On Combat and Kierkegaard

I was thinking about leaving work for the day, not yet getting ready but in that hour before when you begin to think about what you need to do in order to leave: how many unread emails would you like to respond to, how many of those niggling tasks that you’ve been putting off? But my friend came in, and we sat at the table in my office, the one with the globe and the stack of books — my wife buys me globes because of how I like maps, which she learned on our honeymoon when we drove to Cayucos and I charted our progress on a Rand McNally atlas. So my friend I’ll call Michael and I sat at the table with the globe, and we talked a little about work, and he also talked about combat, since he is ex-military. He told me about parachuting into a combat zone under fire, and how he was trained and prepared for such an event, prepared to see a member of his squadron get hit, prepared to hit the ground and begin moving, working to accomplish the mission. 

“I miss that clarity,” Michael confided. “Civilian life is so confusing.”

I’ve thought of this over the past weeks, this moment of connection and grace and insight. We lack clarity to our lives. On one hand, this makes sense: if the stories we live are first shaped by our desires, by the want to have something and the need to reach out and get it, ours is a world where desire proliferates. Simply watch a commercial break on television, and you are inundated with all that could be missing from your life. A new car. The right dishwashing detergent. The phone to help you experience life more deeply. Even your dog isn’t living his or her best life without the right dog food. You hear and see this in 120 seconds.

At work, we’re told our white-collar jobs engage us more fully than adding parts on an assembly line, and yet the meetings and email are endless, each with a different priority, each asking something of you, some engagement, and you shift between tasks constantly for nine hours before you drive home in traffic and watch email from your phone. Shifting from task to task, responsibility to responsibility without true awareness of which is more important, science tells us is the perfect way to diminish productivity. Yet, this is how we’ve set up our modern offices. Such shifts in our focus and such clamor to shape our desires: this is why life is confusing to people like Michael and, often, myself. 

If our lives are to have the meaning of a story, I know of no cohesive story where the character wants a new car, and a bigger house, and a wife, and a new phone, and better dishwashing detergent. In fact, stories based on what you can buy — outside of desperate need or sacrifice — are not engaging stories at all. The same is true at work. If I want to move forward on a technical project, and support a branding project, and also spearhead a project with the marketing team, I am quickly in a place of confusion and exhaustion. After all, I also have a day job outside of these projects.

Kierkegaard writes, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

If we go too long without one desire shaping our stories, or if we go too long with incoherent stories, shaped by myriad desires, we risk our lives falling into meaninglessness. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue, “When someone complains…that his or her life is meaningless, he or she is often and perhaps characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement toward a climax or a telos.” A telos is an ultimate objective. An aim. An overarching goal.

Combat provides a telos. I think, in some way, so do maps. They offer a chance to chart progress against a goal, to see where we’ve come. Maps, of course, also offer possibility: “If we turn here we can see Mono Lake.” Maps are an opportunity for a journey, and journeys are not necessarily from point A to B, but opportunities to move forward while experiencing the world. 

MacIntyre goes on to write, “The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest.”

*

If our desires shape our stories, Kierkegaard and MacIntyre argue for one great desire. Kierkegaard calls it the good, and MacIntyre writes of recovering the Aristotelian telos. But how are we to do this? Or, how am I to do it with my white-collar job and endless supply of emails? A telos, it seems, is for the weekend when I can focus on one desire of, say, loving my family and see the narrative of life. What am I to do — what are we to do — on Thursday afternoons when the weekend is far away and life is not a narrative quest but a comedy, where my best efforts turn against me? For this is also a uniquely modern problem — not only to identify a telos but to move toward it, and we can often be uniquely situated where meaningful work toward a goal is difficult. But I’m straying into other ideas.

MacIntyre argues for a certain type of narrative, against a life being a comedy where my efforts turn futile. A quest has a certain narrative shape, against a tragedy or comedy or rags to riches story. In its classic form, it’s meant to get something and bring it back for the good of the community, and half of the story is convincing the community they need whatever you have. For Odysseus, since the Odyssey is one of the most famous quests, almost half of the story occurs after his return to Ithaka and now must make it clear that his return is good — though it assuredly won’t be for the suitors. 

If the stories we live are about our desires, a quest asserts that one desire must be above those others. If we want our stories to have coherence, to have meaning for us, we cannot pull from a grab bag of desires every morning or every commercial break, or even every workday. We must have some conception of an overarching desire. MacIntyre again: “Without some at least partly determinate conception of the final telos there could not be any beginning to a quest.”

