Growing up in the South, as an evangelical, my entire life was informed by stories from the Bible; it couldn’t be helped. Narratively speaking, if narratively is a word, those stories were the in the very air I breathed. They formed the background of my life so that all my thoughts about ethics, morality, and even culture were influenced by them. One thing that was continually reinforced by these stories was the idea that the world was full of sinners and saints.*
While it now seems to me that Christianity began as a decidedly counter-cultural revolution, a solid defiance against doing things the way they have always been done, a cry for the oppressed (mostly labeled as "sinners" by society and often themselves) against the self-satisfied, the rich and the religious, often self-labeled as the "saints". And the thing was, as I grew up with those stories, I simply assumed that they supported the status quo. Those of us who were happy and living good lives were the "saints" and others were the "sinners." (There is nothing wrong with having a happy and stable family life by the way...which I did to an extraordinary extent. The problem comes in when contentment and stability are seen as signs that God is blessing you and conferring sainthood upon you.)
At any rate, for those of in the sinner versus saint business, Jesus wasn’t the guy who came and said, “Hey! You’re doing it wrong! Come with me and we will change everything. This whole thing (including you, unfortunately) is broken. Let’s fix it!” Instead, Jesus was the guy who said, “You are really lucky! You ended up believing the right stuff and your world is comfortable because of it.The rest of the world would be comfortable too, if only they were just like you.” This is not to say that I didn’t know some incredibly sweet, religious people, people who were kind and wanted to help others. But on the whole, the stories I heard were almost never used to criticize “things as they are,” merely to reassure us that we were okay now and to try to herd others into our safe little box.
We liked to rub off the edges off those stories to fit them in the box of comfort and social stability. Or maybe it was just me. I could have misinterpreted a lot of that stuff, being of a rather contented and self-satisfied nature. But that’s how it felt to me growing up with those Bible stories. Believing them should lead to contentment and happiness, white houses with picket fences, happy children and societal order. Convincing “sinners,” by which we often meant people who didn’t attend church or worship as we did, that they should believe as we did was for their own good. Most people believed in the practicality and common sense of religion as much as they believed in its goodness. A saint was a sensible person who knew what not to do and who not to hang around with and where to be on a Sunday morning.
But sometimes, I manage to wake up just for a moment and realize that it is possible that my self-satisfaction and contentment with the “way things are,” may have contaminated my understanding of the Biblical stories of my childhood. For just a second I rouse myself and realize that these stories (about a man who was so annoyingly unacceptable to society and the status quo that society just decided to kill him and have done with it) should be changing my understanding of the culture and my place in it, not propping up all the things that make me feel comfortable. Sometimes I look at one of these childhood stories and realize maybe I never quite understood it.
There is a story of Jesus, in Luke Chapter 7, verses 36 – 50 of a woman who comes to him while he is dining at the house of a Pharisee. I probably heard that story a million times when I was a kid. The woman washes his feet with her hair and her tears and then takes expensive perfumed ointment and pours it on his feet. Simon, the Pharisee, a member of a religious sect that was notable for its strict observances of religious law and tradition, questioned Jesus about this act, noting that the woman was a sinner. He felt that Jesus should be appalled at her touch, that her sins, whatever they were, might taint Jesus himself. (And he felt that if Jesus was a prophet he should know what kind of sinner the woman was). Jesus responded to Simon’s disgust in his typical nonlinear way by telling Simon a parable about a moneylender who forgave the debts of two men. One owed him 500 denarii and the other owed him fifty. Jesus asks which man will love the moneylender more. Simon replies that he supposes it will be the one who had the larger debt cancelled. Jesus then gives Simon a hard time for performing none of the customary acts of hospitality for him when he arrived, like washing his feet, unlike the sinful woman. Jesus then compares the woman to the debtor who owed the 500 denarii. He tells Simon that her loving acts reflect her joy at forgiveness and that her faith has allowed her to be forgiven. The end of the story and its moral do not reflect quite so well on Simon, although we are not told how he responds. (I picture a slight eye roll and a sigh of exasperation.)
