March 9, 2015I spent much of last Friday at the hospital with my son, who decided to use his bicycle as an airplane. Long story short, he needed stitches. Multiple stitches. So off we went, him to be sewn up and me to pass the time in the waiting room.
As I am not a fan of neither feeling ucky nor being poked and prodded, hospitals rank just above funeral homes on my list of Places I Wish Not To Go. It isn’t the germs that bother me, not the echoes of coughs or the abundance of wheel chairs and gurneys. It’s the despair, I think. That thick dark cloud of inevitability that seems to hang over everyone and everything. Going to the hospital makes me confront the fragility of life. That’s something I’d rather not consider.
I brought enough work to keep my mind off things. I knew the waiting area had a television, but the possibility of watching Sportscenter all morning quickly evaporated when I was told the only channel offered was HGTV (according to the nice old lady with the clipboard, anything else may be construed as “controversial.”) I had a notebook—1,000 words a day every day is what I was taught, even when you’re sitting in a hospital—and my i-Pod—the new Trace Adkins album? Gold.
I was ready, oh yes I was. The only pondering of life and death that day would come from my characters rather than myself. Yes sir, I was going to mind my own business.
The only thing I didn’t take into account was that there would be other people in need of the sort of modern medical technology that only the local hospital’s radiology department could provide. Though the waiting room was relatively empty when we arrived, by the time my son’s name was called, it was nearly full. And five minutes later, I had company.
The woman who sat down beside me with the crutches looked eighty but swore she wasn’t a day over fifty-seven. We exchanged hellos and I resumed my scribbling. She asked what I was doing. I said work (never say you’re a writer, I was taught that as well). She nodded and leafed through a ten-month-old magazine for exactly thirty seconds, at which time she sat it back down on the wooden table between us and asked what was wrong with me.
“I don’t think you’d have the time,” I joked.
She chuckled and touched my arm—eighty-year-old women who swear they’re not a day over fifty-seven love to touch arms—and said, “I mean what brings you here?”
“My son’s getting some stitches,” I told her. “You?”
She tapped the crutches and then felt her leg. “Busted myself. Fell down the stairs. I blame the cat.”
“Cats are evil,” I said.
She gave me a knowing smile.
“Cats are not evil,” said the woman across from us. A sling was wrapped around her neck which made her left arm form an L. She looked as though she were leaning on an invisible fence post. “I have three, and they’re darlings.”
“Bet your cat did that to your arm,” I said.
“Nope. I fell out of a wheelbarrow.”
“Pardon?” the woman beside me said.
“Yep, wheelbarrow.” She looked down at her arm and up to us. The look on her face was a mix of embarrassment and pride. “My son said I was too chicken to let him push me down the hill in it. Guess I showed him, huh?”
“Guess so,” I said.
The man to her left had been listening this whole time under the guise of being immersed in his sports magazine. I doubt any of us thought he was actually reading it. Hard to do with a neck brace.
“I did that once,” he said. “Made it down our hill just fine. Shut that cocky son of mine’s mouth up, sure enough. I don’t take chances anymore, though.”
“What happened to you?” the old lady beside me asked.
“This?” He pointed to the brace, just in case she were asking of anything else. “I got up off the couch. Seriously. All I did. Felt something pull, just…pop goes the weasel.”
I never got any writing done. It was better to sit and talk, I think. Better to be reminded of the fragility of life, that strange thing that seems so hard but is instead so soft. I was reminded of just how clumsy we all are and how we can get hurt even when we take no chances.
Because our existence is but a thin strip of breath upon which we teeter and totter and, eventually, will tumble off.
March 5, 2015
Sitting beside me as I write this is a robin’s nest. Dislodged by a recent gust of wind, it tumbled from the oak tree in my backyard and was caught in a pillowy blanket of fresh snow, where it was picked up by me.
The finding of the nest did not catch me by surprise. I knew the nest was there and that it would soon not be. I am generally well educated on the goings on of the winged and furred creatures who inhabit my tiny bit of Earth. We coexist well, them and I. Their job as tenants is to remind me of the world I sometimes neglect to consider. My job as caretaker is to feed and water them as best I can. And, as a side benefit, to name them whatever I think is most fitting.
The robin who resided in my oak tree was named Harriet. How I arrived at that particular moniker escapes me and I suppose doesn’t matter. What does matter, however, is that Harriet was my favorite. The rabbits and squirrels and blue jays and cardinals were all fine in their own way, of course. But Harriet was my bud.
She was my security system in the event the neighbor’s cat decided to snoop around for a quick meal. She was the perfect mother to the four robinettes she hatched. And she sang. Every morning and every evening, regardless of weather. Even after the worst of storms, when the rains poured and the thunder cracked and the winds whipped, she sang.
I envied Harriet and her penchant for singing regardless. And when the weather turned cold and she sought her refuge in warmer climates, I missed her too.
And now all I have left is this nest to ponder.