*

I cannot answer your telos. For myself, however, I have thought about who I was as a child, and who I want to be when I am fully grown. I have thought about what I need to live, and what makes me alive. I have, tentatively and carefully, shared these ideas with others to see if my work has resonance in the world. And I return, inexorably, to the ideas of meaning and awareness. We must become aware of our lives, of turning off cruise control or autopilot or however we go about our days, and we must see our lives anew, and we must do it again and again. Otherwise, our lives fall into routine and rhythm — which can be helpful — but we must always know why we have such routines and rhythms, or they become banal and binding. Such awareness, I believe, invites us toward meaning. And meaning is always infused with significance and hope, for a meaningful act is a hopeful act. I know of no better way to bring awareness and meaning than story, by telling stories and by urging people to see the stories of their lives. This is my quest.

I will lose the thread, likely later this week. And I will need to build up, all over again, what I truly desire, and whether I am pursuing this, and where I can impart meaning and awareness. A quest is not a decision, but a daily journey, an overarching shape to our lives, and while I’ll have detours I also hope to move forward. I suppose it would be similar to tracking my progress on a map.

On Homemade Art and Stories

Beside my desk, on the wall to the right, hangs a work of art. It is four pieces of construction paper taped together with orange tape; each piece of paper is a different color. The art makes a sort of lopsided and sideways T, and it tells a story and invites the viewer into a world. Across the top is a railroad track, a restaurant below, a windmill and horse and — to the right, where the length of the sideways T extends, mountains and cars and a rocket. My daughter gave it to me on my birthday this year, in the way children have of giving you something they made, and I made a frame for this lopsided T of a picture, stained the wood, hung it beside my desk. It hangs as a reminder, as I write, to make worlds and tell stories. It reminds me, too, of something I would have made as a child. As children we are storytellers and story makers, and I wanted something to remind myself of that, and this was the perfect thing.

I know that “story” is a buzzword now, used in marketing and data analysis, politics and current events and, thankfully, even literary circles. I can’t help but wonder where story has grown so popular because of our loss of it as a culture: that is, the loss of a metanarrative and unifying story with unifying ethics, morals, a unifying telos or end of humanity and each person individually. That is, I am convinced the more society talks about anything — be it story, identity, or truth — it’s a good sign that we lack whatever we’re obsessed about, like a group of starving men and how they will, inevitably, fantasize about food. Our society does not have this unifying story, so we talk about stories without knowing what to do about them, but without a common story we don’t even have a common language to speak to one another.

But we cannot escape that we are storytellers, or we once were, as the picture on my wall asserts. And we know we want stories, we watch them many evenings or binge them on weekends. We also want them, I believe, for our own lives. Or rather, we have them for our lives whether we realize this or not, and we want control over them, and to squeeze the meaning out of them, to realize what this world with its commutes and coffee, email and exercise, sleep and lack thereof, is all for. Yet, we cannot pull our stories out of the ground, fresh and new and ready to take home. Instead, we find ourselves with an amalgam of stories already, bringing the stories of consumerism and success to stories of faith and religion, mixing them and wondering where the narrative lies.

Of course, the consumerist story is one of accumulation. I think of buying a pair of running shoes: I could spend a week’s worth of work on this activity, researching reviews and materials, as if this buying decision somehow validates me. Or, if you’re not a researcher but more of a spender, I think of the evidence of accumulation in our garages and closets, and that self-storage is a $38 billion industry in the U.S. That’s about twice that of the entire music industry in our country. 

And if you are not accumulating products, we are desperate to accumulate experiences, or that seems to be the case form the modest amounts of time I spend on Facebook or Instagram, where our status is measured by the meals we eat and the trips we take. I rarely see posts sitting in meetings or answering emails, which are two activities that take up enormous amounts of my day. This is another story, and a distinctly American one, as if our highest end is to enjoy — or the pursuit of happiness.

This colors my faith, and if I have enough savvy to avoid thinking of God as Santa Claus, which I sometimes do, it’s easy to think of him as therapist or life coach, someone who exists so that I can be fully empowered, fully myself. But whatever truth there is to this, my vision of being fully myself generally falls into one of the consumerist and accumulation camps, with a vocation thrown in for good measure: I no longer have to worry about finances, or meetings and emails, and I have time to write, to sit outside on long mornings enjoying coffee, to philosophize. I find it strange that God isn’t more focused on my own empowerment and, the idea that we often confuse with empowerment, comfort.

