That Song Comes on the Radio

That song comes on the radio, the one you remember hearing, when she was driving and singing along, the brook of her voice bubbling about filling the car and lapping lightly upon the banks of your consciousness.

You turn up the volume, passing beneath the red light, sailing along Jefferson Highway,the shadows deepening from the autumn twilight. And in that moment, life seems deferential toward the two of you, the trees and streetlights casting their darkened images down before you, to adorn your way in a dappled thatch of light and shade. 
Twenty years later, you now listen to that song and  hear your children talking in the back of the car, they being the embodiment of your love and life together . But you find yourself, you know not why, considering the passing of your allotted years together, and you quietly weep for that couple who once sailed along the brindled highway, when all things seemed to exist only for the two of you.
-MRT

An Arrival for Roy Harper

03b6c647259ba0e47ab4efa346f8839cTonight, at sundown, will commence the season of Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar.  This season is a time of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord or what is commonly called Christmas.  Most of what we take for preparing for Christmas began even not long after finishing our Thanksgiving dinners as we rushed breathlessly to malls and other commercial venues to find the best deals.  This has its place but unfortunately, we have commercialized Christmas to the point of absurdity.

I wrote and posted story this over a year ago.  I figured that I would post it again as it may provide some enjoyment and maybe something to reflect upon.  You see all of us are waiting.  We are waiting for something or someone  to happen in our lives.  And though many of us have convinced others and, more importantly, ourselves that we are getting along well enough,  the truth is that our lives are often just this side of desperation.

What happens to Roy Harper in this story happened to a man my father knew many years ago.  He was a man who had it all but was at the end of his rope or maybe heading toward an end of a rope.  He, like us, was waiting and from a seemingly small and insignificant action, he saw that for which we was waiting.

May you have a Blessed Advent and may this season end in true Christmas joy for you, whoever you maybe.

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He stood beneath the gnarled live oak just out of reach of the street lamp’s luminous glow.  Shadowed by the great canopy, not living soul would’ve been suspected there, save for the single glowing point alternating intensity, as it would periodically rise and fall like a fire fly.  Taking another deep draw from the cigarette, Roy Harper’s solitary consolation for the moment was the smoky warmth that filled his chest before exhaling edgily before the little church that stood before him.   He had come to the First United Methodist Church that evening with his wife, Adele, and their two teenage children for the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.  The church was one that his wife had attended from birth.  They were married there, had their children baptized there and faithfully attended every Sunday.  Adele was quite devoted to her faith.  Roy, not so much.  His lack of devotion stemmed less from hostility than from unfamiliarity.  He grew up in a family that was not religious.  As a child, his mother would respond to his inquires as to why this was so, by saying, in seemingly casual manner, “It’s just not something that we do” before quickly moving conversation elsewhere.  His father, on the other hand, was a tad more specific as to the reason for their non-attendance.  “Why in the hell, on my only day off, would I want to associate with a bunch like that?” he would say dismissively, a cigar clenched between his teeth.  And then, as if inspired by some gift of prophecy that would have been the envy of any evangelist, he’d continue dogmatically,  “The three of ‘em who actually believe that nonsense are too good to be of any use and as to the rest of ‘em, they’re a bunch of hypocrites and backstabbers.    Backstabbers!  The whole lot of ‘em, like a bunch of Judas’s in search of their thirty pieces of silver!”

Cars continued to pull into the gravel parking lot.  The popping and grinding sound of tires upon the stones agitated Roy and furthered his disquiet.  Lighting another cigarette, he watched the people bundled up against the cold greeting each other happily, walking briskly to enter the church.  The door would open and the warm glow inside illuminating the windows of stained glass, would pour forth, bathing the congregants in its inviting radiance.  Roy, however, stayed out of sight, moving more toward the inside of the tree, hiding the lit cigarette in the cup of his hand until the door was safely shut and he could take another drag without being seen.  You see Roy and Adele had had an argument on the way to the service.  Actually, this argument was just another episode in a series of arguments that had taken place over the better part of the year.  But tonight she had had enough and told had told him so in so many words. Roy had just learned wife’s forbearance with her husband extended to the point of her maternity, after that something had better change for Roy’s attitude had begun to affect their children.

In that more forbearing time, Adele asked plaintively one morning at the breakfast table “What’s gotten into you, Roy?” He’d respond with curt defensiveness, “Why do you keep saying that.  I’m fine.”  Yet they both knew that was not the case.
She’d continue concerned, “It’s like you’re walled up inside yourself or something.  We’re doing fine, hun.  And what’s not fine will be okay because we’ve got each other.”

