BillyCoffey.com
BillyCoffey.com

Go Set a Watchman

July 16, 2015  

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 4.58.15 PMI recently wrote a short article for Fox News Opinion concerning the news/controversy surrounding the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

Here’s a link to the story in case you missed it:

Why I See Nothing Wrong with a Flawed Atticus Finch.

 

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Where you belong

July 13, 2015  

uncontacted-footage-thumb-01_article_largeIn January, 2010, satellite pictures of the Amazon rain forest revealed the presence of a hidden community living in three clearings in the Javari Valley, which lies near the Brazil/Peru border. Subsequent flight expeditions over the region confirmed about 200 people lived in the tiny village. Not a big deal, really. Despite notions to the contrary, the Amazon is home to many communities. What set this community apart, however, was that it had never been seen before. Scientists had stumbled upon a tribe of people unknown to the world.

I confess to a geeky side. News stories such as that one rock my world. Imagine that in an age of telescopes that can see into the farthest reaches of the universe and submarines that can reach the very depths of the ocean, there are still entire cultures that have somehow managed to remain hidden in the untrodden places of our fair planet. Cut off from civilization, blissfully ignorant of things like ISIS and presidential elections and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s a storyline straight out of Indiana Jones.

It’s enough to make me giddy.

It’s also enough to make me wonder what happiness they must enjoy. Imagine being able to live life unfettered by nasty things like time and career. You rise with the sun, venture into the jungle to either kill or dig up some breakfast, and eat it in a hammock surrounded by your family and friends. Repeat again for lunch and dinner. Maybe weave a basket or have a dance. Watch the kids play with critters and pets. Make sure the fire has plenty of wood. Go check the crops, then maybe visit your buddy who lives in the next hut to shoot the breeze and engage in a bit of gossip. Watch the sun go down. Go to bed. Do it all again the next day.

No taxes to pay or commutes to endure. No 401k to watch as it shrinks into oblivion. And who cares about gas prices when you’ve never even seen a car? No, the busy world you’ve never seen simply passes you by and leaves you alone. No muss, no fuss, just a hammock and the jungle around you.

I’ll be honest, I envy those people. They don’t know how good they have it.

Regardless of how much I long to chuck it all, fly to the Amazon, and apply for admission into the tribe, it won’t happen. The Brazilian government has a strict policy regarding uncontacted tribes. They are not to be bothered.

But just in case I would get that chance, I could see myself trekking down some forgotten jungle path and coming across the tribal chief, who would invite me to his hut for a little food and a lot of talk. And more than likely, he’d look at me and laugh.

“What are you doing here?” he’d ask. “What, you think WE have it good? Really? Tell you what, you try growing all your food in the jungle. Doesn’t always work, you know. And it’s not like you can just run down to the Food Lion for some chips and dip if the animals and the weather take your crops. Which happens, like, ALL the time.

“You can go hunting. Lots of animals in the jungle to eat. Of course, most of them will just as soon eat YOU. Try stepping on a snake or a spider or running across a panther. Tell me how that goes for you. And you better hope you don’t run into anyone from the tribe down the river, because they’ll just as soon kill you as let you pass.

“Can’t go to the hospital, either. We don’t have one here. We have a doctor of course, and he’s a real smart guy, but in the end the only thing he can do is pray to the gods and give you some plants to eat. Plants don’t cure everything, you know. And the gods…well, let’s just say they do their thing and we do ours. We don’t understand them, we just try to keep them happy.

“Sure, you can stay. You’ll probably live a few more years, most of us make it to 50 or so before we’re so worn out that we drop. That’s assuming you don’t get bitten or eaten or killed, though. Actually, why don’t you just run on back home where you belong.”

At which point I probably would.

And I would take with me this lesson: Life is tough. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you are. We’re all looking for something better, we’re all stressed, we’re all struggling for a little hope.

In a world that seems determined to point out our differences, those are similarities we will always share.

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Beauty from ashes

July 9, 2015  

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 1.11.18 PMThe car exploded without warning on a day this past April, at a stopping center in an area of Baghdad called Al Mansour. Dozens were killed. The market was left charred and in tatters. The air carried a sickening smell of smoke and burnt flesh and the sounds of sorrow and rage and panic, that music of our age.

This is life for a great many people in the world, a daily existence upon which is balanced a need for the basic essentials of food and water, the universal desire for safety and comfort, and the very real possibility that an act as simple as going to the local grocery store may well end in death. People call our time the Digital Age or the Information Age, but there are times it seems more the Fearful Age.

That this bombing occurred somewhere in Baghdad doesn’t really matter. It could have just as easily been London or Paris, Moscow or whatever city is closest to you. The reality is that none of us are truly safe, and it’s been that way for a long while. Unlike my children, I never had to worry about terrorism as a boy. But I do have the memory of hiding beneath my school desk during a nuclear war drill, of glancing up at wads of chewing gum and scribbled names of children long gone and knowing even then how ridiculous it all seemed. As if my tiny school could keep the Russians away. As if a one-inch piece of laminated desktop would save me from death.

But we’ve learned to carry on in spite of it all, haven’t we? We outlasted the Cold War and Saddam and Osama. Chances are we’ll outlast whatever perversion of religion leaks out of the Middle East, too. Iran. China. North Korea. Maybe we’ll even be forced to outlast ourselves. But the shadow of death will still hover over this world as it has hovered since Cain slew Abel, and even in our safest and most quiet moments, we feel that shadow there. We take our children’s hands and tell them to keep close, worry when they don’t, all because of that shadow.