A story begins, as I remember a professor telling me in grad school, with what a character wants. Specifically, she said, “To find a story, find someone who wants something and can’t have it.” This is partially why the consumerist-accumulation story is so dissatisfying, apart from deeper issues of what makes a human satisfied: it’s too easy. Any story that can be solved by cutting back at Starbucks and saving up isn’t one that will win our hearts. So, it shouldn’t guide our lives, either.

Think of your favorite stories. I reread For Whom the Bell Tolls this year and was reminded how Robert wanted to fight for freedom and win the war, but he really wanted love. I was recently brought to tears by The Color Purple when Celie’s sister Nettie, who we thought was lost, comes home. The scene was a resurrection, a yearning for life. 

A character wants something. This is where I see the story can diverge from wanting new running shoes and into the realm of faith. After all, this is the question Jesus asks again and again of almost everyone he meets: “What do you want me to do for you?” James K.A. Smith writes that this is the fundamental question of discipleship: what do you want? He goes on to write that our wants and longings are at the core of our identities, but I would amend his statement to say that are what launch our stories. To paraphrase Donald Miller, if we want the kingdom, we live a very different story than if we want a Lexus. Good literature does this. I quoted just two books I read recently, both old books, because good literature re-orients our desires to what is real and true or, if a tragedy, warns us away from those desires that will destroy us. Good stories are not about saving up for new cars, or if they are, the author knows the car means much, much more than a conveyance.

And this idea finally makes sense of the C.S. Lewis quote that we love to bandy about without knowing exactly what it means: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…We are far too easily pleased.” We are too easily pleased because if we do not want enough, we do not live a true and beautiful story. 

There is nothing more serious than a story. We need such stories to re-orient ourselves toward what is real in this world, toward our deepest desires, so that we can live true, good stories. There is much to thinking about the stories we are living but it starts with this: What do you want? So it becomes a circle. We drink stories to orient our desires, and our desires shape our stories, our real stories in the here and now. 

The picture hangs to my left so I remember this, and I remember it, and I remember it. I grew up drawing such pictures and telling such stories — stories of love and hope, of sacrifice and, yes, violence. Today, I want to tell such stories because they are true, because they tell us what is most real in this world, but mostly because I see my desires drift from beauty and love to a new pair of running shoes far too easily. I want to desire more, because my desires shape the story I’m living. I want to live a story of beauty and truth and goodness, of hope and sacrifice and even pain in the cause of the kingdom. But I cannot get there, I cannot get my desires high enough, without a story to reorient me — even if it’s the thick and lopsided story that a seven year old drew hanging beside my desk. 

Revision is Development

In continuing the recent trend of this blog actually living up to its moniker, I offer an insight into the everyday world of a living, breathing, unsuccessful writer.  Below is a first draft from my latest novel, and the revision that I worked on this weekend — a revision that will be followed by two or three more before I have the novel where I want it.

The road was black and green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  You could not stop the grass from growing here in Kentucky, and the weeds.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago.  I liked driving through the hills because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I tried the radio but knew that unless I was passing by a tower at the time, I could never get any signal.  Static, with faint mists of voices like they were dead and trying to communicate with me across the great divide.  It didn’t bother me too much, but I worried about tomorrow afternoon.  That’s exactly what I worried about.  After a night and a morning in the car, when the sun hung in the sky at four o’clock, that would be terrible to have no other voices.  Late afternoon was always the worst time of the day.  The day was dying and you knew you didn’t have too much light left, but it wasn’t yet night or even sunset.  It was just day stretched out like a desert, with nothing to do but wait for night to come and its peaceful or terrifying darkness.  The darkness doesn’t matter, only that it is a change.  I imagine the same thing happens in the morning, during the dullness of night an hour or two before the sun rises, but I’m never awake at that time.  Maybe tonight.  Maybe tonight.

And, the edits from Sunday:

The road was black, but green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago, and everything grew without limit: the Bermuda grass and foxtail grass and thistle, all mixed together and going to seed and awaiting the judgment of winter.  Trees, though, clutched the rolling hills, their roots deep and intertwined in the limestone, and grass only grew at the edges of these forests.  I liked driving the hills with the trees, because there was a majesty to them and they would survive the winter, because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I turned the radio on, briefly, but only heard fragments of voices against the white static; voices like ghosts.  Or, voices like God trying to say something, but there was too much static and I was driving away.

