Hardwared

by the Night Writer

I am not a particularly handy man when it comes to fixing things. In fact, I’ve often said of myself that I can do in half-a-day what it takes two men working all-day to undo. Nevertheless, I love going into old-timey hardware stores. There’s something about the faded floors, jumbled shelves and the scent of grease, oil, wood, copper and sweat that is hard-wired (or hard-wared) into my soul and stirs my imagination. The sight of rows of tools and implements made to fit the hand just make me feel useful and like I want to start some kind of project, even though I may only be able to tell you the true function of a mere fraction of these tools. For some reason I never feel this way when I go to Lowe’s or Home Depot, even though most of my “home improvement” shopping is done at these big box stores. Perhaps it’s because somewhere along the line “home improvement centers” replaced “hardware stores”.

I thought about this yesterday after reading that my local hardware store, Langula’s, is closing after 96 years and three-generations of being in business. I first wandered into Langula’s some 10 years or so ago because I needed my mower blades sharpened and they were the only place around that still did that on site, while you waited. The owner of the shop, Gary, usually did the sharpening himself, ensconced in his grungy workshop at the back of the store where you had to step down into an area  delineated by the original foundations of his grandparent’s store. Gary’s a phlegmatic guy, not much of a talker, but he can find parts and tell you how to use them. Sometimes I’d watch as he’d run the blades along the grinder in a shower of yellow sparks but usually I’d wander around the main part of the store, hefting this tool or running my hands over that piece of equipment. Somehow it all reminded me of when I was a boy and my grandfather would take me around with him when he’d go to visit his many friends who were fuel oil jobbers and mechanics. I remember their twill work pants, Eisenhower jackets and their billed caps with the ear-flaps on the side … and always the smell of petroleum. Okay, it wasn’t frankincense, but these men with their look and jargon seemed to me to be part of some esoteric priesthood of arcane knowledge.

If not a priesthood, it was certainly at least a club. My grandfather would tell me stories of a hardware store in his home town that was run by a couple of friends, one of whom had some talent as an artist. The men in town would congregate at the hardware store and drink coffee from mugs hand-painted for each man by the owner, usually in a risque manner. The men always left their cups in the back of the store, never to be seen by the casual public and definitely never by the wives or women-folk.

Another old hardware store that did things its own way was on Payne Avenue when I lived on the east side of St. Paul. It looked as if it could have been the model for a Norman Rockwell calendar. Hell, I think it probably still had a Norman Rockwell calendar on the wall from 1957. The aisles were narrow and things stacked on the upper shelves seemed to lean over my head like tree branches in an arbor, while the hardwood floor running down each aisle was worn into a smooth trench by generations of work-boots shuffling along, making it all feel as if I was in a tunnel. The haphazard clutter of odds and ends led me to suggest to the clerk helping me that it must be fun to do the annual inventory. “Never happens,” he replied. “When the old man dies, they’re just going to burn the place down and start over.”

Langula’s doesn’t have quite as much “character” as that place, and Gary never offered me a customized coffee mug, but the store is still a true, funky, living artifact of another time, complete with a shop cat that lounges about the place and often naps on the counter next to the cash register. Whenever I’d take a deep breath it seemed as if I could still smell the ghosts in their work-clothes. My grandfather and his friends all passed on long ago and the hardware stores they would have felt at home in are dying out, too. After nearly 100 years in the same location, this coming weekend will likely be the last for Langula’s.

I plan to drop in, browse the aisles, breathe deeply. I’m sure they’ve got something there I need.

Running with the storm

by the Night Writer

I’m cruising west on the two-lane County Road 50 heading out of Miesville and making for Hwy. 52. When I had stepped out of King’s Place moment’s before the northern and western skies were luminous despite it being after 9:00 p.m. To the east and south, however, lay Mordor with lines of lightning crackling non-stop between walls of bruised eggplant. I had turned toward the light instead.

