April 30, 2007

Homeless and Hungry

At the intersection, (this was yesterday afternoon) beneath the stop sign sat a slim, nondescript, middle-aged man with a hand-scrawled sign that said Homeless and Hungry. Someone in the vehicle ahead of us lowered a window enough to hand the man what was probably no more than a pittance. I didn’t even do that. I could use the excuse that it’s a dangerous intersection (and it is), that I was focusing on the road and simply did not see him. But I did and I did my best to ignore him.

Very shortly thereafter we heard our daughter crying in the backseat. She had read the man’s sign and was instantly moved to tears by his plight. To her this was a man without food, without a soft bed, without a Mommy and a Daddy. This was a plight for which (thank God) she had no point of reference. To her this was a man who simply was hungry, homeless and needed help.

To me he was a potential predator, someone who might hurt my family if given the chance, a malodorous possibly mentally ill threat. Or, even worse, someone who was not really homeless but simply a lazy beggar. I know that I am jaded by experience and often err on the side of being too cautious, too self-contained.

She wanted to know if he could stay at our house, he could have her bed and she would sleep in her sleeping bag on the floor. The part that brought me to tears was that she hoped he was not allergic to dogs as we have two and she did not want them to bother him when he stayed with us. She was far more worried that this stranger be well taken care of than anything else.

I, of course, was horribly ashamed and, in my own defense, she has seen me help the destitute. But this day I was knowingly negligent.

I told her that we didn’t really know him and while we would stop and help him on the way home he could not stay in our house, in the back yard maybe, but not in the house. We had to crack the door a little more and let her get another glimpse of just how harsh the world can be, a slow gradual loss of innocence that breaks my heart. In all honesty, I am glad he was not still there on our return trip.

My wife and I talked about this at length. This was not the first time our little girl had been moved to tears by someone else’s plight. On Great and Holy Friday she did the same when she realized Christ was being placed in His tomb (we also should have been overcome by our emotions). We reminded her of His certain resurrection and her joy was then as complete as her grief.

She is seven years old, I am almost forty-seven. She has a kind heart and overflows with love. I am too often uncaring and stingy. In her innocence she is wise, in my wisdom I am blind.

April 29, 2007

Ashes, Ashes

For the past several days we have intermittently found ourselves directly downwind of the 60,000 acre plus fire burning in Ware and Charlton Counties. The distance becomes blurred in a blue haze, the sun a pink orb at midday. A cascade of ash, mute messengers from sixty miles away drifts on the breeze, delicate white, black and gray smudges. The neighborhood looks otherworldly, a reminder of the many forces over which many times we have absolutely no control.

We have been by no means immune. The above photo was taken this afternoon (that’s my lovely wife and daughter). On the horizon you can see the plume of a fire that could have very easily become a major conflagration. Only the unceasing efforts of our local firefighters managed to get in under control in a matter of hours. High winds, low humidity and literally tinder dry woods make a potentially potent combination.

Just yesterday I saw a car erupt in flames on the side of the interstate when the hot exhaust ignited the grass. And there is no relief in sight.

April 26, 2007

Conquering The Worm

And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ heads: all this can I
Truly deliver.

Act 5, Scene 2

It was a dank day for dying on the old Dixie Highway that heads north through the prickly palmetto spears and towering Georgia pines. A malfunction of undetermined origin sent the car sliding though the slick grass sideways into the live oak that stands just before the crossroad. The driver was ejected, thrown rudely through the midday gloom into the unforgiving underbrush. His legs broke upon impact. Flames swallowed up the car, quickly consuming the faded paint and tattered upholstery.

Mosquitos and sand gnats agitated the humid air, tag-teaming the rescue workers and the gawkers, all drawn like moths to the flame, the makeshift funeral pyre. As they stood in an irregular circle around the scene I innocently walked up and stuck my head in the driver’s window. A sweet, earthy smell of mud, burnt flesh and spent fire extinguishers nearly gagged me. The passenger had died, trapped in the car. What I first thought was the charred remains of the front seat was his torso. He was truly cooked. The deltoid muscle on his shoulder looked like a turkey drumstick. The skin had burned away from the top of his skull to reveal an egg-shaped indentation from his striking the windshield. I clearly saw the interstitial cracks between the skull bones that look like irregular stitches. This was not the sepulcher white skull of some anatomy class skeleton. This was the skull of a sentient rational being who until a few moments earlier was alive and breathing, full of dreams and despair. This skull still held a warm brain.