I needed to reach Memphis tomorrow afternoon.  My radio could find some voice then, among the voices of the city, because late afternoon was the cruelest time: the sun beats and day stops like evening will never come, and we sit with our memory of the morning and desire for the evening, like we are neither living nor dead.  So for that time, I wanted a radio.

You can see some of the development that has come from my revision.  First, the sentences (I believe) are clearer, and I found the detail of the Bermuda grass by going back and working harder to envision the roadside.

Moreover, the first excerpt became too rambling for me — it felt like I was trying to channel Holden Caulfield, with a little more poetry.  By revising and focusing a bit longer on the grass, the radio, even though the thoughts of the narrator move similarly, the second version rambles less.

In focusing on the time of day, I tied the revised version to his overall journey, and then threw in some T.S. Eliot to help portray his thoughts/feelings.  Of course, just at that moment of gravitas, he isn’t someone overly deep, so he backs off and asserts his need for the radio.

I’m also playing with some themes — death (which ties in with Eliot’s “Wasteland”), and a strained conception of God, which made its way into the second (actually, third or fourth) draft.

So, a small window into the inner workings of a subsequent draft.  One of the most important messages I remember from grad school is that: revision IS development.  We cannot help but add a fuller conception of characters and landscape and theme as we revise.

I’d love to hear thoughts (anyone like the first one better?), questions, musings…

Part III

Final part 3.  Click here for part 1 or part 2.

The man stopped speaking again.  The villagers did not whisper now and their faces were blank.  David glanced at Billy, at the man, at the villagers.  He began to pull the money out of his pocket.  They will not hurt me.  Hurt us.

“The man, he says he will not bring this death to us.  He says that we are strangers to this village and this lake.”  David shoved the money back down into his pocket.  The sweat began to dry on his back.

Billy continued.  “He says that strangers, they do not get punished with equality as members of the village.”  David nodded and thought of his prayer.  “But we did bring death to this village.  And this village is on this lake.  We brought death to this whole lake.  The man, he says that we must leave this village and not come back.  If we come back to this village, he cannot tell us what will happen.  It will be bad for us.

“And he says that they have told other villages on this lake what we have done.  He says that he made notice that the other villages not to harm us.  But these other villages, they will not listen to us.  We must take our message to elsewhere.”

The man with the scars on his chest and arms pointed toward the road with a straight finger and steady hand.  David felt an emptiness inside himself.  But we came.  This is why we came, he protested to himself and to God.  Billy felt the cool relief on his skin that came from a slight breeze and the mercy of the villagers.  He touched David on the elbow.  “Let us go.”  The man and the villagers did not stir.  The trees murmured.  David’s shoe knocked the empty copper bowl and made a melancholy thump.  David grasped that this village lacked the money in his pocket.  He had asked God what to do with the money.

“Billy.  What if we offer them the money?  Maybe they will listen to us.  Or they’ll let other villages listen.”

A gray cloud moved in front of the sun; the wind blew high above them.  Billy rubbed his hair with his hand and thought.  The coolness on his skin began sinking into his bones.  “I do not think we should do this.  God, he is the one who opens hearts.  Not money.”

“But we must be shrewd, Billy.  And we have the money to offer.  It will open a way for God.”

Billy’s dark and baggy eyes, his flaccid body almost grew smaller.  “It is your decision.”  He exhaled slowly, the lethargic sound of David’s father in the hospital.  A rush of wind came from the lake and threw sand into the air and the trees whistled.  Then, calm and stillness settled again.

David drew the money from his pocket: a thick wad of dirty bills.  He held it in the air and took the rubber band off.  The bills were colorful: blue and green and orange.  He pulled off one banknote and held it in the air.  It wilted in the heat.  The villagers looked on with blank faces.

“Tell them we offer them money as restitution.  Tell them we want to help.  Maybe it’ll open a door.”

Billy watched his friend holding money in the air and the villagers’ sad eyes.  The darkness had not left.  David was like a thousand men now: the missionaries and explorers and overseers and businessmen who came to Africa for adventure and success; men who thought Africa was a great dark machine that only needed the proper oil and care.  David smiled obsequiously at the villagers.  “Tell them.  Maybe they will listen.”