Now, ahead of me, the sky is a dingy parfait of blue and pink with gray-brown clouds striated across like a relief-map of the Hebrides archipelago. Appropriately, George Mauer’s “Running With the Storm” shuffles up on the stereo and the piano pounds as rain-drops start to gravel on my rear window. Looking to my right the dark green farm fields hold houses, barns, silos and electrical towers that all seem to glow from within. To my left, the sky looks like an overturned basket of eggs. Still ahead of me, the glowing sky is smaller but even in the face of the inevitable it is not going down without a fight. Not tonight.

Highway of death

by the Night Writer

In the last 30 years I’ve driven between Minnesota and Missouri in all kinds of weather and in all seasons. Spring and early summer are the most scenic times. Missouri has always seemed to be kind of a brown state to me: mud and wet clay in the winter and baked dust in the summer, while in the fall the leaves seem to turn dry and brown all too quickly. It is a hilly state, however, and a welcome contrast to the flat lands and straight roads of Iowa that we aim our way across to get there. In the spring time the hills are green with trees, turning blue-gray as they hump their way to the horizon. Come summer, a humid haze hangs over these hills like an old gym sock, making your mouth dry just to look at them.

Spring, however, also seems to be the time when various critters get a touch of the wanderlust and a desire to see what’s on the other side of the road – especially if it’s female. Disney would say they are twitter-pated, but they are often twitter-pasted. Whether because they are distracted or, conversely, perhaps too single-minded, the animals don’t pay sufficient attention to what must be the mind-boggling closing rates of oncoming metal and rubber monsters. This particular trip seems gorier than most as we see a steady collection of gob-smacked fauna on the shoulders of the road, in the medians, and often on the highway itself. Dogs, cats, deer, ubiquitous raccoons, rabbits and sometimes unidentifiable flats of fur are garnish for the vultures we frequently see loafing in the skies ahead of us, recognizable by the spread, finger-like feathers at the ends of their wings. From the time I spent working on a road crew in this state, however, I know this is also the season for the most unlikely of road warriors: turtles.

When you think of how many swift animals such as deer and rabbits get turned into pizza it is strange indeed to ponder what impulse could incent an unimpulsive tortoise to cross the road, and the ugly odds against a successful arrival. Still, they are shattered left and right this time of year. Does Darwin know about this?

At one point, I’m driving as we cruise down a relatively straight stretch of two-lane Highway 63 when we see a black shape that looks like a large serving platter in the middle of the oncoming lane about 100 yards ahead. It could be a piece of rubber from a blown tire. I’m trying to categorize it as my wife asks, “Is it roadkill?” I’ve noticed, however, that it has actually moved a little closer to the other side of the road as we watched, and I’ve also noticed an empty flat-bed truck with a red cab coming our way. “Not yet,” I reply. “Snapping turtle.”

Sure enough, the truck has edged over and I think it’s trying to straddle the snapper; turtle shells can be hell on tires. Instead, about 50 yards ahead of us the left front tire hits the turtle at 60 miles per hour. I’m expecting squish but instead it’s boom as the turtle blows up like a grenade; blood, parts of shell and parts I don’t even want to try to describe go flying up into the air as high as the roof of the truck. I’m too shocked to look at anything but the road so I don’t see the face of the driver as the rig sweeps by us so I don’t know if he’s smiling or gulping.

It’s probably two miles before I reach back into the box of ju-jubes on the console next to me.

Which connection I should cut

by the Night Writer

Earlier I posted about the time the godly hole got punched in the wall of my world-view. It was a dramatic example, but not necessarily the first time God tried to get my attention. Looking back now I can see numerous nudges, nods, winks and taps on the shoulder when I was a boy and later a young adult. Not that I’m anything special, mind you, or that God isn’t trying in multiple ways to reach all of us. In my life, however, certain things have resonated, even when I didn’t understand or want to admit what invisible mallet struck the chime to make it vibrate.

For example, back when I was in college I was browsing in a used record store as the local alt-rock campus radio station played in the background. A song came on that immediately pricked my ears. I’d never heard it before and though I could make out the words, I couldn’t really understand them. I just knew that the melody got a hook into me. About all I could remember was part of the chorus: “My heart going boom, boom, boom….”

