A nation at war

June 29, 2015  

image courtesy of photo

image courtesy of photo

Now comes the growing notion that we are at war, a phrase I’ve heard from more than a few these last days. A war fought not with guns and planes but words and ideas, the territory our hearts rather than battlefields. And though both sides cannot agree on much, there is an accord that this war contains both a “good” and a “bad” and that one is either on one side or the other—in this fight, there can be no spectators.

Nor can there be hesitation. If you disagree with a man’s right to marry a man or a woman’s right to marry a woman, if you do not believe that a Confederate battle flag is something akin to a Klansman’s hood, then your side is already chosen. Silent introspection is tantamount to cowardice, and for these things the punishment is to be thrown in league with the -ics and -ists. We are branded with the very thing that is now looked upon with contempt—a label.

I haven’t figured out why it’s gotten this way, or if “this way” is really just the way it’s always been. I’m still thinking things through. That’s what we should all be doing now. Not picking fights, not turning to the nearest social media platform to scream and blather. Think.

For instance:

I do not think anyone has a right to be happy. Live even a tiny amount inside this world and you will discover just how impossible and fleeting such a belief to be. This life was not built for happiness, but for the pursuit of it—for each of us to strike out into our days and search for meaning and beauty and purpose. The pursuit of happiness, yes, that is our right. And does that mean same-sex marriage should be legal? I don’t know. Perhaps. Is same-sex marriage and a homosexual lifestyle a sin? Maybe. But if homosexuality is a sin, that makes them like you and me in every way. Like everyone. It doesn’t matter to which sex you find an attraction, we’re all broken. We’re all the same.

The issue with the Confederate flag is an easier one for me. You see them here, flying from rusting poles in the front yards of the mountain folk or billowing from the beds of muddy 4x4s driven by teenage boys. To be honest, the sight of it has always made me uncomfortable. I know its history, and how in the years following the Civil War it was adopted by those who wished to keep down those who should have always been raised up. But I know this as well—I am a proud Southerner. The region of the country does indeed hold many of our nation’s sins, but it holds much more of its graces. I know good men died on both sides of that great national wound, men of courage, godly men. I will tell you that racism exists here, but no more and no less than in any northern city.

I suppose in all of this, what I would like to know is where the line is now that we cannot cross. It seems to me that’s an important thing to consider, for me and for everyone. Because there has always been a line, hasn’t there? A mark upon the boundary of our society’s forward progress that we gauge as that place where, if trampled upon, we risk losing some special part of ourselves. I’d like someone to tell me where that line now rests. I get nervous when it isn’t there, when no idea of constraint is apparent. Jut this morning I read an article from a respected news source calling for the acceptance of polygamy, a notion that has in the last years begun to take hold. Another article extolled the plight of pedophiliacs who now feel left out of this cultural shift, their reasoning being that they can no less alter the object of their sexual attractions than can homosexuals. I wonder how many who support gay marriage would support the legalization of these as well, and if not, what reasons they would offer. Is polygamy the line now, or will that too be crossed? Is it incest? But how many do you suppose would be in favor of that, assuming both parties to be consenting adults? Is not love the most vaunted of emotions now? Does not love trump all?

And of course things have not stopped with the removal of the Confederate flag from state grounds. Chain stores and online retailers have taken up that very mantle, refusing to offer them for sale to private citizens. My own Commonwealth has halted the issue of license plates bearing the seal of Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy. Now there is talk of expanding things further, changing the names of schools and public buildings that bear the names of Lee and Jackson and Stuart and Davis. I’ve even read that some are considering a petition to dismantle the Jefferson monument. Chuckle though you might, what of that other flag bearing stars and bars that has presided over so much bloodshed? What of our country’s own banner to which we stand at parades and ballgames and pledge our allegiance?

Tell me, please: where is the line? Or are we so intent to race forward that we no longer care if there is a line at all? Are the limits of society now -ics and -isms themselves?

I’d like to know. We’re supposed to be at war, you see. And I’m more than a little worried. Because no matter the cause or the combatants and no matter whether the spoils are blood or ideas, the first casualty of any war is always truth.

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Getting things wrong

June 25, 2015  

new york daily news photo

new york daily news photo

It should come as no surprise that the events in Charleston last week are still a big topic here in Carolina. As our vacation has largely removed me from the world beyond sun and sand (as by design), I’m not sure if that’s the case elsewhere. I hope it is. Whenever something like this happens—which we can all agree has become far too often of late—the first thing I often hear is something along the lines of, “This country needs to have a honest discussion about race.” While I agree wholeheartedly, I’ve often wondered what an honest discussion would mean. And I guess I’m not the only one, because that conversation has yet to begin.

