Karen Spears Zacharias is one of my favorite people in the world.
I see him by the steps as I pull up. Standing there, staring at the door. He’s still there when I park, still there as I climb out of my truck with shopping list in hand. Still there when I sidle up beside him.
“Hey Charlie,” I say.
He turns and looks at me. “Hey.”
“Oh,” he says, “just waitin’.”
“Uh-huh,” I answer.
I decide not to say anything else. I know what might happen if I do, and I know what might happen after that. Because Charlie is one of those people who can start a conversation in the real world and finish it somewhere in the Twilight Zone.
But then I figure what the heck, I have some time to kill.
“You know,” I say, “they’re not gonna bring your groceries out to you. You gotta go in and get them yourself.”
Charlie nods. “Yep,” he says. “I’ll be going in directly. Just gotta wait for it to leave.”
“Gotta wait for what to leave?”
Charlie points to the flying speck of something in front of the door and says, “That.”
I squint my eyes and stare ahead, trying to figure out what I’m looking at. After careful consideration, I decide it’s a bumblebee.
“You’re not going in because there’s a bee in your way?” I ask.
“Yep.” Then he says, “Nope,” just in case he got his words mixed up.
The door swooshes open then as an older woman rolls her grocery cart out, oblivious to the certain death that hovered over her. Charlie winces as she walks past, exhaling only after she was clear of the danger zone.
“You allergic to bees, Charlie?”
I nod, trying to find the right words to ask him what I need to ask him next. “You, um…you ain’t, you know…afraid of them, are you?”
I nod again. “Okay, well want me to go get your beer?”
I don’t know for sure that Charlie is here for his beer. He might be low on something else, maybe hamburger or peanut butter or ice cream, because Charlie loves his ice cream. But he loves his beer even more, and I have a feeling that his shaky right hand isn’t completely due to the bee.
“Nah,” he says. “I’ll go. I got the time to wait. Just don’t wanna get stung.”
It’s then that I realized Charlie really is afraid. I’m not convinced that is a bad thing, though. No one likes getting stung by a bee. It hurts. Everyone knows that.
More than that, I realize people do this sort of thing all the time. Myself included. We all eventually realize not just where we were, but also where we want to be. And we realize there is usually some sort of Bad blocking the way. It could be a rejection slip or an unreturned phone call. Could be nerves or insecurity. Could even be the prospect of success after years of failure.
Regardless of what it is, that’s what’s floating between you and it. Between where you are and where you want to go.
The size of what’s blocking your way doesn’t matter either, because the fact of the matter is this—there is risk involved in proceeding further. You could fall. You could fail. You could be disappointed.
You could get stung.
And that hurts. Everyone knows that.
The alternative, of course, is to stay where you are. With practice and dedication you may convince yourself that you’ve gotten this far, which is further than some and maybe even most. That might be good enough. And you might even begin to believe that holding onto the prospect of what you could have done will be good enough.
I could have been a writer. Or a teacher. Or a nurse. I could have gone to school. I could have had that job or that career. But there was this Bad between me and it and, well, things just didn’t work out.
But you know what? That never works.
I know from experience that Could Have is just the same as Never Did.
“I’m gonna go in, Charlie,” I say. Then I look at him. “You know that bee’s gonna fly right out of my way, right? Because I’m bigger than the bee.”
I leave him there at the door and pick up the few things on my list. Charlie’s still standing there when I head back to my truck.
“Don’t want to get stung,” he says again.
“I know,” I answer.
The big news here in the county is the young girl gone missing. The picture I’ve seen in the paper shows her smiling, happy, her head cocked a bit to the side so her long hair spills. She disappeared a little over a week ago. Police traced her cell phone to northern Virginia until it was turned off. Her Facebook account was deactivated a bit later. The county sheriff says she’s likely been lured away by someone she met over the internet. Facts are few and closely guarded, but as I write this the signs point to human traffickers. Authorities believe she is still in the state. I hope that’s true. I hope she comes home. And yet every day she doesn’t increases her danger. In another week’s time, she could be anywhere in the world.
It took me a bit to write that first paragraph. I kept going back over it, looking at the words. Not editing or revising or anything else that people who call themselves writers like to say they do, but because I have a daughter myself. Because such a thing could happen even in my quiet corner of America. But such is our world now. It has claws, and their reach is long.
When I sat down to write a post, it wasn’t going to be about this story. I planned to do the usual and find some tiny facet of my life that held some greater meaning. That’s what I do. I put on my hat and play the blogosphere’s version of some spiritualized Duck Dynasty. I tell you there’s hope even when there seems to be none, that god is watching and His angels are guarding and that no matter who you are and what you wish to become, you are more and made for greater. All those things are true. I believe them with everything that’s in me.
But above all I am also honest with you, dear reader, and so I will honestly say right now life feels a little dimmer. Perhaps it was the story of the missing girl. But maybe it was more than that. Maybe it was all the other stories I’ve read and seen in the last week, tales of hurt and want and greed, accounts that prove we as a nation have forgotten ourselves.
