Darkness and light

June 15, 2015  

Eyes in the darkA big part of my duties around the house involves taking care of those things everyone else finds objectionable. Getting rid of any creepy-crawly beyond the size of a fly? My territory. Also most accidental discharges by the dog. I’m the Poop and Pee guy.

I am also, as it turns out, The One Who Gets The Clothes Off The Line When They’ve Been Forgotten And It’s Close To Midnight guy, which is what I’m doing now. It’s a new one for me, and one that never would have happened if my wife hadn’t gotten up a little bit ago and glanced through the window into the backyard.

Can’t leave the clothes on the line, she said. The dew would get them by morning; she’d have to wash them again.

Both of the kids were in bed, though I’ll add that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference if they’d been awake. My daughter is thirteen and my son is eleven (going on twenty), but neither one of them do the dark. Nor, for that matter, does my wife. She said she would be happy to take the clothes off the line. All I had to do was stand guard at the backdoor.

So: me.

She’s standing at the backdoor now. Keeping watch, I suppose. You’re asking what exactly my wife is keeping watch for? Well, I suppose it’s any number of things. Our neighborhood is large (too large, if you’d like my opinion), but our house abuts thirty thousand acres of woods and mountains that served as the inspiration for a place called Happy Hollow in my books. Talk to many around here, they’ll warn you away from those woods at night. There are stories. But aside from tales of ghosts and unknown beasts, there really are things around here that creep in the night and are best left alone. Our neighbors woke one morning not long ago to find a bear on their front porch. I’ve killed too many copperheads in our creek. So, yeah. Maybe that’s why my wife’s standing on the other side of the screen while I take down these clothes.

I told her there’s no need to watch. She knows that. She also knows the dark doesn’t bother me, that in fact I’ve come to find a feeling in it that, while not comfort, is something akin to it. I don’t mind the dark. That’s when I can see the stars.

They’re out here tonight, right over my head. Bits of light tossed into the sky like millions of tiny dice, planets and suns and a band of the Milky Way all keeping time to some celestial music that beats not in the ears but the heart.

Growing up, I learned to pray in the dark. I’d go outside every night and look up at the sky, and if there were stars I’d start talking. If there weren’t, I’d just listen. I learned a lot that way. It’s highly recommended.

Almost done. Half the clothes are off now. I pull the pins away and put the pins in the cloth sack hung on the line, fold each article of clothing and place it in the basket. I’m assuming my wife is telling me to hurry up. I don’t, even though there’s something in the bush nearby. Maybe a possum. Or a rabbit. Too small to be a bear. Could be one of those adolescent Bigfoots I heard about a few weeks ago. Seems a guy was fishing out in the woods and came across an entire family. Swears it, and never mind that he was drunk off his rocker at the time. Probably isn’t one of those in my bush, but I still catch myself wondering what I’d do if it was. Talk about a story.

Speaking of which, I had someone last week ask me why my stories had gotten darker as the years have trundled on. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I suppose they have (The Curse of Crow Hollow will be out in less than two months, and it’s both my best so far and a far, far cry from my first novel), but I can’t really speak as to why that’s the case. I suppose if I had to, I’d say it’s just me getting back to my roots. My kin have long told stories about those caught along the thin line that stretches between worlds, and the darkness that lurks both there and inside the human heart. Besides, it’s light that I really want to write about. Where better to see that light than in a bit of darkness?

And really, we’re all living in a kind of darkness, don’t you think? This great world we inhabit, all the fancy toys we carry with us and all the knowledge we possess, doesn’t change the fact that there are dangers everywhere, hungry things lurking about, and whether it’s cancer or terrorism or crime or simply the slow winding down of life, those things are always close. That’s what makes living such a hard thing, and what makes all of us so courageous.

There, done. The last pair of jeans, the final T shirt. My wife can go to bed now knowing there won’t be any clothes to wash again in the morning. I take the basket and make my way to the porch, casting one last look at all those stars. Pausing to say Thanks, for everything. At the door, I catch a glimpse of two glowing eyes from the bush. And you know what? I say thanks for that, too.

