A-Candle

 

 

It is unbelievable how tantalizingly close I am to finishing this book, y’all.    And I really, really had my heart set on writing the very, very last word of it by tomorrow night.  Don’t get your hopes up, there’s no way in heaven that is going to happen.  But that’s how close I am to finishing it.  And I thought I’d put these blog posts on hold for a week or so, to give me that little bit of extra time to focus on the novel.  Because, after just less than a year, I am tantalizingly close to doing just that.  But then…  this  and everything about this case happened.  I watched the news coverage when I should have been writing.  Like everyone else,  fear coursed through my body as the word “terrorism” floated around my brain.  Horrific memories of 9-11 and, more recently,  the sweet children and caring adults of Sandy Hook Elementary’s premature deaths twisted my heart.   I prayed for all involved.   I cried, too.   Sometimes I still wake up in the middle of the night, needing answers to unsolvable questions.  I spent most of my young adulthood studying all the famous philosophers and psychologists.  I can tell you numerous different psychological models that offer up explanations for evil.  But none of them really seem to answer the questions I have.   None of them offer me a guaranteed way to keep my children safe from all the delusional, fanatical, insane people who, for whatever reason, act out in violent, evil ways.  None of them offer me a way to make sure my children are only ever surrounded by those who understand that all life is a precious gift from God, that all human beings are fragile and should be treated with compassion and care.  Nothing I’ve ever read or studied really tells me anything.

And, selfish though it may seem, I truly have to be careful because if I let myself watch too much of the coverage, if I give in and engage in Facebook commentary on the state of evil in our world, if I look at that big, brown-eyed, smiling little boy who held a sign advocating peace for too long….  I risk losing my hard-won trust in humanity,  I risk losing hope.   If I try, even just a little bit, I can think of numerous ways to justify living a life of  solitude.  I already home-school my children and shop on the Internet most of the time.   Almost all of my communications take place via text.   It is scary how easy it would be for me to believe that all people are evil and to see the world as an unsafe place from which I should hide my children and myself.   Just when I start to think that people are at least trying to balance technology with traditional friendships, just when I start to think that maybe strangers are still nice to one another on at least somewhat regular basis,  unspeakable tragedies like the Boston Marathon or Sandy Hook happens.  A day or so ago, a friend private messaged me on Facebook and asked if I could come see her.  She said she was tired of being strong.  Not but a couple hours later,  I received an e-mail from a man who’s daughter had read  “The Character” and came to him in tears,  ready finally to tell yet another story of horror.  Everywhere I turn,  something is there to remind me that we’re hurting.  Human beings are not being mindful of how frail others are….instead, they just seem hell-bent on proving a point or of satisfying something within their own troubled minds,  no matter who or what the cost may be.  The current book I’m writing is on teenage suicide.  The research I’ve done for this work has left me emotionally drained and reeling.  Bodies are being seen not as something in which to take pride, not as something to respect and love, but proof that we, as human beings, are nothing but ugly and useless.  I cannot count the number of nightmares I have had as a result of this book in the past year.   I cannot count the number I will have this coming year as a result of acts of violence and tragedy that serve the harden our hearts and heighten the walls that block trust.

Those lives were important.

They meant something.

And they were precious.

And innocent.

And I could be one of them tomorrow.

In those lines lie truth.  But only part of it.   Only half of it.   The truth is, there’s another side to fear.  There’s another side to evil.  There’s another side to grief and despair, hopelessness and tragedy.  I don’t just think there is.  I don’t just hope there is.  I know there is.

Yesterday was a very special day for my girls and I.   It wasn’t a holiday.  It wasn’t anyone’s birthday.  But after lessons, I took my girls on a forty minute drive to a charming little town called Spring Hill.  There’s a park there that is beautiful and bright and peaceful—-and a creek runs along the perimeter of that park.  It’s an inviting creek with water that rushes over rocks.   Theoretically, it could be dangerous as it does have a whole lot of slippery rocks that coat its bottom.  In fact, as we waded in it yesterday,  I kept remembering what I’ve learned from white water rafting with my sister every year:  the rocks are the most dangerous part of a river.  Not because they can cut you open, although they can, but because instinct tells you to stand up when you start to drown.  But if you stand up  your foot can slip between the rocks and get trapped and, if that happens, no matter how good of a swimmer you are, you will eventually go under the water.  For that reason, they teach you in white water rafting that if you fall out of the boat  to roll on your back so that you can breathe and float with your toes pointed at the sky.  I thought of that yesterday as I was wading in this creek, trying to find a secure spot to put my foot and watching my girls do the same.  It would have been easy to call it dangerous and get us out, even though the water isn’t deep.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I pushed that thought away and reminded myself that we weren’t in a rushing class four river.   We weren’t in white-water.  We were in a creek.   And children have played in creeks just like that one for generations before technology started trying to scare our children into doing nothing but playing video games and watching SpongeBob.  So we poured buckets of icy water over our heads and then climbed out of the water to let the hot sunshine warm us up.  We threw a ball around an open field and chased each other.   We celebrated my daughter’s success at crossing a unique, swinging monkey bar set (it’s not bars, it’s three discs that spin as you grab hold:  crossing this set was a big deal).   But it was a special day not only because we played and laughed together but because of where we were.

