January 12, 2015
Je suis Charlie.
I’ve seen that over and over these last days, that rallying cry in response to the dozen people killed at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices in Paris.
This one feels different somehow, doesn’t it? No shopping mall or landmark or school, but a place even more sinister. This feels like a declaration of war not upon a government or a people, but upon the very foundation of Western civilization. The right to freely express one’s views in whatever manner one wishes is a pillar upon which all freedom is based, a right that transcends the rule of man and approaches the realm of the holy. And so I mourned those deaths even as I cheered the protests that followed, those untold thousands who raised not candles in remembrance of the lost, but pens. Chanting, nearly singing as the call filled the air:
Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie.
I’ve spent a lot of time doing something else these past days. I’ve been pondering what it is I do as well. It seems a silly thing on the face of it, scribbling words onto a page. But if the news has shown us anything of late, it is that art wields a power unequaled by politics and guns. Unequaled, even, by terror.
And that’s exactly what writers are. And cartoonists and actors and poets. Painters and composers and musicians. We are artists. Even me. You’ll likely never catch me saying that again. “I’m an artist” sounds a little too fancy for my tastes, a little too conceited. But it’s true. We create. We explore. We tell the world’s stories.
That is why those dozen people were killed.
I hadn’t heard of Charlie Hebdo until this all happened. In the wake of the violence and death, I wanted to see what sort of art could drive people to murder in the name of their God. I went online and looked at a few of their past covers, knowing all the while that the newspaper was an equal opportunity offender — not just Muslims, but Jews and Christians and politicians as well. I stopped when I found a cover cartoon depicting God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit engaging in anal sex.
I suppose a publication devoted to such things becoming the banner for freedom would touch a wrong chord in some. Soon after Je suis Charlie became popular, another name began being chanted — Je suis Ahmed. As in Ahmed Merabet, the Paris policeman shot in front of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters as the attack began. Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim who sacrificed his life for the right of others to mock what he held most dear.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ahmed, too. About how noble his death was, and how terrible. “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends,” said a cartoonist for the paper. I wonder if they would vomit on Ahmed, too.
I don’t know how I feel about any of this. There are times when I sit with pen in hand and shut myself off as the words flow. Not so this time. This time, every stroke and thought has been an agony. Voltaire famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As a writer — as a human being — I have always adopted that philosophy and always will, just as I find inspiration in the words of Charlie Hebdo’s publisher, Stephane Charbonnier, who said before his death, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
But I am not Charlie Hebdo.
If I am indeed an artist, then I am the sort who believes art should not shock, but inspire. It should not tear apart, but bring together. I am the sort who revels in the liberty to speak and write and will fight for that liberty until my dying breath, but I am also the sort who believes with that liberty comes a responsibility to use it wisely and with great love. Yes, I am free. But there lays within that freedom limits that should be imposed not by the rule of man, but the rule of decency. Having the right to do a thing is not the same as being right in doing it.
We live too much by impulse and the desires to entice and confound. We would do better to live more by the heart.
January 8, 2015
Piney Mills may sound like a good enough place to live—one of those neighborhoods that offer a mixture of Cape Cods and ranches and the occasional bricked manor home, all with the stars and bars hanging from a pole, each with mats at the front door that say WELCOME. But it’s not like that at all. Piney Mills is instead a sprawling trailer court just outside of town that borders an expanse of national forest that is largely untrodden save for moonshiners, meth dealers, and love-struck teenagers in search of somewhere private to do some heavy petting.
In other words, every town has that one place where you don’t go unless you absolutely have to. For my town, Piney Mills is that one place.
It was a favor for a friend that took me there a couple weeks ago. He had a sofa that needed to be moved, I had the truck to move it. It was a minor errand that would take no more than an hour, but I still dreaded the trip. Piney Mills is an underbelly. When you go there, it’s best to prepare yourself for the things you’ll likely see—the poverty, the want, the neglect, yes. But mostly it’s the crass, profane attitudes the people there have adopted, either because of the sorry states of their lives or their bleak prospects of their futures.
I wasn’t disappointed in that regard. The decayed (and bullet-ridden, I might add) wooden PINEY MILLS sign at the entrance was guarded by a boy no older than six. He was dressed in jeans that were a size too short and a stained sweatshirt that read AUSTIN 3:16 SAYS I JUST KICKED YOUR ASS that was at least three sizes too big. As I pulled from pavement to gravel, he looked at me and offered a tiny middle finger.
I wound my way along the park’s main avenue. Trailers in various states of disrepair offered clues as to what the inhabitants considered important and not. I saw a bevy of duct-taped windows, porches littered with empty beer cases, and pristine satellite dishes clinging to sagging roofs. What few people that mingled about in the cold stared through dead eyes with a mix of resignation and distrust.
The guilt I felt wasn’t because my life had been offered more, but that I had to go to a place like that to be reminded of it.
The sofa in question was colored in a microfiber lime green and seemed to weigh as much as the truck that would transport it. My friend and I managed to hook it out of the narrow doorway and into the bed without causing further damage to either. He offered me coffee that I eagerly accepted. We spent the next half hour talking on his front stoop.