The station didn’t say the name of the song or the artist, and though I’d hear the song occasionally at random times in the next few years I still didn’t know anything about it other than it strangely moved me every time I heard it. After I moved to the Twin Cities in the early 80s I finally got the name of the song and artist: “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel, and then spent several months trying to find a copy of it in those pre-Google, pre-Amazon, prehistoric days. It finally found it on a live album and could listen to it to my heart’s (boom-boom-boom) content. Even with that I still couldn’t grasp what it was about. Some friends told me it was a song Gabriel wrote when he was trying to decide whether or not to leave Genesis, and that seemed to make as much sense as anything even though the lyrics were mostly obscure (it was a great time for obscure lyrics).

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
I just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
“Son,” he said “Grab your things,
I’ve come to take you home.”

Then, along about the time I was discovering I was to be a father, and was rediscovering my faith, I heard the song again and it suddenly became clear to me. Had Gabriel written the song to describe his break-up with the band or, as I was doing, to come to terms with a spiritual reawakening (I knew he had become a Christian about the time he left Genesis)? I had heard a profound voice with information that by “reasonable” standards I could scarcely believe…what could I, or should I, do about it? Which of two seemingly incompatible worlds would I choose, and at what cost?

Could I trust my eyes and…imagination?

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho’ my life was in a rut
‘Til I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” he said “Grab your things
I’ve come to take you home.”

The earlier, mysterious appeal of the song became a confirmation to me that there had been a plan for my life all along, even if I was slow in picking up on it. Still, it was hard to think of giving up one life for another, but I knew the direction I had to go. In doing so, however, I came to realize that there is just one life; the difference is in how you will approach it.

Peter Gabriel didn’t stop recording music, he just went about it in a different way, with a different sense of mission. It wasn’t a matter of me withdrawing from the old world, but embracing it with fresh eyes and new arms. Nor was it about what I could get or become, it was about what I could give and be to others (my daughters, for example).

When illusion spin her net
I’m never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me

Physical separation is an illusion. I once told a men’s group that we were not monks who should seek to withdraw from the world to pursue and preserve our piety, but men who will pursue the world with our piety so that none may perish, “giving up” our lives in order to save and disciple the lives of others. If we withdraw then certainly people won’t see our failures or weaknesses and we can hope to keep them from pointing and laughing. But they also won’t see our tests and testimonies, and we keep them from a chance to see something in our lives that makes them consider their own lives and say, “Wait a minute….”

Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” I said “You can keep my things,
They’ve come to take me home.”

Days with my father

by the Night Writer

Buffy Holt linked to this profound photo essay the other day, saying:

Days With My Father is Phillip Toledano’s evocative photo essay of his 98-year old dad and their struggle with memory loss. But it’s so much more than that too. Five minutes of your today…and it will move you beyond words.

I’d gladly give Buffy more than five minutes just on her word, so I went to the link…and was moved.

Photo (c) Philip Toledano

Photo (c) Philip Toledano

For some reason, however, my browser (IE) would show the photos but not the full text, cutting off the far left hand side of the page. Even in full-screen mode the text ran off the page and couldn’t be slid into view. Three-quarters of a line, half-a line, was all I could make out. God, it was frustrating …  and it reminded me of my grandfather, aphasic after his stroke, when all he could get out was half a sentence, leaving you to guess or interpret the rest. It reminded me of my father, weak and tired and barely able to breathe, speaking a minimum of words, trusting to memory and context and a shrug to supply meaning.

Then, reading the snippets of text again, and remembering how this was an account of struggling with being able to remember. How perfect, then, for meaning to be found outside of syntax! You can’t use your brain, only your eyes and your heart, to feel, not to know, what is meant…and then still being able to understand it!

Just like with my grandfather. Just like with my father. Days that I will never have again, but days that will never leave me.

(By viewing the link now in Firefox I can  read everything, so it wasn’t a deliberate technique for telling the story. I almost wish it was, but take my word that you wouldn’t want to miss a thing.)