What’s getting the most attention around here isn’t the act itself, the murders, nor the racism that sparked that act, nor even the now national push to have the Confederate flag removed from all state government buildings and grounds. No, people here seem focused upon the ones who deserve the focus: the victims. Namely, how those victims treated the young man who became the instrument of their deaths. How this young man told the police after his capture that he almost didn’t go through with his plan because of the kindness shown to him by those in the church.

That would be amazing if it were not so sad.

He had an idea in his head, you see. A belief that blacks were less, that blacks were a danger, that blacks were responsible for so much of the evil in the world that they must be erased in order that the rest of us could be saved. That belief had been ingrained over the years by a variety of sources, strengthened and ingrained to the point where it became, to him, fact. And yet reality proved something different. Once he sat down with them, listened to them, heard them pray and speak, once this young man knew their hearts, some part of him understood that what he had come to belief was false. These were not monsters, these were people. People like him.

And yet even that knowledge wasn’t enough to keep him from drawing a weapon and killing nine of them. Belief proved stronger than reality in this case, just as it does in most cases. That’s what people here are grappling with most, and what I’m grappling with as well.

These first few days at the beach have given me an opportunity to do what life in general often denies—the chance to simply sit and think. What I’ve been thinking about lately is this simple question: Have I changed my opinion on anything in the last five years?

I’m not talking about little things, like the brand of coffee I drink or what my favorite television show is or where I shop for groceries. I mean the big things, like how I think about life or God or my place in either, and how I see other people.

Have I changed my beliefs in any way toward any of those things? Have I altered my thinking, or even tried? Have I even bothered to take a fresh look? Or has every idea and notion I’ve sought out only cemented what I already knew and believed to be true? Those are important questions, because they lead to another, larger question that none of us really want to ask:

“Have I ever been wrong about anything?”

Have I?

Have you?

Have we ever been wrong about who God is? Wrong about politics or social stances or what happens when we shed these mortal coils? Because you know what? I’m inclined to think we have.

None of us are as impartial and logical as we lead ourselves to believe. Often, what we hold as true isn’t arrived at by careful thought and deep pondering, but partisanship and whatever system of ideals we were taught by parents or preachers or professors. That creates a deep unwillingness to refine what positions we hold, and that unwillingness can lead to laziness at least and horrible tragedies at worst.

Whether we hold to the Divine or not, we all worship gods. Chief among them are often our beliefs themselves, graven images built not of wood or stone but of theories and concepts. We follow these with blind obedience, seeing a desire to look at and study them as tantamount to doubt or, worse, an attempt to prove them the paper idols they are. Yet truth—real truth—would never fear questioning, and would indeed always welcome it. That’s why we owe it to ourselves to test our opinions. We are built to seek the truth, wherever it may lead.

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Shutting out the world, if only for awhile

June 22, 2015  

blue ridgeI write this in the early afternoon of this past Friday, looking out the window toward mountains shrouded in summer haze. It’s quiet here, always a blessing, even as the world burns slow in other parts of the country. Sad as it is, I suppose I can use “burns” both literally and figuratively.

Tomorrow morning, my family and I will pack up and trade these mountains for the Carolina coast. My job allows one vacation a year, and I mean to use every bit. It’s always a scramble to get away, part stress and part strain and an overwhelming need to escape, even if some part of you understands that you’ll eventually have to come back again. I can say I always look forward to vacation week. I can say I’m looking forward to this one a little more.

Because I’m tired, you see.

Of everything.

This week has brought news of another shooting, this one at a church in Charleston, claiming nine lives. Aside from the hurt and anger and outrage, I don’t have anything to say. Still trying to process it, I suppose. Still trying to take it all in and turn it over in my heart and my thoughts, still trying to figure out if I should do such a thing or even if such a thing is possible. I don’t know that it is. Some part of my says no, that if I could understand the whys of what would lead such a young man to perpetrate such an evil act, I should then worry much more about myself than about the state of the world. But another part of me begs a yes to that question, at least partway—it may not be possible to understand or healthy to ponder why, but an attempt at both is necessary. Too often, we are confronted by the reality of evil only to turn ourselves away. It scares us (as it should), makes us uncomfortable (as it should), but that’s not the worst that evil inspires. To gaze upon it is to see into a mirror badly bent. It is to behold what we are all capable of, should things come to it, and to know how far we have yet to go. It’s heartrending and soul crushing, and yet the alternative—blaming parents, blaming guns, blaming culture, or ignoring it all together—is much worse.

