A Certain Fellow and His Horn

Once upon a time, a certain fellow laid on a horn a tad longer than he should have because the driver of a black Jeep completely ignored a 4-way stop. It’s been a stressful few days and the horn felt so good for a flash of a moment–and truth told, narcissist drivers who punch it at 4-ways, totally ignoring the rules of engagement and just basic decency, are one of this fellow’s great annoyances. Nevertheless, this same justice-enraged fellow also desires mercy and gentleness and forbearance and such things, and all these noble ideals were swiftly forgotten, all for the fleeting joy of giving that Jeep a blast of whatfor. 

Yet, a mere three minutes after venting frustrations via that horn from hell, this same fellow heard the guy in front of him order a Frappuccino, and in what a psychologist or priest would surely say was a subconscious act of penance, he told the Starbucks barista, “Hey, I’ll get that,” and handed the barista his card. Only then, this penitent fellow realized that the guy in front of him had not ordered merely a Frappuccino but rather drinks and snacks, and apparently take out dinner, for his entire lawn maintenance crew. But he couldn’t back out because the gesture was so grand and the barista so effusive with praise and the guy who made the order was confused, but smiling wide. 

So the remorseful horn blower, now drained of coffee funds until the new millennium, has many new things to ponder in his heart.

A Dream on Maple St.

Every so often (but not as often as I’d like), when the moon is just so or there’s been a little too much wine a little too late in the evening, I find my way back to this recurring dream.

We live in a village, an odd place nestled amid the lush green and rolling hills of the Shenandoah but also surrounded by the Rocky’s rugged ridges where aspens stand sentinel. We grow strawberries, apples and blackberries in the valley, but most afternoons we fill our knapsacks to overflowing and walk above the timberline for lunch with a view. Our neighborhood swimming hole is a high mountain lake, a spot we call Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have reeled in their first trout at Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have felt love’s first fire under the stars on a sensuous summer night. At this place, life blossoms.

We live on Maple St., a winding avenue lined with century-old oaks and swaths of verdant Midnight Kentucky Blue Grass surrounding every Craftsman cottage. Our little half-acre has a name, as do all the homes in our village. The hand carved wood sign attached next to the deep purple door on our wide, shaded front porch reads Elm Grove, but most of our friends simply refer to it as Elm. “Dinner at Elm tonight,” they’ll say. Or “Gonna run over to Elm to trade out books.” Our friends surround us, as friends should. Their homes, like their lives, create what we mean whenever we say neighborhood. Two doors down sits The Fable House. Across the street, you’ll find Casa del Amor and Shalom. One block behind us, The Abbey and River Stone. Each home a place filled with laughter, a place where we know ourselves more than we could ever have known ourselves on our own.

Each of us works our trade. I have a little writing shed behind our cottage, fitted just between Miska’s herb garden and the three-level tree fort Wyatt and Seth built. The fort’s a little cattywampus, but nobody cares. I craft my novels the first half of the week and craft my sermon the second, though these two acts overlap more than some prefer. I visit parishioners, but I just think of it as visiting friends.

If you’re rolling your eyes because this sounds sweet and idyllic, hold on for one more bit: the first Friday night of each month during Spring and Summer, we take turns at each others’ place for a homemade ice cream fest (the hand-churned sort) with every conceivable flavor: chocolate chip, strawberry, peanut butter mocha, caramel apple – all loaded with fresh cream and piled high. We eat bowl after bowl, and we never gain an ounce.

Give a man his dream.

Busy Living

Easter Sunday was Simon’s favorite day of the year. This was new because for most of his life, it had been Thanksgiving.