There is a rhythm to every place, even a place like Piney Mills. As the minutes wore on and the talk drifted from Christmas to work, the neighborhood awoke to a point where I was tolerated if not accepted. A woman across the street came outside long enough to wave and ask if we needed further help with the sofa. The man in the trailer beside us walked out to fetch his morning paper. He wore a threadbare purple bathrobe and nothing more. That didn’t stop him from noticing the errant newspaper that straddled the boundary between his trailer and the next, which he promptly delivered to an expectant and thankful elderly woman next door. Children appeared to play football in the street. For a while, even in that sad place, there was the sound of laughter and fun.
I realized then that I’d been missing something besides that appreciation for my life’s bounty. It was an important lesson, one I think is worth sharing here. It is simply that there is still joy in this world, still beauty. Still good. We might believe those things to be sparse and that might be true, but I don’t think so. Even in Piney Mills, that place the local police know well, you can find glimpses of our better selves. You can be reminded that while we are all fallen, dirty, incorrigible people, we are also capable of good and laughter.
I’m going to remember that the next time I turn on the television or pick up a newspaper. I’m going to hang on to that notion the next time my eyes are drawn heavenward and I’m tempted to say Come now, just come on and put an end to all this mess.
Because this world is still worth saving. It’s still worth our faith. It’s still worth living in.
January 5, 2015
I figure I’m much tool old to bother with New Year’s resolutions. I’ve learned my lesson. So many of their broken bits trail along behind me now, all well-intentioned but doomed to failure. We all strive and wish and work for our own vision of wholeness, however right or wrong that vision may be, and yet we will always be broken. That brokenness, I think, is half of what it means to be human. To try and mend that brokenness nonetheless—to stare ahead into some yet unformed tomorrow and see ourselves becoming the people we are meant to be—that is the other half.
At twelve and on the cusp of thirteen, my daughter suffers no such constraints of worldly wisdom. She not only embraces the concept of resolutions, she devoted much of her Christmas vacation to them. She filled pages upon pages of the small black notebook she carries with wondrous ideas of self-improvement. I cautioned her to narrow things down a bit, cut five pages down to one and then whittle things even further, to a single focus. After much deliberation and crossing out, she announced to me on New Year’s Day her goal for the coming year:
To have a middle finger like mine.
My first thought—God forgive me—was that she meant something along the lines of the lewd gesture to which we are all familiar. Not so. She took my hand and stretched it out, showing me the hump of hard skin just inside the first knuckle of the middle finger on my right hand. She pressed it, then smiled and said, “Feels like a marble. I want one.”
“Doesn’t look too good,” I told her. “Which doesn’t really matter with me, since I’m a guy. Guys tend to think the rougher their hands are, the better. Means they’re doing stuff.”
“I want one,” she said again. “I want to do stuff. Think that’s fine?”
“I think that’s very fine.”
She sat down beside me. A worn nub of a pencil appeared from one of her pockets. That black notebook of hers came out of the other. She opened to a page near the middle and took the pencil in her hand, placing her forefinger along the barrel and wrapping her middle finger around it just so.
I asked, “What are you scribbling?”
“I don’t know. Just words. Sometimes I don’t know what’s gonna come out until it does. Is that bad?”
“Nope,” I said. “I think that’s the best.”
She wrote for twenty minutes maybe, working on those words she didn’t know, working on that writer’s bump she wants on her middle finger. I told her it would take time. Lots of time and lots of scribbling. My daughter doesn’t care.
She says she has stories to tell and everyone does, and if we keep those stories locked up inside us they’ll die and maybe an important part of our hearts will die right along with them. She’s a smart one, my daughter, and wise.
I only told her some of what that hard hump of skin on my finger means. Time and practice, yes, but there is also more and harder. Because if she really wants to tell her stories, my daughter will find the going rough. There is no journey in this life fraught with more peril than the journey inside ourselves, no land more arduous and unexplored, and we cannot ever hope to venture there and return unscathed. Every writer bears ugly scars, just as every person does. The hump on my finger is merely the one most visible.
January 1, 2015
This Christmas began what I hope will become a new tradition for the Coffey house. On Christmas Eve, my daughter sat at the grand piano in the equally grand foyer of the local hospital. For forty-five minutes, she provided background music to the steady pulse of whispers and footsteps and intercom pages.
“Silent Night.” “Joy to the World.” “Away in a Manger.” The notes shaky at first, timid, only to gain in both confidence and volume as the moments drew on.
I sat with my son and wife on the worn leather sofa in the middle of the foyer. The perfect spot to listen and nod and smile in support. Also, the perfect spot to see what would happen when those songs of hope and joy were played in such a setting. To see a bit of light cast into such a darkened place.
We were alone for a while. There is a current to every public place, one that flows and meanders of its own accord regardless of what attempts are made to alter it. So we all settled in, us on the sofa and she at the keys, joining the crowd rather than ask the crowd to join us.