What is most interesting to me, having been brought up in an Evangelical milieu, both in my home church and in the larger culture surrounding it (I grew up in the town that headquartered the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy), is the idea that bubbles below the surface of this story for us good “church-going” people, the "saints". I have never heard anyone talk about it, although surely someone has, but there in the story itself is an out for the saints. We don’t have to feel quite so needy, quite so forgiven as the sinful woman. It’s an out that we Evangelicals take all the time. When Jesus says to the Pharisee, Simon, that he who has been forgiven little, loves little, I believe that somewhere at the depths of our souls we sigh with relief. The woman, possibly a prostitute, but certainly considered a sinner by the surrounding culture actually needed more forgiveness than the religiously observant Pharisee. Please follow me here. We think, we really think that someone less “religious”, someone who commits sins that were probably sexual in nature, needs more forgiveness than those of us rule-following church going good people. We are inclined to breathe a little sigh of relief. We play by the rules. We will pay our 50 and congratulate ourselves for knowing how much to borrow in the first place. How very sensible and saint-like!
But Jesus never tells Simon that he needs less forgiveness. He merely notes that people who have been forgiven less, love less. I don't know if Simon necessarily sees himself in this scenario at all but if he does, he would certainly have believed that he was the man who owed 50 denarii. He was a better person than that "sinner." He definitely owed less.
Here is what I am going to tell you….that’s utter and total BS. Who is the lucky person in this scenario? The woman who wants to change her life, the woman who wants to be filled with the kind of love that Jesus had somehow shown her. The woman who understands that like all humans she is broken, that she doesn’t treat herself or others in the right way. The woman who wants to be better and express love and gratitude. The woman who has decided to do something, even if it’s still something the pious won’t approve. Simon is the one who simply doesn’t understand. And if Simon thinks that his religious lifestyle was somehow preventing him from requiring more forgiveness then he apparently wasn’t listening to all of the other things Jesus had to say. Because, Jesus didn’t preach very often, if at all, about deviant lifestyles or swearing or any of those things. He didn't have a list of words to avoid using. Jesus’ main target was, in fact, the religious people and the rich people who thought they were the best kind of people. The people who thought they didn’t need to change because they were just fine. The people who would love their neighbors when their neighbors got a clue and stepped up to follow the rules.
Here's what I think about "sainthood." If you think for one minute that you know what you are doing…if you think you have this being human thing handled…if you think following a few rules about things you shouldn’t do is an adequate expression of love towards your fellow human beings and you will love them when they start doing the little things you require (in love for them, of course, it would be wrong to hang with them until they meet the standards) and that lets you off the hook and makes you a decent person…then you are missing the boat completely and don’t even know that you are drowning.
The older I get, and the more I screw up and flounder and struggle back to the surface, the more I know that there is one thing that makes a passable human being and that’s acknowledging that you’re broken. Yes you. You are screwed up, broken…a sad case, just like me and everyone else you know. You are no better than anybody else and you have no idea what circumstances might turn you into the exact same kind of loser as the people you see around you. If you think you’ve got things figured out…congratulations…you are far more likely to oppress others, annoy others, and generally be incapable of fixing the things that are wrong with you. Put it on your application for dictator. They love that stuff at the dictator employment office.
Whatever sins the woman in the story had committed (and we don’t really know), what we do know is that she was capable of seeing herself as broken. She was capable of wanting to change…not the people around her…not “those people” who are ruining society and bringing God's wrath on the rest of us…she knew that the microcosm of evil and horror and war and nastiness was in herself. This is not to say that she would not henceforth care about justice and goodness and how other people were being treated. If you needed help, who would you go to, the sinful woman or Simon? The woman was far more likely to be among people who needed her help; people who were capable of acknowledging that they needed help.
Simon’s very "sainthood" was the thing that prevented him from having compassion for others; his satisfaction with his religious observation prevented him from doing any of the kind of things that Jesus required. It prevented him from hanging around people who were dirty or who cursed or who were sick or poor…some of whom might have taught him a thing or two. It prevented him from taking his part in making the world a better place. It prevented him from seeing that even in his most compassionate moments, maybe even when he gave alms to the poor, he was full of self-righteous crap. The key here is that Simon thought there were two categories of people, sinners and saints. I think maybe that's one category too many.
*I realize that I am using sinners/saints in an atypical way. I believe that the way I am using them is fairly well defined
Part One: What to Be Afraid of in Norway
Everyone knows that the first thing to figure out about FOREIGN places is what to be AFRAID of. So I am here to help you figure out what an American should fear in Norway.
