September 29, 2014
It began like most problems do—small and sudden. One a drive down an empty two-lane road with windows open, stereo blaring, and me doing my best Kenny Chesney impersonation. Work was done, home was ahead, and I had raw meat, a hot grill, and a ballgame to look forward to. Yes, life was good.
But then a county police car rounded the curve ahead of me and I spotted the tell-tale radar jutting out from the driver’s side window. And whether you’re doing a hundred or twenty-five, your first reaction when you see such a sight is to slow down and check your speedometer. I did and did.
The good news was that I wasn’t speeding (much).
The bad news was that a red light was glowing on my dashboard.
CHECK ENGINE, it said.
I raised my sunglasses and squinted, hoping that the light was not a light at all. Maybe it was a reflection of the sun or a peculiar shadow. Maybe I was just seeing things.
But I wasn’t.
I tapped the glass while keeping an eye on the road, but the light wouldn’t turn off. So I took the next logical step—I put my sunglasses back on, turned Kenny Chesney back up, and kept driving. Not simply so I could watch the road, but because I was trying to convince myself that if I wasn’t looking at the light, it wouldn’t be on.
The modern motor vehicle is a technological wonder that can give you detailed information about a myriad of mechanical functions, but it cannot communicate more vaguely than CHECK ENGINE. Those two words of detached brevity can mean anything from a loose gas cap to a blown head gasket to nearly everything in between. So when I got home I paused to unscrew the gas cap, tighten it again, and restart my truck.
I opened up a dusty filing cabinet in my head and ran through a list of possible causes: sticky EGR valve, pinched fuel injector, faulty oxygen sensor…
All of which required a trip to the local repair shop, about two hours of my time, and more than a few bucks to diagnose and fix. And even though the guys down at Eavers Tire are great to hang around and talk with, I could think of a few better ways to spend a Saturday morning.
So that’s where things stand as of now. I’m still driving my truck, and it will still clear it’s voice with a low chime and announce CHECK ENGINE every time I turn the ignition. And for the past two days it has even resorted to blinking at me. “Hellloo,” it mimes, “pay attention to me!”
But I don’t. Yesterday I resorted to covering that tiny part of my instrument panel with duct tape so I wouldn’t have to see it anymore. That didn’t work, either. I couldn’t see the light but I still saw the duct tape, and I knew why it was there.
A part of me still thinks the light will go away if I ignore it long enough. I should know better, yes. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to battle warning lights, and not just with my truck. With my life, too.
Like when I find myself choosing to stand in the rain rather than go looking for some sun. Or when my gaze begins to wander down instead of up. When I go for a bit without smiling or a long time without laughing. That’s when I know something’s wrong with my engine.
CHECK HEART, my brain says.
And I should. Really. But I often don’t. That sort of thing would be much like taking my truck into the shop—it would cost too much and take too much time. So I stumble on ignoring the fact that something somewhere inside me has tripped an alarm.
When paying no heed to that warning turns CHECK HEART into CHECKHEARTCHECKHEART, I’ll use a little duct tape on my soul, too. I’ll start thinking that the cure for my blues could be as simple as a movie night or a pint of Starbucks ice cream. Sometimes both.
That never works, though. Because the duct tape I use to cover what’s wrong inside me is much like the duct tape I use to cover what’s wrong inside my truck.
Both peel off eventually.
September 26, 2014
Back when I decided I wanted to become a writer, I added a “someday” to the end. As in, “I’m going to be a writer someday.” That was what I believed I was supposed to do, what was expected of me. Because no one first starting out writing was a writer. You had to do things first.
You had to have a manuscript, for instance. Or at least be working on one. And you had to have a blog and a “social networking presence”. You had to have followers and friends and readers. An agent. And, of course, a publishing contract.
To me, procuring that last one would be my golden ticket into the chocolate factory. To have a book out, to be published, would eliminate the need for that “someday” I kept adding. I wouldn’t need it anymore. I would be a writer. A real one.
Until that time (and if that time ever came, because I understood the odds), I considered myself merely a wannabe. And those thoughts didn’t change after I had a manuscript and a blog and a “social networking presence” because I saw the writing world as a segregated one. The ones who had books on Amazon and did interviews occupied the castles, and the rest of us were left to beg at the gate for any morsel of acceptance tossed our way. I would pass notes through that gate in the form of queries and proposals to any who ventured close enough, hoping against hope that one of them would pity me and bid me to pass. Theirs was the life I wanted, not my own.
It was tough looking through that gate and watching those published writers gorge on their dreams while I starved on my own.
Every so often someone on my side would be granted entrance. Those were always good times, hopeful times, because everyone left would believe their turn may be next. I would watch as those people crossed over and imagine they were me. Often they would each come close to the gate and talk to the rest of us on the other side. We’d hear amazing stories that would both fill us and leave us hungrier.
