When the grey seeps in

February 26, 2015  

image courtesy of google images

image courtesy of google images

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.

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The God of Mayberry

February 23, 2015  

Andy GriffithI’ve spent the better part of my life trying to figure out God in one way or another. I don’t have a conversion story; I’ve always believed. It’s what I do with that belief that has at times become problematic. I’ve strayed (oh, friend, how I’ve strayed) but always come back, and with a deeper appreciation of the One whom I worship. Still, the truth remains inescapable after all these years—the One I worship is a mystery. One I will forever try to solve but will forever remain unsolvable. On this side of heaven, anyway.

Who He is and what, why He does the things He does. Ask me those things and I’ll give you an answer, though that answer may be more in the form of a question than anything else. Maybe that’s the point. God’s ways aren’t our ways, the Book says. His thoughts are not our thoughts.

There was a time though, the summer I turned six, when I very nearly had God figured out. That’s the year I discovered God was Andy Griffith.

You know Andy, right? Had a TV show back in the 60s. Played a sheriff in the town of Mayberry? Boy named Opie and an aunt named Bea. Deputy Barney Fife? Sure you do. You read this blog, you just about have to be an Andy Griffith kind of person.

That summer my dad and I had a standing appointment to watch Andy Griffith every weekday afternoon on channel 3. To my memory, we never missed a single one. I loved Andy, I truly did. If he would’ve chewed Red Man and cussed a lot more and kept a jar of moonshine in the freezer, he could’ve been just like my own father.

Round about July was when I learned Andy was God (or God was Andy, whichever you’d prefer). I was sitting in church and tugging at my collar one Sunday when hymn time came. I could read some of the words in the hymnal but not all, so I had to follow along with the singing. When the congregation reached the chorus, I had a revelation.

“Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am His own.”

I can honestly say I’d never felt so happy.

Of course, that didn’t last very long. School started again a few months later. I learned to read and more and better. Didn’t take me long to realize ANDY was in face AND HE. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. That day, Andy turned back into all the things that had come before. Back to God, to He, to Yahweh and I AM. Back to all those names that sounded small in my head but too big for me to figure in my heart.

I’m forty-two now, a long way from six. But I’ll say there are still times when I think of God like Andy Griffith. Hard times, dark ones, those long stretches when life doesn’t seem to make much sense. I’ll think about all those times when Andy showed drunk Otis mercy and clumsy Barney grace. When Opie had problems and his dad was there with some words of advice and a lap to sit on and an “I love you, son.” In the end, that’s just about all I need.

Just about all any of us needs.

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The DNA of our humanity

February 19, 2015  

Screen Shot 2014-02-16 at 7.37.44 PMThe article from the Associated Press is headlined, “Human genes reflect impact of historical events,” and goes into some detail of how researchers used nearly 1500 DNA samples to map genetic links going back 4,000 years. What they found was surprising to some. To others, not so much.

Science has never really been my strong suit. Whether it was earth science in elementary school, biology in junior high, or a brief but thoroughly disastrous flirtation with chemistry as a senior in high school, a solid “C” was all I could ever hope for. But as the years have gone on, I’ve found myself drawn to the subject. Physics helps me better understand the universe, biology the world. And while much of it still flies straight over my head, that small article from the AP truly struck me. It made sense. And more than that, it helped confirm what I’ve considered a strong possibility for quite some time.

These researchers managed to link certain strands of DNA to historical events. They used samples from the Tu people of China to show they mixed with the ancestors of modern Greeks sometime around 1200. They confirmed that the Kalash people of Pakistan are descendants of Alexander the Great’s army. They showed how African DNA spread throughout the Mediterranean, the Arab Peninsula, Iran, and Pakistan from A.D. 800-1000 due to the Arab slave trade.

