March 11, 2014
It’s human nature to want, then get, then want some more. All those shiny things that come into our lives can dull over time. The new gets old. That’s been proven true many times over in my life except for a few precious things. Today is one of those things.
My newest novel is released today—that makes number four, which just so happens to be four more books than I ever thought I’d get the opportunity to write.
The Devil Walks in Mattingly should be available everywhere. It’s a great story, and my favorite so far.
Below I’ve posted links to where you can pick up a copy, just in case you’re in need of something new to read. And as always, I thank each and every one of you who take the time to visit my little cyber cabin in the mountains. None of what I do would be possible without you. Cross my heart and hope to die.
March 6, 2014
Sitting beside me as I write this is a robin’s nest. Dislodged by a recent gust of wind, it tumbled from the oak tree in my backyard and was caught in a pillowy blanket of fresh snow, where it was picked up by me.
The finding of the nest did not catch me by surprise. I knew the nest was there and that it would soon not be. I am generally well educated on the goings on of the winged and furred creatures who inhabit my tiny bit of Earth. We coexist well, them and I. Their job as tenants is to remind me of the world I sometimes neglect to consider. My job as caretaker is to feed and water them as best I can. And, as a side benefit, to name them whatever I think is most fitting.
The robin who resided in my oak tree was named Harriet. How I arrived at that particular moniker escapes me and I suppose doesn’t matter. What does matter, however, is that Harriet was my favorite. The rabbits and squirrels and blue jays and cardinals were all fine in their own way, of course. But Harriet was my bud.
She was my security system in the event the neighbor’s cat decided to snoop around for a quick meal. She was the perfect mother to the four robinettes she hatched. And she sang. Every morning and every evening, regardless of weather. Even after the worst of storms, when the rains poured and the thunder cracked and the winds whipped, she sang.
I envied Harriet and her penchant for singing regardless. And when the weather turned cold and she sought her refuge in warmer climates, I missed her too.
And now all I have left is this nest to ponder.
An amazing piece of workmanship, this nest. Bits of string, feathers, dead flowers, twigs, and dried grass woven into a perfect circle, with a smooth layer of dried mud on the inside.
The resulting combination is protective, comfortable, and a wonder to behold. Harriet likely took between two and six days to construct her home and made about a hundred and eighty trips to gather the necessary materials. She may live up to a dozen years and build two dozen nests. I like to think this one was among her finest.
Scientists have taken much interest in this facet of bird behavior. They’ve even come up with a fancy name for it: Caliology, the study of birds’ nests. Artists and poets have found bird nests to be a fertile subject matter. During the 2008 Olympic games, when the Chinese erected the largest steel structure in the world to serve as center stage, it was built in the shape of a bird nest.
Why all this interest? Maybe because of its inherent perfection. You cannot make a better bird nest. The form and function cannot be improved upon. Even more astounding is that Harriet built this nest without any education. Where to build it and with what and how were all pre-programmed into her brain. No experience was necessary. And though my brain protests the possibility, I know that this flawless creation of half craftsmanship and half art is not unique. It is instead replicated exactly in every other robin’s nest in every other tree.
Instinct, the scientists say.
We humans are lacking in the instinct area, at least as far as building things goes. In fact, some sociologists claim that we have no instincts at all. I’m not so sure that’s true. I am sure, however, that things do not come so natural to me. I must learn through an abundance of trials and many errors. My education comes through doing and failing and doing again, whether it be as simple as fixing the sink or as complicated as living my life. Little seems to be pre-programmed into my brain. When it comes to many things, I am blind and deaf and plenty dumb.
I said I envied Harriet for her singing. The truth, though, is that I am tempted to envy much more. How nice it would be to find perfection at the first try. To know beforehand that success is a given.
That I am destined to struggle and stumble and fail sometimes prods me into thinking I am less.
What do you think? Would you rather be a Harriet and get it right every time? Or is there much to be said for trying and failing and trying again?
March 3, 2014
I blame the writer in me for the messes I sometimes get myself into, all of which I tell myself were begun with the best of intentions. Label something as “research,” for instance, and a writer can give himself permission to do almost anything. “Education” is another good example. We should always be learning something, growing, both in mind and in heart: becoming both better and more.
That thought was running through my head several times over the course of the past couple of weeks, when I decided to sit down to watch three of the most celebrated television shows to have come along in a while. The writing is spectacular, I heard. The ideas immense. Deep characters. Deeper mysteries. All things that appeal to me in my own work. The best way to improve your own craft is to immerse yourself in the craft of others. That’s what I was thinking when I sat down to watch marathons of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and True Detective.
If you’ve yet to see any of these shows or only a couple, I’ll say they are at their core the same thing: Broken people doing some very bad things. Their worlds could not be more dissimilar—the monotony of suburbia, a feudal Dark Age, the stark backwater of the south. And yet the view of each of those worlds is much the same in that each show portrays the world as ultimately meaningless and empty, therefore power is the only means to safety. The critics I’d read and the friends who had recommended those shows were indeed right. The writing really was spectacular, the ideas really were immense. The characters were layered. A few of the mysteries were nearly imponderable.
But still: yuck. After all of that, I needed a shower.