You see…

Not so long ago,  we lived in that Andy Griffith, idyllic place.  I was in love with it.  And then disaster struck,  our hearts were wounded and we came back home to Nashville scared and alone.  It was a very, very painful time.  One I rarely talk about and have not really written about, even.   My heart was broken.  And even though I had deeply loved Spring Hill, I was unable to go back.  Even going for mundane, necessary tasks became almost impossible.  Grief and fear choked the life and beauty right out of that place for me.  I  forced the issue once, and we went back, played on a playground.  But the air around us that time was fragile and filled with silence.  It wasn’t really fun.  Yesterday was the first time we’ve been able to go back and spend all day long at the park.  We even drove the small-town streets to the Dollar Store and to McDonalds.  And, for the first time, my heart wasn’t caught in a vicious vice.  I wasn’t choking back tears and counting down the minutes until I could justify leaving.  I didn’t feel like I was walking on a tightrope, waiting for disaster to strike.  Instead, the park was a beautiful and inviting place again.  Peaceful, just as it had been when it originally drew me in like a magnet.  The air was clean and refreshing.  It proved to me that healing does happen.

Something else happened while we were at the park.

Strangers talked to me.  We marveled together over the wonder of that creek and how we found it to be a sort of storybook magic that our children were playing in its waters.  We smiled at one another and no one mentioned Boston.  No one mentioned Sandy Hook.  Or guns.  Not one child was teased or pushed off the tire swing.  When I went to gather up our things from beside the creek, a father who was there with his three boys gathered up two of my items and handed them to me.  I wanted to hug him.  Not because I couldn’t do it.  Not because I was exhausted.  But because he was being nice for no reason except for being nice.  We left the park and went to church;  I taught my usual Wednesday night class and our director came around to distribute baby bottles to the girls.  They are to fill them with change over the next two weeks and return them to the church so that our missions department can use the money to purchase necessities for expectant teenage mothers.  All of the girls in my class promised to bring their bottles back full next week and talked about how much money they have in their little girls’ purses or piggy banks at home.   I came home and put the girls to bed and sat down to start writing my book.  The one I was hoping to finish this week.  But, I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t write a single word in that terribly sad book.  I decided that I couldn’t spend that night thinking about all the evil that happens.  I didn’t want to ruin what had been such a sweet day full of hope and optimism.  So instead I played games and laughed.

 

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And this morning, I woke up stronger.

We did school again this morning.  We stayed home and played in the backyard.  We spent a lot of time coloring and we ran away from a bee.  We played with our chicken and we stared at the five caterpillars who are now in chrysalises, willing them to hatch while we were watching.  We didn’t interact with another face to face human being all day long.  At dinner, my daughter told me I have a nose like Scootaloo’s.  Scootloo is a horse on My Little Pony.  I laughed.  When they went to bed, I showered.  I stood for a long time looking in the mirror.  I’m not very pretty.  My hair needs its dead ends cut off.  A 32 year old probably should own some sort of real makeup.  I have a scar that’s right on my neck, which makes it hard to hide.  But I start each day with a prayer to thank God for being alive, and for all of the kind people He has put in my life.  We go somewhere almost every day of the week.   It’s quite possible that our local Publix could be robbed at gunpoint while we’re shopping for ice cream tomorrow.   Or maybe we’ll go to the YMCA and some fanatic will walk in shooting everyone.  Maybe something horrible I can’t contemplate right now will happen.  My life really isn’t a good definition of safety, after all.  It would be naive to think evil doesn’t live a few houses over from us. But I can’t let the evil that exists in this world overshadow the multitude of compassionate and kind people I’ve seen every day of my life.  I can’t let fear of death keep me from teaching my children how to wade in a rocky creek.  I can’t let tragedy lock me in a cage because true joy doesn’t come from within one person;  it comes from interacting with other human beings.  No matter how beautiful the mountains,   the truth is, they can’t hug me.   No matter how peaceful the ocean, the truth is,  it can’t love me back.   No matter how tempting isolation is, the truth is,  isolation isn’t safe:  it’s more damaging to the soul than risking being in the wrong place at the wrong time.   No matter how easy it is to be cynical, I have to remind myself that a trusting, vulnerable heart that actively fights against building walls of self-protection is the only way to live life loved.  No matter how easy it is to believe that an enemy is around every corner,  I have to see strangers as good because, if I don’t, I could walk right past what could have been a best friend or husband.  I can’t let a past that’s riddled with all sorts of reasons to distrust people, or a media that chooses to highlight tragedies instead of victories, steal my joy for waking up every morning.   I believe in life with a passion that’s strong enough to keep me motivated even through the roughest storms.  But if I start to see kindness as a waste of time, then that passion that allows me to marvel over the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, falls into jeopardy.  If I start to see compassion as pointless since, after all, someone, somewhere is being attacked right now, then my passion for laughing and creating falls into jeopardy.  For me, the only way to live alongside evil is to combat it with an extra dose of smiles, goodwill and faith.  Maybe these things will never stop evil from happening…. but just as I remember the face of every, single person who has ever held my hand or given me a hug when I was in need,  I promise you the surviving families of Sandy Hook and 9-11 and the Boston Marathon remember the people who gather at the schools and the finish line and Ground Zero to light candles, leave flowers and pray.  Kindness etches a memory too, and sometimes that memory is so powerful, it changes someone’s life.  I know because when I was a very young teenager, a stranger held a door to a restaurant open for me and in so doing changed my life with a random act of kindness that told me  good people still existed.

