m missing when I look out into the world. The human mind is a wonderful instrument. It is capable of pondering the mysteries of the universe and solving our most pressing problems. It has built pyramids and skyscrapers. It has mastered fire and agriculture. And yet even that wondrous lump between our ears can’t process everything that is going on around us. It must filter the things we do not need in order to focus upon the things we do. It’s the important stuff that the mind allows us to see. Or at least, what our minds consider as important.
Which has gotten me wondering—what other blind spots do I have? I’m not talking about the ones that affect my brain. I mean the more important ones. Ones that affect my heart. What am I missing not in my world, but in my life? What things are there that I don’t always think are important but really are? How do I spend my time, and how can that time be better spent?
Am I chasing after something that I believe will add to my life but will instead only lessen it?
Are the priorities I’ve set for my life the same priorities God has set for me?
Heavy questions, all. But it’s the hard questions about who we are that require hard answering. After all, it doesn’t bode well for us to move through our lives half blinded. Not just to the world, but to ourselves.
March 13, 2015
In town on a very warm and very bright Saturday:
My family is parked at a picnic table outside the local ice cream shop, slurping down all manner of frozen treats. The shop is busy. People mill about, eager to partake in a ritual designed much more for spring than winter.
Some are more eager than others. Our eyes settle upon one man in particular who has summoned the courage to order three dips of chocolate ice cream on his cone. He pays and does his best to balance his desert until he can get to the table near us. Halfway there, though, his hand goes left while the ice cream goes right. The entire thing, cone and all, takes a ride down the front of his white shirt.
I snicker, which turns into a chortle, which turns into the sort of involuntary shaking that comes when you can’t help but laugh but don’t want to be seen laughing. My kids laugh, too.
The same very warm and very bright Saturday, but later:
On our way into the grocery store, we’re met by a woman carrying no less than five shopping bags making her way toward the parking lot. She’s trying but not quite able to see where everything is—her car, the traffic, a neighbor who says hello. She doesn’t see the rock in front of her, though. The one she trips over. She tumbles, spewing everything from hamburger to washing detergent.
My kids snicker, which turns into a chortle, which turns into the same sort of involuntary shaking they saw their father succumb to earlier at the ice cream shop.
I, however, don’t laugh. And I tell them they shouldn’t, either. Then I explain the difference between someone having an accident that could hurt them and someone having an accident that could just embarrass them. They stare at me. It’s tough having to explain the subtleties of humor to your children.
I’ve pondered about my children’s laughter since. Not that there is so little of it or even so much, if there is such a thing. No, what I’ve been thinking about is what they laugh at. What they think is funny.
Such a thing seems important to me. I think what makes us laugh says a lot about the sort of people we are.
If that’s true, then I would suppose my children are typical. What makes them laugh? Any sound emanating from any orifice on the human body. Boogers? Funny. Sneezes? Funny. Sneezes that produce boogers? Comedic gold.
But the scene at the grocery store bothered me. Partly because I was afraid I’d put the notion into their heads that such a thing was laughable, but partly because I’ve always been aware of the thin line between what should be funny and what shouldn’t.
The Bible never mentions Christ laughing. It mentions Him crying, of course, but never giggling. And though it may seem strange to say that God can giggle, I’m willing to bet that He can and does. Often. I’m sure Jesus had a great sense of humor. I’m sure He laughed. I think it was a pretty big oversight not to include that in the gospels. Knowing what Jesus found funny would come in handy to parents.
The question of whether we should find cause to laugh in this life is one that I think never needs asking. As dark and dreary and frightening as the world can be at times, there is an equal measure of light and beauty and anticipation. I like to think that no matter what our circumstances or worries may be, there is always plenty to be joyful about if we go looking for it.
A day without laughter is a day lost. It means that in the ongoing struggle between the hope we all seek and the despair the world seems intent upon handing us, the world has won.
That’s what I want my children to know.
But I want them to know this as well—much of the humor they’re privy to is merely hate wrapped in a punch line. It drips meanness. It lifts our spirits but tarnishes our souls. It isn’t nectar, it’s sweet poison.
I’m going to make it a point from now on to watch what I laugh at. To pay attention. To be a better dad.
Because I have a sneaky feeling that a lot of what makes me laugh would make God cry.