September 12, 2014
I listened as well as I could, though I’ll admit she nearly scared me to death at first—Die? Why die? What happened?—but then I managed to get the entire story. She’s 12 now, my daughter, an age I’m quickly beginning to see as Not So Young Anymore. The world is opening up to her, and not just the good stuff, either. She’s learning that not all of life is so wonderful and that the future doesn’t always seem rosy.
It was strange at first that what bothered her so much wasn’t something that would happen, but something that already had.
“Do you know how the dinosaurs died?” she asked me.
“No room in Noah’s ark?”
She looked at me like I was the kid and she was the parent. “It was a meteor!” she said.
“So why are we all gonna die?”
“Because there’s more,” she said. She waved her tiny arms around her head as if she were trying to beat them all away. “It like happens all the time.”
“They hit our planet and kill everything.” She slumped down on the sofa beside me and sighed. “One could be coming now.”
“I hope it waits until this ballgame’s over,” I said, “because I really want to know who wins.”
“I’m being serious, Daddy,” she said. “Aren’t you scared?”
I told her I wasn’t, and that seemed to satisfy her enough. Nothing else was said about things falling from the sky. Mission accomplished, I would usually say. But the fact is that I kinda/sorta lied to her when I said I wasn’t scared.
Because I kinda/sorta was when I was her age.
The truth is that the history of our fair world isn’t fair at all. There have been five mass extinctions in our planet’s history, the last of which occurred just over 70,000 years ago after a volcano almost wiped humanity from history before it had even started.
Just weeks ago, two meteorites passed within just a few thousand miles of Earth.
You get the picture.
I remember when I was about my daughter’s age hearing a preacher on the radio saying he’d received a vision from God (which, heard through his Southern accent, sounded more like GAWT) that the world would end in exactly seven days and thirteen hours. I can’t recall who the man was, but I remember the panic he caused among the few who actually believed him. Me included, of course.
I sat out on the hood of my father’s truck that night and waited for Armageddon. Didn’t come, of course. And even though predictions of The End will stick on me like a burr from time to time, I learned my lesson that day.
I learned that no matter how hard we all may try, none of us can keep the bad away. We can lessen its impact, we can fight it, we can even turn some of it into good, but the fact remains that it’s still there and it’s still coming. The world’s full of trouble, and whether that trouble comes from earthquakes or madmen doesn’t really matter.
If that sounds submissive, I didn’t mean it to be. My daughter fell into the very trap I’ve found myself in so many times—she was worried about something she couldn’t influence. In the age of twenty-four-hour news channels and the internet, that’s something we can all struggle with sometimes.
But I’m older now. I can let solar storms and the ebola go.
It’s the other, personal forms of destruction I want her to worry about, and that’s what I’ve learned to concern myself with more, too. Because it doesn’t take a meteor or a volcano to ruin our lives, especially when we can do that just fine on our own.
We can give in to pain rather than get through it.
We can surrender to temptation rather than fight it.
We can yield our dreams rather than cling to them.
Those are our choices to make, those small decisions that perhaps have no influence on the world outside but make all the difference in the world inside.
That’s what I want my daughter to know. Because planetary destruction is in God’s hands, but self-destruction is in ours.
September 9, 2014
Some friends of ours moved last week. Traded one set of blue mountains for a set of rocky ones. It’s something they’ve wanted to do for a while (he has family in Colorado, not twenty miles from their new home, and she grew up in nearby Boulder). Their move had less to do with the economy than a simple desire for a change of scenery. I nodded when they told me that, but I didn’t really understand. Who would want to leave rural Virginia?
I’ve known them for about fifteen years now. They’ve been to my home, I’ve been to theirs. We’ve shared meals and Christmas presents and birthday parties for our children. It’s a sad thing that in a world defined by hustle and bustle and there’s-always-something-going-on, few people slow down enough to make good friends. That’s what I’d call them—good friends.
But they’re gone now, a thousand miles westward. They will find new lives, and I will keep my old one.