After the fall

by the Night Writer

Two years ago today the 35W bridge collapsed, drawing attention not only from across the state of Minnesota but also across the country and even the world. When I was in Spain a couple of weeks ago I was talking to an engineer from Madrid and when he found out I was from the Minneapolis area the first thing he wanted to talk about was the bridge collapse. Since the collapse a new bridge has risen, bigger and stronger than the original, the marks of the disaster now largely out of sight underneath the waters of the Mississippi River, just as the scars in the lives of those who survived — or in the lives of the loved ones of those who didn’t — are largely lost to our sight now.

At the time I suggested here (see below) that in the fall of concrete and metal something better and purer might arise, not made by the hands of man, but in the way those hands reached out. Today a new bridge stands, better than ever, where the old one fell. Two years later my question to you is, “Can we say the same thing?”

The bridges of Minneapolis and San Luis Rey, and the Tower of Siloam
Who, what, when, where? Those are the first things we want to know when a disaster makes the news. Close on their heels comes the question hardest to answer: Why?

That question breaks into two parts, the physical and the metaphysical. Why did the bridge fail structurally, and why were these particular people apportioned to survive, die or be injured? The first question will eventually be known to the millimeter; the second will remain fuzzy. Implicit in the second one, however, is the fear that everything is random, that there is no justice, or that justice is applied on a scale so grand that we can’t calculate it; either way we are left with uncertainty as to just what measure is due us personally. The thing is, we want there to be a reason and order to things, and optimistically assume (or hope) that our own accounts will balance to the “good”; promising or justifying our own deliverance from calamity.

We easily extend our version of grace to others (as long as they’re victims and not members of the opposition party), generously judging them good or innocent by the most general of categories: he was a “nice guy”, she was a young mother. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” we cry. Other people, or other times, might view calamity as judgment or karmic justice.

Similarly, was it chance or God’s plan that resulted in the deaths in the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis? Was it God’s indifference that lead to the fall, or God’s providence that the calamity was not more catastrophic? If there is such a “goodness” scale, by what measure can the survivors claim deliverance and what comfort can be given to the families of those who didn’t? How can a former missionary go missing while a child abuser survives?

People didn’t start asking these questions just when President Bush took office, either. In his 1927 novel, “The Bridge at San Luis Rey,” Thornton Wilder tackles similar questions and circumstances in the person of Brother Juniper who tries to ascertain the central failing in the lives of five people who perish when the titular bridge falls into a chasm. (He could come to no conclusion). Going back a bit further, in John 9:2, Jesus was asked about a blind man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Whereupon he made mud and put it in the blind man’s eyes and then sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam, healing his blindness. Interestingly, Siloam is mentioned again in Luke 13 when people suggest to Jesus that calamity overcame certain people as a judgment. His response: “… those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Or, (excuse my jump in character but not in context), in the words of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “We’ve all got it coming.” The point being made was that no one is innocent, but each may come to the revelation of salvation by grace; by the work of God, not man.

I’m not trying to be dark. In fact, I believe that there is an order and justice in the universe even if we can’t see it all at once. I believe that because, in fact, we are able to see beauty and justice from time to time. If it weren’t so, all would be chaos and despair. Instead, in the midst of the refining fire of a disaster there are gleaming streaks of gold rising through all the impurities; the acts of courage, altruism and goodness in the survivors and rescuers (perhaps even unplumbed in their lives up until that point), and of a community pulling together in empathy and faith.

Bridges are aspirational; tangibly they are an example of our ability to overcome an obstacle to achieve what we want. The failure of one is not just a challenge to getting what we want, it is a repudiation of our ability to even conceive of it; the cutting of the tightrope woven of our doctrines that we walk to find our own salvation. In Mark Helprin’s book “Winter’s Tale” the allegorical and eternal Jackson Mead, an engineer representing either Lucifer or man (I go back and forth on this), strives to bend steel, nature and his will into casting a tremendous bridge of light to Heaven that — like our human understanding — touches the far shore for a moment and falls. Yet one of the messages of the book is that the balances are exact; and one thing cannot fall without something else rising and even more gloriously.

