October 23, 2014  

I didn’t know him well but I knew him enough, and I’ll tell you what he once did on those warm spring and summer nights, and why he tried to repay a debt he believed was beyond payment. I’ll tell you what he once told me, and I’ll let you decide whether what he saw was the truth or the remorse that had come to well up in him. I have never answered that question for myself. I suppose it doesn’t matter either way. Real or not, he was still haunted.

He was what we in the country call a Good Man. He shied from neither work nor church, donated annually to both the rescue squad and the fire department. He raised three kids with a wife he’d met when they were freshmen in high school. He never made trouble. Don’t listen to those who say a person must do great things in life to be known as great. This world is full of great people. They are the ones who keep their heads down and a semblance of joy on their faces, who work hard at building their lives and wish nothing more than the freedom to do so. That was him.

And yet we can all be Good when we step beyond our doors. Inside our homes, hidden from the eyes of the world by pulled curtains and drawn shades, that is where we often find our truest selves. It is a hidden tragedy of life that we save the worst parts of us for the ones we most love, giving to them the darkness we take such pains to hide from others. That was him, too. It’s hard to keep a secret in a town this small, but that was one. No one ever knew he abused his wife until she passed.

The cancer took her—not his fists, but a lump of tumor that had lodged itself inside her stomach. I didn’t go to the funeral. I heard it was fine as funerals go, sadness with hope thrown in. It was all sadness for him. They buried her at the foot of a knoll where the oaks grew tall and wide, and all he said after was that his wife would approve of such a place to rest.

I don’t know when he began spending the nights by her grave. I suppose it was gradual, daily visits that turned into once in the morning and another time in the afternoon, first minutes and then hours. Her passing became a reckoning for him, and he vowed to care for his wife in death as he should have cared for her in life. All those nights of having her there in bed, of waking to the smell of coffee and eggs, gone now and forever. He said he slept in the cemetery to feel her again for the first time in years. It isn’t often, just when he feels lonely and sorry. Sometimes, those two feelings are the same.

He told me this, too:

Deep in the night when there was only the dark and the stars, the dead would sometimes wake him. He would sit up and stare at the crest of the knoll overlooking his wife’s grave, and he would see the shadows of the lost in the midst of a long walk that never ended. Those shadows never bothered him. He said he doubted they could even see him. But he knew why they wandered. He said those were the ones who’d lived their lives burdened by the things they’d done, just like he did now. Even in death, their burdens followed them.

That was nearly twenty years ago. I don’t know that I’d call him a Good Man now, with all that I know. But I can say he’s a better one. And I can say he still sleeps at the cemetery sometimes.

We all have our shadows. They linger in our memory, haunting us in the remorse of those things we’ve done and the regrets of those things we’ve left undone. We endure our sins. We suffer their consequences. We trust that time will put enough space for forgiveness between our Then and our Now. Sometimes, that’s just what happens. Other times, those shadows rise up again. That’s when we’re left with the choice to leave our past behind as a marker that reminds us of how far we’ve come, or falling for the lie that who we once were will always be who we are now.

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Killing Henry

October 21, 2014  

images courtesy of google images

images courtesy of google images

We buried Henry last week. It’s probably safe to say that deep down my family didn’t want to; despite the fact he never spoke and was never seen, we enjoyed having him around. But there are some things in life you just need to let die. Henry was one of those things.

He first appeared over the summer. I was washing the truck, got sidetracked, and ended up leaving the hose running all night. My son found the mess the next morning and wondered aloud whose fault that was.

“Henry did it,” I told him.

“Who’s Henry?”

“Oh, you know Henry. He messes up a lot of stuff around here.”

It wasn’t the first time my son walked away from me shaking his head.

And thus Henry was born. He made another appearance two days later, when a certain little boy’s bedroom was discovered in disarray.

“Who messed up your room?” I asked him.

“Henry,” my son said. “He messes up a lot of stuff around here.”

It caught on. My daughter blamed Henry for all the toothpaste left in the sink. I blamed him for not mowing the yard. Even my wife got into the spirit of things by stating was Henry, not her, who had left the television on one Sunday afternoon. During Keeping Up with the Kardashians, no less. Henry loved trashy television.

Then came two weeks ago, when my son’s math homework clashed with an overwhelming need to finish the Lego town he was building. Addition and subtraction was no match for a new pet store. His homework wasn’t completed. So said the note from his teacher the following afternoon, which contained this postscript:

Who is Henry?

That was when we decided Henry had to go.

It was a tough decision. Because in his own way, Henry allowed each of us to skirt such things as duty and accountability. It was always easier to blame him rather than ourselves for the things we should have done but didn’t and the things we did but shouldn’t have. We didn’t have to be responsible. Sounds awful, I know, but few people truly crave responsibility. When something goes wrong, the first question always asked is, “Who’s responsible?” Who among us longs to answer that with “I am”?