There was a time not long ago when these reminders would come sporadically, spread out over months or even years. But now they seem to come in a much quicker fashion, don’t they? Maybe it’s the news, now on twenty-four hours a day. Maybe it’s a byproduct of living in an age of constant social media, a heartrending and soul crushing thing in itself. I don’t know. All I do know is what I’ve said—I’m tired.

On my way to work this morning, I stopped at the town BP for gas. A tractor pulled up to the pump beside me, the farmer straddling it already dirty and sweating from the fields. Our talk wound itself around to Charleston. He shook his head, eyes wide and mournful. Said he hadn’t heard a thing about it.

I wondered how that was possible, then stared at that old John Deere. Here was a man with neither time nor inclination for the wider world. Long days outside at the farm, tending to cows and the rising corn, short nights curled in bed, the weather report better told by the winds and the clouds than by some man in a suit coming through a television screen. Of course he hadn’t heard. How would he?

I felt bad, thinking I’d ruined his morning with the news. The way he pulled off told me he took things hard. Church is supposed to be a place of love. Where you’re safe. He probably went home thinking that’s the last time he’s coming to town. Ain’t nothing good away from the farm. Whole world’s going to hell, already halfway there.

They say ignorance is bliss, and they mean that bad. I would agree. Shutting yourself off from the world, refusing to find out what’s going on and to care about it, is a lot of what’s behind the problems we face. But I still think about that old farmer on his tractor, tending to his work as the world flies past unseen and unknown. I think about long walks on an empty beach and tides that carry your troubles away. And I think maybe that’s what we all need right now, if only for a little while.

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Holy vandals: Changing things for the better

June 18, 2015  

message rocksThese have been sprouting up around the neighborhood lately. I’ve counted at least half a dozen on my walks, scattered about in some unlikely places: at the end of sidewalks and the tops of porch steps, on the ledge of a sandbox and in the hollow of a Japanese maple. The one you see in the picture is currently resting at the base of my neighbor’s mailbox.

The rocks look to be colored with some sort of paint — not sprayed on, but brushed. Bright colors, too. No earth tones with these. They’re lime and pink, magenta and electric blue. Definitely not meant to stay hidden. These rocks scream out to be found. To be seen, and immediately.

The ribbons and quotes are as different as the coloring. Some I recognize but many I do not, poets and writers and philosophers from ages past, their words serving as a kind of immortality. I like this. In a time when the Gone is frowned upon in favor of the Just Ahead, it’s nice to be reminded that the world may always be changing but people never do. What was true in the Bronze Age or the Renaissance or in Victorian England remains true now, and will be true still upon some dim tomorrow. The times may evolve, but not the human heart. As a race, we are as good and as evil as we have always been and will always be.

I didn’t get that from one of the cards tied to the rocks. That’s just me talking.

I was lucky enough to catch someone finding their own message, this the day before yesterday while walking the dog. An elderly woman in her front yard, pail and trowel in hand, aiming herself for the rose garden in the middle of her front yard. She stopped with a suddenness that made me think she’d stumbled upon a copperhead searching for some sun. She picked up a near circular stone, bright yellow with a red bow. I saw her lips move as she read the note. Saw the edges of her mouth curl upward.

On my way back, I took a detour through her grass. The rock was still there, placed by her in a position of prominence in the middle of the garden. In black script so carefully written that it appeared printed from a computer was this quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.: “The Amen of nature is always a flower.”

I’m going to say that I think I have a pretty good idea of the ones behind all of this. These holy vandals, these ninjas of comfort and inspiration. I will guard their secret. Some day they may be unmasked, but never by me. In the meantime I will feign ignorance, and when my neighbors come calling, scratching their heads and smiling in something very much like wonder, I will say I have no earthly idea where the rocks came from or who put them there. I’ll even show them my own, the orange one I found against the side of the shed this morning. The one with the Robin Williams quote that says, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

I guess that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Changing things for the better. I don’t know of a single person who doesn’t pine for that, and to play their own part in it. It’s why I write books and why my wife teaches school, why my mother worked as a nurse for thirty years and my father drove a truck almost forty. I would even say that’s what drives you as well — to make things better. For the world, your family, yourself. I suppose in that respect, we’re not so different than God is to us. We love things too much to keep them as they are.