Their leaving was a bit anti-climactic. That surprised me. I suppose deep down I knew what I had yet to consider, which was that they’d still be around. There’s the phone, of course. E-mail. Facebook and Twitter. Skype. No matter that two mountain ranges and a great big river separated us, they’d still be no more than a few button pushes away.
That’s when I realized how much the world has shrunk. Never mind that our technology has made it possible to cure disease and peer into the deepest reaches of the universe and know within moments what has happened in a tiny spot across the world. It has done something more profound than all of those things together.
It has lifted from us the heavy weight of ever having to say goodbye.
I’ve read stories of families separated during the Great Depression, of parents and children cleaved apart as some remained behind and others struck out for new territories and better hope. They had to say their goodbyes. Many were never heard from again. Can you imagine?
I remember looking around at my classmates during high school graduation and thinking that I’d never see or hear from most of them again. These were friends, many of whom I’d known since third grade. They’d shared my life, I’d shared theirs. Yet as I sat there I knew all of that was slipping away. I knew that to live was not about being born and dying later, it was to endure many births and suffer many deaths, and sometimes that birth and death happens in the same moment.
I was right. Twenty years later, I’ve not seen many of them. But more than one have friended me on Facebook, and from all over the world.
This should make me feel good, I guess. Aside from death, there are no farewells now. There is always “Talk to you soon” or “Shoot me an email” or “DM me.”
But I don’t feel particularly good. I think we’re missing out on something if we never have to say goodbye anymore. I think it robs us of the necessity of truly understanding the impact some people have on our lives, and the impact we have on the lives of others. To have to say goodbye is to know a part of you is leaving or staying, either scattered through the world or planted where you are.
I say this because just a bit ago, I received an email (plus pictures) from my friends. Things are well with them. They’re settling in and getting used to things. They’re happy. And that’s good.
But rather than casually shooting an email back, I think I’ll sit down and take my time. I think I’ll treat it as a farewell, even though it isn’t. I think I’ll tell them just how much I’ll miss them even though it’ll be as if we’re still just down the road from each other.
I figure somewhere deep down, they’ll need that goodbye. I know I do.
September 5, 2014
If you would by chance happen to knock at my front door and ask to see where I keep my most prized possessions, I would lead you to my upstairs attic, pull the string on the exposed light bulb, and point to a spot along the far wall just beneath the vent leading outside.
There you would see an old toolbox, battered and rusty from years of use. The chipped green paint and rusted hinges may lead you to believe its contents are inconsequential at least and forgotten at most.
You would be wrong.
What’s inside that toolbox represent my life’s more memorable moments. A gum wrapper, some pine needles, a spent ring from a cap gun, and so on. Like I said, my most prized possessions. Knowing they’re up there makes me feel a little more comfortable being down here.
My mother has something similar, though her toolbox is disguised as a hope chest that sits in the corner of her bedroom closet. Inside you’ll find old report cards, forgotten toys, and pictures. Lots of pictures.
My father opts to store his keepsakes in the top drawer of his dresser, which had for years been strictly off limits to my prying hands until last week, when I summoned the courage to ask permission to rifle through its contents. I found old coins and older knives, one gun, several bundled letters I did not read, one wooden cross, and more old pictures.
I asked around, and most everyone had their own places for such things hidden somewhere out of sight. People have confessed to stashing their tokens of both past and present in socks and safe deposit boxes, cookie jars and coffee cans. One friend even stored his the old fashioned way—under the mattress of his bed.
Each admitted that no one else would be much interested in their private treasures. Again, none of them could be defined as valuable. Not on the surface, anyway. But beneath? Beneath they were priceless. I could tell they were by the hushed tones and soft smile they would offer along with their confession, as if the telling conveyed some holy secret.
Which I suppose is exactly the case. Handling those relics of the things we hold most dear often takes on the appearance of religious ritual. Touching a memory can be a powerful experience. An old photograph may not represent a mere moment in time, but a token that love is something worth holding onto. And a trinket may not be a trinket, but a symbol that faith does indeed move mountains.
