Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Oldest Dominion

Each of us has an accumulation of stuff and things we feel is important or valuable and we want to see passed on. Some of the things are physical: tools, toys, collections of books or art or - - - toys. But there are other things I want to believe I will pass on: my love of words, the thrill of learning something new, the satisfaction that comes with doing something well, or for the first time, or both. And my sense of purpose, the "why" if you will: leaving the world better than I found it.

It seems to me that one of the things most important in life is understanding "why." Some basic questions we should confront in our lives: Why we are alive? Why do we do what we do? What is our purpose in being alive? Who are we to decide the fate of others? Should we simply go from moment-to-moment, day-to-day, without purpose, without direction?

This is my core belief: that the real difference between mankind and all other living things is our ability to see backward and forward and correct as we go, to ultimately leave the world a better place than we found it. Otherwise we are simply taking up space, breathing air, absorbing moisture, eating plants and animals, just to keep doing it again.

We have a responsibility to all other life forms as well as to ourselves. This is not some "green speak," some New Age idea. It is as old as Genesis. There is beauty and ugliness in every garden. How we deal with it measures our level of civilization and our understanding of reason and purpose. It is, I believe, the true meaning of the biblical charge to exercise "dominion."

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Like most men, I like my scars. They mark a life lived, if not to the fullest, at least closer to the edge of that place. I have marks on my body that reflect some of those I carry in my mind, and I have others I can only vaguely recall adding, but they all tell me that I haven’t sat in an easy chair as my life has moved along.

There are other scars: lines resulting from worrying, from trying to see in poor light or too much sun, from smiling or grimacing as I’ve struggled to move something heavy in my life.

Scars are not beautiful on a woman, but they are "interesting" on a man. Women have them, I know, and hide them, I’m certain, and it isn’t something you study and say. "Tell me how you got that." For a man it is a roadmap of his encounters with life, with the losses and the wins, the symbols of overreaching or oversleeping, but never of just hiding out (though that can probably cause scarring, too).

Encounters with machines, fights, wars, stumbles, surgeons, all contribute to the upholstery pattern of the human body. I have them on my face and hands, knees and elbows, a curious depression on one ankle, and on places usually covered.

What about the ones that don’t show? Not the ones that will eventually, as increasing hair loss might reveal. The ones you can never see, never run your finger over or cover with clothing. We have those, too. All of us. But those are the ones most of us do try to cover up; show only at times most intimate perhaps, or most emotional. Life leaves us unmarked only if we sit still in one place and that place never changes. It is the place we think we would be happy, but only in times of stress and strain and pain. But in the end, we know, there is no such place for most of us; no place where we can hide from the things that give us scars. Still, they remind us we are alive, remind us we have lived. Scars are chapter headings for stories we tell.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


We were checking out of the motel in Caribou that morning. My wife was sitting in the car, listening to the radio, as I paid the bill and chatted with the manager. She asked me if I had heard about the plane hitting a building in New York, and I told her I had not. "Come into the office," she offered, "I have the TV on." We walked into the room behind the reception desk, and there on the small TV, I saw the first pictures. I remembered another plane hitting the Empire State building sometime after the war, and mentioned that, but the young woman didn’t know about it. I thanked her for letting me see the accident (as we were sure it was), and I left, rejoining my wife in the car. "A plane flew into the World Trade Center," I said. She said she had just heard that on NPR, and as we drove away, heard about the second plane and the second building.
       I think about that morning ten years ago today, and I think about other tragic days I remember.
       The earliest I recall was a sunny Sunday afternoon in December. Our house was full of college girls and boys (yes, that’s what they were called then), and my sister and I and our parents had just returned from that American institution, the Sunday Drive. As we got out of the car and walked into the house the young people were all quietly talking (unusual for such a young group). They told of the interruption to the radio program announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor. My sister and I (she was ten, I was six) understood, without really understanding, that something momentous, terrible, exciting had happened to our nation.
       Then there is the day in April, four years later. I can still see myself standing outside our house (another house by then), considering what the death (sudden, unexpected) of our president really meant. Thinking about the changes my world had already witnessed in such a short time.
      And a day in November. I was in an editing room with my director and the editor. We were working on a first-cut of a short film our boss wanted "soon." The phone rang, and I answered it, heard my wife saying what I thought was the beginning of a joke: "The president’s been shot." I walked home to Georgetown, going by my boss’s office there in the White House, but not stopping, only taking in the quiet crowd gathering outside the fence on Pennsylvania Avenue.
     And September 11, 2001. As we headed back to Virginia, through the lovely New England fall, I was torn between getting my wife home to the safety of our farm, and diverting to New York or perhaps Washington, where my training and skills as an EMT, and the jump bag in the trunk, might be needed. We stopped for the night in New Hampshire, saving the longest leg for the next day.
      Finally, I remember September 12, 2001. Car after car, from New Hampshire to Virginia, seemed magically to have sprouted American flags: on windows, on trunk lids, from radio antennae. Any anxiety I might have felt, for my family, for my country, for my world, began to recede. It wasn’t just the flags, of course, but they marked a determination, a resistance, a strength I knew we, as a people, had. It was something I knew from December 7, from November 22, from September 11. America, standing tallest among nations, would always be a target for those grasping ideologies that would suppress and destroy what only America could offer. And they, regardless of who and where they lived, would themselves be overcome. Our flag will still be up long after they have fallen.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Every Moment

"Every moment of your life, you’re writing. Even in your dreams, you’re writing."
Frank McCort in Teacher Man

I sometimes feel as if there were two of me: one living life and the other observing me living life. It’s what being an observer, a recorder of life demands and delivers: seeing your world and you in it. That’s the writing life. Everything that happens to you or around you is something you can (and probably will) use in telling your version of the story of living. I realize, often in the middle of something I’m doing, that I’m also collecting, storing, synthesizing the life I am living. Sometimes it is hard to separate myself from myself, but even then I know it is happening: I’m seeing me living, and figuring out how I can tell that story, or use what I see to tell another story. There is, certainly, a disconnect between the living me and the observing me. They come together when I tell a story. Sometimes I can write the ending even before I know the beginning.