Here’s the thing, though: given bits and pieces of those shows, I don’t think it really would have been a problem. I’m no prude when it comes to entertainment; I’ll admit I sometimes enjoy my share of a gray worldview, though I’d much rather see it from my sofa than in my own life. But immersing yourself in it? Watching over and over until it seeps into the deepest places inside you? Well, that’s a different thing all together.
Yet that’s our culture now, isn’t it? There really doesn’t seem to be any hope out there, whether it’s in music or television or literature. There was maybe a time when the arts existed to prod society onward, to inspire and lift up. More often than not, they now serve as a mirror, showing what we’ve become in a series of melodies or flashing frames. Television, movies, music, and stories have grown increasingly dark because we’ve grown increasingly dark, not the other way around.
The other day, I came across an article written by a neuroscientist that affirmed much of what our mothers once told us: garbage in, garbage out. The article cautioned great care in the sorts of stories we allow ourselves to be exposed to, whether it’s the nightly news fare of war and recession and political meanness, or whatever slasher film is playing down at the local movie theater. Because those stories all carry meanings, and those meanings will, consciously or not, impact the way in which you view life and the world around you for good or bad. If you don’t know how to draw something positive out of what happens in life, the neural pathways you need too appreciate anything positive will never fire.
That’s evolution, the neuroscientist said. Maybe. I’d call it human nature.
It’s easy to succumb to the notion that everything is random, meaningless. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the world is too big and too far gone to ever be able to make a difference in it. The key is not to rise above, but merely survive (which, by the way, is my theory of why the zombie culture is so prevalent now). What’s hard is to believe. What’s hard is to carry on. It is to find purpose in where you are and in what you’re doing, no matter how insignificant it seems. It is to find dignity in this thing we call life, and to bring beauty to it.
February 27, 2014
For two months he has saved every penny and dollar, every bit of allowance and report card money, counting it all weekly and sometimes daily, all for the Lego train set that is due to arrive upon our doorstep sometime today. My son is proud. I’m proud of him. It takes a lot of work and discipline to save that much when you’re nine years old, to say No and No again to the pack of baseball cards or the long aisles of toys down at the Target. To say instead, This is what I want, and even if I can’t have it today, I’ll have it eventually.
It got easier as it went. Saving so much money, I mean. When you’re first starting out, all you see is how little you have and how much you need. You think you’re never going to get there. The road is too long, the temptations too great. That’s when most give in. That’s when I give in. And my son nearly did, but then twenty dollars turned into fifty, and that became seventy-five, and then a hundred and fifty, and now all that’s left is to stare out the window to a dull February day and wait for the sound of the UPS truck.
It’s been a great lesson, really. Saving up, sacrificing immediate gratification for something better down the line, learning the value of hard work and determination. Kids need a lot of that nowadays, I think. Adults too, for that matter. But now comes another great lesson, and in many ways a much more difficult one to digest and endure.
Now comes the wait.
So he sits in the recliner with the dog (who knows something important is happening but isn’t sure what, and so just waits with her ears back and her nose to the air) and rocks because he’s too anxious to hold still. Every sound of an approaching engine is greeted with a sudden jerk of his head, body flexed, chest puffed, waiting to charge the door like a sprinter out of the blocks.
So far, there have been four trucks, three cars, and a woman on a horse. No UPS truck.
It’s not coming, he says.
Yes it is, I say.
Well then, where’s it at? he asks.
Out for delivery.
How do you know?
Because that’s what the tracking says.
But what if he wrecks before he delivers it? And what if my train goes flying out of the truck because it’s rolled over five times and some other kid picks it up and takes it home and doesn’t help the driver at all, and the driver just sits there and bleeds to death? What then?
I don’t have an answer to that, other than to think my son may make a good novelist one day.
Just hang on, I tell him. Just wait.
And then he says the two words that sum up so much of what it means to live in this world, to want and dream and strive and hope—
Waiting sucks, he says.
It does, I tell him, and then I tell him that “sucks” really isn’t the kind of word he’s supposed to be saying, especially with his mother right in the next room. But since he referenced it with regard to waiting, I let it slide. Because he’s right, you know. Waiting really does suck.
We spend so much of life doing that. We wait to grow up, wait to graduate, wait to fall in love and graduate from college, wait for a good job and to have kids and to retire. Sometimes, we even wait to die. I’ve read the normal person will spend fully ten years of their lives waiting in some sort of line, whether it’s the post office or the grocery store or the bank.
With all that time spent waiting, you’d think we would get pretty good at it. But we aren’t. Waiting hurts. Waiting reminds us too often of the thing we want and how miserable we are without it, whether it’s something to have or someone to love. It convinces us we’re somehow less without it. We ache and we pine and we pout. And it doesn’t have to be something big, either. Sometimes, it can be something as insignificant in the big picture as a Lego train. But that’s the thing. I don’t think most of us really want a lot in life, we just want a little more than what we have.
So I’ll just sit here for a while with my son and stare out the window with him. We’ll talk while we wait. We’ll laugh and giggle. We’ll discuss the deeper things of Lego creation and growing up. Because that’s the thing, too—waiting might indeed suck, but it sucks a lot less when you have someone else there, waiting with you.
February 24, 2014
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.