Interesting stuff to be sure, but on the surface maybe not that interesting. Truth me told, I clicked off that article and moved on to something a little more my style (it happened to be a recap of this past week’s episode of Justified) before hitting the BACK button and reading it again, slower this time. Because buried beneath all those dates and facts was a reminder I sorely needed, something magical and amazing, though for the life of me I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

And then it hit me that too often we consider ourselves merely in terms of the physical and temporal. I am a mass of flesh and blood and bone with a soul hidden somewhere inside. My thoughts rarely extend past this present moment and rarely beyond the things that have a direct impact on me—what I need to finish now, what I need to do next. Sometimes the future will pop up, and I’ll think about tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. Oftentimes the past will rear its head as well, and I’ll ponder how far I’ve come and how much I’m still stuck in it.

That’s all, really, and I’d venture a guess that your life is much the same. We all live in the same world, and yet in that one world are billions of smaller ones. There’s my world and my wife’s world and my children’s worlds. There’s your world, and a separate world for everyone you know. And every one of those smaller worlds are marked by a kind of inherent selfishness in that we really don’t care what happens unless what happens interferes with us—unless it enters our own orbit.

But there’s much more to us than our own past and present and future. There’s more than our own individual worlds. Imbedded within the very fiber of our being is a record of all that has gone on before us, millennia’s worth of wars and droughts and migrations, ages of histories long lost and forgotten. I am not a single person, and nor are you. We are instead the product of countless generations who came before, who settled and lived and struggled through hardships we cannot fathom and yet found a way to continue on. Our ancestors may be nameless and inconsequential to history. They were very likely poor, unknown. And yet they live on as microscopic strands of our DNA because they managed to do one incredible thing: endure.

There is something wholly magical and noble in that. We are unique and special, and yet no more so than all who came before us. The struggles we face were once theirs, as well as our fears and our dreams. That makes me wonder just how separated we all truly are.

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Welcoming the storm

February 16, 2015  

The snow storm has arrived.

The snow storm has arrived.

There’s a storm coming. No one around here needs to turn on the news to know this, though if they would, they’d be greeted with an unending stream of weather updates and projected snowfall totals. “Gonna be a bad one, folks,” the weatherman said a bit ago. But I knew that when I walked outside. It was the way the sun hung low in a heavy, gray sky, and how the crows and cardinals and mockingbirds sounded more panicked than joyful. It was the five deer coming out of the woods and the raccoon in the backyard, how they foraged for enough food to last them these next few days.

We are no strangers to winter storms here. Still, it is cause for some interesting scenes. There are runs on bread and milk, of course, and salt and shovels, and there must be kerosene for the lamps and wood for the fire and refills for whatever medications, an endless stream of comings and goings, stores filled with chatter—“Foot and a half, I hear,” “Already coming down in Lexington”—children flushing ice cubes and wearing their pajamas inside out as offerings to the snow gods.

It is February now. The Virginia mountains have suffered right along with the rest of the country these past months. We’ve shivered and shook and dug out, cursed the very snow gods that our children entreat to give them another day away from school. Winter is a wearying time. It gets in your bones and settles there, robbing the memory of the way green grass feels on bare feet and the sweet summer smell of honeysuckled breezes. It’s spring we want, always that. It’s fresh life rising up from what we thought was barren ground. It’s early sun and late moon. It’s the reminder that nothing is ever settled and everything is always changing.

But there’s this as well—buried beneath the scowls of having to freeze and shovel, everywhere I go is awash with an almost palpable sense of excitement. Because, you see, a storm is coming. It’s bearing down even now, gonna be a bad one, folks, I hear a foot and a half, and it may or may not already be coming down in Lexington.

We understand that sixteen inches of snow will be an inconvenience. We know the next day or two will interrupt the otherwise bedrock routine we follow every Monday through Friday. And yet a part of us always welcomes interruptions such as these, precisely because that’s what they do. They interrupt. They bring our busy world to a halt. They slow us down and let us live.

