October 13, 2014
As hard as it is for someone like me to believe, there are people who would have you believe they do not like stories. They will say they have no time for books, that they are too boring and require too much effort. They will say they have no need for the imaginary things, characters born of thought rather than flesh or places conjured rather than built. It is reality in which they are most interested. So they would have you believe. In the real world, there is little time for fairy tales. Living is serious business, stories are definitely not. Those who waste their time in tales are the ones who fall behind. They are the ones who lose the game.
I suppose that means I am losing at best. At worst, I am contributing to the delinquency of otherwise good and responsible human beings. Not only do I enjoy reading stories, I enjoy writing them. I enjoy seeking them out. And what I’ve found in my seeking is something those interested in the serious business of living would perhaps find very disconcerting—stories are everywhere. They are buried in every person we meet and every conversation we overhear. They are present in the pictures that adorn our walls and the music that fills our ears. They wait in every rock and puff of wind. In everything there is a beginning, middle, and end, and nestled in the spaces between those three legs of every journey lies all the magic and knowledge any of us care to seek. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” I believe finer words have never been spoken.
There’s more to Rukeyser’s maxim than poetic truth, however. There’s a deeper meaning as well. Whether you call yourself a writer or a reader or an unbeliever in both, the truth is that you a storyteller. That fact cannot be ignored. It cannot be brushed aside. And most of all, it cannot be denied. You are the chronicler of your own tale. Your every day is but one small chapter in the larger story of your life, some part of the beginning or the middle or the end, written upon pages granted by whatever God or random chance you ascribe meaning to. Pages bound together by time itself, filled with your minutes and hours.
Perhaps that sounds a little too metaphysical for the seriously-minded. They may disagree with my notion. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t change a thing. Good people can stand on either side of a truth, but that doesn’t alter where that truth lies or what that truth means. We can deny that our lives are a story, but that will make our story one of renunciation. We can choose not to respect our place as authors of our own accounts, but that will make our accounts ones of failure. Do you see? There is no escaping it. You have no choice but to write your story, just as you have no choice but to live your life.
So I say live it for all it’s worth. I say wring every bit of beauty and truth from it. Let is drip down your hands and arms. Let it pour into your mouth and quench your every thirst. Bore down into your every moment and mine the gold you find. Scribble and scrawl on your pages. Write furious and true. Do not waste your days. Time is not a flat circle, it is an arrow that stretches from now into eternity. There is where you should look, on to that final chapter, because God put our eyes in front of us so we can see where we’re going, not where we’ve been. Whether quiet literary or screaming thriller, lustful romance or heartbreaking tragedy, bawdy comedy or uplifting inspirational, when all is finished and the final period is put to the last sentence on the end page, your life in this world will stand for something. Your tale will be set down, and that is what you will be remembered by.
October 9, 2014
I try to schedule field trips into my writing life as often as possible. Sitting at a desk and staring at a sheet of paper can dull the senses. It contracts you. The Out There gets lost in all of the In Here. It’s nice to get out every once in a while and wander about the world.
That’s how I found Archie’s store. Because when you are driving down a lonely country road and you happen across a dilapidated building masquerading as an antiques store and the sign on the marquee says Dead People’s Junk, you have to stop and look. You just do. Very often the places that seem too good to be true are true after all.
The creaky wooden door finally gave way with a hard push, ringing the bell that sat suspended over the archway. The old man behind the counter—“Name’s Archie,” he said, and then added, “You break it, you buy it, even if t’ain’t worth nuthin’”—offered me both a Coke and the general layout of the building. “Furniture’s in the back. Art—and I use that term loosely—is to the right. Guns are over by the far wall.”
I sipped and walked, letting my mind wander. Antiques are such because of their age and their scars. They have endured through the years, survived countless moves and deaths and threats of the landfill. And it is because they have endured that they are all rich in story. Antiques are a form of living history.
That’s what I was after in the land of Dead People’s Junk. The stories.