The automatic doors leading to the parking lot squeaked with a certain poetic regularity. The people who entered did so with a slow purpose, as if walking through molasses. Their arms ladened with ribboned bags overstuffed with gifts. Plastic smiles that sunk no deeper than the first layer of skin greeted us. Their thoughts were plain enough that I saw them well. It is Christmas, these people thought, and I am here—not at home, but here.
My daughter played: Let every heart/Prepare Him room.
In those small spaces where the elevators clustered, those coming in met those going out. These people, too, could not hide their thoughts. I watched as orderlies pushed the freed in wheelchairs as worn and tired as the smile on the patients’ faces. They were greeted at the doors by family members who rushed in from the circular drive just outside—rushed in, I thought, not to escape the cold, but to rescue their loved ones before some unknown doctor reconsidered the discharge order.
My daughter bolder now, smiling down at the ivory keys: And heaven and nature sing.
A nurse stopped on her way to some far-flung department to listen. An old man sat in the chair across from us, drawn there more by the music than the promise of comfort. The December sun glinted off the wall of windows in front of us. Puffy clouds raced overhead, molded into shapes by the wind. More people stopped—patients and visitors, security officers, doctors. Not for long and only to smile as those notes rang out (Round yon virgin, mother and child) before walking on with a nod and a smile.
And slowly, ever so gently, that current changed.
It was not diverted, nor could it have been. This was a hospital, after all. In such places where so much life mingles with so much death, the heaviness in the air is both constant and unchanging. And yet I saw smiles during my daughter’s recital, and I heard the hard sighs of comfort and the sound of applause.
And I knew then this great truth—we cannot heal what has been irrevocably broken. We cannot bring peace in a life where there will always be war, nor healing to a place fallen from grace. Such things are beyond our ability. We have no such power.
Yet even if we are powerless to change this world, we still have the power to nudge it a bit in the direction it should go. To bring joy to another, even for a moment. To inspire and lift up. To give hope.
December 29, 2014
Ask any kid—or better yet, search your own memory— and you’ll find the most pressing question in the days proceeding Christmas is three one-syllable words:
What’d you get?
I’ve both asked and answered that question hundreds of times in my life (and if I’m honest, I’ll confess to asking and answering it much more now than when I was seven). I think that’s okay. So much is made of how commercial Christmas has become and how secular everything has gotten. Both are valid points. But hey, everyone wants to know when you’ve gotten new stuff.
As for the Coffey household, I’ll say Santa was pretty good to us this year. Some of us would say he was better to us than we deserve. That, too, is okay. What better presents to receive than grace and mercy? Which is pretty much what the world’s presents were on that first Christmas long ago, all wrapped up in bone and flesh and blood.
My son would say we had “a good haul.” A pretty typical response from a pretty average ten-year-old boy. But there’s someone I know who received far more this year, and that’s what I wanted to share.
Many of you know my wife is a teacher. If you have one of those in your life, then you understand my saying that profession could be best described as a thankless one. Lots of work, lots of stress, lots of blame. Sometimes, though, there are those little rays of light that break through an otherwise dour world. One of her co-workers received just that on the last day before Christmas vacation.
This was what a little girl in class delivered to her:
Deciphering a child’s art is an art unto itself. It can often be a tricky thing, even for an experienced teacher. Thankfully, said teacher has spent enough years in a classroom to know just how to coax meaning without offending.
“Tell me about this wonderful picture,” she said.
The girl told her it was the two of them holding hands as they lay upon the playground grass trying to make shapes out of the clouds. The white, winged figure? An angel, of course. It’s a pretty day, she said, but see that swirl of black in the middle on the left side? There’s a bad storm coming. Already, it’s blocking out the sun.
Beautiful, yes? The teacher thought so. My wife thought so. I thought so, too.
But there was more.
As it turned out, the picture was sort of a stocking stuffer—an hors d’oeuvre meant to whet the appetite for the main course to come. The girl pointed to the maroon blob just beneath the angel, which was not a blob at all. It was a special something packaged in a Tootsie-pop wrapper, held in place by a bit of Scotch tape. Then the girl grinned a big, toothy smile.
The teacher peeled the gift from its place beneath the angel, careful not to ball the tape, and unraveled the packaging. The girl shifted her weight from left to right. Stood on her tiptoes. Licked her lips. Kept smiling. If the teacher didn’t hurry up, she thought her student was going to explode with anticipation.
This was what she found inside:
A river rock. Worn smooth by time and polished by two tiny, patient hands.
Cheap, some would say. But not in my town. In my town, we know how hard things have gotten because things have always been that way. There isn’t a classroom in my wife’s school that doesn’t contain children who each day arrive in hand-me-downs so threadbare that they are nearly transparent. Children whose shoes are held together by duct tape. Who are given free lunches because their parents are too poor to feed their children or themselves.
And yet these children still come, every day. They still smile and laugh. They still give out of their hearts and their love, even if it is a rock.
I don’t know what that teacher got for Christmas. She has a husband and grown children who all earn livings. I’m sure she received quite a bit, and rightly so.
But I guarantee you that rock is her favorite of them all.