When the family was young, Thanksgiving meant laughter and stuffed bellies and football at the city park. Once the kids flew the coop, Thanksgiving provided the one time of year when everyone found their way back home. They rendezvoused at their Appalachian cabin and blew the weekend gorging on country ham and Mary’s famous yeast rolls. They sat by the fire, on the porch swings and on the lakeside dock, reading novels they’d swapped or catching up on the months they’d been apart. They picked up their decade-long Spades tournament, keeping a long-running tally on a legal pad sitting atop the fridge. No one knew what score they were playing to, nobody cared. They took meandering walks among the Hickories and the White Pines. On Saturday night, they went into town for Uncle Carter’s famous BBQ and then to The Rusty Nail for local mountain music. Thanksgiving carved out a haven of joy and simplicity.

Since Mary died, however, things were not so simple.

One might think that Simon gravitated to Easter because of the story of resurrection, the possibility that Simon might one day hold Mary again. The fact is Simon was not drawn to Easter so much because of what it said about the dead but because of what it said about the living.

The first Easter after Mary died, Simon sat in a pew toward the back corner. Mary had only been dead three weeks, and it was late Easter morning before Simon decided to actually show up for the service at St. Thomas. He didn’t want anybody telling him to say Allelulia. He didn’t want to make a joyful noise. He didn’t want to endure a boisterous homily. Jesus may have walked out of the grave, but Mary lay underneath six feet of cold dirt.

When the Reader read the Gospel text, however, Simon noticed how all the characters were running everywhere, frantic, and it amused him. Mary Magdalene running to the two disciples, then Peter sprinting off to the tomb, only to be overtaken by another disciple whose jet speed forever ensconced Peter as the brunt of Easter-sermon humor. All the running struck Simon as funny, and he chuckled, louder than he wished. Folks on nearby rows raised their heads and looked his way. The Reader seemed startled for a moment before she regained composure.

Patrick, Simon and Mary’s oldest son, had always been in a hurry, always forgetting something. At least twice a month, Patrick would leave his lunch or homework or tennis racket he needed for practice. He’d dial his mom or dad, asking them to make an emergency trip to school. Twice, when Patrick went backpacking with friends, he called Simon from the trailhead two hours away, once needing his sleeping bag and once his hiking boots. The last phone call caught Simon on a stressful weekend as a publisher’s deadline loomed. After a terse conversation, Simon slammed the phone. “What’s wrong with this kid? He busts around without a care in the world, expecting someone else to pick up his life. The boy needs to slow down, I swear…”

Mary stood at the kitchen counter, holding her tea. She watched Simon and smiled. Simon knew that look. He knew wisdom, ever so irritating in moments like this, was coming. “You know, Simon,” and Mary paused. She liked to pause when she knew she had Simon’s attention. “Patrick forgets because his life is so full, he can’t keep track of all the good things. I hope he keeps forgetting a few details as long as he possibly can. The chaos means he’s living.”

Simon did not know why the resurrection reading carried him to this memory. It must have been the chaos, the frantic running. Simon laughed, interrupting the reverent worship, receiving confused stares. Maybe Mary Magdalene and the disciples scurried about because, on that shocking morning, their life just took off without them, insisting they catch up. Maybe their circuits overloaded with all the previously unthinkable possibilities. Maybe they were invigorated with the brilliance of how much life mattered, how much their life mattered. In the first Easter story, Jesus’ grave split open, and this meant everybody needed to get moving, get busy living.

That afternoon, Simon dialed up Patrick, just to say hello and that he’d been thinking about him. Then Simon poured a dark cup of coffee, sat on his back porch as the sun warmed his face and wrote the first page of a new novel.

Buck Wild

My earliest years were spent on a ranch in Tennessee. My co-conspirator Wil lived next door, and we enjoyed an idyllic childhood. There were horses and ranch hands, thousands of acres stretching over hills and woods all the way up to Lookout Point. The vast land brimmed with stories of Indian lore, the sort that would make a young boy’s hair stand up, wild stories that would convince him, especially on deep summer nights, that he saw ghosts from the old tribes.

Wil owned a pony named Snowflake that grazed in a small pasture just behind his house. Snowflake was docile enough, but she possessed a minor mean streak that, for some inexplicable reason, flared up around me. I have this effect on certain creatures. One afternoon, we saddled the pony for Wil to take a ride, and when he returned, Wil handed me the reigns before he went inside. I hopped atop the miniature steed, eager for my opportunity to enact fantasies of Wyatt Earp or Kit Carson.

