Overwhelmed by the cacophonous crowd below, I retreated to a solitary corner of a long leather couch upstairs with a book—one man awkwardly weighing down the stern of a canoe.
Meanwhile, Shawna’s painting was quietly winning the People’s Choice Award below:
Nursing a migraine that began 12 hours ago, and which now accompanies me here in the quiet hours of the third shift, I was only capable of turning past the very first page inside a collection of short stories by Wendell Berry called Fidelity, which begins:
Mat Feltner was my grandfather on my mother’s side. Saying it thus, I force myself to reckon again with the strangeness of that verb was. The man of whom I once was pleased to say, “He is my grandfather,” has become the dead man who was my grandfather. He was, and is no more. And this is a part of the great mystery we call time.
But the past is present also. And this, I think, is a part of the greater mystery we call eternity. Though Mat Feltner has been dead for twenty-five years, and I am now older than he was when I was born and have grandchildren of my own, I know his hands, their way of holding a hammer or a hoe or a set of check lines, as well as I know my own. I know his way of talking, his way of cocking his head when he began a story, the smoking pipe stem held an inch from his lips. I have in my mind, not just as a memory but as a consolation, his welcome to me when I returned home from the university and, later, from jobs in distant cities. When I sat down beside him, his hand would clap lightly onto my leg above the knee; my absence might have lasted many months, but he would say as though we had been together the day before, “Hello, Andy.” The shape of his hand is printed on the flesh of my thigh as vividly as a birthmark. This man who was my grandfather is present in me, as I felt always his father to be present in him…
Migrainous mind and shriveled heart welled to capacity. Both buckets full, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes (those windows), where the image of my own grandfather staring into them is seared onto my soul like a brand on a steer.
As a non-fiction writer it pains me to say this, but fiction is of greater value. Stories, well-crafted ones at any rate, develop empathy in a way that facts—even true ones—cannot. Our world could use a bit more empathy these days, wouldn’t you say?
And yet, my second book proceeds along at a glacier’s pace, the terminus of which is a bottomless ocean of books and entertainment options, where it may soon melt away and be forgotten.
Any creator must wrestle with this issue of significance, and I am now 20 years into a journey that has carried me directly into the heart of the beast. Twelve years of toil within the maze of Cubicleland will do that to even the most lion-hearted among us. Unceremoniously being let go was a further push into these dark spaces. Little did I know, this was only the end of the beginning. Pouring oneself into work, only to have it fall into an abyss of indifference, and then faithfully persevering for years (perhaps a lifetime) is where the path leads.
Earlier this week, a moment of weakness yielded gratitude instead of envy. I looked up a fella I attended graduate school with. He has reached the pantheon in his field of work. Additionally, it looks like he has birthed at least a dozen books into the world, selling into the millions. All this, and he’s a year younger than me. Oh, how easy it is to fall into the comparison trap! Not this day, however. I found myself quietly thankful for this man’s success and prayed for him.
Are the little people, each of whom are essential to the functioning of society, any less worthy of bearing God’s image? Most strikingly, this week I heard a man on a podcast say, “You’re listening to Throughline. This is so and so, and I’m a 3rd-shift janitor working for the university I once attended.”
When I first met her, Gaelynn Lea’s husband, Paul, worked as a 2nd-shift janitor for UMD. On the day I spoke with her for a story I was in a deep depression. This was one month before she became famous after winning a national contest. Paul was set to arrive at 10 or 11 pm in their ancient minivan, as he did five days a week, after mopping away the footsteps of thousands of hopeful students, all carrying visions of future success. The only way to get Gaelynn home in her wheelchair was to prop up two wooden planks as a “ramp” for getting her in and out of the van. Without this faithful service and love she very well may have continued on in quiet despair, mired in the poverty of a life trapped in Social Security disability benefits.
Every once in a while the work emerges to achieve some sort of public recognition on its own merits, despite one’s lack of popularity (Shawna joined me in the stern herself for a spell), but this is rare. For the record, Shawna voted for Jonathan Thunder’s excellent painting. I wish I could comment on Scott Murphy or Adam Swanson’s works. Though positioned prominently near the front, I missed them altogether. It’ll be easier to view everything in the weeks ahead, with the only sound in the great hall of The Depot being that of your own footsteps. John Fisher-Merritt’s piece, Marriage Bed, crafted largely out of planks of wood, is worth a look, as are numerous others. I congratulated him on his work as I made my way upstairs to a sanctuary apart from the hubbub. I also greeted farmer Catherine, and her partner, Elden. Though our eyes, lit with wonder and light, are veritable windows into the soul, I find it nearly impossible to communicate with the ubiquitous masks of the evening, so I kept the pleasantries short. He has a thoughtful piece—Treasure— situated somewhat awkwardly near the entrance for the sake of access to electricity. The lit-up architectural piece contains a crow (perhaps a magpie) carrying a pearl in its beak.
Likewise, each of us carry treasure within us.
As I look around this troubled world, all these people shouting above each other, I’m not looking toward traditional concepts of fame or power structures for beauty, truth, and goodness—light in the darkness, if you will. Gandalf says it well in The Hobbit, in reference to the small, seemingly inconsequential beings upon whose shoulders were set ultimate success or failure:
Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.
And so, we must look straight into this dark cavern, deftly stepping aside of the deadly comparison trap and press on. The alternative is bitterness and a shriveling of the heart. Though one may have facts and a correct understanding of them, if love and empathy are lacking, your true impact at the end of the day may amount to nothing. As for me, I wish to enjoy the shape of that hand, “Printed on the flesh of my thigh as vividly as a birthmark,” and do likewise.
Well, now that I’ve guzzled down an entire pot of coffee and a piercing sun has extinguished the darkness, it’s about time I get on with the day. Best wishes to you and yours on this Memorial Day weekend.