It was then that I realized that our frail forms obey the laws of physics. We’re just flesh, bones, skin and water. We roast and char like any other animal on a spit. Entranced by this stranger’s misfortune, I made myself stand and look, glad that it was he and not I curled there in a fetal ball. Even in death he assumed this basic vertebrate position. I felt a peculiar power from not flinching at the face of death. Conquering the worm, as it were.

They were both Mexicans seeking the proverbial better life in rural South Georgia, working in one of the seafood processing plants, up to their elbows in fish or shrimp all day. Around the passenger’s neck, blackened but still whole, was a silver medal of St. Christopher engraved with a likeness of the venerable saint.

At the scene, everyone was joking. Hot tamale. Crispy critter. Burnt toast. It seems cruel but humor in such a horrific situation is a defense mechanism to men and women for whom death is their stock in trade. Men who have seen decapitation, men hardened by necessity, men who have the job of prying him free from the car.

I later learned that after awhile the physical landscape takes on a much more emotional dimension. You find yourself remembering grisly accident scenes, bloody suicides, domestic disputes and a host of other horrors while riding the county. A mental map covered with skulls and crossbones marking where death and destruction visited themselves upon the unsuspecting. But all that was still to come.

This entry was written as a way of coping with the very first death scene to which I ever responded. It was written as the beginning of a fictionalized account of the event, but all the details are true and accurate. It was brought to mind after I responded last week to the suicide of an 83-year-old man. Alzheimer’s was tightening its inexorable grip and I suppose he wanted to die with at least a modicum of dignity. The suicide took place just down the road from one of the most horrific scenes I have ever witnessed. Several years ago a young boy accidentally shot his even younger friend between the eyes at nearly point blank range (in his bedroom) with a .30-06 hunting rifle. I won't go into any details, but it was one of those days after which you know you'll never be the same.

I apologize for the cheapshot blast from the past. I am in the process writing something more current and relevant (and not so grisly).

April 19, 2007

Real Live Dragonslayers

Below is a paragraph I wrote that is part of a letter to the editor in the local newspaper. I'll not get into the larger context, but suffice it to say that this is something I have wanted to say to the media for a very, very long time.

"The next time you start to criticize the men and women of law enforcement remember that you sleep and rest secure under the umbrella of their protection. That it is through their sacrifice, through their willingness to literally put their lives on the line every day that you enjoy the safety and security of your home. They are not the stereotypes you imagine. They are men and women who believe enough in public service to go out and try to make the world a better place. And despite the public apathy or even open disdain, despite the media nipping at their heels and doing everything in its power to demean and degrade them, despite the emotional and physical burden it places on them and their families, they still suit up every day to go out to slay the dragons. They are what is best about all of us."

April 17, 2007

Sacred and Profane

I have thought a lot recently about the intertwining of the sacred and the profane in our lives, about how chaos can coexist with calmness. Of course it is not always as much coexistence as it is a sudden purging of one by the other, or of the wind that bodes no goodness seeking to extinguish the flame of our joy.

Not so long ago I was in my vehicle listening to Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou’s very profound remarks on The Hidden Heart of Man (if you have heard any of Zacahrou’s talks you know just how deep he gets). In the background the seemingly ceaseless chatter of the radio provided a stark contrast. Traffic accidents, domestic disputes, routine violence served as background for, “The Awakening of the Heart by the Mindfulness of Death and the Moment of Death.”

There is probably not a more sacred time than when we pierce the veil on Pascha and join in with the eternal chorus in proclaiming Christ’s victory over death Then we enter into the glory of Bright Week when the whole world resounds with Christ risen. But even then lurks the mundane, the ever-encroaching blackness seeking to convince us we have no hope, that our faith has no firm foundation.

