A tame one from a Blue Mountain Brewery growler was just right for last night, Tuesday, September 2nd, with its high dew point. Wife Kathy and daughter Elena picked it up for me when they were in Virginia for a baby shower. As son Micah and Kathy used power tools in the garage, I stood in front of the Kmart box fan in boxers—try to get that picture out of your head!—grateful that the neighbors can’t spot me when I’m in the kitchen. ABC’s David Muir anchored yet another day of withering news, and I sipped toward buzzdom, which was a wise course of action, considering the state of affairs.
I should note that I really get up in the face of the evening news, my eyes twelve to eighteen inches from the screen. My jaw probably hangs open, too. Such a bizarre relationship we have, the news and I. Just when I decide to retreat from current events, take up residence in a media-free desert cave, and start to look like a Zen-Christian-hermit Gabby Hayes, another story grabs me by the beard. Check that: it’s not the story that takes hold of me, but the people. Maybe that’s why I’m nose to nose with what’s happening. I see faces and feel obligated to witness on their behalf, as if it’s my calling to stand with them in the only way I can: watch, don’t turn away.
Yesterday was heartbreaking. A brief recap:
ISIS militants followed through with their threat and hacked off journalist Steven J. Sotloff’s head. “I’m back, Obama,” the executioner said. Yeah, no kidding, tough guy. The victim was thirty-one. His mother begged for his release. I would have done the same. Worth a shot.
Refugee children in Syria have to work in the fields to support their families. Parents, many of them professionals, can’t work because kids are a cheaper pay-date. So they get up at the crack and fill bags of potatoes so full they can hardly lift them. We’re talking seven-, eight-year-olds. Babies! They have lovely, sweet faces that for some time now haven’t been in schoolrooms.
A nine-year-old girl lost control of an Uzi at a shooting range and shot her instructor in the head, killing him. The gun was too much for her, she said. The report went on to show other little kids under adult supervision firing big-ass moxie weapons.
Finally, photographs of naked celebrities are being hacked and made public. This, of course, is wrong as wrong can be. The surprise for me is how many people take nude pictures of themselves or let somebody else do so. Out of consideration for public safety, I would never be undressed around a camera or smartphone.
These stories, a whiplash crash of barbaric and absurd, put me in a fog that the beer didn’t create: another beheading, babies the age of my church kiddos rushing to get potatoes into sacks to their overseer’s satisfaction, a girl who will have to live with malignant guilt forever, and nudies. The result was malaise and paralysis: a chunky guy in boxers with a nice beer in his hand, slack-face glowing in the television’s light. With a fat cigar, I would have been a poor man’s Winston Churchill. I stood there for the longest time, a blob of middle-age wishing there were a way to take those refugee children into my arms, tell them that they’re beloved, tuck them between clean sheets, and sit with them for breakfast before walking them to school. Children, damn it! I didn’t have any prayer in that moment other than sorrowful curses, weary four-letter words.
Of course, sad or pissed or ennui-drunk as you can be, there comes a point when continuing to stand around in your underwear is letting the %$&*@! with the knife win. I had done due diligence as a witness to my sisters’ and brothers’ realities, but was powerless to move on. Then, a whine rescued me.
Out in the garage, Kathy and Micah were running sanders over our kitchen cabinet doors, getting them ready for a fresh coat. The Coleman family kitchen has seen lots of action in the last thirteen years. Ah, if cabinetry could tell stories: daughter Elena’s rants and twilight escapes and slashes on the wrists; Micah’s howling girlfriend dramas and heroin and felony and house arrest; Kathy’s toil in nursing school and glad landing as a chemotherapy nurse; my own wrestling with anxiety and depression and hours of joyful, messy cooking. The kitchen was there for it all.
So the sanders’ whine took me to the back window, where I watched my wife and son working in the garage, the light spilling out over the silhouettes of sunflowers. During one tough stretch, they went months without speaking. Micah’s hands were perpetual fists, the veins in his forearms popping. Kathy and I just tried to make it through each day.
“Work is love made visible,” Khalil Gibran said. As I received the anointing of Kathy and Micah working away happily together and talking over the whine, joy sat down beside my malaise. No, my spirit wasn’t all better, but hope had taken paralysis in its arms.
I wasn’t moved by a woman and man sanding cabinet doors in a garage. My son had worked his painting job all day. He takes his responsibilities seriously and comes home tired. But he was out with his mom, not because he wanted to put shoulder to wheel for a couple more hours, but because he loves her. That was what I saw: love made visible.
When I went to bed, I kept watching in my mind Kathy and Micah in the garage under gentle light. I have a well in my chest where tears come from, and I could feel my wife and son’s love filling it with peace.
The older I get, the more flummoxed I am in the face of evil. If the world is always going to have rancor and brutality, maybe the best I can do is make sure that one tipsy man in boxers in one house in one neighborhood in one city will never—by God!—hold the knife or make children gather potatoes. That light from the garage, fragile, delicate as a candle flame: if I could just lift it up high enough for the world to see.
P. S. At lunch today Kathy called me. She was having a crazy, frustrating day, but she knew hearing my voice would make her feel better. That’s love for you. A glance at its light, a whisper from its lips, and the world is mysteriously fit for habitation again.