And they do today too.  My church is full of them.   My family, as dysfunctional and crazy as it well may be,  has them too.  They’re in the hospitals and the courtrooms and check-out lanes at the grocery stores.  They’re in the parks and in the cars next to us at the stop light.  They’re in the faces of the homeless people on the street corners.  They’re in the promise written so clearly in our children’s eyes.   It’s in the feeling of unity that falls like a blanket over us when a member from our community or our state or our group or our country or our species is attacked.

I still don’t know the answers to all the world’s unsolvable questions.  I have no idea what could ever possess men like Kermit Gossnell to do the things they do.  I have no idea what could make someone see a group of happy people and want to turn their laughter into tears.  I don’t know why some little girls make it all the way to adulthood without ever being touched inappropriately while some have their innocence and so much more stolen.  I don’t know why so many of us are hurting but hiding behind bright smiles we don’t feel.  I don’t know why life has to be so hard sometimes.  What I do know is that, no matter how Facebook makes it appear,  we’re all in the same boat.  We’re all struggling with something and what we need the most, besides God, is each other.  Not a diploma.  Not a bank account.  Not strength.  Not time.  But a good laugh with a friend.  A meaningful conversation.  Seeing a warmth in someone’s eyes that proves she’s happy to talk to us.  Tragedy gives us a choice:  we can retreat into hiding, or we can open our arms and feel the power of the kind of compassion that inspires a reason to get up tomorrow.

 

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I heard Chris Tomlin sing  a rather stark version of  “Amazing Grace” on the radio today.  I’d wager almost everyone who reads this knows at least some of the words to that song, regardless of which country you’re in.  It doesn’t matter how many ways we’re different.  I can disagree with you on politics, on education, on social reform, even on religion—-none of that changes either of our worth as human beings.  No matter how different we are,  I am bound by a basic human code of ethics to care for you if you are sick and to feed you if you are hungry and to hug you if you are heartbroken.  Hope comes through these actions, things only other people can offer.   I’ve felt all sorts of betrayal.  I’ve known all sorts of pain from being sexually violated as a child to simple heartbreak to  cancer.  And yet, strangely, what I remember most vividly are the moments in which someone took the time to comfort or reassure me.  The hug from a teacher.  The 8th grade student who proudly said he was going to frame Ms Tiffini’s letter.  The people read my books and wrote to tell me their lives were impacted.   My mom and sister.   My pastor standing beside me and singing.  A friend spending time and effort to build a connection.  Someone mysteriously nominating me for big awards like a free photography package worth a thousand dollars (which I won!).  My daughter claiming that the thing she most enjoys in the whole world is  “spending time with Mama.”  My daughter squealing with laughter as I bounce her around in a piggyback ride through the house.    All of us making cards to distribute to sick children in the hospital and then being invited by the parent to sing happy birthday to one of the critically ill children we met.   Perhaps none of these things will ever make front page news.  Maybe heartwarming stories like those in my life (what are some in yours?) will feel like footnotes most days.  But when we are old and waiting to be gathered like flowers for the Master’s bouquet, what we will remember is the sound of pillow talk with our spouse  and the sound of laughter as little feet race through the house.  What we will remember is the warmth of a hug someone gave us when we felt insignificant or broken;  what we will hear are all the sounds of hope that we gave and that were given to us.   And those are the sounds that make life worthwhile, even when we don’t understand it, even when it hurts beyond what we think we can bear.

 

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