I couldn’t have been in the saddle more than two or three minutes when the pony turned stubborn. I insisted on at least a gallant trot; Snowflake insisted she meander. Meander? How could a law man ride into the blazing thick of a frontier range war with a horse who will only grunt and crunch on weeds? I was the boss here, and I’d have none of this insolence. I gripped the reigns and gave Snowflake a swift kick to the flank. The next few seconds were a blur. I remember an angry snort. I remember a lurching sensation, my stomach jumping to my throat. I remember being launched, like those times at the pool when my dad would catapult me from his shoulders high into the air.

I woke up flat on my back, the sun warming my face, a large horsefly buzzing near my head. I don’t know how long I had been out, but Snowflake stood lazily across the field, munching and content. I stood up, muscles throbbing. I wobbled several steps to pick up my Stetson cowboy hat. Gingerly, I walked to the pony and picked up the reigns dangling on the ground, leading her, humbly, back toward the house.

For the next week, I walked sore, battle scars of a man who’d been bucked from the back of a wild mare and lived to tell the tale. This was the summer of legend.

Otis and the River Boys

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“Well, are you going to kiss me or leave me hurting?” Mary was close, intimately close – but moved no closer. She was not a tease, and this was not a game. This was an honest question. Mary’s fingers intertwined with Simon’s, rubbing the back of his hand with her thumb.

For a good hour, they sat under moonlight, scrunched close as the music worked its groove. Otis and the River Boys would strip a guitar clean and then, without missing a lick, slide into a soulful melody so slow and aching you knew you were in love – even if you weren’t. There was electricity between the couple, their thighs pressed tight. The surging music provided good excuse for them to lean near and whisper in the others’ ear. Are you chilly? Simon asked. Do you want another glass of wine? Can you believe what Otis just did with those chops of his? As the evening progressed, the questions came more often, his lips lingering near Mary’s ear a little longer. The music drove a hard rhythm, but it gave only a tinny dink compared to the thump in Simon’s chest.

The past three years tested their vows. They promised to stay together, to honor one another. There were days when they believed they stayed true only because of the kids, but they both knew there was really something more. They had tasted something, they had known something together. This memory, still alive, gave them enough to live on until fresh light came.

But for a long while now, all had been dark. The bankruptcy and Claire’s death pulled them asunder in ways that shocked them, ways they could not understand. They hadn’t slept together in fourteen months. Conversation was often curt, so much pain between them, so much longing, so much sadness. There are few things more lonely than a soulish intimacy that has gone cold, a desire you know like your own self – but can no longer set free.

Otis belted a tune of love and hot, long Louisiana nights. Mary watched Simon’s eyes. Simon knew this was going to be a magnificent summer.

Mary’s Window

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Simon pushed back his flannel sheets, sat upright and gingerly tested the cold pinewood floor. His wife Mary would never have forgotten to return the rugs after a wash, particularly in these frigid months. But Mary was gone now, and Simon forgot all kinds of things.

Try as he did to grasp every lingering memory, the fruit of forty-one years, it disturbed him how easily these pieces of himself slipped away. The scent of orange, cardamom and cinnamon in the kitchen each December. The way Mary would kiss his chest in the wee hours of the night. And Simon’s truest vision – Mary in her studio, grooving to Marvin Gaye and the Commodores while she coaxed canvas to life. How Simon loved to watch her working the tunes and working the oils and brushes.

When Simon built Mary’s studio in the grove behind their two story craftsman, he designed the double french windows in the precise spot allowing him to see her from his own nook in the corner of the house where he wrote. He explained to Mary how the windows needed to go just there to catch the afternoon light, and he never confessed his ulterior motive for the architectural feature. Simon was as true a man as ever there was, but he also believed every romance needed a few fiery secrets. So for decades he watched her and he loved her.