Norwegians have begun to complain about crime in recent years. But if you are afraid of crime in Norway, just go read the crime stats. (For instance Norway’s murder rate is .6 compared to the US rate of 5 per 100,000 people each year. Heck, in Norway apparently you can’t even completely kill a person in a year. You have to do the other .4 the following year.) The majority of Norwegians feel safe walking alone at night, almost 70% of them. Not so with US citizens, where only around 40% of people feel safe walking alone at night, which means that 40% of people in the US are crazy and that doesn’t make me feel any better. *
Here’s my advice about fearing crime in Norway. Don’t worry about the crime. You’re from the US. They should be afraid of YOU. Comparatively speaking you are suddenly a lot safer in Norway than you are at home and they are probably less safe every time an American visits the place. I mean some of us have to be committing those murders here at home. Statistically speaking, just stay away from Americans while you are there.
So am I saying Norway is a completely safe place to visit? No. There are some things you should fear.
The Two Wheeled Menace– People in Norway are generally polite. They don’t push you out of the way or grunt at you in disgust if you hesitate like people in New York might. They don’t mind if you smile at them like Chicagoans might. They probably won’t run you over with their cars if you attempt to cross in the cross walk like Memphians. But put one of them on a bicycle and you better get the heck out of the way. Stop lights, Stop Signs, Stopped Pedestrians, Traffic. None of these matter to Norwegians on Wheels. THEY WILL RUN YOU OVER. Although they are quite polite and gentle about it. They want you to enjoy those last few seconds before they hit you without fear. I think I only heard one cyclist say “on your left” while I was there and only one had a bell.
Trolls – Trolls will eat you (although according to the movie “Troll Hunters” they don’t eat atheists…I don’t know why. Something about the flavor I guess. Agnostics, I just don't know if you're safe but I wouldn't want to test it.) Did I actually see a troll? Well…not exactly but there are plenty of tunnels and caves that have every appearance of being totally rampant with trolls. I’m pretty sure lots of Norwegians get eaten by trolls every year. The population density is pretty low. (They rank 188th on the charts.) My own take is that this is likely due to trolls.
Uneven surfaces and thresholds - Door thresholds are the real menace. They are all uneven. Every once in a while there is an even threshold in Norway. These few flat thresholds are only made level to fool foreigners into assuming they might pass through other doorways without looking down. They are simply there to help keep you off guard. Don't fall for it. The next doorway you walk through is probably an ankle biter.
And not only are thresholds uneven, all walking surfaces are a little tipsy. We were in one department store which appeared to have been designed by M.C. Escher. The stairs started off as rectangles with regularly spaced treads and then slowly morphed into triangles that get closer and closer to each other with lower and lower treads. Once you manage to get off the stairs without injury, if you are that lucky, you notice that the floor itself forms a bit of a trough. I can kind of forgive the crazy uneven cobblestones at the medieval castle. It's pretty dangerous. Obviously, attacking armies would be lying in the lane nursing sprained and broken ankles. Great defense system for a castle. But how often are modern department stores ransacked by invading armies?
And outdoor spaces are the same way. Essie went down at the harbor. The concrete forms small troughs and she took a spill on the way to dinner. She is still in a knee brace. Somewhere, I feel there is a special video channel that shows nothing but pratfalls by foreigners visiting Norway.
That’s pretty much the list of things you should be afraid of in Norway. Next time we can move on to things to enjoy in Norway.
*Here’s where I got my crime statistics
Recently, I have been thinking about my several-year career as a high school teacher. Maybe it’s because I miss teaching a little bit and maybe it’s because I have a daughter in high school, but it’s been on my mind. Sometimes teaching high school makes you feel pretty good about yourself. Maybe once a semester you think, “Hey…I think that kid might have actually listened to me.” You get all puffed up with self admiration and then next day you find yourself wondering if there are any available jobs open in lion taming, or sewer cleaning, or human testing for plant toxicity or something. It’s a bit of a roller coaster. I think one of the main reasons that the job is so difficult is because it comes with so much responsibility. There are lives in the balance. Here, each day when you walk through the door, are kids who will either crash and burn or pull themselves together and find a way to make it through life. Responsibility and authority…a teacher is responsible for up to thirty kids at one time. We have to teach them what they need to know to pass tests and graduate and perform crowd control at the same time. (Once I had a class of about 25 kids, five of whom were in court ordered anger management classes. Interesting times. I could write my own literature. It would be a thriller.) At any rate, I actually loved the kids I taught, even some of the most obnoxious and difficult ones. Sometimes, especially the obnoxious and difficult ones. But it was not an easy job. It could occasionally be really scary. And I’ve been thinking even more about the authority and responsibility inherent in that job since the news came out of Ferguson. Why? I guess even though I was a teacher, not a police officer I can see some places where the two jobs deal with some of the same sort of crap.