Come Tuesday morning, I expect to see a world bathed in white off my front porch. I expect to put aside work and worry and play instead. I’ll build a snowman and a fort. I’ll throw snowballs and play snow football and eat snowcream. I’ll put two feet so cold they’ve gone blue by the fire and sip hot chocolate. I’ll laugh and sigh and ponder and be thankful. For a single day, I’ll be my better self.

That’s the thing about storms. We seldom welcome them, sometimes even fear them. Too often, we pray for God to keep them away. Yet they will come anyway, and to us all. For that, I am thankful. Because those storms we face wake us up from the drowse that too often falls over our souls, dimming them to a dull glow, slowly wiping away the bright shine they are meant to have.

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The cost of failed dreams

February 12, 2015  

I don’t think of him often, only on days like today. You know those days. The kind you spend looking more inside than around, wondering where all the time is going and why everything seems to be leaving you behind. Those are not fun days. In the words of the teenager who lives on the corner, they’re “the sucks.”

I had a day like that today. It was all the sucks. And like I often do, I thought of him.

I’ve been conducting an informal survey over the years that involves everyone from friends to acquaintances to strangers on the street. It’s not scientific in any way and is more for the benefit of my own curiosity than anything else. I ask them one question, nothing more—Are you doing what you most want to do with your life?

By and large, the answer I usually get is no. Doesn’t matter who I ask, either. Man or woman, rich or poor, famous or not. My wife the teacher has always wanted to be a counselor. My trash man says he’d rather be a bounty hunter (and really, I can’t blame him). A professor at work? He wants to be a farmer. And on and on.

Most times that question from me leads to questions from them, and in my explaining I’ll bring him up.

Because, really, he was no different than any of us. He had dreams. Ambitions. And—to his mind, anyway—a gift. The world is wide and full of magic when we’re young. It lends itself to dreaming. We believe we can become anything we wish; odds, however great, don’t play into the equation. So we want to be actresses and painters and poets. We want to be astronauts and writers and business owners. Because when we’re young, anything is possible. It’s only when we grow up that believing gets hard.

He wanted to be an artist. I’m no art critic and never will be, but I’ve seen his paintings. Honestly? They’re not bad. Better than I could manage, anyway.

His parents died when he was young. He took his inheritance and moved to the city to live and study, hoping to get into college. The money didn’t last long, though. Often he’d be forced to sleep in homeless shelters and under bridges. His first try for admission into the art academy didn’t end well. He failed the test. He tried again a year later. He failed that one, too.

His drawing ability, according to the admissions director, was “unsatisfactory.” He lacked the technical skills and wasn’t very creative, often copying most of his ideas from other artists. Nor was he a particularly hard worker. “Lazy” was also a word bandied about.

Like a lot of us, he wanted the success without the work. Also like a lot of us, he believed the road to that success would have no potholes, no U-turns. No dark nights of the soul.

He still dabbled in art as the years went on. But by then he had entered politics, and the slow descent of his life had begun. He was adored for a time. Worshipped, even. In his mind, he was the most powerful man in the world. Because of his politics, an estimated 11 million people died. I’d call that powerful.

But really, Hitler always just wanted to be an artist. That he gave up his dream and became a monster is a tiny footnote in a larger, darker story, but it is an important one. He didn’t count on dreams being so hard, though. That was his undoing. He didn’t understand that the journey from where we are to where we want to be isn’t a matter of getting there, it’s a matter of growing there. You have to endure the ones who say you never will. You have to suffer that stripping away. You have to face your doubts. Not so we may be proven worthy of our dreams, but so our dreams may be proven worthy of us.

He didn’t understand any of that. Or maybe he understood it and decided his own dream wasn’t worth the effort. Painting—creating—isn’t ever an easy thing. That blank canvas stares back at you, and its gaze is hard. That is why reaching your goals is so hard. That’s why it takes so much. Because it’s easier to begin a world war than to face a blank canvas.

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