Billy thought of his father in the anemic light of the shop in Lusaka and his voice ringing off the silverware and cups and metal bowls.  David was his father, speaking only English and demanding success.  Billy turned away and walked back to the road.  His shoulders felt heavy; his feet ached with tired heat.

David saw his friend leave and took a few steps back toward the villagers.  He grabbed the copper bowl and placed the bank notes into it.  “For you.”  He spoke loudly even though they could not understand.  He smiled again and waved.  He poured oil into the machine.  Then, he turned and followed Billy, his heels crunching on the dry ground.  Another rush of wind stung sand into his eyes.  He glanced back at the village.  Colorful bank notes floated in the air and drifted along the ground with the wind.  They looked like butterflies.  The man and the villagers stayed still.  The banana-leaf roofs of the white huts flapped in the wind behind them.

Excerpt Part II

For Part I, click here.

Billy’s feet shuffled in the laterite dust and blush red covered them.  The red dust mixed with his sweat and small stains of red covered his ankles and shins.  His head and arms glinted and his purple shirt was wet around the armpits and neckline.  Even now, the abandoned copper bowl sat near the acacia tree.  The crushed lime was gone.  The boy saw Billy and David first.  He wore the same blue and dirty shorts and his skin gave the impression of saran wrap over his ribs.  He was outside the hut and followed the chicken, clucking at it.  When he saw them, he yelled.  David did not understand the words.  He gripped the wad of money in his pocket.

He recognized the faces that came out of the hut and blinked in the sunlight.  The death wail stopped after the boy yelled and the faces came out without speaking.  Bare feet scraped the bare earth.  The villagers did not look at them straight on; they only glanced at David’s feet or torso before looking away.  The woman wore the same yellow and black chitenge and pink earth stained it at her hips.  Another woman nursed a baby.  She may have been the same who ate the dirt yesterday.  The boy’s father, the husband of yellow-and-black, came closer to David and Billy.  He wore torn green pants that maybe came from the army.  He was bare-chested, too, and he had scars on his chest and upper arms that looked like cigarette burns.  He grimaced at David and Billy and his bald head gleamed in the sun.  His gaze held pain more than anger.  David could not hold it.  His chin and jaw were strong and square and set.  The villagers remained quiet after they came out.  The chicken wandered behind the hut.  Billy reached out and grasped David’s left hand.  This was not only a sign of friendship here in this Zambian village, but of solidarity.  It acted as a physical sign of connection.  David felt the sweat forming between their hands.

The air hung heavy and still.  The man with the grimace stood in the full sunlight.  His dark skin looked stronger, more solid than David’s white skin.  He was strong because he wore scars and military fatigues and pain in his eyes.  Billy saw the scars and realized this man was a witch-doctor.  He said nothing to David, but he squeezed his hand tighter.

The man spoke and Billy squeezed harder and David’s hand began to ache.  The words snapped out of the man’s mouth: the bw- and nd- sounds reverberated hard and condemning.  David felt naked and small in front of the villagers and the man.  The man’s eyes seemed to look down on him.  David, his right hand in his pocket, kept clutching the bundle of money.  He pulled his sweating hand from Billy’s.

Billy let his hand slap against his hip.  His shoulders drooped.  He focused on the empty copper bowl at David’s feet.  He jutted out his bottom lip like an extra covering over his mouth.  He would not reply until the man completely finished.  As the two waited there mutely, the villagers gradually grew like the man, bold and forceful.  They looked the strangers in the eye and the dirt-eater stomped her foot and kicked up pale red dust; her baby and breast wagged.  Billy stared with sadness at the copper bowl.  The man continued.  Billy did not reach for David’s hand again.  David squeezed the bundle of colored bills tighter in his pocket, the soft, dirty paper.  The man with the bare chest and the burns had white spittle on his lip.  God— David began to pray but could only think of the money: this destitute, dusty village needed the money.  They would not hurt them.  He had money.  There was sand between his teeth.  He swallowed it.

The words stopped.  The man pointed at David and nodded.  The villagers behind the man whispered and glared and the yellow-and-black woman shook her head at them.

“Cabipa sana.”  Billy did not raise his eyes as he spoke.  “Sana, sana, sana.”  David did not understand.  “He says this old man sat everyday at this tree.”  Billy lifted a crooked finger toward the tree.  “He says this old man waited to die.  He waited for to die at peace.  He waited for to die alone.  This is why he sat by the tree and did not wish for to die in the hut.  He says that we came and brought death to the father of his wife.  He waited by the tree for to die alone.  We did not let the man die alone.”