We should consider these things holy. We are, after all, the sum of our experiences. We need those reminders lest we blur our today and cloud our tomorrow. We need to know where we’ve come from if we’re to know where we’re going.
One person I asked had things a little more figured out than the rest of us. A full-blooded Sioux, his people have had much experience in placing great meaning on physical objects. When I asked him where he kept his most precious things, he pulled his T shirt down and pulled out a leather necklace. On the end was a small beaded pouch that was fringed at the bottom.
“Here,” he said. “I keep them here.”
I told him about my toolbox, about the hopes chest and dresser drawer and socks and coffee cans. I even told him about my friend the mattress stuffer. He nodded and smiled, then said, “We all have our sacred things. But you keep yours hidden and far away. What good will they do you there? Why not keep them visible and close instead?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out. He was right. Everyone I had talked to kept their treasures hidden away in the darkness of a chest or drawer. Myself included.
Why? Was it because we felt them too valuable to risk the light of day? Or too fragile to be handled often?
I wasn’t sure. But I began thinking about the things our treasures represent, the love and the faith. And I began thinking that often they, too, go hidden and unused. We tuck them away for fear that they are too valuable or fragile, when they are the very things we should carry close to us every day.
September 1, 2014
I’m working. On Labor Day.
Ironic, isn’t it? That I would be working on a holiday that was instituted to celebrate the working man (and woman), I mean.
I’m sure I’m not the only one schlepping off to work this morning like any other day. We’re toasting the end of summer by sitting in offices or factories or standing outside building houses or putting out fires. Nothing wrong with that. These days, we’re lucky to have a job at all—a fact no doubt driven home by every boss everywhere whenever an employee vents some dissatisfaction.
Work is a part of everyone’s life at some point. I suppose that’s God’s plan. We hear the adage of idle hands being the Devil’s tools and read scriptures like “He who does not work should not eat.” Seems pretty clear—we’re not here to just hang out, we have to be useful.
Holidays are such because they’re meant to focus our minds on something in particular rather than leaving them in their normal, scattered state. Christmas and Easter are all about Jesus (or should be). July 4? Freedom. Thanksgiving is a time to focus on our blessings because there are always some, and Valentine’s Day is all about the people we love.
And Labor Day? Labor Day is all about what we do for a living.
For me, it means a private liberal arts college nestled among the Virginia mountains. I’m the campus mailman. Just me and the two or three student workers who may or may not bother to show up on a normal day. Working pretty much by yourself has its advantages, no doubt about it. Job security, for one. Not having to spend hours in small talk is also a plus, because I abhor small talk.
But working here also has its drawbacks. The campus post office was once home to three full-time employees instead of only one. To say things get a little hectic around this time of year would be an understatement. So if you’re wondering where the heck I’ve been for the last few weeks, the answer is under piles of Cosmopolitan magazines and packages from twelve hundred mommies.
The truth? I’d rather be doing something else. I took this job because I was going to be laid off from my previous one (which wasn’t all bad, since I got a novel out of it), and I took that one because I was burnt out from the one before. So while I’m walking my five miles a day with a smile haphazardly positioned on my face, I’m really wishing I were up in the mountains somewhere writing.
Chances are that when it comes to occupations, you’d rather be doing something else, too. I read an article a while back that said the best job to have in this country as far as pay, benefits, and perks, is a college professor. Since I’m surrounded by professors every day, I thought I’d test that theory. Over the course of a week I asked twenty of them if they were happy where they were or if they’d rather have a different line of work. Each answered they’d rather be elsewhere. Some wanted to write books, others to travel. Two wanted to be farmers. There was even one who confessed what he really wanted to do was become a bounty hunter.
There’s nothing too strange about that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that what’s rare in this life is to find someone completely happy with what he or she does to pay the bills. We all have our secret dreams and far-flung desires. It’s part of being human, I think. In our deepest selves, we’re always searching and never quite finding our place in this world.