This past weekend I stood by the body of a woman who died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. When I arrived she was lying on the side of the interstate on a backboard, wrapped in a sheet. Helping to put her in the hearse was an insignificant act, but it somehow felt sacred. It was right to help restore dignity to an undignified demise. To the people caught in the miles-long traffic jam, this was an aggravating delay. To us it was, unfortunately, not all that unordinary. To her family and her husband (who was driving the vehicle) it will be a day seared into their memory. A routine trip turned eternal.

Yesterday morning I drove my daughter to a three day learning field trip on one of the barrier islands. It was a wonderful time watching her rise to the challenge of spending three days away from Mom and Dad. I was thinking about how much I absolutely love her and how my love, no matter how intense or deep, is but a shadow of the love our Father has for us. Then upon my return to the office I saw the reports of the killings at Virginia Tech. Most of the victim’s parents had probably had moments like the one I just had. Now the anxiety and uncertainty would be devastating. The profane crashed into the sacred in a most violent way.

But I rejoice that it also works in the opposite direction. Even those who profess little or no faith have moments of sacredness thrust upon them, in the embrace of their child, in acts of unexpected kindness, in rainbows, in the consolation and true forgiveness the Pennsylvania Amish offered to the family of the man who murdered their children.

When the despair seems about to overpower me I remember that we are called to be the salt and the light, to season the world with our example and to bring the light of love and forgiveness to every dark corner of the world and of our hearts. When enveloped by the utter darkness of the deaths of 32 innocent people, we must shine brighter.

We live in a profane world edging closer everyday to being flooded by a tide of apathy, hatred and evil. We are called to stand in the breech. We do not have the right to hold grudges, to seek revenge, to hate those who hate us. With prayer, with love, with almsgiving, with forgiveness we must seek the sacred.

April 15, 2007

Thinking Blogger?

This blog is the recipient of two (both undeserved) Thinking Blogger Awards, one from From Wittenberg to Athens and All Stops in Between and one from Deb on the run. I read both of these blogs daily and enjoy them immensly. Both Deb and Dixie are thoughtful and kind Orthodox woman who have been tremendously generous with their encouragement and support.

Here are the instructions:1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

My first choice has to be Glory to God for All Things. Well written and well reasoned. We can all learn something from Fr. Freeman’s insightful entries. This is Orthodox blogging at its finest.

My second choice is Wisdom of the Desert for it’s beauty and simplicity. I take a look every day.

My third choice goes to Irenic Thoughts. The author is an Episcopal priest and a personal friend. It is my belief that he is on his way to Orthodoxy, but he won’t admit it.

My fourth choice goes to the ubiquitious ORTHODIXIE. A fine man who clearly loves his family and his faith. And what a sense of humor!

My last and ceratinly not least choices (yes I am fudging a bit) are Dixie and Deb.

I was guided by my own blogging habits when making these selections. These are the blogs I visit most and the ones where I am most likely to leave a comment.

April 14, 2007

Out Of Control

These are some of the messages I have received on my pager in the past 24 hours:









Translation: At 11:23 last night there was a full blown bar fight. Early this morning a 95-year-old woman passed away of natural causes. At about 11:30 this morning there was a multi-vehicle automobile accident, all lanes of the interstate northbound and southbound were shut down, two people were trapped in a vehicle. At 11:38 two air ambulance helicopters were enroute, the haz-mat team was called because of a diesel leak. The southbound lanes were opened and one patient (a 68-year-old woman) was in full cardiac arrest. One passenger (the woman) was dead on arrival after being extricated from her vehicle. At 12:28 a man riding a bicycle on a busy county road was hit by an automobile and suffered head injuries; the air ambulance was once again called. At 2:37 this afternoon a report came in of an airplane crash near the local airport. The plane did go down in a wooded area very close to several apartment complexes. The subsequent fire was put out, the pilot miraculously walked away. Some days the world seems to spin completely out of control.