Such words would sting him leaving him to feel like a sulking fool.  But Roy would respond with only a mutter and walk out the room feeling a prisoner of his own brooding.  Adele was right, though.  By all accounts they were doing fine.  They had a good marriage.  Their children would be a source of admiration for any parent.  And they were doing well financially.  After the War, Roy, like many of his generation, attended college on the GI Bill.  He got a degree in finance and promptly took a position in the business of office of a lumber company.  After twenty years, he had worked his way up to Chief Financial Officer of the company.  He was the youngest executive and in a few years could be poised to move even further.  By all accounts, life was good.  And that is why he found his restlessness was so disconcerting.

About a week ago his childhood friend, J.T. Spears came by for a visit.   Almost at once J.T. said  “Roy, what in the hell’s wrong with you?” as they were having a bourbon in Roy’s study.  Roy considered him perplexedly for a moment before slumping down in the leather chair.  Roy’s loosened tie and its slightly rotation to the side, gave him a look of dishevelment.  Roy turned his head silently and stared into the fireplace.  J.T., sitting opposite of Roy, waited, while watching the firelight dance upon Roy’s detached looking face. The question hung in the air and the occasional popping of embers lended the atmosphere an increasing awkwardness.

J.T. went on eagerly, “You get to golf some of the finest links in the state!  And what about that hunting camp that your company has up near Smithville?  That’s something isn’t it?”

It was true Roy had the benefit of some of the finest golf and hunting that a man could want.  When he was younger and working his way up in the company, how often he envied the higher ups who had almost limitless opportunities for such activities.  Now he was one of them.  He hadn’t missed out on golf or hunting since he knew not when.  Increasingly, however, these outings were not the occasions of leisure that they had once been.  Now they all had the leisureliness of paying income taxes. So, yes, it would seem like it ought to be something.  But what J.T. only too well himself, nothing is worse that freezing your balls off in a duck blind talking quarterly reports with some asshole you’d not spare a word to otherwise.”

Roy now figured Adele was the reason J.T.’s present visit. Roy knew this not from any discovery of their collusion but simply from knowing J.T.  What was Adele thinking?  Of all the people Roy new J.T. Spears was last person he’d employ for a task of this nature.  This task required less a nuanced understanding of the human psyche than a simple awareness of people.  And J.T. Spears had the personal awareness of a sack of mud.  This comparison could be justified by the fact that on the day J.T.’s mother-in-law passed, he purchased his wife a new vacuum and washer and dryer because, as J.T. defended himself afterward, “You always say that working around the house is the best way to relieve stress!”

Roy continued to sit silently staring into the fire as if he were searching for some beacon whereby to orient himself.  Roy’s silence occasioned J.T. to lean forward and try a new line of attack.

“Well, why don’t you go see Reverend Harpole?  He could probably help you out.  Talking to a man of God is sometimes the best medicine.”   This statement was enough to pull Roy’s contemplation from fire to cut J.T. glance that could be translated verbally as “Oh, really?”  J.T. looked down into his glass and sat back in his chair.  You see, J.T. had resorted to throwing mud on the wall hoping some of it would stick.  Most, if not all, Sundays, when J.T.’s family was devotedly attending the First Baptist Church in town, J.T. was out on the golf course.  And even when J.T.’s wife would occasionally cajole her husband into going, he’d volunteer to take up the offering so he could hang out in the back of church until the service was over.

But finally, taking some pity on his friend, Roy said, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. But there’s not anything that Rev. Harpole can help me with that I can’t do myself.  Look, I like those folks at church.  Nice people, all of them.  But you got to make your way, you can’t go around looking for help that is best done on your own.

This idea of having to work out things on your own had been driven down deep into him by his father.  He remembered as a child passing by one of the county soup kitchens and his father telling him, “The only time I went to church I remember the preacher going on and on about Hebrew children wandering around in the desert and receiving bread from Heaven.  He spoke like it was the greatest thing since sliced bread but all I could think about is here’s all these able bodied folk being put on the dole, pickin’ up bread that they ain’t earn.  And this is the truth, there’s no such thing as charity. Ain’t nothin’ comin’ to you that you ain’t worked for. If you ain’t worked for it then it ain’t worth havin’ ”.

That had stuck with Roy.  As with most men of his generation he had drunk deeply, maybe a little too deeply, from the well of popular wisdom and imbibed sayings like, “God helps those who help themselves”, “You got to pull yourself up by your own boot straps”, “If you want something done right you got to do it yourself”, and “No rest for the weary.”