Here’s one of the stories that’s come to mind (there are more…especially when you consider what some of the other teachers went through). When I taught high school, I can remember standing within three feet of a seventeen year old boy who was standing on a desk in front of me, fists clenched, screaming. Three feet, maybe four feet from me. The screaming seemed to be directed at me. It was within my first two weeks of school and I did not know this child at all, so it was difficult to know exactly how I had come to annoy him so quickly. Usually, it takes people I meet at least six to eight weeks before they decide they hate me enough to stand on furniture and swear at me. Anyway, this kid was suddenly standing on a chair, clenching his fists, clearly out of control, right in front of me. It was quite a surprise. Once I had come to accept the surreality of the situation, I managed to talk him off the desk and he was sent out of the room and into in-school suspension for maybe a week or so, after which he returned to my classroom. Strangely, we had an okay year after that. In fact, we learned a lot of ways to help him keep himself calm and he even volunteered to help me out when he could. I ended up liking him a lot better than I thought I was going to when he was standing in a chair in front of me, cursing at me.
And here’s the thing, I might have been in real danger. The story did not have to end in the way that it did. He could have come off that desk and hit me, probably really hurt me if he wanted to…and I didn’t know him well enough to know whether he wanted to. I am not sure if he knew whether he wanted to hurt me. I was a 38 year old woman at the time. I am not a small woman, but I was no match for him. Plus he had lots of practice at that sort of thing since one of his hobbies was getting into fights on the weekend and I pursue less demanding activities like gardening (although you should see me wrestling locust trees out of the ground…but that’s another story). In spite of the obvious danger, in spite of the fact that I was in no way a match for him, I can’t imagine shooting him, even though he was threatening me. I was his teacher. I was responsible for him and for all the other students in the room. The whole thing was not about me or even my safety in that moment. It was about making the situation less violent and making sure that if he did hurt someone it was me and not any of the other kids. In fact, I didn’t want him to hurt himself. That was my job as an authority figure. To keep us all as safe as possible, even at risk to myself.
There are a few things you should know. First, I am a coward. I don’t seek out situations where I might be hurt or injured or experience any kind of pain or inconvenience. Quite frankly, I am not a fan of pain or inconvenience. But it was my job as an authority figure to keep the well-being of every student I had in mind, even the ones standing on chairs screaming invectives. The second is that this situation was probably not the scariest thing that happened at that school and we had a security officer with a gun. He never shot anyone that I know of.
Another thing that you should know is that this particular student was dealing with the abuse of his mother at home. He was really struggling with a lot of things beyond his control, and in our subsequent interactions it became clear that he really wanted to be in control of his actions and emotions but didn’t have a lot of examples to help him out. (I didn’t find out about any of his family issues until about mid year.)
All of this is to say: what is the difference between my reaction and the reaction of the police when they shoot unarmed black teenagers? (And even if you think the facts of this case in Ferguson are not settled there are many, many, many more cases….far too many to explain away.) Are the police responsible for the safety of citizens whether or not those citizens are behaving appropriately all the time? Does even a perceived threat equal a death sentence? Every day unarmed teachers and security officers deal with threatening situations like this. One of my education teachers told us about being in a situation where a security officer managed to take a gun from an armed student without shooting him at great risk to his own safety because he didn’t want to harm the student. (The Security Officer had a gun and used it to de-escalate the situation instead of killing the student). What is the difference between the reaction of those of us in schools and police officers on the street? Police officers typically have non lethal options for stopping people as well. Why do we see totally such totally different outcomes in educational and law enforcement settings? Surely, so many cases of being threatened by an unarmed teenager don’t have to be resolved with lethal force.
Why in so many cases does it come down to that? There are obviously factors that result in very different outcomes for very similar levels of threat. My own take on it is that in schools, we see students as people, complicated and difficult but people. Humans with potential. The kid screaming on the chair can join the Army. The suicidal girl with bi-polar disorder is a really good artist. The guy in the back of the class who falls asleep on his desk is working in a garage at night to help his mother make ends meet. Joe may yell, “F*** you!” to Martha while you are reading The Scarlet Letter but he offers to come and mow your grass or get you some of his Mamaw’s moonshine (the brown is for colds and cough and the green one for arthritis…I don’t remember…I bet you would quit coughing and not be able to feel your legs with either one. If you ever run into Joe’s Mamaw she always has some by the way…keeps it under her shirt). The point is they were all people to me.