But of course taking responsibility is something we all have to do. We all have to clean up our messes, we all have to do our jobs, and we all have to be careful of what we allow into our hearts. It’s easier to blame something else, especially if it’s an imaginary someone who can’t defend himself. Easier, but not better.

So rest in peace, Henry. I’ll miss you when the truck gets dirty and the grass needs cutting. I’ll have to do those things on my own now. I think I’m the better for it.

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Too much rhubarb

October 17, 2014  

I’ve always been the type of person to show up early for a movie. Fifteen minutes at least, though twenty is preferable. It’s a matter of logistics, really. I need to sit in the back of a movie theater. Not only does it offer the best view, it allows me to see more people than who see me. That’s important. Wild Bill Hickock didn’t take that into account and got shot in the back of the head for his trouble.

The problem is that’s an awful lot of time to sit there in the semi-dark and keep yourself occupied. Conversation is an option of course, though there isn’t much that can be expounded upon in so short a time and in such a hushed environment. And though people watching is a hobby of mine, that’s a bit tricky as well. The dimmed lights offer just enough brightness to not trip over someone but not see exactly who it is you’re not tripping over.

Thankfully, theaters have taken to running advertisements and movie trivia on the screen that are accompanied by a horrible fusion of elevator music and movie scores. I take this as sort of a warm up for the eyes, like stretching before a workout.

I tackle this with the utmost seriousness. Especially the movie trivia. Knowing that the DeLorean in Back to the Future was originally a refrigerator or that the wrestler Peter Parker faces in Spider-Man is real-life wrestler Randy Savage isn’t quite valuable, but it can pass the time before the sneak previews well enough.

Occasionally, though, whomever puts together these little snippets of knowledge manages to sneak something in that really is quite valuable.

Like rhubarb.

Between munches of popcorn and Twizzlers at a matinee the other day, I learned that whenever you watch a scene that includes a large crowd, the extras are often instructed to murmur the word “rhubarb” over and over again, giving the appearance of background conversation.

Why exactly “rhubarb” is used rather than some other word is beyond me and was not explained. Further research has revealed that often other words are used, “peas and carrots” and “watermelons” being among them. I think I understood a little better then. With the image-conscious, diet-crazed environment that is Hollywood, I’m sure there are a lot of hungry people on your average soundstage. Food would always be on your mind, too.

To be honest, I’ve always wondered what all those people in the background were saying. I felt pretty good about myself to finally have the answer to that. It was a tiny burden to lift off my mind, but a burden nonetheless.

But as with many of my unloaded burdens, it was replaced with a new one.

Yesterday I kept track of the people I spoke with and to. I answered over fifty emails, conversed with a dozen people on Twitter, spoke with five people on the phone, and actually had seven conversations with real live people.

That’s seventy-four people. For me, that’s a lot.

I tried to remember exactly what was said and to whom. I should add emphasis on try. Try. The problem was that I couldn’t remember what I had heard or read, nor what I had answered back. I could see the faces of the people I’d spoken to and the gist of what was said, but not exactly.

And that bothered me. It bothered me because I could only conclude that much of my interaction with people yesterday was much more shallow than deep and much less trivial than important. Which led me to ask this one question:

How much rhubarb was in my life?

How many of my words were just chatter, noisy emptiness to fill boredom or an awkward silence?

How many times did I say “How are you?” to someone as a simple greeting and not as an honest question?

How many times did I say I would pray for someone and then let it slip my mind as it disappeared among all the other cares of my day?

Our words carry meaning. They convey more than mere sentiment, but power and intent. Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can break much more. They can lift up or tear down, make right or make wrong.

Or maybe worst of all, they can just fill the air with rhubarb.

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Living stories

October 13, 2014  

image courtesy of google images

image courtesy of google images

As hard as it is for someone like me to believe, there are people who would have you believe they do not like stories. They will say they have no time for books, that they are too boring and require too much effort. They will say they have no need for the imaginary things, characters born of thought rather than flesh or places conjured rather than built. It is reality in which they are most interested. So they would have you believe. In the real world, there is little time for fairy tales. Living is serious business, stories are definitely not. Those who waste their time in tales are the ones who fall behind. They are the ones who lose the game.

I suppose that means I am losing at best. At worst, I am contributing to the delinquency of otherwise good and responsible human beings. Not only do I enjoy reading stories, I enjoy writing them. I enjoy seeking them out. And what I’ve found in my seeking is something those interested in the serious business of living would perhaps find very disconcerting—stories are everywhere. They are buried in every person we meet and every conversation we overhear. They are present in the pictures that adorn our walls and the music that fills our ears. They wait in every rock and puff of wind. In everything there is a beginning, middle, and end, and nestled in the spaces between those three legs of every journey lies all the magic and knowledge any of us care to seek. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” I believe finer words have never been spoken.