Yet somehow we still prosper. Our children grow on with us, we still find reason to laugh and sing and devote a large measure of our worry to things that don’t matter at all. We adapt to the shadow of death, that rot in the world. We get used to it. Humanity’s ability to accustom itself to all manner of horrible situations to the point where even the worst things become accepted as normal could be our greatest attribute. Without it, how could we have survived this long? And yet that knack for adjusting could also be our worst curse, because it allows evil to continue on unfettered.

I don’t know if that’s what Karim Wasfi was thinking when he heard of the bombing in Al Mansour, but I’m betting it was something close. Because while the dead and grieving were being taken away and the market workers were cleaning up—telling themselves and each other, perhaps, that this day was lost but tomorrow would perhaps be better—Karim Wasfi decided to do something about it. To do something profound. He didn’t reach for a gun, didn’t vow vengeance. He instead dressed in his best suit, reached for his cello, and went to the market. He placed a chair on the burnt ground, and there in the midst of all that carnage and ruin, he played.

One Iraqi said that Karim “is playing music for the souls of the people who died just a few hours ago. I can imagine them listening too, and wondering, ‘Why?’”

You don’t have to be dead to ask that question: Why? It is just as much the call of the living, a single word that has passed through the lips of every person who has drawn breath, one syllable that has both sparked faith and doubt. Why? Why must things be this way? Why is this allowed?

And here’s the answer—I don’t know. You don’t. No one does. We can couch our guesses in religious terms and say God has a plan. We can drown in the shadow of death and call it evidence that there is no plan at all. Either way, the reality remains. Life is merely a string of ever complex questions. The answers, for the most part, only come after.

But that reality doesn’t mean we’re powerless, nor does it take from us the burden of responsibility. We have a task in this life, you and I, and while that task can at times seem pointless and even false, it remains the only task that matters. We are not only to seek out the beauty that remains plentiful and vibrant in our world, but to make that music ourselves and in whatever way best suits us. It is to do as Karim Wasfi did on that April day. To fill the air with hope and love and peace, and to call that the music of our tomorrow.

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A letter to me

July 6, 2015  

image courtesy of photobucket.com

image courtesy of photobucket.com

When helping your parents clean out their attic, it helps if you approach the task as a recovery mission. You aren’t discarding, you’re salvaging. I know this from experience. I did it three weeks ago.

We found the normal things—Christmas decorations long forgotten, toys long neglected, and several items of which no one can remember using, much less purchasing. We found not-so-normal things as well. Like the box of notebooks.

You could say I caught the writing bug early; I was filling notebooks before I understood what words were, drawing pictures of the sun and trees and describing them with an jumble of mismatched and incoherent letters. These, sadly, were not in the box.

The high school stuff was.

Lyrics mostly, as if the words to Skid Row’s “18 and Life” and Cinderella’s “Coming Home” were so moving, so utterly profound, that they warranted preservation for the ages.

There were thoughts as well. Plenty of them, all sopping with the angst and shallowness that define the teenage years. Some were laughable in their naivety—“The suddenness of life is a guarantee the soul is eternal.” Others, to my surprise, weren’t so bad at all—“We have lost much of the language of religion, but little of our longing for a faith in something larger than ourselves.”

Memories, all. Not the false ones either, the ones that are saccharine in the remembering. These were more a mixture of sweet and salty, proof that my recollections were true. Regardless, the decision of whether the box was to be discarded or salvaged was an easy one.

It all went to the junk pile save for a single sheet of paper torn from the notebook on top. The last page, as a matter of fact. Written two days before I graduated.

It was a letter. Not to the me I was then, but to the me I am now.

A portion:

“I don’t know who you are (hard to do that, especially since it’s tough enough knowing who I am). I don’t know what you’re doing, either. But I can make the sort of guess with both that people do when they see a falling star or a discarded eyelash, the sort of guess that has a wish at the end. So I’m guessing you’ve made it. I’m guessing you’re rich and famous and happy, and I’m guessing you’re far away. And I figure as long as I guess and wish those things, I’m going to be okay. Because that means I’ll eventually be you.”

I remembered writing that. It was late at night. I was outside, scribbling in my notebook while watching the stars and sneaking a Marlboro red. I remembered how I felt then—sweet and salty, so it must be true—knowing that part of my life was about to fall away and another was ready to begin.

I was afraid. Afraid of the world and my place in it. And in that fear I wrote that night with a sense of purity and honesty that even now I try to capture each time I reach for pen and paper.

I wrote those words in secrecy, and now, all these years later, I snatched them away in secrecy as well. No one saw me stash that letter into my pocket. I’ve kept it since on the top of my office desk, there and not there, like a sickness hidden from a doctor for fear it is a symptom of something more serious.

“So I’m guessing you’ve made it. I’m guessing you’re rich and famous and happy, and I’m guessing you’re far away. And I figure as long as I guess and wish those things, I’m going to be okay. Because that means I’ll eventually be you.”

I couldn’t let those four sentences go. They weren’t supposed to be disposed. They were supposed to be salvaged. I needed to answer myself.

Today is my birthday. I suppose by some sort of twisted logic, that’s why I waited until now to send a note of my own back in time. After all, birthdays are much like graduations. They are a falling away and a beginning.

So on my porch this morning in front of the mountains and the birds and the rising sun, I wrote this:

“I’m not rich. I’m not famous. And though twenty-five years separate us in time, only five miles separate us in distance. But I’ve found things greater than those, and I’ve become happy in the finding. Because the things you search for as a child are not the things you stumble upon as an adult, and thank God for that.”

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Know their stories

July 2, 2015  

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

I’m over at The High Calling this week talking about my foray into the wonderful world of public speaking, namely the time I stood in front of thirty fourth-graders to talk about writing. To say the experience was interesting would be a vast understatement. It was, however, highly enlightening. For them, I hope. For me, definitely. Won’t you join me there? And don’t forget to bring your sign with you . . .

Know their stories

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