Like the kitchen table that sat stately and dignified in the corner of the back room. Solid oak, with the worn shine of countless years of meals and gatherings. The price tag made me wince and whistle a long exhale. 1927 was written on the tag beneath the dollar amount, as if to justify the value. I took a step back. This was not something I was interested in breaking.
But still, a part of me felt the price would be more than satisfactory if the story of the table was included along with the chairs and the center leaf. Two years after it was built, the stock market crashed. Then Hitler rose. The Japanese attacked. The bomb was dropped. Kennedy was shot. Interspersed between those were times both hard and soft, the ebbs and flows of the great tide that was life. Who had sat at that table through the years? What family had broken bread there? What joys did they share, and what sorrows? To me, those answers—those possibilities—were worth more than the quality of the construction or the grain of the wood.
I exercised my mind in that manner for about an hour, moving through the crowded aisles of castoff belongings. There was a rocking horse I imagined once belonged to a small boy who grew up to be deathly afraid of horses after taking a tumble from that wooden substitution on one long ago Sunday afternoon. A desk where a young lady once sat to write a Dear John letter to her boyfriend at war. An opulent set of china—Never Used, said the tag—that was an expensive wedding gift to a couple who chose a simple life over the extravagant lives of their parents.
I roamed and touched nearly every surface of every object, listening. I thought about the sign out by the road and wondered if that had been Archie’s idea. I wanted to ask him. But by the time I made it back around, he was asleep in his chair. His half-finished bottle of Coke sat by the cash register—an antique in itself. Orange crumbs from the pack of crackers he’d snacked on littered the front of his shirt.
I managed to leave without waking him and pointed my truck toward home. I was satisfied. In my opinion, no better field trip could be had.
But I thought about that sign again as I passed it and decided it was all wrong. That was not Dead People’s Junk. Archie’s store may have been filled with remnants of the past, but they also spoke to our shared future.
To a time when perhaps our own dining room tables will be stuck in the corner, and when people will come and touch them and wonder. That brings me a great deal of comfort. Because we leave more than our belongings to this world when we pass on to the next.
We leave our stories, too.
October 6, 2014
Parenting is all about doing your best to narrow the wide gulf between you and your children, which is much more difficult than it sounds. Often it seems as if your side of the gulf is higher than your children’s, or vice versa. You both speak a different language and have different priorities. Communication, then, can at times be an exercise in frustration and futility. It’s no wonder entire nations can’t get along, what with families struggling to do the same.
Where I get tripped up with my own kids sometimes is the belief that the flow of information can only flow in one direction—me to them. Which makes sense. I’m older and more experienced in the ways of the world. I’ve been where they are. They can’t say the same about me. And as Daddy, it’s my job to pass on to them what little bits of wisdom I can find.
Lately, it’s been the eternal.
As in, keep your minds on what isn’t temporary. Things like good fortune and happiness will sometimes be there and sometimes not, so it’s best to enjoy them while you can but not hang onto them too tightly. It’s a difficult point to get across to my children; their lives are bombarded by the temporary. It’s not just that their worries and fears revolve around things that won’t matter in the end, their attention revolves around them, too.
Better, I’ve told them, to focus on the things that last. That you can depend on being there.
I never bothered to question the wisdom of this, mostly because I didn’t think I had to. It was self-evident. Common sense.
My children seemed to grasp this philosophy well enough, at least in the God sense. It made sense to them that God will always be there, so He’s the one they should count on. Next came family, then came others. Yes! That’s Daddy preachin’.
I thought I was doing a good job until I thought maybe I wasn’t. Because I slowly began to realize that a lot of the things that make my children happiest are the ones that come and go.
Over the past year, I’ve seen their eyes light up as a shooting star fell over their heads.
I’ve seen them giggle and chase fireflies.
Seen them ooh and ahh over fireworks.
I’ve seen them pass precious hours lying in the backyard grass and staring at clouds, trying to decide which is a dog and which is a lollipop. They’ve caught snowflakes on their tongues. Watched deer graze.
None of these things last. A shooting star passes in seconds, and fireflies blink in and out in an instant. Fireworks pop and glow and then die into a black night. Clouds pass. The snow falls and then melts. The deer fill their stomachs and retreat back into the woods.