But Roy was weary.  Roy was restless.  His restlessness was like that of a man whose ship had come in but continued to search the horizon for the arrival of some yet unnamed boon.   Standing in solitude beneath the live oak, Roy could hear soft chorused voices coming from inside the church.  The presence emanating from those voices had the effect of tidal water beating upon stone.  He felt a rising and relentless struggle of opposed forces swirling inside himself, each trying to take claim upon him.  A feeling of being on the verge, of being on the verge of drowning.  He lit another cigarette and leaned against the tree to steady himself, at complete loss of how to account for his present circumstances because if there were some things that can’t be worked through then… .

Roy squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

Having temporarily regained his composure, Roy was taking another draw from his cigarette when a car’s headlights moved across the church yard in a sweeping arc like that of a searchlight.  The headlights caused the oak tree to reveal its shadow and of consequence Roy’s, who was not fully hidden behind the tree.  For a fleeting moment Roy could see his and the tree’s shadow distinctly but the further out he looked it they narrowed and merged together.  The commingled shadows stretched out further upon the ground as if eagerly elongating toward the darkness beyond.  The vision was over in an instant, the car having pulled into the parking lot.  Roy looked around the tree to see someone emerging slowly and not without some effort out from the driver’s side door.  He could recognize that it was Mr. Holworth, the oldest congregant of the church.  He shuffled around the back of the car to the passenger side door to retrieve First Methodist’s next oldest congregant, Mrs. Holworth.  He helped her out of the car and then overly bundled pair, arm-in-arm, made their way with a slow but purposeful shuffle toward the church.  Roy continued to watch them having moved out a bit from behind the tree.  The Holworth’s were what could be rightly called decent people.  As long as anybody could remember a bad word never known to have passed from their lips.  If they had a bad day you would never know it.  Had they complained many would have understood for they had lost both their children.  Their son died in the Great War and shortly afterward the Great Influenza Epidemic claimed their daughter.  For a better portion their married life they lived what most parents dread.  Roy was considering this as the Holworths were about to enter the church, when suddenly, Mrs. Holworth stopped.  With an ease surprising for a woman of her age she moved ahead of her husband and turned to face him.  Then in a manner as free and unburdened as the flowing of light from the full moon shining above, Mrs. Holworth reached up and straightened her husband’s tie.

That did it.

As the Holworths entered the church, Roy Harper flicked his cigarette down, ground it out with his heel, straightened his jacket and made his way directly to the church.  He made his way beneath a vaulted sky of the blackest satin, punctured with innumerable pinholes light, of such dancing brilliance it seemed the source of that light was, at last, ready to burst forth and consummate the world in illuminating glory.

The End.

Thoughts During a Mass on Father’s Day

clouds-widescreen-wallpaper-13 Sometimes during Mass, my eyes move upwards and from the small windows above is see the passing clouds.  The sky is blue, you know, that rich blue sky of summer that thirstily drinks the sunlight, becoming a radiant cerulean dome above us.  And I see them pass, the clouds, from one widow to the next.  I see them pass, becoming something other than what they were, these tufts, cotton-ball-white, stretched and pulled, edges becoming wispy.  Before long, all I can see framed from those windows is that pristine cerulean sky wiped clean of the clouds’ ephemeral presence.  Where do they go, the clouds, when we see them no longer?

My gaze descends from the windows to the faces of those around me.  I am struck by the thought of how we are as transient as the clouds.  I think of what absurd little creatures we are: three quarters water, a hand full of elements and minerals all animated and set alight by electrical impulses. We little creatures all a buzz with our little plans, all a buzz with our little intrigues and blithe inconsistencies.  I see the faces of those around me.  I think about the man before me kneeling in prayer, his son, his daughter draped over him, looking about.  I think about that man, that absurd little creature, much like I, think about what I see of him, seeing only a minuscule portion of a self that lies hidden beneath the surface.  To break that surface would be to find an inscrutable depth swirling in currents and cross currents of desire, denial, and longing.  And of myself, from those same depths, a memory emerges.  Sometimes, at night, I become afraid.  I do not know why.  I lie in bed in the dark and feel myself and all committed to me being flung into a void.  Sometimes, I become afraid, feeling my life being unbound from the sun and I feel we are all rotating, careening haplessly toward some indefinite destination.  Sometimes I reach for her, to feel the reassuring weight and warmth of her.  Would the good Spirit of God, I pray, hover over this depth and call forth some definite thing from this formlessness?

We absurd little creatures take our cue, stand and the priest begins the Eucharistic Rite.  My son wraps his arms around my waist and looks up and whispers something.  I cannot hear what he says so I bend my ear to him.  “I love you”, he says and looks away toward the altar.  I look upward toward those windows, his words, dropping like flare into an abyss. Light moves upon the darkness.