The 35W bridge fell in a crush of broken steel, concrete and bodies — and though the dust sought to obscure it, we could suddenly see something clearly: we are the bridges, standing in or reaching across the gap for and to one another.

Standing, always.

The rain keeps its own sweet time

by the Night Writer

My grandfather was born at home on his family farm and the life there was soon ground into him like the loam on his bare feet. He worked the fields and the stock as he grew up and though he ultimately made his living in a suit and a tie, farming was always a part of him. One time I bought him a Stan Rogers CD that featured a song entitled “The Field Behind the Plow”. Rogers had a remarkable talent for getting into the heart of people’s lives and stories and his stoic portrayal of the farmer’s life resonated with my grandfather. He and my grandmother took a car trip out west with my parents shortly after he received that CD and he just about wore them and the CD out, wanting to listen to that song over and over. Part of the song goes:

Watch the field behind the plow turn to straight, dark rows
Feel the trickle in your clothes, blow the dust cake from your nose
Hear the tractor’s steady roar, Oh you can’t stop now

There’s a quarter section more or less to go

And it figures that the rain keeps its own sweet time
You can watch it come for miles, but you guess you’ve got a while
So ease the throttle out a hair, every rod’s a gain
And there’s victory in every quarter mile

The song, and memories of my grandfather, kept going through my head Sunday afternoon as I carved rows of my own across  my lawn while my tractor roared. The sky had been overcast and the clouds lowering before I started mowing, threatening an encore of the rains from earlier in the week that had already left my lawn on the verge of verdant rebellion.  I had measured the sky with my eyes before mounting up and knew it was an iffy proposition as to whether I could finish before the rain, but I had to try or else the neighbors were likely to start losing small dogs and children in my front yard. The rain was on its way, but every rod was a gain.

I stayed dry as I finished the front yard (I call it the “north 40”) and the side yards, and as I turned into the backyard with yet another look at the sky I thought I just might finish in time.  It wasn’t 10 minutes later, though, before the first, fat drops began to pattern the dust on the tractor hood and find the inside of my collar. I still had half-a-dozen passes to make, so I eased the throttle up a little higher and adjusted my hat, thinking of how much my grandfather would have welcomed the rain.

In an hour, maybe more, you’ll be wet clear through
The air is cooler now, pull your hat brim further down
And watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows
Put another season’s promise in the ground

I certainly didn’t have (or need) an hour, and I finished just as the rain started to pick up, turning into the dry darkness of the shed just as my shirt was starting to stick to me. After I turned the tractor off I stood for a moment , breathing in the smell of dried grass, old oil and the earthy moisture riding the breeze before I  trotted along the walk to the back door of the garage. The main door there was also open, framing a wide-screen picture of the front yard like a 300-inch plasma screen as the rain really began to pour. I felt a shiver of satisfaction even in the humidity as I stood just under the big door to  appreciate the perfect moment.

For some reason, my garage has always smelled just like my grandfather’s garage did when I was a little boy. No other garage at any place I’ve lived has ever had that same scent, but I noticed it when we moved in twelve years ago. Standing there, breathing in the garage and the smell of the rain, I could imagine Pawpaw standing behind me, watching as the grass turned even greener in the dimming light, admiring the straight tracks the tractor had left on the lawn and the silvery shimmer of sheets of rain waving toward the house, absorbing the white noise of water pounding the shingles, clattering through the gutters and babbling out of the downspout at the corner.

For the good times come and go, but at least there’s rain
So this won’t be barren ground when September rolls around
So watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows
Put another season’s promise in the ground

Photo by D-32

Photo by D-32

FYI: Stan Rogers died in 1983 but it is almost eerie how much his son Nathan looks and sounds like him today. You can listen to Nathan singing “The Field Behind the Plow” in this video:

A novel date

by the Night Writer

I went through my archives looking for the post below in order to re-run it as we count down the last few days before Ben and the Mall Diva’s wedding this Saturday, May 23. Once I found it I copied it and then checked the date when it originally ran. It was strangely familiar.