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One unselfish act

June 11, 2015  

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It is a known fact that one of the main reasons why I’m friends with Tommy Fuller is because of what’s in his backyard. I realize this paints me in somewhat of a bad light on the surface. In my defense, though, Tommy is not only aware of this, he’s fine with it. He figures it’s a trade off. One of the main reasons he’s friends with me is because he borrows my golf clubs.
It’s a good deal as far as I’m concerned. Tommy’s a great guy. Even better than that is the fact that he has an open door policy when it comes to his backyard. I can visit any time I like, even if he isn’t there. The kids are welcomed, too. Sometimes we even make an afternoon of it. They can jump on his trampoline, and I can climb his oak tree.

Tommy has one of the biggest back yards in town with THE nicest tree smack in the middle of it. Tall and full, and the limbs are spaced just far enough apart to let through the perfect amount of sunlight. Home to squirrels and robins and friendly bugs. It’s the sort of tree that belongs more in a Disneyland attraction than a redneck’s backyard.

The farm has been in the Fuller family for generations, and it’s one of the oldest in the area. Tommy’s grandfather and father were both raised there, as was he. When his mother passed away ten years ago, he moved in and got control of the property. And when the time comes, Tommy will pass the torch onto one of his sons. In the Fuller family, the circle never ends.

There aren’t many properties around here that carry charm like that anymore. Most of the farmers in town have sold their acres of fields and forest to developers, giving in to the promise of a life of comfort rather than sweat. Tommy won’t bow to that false promise. There will be no subdivisions on his land. Not because his principles are too strong or his faith too unwavering, but because of that tree.

Because it is quite literally a family one.

Look on the back side and you can see the faint outlines of his father’s pledge to his mother back when they were mere boyfriend and girlfriend. BF Loves KT, it says. Tommy says his mother and father would sit beneath that tree often during their courtship, resting in the shade of their love.

And on the other side are the marks Tommy carved to his own bride to be, pledged in wood on the night they became engaged.

In the upper reaches of the oak is a tree house that Tommy built for his boys. Though worn, it’s still in good shape. He sees his future grandchildren playing pirate there.

But the best part? The best part isn’t the tree, It’s the stone plaque beside it.

03 MAY 1901, it says.

According to Tommy, his great grandfather planted that tree himself on a calm spring afternoon. Dug the hole, gently placed the seedling inside, then covered and watered it. And after that he stuck his shovel in the ground and just smiled. Tommy remembers his grandfather saying that it was a strange smile, part sadness and part joy. The sort of smile a dying man wears. Tommy doesn’t know what was wrong with his great grandfather, just that he didn’t have much longer. And he didn’t. If you drove over to the church nearby you would see that the date of his death and the date the tree was planted are less than a month apart.

It’s amazing that something so small and fragile could grow into something so large and strong. But love is like that. Hope, too. That’s what I think about when I sit in that tree.

And I also think about this—on a calm spring afternoon more than a century ago, a dying man’s last act was to plant something he would never be able to see grow. He would never get to rest in its shade or climb its branches. He would never get to enjoy it, but he planted it anyway. Not for himself, but for those who would come afterward.

I like that idea.

According to some, there is no such thing as an unselfish act. But this comes close. And I think that for all the lofty goals the human spirit can strive to accomplish, this is the most noble—that we spend our days in pursuit of something that will outlive us. That we plant seeds destined to bless not only ourselves, but generations.

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Errant negotiations

June 8, 2015  

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My children are arguing.

Not exactly breaking news, of course. Kids fight. It’s one of those givens in life that are about as surprising as the sun rising in the morning or a hot day in July. Blame it on summer vacation. I think they’re just tired of each other.

I’m not sure what caused the conflict; I just got home from work and caught the tail end of it. Something to do with Legos, from what I gather. Or an errant water balloon. One of those. Or maybe it was something else all together. You never can tell with kids. Kids can argue about anything.

I get caught up to speed by my wife, who doesn’t really know what the conflict is about herself. She was in the kitchen fixing dinner at the time. There was just a thump and a scream, followed by yells and accusations. That was enough for her. She sent both of the kids to their rooms to calm down.

I walk down the hallway to their bedrooms to say hello and gauge the amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth and find the Go To Your Room rule broken. My son is in my daughter’s room. She’s sitting Indian-style on the bed. He stands in front of her. Both are talking. Each have their arms crossed.