I had hope that if I hung around long enough—if I kept knocking—my turn would come. I was right about that. Talent can only get you so far in the publishing business. You have to persist. You have to always try once more.
For proof of that, the gate did open. I found on the other side my agent and she helped me find my publisher. Amazon and interviews followed. I thought I would be loosed then. Set free. I suppose in my mind I’d always considered being published akin to shedding my mortal coil in favor of a heavenly body.
That wasn’t true.
There are a lot of writers who change when they go from the land of wanting to be published to the land of author. They think they’ve become someone they’re not because they’re in a place few have been blessed to venture.
I’ve always promised myself that if I were fortunate enough to cross over, I’d stay close to the gate just to see you. Just so you would come close and I could talk to you and say this:
Writing is the most democratic form of expression I know. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you stand in this life, you have a story to tell. One that is just as important, just as needed, as anyone else’s. Being a real writer isn’t a matter of being published, it’s a matter of how you see yourself. It’s a matter of study and work and determination, not a contract.
I found that out.
There is no “someday”. You are a real writer the moment you put pen to page and soak it with your tears and sweat and dare to share yourself with the world. It is that supreme act of courage that gives your life meaning, not a piece of paper to sign and initial at the bottom.
That’s what I will tell you.
And I will tell you this as well—the world on this side of the gate isn’t that different from the world on the other. We strive in each to inspire and transport our reader.
That is our hope and our call.
September 23, 2014
My kids have recently become enamored with their height, believing that their upward rather than inward growth gives the best indication of their march toward adulthood. Every person they meet is gauged in terms of how tall they are. Instead of a hug or a handshake, both of my children will stand in front of them and with hand to head make a straight line across to see how much further they have to grow to get even.
I’d call this a phase, but I know it’s not. I’m forty-two and still do the same thing.
By my count there are 122 listings for “Coffey” in the phone book beside me, and 123 if you count Coffey’s Garage (and you should, because they do great work). That’s quite a number considering the fact that we’re all crammed into a relatively small part of a relatively small Virginia county. And though I don’t know each of them personally, I’d bump into all of them if I climbed high enough into my family tree.
Two of those Coffeys are prefaced by the first name of “Billy.” One of them is me. The other has over the years become me, too. Just improved.
Because in a lot of ways, the other me has always gone first. First to have a girlfriend, first to graduate. First to get married and have kids.
The other Billy Coffey was always cool and still is. He walks the fine line between being redneck enough to go bear hunting with the guys and refined enough to know that “loading the dishwasher” doesn’t mean getting his wife drunk. There are Coffeys around here who have yet to get that one straight.
I ran into him yesterday at the gas station (which is always somewhat awkward—“Hey, Billy,” “Hey, Billy”) and took the time to catch up while our vehicles were filling up. It was the normal sort of conversation between acquaintances, the kind where much is said but not necessarily told.
Weather? Cool. Wives? Good. Kids? Rowdy. Work? Horrible.
We topped off our tanks and said our goodbyes before driving off in opposite directions. But I couldn’t help but think we were actually going the same way now. He was no longer first in most things. No longer improved, either. We were just two guys living their lives who just happened to have the same name.
It was all a bit anti-climactic. Here I had for years considered this man to be a sort of mirror for my life, a crude barometer by which I measured the quality of my own highs and lows. But I didn’t have that anymore, and that was a problem.
So I did what any sane person would do. I went home and Googled myself.
Turned out there were a lot of me’s out there. The most famous was a Billy Coffey who raced sprint cars. He even had a nickname—The Kid. Billy “The Kid” Coffey. Awesome. I always wanted a nickname, especially one what was cowboy-ish.
There was another Billy Coffey on Facebook. Relaxing in a chair wearing a pair of sunglasses and a ball cap. It was a nice picture and one I could never have taken. I was seldom relaxed.
A Billy Coffey in Florida was appealing a conviction for cocaine distribution. Finally, someone who held a position in life a little lower than mine. But then I found another Billy Coffey who was a preacher in the next county, a fact that rendered the scales a bit uneven again.
And then I found a Billy Coffey who’s sacrifice was enshrined forever on West Panel 2 of the Vietnam Memorial.
That’s when I quit looking. I realized then exactly what I was doing.
It was human nature for us to judge ourselves against others, to stand toe to toe with their talents or looks or status and move a mental hand from the tops of our heads across to them. Regardless of who we are, we all need to see how we measure up. Often, we come up short. Occasionally we can admit we’re not shorter. But it’s rare when we can honestly say we’re taller.
We are all unique. “Wonderfully made,” according to the Bible. Made alike by our capacity to love and dream and hope, yet set apart by our abilities to express them. Which is why comparing ourselves to others will never work.
And also why comparing ourselves to the people we were yesterday always will.
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.