It’s been said that the good times we all long for never really happened, that things have always been as bad as they are right now. I think there’s truth in that. I also think the utopia some try to build through government will never happen. We can cure cancer and talk to someone on the other side of the world and reach other planets, but in the end we can’t fix our own sin, we can’t talk to our own neighbors, and we’re strangers to the ground beneath us.
We are all broken, in need of grace. That’s what I’ve learned this week. And I’ve learned that if there is any hope for this world at all, it will come not only through Christ, but through Christ in us. The bad things in the world happen in large part because the good people in the world allow it.
Maybe that’s my point. Maybe. But maybe the greater point is that at this moment there is a frightened little girl somewhere in the world who screwed up and just wants to come home. I’m sure she would appreciate your prayers.
I was going to be silent about James Holmes and Aurora, Colorado. I think when tragedies such as this happen (and tragedy is a good word, I think; many others apply, but I’ll stick with that one for now), the first thing people do is say how horrible it is, and the second is that they ponder how such a thing could happen. In the past week, I’ve heard a lot of smart people offer a lot of not-so-smart reasons why James Holmes dyed his hair red, called himself the Joker, and shot seventy people. The truth is that we may never know exactly why, and that is a hard truth to accept.
I also tried keeping this whole mess far from my children, all the while knowing I couldn’t for long. It lasted until Wednesday evening, when my daughter saw him on the news.
I don’t know how much she heard or from that how much she understood. However much it was, when I walked into the room and turned the channel, she had only this to say:
“Daddy, why is the world so beautiful and so bad? Why’s everything dim?”
The reason I gave her was the sort of generalization every parent offers to every kid when it comes to things they’re still too young to understand. Something about how things have always been that way or how God was still in control, something that made her feel better but not so much me. And her question stuck so much with me that I knew I’d have to sit down and think some things out as well, offer my own reasons for what this man did, if only to appease myself.
We loathe this man. Let’s begin there. We say he is evil and broken and, if we’re honest, we also say he scares us. And why wouldn’t he? After all, the people sitting in that movie theater were us. They were parents and children, brothers and sisters. They were the young and the old and that great expanse in the middle. They were ordinary people who wanted nothing more than a temporary reprieve from their ordinary lives, and at some point over the past week, I’m sure we all have paused to consider that it could have been us in there. It could have been someone we love.
For me, at the beginning, that is why I hated him.
And then I considered what punishment could be meted that would be most just, and I thought it best that he stand defenseless inside a darkened movie theater and be set upon by a man wielding an assault rifle and a shotgun and a pistol and canisters of tear gas, and I thought even that would be too lenient and too decent, and then I realized that maybe the reason I hate him is also because there is some of me in him and some of him in me.
How can the world be so beautiful? In the stories of this horribleness we’ve heard victims offer forgiveness and the dead sacrifice themselves for loved ones. We’ve seen the courage of the first responders. We’ve born witness to the very best that we are in the midst of the very worst we can be. That’s how the world can be so beautiful.
How can the world be so bad? How can evil roam free? How can such hate and apathy boil over in someone whose only criminal infraction was a simple speeding ticket? How can it be that we no longer feel safe in a movie theater or a school or a city street?
And how is it that any option to curb such evil will never succeed? Easier access to mental health experts will do nothing if those who need it most refuse to seek it. Strict gun laws in Japan and Britain have drastically reduced the number of shooting victims, and yet violent crimes involving other weapons such as knives and baseball bats have skyrocketed. That’s how the world can be so bad.
But how can the world be both? Why doesn’t it ever seem to get better (as some say it will) and lead us into a new dawn? And why doesn’t it ever seem to get worse (as others prophesy) and plunge us into a midnight?
I don’t claim to know. But I do have an idea.
Perhaps it is because there is a darkness in us but also a light, and it is by their mingling that our world rests in a lasting eventide that is neither bright nor black, but only dim.
I’m looking at the clock on the wall now (you know that clock, the one with the angels you say are like the ones that watch over you), and it says it’s almost 1:00. Almost 1:00 on January 18. I know the date means a lot to you—birthdays are like that—but it’s the time that I’m holding onto now. Because as I see it, for the next twelve minutes and thirty-seven seconds, you’ll still be nine years old. When 1:05 rolls around, you’ll be ten.
Honestly, that’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It’s a big deal, turning double digits. In the words of your grandfather, you’re “Gettin up there.” True. But I think you’ve been gettin up there for a while now, and it just takes days like this for me to really see it. To really see the person you’re becoming.
I’ll admit it isn’t easy, watching you grow. There are times when I want to put my hand atop your head and push down as hard as I can in the hopes you’ll stay small forever. Sometimes I think it would be better that way. Sometimes I think that you’d do well to never have to grow up and see this world for what it truly is, that it would be best if you continued to think everyone always got along and everything always turned out right. But I know that can’t happen. We’re all meant for greater things, you especially, and that means having to go through a little bit of the darkness on the way to the light. No worries there, though. But I’ll get to that.