These are some serious negotiations, which is why I don’t barge in, make a Daddy Arrest, and charge them with not abiding by their mother’s wishes. It isn’t often that I have the opportunity to listen in on my children’s discussions. More often then not, they clamp up as soon as I enter the room and offer little more than, “Yes, Daddy?” I get plenty of opportunities to learn about what they think and believe in my conversations with them, but most times that seems like only half the story. What you think and say when your father or mother is around is often quite different than when it’s just you and a sibling in the room.

So I put my daughter’s bedroom wall between us and listen.

“I didn’t hit you on purpose,” my son says.

“Yes you did,” says my daughter. “You liked it. I saw it in your eyes.”

“You can’t see in my eyes. And you should have gotten out of my way.”

“I didn’t want to. It’s MY house too, you know.”

I’m not going to play anymore until you say you’re sorry.”

“Well I’M not going to play anymore until YOU say YOU’RE sorry.”

“All I was trying to do was get a Lego.”

“Well all I was trying to do is get a Lego, too.”

And on. And on and on.

Rather than interrupt, I decide to let them be. My kids will work this out, they always do. And then things will be fine until the next skirmish. I suspect my home isn’t much different than any other in that peaceful times are merely those few quiet days between wars of both opinion and blame.

In the meantime, I retire to the television and the evening news. Which, by the way, is much the same news as yesterday and the day before. Still the arguing, still the blaming. The system is broken, they say. I’m inclined to agree. Especially since the people who made the system are broken as well.

A commercial appears, one of those thirty-second spots about scooters old folk can ride around in to make themselves feel useful again (free cup holder included!).

The news is back, this time given by a pretty blond rather than a non-pretty man, as if bad news could seem a little better if she is the one telling it. She wonders aloud how we fix the problems in Washington, then poses the question to an educated man in a pair of thick glasses.

That’s when I turn the television off. I don’t need to listen to a pretty blond or an educated man to know how to fix things. I already know fixing them is pretty much impossible.

Because in the end, we’ll always prefer arguing rather than talking.

And we’ll always choose stubbornness over compromise.

We’ll always strive to reinforce our own opinions rather than admit those opinions might be wrong.

Call me pessimistic, that’s just how I see it.

Because our politicians really are representative of us all, if not in political philosophy than in brokenness.

Which means the adults we send to Washington aren’t really all that different than the kids we send to their rooms.

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A history of violence

June 3, 2015  

skull picThere is a cave system in the Atapuerca Mountains of Spain that contains a bit known as Sima de los Huesos — “Pit of the Bones.” I’m sure it looks as wonderful as it sounds. Researchers and paleontologists have been combing through the pit, doing what researchers and paleontologists do. So far, they’ve discovered twenty-eight sets of remains dating back nearly half a million years. One particular set of remains stands out: the skull of a young adult, found in fifty-two pieces. Scientists pieced the skull back together and discovered something unexpected—two cracks, just above the left eye. The evidence was plain enough and old enough to define the skull as “the earliest case of deliberate, lethal interpersonal aggression in the hominin fossil record.”

In other words, scientists have dug up the oldest murder victim in history.

The person’s injuries (the researchers were unable to determine if the skull belonged to a male or female) seem the result of two brutal blows, each from a slightly different angle but each more than capable of puncturing the brain, the murder weapon most likely being a spear or an axe. We’ll never know which; the skull—or what is left of it—has been at the bottom of a forty-foot shaft for 4,300 centuries. Dropped there by either family or the murderer(s), creating at once both the earliest known funeral and the earliest known crime scene.

Think about that for a minute. Being murdered like that and then dumped in a hole, forgotten for hundreds of thousands of years. No name, no story, at least none we can know. And lest you fool yourself into thinking this sort of thing really doesn’t matter at all, I’ll remind you this person had a father, a mother, likely siblings. He or she may have been in love, may have been married, may have even had children of his or her own. The brain encased in this broken skull was just like ours, capable of higher thought and language. It could ponder and wonder. It knew love and fear.

I bet he had dreams that weren’t so different from our own, a nice place to live, some sort of comfort, peace. I’d wager she had thoughts of growing old, plans for the future. Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be. Somehow, someway, whether his fault or hers or whether another’s, death came with horrific violence.

Sad, if you ask me. No matter who it is or how long it’s been.