Now, I know not all school systems or teachers teach with that understanding of authority, but it's much more prevalent than in other instances where one group of people is responsible for another. I think at it's best teaching like parenting is an instance in which whatever power you might briefly hold over another person is meant to be in that person's best interest. Control is held lightly and only to enable the other person to achieve certain goals. The goal of law enforcement, it seems to me is to ensure that everyone can live in a community free of fear and to remove those who cannot cooperate for the good of others and...yes...even themselves.
When you cross a line and the people under your authority become mere threats...all of them....then I think the outcomes will be that law enforcement causes the very fear and chaos it seeks to prevent. When you see someone and immediately assume that the person is a problem or worse yet a “thug” then hope for humane authority and responsibility is lost. Authority carries a great deal of responsibility for the people you have power over. It might even require you to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are human, just like you. It might also require that your main goal in interactions is not simply to remain safe. Ask a teacher.
Sometimes patterns of authority can become entrenched; systems seem foundational. But that is no excuse not to rethink them when they become oppressive.
****I would like to note that I personally know some very nice police officers and I am not condemning all police officers.
I have to make a confession. It’s probably reason number 612 that I am not going to win the Mother of the Year (MOTY) award again.
Sometimes in the summer, when we see a lot of each other, Essie and I go to lunch and we take books or kindles or phones or magazines and each of us totally ignores the other. Sometimes we eat at separate times or I let Essie eat in her room and we don’t even have a family meal time. I know children and parents should be forced to talk to one another at mealtimes and….I’ve seen the FB memes lamenting the end of civilization that has been ushered in by the smart phone and the end of family dinners…I’ve even heard the sermons about how it should be a rule that mealtimes are for talking to each other. We must always be communicating with our kids. Always, always, always….especially teenagers. Talk, talk, talk to your teenagers. (This begs the question – do these people actually live with teenagers on a day to day basis? But I digress.)
In my experience, however, communication doesn’t always work that well when you turn it into a rule. I understand the point of communication during mealtimes. I don't allow my kids to use phones during a mealtime with friends or family or even most of our “normal” family mealtimes (if there is, in fact, a time when we can be called normal), but sometimes not communicating is as important communicating when you have teenagers. Sometimes, letting other people have their own thoughts and feelings and space is just as important as telling them your own feelings and thoughts and opinions ALL THE TIME or asking them what is happening and pushing for answers. Sometimes if you give someone enough space, they might relax a little around you and a funny thing happens. They start talking to you. And talking, and talking, and talking. I have come by this knowledge the hard way. Ever try ‘How was your day?’ with a fifth grade girl? The results can be disappointing. But walk through the grocery store with a list in your hand muttering about the fact that you can’t find the broccoli and the floodgates of conversation break open. While you are trying to remember if you need garlic salt, you will be privy to the immense angst of the fifth grade social wars and the details of how Beth told your daughter’s best friend Amy that she (your daughter) was not “cool.”
If you don’t press too hard you will find that often enough these staring, nocturnal, uncommunicative creatures will seek you out to talk to you. And it will be when you are least prepared for it. Your kid will follow you to the garden while you are pulling weed and getting stung by sweat bees and your back is turned and your face is dirty and your knee hurts and start telling you about her pregnant friend who had to go live with her aunt, and suddenly you are having an important conversation about sexuality and love and having and raising kids (and you have a garden helper).
You might be driving along trying to remember why you are driving along and where you are supposed to be going after the grocery store because you know you are supposed to be going somewhere else….was it the drycleaner? Or maybe that doesn’t happen to you and you always know where you are going…but imagine yourself driving along anyway, and suddenly you are listening to the sad story of the guy she likes who doesn’t like her back or the guy who likes her whom she likes but not that way. And, of course, you forget to go the drycleaner….but that’s okay...your kid wants to tell you something.
I suspect that the big conversations happen this way because somewhere deep down they know we’re off guard. Our own agenda is put away for the moment and they can tell us these important things and we might actually listen. Times when we expect them to talk we may already have advice or a list of complaints or opinions or questions at hand and all those things can prevent actual listening.