The man who had spoken watched them.  He jowled at them with his long jaw.  David wondered if he had some type of oil on his head with the way it reflected the morning sunlight.  Billy’s voice fell to a gritty whisper.  “This man says that the law is for him to take revenge.  The law of the village says that since we brought death to the man, someone must bring death to us.”  Billy coughed.  He took a deep and slow breath and the sound was muted and sluggish.  He nodded.  The man began speaking again.

David did not listen to the man who spoke again.  A flash of fever thudded behind his eyes.  He hemorrhaged sweat.  The villagers scowled with puckered lips and slant eyes.  The village began to spin, slowly.  David’s hand twitched and the bundle of bills was sticky against his thigh.  I have money, he thought.  I am white.  They will not harm me.  He looked sideways at Billy.  Billy nodded every few moments but did not raise his eyes.  He prayed for Billy.  If something happened to Billy he would be alone.  His other hand opened and closed, opened and closed.  They will not hurt me.  He even prayed for the villagers: that they would show mercy and that they would find Jesus.  One older man had a twisted leg that bowed outward from his hip and made him lean like a windblown tree.  David prayed for him.  He prayed for the boy who had the copper bowl yesterday and now stood near his mother.  They will not hurt me.  He prayed for the boy’s mother in the yellow and black and for his father with the bare chest and cigarette scars.  He thought of Maria, too, and prayed for her.  He reached into his pocket again and rubbed a bill between his fingers.  God, don’t let them hurt us and show me what to do with the money.  Sweat dripped down his back.

Tune back in tomorrow for the final installment.

A Thousand Fires Excerpt

Since this blog strives to be creative, yet often just focuses on the psalms, I offer an excerpt from my first novel (not yet published).  In it, David is an American missionary in central Africa, along with his interpreter Billy, a pastor from Lusaka.  In this scene, David and Billy return to a village where a man died while they were talking to him the day before.

The two walked side by side.  To their left was the lake, gray in the morning light.  Billy slumped along and his brown forearms glinted with sweat.  David walked much taller.  The flowers did not line the road here and only knee-high, sallow grass occasionally reached for their legs as they passed.  Silver-green acacia bushes huddled near the lake.  Billy thought of the dead man and David leaning over him and the popping of his ribs as they snapped.  He also thought of Martha in the harsh light of the kitchen as he convinced her that he should go north; she only pressed her lips together and walked away.

“David.”  Billy observed his friend.  David blew out an audible breath.  “Do you think that God, he is trying to tell something to us?”

“Mmmm.  But what?”

“Perhaps God, he does not want us here in the north.  Perhaps he wants for you to wait for Hannah.  Or maybe it is we should be somewhere else.”

The staccato slap of feet on gravel and the sad throb of the cicadas filled the air.  Mosquitoes buzzed around David’s head.  He wiped his forehead.  His shirt felt like wet paper smothering his skin.  He did not want to think about Hannah.

“This is where we’ve been called Billy.  I mean, we’ve prayed about it for months, and my church and your church both sent us here.  We’re supposed to be here, walking back to the village.”  They reached the wispy miombo trees that overhung the road.  They were close to the village.  Oval and irregular shapes of light marbled them and Billy took off his sunglasses.  “I brought money Billy.  Even if they don’t want it.  As least we have it.  Don’t worry.”

At the word of money Billy remembered his father in the dimly lit shop, charging him to help and make money for Martha.  Again the tightening in his neck, and a weary ache in his feet and ankles.  “Perhaps, this money, we will not need it.  Jesus is better than money, my friend.”

David fingered the damp money in his pocket.  “Yeah.  Jesus is better than money.”

A dim moan slowly began to radiate ahead and it seemed to almost come from the ground.  It began as a gasp and stretched out to a murmur.  David realized it was not the mosquitoes that he continually swatted near his head.

“Is that the death —”

“Yes.  This is the death wail.”

“They are still —”

“Yes.  They still cry the death wail.  In Zambia, we take the time to do this mourning.”  He nodded, pleased at his own words.  “God, he meets us in the mourning.  The people, they cry to him.  They have cried like this all the night.”