And yet these are the moments they seem to cherish, just as much as God and family.
I’ve considered asking them why this is so. I haven’t. I think it’s one of those things they would have a hard time explaining to someone like me, who’s still trying to figure some things out.
But I think I know the answer without having to ask. I think this is how they praise God. They appreciate the eternal by embracing the momentary. Those little moments that pass so quickly and may never come our way again aren’t to be shunned, they’re to be held tight.
Maybe this is just another case of my kids being mostly right and me being kind of wrong. The eternal is important, no doubt about it. But maybe the temporary is too, if for no other reason than because it doesn’t last.
October 3, 2014
He sits by himself at a small table in the back of the lunchroom. Chin in his hand, eyes, down. His fingers flick at discarded bits of the day’s pepperoni pizza that were missed by the lunch lady’s dishrag. The afternoon sun filters through tiny handprints on the windows, making the grass stains on his too-short jeans glow a deep emerald.
He sees me as I walk in—there’s something about a door opening that makes even the meekest of us look up in reflex—and turns aside. Today is Friday, and I told him I would need an answer by the end of the week. But his back is turned away and his body is folded in upon himself to make him as small as possible, and I think no. No, he still doesn’t know.
Waiting for my kids in the school cafeteria gives me a sense of connectedness to a part of their lives I mostly miss. I get to see where they eat, how they interact with others, what kinds of people surround them. And I get to see other kids, too.
Kids like Kevin. The one alone at the small table in the back.
He’s there every day, waiting for someone to pick him up and trying to stay hidden until they do. I said hello to him Monday afternoon. I was a bit early that day, and there was no one else to talk to. I was counting on a one-sided conversation. Kids like Kevin—and there seems to be many of them today, yes?—desire nothing but the next moment, to continue on, regardless of the unnamable weight they bear. I didn’t know what Kevin’s was (and I still don’t), but I knew it was there. I could feel it.
So I said hello. Sat down beside him at the small table and flicked a bit of food away—it was French fries that day—and waited for him to talk. It took prodding, but he did. General stuff. Nothing of home. Kids like Kevin, with their unnamable weights and downcast eyes, don’t talk much of home.
He’d been in trouble that day. Kevin showed me the white slip of paper his mama had to sign. Daydreaming, the note said. I told him I daydreamed a lot and that daydreaming was fun, but school was important.
“No it isn’t,” he said.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked him.
“Come on,” I said. “You have to want to do something.”
“When I was your age, I wanted to be an astronaut. Didn’t work out, but I still look at the stars a lot.”
Kevin said nothing.
“Tell you what, I’ll be back on Friday. You think about it and let me know then. Deal?”
He said he’d try. The kids came and we left. I waved to Kevin as we went out the door. He didn’t wave back.
And now, he’s ignoring me.
“Hey Kevin,” I say.
“Been doing any thinking about what I asked?”
His eyes said yes. I pulled a chair up to the table and sat. My mind tried to think of something little Kevin wanted to be. Maybe an astronaut, like I wanted once upon a time. Or President, though I figured there weren’t many kids nowadays who wanted to grow up to be that. Maybe a scientist.
“I guess I’m going to work at Little Caesar’s like my mom.”
“That’s all you want to do?” I ask him. “I mean, that’s great if that’s all you want to do. But…that’s all you want to do?”
He lowers his head to find something to flick on the table. “That’s all I can do,” he says.
“I don’t believe that,” I tell him, and Kevin shrugs.
The kids are on their way. I say goodbye to Kevin and leave him at the table. I don’t know when someone will pick him up, don’t know when I’ll see him again. But I know I’ll worry about him. A boy like that, a boy that young, should see this world as one of possibility and magic. His sights should be set higher than where they are. He should believe in himself more.
But I wonder if we’ve reached that point where we no longer inspire our children to become more than ourselves. If we see them as mere carbon copies, destined to make our own mistakes and suffer through our own failures.
And if we’ve accepted the lie that says greatness in life is reserved for all but shy boys in too-small jeans who sit alone at the lunchroom table.
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.