Our family is composed of people who require a certain amount of time alone with our own thoughts, time to work things out for ourselves. During the summer we see a lot of each other. So, while others may judge, there may be times when we are better off if we each quietly enjoy the company of the other while we get lost in reading, writing, or sketching or even texting with friends on the phone. The big conversations will happen while I’m baking a cake or trying to clean the barn or digging a hole for a fruit tree. (Or as any mother of very young children knows…from outside the bathroom door.)
There’s nothing wrong with scheduled family time…but there’s nothing wrong with leaving each other alone sometimes either.
I never expected to win mother of the year anyway, I guess.
As many of you already know, Angelo is no more. He died protecting his little family of hens from a fox. (Probably a fox. I hate to accuse a whole group without proof…but you know it was you, you furry little freaks!)
At any rate I miss the old curmudgeon and the following is a tribute to him. Angelo was a good guy. And whatever ate him got a good taste of his talons and hasn’t been back since. So he his death was not in vain.
LIFE LESSONS…by Angelo
*Blogger’s disclaimer: These statements reflect the advice I feel Angelo would dispense. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the blogger.
1. Be yourself and eventually everyone will come to appreciate you for who you really are. They initially named me Angela. (Addendum: humans aren’t that bright).
2. Always have a wife. Otherwise your life will consist of scratching deep holes, repeatedly taking dust baths and reflecting on the profound injustices of life. You might as well be dead. (In fact, have several wives…especially if your wives all come from the bottom of the food chain.)
3. What makes for the best wife? The biggest booty, hands down.
4. If the wives aren’t getting along? Move away quietly and don’t get involved.
5. Hens with chicks? Leave ‘em alone. They’re psycho.
6. If your comb freezes and turns black? Put on a leather jacket and tell people you’re going for a punk aesthetic.
7. When is it too early to crow? Never.
8. Where is the best place to poop? Everywhere.
9. Watch out for chicken hypnotists. They can make you feel mighty silly.
10. The best place for dinner? The cat dish.
Gatlinburg – The Hillbilly getaway in the Smokies. It’s an odd mixture of fake Tudor houses, pretend Swiss chalets, log cabins, and tacky tourist attractions with fake blue water. Now, I am not trying to use the term “hillbilly” to denigrate Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg has done this to itself. Although, I suppose I should be careful not too offend people who consider themselves hillbillies by equating their culture with Gatlinburg’s take on it. Gatlinburg contains all things hillbilly from your Hillbilly Wedding (does this come complete with Pa in the back of the chapel with a shotgun –I don’t know) to Hillbilly Golf (historically great golfers, those hillbillies) to Hillbilly Harleys (do moonshine and motorcycles mix?). What is being offered to the tourist by the word hillbilly? The Wikipedia entry states that the “origins of the term "hillbilly" are obscure. According to Anthony Harkins in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, the term first appeared in print in a 1900 New York Journal article, with the definition: ‘a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.’" I have to admit to growing up on a small piece of property in the foothills of Tennessee with goats, chickens, pigs and cows. We were not hillbillies by the historical definition however, and probably would have been offended at being called such. So the whole concept of celebrating the hillbilly has never had much appeal to me.
Not too long ago, I was staying in a pretend four story Tudor (the Tudor part was pretend…it actually had four stories) in Gatlinburg, placed implausibly at the bottom of an incredibly steep hill. Pulling into the drive at the top of the hill and driving down into the parking lot required holding my breath and letting the car ease down what appeared to be a cliff on a slope so steep that once I committed, I couldn’t see over the edge. Unfortunately, the trash dumpster was at the top of this hill and so taking the trash up the hill required an alpine hike. While schlepping bags of trash up and down this mountainous slope, I happened to look through an opening in the kudzu that hung from the trees beside the drive. And I think I found the real essence of hillbilly. I looked over an old wooden fence into a yard with an old overstuffed armchair sitting a few feet from a screened in wooden porch with a fridge. The small yard had been mowed at some point, the grass surrounding the dirt and gravel car park was only ankle high. There were two cars in different states of disrepair parked at odd angles to one another, almost randomly - one had a large cloth draped over the passenger side mirror that first made me think it was a drunk leaning over into the window; the other car was an old, eighties orange sedan. An old open shed with a tin roof sat at the back, with a few rusty tools and a wooden bench. Three blue and silver beer cans were scattered in the grass, buried too deep to be last night’s beer, too shiny to be too old, suggesting that the residents occasionally picked up their beer cans but didn’t get overly anxious about it. A few daisies had congenially planted themselves along with an orange daylily or two in the corners. Two big old trees casually covered the yard with big leafy arms and a cool, shady indifference to the strange hot little town around them. I thought about sinking into that chair with a beer in hand, facing the daisies and the daylily and the birds that casually happened by, refrigerator close at hand watching the cars slowly rust, and for a brief moment it seemed kinda like heaven. Doing what you please…, sitting around watching the grass grow…as untrammeled as the citizen of Alabama mentioned in the original definition. I could probably do without the whiskey and the revolver, but maybe a little bit of hillbilly now and then might do a body good.