May 23….2007.

Novella

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the yard and shot it.”— Truman Capote

I don’t have the experience, yet, of being an author finishing a book so I don’t know if Capote’s words are apt. It seems to me the writing-publishing experience is more like being a parent and having a child leave the nest. As the parent of a soon to be 19-year-old still in the nest but beginning to make her own way I marvel at how what I’ve “created” has taken on a life of her own; how the countless hours spent shaping and imagining and agonizing over just the right word has inspired dialogue with subtleties, nuances and complexities I never realized were possible, and how a true character has emerged fully-formed and bursting to go forth.

For years this book was mainly blank pages; pages that consumed my life and were never far from my thoughts no matter what else I happened to be doing. Day by day those pages were filled, and while there are things I’d like to go back and rewrite there’s no guarantee that the story would be even better than it is now; even so I wrestle with the temptation/obsession to continue to tweak and polish.

Will anyone else understand the humor of page 112, or appreciate how difficult it was to write Chapter 19? Certainly not at the level I do, but that knowledge is for my own book, the one written on my heart. Now, though, it is time to see this through; to be proud to see all the time, work and love realized in a tangible package; to admire not just the cover but the spine; to breathe deep the aroma of the fresh pages and the glue that holds them together.

It is good.

And back again

by the Night Writer

When I was younger the weddings I went to far outnumbered the funerals. That ratio is changing, it seems, to something like 50-50, but I’m hoping to get through this summer and fall with with a blaze of those more youthful days and something like a 3-to-1 wedding ratio. Sometime well into the future the ratio will skew inexorably to the more somber tones. This year, however, is off to a bright start as the funeral I attended last Friday was more like a party.

As I wrote in my last post, my grandmother Lizey passed away just short of being 102 years old. I returned to the family hometown for the service and to the same funeral home where I’ve attended four other family funerals. I knew this wasn’t going to be the typical affair, however, when my brother called my cell from the visitation while I was still on the highway heading south, an hour and a half away. He was there with aunts, uncles and cousins and it sounded like there was a party going on in the background.

When I got there Grandma was laid out in peace, the only one it seemed like who wasn’t laughing, hugging, telling stories. This has always been a loud branch of the family, and all the stories were familiar ones and I think she would have liked seeing everyone together again and hearing the same old tales…the kind of tales that make you start to laugh as soon as the first few words are out of the teller’s mouth and you anticipate what’s to come. In one corner my oldest uncle was holding forth and in another corner his oldest son was doing the same, perhaps even more expressively, the circle unbroken. Three of her four surviving children were there, almost all of the grandchildren, a handful of the great-grandchildren, and once I caught a glimpse of the great-great-grandchild whose mother had been about the same age the last time I had seen her. I was told that Grandma’s remaining sons had decided that the last $100 of her estate was going to my own daughter, who marries later this month.

The funeral was the next day and the six grandsons were the pall-bearers. It had been a long while since the six of us — all of us within five years of age of each other — had been together but the elbowing, nudging and mild-horseplay seemed to pick up without missing a beat. The funeral director brought the six of us — Robbie, Roger, me, my brother, Kevin and Kent (who we call Fred) — together to run through the drill with us. After a few minutes she smiled and said, “We usually like to have the pall-bearers sit together in a group, but in your case I think we’ll split you up.” I told her that if she really wanted to get our attention she’d have to threaten to “beat the pee-waddin” out of us, and Grandma would understand. She allowed how she’d keep that in reserve.

The service was a sweet celebration. The wife of one of the great-grandkids sang two beautiful songs and the pastor from her life-long church, First Baptist, spoke of her great contributions the history and fellowship of the church and the rich heritage passed on into the lives of the family as he had witnessed over the previous 24 hours. Through the course of his brief talk he mentioned “First Baptist” about eight times. Later I told Aunt Sis that, given Grandma’s age, I wasn’t sure if the pastor had been referring to the church or to Lizey.

