February 20, 2014
Time has a way of wiping the memory, compacting chunks of years into months or even days in the mind, glossing over even those recollections we once held as precious. There is much I’ve misplaced about my childhood, but one thing stands out even now: those long days when I sat prostrate in front of the television, my knobby knees tucked under myself, back straight and eyes forward, waiting for Mr. Rogers to come on.
It was much the same with you, I would imagine. Generations of people grew up visiting Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood each day. We grew up with him. Learned with him. No matter who we are or what we’ve become, our childhoods have him in common.
Growing up, he was my hero. I wanted a sweater like his and a sandbox like his, and I pined for a magical train that would run through my house to distant lands. It was time that separated us, no longer made us neighbors. When a boy (or a girl, for that matter) reaches a certain age, Mr. Rogers is no longer cool. Mr. Rogers becomes a nerd. A dork. He’s no longer a friend, he’s the weird old man down the street.
How stupid we all are.
In 1997, after 33 years of teaching us all how to look and listen and act, Fred Rogers was given a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime Emmys. It was quite an odd sight, seeing him and his wife among some of the most famous and powerful people in Hollywood. And yet he took the stage to receive the award accompanied by a standing ovation that ended when he stood in front of the microphone. What happened next can only be described as magical. I ask you to take three minutes out of your day to watch:
Video from KarmaTube
How wonderful is that? How beautiful that this humble man (who was an ordained minister to boot) stood upon that glimmering stage in all that pomp and circumstance, holding a statue coveted by so many, and made it all not about him. And more than that, he reminded everyone else that it wasn’t all about them, either. It was instead about the ones who had been there to support them, to love them, to help them. In an age defined by the individual, Fred Rogers taught us in ten seconds that we are all connected to one another.
But there’s more. What struck me most watching that speech was that such a powerful truth had been given with such meekness and humility. How hard do you think it would be to convince a crowd of Hollywood actors and actresses to pause for a moment and think about someone other than themselves? To forget their fancy dress and their high status? And yet Mr. Rogers did just that, and merely by looking at his watch.
“I’ll watch the time.”
That’s all it took. There is a small rumble in the crowd, a few chuckles, and then utter silence. Because Mr. Rogers wasn’t kidding. He was serious, he wanted them to do this. And when Mr. Rogers asks that you do something, you do it. Not because you’re scared or intimidated, but because a part of you knows that he loves you.
Because he’s your neighbor.
As a result, Fred Rogers got exactly what he wanted that night. Not applause, not a statue. He convinced all of those people that they are indeed special, not because of what they’ve become, but because of who they loved and who loved them.
And that is why Mr. Rogers was my hero growing up. And now that I’m grown, why he’s my hero still.
February 17, 2014
The 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.
February 13, 2014
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 Thursday 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.
February 10, 2014
To a certain extent, ritual plays a part in every life. We all adhere to our own ceremonies to mark the important occasions that come along. It can be something as extravagant as a neighbor of mine plans every Thanksgiving, when his home becomes a meeting place for family scattered to all corners of the country. Or it can be as small as the shot of whiskey a friend of mine takes at 4:12 in the afternoon each July 27, in remembrance of his father’s passing.
My own ritual—smaller than either of those I mentioned, yet to me no less significant—revolves around cleaning out my desk before the start of every novel. It is no mammoth undertaking, usually requiring no more than an hour’s time and involving no more than shelving books and filing papers. But I like to start fresh with each story I write, and nothing says fresh more than an empty slab of oak upon which to write.
As I cleaned and filed and shelved this morning, I came upon a tattered manila envelope at the bottom of a stack of papers. ANSWERS had been written diagonally across the front in red permanent ink, in a hand I can scarcely recognize now. The inside bulged with notes and scraps; newspaper clippings; magazine articles; letters written to me and copies of letters I’d written to others. Some were dated as recent as last year. The oldest had 4 Oct. 89 scrawled along the top.
I spread them out before me, reading each one until I remembered, trying to place the where and why of myself—what it had been that led me to include those stories there, in my envelope. I am not to the point that I can say I have lived many years upon this earth, have accumulated many things along the way, and yet I have always counted that envelope among my most important possessions. Because, what you see, what rests in there are all the questions I wish to ask God when I am able to see Him face to face. They are the things I wish to know.
I will stop short of calling that envelope EVIDENCE FOR PROSECUTION, though I admit it was very nearly labeled that instead of ANSWERS. And whom was I determined to prosecute, way back in the very dawn of my adulthood? God, of course. And for the single reason that I did not approve of the way He did things.
Laugh at that all you will. Take a look inside my envelope, though. You may change your mind.