There’s more to Rukeyser’s maxim than poetic truth, however. There’s a deeper meaning as well. Whether you call yourself a writer or a reader or an unbeliever in both, the truth is that you a storyteller. That fact cannot be ignored. It cannot be brushed aside. And most of all, it cannot be denied. You are the chronicler of your own tale. Your every day is but one small chapter in the larger story of your life, some part of the beginning or the middle or the end, written upon pages granted by whatever God or random chance you ascribe meaning to. Pages bound together by time itself, filled with your minutes and hours.

Perhaps that sounds a little too metaphysical for the seriously-minded. They may disagree with my notion. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t change a thing. Good people can stand on either side of a truth, but that doesn’t alter where that truth lies or what that truth means. We can deny that our lives are a story, but that will make our story one of renunciation. We can choose not to respect our place as authors of our own accounts, but that will make our accounts ones of failure. Do you see? There is no escaping it. You have no choice but to write your story, just as you have no choice but to live your life.

So I say live it for all it’s worth. I say wring every bit of beauty and truth from it. Let is drip down your hands and arms. Let it pour into your mouth and quench your every thirst. Bore down into your every moment and mine the gold you find. Scribble and scrawl on your pages. Write furious and true. Do not waste your days. Time is not a flat circle, it is an arrow that stretches from now into eternity. There is where you should look, on to that final chapter, because God put our eyes in front of us so we can see where we’re going, not where we’ve been. Whether quiet literary or screaming thriller, lustful romance or heartbreaking tragedy, bawdy comedy or uplifting inspirational, when all is finished and the final period is put to the last sentence on the end page, your life in this world will stand for something. Your tale will be set down, and that is what you will be remembered by.


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Leaving our stories

October 9, 2014  

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

I try to schedule field trips into my writing life as often as possible. Sitting at a desk and staring at a sheet of paper can dull the senses. It contracts you. The Out There gets lost in all of the In Here. It’s nice to get out every once in a while and wander about the world.

That’s how I found Archie’s store. Because when you are driving down a lonely country road and you happen across a dilapidated building masquerading as an antiques store and the sign on the marquee says Dead People’s Junk, you have to stop and look. You just do. Very often the places that seem too good to be true are true after all.

The creaky wooden door finally gave way with a hard push, ringing the bell that sat suspended over the archway. The old man behind the counter—“Name’s Archie,” he said, and then added, “You break it, you buy it, even if t’ain’t worth nuthin’”—offered me both a Coke and the general layout of the building. “Furniture’s in the back. Art—and I use that term loosely—is to the right. Guns are over by the far wall.”

I sipped and walked, letting my mind wander. Antiques are such because of their age and their scars. They have endured through the years, survived countless moves and deaths and threats of the landfill. And it is because they have endured that they are all rich in story. Antiques are a form of living history.

That’s what I was after in the land of Dead People’s Junk. The stories.

Like the kitchen table that sat stately and dignified in the corner of the back room. Solid oak, with the worn shine of countless years of meals and gatherings. The price tag made me wince and whistle a long exhale. 1927 was written on the tag beneath the dollar amount, as if to justify the value. I took a step back. This was not something I was interested in breaking.

But still, a part of me felt the price would be more than satisfactory if the story of the table was included along with the chairs and the center leaf. Two years after it was built, the stock market crashed. Then Hitler rose. The Japanese attacked. The bomb was dropped. Kennedy was shot. Interspersed between those were times both hard and soft, the ebbs and flows of the great tide that was life. Who had sat at that table through the years? What family had broken bread there? What joys did they share, and what sorrows? To me, those answers—those possibilities—were worth more than the quality of the construction or the grain of the wood.

I exercised my mind in that manner for about an hour, moving through the crowded aisles of castoff belongings. There was a rocking horse I imagined once belonged to a small boy who grew up to be deathly afraid of horses after taking a tumble from that wooden substitution on one long ago Sunday afternoon. A desk where a young lady once sat to write a Dear John letter to her boyfriend at war. An opulent set of china—Never Used, said the tag—that was an expensive wedding gift to a couple who chose a simple life over the extravagant lives of their parents.

I roamed and touched nearly every surface of every object, listening. I thought about the sign out by the road and wondered if that had been Archie’s idea. I wanted to ask him. But by the time I made it back around, he was asleep in his chair. His half-finished bottle of Coke sat by the cash register—an antique in itself. Orange crumbs from the pack of crackers he’d snacked on littered the front of his shirt.

I managed to leave without waking him and pointed my truck toward home. I was satisfied. In my opinion, no better field trip could be had.

But I thought about that sign again as I passed it and decided it was all wrong. That was not Dead People’s Junk. Archie’s store may have been filled with remnants of the past, but they also spoke to our shared future.

To a time when perhaps our own dining room tables will be stuck in the corner, and when people will come and touch them and wonder. That brings me a great deal of comfort. Because we leave more than our belongings to this world when we pass on to the next.

We leave our stories, too.

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