Christ the Redemmer

Sanctuary of Christ the Redeemer Church

To Think and Read: Philosophy and the Encounter With Literature

Rembrandt Philosopher in Meditation

Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

There is much that could be said here and when I started to put my thoughts together I quickly found that this could grow to such a length that it would strain my abilities and your patience.  My only claim will be philosophy is the work of reason and literature is the work of the imagination.  Yet, these are not as far apart as one might think.  They, in many ways, must proceed together or at the very least complete each other’s thoughts, as old married couples are wont to do. There is no irony in the fact that philosophers have used images to put flesh and bone to their abstract meditations.  Socrates expressed greed for images, Plato had his Cave, Descartes his Evil Demon, and Nietzsche his prophesying Madman.  Likewise, the imagination is strengthened by reason.  For even for the starving artist faithful to Keeping Austin Weird could derive some benefit from Goya’s observation “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”  So much for Dan Brown.  So much for Descartes.

Furthermore, in discussing philosophy and literature, it would be of no little interest to understand the reality that brings these two to birth- language. For it is the mark of language that it is both intelligible, syntactical, and inherently image laden. Language is that strange symbolic phenomena expressed in varying vocalizations and written signs that tether us to the world like an anchor.  The strangeness of language lies, particularly, it its paradoxical quality; that peculiar quality of being powerful to enough to open a window on the very beginnings of the cosmos yet seemingly impoverished and inadequate to fully express one’s love or sorrow.

I suppose the best way or maybe the only way that I can address this topic is to speak of my own encounter with these.  I should say, that unless you have had your own experience with these, what will be said here today will be of little use to you.  Furthermore, I should say at the outset that my comments will not proceed in the manner of argumentation but of reflection.  You see I love philosophy and literature and whatever is loved should be given a dignified treatment.  That which is loved must not be discussed speech of experts, much less philosophy or literature professors. Furthermore, literature leads to philosophizing but philosophy may be expressed imaginatively or poetically. Either way, though they are, properly, different pursuits each leads, albeit in different ways, toward the contemplation of existence sparked by wonder. You may have your doubts and fair enough.  But these are my reflections and you will have to trust me or at least bear with me.

As a child, I and a friend of mine, while jumping on a trampoline, stumbled upon, quite naturally for children, on what Heidegger called the basic metaphysical question, “why is there something rather than nothing?”  As the sun set and the day began to cool into dusk we continued our jumping and giggling with astonishment that things actually exist and wondering where they come from.  But indulging this new found discovery was not something typically discussed in school and given my lack of discipline for anything that I thought more pedestrian I sort of floated through the whole experience.  As a fairly lazy student my antennae would never register any interest unless the class discussion wandered into one of those tangential discussions that had larger implications beyond the fairly prosaic facts and figures.  At that time I did not have a formal name for this interest.  I was unable to articulate what it was about these questions that interested me. Nevertheless, at some point a possibility occurred to me.  Maybe around twelve, I was sitting in a mimosa tree with my friend Chris Britt and the discussion turned to what we wanted to do when we grew up.  I don’t remember his response but mine is clear as a day.   “I want to be a philosopher,” I said matter of factually.  “What do they do?” Chris asked.  “I’m not sure. I think they talk about life and stuff.  You know, like Plato.”  Well, he didn’t know and we looked at each other for a moment and moved on.  To this day, I have no idea of where that thought came from.  It would another twenty years before I began a formal education in philosophy.

As far as reading goes, for many years, Where the Side Walk Ends by Shel Silverstein was ever present friend and never far out of reach.  However, I had an aversion to anything that looked like a novel, as having to sit still that long to read seemed insufferably boring.  However, in middle school it took something of an even greater boredom, in the form of Mrs. Gifford’s study hall, which drove me to look for some respite.  And so it was that I came across the fantasy series, the Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander.  Those books opened up a world that I scarcely knew existed, the world of imaginative fiction.  I was hooked and I have been more or less hooked ever since.

My junior year of high school was the first time that I became consciously aware that philosophy, that thing that talked about life and interested me so, could be found in that other new found love, the reading of imaginative fiction.  I had one particular teacher (isn’t it always one particular teacher?)  Mrs. Crane, short and petite, having the most charming of Southern drawls, who introduced us to short stories that actually touched upon life in the way that interested me.  Through their imaginative power, these stories had me consider deeper philosophical questions.  From “Harrison Bergeron”, by Kurt Vonnegut, came the question of what is the ultimate value of equality. From Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder”, the ethics of technology and what are the consequences of the smallest actions upon history.  From Flannery O’Connor’s, “Good Country” the nature of evil and the religious dimension in life.  In conjunction to these great works of fiction she would encourage us to think deep thoughts.  In particular, there was one thing she’d come back to and remind us of again and again.  She would look at us with large clear eyes and say, “In all that happens to you try to search for the deeper meaning.”  Such advice, I am sure, seemed to her at times, as being seed cast upon stony earth, but those stories and her encouragement awakened something within me.

