Rectify was such a great show. Every time any two characters, Tawney and Teddy, Ted and Janet, Daniel and anyone, talked, it was like scripture. Once in a while I’d find myself nodding, murmuring amen, with hands occasionally raised to the sky, where some residual part of my subconscious still believes God and most of my tribe reside. These little moments are my religious rituals now, because the churches of my childhood have been infested by angry people who try to drag us morally backward by misconstruing the Bible into something I don’t recognize. All I have left from the religious practices of my youth is a lingering faith that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. Something emanating from a benevolent scorekeeper who will reward those who play fairly, and who has bigger things to worry about than who marries whom or who pees where. These little moments arrive unexpectedly, and sometimes in surprising places. Great writing on a TV show. The wild creatures that serenade me some nights. Just about any Subaru commercial. And every now and then, a chance encounter with another human being, willing to give up control of the narrative in favor of that forgotten sanctuary – kindness and understanding.
Kindness and understanding are in short supply these days There’s far too much momentum behind blindly defending whatever social construct one has hitched his or her psyche to. People start out suspicious, making it very hard to find middle ground. There’s a lurking dread these days to reading the news, checking social media, watching TV, saying howdy. The risk/reward to engagement is at an all time low, courtesy of the triumph of ideology over facts. Chris on Northern Exposure was prophetic decades ago when he paraphrased Thoreau to his listeners, saying “there’s no man more dangerous than one who’s certain he’s right.” I’d add a line from Buffalo Springfield. “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
It took me a while to get here, but I no longer care about being right, or proving anyone wrong. I just want to be. Still. Unburdened. Not yelled or typed at over some manufactured slight or disrespect I don’t believe is real and don’t care about, even if it is. And if that’s not possible, then just left alone in my wrongness. All I need is a little peace and quiet, so I can try to figure out why so much stuff that used to seem obvious and assured has become bewildering and uncertain. If I was ever dangerous, I’m less so now.
When I was a kid, churches and communal dining were catalysts for the kind of conversation and reflection that helped sort things out. A respected minister once told me he wasn’t so sure about “all that Jesus stuff.” He wasn’t worried about it. He said it didn’t make much of a difference in the way he thought or how he lived his life, because the Bible was a repository for moral living, not the only source of it. Amen, my brother. Another time, a well regarded philosophy professor told me about his UFO experience. That sort of willingness to step off the conventional path to see what’s out there had a profound, positive effect on me. Questions are the pathway to wisdom. Unfortunately, these days, any inconsistency, any uncertainty, any exploration of the space between, is treason. There are armies of combatants on high alert, waiting for an opportunity to bludgeon you with their righteousness – religious, social, political, you name it. I’m tired of blind adherence and I’m bored with dogma. We all have our complaints. If I can swallow mine, you’re just going to have to hold on to yours. Or at least air them elsewhere.
Or we could all agree to just release all of our unrighted wrongs into the void of insignificance. Once in a while when the night sky is clear and the weather permits, I’ll walk around outside and sit down out in the hay field. All those stars I never see in the city make me feel so wonderfully inconsequential. If you ever need to hunker down, lay down in the country under a starry sky. You’ll disappear, at least for a while. Like coyotes in the daytime.
Those coyotes were howling just outside my screen door shortly after sunset the other night. They sounded defiant and troubled. The way I think I sound when I hear myself talking. I gave a speech in Fredericksburg a few weeks ago. After I was done, a guy walked up to me and said “I really enjoy your perspective. It’s like, no bullshit, no agenda. Just the way you feel.” I thanked him and told him if I really wanted to express the way I feel most of the time lately, I’d just howl for 45 minutes. He laughed, shook my hand and told me he hoped I’d do that next time. It was a nice moment. Maybe I will howl next time. Probably I’ll wait until I’m ready to ride off into the sunset and hijack some boring topic into an adios amigos analysis of my journey through this world, the absurdities of life, and all that.
If people would spend a little time trying to come to terms with the absurdities of life instead of condemning people for experiencing them differently, life would be much more fulfilling. But it takes less effort to proclaim the howlers as difficult or dicks or whatever. Summer’s past. It’s too late to cut the grass. Once enough people are willing to abandon reality in pursuit of something they believe is a win, all that matters is who can yell the loudest. It’s easy to say the ends justify the means when you believe you have all the answers. The laws of science are in your way? No problem, just change them. I was completely disappointed in the way Lost ended, but the concept of a constant stuck with me. I don’t know what passes for a constant these post-island days. Certainly not the loudest voices emanating from social media or the nearest bully pulpit that masquerades as television news.
When I was a kid, the preachers I knew were kind men, ready with an encouraging word, a pat on the back, or a beautiful daughter (yep, Robyn Reynolds, I’m talking about you, wherever you are; your dad was a blessing to me, and you were, and I’m sure still are, beautiful). Franklin Graham conscripts religion in his war of intolerance while his field marshal governs via Twitter. And all those broken-hearted, gleeful dumbasses on my Facebook wall who think Trump is just alright and Jesus was a white guy have no clue how badly they are getting screwed over. Nothing about the current state of affairs is OK, and baby no one’s doing fine.