Their marriage was indeed a romance, born of toil and tears and common love: a steamy courtship, a grey decade, children that tested their mettle, years where they feared the entire dream would crumble, and then, catching them both by surprise, a second courtship steamier than the first. The entire story was grit and passion and, to be sure, harsh days they planned to one day forget. But they were wrong. There wasn’t a single day of their life, not one – not even the darkest, to which Simon did not cling.

But now Simon was cold. And now, five days after Christmas, the house was barren again as the children and the grandchildren had returned to New Hampshire and Seattle.

Simon dressed, his standard denim shirt and Mountain Khakis. He set the coffee to brew and stoked the kindling in the fireplace. He fried two eggs and toasted an English muffin. He read a bit of Merton and a few chapters from A Place on Earth. Then Simon stood up and dampened the embers.

Steaming mug in hand, Simon walked across his backyard. The bright sun warmed his face, and the snow crunched beneath his boots. He unlocked the studio, turned up Marvin Gaye. For the next hour, Simon studied canvas after canvas. Content, Simon settled into Mary’s leather chair and peered out the french windows. It was only a moment before he began to chuckle, shaking his head. Simon had a straight line across their yard to the desk where he made his living wrangling words, a full view of his swivel chair and his shelves of books, his framed map of Yellowstone National Park. “Well, I’ll be,” Simon whispered. “I’ll be…”

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Plan LL

The poor fella was wrapped tight as a Twizzler. He had himself knotted this way and that with questions about Plan A’s and Plan B’s and what-might-have-beens if only he’d had better sense or swerved left instead of right. We can be downright violent with ourselves whenever we walk into that inner torture chamber where ugly brutes named guilt and shame guard the door.

“Does God have a plan?” he asked, desperate for me to say yes.

I’m never quite sure what’s behind these phrases we like to toss about, so I asked. “What do you mean by plan?”

He looked at me, head cocked, and he paused. “Well, I don’t actually know.”

Slowly, he began to work it out. He feared that he’d screwed his life up so much that it was beyond repair. A trail of missteps and hard knocks and gutter balls brought him to the moment where he wanted to know he wasn’t forever consigned to God’s Plan B, a life that was at very best only second fiddle.

I interrupted the maddening circle these conversations inevitably create because one truth had become very clear to me. “I think the question you’re really asking is if you are loved. And the answer – absolutely – is yes.”

He looked up, eyes moist. “I’ve always had trouble believing that.”

“I don’t have much to offer on Plan A’s or B’s or LL’s,” I said. “But I know that love carries you. I know that there isn’t a moment in your life when you aren’t drowned in love. I don’t know about these mysterious, Oz-like, behind the curtain plans, but I know that you are loved. And I know that, because of love, you are okay.”

 

Amy’s Letter

A day or two ago, I got caught up in a flash of inspiration. These don’t come often, and when they do, you’ve got to grab that dragon and ride, ride, ride.

What started to be one thing ended up another, and lo and behold a (very) short story came to life. It shaped up as a tale about a three-ring circus, a brave letter and a woman who calls it like she sees it. The story starts like this:

Fred and Amy were neighbors on Rural Route 28. Their mailboxes shared a weathered post at the end of the gravel lane. This seemed fitting since their families also shared a weathered pew at Zion Presbyterian Church. Fred and Amy, along with Stan the tire salesman and Robert the county’s public defender, made up Zion’s Pastoral Search Committee. Though a thankless job, their assignment did mean that every Thursday night, they’d sit in the church’s empty manse, drink Folgers and have a few minutes to shoot the shit. Then they’d return to the pile of resumes that supposedly represented the last hope for their beleaguered flock. (read on)

I wrote this for a friend, but I’ve discovered it was even more for me. This story gets at some of my deepest frustrations with the predicament we find ourselves in – but also it gets at my grandest hopes for I what I mean when I use the word pastor. I’d be pleased to share it with you.