“To search for the deeper meaning.”  This, in time, became and is my aim in life.  And in small but no less important addition to religious faith, philosophy and literature have helped me to understand my own life.    Actually, I think Mrs. Crane’s advice is sage wisdom for anyone, even you sitting here enduring the sound of my voice.  Walker Percy, in the novel, “The Moviegoer” has one of his characters ruminate on what he calls the search.  “What is the search?  It is really quite simple…the search is what anyone would attempt if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”  Philosophy and literature allow a person to take a hand to the veil of everydayness and pull it back to see what depths of meaning the world actually reveals. Because I believe unless you do this whatever you do manage to do will ultimately come up to nothing.  That sounds pretty harsh but life is pretty harsh.  If you don’t believe me wait.  Let life, at times, come in as an unwelcomed guest take from you without asking or without apology, maybe even knock you around a bit.  And maybe you might get around to asking yourself some philosophical questions, “What in the hell is going on?”  “What is the point of all this.”  “Is this all there is?”  Maybe you might have all this going on, even if unconsciously, and come across a passage in a novel or poem, whereby you might see an image of what you are going through now.  Then you might have hit upon the cathartic element in imaginative fiction that lets you see, vicariously, your life and its possibilities.  Maybe through that work you will have your predicament named for you whereby you could exclaim “That is it!” and yours be the shock of a man having found what he scarcely thought was lost.

The late novelist, Eudora Wetly said something that I think is important to our present discussion.  She said:

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time but their significance to ourselves find their own order…The time we know subjectively is often a chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

girl in book store

Girl in Bookshop

The events in our lives, when considered in the light of philosophy and literature prepare one for this revelation, the revelation of that deeper meaning, for which we should all be searching.   For me one particular revelation is the meaning of the human face.  The philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, wrote much about the meaning of the human face and the implications the face of the other has on ethics.  I have often reflected on his thoughts on this subject and he argues quite powerfully for his position that the face reveals an infinity.  That has always struck me as powerful but it was not until I had a particular experience about a year ago that crystallized what he was saying.  The experience was quite profound for me and revealed something for me that I wanted to commit to writing.  Now let me say that I’m an amateur writer, which is to say I am a terrible writer with illusions of grandeur, who is more than willing to visit his inane ramblings on anyone who is too polite to decline or too unfortunate to escape.  So here you are:

“With an arm propped on the driver’s side door, my head rests wearily in an opened palm as I make my way home. I’m increasingly impatient to arrive as the long day seems to lengthen from the haltingly slow traffic moving like an irregular pulse along an asphalt artery. Occasionally, I cast a bored glance toward my fellow commuters, noting expressions, either exasperated or vacant. Some are lost in a digital oblivion that knows no interruption, save by the honking of a horn or the alarming reality of the bumper ahead. For a time, I too, am lost in miasma of thought, a sort of low and foggy cognizance that is there but never forming toward something definite. And then, from the corner of my eye, I happen to catch the gaze of someone passing by. She is a small child of no more than six years, with eyes large and dark, deeply and richly dark, like freshly tilled earth into which the wide and variegated world might be sown. As she passes by, I manage to offer her a slight smile. She returns with a smile of her own before moving ahead. It lasts but a moment though just long enough for the everydayness to be lifted. The manner of her smile, delicate and unburdened as a dew laden web at dawn, discloses our shared re-cognition of that Goodness, whereby the wandering of the old burnt and wearied world might at last find a home. She is soon out of sight. But I am left with a definite thought: what is it in a smile or even more, in the face of an-other person, which may uncover an entire horizon? Drawn deeply into that unveiled mystery, I make my way home.”

To try to give you the experience of which Mrs. Crane spoke is impossible.  You have to see it for yourself.  In cannot be had vicariously.  For you, it would have all the impossibility of vicariously experiencing the taste of some particular dish from the mouth of another man.

If this world has not seized you by the collar and given you a good shake before all its strangeness and wonder, you have not lived. You may become old and gray but your years will stretch and fade behind you as so many thoughtless miles on a forgotten highway.

With that, I would encourage you, if you have not done so, to think and read or at the very least, to think of reading.