I figure since you’re double digits and all, I can maybe say some things you have thus far in your life not been privy to. I remember I was about your age when I realized my father wasn’t a super hero. He wasn’t really the smartest man in the world, or the strongest, or even the toughest. He was just a man. That’s a hard thing for ten-year-old to accept. Harder for me, because I had to find all that out on my own. But since being a parent is all about turning your own mistakes around so that your kids won’t have to stumble into those same holes, I’m going to help you out with that. Call it an extra present, one that will go well with the notebooks and pens and books you unwrapped this morning before school.
Ten years ago tomorrow, your mother and I brought you home for the first time. And though you don’t know this—and maybe could never believe it—I was scared to death. I didn’t know how to be a father. I’d asked around plenty—asked both your grandfathers, asked friends, strangers, preachers, anyone—but usually the only bit of advice I received was a wry smile and something along the lines of, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll know what to do.”
I didn’t know what to do.
Which was how I found myself awake all night, creeping over to your bassinet to prod and poke your little body just to make sure you were still breathing.
I’ve gotten a little better over the years, but you know what? I’m still scared. Scared every day. I don’t think that’s a bad thing (I think a lot of kids would be better off if their parents were a little more afraid for them), but it’s something you need to know. Because I’m not a super hero, either. I’m just a man.
But I’m a man who loves you. And I dare say no other man in the world could ever love you more.
You remember that. Keep it close. Guard it. Because the world is coming, and the world’s the kind of thing that will let you stroke it until it purrs and then turn and bite you for no reason. It takes faith to get by in this life, faith and hope and love. You have all of those things. I’ll make sure you always do, just like I’ll always make sure the monsters aren’t under your bed and the ghosts aren’t in your closet.
Because that’s what good fathers do.
Kid down the road got a new skateboard for Christmas, a bright red one with orange flames, white wheels, and tiny metal blocks underneath that spark when scraped against the pavement. He’s been riding around the neighborhood on it every day since. Doesn’t matter how cold it is or if the mountains have driven down black, snow-laced clouds. He’ll still ride by. Every day after school, and most every day during the weekend.
Of course the skateboard hasn’t faired well in the process. The red has now begun to fade, and the orange flames are now a dull ochre. The metal blocks will still spark—I can see them doing so in the early evenings as he rides by—but now they come more as puffs of light than showers of fire. I suppose this is by design. I’ve heard stakeboarders abhor the new and shiny. The used and scuffed is much more appealing.
I’ll watch him. I’ll even go so far as to say that once I see him pass my living room window once, I’ll pause at that window until he rides by again. It’s the way he does it, you see. The way he rides.
He’s not flashy. I’m not sure if this is his first board, though I’m inclined to believe it is. He’s of the age when the world widens at the seams and expands beyond his home and his block. He can ride now. He can explore. He can race down the slight incline of the hill and feel the wind in his face. It is freedom, and it is good.
It’s too bad that one of these days he’ll likely get clobbered by a passing vehicle. Again, it’s the way he rides—in the middle of the street, through stop signs, jumping curbs, like a miniature Evel Knievel. I don’t want you to believe I watch him out of some admiration, some envy. No, I watch him because I’m scared to death for him.
Also, because I used to be him.
Call it a boy thing, though I’m sure girls aren’t immune. They play and romp and do all manner of reckless things, all seemingly without care or thought of consequence, all because they are convinced of their immortality. Nothing will happen to them. Nothing can. Because they’re going to live forever.
That was me.
I once jumped off the roof of the house with an umbrella, thinking it would make a cool parachute. It didn’t work. Once I caught the breath that had been knocked out of me by the hard ground, I tried it again.
I once rappelled down a two-story set of stairs using a jump rope attached to a combination lock.
And there was the time when after watching a re-run of Happy Days, I tried jumping over four empty garbage cans on my bike. I managed one and a half.
Why did I do these things? Stupidity is the first thing that comes to mind (I had, and have, that in abundance). But the truth is that I honestly thought nothing could go wrong. Nothing bad would ever happen.
Now I’m older. Now I’m a husband and a father. Now I know the bad things that can and do happen, often without the slightest provocation, and often through no fault of my own. I think as we get older the glow in the world begins to fade and light because dusk. I think we begin to see shadows, that lurking What If. And I think we ponder the worst that can happen so much that the best that can happen goes ignored.
I think sometimes we worry so much about the traffic that we don’t allow ourselves to feel the wind in our face and know the freedom to simply be.
Age robs us of more than just our strength and our innocence. It also demands our boldness. If anything, that’s something I’d like to reclaim. I’d like to recapture that sense of immortality, even if it is a false one.
I know this: in a few short minutes I expect to see a young boy fly by on his skateboard, and when he does I will instinctively look for an approaching car. But I will also root him on, and I will see the wind in his face.