Do you think this is true? I’d like to know, because reading back through that last paragraph left me feeling a bit pessimistic.
Maybe that’s just a symptom of having to work today. Then again, maybe that’s just one of those non-negotiable, hard truths of life.
So let’s celebrate this Labor Day with a little survey. Leave a comment below. Tell me what you do for a living, and then tell me what you’d really rather do for a living.
Let’s put my theory to the test.
August 28, 2014
“Daddy, can you carry this? It’s too heavy.”
My daughter. She trails behind her a sack of what may be books, or maybe laundry. I can’t tell from where I sit. I can, however, tell she’s right. It’s too heavy.
I get up and make my way over, but not before turning the channel on the television. Just in time, too. My daughter craned her neck toward it at just the next moment. She got an eyeful of Sportscenter rather than an eyeful of the latest bloodshed.
I bent down and grabbed her sack—books after all.
“Where’m I taking this?” I ask her.
“To my room.”
I nod and shoulder the load. “Lead on, MacDuff.”
She takes one more look at the television, says “Sorry about the Yankees, Daddy,” and then blazes a path down the hallway toward her room.
“That was Shakespeare, you know,” I tell her. “The MacDuff thing.”
Unimpressed with my literary knowledge, she merely nods and says, “That’s nice.” I know something else is on her mind. Something else is always on her mind. I deliver Harry Potter and the rest of his clan to the safety of her bed, ask her if there’s anything else I can do for her, and park myself back in front of the television.
I push the button on the remote control that says Previous. Sportscenter disappears in a blaze of pixels that reforms into the rest of the evening news.
It’s a habit I’ve repeatedly tried to break, this news watching. I’ve reached the point where I can bear no more and have decided to test the theory that ignorance truly is bliss. Little of what I see on the television is ever felt in my quiet corner of the world. Things here go much as they always have, slowly and with little change. But a part of me feels it is my responsibility to know what’s happening. There is a sense that I must bear witness to these times, if only to pray that God will deliver us from them.
I see a pair of eyes peek at me from around the corner, small eyes full of questions. They grow into my daughter’s face. I push the button again. Back to sports.
“What you need, sweets?” I ask.
She is not, and so walks into the living room and sits beside me. Says, “What were you watching, Daddy?”
“Just some sports.”
“No,” she says. “Before.”
I have the feeling she knows exactly what I was watching, which means I can either lie or tell her the truth. It’s not good to lie to your children. Necessary at times, but still not good.
“I was just watching a little of the news.”
“How come you always turn the news off when I’m around?”
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “You’d probably think it was boring stuff.” It’s a lie. Like I said, such things are necessary at times.
“I don’t think it’s boring. I like to know stuff.”
She leans her head on my shoulder and we laugh at the commercial on the screen. Mine is a tired chuckle, the sort that’s given more out of expectation than genuine feeling. I suppose my thoughts were more on the newscast than the humor. Hers, though? Complete and joyous, a laugh unencumbered.
The laugh of a child.
“You know that sack I carried to your room?” I ask her. “How it was too heavy for you to carry?”
She nods against my shoulder.
“That’s sort of why I don’t like you watching the news. Your sack was too heavy for your muscles, right?”
“Your spirit has muscles, too. Some things on the news, they’re too heavy for you to carry right now. That comes later, when you’re older and stronger. Then you can carry all of that. But for now, I think you should just carry the lighter things. I’ll carry the heavy things for you.”
I kiss her on the head, a sign she understands means that’s all I can stay. My daughter lingers long enough for the commercials to end, then she skips back to her room and her Barbies.
I don’t know if she understands what I’ve just told her. Maybe that is too heavy for her as well. A part of me hopes it is.
My finger rests on Previous, and I realize it’s done so by habit. News, always news. Another set of eyes from the hallway, these the smaller ones of my son. He asks if we can watch cartoons. I tell him yes.
There will be no more news tonight, and I decide that’s a good thing.
Because there are still many things even too heavy for a father to carry.