David thought of his father on the hospital bed, the blue veins in his wrist that met the I.V. needle and the iodine-colored patch of skin around it.  He had sorted through his father’s old house, putting books and picture-frames and suits into boxes.  He took most of the books.  The rest went to Goodwill.  Furniture stayed for the next pastor.  After performing the eulogy he drove back to Chicago with Hannah and listened to Coltrane CD’s he’d given his dad for Christmas.  He supposed that was his death wail.  He played laser-tag with the church youth group the next day like nothing had happened.

The wailing began to overwhelm the sadness of the cicadas.  It was unearthly, and David wanted to stop here under the delicate miombos, short of the village.  He told himself to think happier thoughts, and he pictured Maria smiling softly at him in the bar.  They talked so easily, and now shared a secret.  They could go to the bar now and it was their place.  It would be a place away from Billy and the duties of the clinic and mission field.  He used to have a secret place with Hannah.  Behind the coffee shop in Chicago they walked up the apartment stairs and then climbed from the railing to the roof.  They sat and talked on warm, humid summer nights.  They liked it better than the coffee shop.  But, the bar was better than the coffee shop: it was secret and illicit; it felt as thrilling as throwing the kerosense-soaked-and-flaming pine cones in the river.

The desolate sound disabled his thoughts before long, and he shivered despite the morning heat.  The buzz of guilt returned to his tongue, acidic and yellow.  I didn’t do anything wrong he told himself.  They reached the final clearing before the village, and the acacia tree that the old man died under appeared dark and indistinct.  Billy watched David for a moment and frowned at the memory of last night in the hushed lobby, David clutching Maria.  Yet, the image evaporated into the unnatural and ominous voice in church, the concern on Martha’s face as she begged him to stay in Lusaka.  The concern: an open mouth and plaintive eyes gave way to a voice that echoed off the concrete walls and her eyes that burned like coals.  She said goodbye in the shadow of the palm tree, in front of their house.  Arms folded.  She did not wave.  The stranger’s warnings and her warnings were dark and true.

The white brick huts and pale brown roofs became visible through the trees.  The wail sounded loud and guttural now.  It muffled the trees and the wind.

Billy leaned to David and spoke above the lament.  “In Africa, we say that when someone dies, that is when you must cry from your bones.”

More from the scene in upcoming days (stay tuned)…

A Saturday…

Saturday I woke tense and anxious.  I do not know why.  Some days I wake like this.  I think we are all manic-depressive in a mild form, or at least I am.  I prayed and hoped for my mood to change but the firmament was closed that morning.

Brooke worked all day.  Ellis and I watched a movie and then ate lunch; she crawled into her chair and I set a peanut butter and honey sandwich in front of her.  Then, I went to wash dishes and could see her when I didn’t watch what was in my hands.  Ellis pulled her sandwich apart with calm and poise, stuck her finger in the honey and peanut mixture, and applied it to either cheek.  She applied it to her chin and nose.  I let it all happen, knowing she would need a bath, half-amused and half-exasperated, and the mixture covered her face and stuck to her hair.

I put her in the bathtub and then put her to bed.  I read and slept, too.  When I awoke, I cleaned downstairs and prayed while I cleaned. I’ve often prayed, lately, for peace and change within myself and I become frustrated when I do not see my growth, when I am again waiting for God to act.  I am always waiting: the life of following God is a waiting life.

Ellis woke happily, but before I thought she would.  While she chatted and sang in her crib I brought the jogging stroller and pump outside.  There was snow on the ground and we needed milk; the jogging stroller was much easier to push in the snow.  I pumped up the tires.  When I came in, Ellis was beginning to cry so I ran upstairs to get her.

I took food and juice and Ellis demanded we bring two baby dolls wrapped in a blanket.  We did.  As we went outside to walk to the store, the lower panel of our screen door fell off.  It had been dented for some time and maybe the wind had caught it just right, finally, so it fell in.  I threw the panel behind the couch and wondered to God what else might go wrong.

I set Ellis and her baby dolls in the stroller and started to move it when I realized the right tire — the one I had pumped up fifteen minutes ago — was flat.

I ran back inside while Ellis sat on the sidewalk to get our other stroller, the one that did not handle snow well.  I put Ellis and her babies and crackers and juice in that stroller.  Finally, we left.  At points in the walk I had to lift the entire stroller over slush and snow.