After the service the short procession moved out from the funeral home behind the hearse, heading through the drizzle for the Hodge-Enloe cemetery out on old highway UU. In the country, cemeteries are usually named after the families that founded them or the farms where they are located (often one and the same). Here’s something else about the country: when a funeral procession passes by, everyone on either side of the road pulls over. In the city, even with a police escort, people crowd you, even cut through the line.

Even in the mist and drizzle that day the hills were a beautiful green as we made it out on the old road, gravel the last mile or so, and there was a fresh smell to the air. It’s an old land, and an old cemetery, originally founded in 1889. I knew people with the same last names as those on the stones we walked past, carrying the casket, but I didn’t know any of those…except that I did, if that makes sense to you.

When the short prayer and final reading were finished we turned and walked back across the rough, wet grass to our cars. There was rain, and there was gloom and there was the new bright green on the old hills behind, around and in front of us, and the smell of spring and renewal.

The Depths of the Night

I was combing through my blog archives earlier looking for a study that I’ve previously cited because I want to use it in another post that I’m working on. In the process I came across a short piece that I wrote here back in 2005, my first year of blogging. It seemed especially appropriate for the present day when so many people appear to have so much to worry about. I’m re-running it here in the hope that it might help someone find a little peace and comfort.

A Beast in the Night

It’s two a.m. and the beast slides in under the bedroom door while I’m sleeping, a darkness deeper than the dark. I feel his weight as he sits on my chest and the tingling sensation of the tips of his talons as he takes my head and turns it slightly to face him. “Let’s talk,” he hisses.

This implies conversation, but it is one-sided. Doom seems to be the theme, oppression the objective, but I’m not paying too much attention to specifics as I sort through and catalog the degrees of my awareness. The house is quiet and still. No strange lights from outside, no smell of smoke through the screened windows. My wife rests peacefully beside me. There is just this…thing, hunkering down, pressing on my thorax. My breathing seems shallow; does it have to be? I fill my lungs several times, deeply. Breathing is good, the weight remains. I experimentally try shifting my position.

“Ah-ah,” says the beast, “does it hurt when I do this?”

Actually, no, nothing hurts. I easily move my arm and place my hand below my collarbone. The river courses deep and wide and steady beneath my fingertips in a familiar rhythm. My skin is cool and dry and yet I know the beast has found something, deep within. A tiny flame of fear, like a pilot light, and now he breathes on it and his very breath is combustible – the flame roars, seeking more fuel, wanting to consume me. In the light of day I hardly notice the steady but small flame; now in the dark every flicker seems to cast an ominous shadow. This is beyond reason, but reason I must: there is money in the bank, we are whole, the jobs are good, the basement will be dry again. I am fine and no weapon formed against us will prosper.

The beast is unimpressed, and answers each thought with a “But…” of his own, his own butt and haunches squeezing against my ribs. The debate goes on quietly for an hour. I should get up. I should get some water. I should change the scenery, but I feel trapped. “Yes…trapped,” the beast says, “trapped, trapped, trapped.” This is going nowhere. Reason is not sufficient, and argument is ineffective. If he won’t listen to me, then I won’t listen to him. I deliberately turn my mind to the old songs, the songs of deliverance and praise, I repeat them to myself, sometimes running verses together or in different order, simply using what comes to mind, from another pilot light, a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, replacing fear with power, strength and a sound mind.

The darkness in the room changes perceptibly. It’s nowhere near dawn, but it seems lighter somehow. Peace returns, if sleep does not. At 4:00 a.m. I’m aware that my wife is awake, lying quietly in the dark. I speak softly, “Are you awake?”

“Yes. Why are you?”

I tell her what happened. She draws closer, hooks one of her legs over one of mine, her arm brushes the last traces of the beast from my chest.

“I’m feeling better,” I say.

This also reminds me of something else that I’ve written here before, a quote from Edwin Louis Cole: “Fear is the belief that something I cannot see will come to pass. Faith is the belief that something I cannot see will come to pass.”

Which will you choose to believe?

I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.”…You shall not
be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence
that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday.

— Psalm 91: 2, 5-6