Sometimes the universe wants to give you a gift. Only it’s not free. You might, for instance, just be driving along, looking at Queen Anne’s lace and soft green grass while sunlight pours through the glass and lightly illuminates the cat paw prints on the way into your car. Then you notice that there is some sort of dancing magic transforming inside of your dirty Subaru into something divine – the light is gently luminous on the half full plastic bottle of diet coke that is rolling around on the floor and it flashes off the broken mirror that your child left on the rubber mat. The dust on the dash sparkles. And suddenly “Rockin the Casbah” is a call to a holy war and the Clash are your priests. Then you notice. The universe is offering you a gift. There is a way to see through all of the things that weigh you down. There is a door open onto some glittering possibility….no not possibility…reality. There is a truth that will open out into endless vistas, a way of seeing things that will not confine you. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
But the gift isn’t free. It requires everything you have. It requires opening your hands and letting go of it all. You must stop worrying about what other people think when dirty napkins flutter out of your car when you open the door. Stop worrying about your kids and how you will pay for college and whether they will suffer forever from that C in math. Stop worrying about whether your mortgage is too high, worrying about what will happen if you lose your job or what you will eat and whether you are too fat and whether people will notice your socks don’t match. It requires you to forgo seeing other people as obstacles and trying to tell them what to do or how to conduct their paths from here to the other side. You have to let go of all of that to fit through the door. And, of course, while you think about it, while you wonder if you could possibly….could you possibly….could you open your hand…the door swings shut again and you feel the weight of the dirty car – why haven’t you cleaned out this car- and the meetings you have to attend and whether your kids will get through college and whether you can pay the mortgage and whether or not you have any milk or cat food -cats will eat you, you know. And the world closes in around you…and it is heartbreaking but comforting at the same time. There are walls and boundaries. You are too small for the limitless lands. This weight is familiar if nothing else. It soothes the sense of loss.. But that moment…just that one view through the crack in the door. Maybe that’s enough for now. Maybe you can learn to let go just a little…just a little. Maybe you will be ready when the door opens next time.
Time for chicks again. Hooray! Maybe. It is a time of great excitement but it is coupled with some doubt and anxiousness because….boo! Some of them always die. So I always have to clean out some eggs that never quite turned into chickens and sometimes a dead chick or two. And that juxtaposition sort of ruins the imaginary story book picture of baby chicks that I would prefer to keep in my head. And my mama hen, Kikimora, chose to sit on even more eggs than Ligeia ever attempted. So we shall see….
Chick pics in a few days I hope. I expect them around the thirtieth.
Also…there may be a snake in the barn and I have a nest of baby rabbits in the front yard…residence of two of the killingest cats I have ever known. So the possibilities for disaster abound….
When you buy a little place out in the country somehow you don’t really picture yourself chasing deer away from the beans with a broom or tripping in armadillo holes or having to stop in the middle of the drive to explain to bunnies that you CAN SEE THEM and there are cats in the yard. Not so much because I don’t understand that bunnies are prey…it’s largely for my own sanity because I don’t like finding half a rabbit under my sweetheart roses.
On the plus side, here are some garden pictures of things that are ALIVE! For now.
AS I LAY SLEEPING: My struggles with Faulkner and Narcolepsy
This blog post is not discussion of themes in Faulkner. It is not an academic essay either praising or denouncing the writings of Faulkner. It is a personal voyage of discovery that I have undertaken to answer the question: Why am I unable to read As I Lay Dying without falling asleep? Why do I find Faulkner so impenetrable, so opaque to my conscious mind that I can find no remedy but sleep for the stupor induced by the inscrutable flat talking Mississippians who wander about this book wearing large straw hats on hard dirt paths, making coffins and cakes and probably other taking part in other activities as well, activities about which I would be informed if I could make it past the first two chapters.