You’ll see an obituary for a high school classmate of mine, who was killed in a freak accident not two years after our graduation—a bright, funny, loving boy, full of life until he wasn’t.
You’ll find a story of a missionary tortured and killed.
A small girl who wandered from home and became lost in the woods, never to be found.
A single mother of three, dying of inoperable cancer.
Accounts of oppression, disease, and injustice. Diary entries of heartbreak and doubt. Themes of death and evil. Tales that over the years forced me to wonder what you or anyone else have wondered at one time or another—
How can a good and loving God allow such things?
At a certain point, I understood there would be no answers to that question on this side of life. People have been questioning the origins of evil and it’s place with God for thousands of years, and we are not too far down the road to answering it. So I’ve kept all my questions here, in this envelope.
How exactly I would get that file to heaven with me was something I never quite figured out. In the past few years, I’ve devoted less and less time to pondering that problem. Not because evil no longer bothers me—it does, perhaps more now than ever—but because of the very likely possibility that I won’t care much about my questions in heaven. I’ll be too full of joy. I’ll be too busy spending time with all those who passed on before me, and preparing for those yet to arrive.
I still don’t understand a great many things in life. I suppose I always won’t. I don’t know why there must be cancer, and why that cancer must take so many innocent people. I don’t know why there is evil, or why there seems to be so much more of it than good.
I don’t know why God does the things He does, or allows what He allows.
But I can do one thing. I can approach those questions now as though they were parts of a story, one I would write just as God writes His own upon all of creation. And I would say—not as a pastor or theologian or philosopher, but as a storyteller—that it is far more beautiful a thing to be redeemed than be innocent. It is far more amazing for fight for peace in a fallen world than to maintain peace in a perfect one.
And it is far more noble to spend your life in search of something than have nothing to search for at all.
February 6, 2014
Dear Ms. Elementary School Counselor,
Chances are fair that I really don’t need to do this, not with the great number of other tasks that need to be crossed off what I’m sure is a long list. Still, a part of me expects your call at any moment.
I imagine your voice would be kind but grave, telling me in the most professional way possible that my son is afflicted with suicidal thoughts. You will probably suggest several courses of action, all of which should be immediate and most of which will involve varying arrays of medications and counseling. If that call should indeed come, I intend to put you at ease and email you this short note as an explanation, hoping you are of a mind to understand. Because, yes, my son did announce to the half-dozen or so of his classmates at the lunch table that he couldn’t wait to die, but that’s not what he meant. At least, not really.
Like most things, context is what’s important. That’s what I’ll give you. And if by some chance you haven’t received the full account of what my son and his friends were discussing, he said they were all ruminating on death. I’m not so intelligent, nor am I a licensed school counselor, but I would imagine such a topic wouldn’t raise too many red flags. It’s been my experience that children do not shrink from the thought of dying, that they see it as something what will always come sooner rather than later. It’s only when we grow up that death becomes a menace, something that should be ignored lest it be considered.
I say all that so I can say this—my son was merely stating a fact. He has told me often that he cannot wait to die, and I must confess the idea is not wholly his own. I was the one responsible for planting that thought in his head. I can’t wait to die, either. Nor my wife, nor my daughter. Nor, in fact, most of our friends and acquaintances. Before you panic and think you’ve just stumbled upon some hillbilly suicide pact, let me assure you that’s not the case. We—my son and his family—simply believe there isn’t death at all. There’s only life followed by more life.
I realize this may come as no surprise to you, and that you in fact may share this conviction. In a town in which there are nearly four times as many churches as stop lights, the odds are good that’s the case. And yet I am realistic enough to know the changing times—even here, many of the pews in many of those churches are emptying, life has grown too busy for the Sabbath, etc. If that’s true in your case, I’ll do my best to explain in greater detail.
You see, we believe there is more. More to life, more to the universe, more to everything. That all we know is but a sliver of what is actually true and real, and that hidden behind all we can perceive is a single thread that traces its beginning to a God beyond all understanding. That holy, loving God imbued us with more than a mind to ponder and a heart to feel. He gave us a soul as well, and he placed inside us all a spark of eternity that not even death can destroy.
I know—that might not make much sense. It sounds a bit irrational. Even childish. That’s fine. Much of what we believe seems as such to those who don’t. We’re used to being misunderstood and even mocked, but this is who we are, and this is what we will forever be.
I’ll only say this: yes, we are looking forward to that greater life beyond. We see that world as much brighter and more real than this tired and frail one we live in now. But that’s not to say we are eager to leave. We have much to do here, much more to grow. We have a purpose and meaning. So I ask that you not worry about my son. He’s in good hands. Worry instead for those who believe this life is the end, and only darkness waits hereafter.
With kind regards,