But here’s the thing that stuck most with me: we’ve been doing this sort of thing to each other for a very long while. We’ve been bashing skulls and chopping off limbs and taking lives since the beginning. We like to think of ourselves as evolved, sophisticated, mature. We’re not, at least not deep down. Deep down we’re still savages, savages whose better natures are constantly pushed aside for what we want, when we want, and exactly how we want it. If we could somehow interview the person responsible for the two holes in this skull, my guess is he or she would sound very much like anyone on the news: “It’s not my fault.” “They deserved it.” “I couldn’t help myself.”

We’ve come a long way in the last 430,000 years. Made great strides, done amazing things. In that time we’ve mastered wind and fire and water, but not ourselves. We’ve plumbed ocean depths and the tallest mountains, but we have yet to discover just how low or high we can all reach. Sometimes, I wonder if we ever will.

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The poor folk

June 2, 2015  

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I ask Larry if he’s still watching over the poor folk every time I see him, and every time he says yes. He says yes and then offers me one of those nods that are accompanied by pursed lips. You know, the kind of expression that means it’s tough to look but you have to anyway. Someone’s got to watch over them, Larry says, and it might as well be him. Especially since he was poor once.

He’ll tell me he still watches over them from the same place, right across the river from the big building where they like to gather. Not a pretty sight—Larry will tell me that too, and always—but one worth watching nonetheless, if only for the education the sight provides. “There but for the grace of God,” he’ll say, and then he’ll nod and purse his lips again.

He says there have been times in the past when he’s taken the bridge across the river and gone to see them. Or tried. The poor folk will sometimes entertain Larry’s presence for a while. He was after all one of them once, and the poor folk are mannerly on the outside even if they are lost inward. They’ll say hello and how-you-doing and come-on-in. Larry will hello them back and say he’s fine, just fine. But he never goes in the big building. He’s been in there too many times in his life, he’ll tell me, and he’s seen all there is to be seen. I guess that’s true enough, but sometimes I think Larry’s afraid he’ll catch the poor again, like it’s some sort of communicable disease spread by contact.

Better than driving across the bridge to say hello is to stay on the other side of the river and watch. That’s what he tells me. It’s sort of a warning, though it’s one I don’t need. To be honest, I don’t have much of a desire to be around the poor folk. I like it where I am, right here with Larry and the rich people. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll catch poor, too. Maybe deep down I think they’ll sneeze on me.

Larry says he has God to thank for being rich now, and when he says this he won’t nod and purse his lips. He’s much more apt to pat the rust spot on his old truck—a ’95 Ford from down at the local car lot, which was a steal at $5,000—or take off his greasy cap as a sign of respect for invoking the Almighty. Yesir, Larry will say, God stripped away all of his poor and made him rich. I guess that’s nothing new in a time when a lot of people think God’s sole purpose in the universe is to shower down hundred dollar bills on everyone who’s washed in the blood of the Lamb.

Sometimes I’ll ask him if the people who gather at the big building across the river are all poor. Surely there are a few rich ones mixed in. He’ll tell me yes, there are a few rich ones, but they’re rare. Once he said I’d just as soon go in the big building looking for a unicorn as I would a rich person. I laughed at that. I think it was the way he’d said it—“Yooney-corn.”

Still, curiosity kicked in. I had to find out for myself.

I drove up to the big building one town over, careful to park across the river as Larry suggested. Lines of cars filled the parking lot—from my vantage point, I saw seven Mercedes, half a dozen BMWs, and three Jaguars. I watched patrons adorned in fancy dresses and pressed suits go in for dinner, watched the golf and tennis players come out.

Larry’s poor folk.

He was once one of them (it was the Mercedes and the golf for Larry, the fancy dress for his wife, and the tennis for his kids). They were at the country club five days a week and sometimes six, depending on how busy they all were. He’ll say he swore he was rich. But then came the recession followed by the job loss, and suddenly the Mercedes was gone (replaced by the truck, a steal at five grand) and so was the country club.

That’s when God showed Larry that what he thought was riches was really poverty. That’s when Larry found that wealth is better measured in love and family and simple things.

Larry says he never knew how poor he was because all that money got in the way. Now he says he’s the richest man in the county.

I think he might be right.

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