Returning home with milk and chapstick, I maneuvered Ellis and our groceries and the stroller inside, only to remember the screen door had no bottom, and our cat had escaped.  He was two doors down screaming at another neighborhood cat.  The neighbor came out and I waved and apologized.  Daly, our cat, ran to another house and behind a bush where I could not reach him.

I ran back inside to see Ellis saying, “Juice, juice,” and reaching for her juice on the sidebar.  I handed it to her, and turned on the television.  I grabbed a pair of heavy gloves.  A few months ago, Daly had badly scratched my hands when I brought him inside.

I walked down to the neighbor’s.  He still huddled behind the bush.  He hissed at me and swatted.  I wanted him to turn around so I could grab him from behind and hold him, so he could not get his claws and mouth in close to my chest and face.  I threw a snowball at his hindquarters, trying to turn him.  He walked off and out of my reach.  I hit him again with a snowball.  He seemed so surprised and stunned to be hit with something while nothing was near him, and trotted off back to our front door.  Ellis greeted us both and I chased Daly upstairs.

And thus was the evening.  Ellis whined and I had a short temper.  I snapped at her once but she did not, fortunately, cry.  She ate a little dinner and I had a fish sandwich with no joy in it.

On days when I awake anxious and all my best plans crack and splinter and time itself seems to fray at the seams I wonder where God is.  It is a selfish wondering, a blind wondering, but I do it because I am human and little better than blind on my best days.

At the end of the evening, we went upstairs and Ellis jumped on the bed.  She laughed and laughed at herself and her jumping.  I gave her a “Jesus Loves Me” sticker.  She played with it and I sang to her.  I changed her into her pajamas while she kicked and laughed and tried to squirm away.  Because of her infectious laugh, I blew raspberries on her belly.  I brushed her teeth and read her a book.  She pointed to the first picture in the book, a mouse putting a baby mouse to sleep, and said, “That’s a daddy.”

After reading I sang to her again and she laid her head on my shoulder and I felt life without frustration or anxiousness, life beyond time: an infinite moment after a day of struggle and tripping over myself, and I sang a child’s song and all I knew was Peace.

The River

The man sat beside the river.  The morning sun made the river orange and alive.  His wife would not live.  He had asked the doctor who looked down and said, “We’ll try everything.”  His wife sent him away this morning.  Ducks swam haphazardly with the current.  Small buds clung tightly to tree branches.  He would go to the hospital today even though his wife would not live.  It was all he could do; he had to go or he would forget who he was.  He would kneel beside her bed and smile and pray.  She would grasp his hand.

An Evening

Thursday night I slept little.

When I woke on Friday, I had that sleepy headache that we all get: a dull throb at the base of my skull.  Coffee did not cure it, nor the drive to work, nor a morning of teaching.  I smiled and spent my patience.  Students only had half a day, and I left work soon after them.  I was supposed to stay all day, but could not concentrate on anything significant.

My wife, Brooke, was surprised to see me.  I told her how tired I was, which she knew.  So, she took my daughter and they ran errands all afternoon.  I laid on the couch and fell asleep to the television, which I love to do.  I can rarely nap for longer than twenty minutes.  I slept for an hour or so.  I woke to commentators talking about some unimportant aspect of professional football.  I woke slowly, with no regard to time.  I flicked aimlessly through the channels.  It felt wonderful.

Brooke came home with Ellis.  They had gone to Babies R’ Us and gotten an assortment of items: clothes and a container for dirty diapers.  Brooke handed Ellis to me and made dinner.  She said she was going to make spaghetti and meatballs.  I turned on some music and bounced Ellis on my knee.  Brooke and I talked while she cooked.  We laughed, and told each other about our days.  Together, we sang to the music during lulls in the conversation.  Ellis smiled and laughed.  She loved the music.

We ate spaghetti and meatballs while Ellis sucked on a fake plastic keychain.  She burbled and cooed.  We ate the spaghetti, and the garlic toast, and a salad with peppers and avocados.  I was hungry.  We talked and watched Ellis.  I do not remember what we talked about.

After dinner, I turned the music back on.  Van Morrison.  Brooke was tired and laid on the couch.  I danced with Ellis, bouncing her to the music.  Brooke smiled.  Ellis smiled and laughed.  Then, I swung Ellis down, close to Brooke.  She laughed and laughed.  I swung her again.  And again.  Each time, she laughed harder.  I bounced her and swung her in rhythm to the music.  There we were, in the living room, enjoying the night.