April 2, 2007

The Son I Am Today

As I worked my way through Lent I experienced a profound change within myself, brought on by the grace of a God who loves me despite myself. If you have read this blog for any length of time you know I had a somewhat troubled childhood and witnessed the death of my father while still a young boy. These experiences molded me into the man I am today, but they also left many parts of my life empty and other parts undeveloped or ill-developed. Unfortunately, one of those parts is my relationship to my mother. She is now 67 years old and has survived a very hard life. While most people her age enjoy the reward of their retirement, she is reduced to a very meager existence.

My recent visit to see her (with my young daughter in tow) brought the disparity of our lives into very sharp focus. We pulled up to her ramshackle doublewide in my 2007 Silverado crew cab pickup. The contrast shamed me as few things have. But it was not just the financial disparity, it was the conviction (this is the profound change I first alluded to) that I have failed to honor my mother. I have withheld my support and my love. I have been willfully blind to her blight.

While pondering my shame on the long ride home I realized that for all these years I had been looking in the wrong place. I had looked to the memory of my father, held him up as the saint he never was, while diminishing the role and value of my mother. Here was the hero I was looking for. Here was the one who had kept me fed and alive (even though sometimes just barely). Here was the one I had not forgiven. My heart is heavy with the weight of my shortcomings, but light with the hope of healing.

I have spoken with Mom several times since returning home and I realized just how much of a story she has to tell. Below is a first attempt at the crafting of an introduction to that story. The previous blog entry is also one of my attempts to work my way through these changes.

As with many men, age and life experience have allowed me a more even handed assessment of my mother. For far too many years I mourned the death of my father who drank himself to death before his 37th birthday. I longed for him, treasured the few fragmented memories I have and most likely imagined him as too much saint and not enough sinner. During much of that time I held a strange brew of feelings for my mother. She was certainly a sinner and indulged herself in her appetites and addictions to a less than healthy degree while my siblings and I went along for the ride, but she did raise five of us in the process and while we endured many abuses and depravations, I have blamed too many of them on her.

The first insight came when I was in therapy and discussing my feelings, or more correctly my lack of feelings, for her. My therapist brought it to my attention that yes, she was in many ways less than perfect, but she had also managed to raise all of us despite an eternally drunk husband, never any money, in the mountains of Virginia in the days before disposable diapers, in a house with no indoor plumbing. I agreed that he was correct and it was proper that I should love my mother if for no other reason than she is a survivor (you will see to what degree as the story unfolds). My heart was still unmoved, held still by years of misunderstanding, physical separation and emotional immaturity.

Let me give you an example. As I reached chronological adulthood I began calling her by her given name instead of Mom. I tried to play it off as light-hearted, a sign that I had grown up, a sign of our equality. It was in reality my resentment, my way of passively stabbing back at her. I would acknowledge her as a woman, but not as my mother and I denied all the good she had done. It was also part of my trying to achieve manhood, trying to define myself as myself, and not as part of her.

I have long believed that names, titles are of the utmost importance and this use of her proper name was a profound psychological shift. I realize now how I would react if my 19-year-old daughter were to address me as William.

The final revelation came recently when I traveled to visit her with my seven-year-old daughter. I was shocked by my mother’s situation and my apathy to it. As some of you already know, she lives on $700 a month in a nearly decrepit, double-wide trailer hanging off the miserable side of a mountain in Virginia. She has survived abuse of nearly every sort imaginable, years of pulverizing poverty, decades of alcoholism, cancer and only she knows what else.

As I pondered just exactly what she had been through, at least to the degree that I could know it, I realized hers is a story that needs to be told. It is a tale of strong fisted resistance to the forces that would break her and it is a story of the human experience writ small, a tale full of death, destruction, and addiction.

The telling is also an act of love and respect for the woman who birthed me, beat me and loved me. This is what I can do. This she deserves. It is true that many times she was not much of a mother, but it’s just as true that many times I have not been much of a son. She is proud of me, it’s time I was proud of her. I do not agree with many things she did or let be done, but (pardon the cliché) it did not kill me and it certainly made me stronger.