Oh – and may I add: if you have a pastor, go easy on ’em, chances are they’re getting their teeth kicked in at least a couple times a month. And if you have a good pastor, tell ’em so. They may not act like your gratitude matters, but I absolutely promise you that it does.

Crime Scene

Unfortunately, we’ve had need for multiple forays to the pharmacy over the past few weeks. On my last two trips, I’ve happened upon a crime scene. With the first, I barely missed the burglar, and when I arrived the store clerks were all wired up about how brazen the fellow had been. Tuesday, however, I found myself right in the thick.

“Security to the office, security to the office.” An agitated voice crackled over the speaker system.

Minutes later, a woman burst out the door at the back of the store, young girl with the cutest frizzy hair in tow. The girl couldn’t have been older than six or seven, and her mom frantically drug her around the narrow store aisles calling out, “Where’s my cart? Where’s my stuff? I didn’t steal nothing. Nothing.”

Apparently protocol says that store security can question a suspect but can’t physically detain them – the police are required for that. So the woman was making her run for the parking lot before the officers arrived. Initially, when everything went down, the woman had left her purse and her daughter’s jacket in a cart, and during the brouhaha had gotten disoriented. She scurried past the shampoos and the St. Patrick’s Day candy and the Snuggies and the cough medicine in flustered circles, panting, searching furiously. “Where’s my stuff? Where’s my stuff? I didn’t steal nothing.” She brushed right past me on one of her sweeps, and there was a sadness and a terror that followed them.

She found her cart and made a beeline for the front entrance. As I left with our meds, two officers were at the front counter, taking inventory of the items security had taken from her. She’d lifted three or four bottles of perfume. The assistant manager wrapped them back in their packaging while describing the scene and the woman to the policemen.

The woman stole perfume. I don’t know her plans for the loot, perhaps something shady. But I wonder if a part of her simply wanted to feel good about herself, to wear a bit of glamour and to own a scent that would allure, to feel pretty.

Mostly, though, I wonder about the cute, frizzy-haired girl, about the fear she knew as the trouble escalated, about how she’ll remember, years from now, the day her mom drug her through the store trying to find her purse before the police came. I hope her mom held her long and tight that night. I hope her mom said, “I’m sorry, baby. That’s not who I am, that’s not who we are.”

When we talk about God making the world new, we’re talking about things like this, the sorrowful stories in our own neighborhoods. We hope and pray and work toward the good day when love and plenty and light will cover all. In that day, moms will have all they need, and daughters will have no reason to be ashamed or afraid.

 

A Banjo, a Flower and Curse

Misty rain settled over downtown as I strolled Main Street, the bricked blocks where foodies, mom-and-pop town folk, book lovers, artists, baristas and students create the melting pot. We have a guild of street musicians, both locals and traveling troubadours, but my favorite will always be Harmonica Dave, sitting on his five gallon bucket and breaking it down with his jaw harp.

On this dreary, wet afternoon, Harmonica Dave had called it a day; but a couple blocks down, I passed a young musician busking for his day’s wage. Undeterred by the weather, his banjo hung off his shoulder while his black felt hat sat upside down near his feet, two lone dollars to his name. The scene provided nothing out of the ordinary, except this: the fellow held intense focus, tilting left then right. The man was standing in the rain balancing a purple flower in a pot on his head.

I only had a moment to consider this fact before an older gentleman passed this bard with the banjo on his shoulder and the flower on his head. The banjo player asked for a donation — but with a twist. “A donation to ward off the curse,” he said. I have no idea of the backstory. I have no idea who was leveling curses or what the curse entailed. I have no idea if the curse had something to do with the fact that there was a potted flower atop the man’s noggin.

The elder man brushed past. “I don’t believe in curses,” he answered briskly over his shoulder.

The banjo player stood undaunted, calling after him. “Maybe not, but don’t risk it. It’s not just you but all your descendants.”

This event was maybe a month ago, but I’ve thought about it several times since. I’ve wondered if that flower ever toppled off that fellow’s head. I’ve wondered if the elder man has any cause for concern for his progeny.