Feel like a devil in the midst of angels, baby no one’s doing fine. There are a lot of folks on my periphery who are at war with that reality, and lots of other truths. Like climate change, the fact that the homeless person you look away from could have been you if a few things had gone the other way, the age of the earth, and the fact that speaking truth is not an act of aggression. If you wonder if I’m talking about you, I probably am. But don’t worry about it; I don’t. The distance that keeps us apart also protects us from our past.
The best we can ask for is to get through life without having to lug around an inordinate amount of other baggage, on top of our own.
There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.
I’ve found a policy of non-engagement to be helpful in that regard. I don’t even tell people about television shows like Rectify these days. Or the last great book I read, or my favorite song. Or anything, really. They’d just go on about how they’re too busy for TV or whatnot, and how they have so much going on. How this person or that person is screwing up America. That they only read non-fiction, and how much they love jazz records they’ve never actually heard. Everyone’s too busy checking boxes and staking out their superiority to listen anymore. They just feed some silence into the slot so they can go on about their business of backfilling their actions with dogma, fake news and social media likes. Those of us with no business we care to force upon the proximate plug our ears and wait for the reckoning. The sort of reckoning that makes your face smile and shine, with the back of your knees locked to the seat of the pew. I have sat on some pews. I remember a homily about angels. Or maybe that was just a dream.
My old office brother the G-man had a great response to this guy who used to recite his oh-so-important business from the next urinal in our office bathroom. He responded every time with three simple words. “Good for you.” In other words, be as important, outraged, smug, intelligent, rich, whatever, as you want. Just be all that somewhere else.
I haven’t seen the G-man or my other office brother Tyrannosaurus Ken in a while. They were part of my tribe, my people, back when we all still had people. Uncle Mark was one of my people for a while. He unfriended me on Facebook, but that didn’t change my opinion that his Knott County Mounties is one of the best stories ever put to music (unlike MacArthur Park, which I still think is a stupid song, albeit by a great songwriter).
We all had our own George Mullins, Frog Dyers and Homer Halls back in the day. I wish I’d written a song about Jimmy Duffy. I wish I knew what happened to Jimbo Graham and Jennifer Solt. Yep, we all had people at one point or another. Some of them ran off. Some of them got turned loose. A few of them got memorialized in songs, letters, old photographs. Others are just foggy outlines of things that once seemed inevitable.
Like Teddy shooting himself in the leg, in front of that tire store that was both his constant and his curse.
My dad was a Ford dealer. After he died, some drunken ex-employee tried to break into my mother’s house one night when I was home from college. I thought my mom was full of shit when she called me downstairs and said someone was trying to kick in the basement door. Turns out she wasn’t. I grabbed my dead father’s 45, ran out the front door, ran around to the basement, walked up the basement stairs behind that dude, pointed that 45 at him and told him to lay the fuck down until the police got there. That experience taught me three things. One, we needed better locks on the exterior basement doors. Two, it’s easy to imagine yourself as brave before you have to try to sound that way when your voice is cracking with fear and your hands are shaking like mad. And three, even people who helped you negotiate your allowance up from a quarter to 55 cents can turn on you in an instant. Trust no one. Nothing is constant. Your tribe can scatter at any moment.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time on my uncle’s farm. I remember the way the house smelled early in the morning. Coffee, bacon, pancakes, purpose. There was a table there, and I had a place at it. I still draw sustenance from fading memories of soybean fields, fishing in orchid ponds, a bird dog named Jake, and Jim Nesbitt on the TV in the kitchen. I was on the show Spaceship on that very TV once. Someone’s birthday party. Tootsie Elam, maybe. We were all in it together, back then.
Everyone wants to be special here. They call your name out loud and clear.
I hacked up this photo frame the other day where people so inclined can remotely add photos for me to see. My sister added this wonderful picture of an old fireplace in an abandoned tenant house on her farm. My kids added a few selfies and then moved on to more immediate things. I’ll probably unplug that frame in a week or two and put it on the shelf, with the family Bible I somehow inherited, some old letters, and the scrapbooks my mother made. Scriptures, holy remembrances, archives, ancient history.
Things I used to have figured out. Things that got torn apart. Things I need to figure out. One of these days.
There’s this other great song my youngest daughter and I used to sing to each other, before Snapchat. Do you remember when you saw her last? I said her skin is cinnamon. Her skin is cinnamon. I have too many stories, keeping it serious.
I have some stories. Like when we put all those reflectors in Kevin’s yard after that Kansas concert. I traded emails with Kevin recently. I think he’s still one of my people, and I hope I’m one of his.
There are still people out there.
Some are the messengers.
I thumb through the pictures.
And know them all.