Perhaps this effort will allow me to finally diagnose my inability to read Faulkner. Or maybe I will finally catch up on my sleep. And what will my readers get out of this adventure? Perhaps you will be able to feel superior to me. (Don’t knock that as reason to read something; we all need a little ego boost sometimes.) Perhaps something similar happens to you when you read Faulkner. If so, let me know. I feel alone out here.
My method will be to allow you into the depths of my mind as I make my way through the thoroughly described but remarkably dull world that Faulkner creates in the first two chapters of As I Lay Dying. Float along with me on the stream of my consciousness as I drift through the pages towards the caves of sleep. If you haven’t read it…get it out and read along. What are you risking but a nice long nap?
The first chapter is entitled Darl. Okay, Fine. We get to go into the mind of a guy(?) named Darl. The first thing I think is….why not Darrell? Somebody couldn’t spell? I’m sorry. I know, I know…I gave my children unusual names, people get irritated trying to spell them. I’m a bad person. Sorry Darl! You can be named whatever you want. ( This is the crap that floats on the stream of my consciousness. I didn’t say it was going to be a pleasant trip. I just said you might get a nap.)
Starting the chapter. Just had coffee. Darl is walking up from a field. I don’t know why.
He is walking with a guy named Jewel. A tall guy named Jewel with a broken straw hat. Hard dirt path? Check. Cotton? Check. Wow…super interesting so far, Darl. You do live a magical life. That’s unfair. I suppose he’s supposed to be boring. I am sure there is a literary reason for it. Faulkner is probably trying to express….I will figure it out later. I think I will just move on for now.
He and Jewel are walking toward the cotton house…which surprisingly is made of….drum roll... logs. That’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming. Har! (Okay…I’m just joking…it’s the first chapter.)
Now we get a description of Jewel entering and exiting the cotton house. It is as follows:
Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride into the path again just as I come around the corner. In single file and five feet apart and Jewel now in front, we go up the path toward the foot of the bluff.
That’s funny Darl! Wait…I don’t think he means it to be funny.
Okay. That’s something. Now I am picturing Jewel as John Cleese from the Ministry of silly walks. Jewel now looks just like John Cleese in that Monty Python skit. He’s in a broken straw hat, kicking up his feet and walking around Faulkner’s story doing a silly walk. I think I will have him do that walk all around the cotton house, all the way around the cotton house on that hard dirt path and back. Look now he’s put his finger under his nose and he’s doing that bit from the Fawlty Towers episode with the Germans. Cut it out Jewel. You’re cracking me up. Darl does not understand and he’s getting a little cranky. Sorry Darl. Back to the story you’re trying to tell. Just a momentary lapse. I have to stay awake long enough to comment on this chapter. (Jewel still looks a little like Cleese. Don’t think I can fix that. I will just move on.)
We get to Tull’s wagon. I don’t know who he is or why his wagon is parked there. Jewel gets a drink. I manage to have him do that with no cutting up. Stay serious Cleese…er…Jewel.
Darl and I hear Cash’s saw. Cash is making a coffin for a person named Addie. He appears to be doing a good job of it. Although, how high are Darl’s standards? He can’t spell his name, so I don’t know. But I assume that Cash knows what he’s doing. The flat plain description is okay I guess. Someone is dying and these people don’t seem like the kind to make a big old fuss about it. So I suppose the flatness perhaps signals the acceptance of the life they lead and the death of someone in the family. Still, what were you thinking Jewel, cutting up like that earlier? Oh wait….that was my imagination.
Back to themes and plot: Somebody is dying and so far Darl doesn’t strike me as a guy with a sense of humor. Although, give him a break….why should he have a sense of humor about someone dying? I guess I’m thinking of the parrot skit now. I should just forget Monty Python. I am onto the main thrust of the book here.
Darl seems to think Addie will like the coffin. Hmmmm….I don’t know how appropriate that thought is Darl. But who knows? Darl might be more empathetic than I think he is. Maybe this whole thinking about the coffin and whether Addie will like it is just his way of dealing her death. If Addie likes the coffin, maybe that reflects some sort of acceptance and…I don’t know….this is Darl. So far, he doesn’t seem that reflective even on some sort of unconscious level.
Wow….got through a whole chapter. Still awake. It was that Monty Python bit. That and the fact that it’s a damned short chapter. One of the many little gifts of life.