An amazing piece of workmanship, this nest. Bits of string, feathers, dead flowers, twigs, and dried grass woven into a perfect circle, with a smooth layer of dried mud on the inside.
The resulting combination is protective, comfortable, and a wonder to behold. Harriet likely took between two and six days to construct her home and made about a hundred and eighty trips to gather the necessary materials. She may live up to a dozen years and build two dozen nests. I like to think this one was among her finest.
Scientists have taken much interest in this facet of bird behavior. They’ve even come up with a fancy name for it: Caliology, the study of birds’ nests. Artists and poets have found bird nests to be a fertile subject matter. During the 2008 Olympic games, when the Chinese erected the largest steel structure in the world to serve as center stage, it was built in the shape of a bird nest.
Why all this interest? Maybe because of its inherent perfection. You cannot make a better bird nest. The form and function cannot be improved upon. Even more astounding is that Harriet built this nest without any education. Where to build it and with what and how were all pre-programmed into her brain. No experience was necessary. And though my brain protests the possibility, I know that this flawless creation of half craftsmanship and half art is not unique. It is instead replicated exactly in every other robin’s nest in every other tree.
Instinct, the scientists say.
We humans are lacking in the instinct area, at least as far as building things goes. In fact, some sociologists claim that we have no instincts at all. I’m not so sure that’s true. I am sure, however, that things do not come so natural to me. I must learn through an abundance of trials and many errors. My education comes through doing and failing and doing again, whether it be as simple as fixing the sink or as complicated as living my life. Little seems to be pre-programmed into my brain. When it comes to many things, I am blind and deaf and plenty dumb.
I said I envied Harriet for her singing. The truth, though, is that I am tempted to envy much more. How nice it would be to find perfection at the first try. To know beforehand that success is a given.
That I am destined to struggle and stumble and fail sometimes prods me into thinking I am less.
What do you think? Would you rather be a Harriet and get it right every time? Or is there much to be said for trying and failing and trying again?
March 3, 2015
There are stories I found and stories that have found me. As I sat at the small table outside the local coffee shop, I decided this was a story that found me. And I’m glad it did. I was also glad I was paying enough attention to see it, because it almost passed right by me.
The principal character was your stereotypical little old lady. Seventy-ish. Gray hair and a neatly pressed dress that was the sort of yellow that said Hello Spring! Making her way down the sidewalk in front of me.
The years had not been so kind to her, I noticed. The stoop in her posture gave the appearance that she was about to fall headfirst into the pavement. It was an accident waiting to happen that may have only been averted by the slight limp in her right leg. Yet she managed to not only make her way, but to do so with a smile on her lips and a heartfelt “Good morning!” to anyone in her path.
She would pause in her walk just long enough to offer one of those helloes and to look at the parking meters evenly spaced to her left. The distractions of both people and technology were enough to guarantee added minutes—and quite possibly hours, I considered—to her journey from wherever she came from to wherever she was going. And yet the thought crossed my mind that this was a person unconcerned with neither distance nor time. The destination wouldn’t matter if no enjoyment was had along the way.
She jumped when she came upon the third parking meter and looked around as if some great catastrophe was about to occur. Then she squared up in front of it like an old West gunslinger ready to draw. Instead of a six shooter, out came a coin. Into the meter it went. She waited for the click that guaranteed more time, patted the machine on the side like she would her grandson’s face, and walked on.
Next down the line was a young lady who had walked out of the courthouse not twenty minutes earlier. I had seen the yellow sheet of paper she was carrying and could only assume what was written on it constituted much more bad than good. She slumped against a newspaper box and lit a cigarette, then watched her exhale float up and disappear, no doubt wishing her troubles would do the same. There she had stood ever since, waiting for the miracle of either a better life or a quicker death.
The little old lady paused beside her and spoke. I couldn’t hear what was said and so tried to convince myself it didn’t matter. I had the feeling they were simple words and not profound. A comment about the beautiful day, perhaps, or maybe a short hello.
Regardless, a few moments later the old lady waved and left, continuing her curvy path toward me. The young lady watched her go and finished her smoke.
And then something curious happened.
Just as she stepped on the remains of her cigarette, the young lady smiled. A big, toothy smile. The best sort of smile.
“Good morning, young man,” the old lady said as she passed.
“Good morning, ma’am,” I answered.
She continued on, eyes forward and not back, content to watch what was around her rather than behind. Which was a tragedy, really. Because not only did that nice old lady miss the smile she put on that young girl’s face, she also missed a young man’s reaction when he sprinted out of a nearby shop sure he would find a ticket on the windshield of his car, but confused to find instead plenty of extra time left on his meter.
Yes. Quite a tragedy. Life was full of tragedies, I thought. Like the misfortune of hurrying or the heartbreak of circumstance.
But at that moment I realized what may be the biggest tragedy of all—that we can always see the effect of this world upon us, but rarely the effect of us upon the world.
February 26, 2015
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.
February 23, 2015
I’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.