But here’s the thing that always seems to trip me up: those momentous events that are told and retold in books and movies and classrooms often began not with a rushing wave, but a ripple. Something tiny. Something almost inconsequential.

Something like a bunch of painted rocks.

Big things don’t always make a change. Most times it’s more little things done over and over again, laid out one after another, marking a path that leads us on. We don’t have to do great things to bring sunshine to the world. All it takes are little things done with great hearts.

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Darkness and light

June 15, 2015  

Eyes in the darkA big part of my duties around the house involves taking care of those things everyone else finds objectionable. Getting rid of any creepy-crawly beyond the size of a fly? My territory. Also most accidental discharges by the dog. I’m the Poop and Pee guy.

I am also, as it turns out, The One Who Gets The Clothes Off The Line When They’ve Been Forgotten And It’s Close To Midnight guy, which is what I’m doing now. It’s a new one for me, and one that never would have happened if my wife hadn’t gotten up a little bit ago and glanced through the window into the backyard.

Can’t leave the clothes on the line, she said. The dew would get them by morning; she’d have to wash them again.

Both of the kids were in bed, though I’ll add that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference if they’d been awake. My daughter is thirteen and my son is eleven (going on twenty), but neither one of them do the dark. Nor, for that matter, does my wife. She said she would be happy to take the clothes off the line. All I had to do was stand guard at the backdoor.

So: me.

She’s standing at the backdoor now. Keeping watch, I suppose. You’re asking what exactly my wife is keeping watch for? Well, I suppose it’s any number of things. Our neighborhood is large (too large, if you’d like my opinion), but our house abuts thirty thousand acres of woods and mountains that served as the inspiration for a place called Happy Hollow in my books. Talk to many around here, they’ll warn you away from those woods at night. There are stories. But aside from tales of ghosts and unknown beasts, there really are things around here that creep in the night and are best left alone. Our neighbors woke one morning not long ago to find a bear on their front porch. I’ve killed too many copperheads in our creek. So, yeah. Maybe that’s why my wife’s standing on the other side of the screen while I take down these clothes.

I told her there’s no need to watch. She knows that. She also knows the dark doesn’t bother me, that in fact I’ve come to find a feeling in it that, while not comfort, is something akin to it. I don’t mind the dark. That’s when I can see the stars.

They’re out here tonight, right over my head. Bits of light tossed into the sky like millions of tiny dice, planets and suns and a band of the Milky Way all keeping time to some celestial music that beats not in the ears but the heart.

Growing up, I learned to pray in the dark. I’d go outside every night and look up at the sky, and if there were stars I’d start talking. If there weren’t, I’d just listen. I learned a lot that way. It’s highly recommended.

Almost done. Half the clothes are off now. I pull the pins away and put the pins in the cloth sack hung on the line, fold each article of clothing and place it in the basket. I’m assuming my wife is telling me to hurry up. I don’t, even though there’s something in the bush nearby. Maybe a possum. Or a rabbit. Too small to be a bear. Could be one of those adolescent Bigfoots I heard about a few weeks ago. Seems a guy was fishing out in the woods and came across an entire family. Swears it, and never mind that he was drunk off his rocker at the time. Probably isn’t one of those in my bush, but I still catch myself wondering what I’d do if it was. Talk about a story.

Speaking of which, I had someone last week ask me why my stories had gotten darker as the years have trundled on. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I suppose they have (The Curse of Crow Hollow will be out in less than two months, and it’s both my best so far and a far, far cry from my first novel), but I can’t really speak as to why that’s the case. I suppose if I had to, I’d say it’s just me getting back to my roots. My kin have long told stories about those caught along the thin line that stretches between worlds, and the darkness that lurks both there and inside the human heart. Besides, it’s light that I really want to write about. Where better to see that light than in a bit of darkness?

And really, we’re all living in a kind of darkness, don’t you think? This great world we inhabit, all the fancy toys we carry with us and all the knowledge we possess, doesn’t change the fact that there are dangers everywhere, hungry things lurking about, and whether it’s cancer or terrorism or crime or simply the slow winding down of life, those things are always close. That’s what makes living such a hard thing, and what makes all of us so courageous.

There, done. The last pair of jeans, the final T shirt. My wife can go to bed now knowing there won’t be any clothes to wash again in the morning. I take the basket and make my way to the porch, casting one last look at all those stars. Pausing to say Thanks, for everything. At the door, I catch a glimpse of two glowing eyes from the bush. And you know what? I say thanks for that, too.

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