Addressee Known

“I’ve got one addressed to you on Wright Street, Paul.”  The postman laid the little stack of mail on the counter at the store, looking at me expectantly.  My response was quick and sarcastic.  “Well, if they don’t know that I haven’t lived there for ten years, it’ll be junk mail.  Just throw it in the trashcan there.”  He laughed, but replied, “It is First Class Mail.  You might want to look at it just in case.”  We joked a moment more about the lists that are bought and sold to provide the annoying advertisers with destination addresses for their mobile trash.  He picked up the outgoing mail and headed out the door once more.

After he left, I grabbed the suspect envelope and prepared to toss it away.  The return address showed an appropriately generic name of “Shareowner Services”, pretty much guaranteeing that I would be placing it in the circular file very shortly.  But, as I examined the delivery address, I noticed that it was marked “Roth Rollover Account”  and my legal name was used correctly in the address.  This is not a normal occurrence for most of the junk mail I receive; the majority being marked to some person with a first name of “Current” and a last name of “Occupant”, or worse still, “Our Friend at:”.  Considering the correct labeling, I opted to open the envelope. 

As I slit open the flap, my mind wanders a bit.  This is really the quintessential example of living in a small community, isn’t it?  It has been nearly ten years since we moved out of that drafty, old Victorian home across town.  A lot has happened since then.  I’ve acquired a new son…well, a son-in-law, really, but the process of bringing him into our world cost about the same as having a child at the hospital.  Both of my children have graduated from college.  I have picked up four beautiful grandchildren and a few gray hairs somewhere along the way.  I can’t begin to enumerate the changes in family and pets and even in me personally.  Ten years is a long time.  Yet, without a mark on the envelope telling them that I’m no longer at that address, without a yellow label to be found bearing the forwarding address (long expired), the envelope is delivered right into my hands.

I like small-town life.  I’m not sure I could make it in a big city, going day after day without seeing a single person I know outside of my home, or workplace, or church.  I love walking through the hardware store and finding friends to joke with or taking a walk around town with the Lovely Lady and having folks honk as they pass, not because they’re making fun of my spindly, white legs (although they could), but just because they recognize us and want to acknowledge that.  I’ve heard this described as the “big fish in a small pond” syndrome.  I’m pretty sure in my circumstance, it’s more like being an average-sized fish in that small body of water, but the result is still pleasant and satisfying.  For some, it would be constricting, but I like that folks know who I am and what I stand for.  I’m pretty sure that if I step out of line in my personal life, someone would stop me and give me a piece of their mind, and that’s not a bad thing, either.  Accountability is a way of life in a small town, another advantage of the community mindset, if you ask me.

I don’t want you to think that I’m some arrogant snob who craves attention, because that’s not who I am at all.  I don’t need to stand out in the crowd, I just need to be aware that there are people who know me and who care about me.  It’s what all of us yearn for.  Sure, a pat on the back, a commendation for a job well done, once in awhile is nice.  Sometimes, we really need that, but this is about a sense of belonging, of being part of something.  The paradox of living in a big city is that, although in the midst of a huge population, frequently individuals are lost and lonely, seeking in vain for human companionship. At the same time, many who live in small communities across the land are surrounded by large and viable support networks, people who know them and who will come to their aid at a moment’s notice.  I’m not putting down city living, but I’m more than a little partial to life in this particular small town, thanks!

As the fleeting thoughts of small-town realities passed, I opened the flap of the envelope.  I didn’t throw away the contents, either.  It was a check…no, not one of those fake checks, the cashing of which obligates the payee to a larger purchase, not even one of those irritating “down-payment” checks from the local used-car dealership.  It was a real check, for the sum of twenty dollars and some-odd cents; the result of a class action lawsuit against a large investment firm I used for the safekeeping of my retirement fund all those years ago.  My small-town existence paid off to the tune of twenty dollars!  In other circumstances, I would never have seen that money.  So, in a day or two, the Lovely Lady and I will spend a little time and enjoy a meal at the local Mexican restaurant, compliments of this small town.  I would be willing to bet that we’ll spend a few moments visiting with folks we know there.  I’ll walk out realizing that the payoff for living in a great little community like this is well more than that measly twenty dollars. 

Do you recognize the blessing it is to live in the place you’ve been led to, surrounded by the people whom you need and who need you?  It may not be an idyllic little community, may not even be a desirable location by any reasonable standards.  To be in the place where one belongs, no matter the situation, is nothing to belittle.  I love the apostle’s attitude, expressed so succinctly, all those many years ago.  “I have learned in whatever circumstance I find myself, therewith to be content.”

I’m working on the contentment thing.  While I’m trying to get that squared away, Mr. Postman, any more junk mail like that last one is welcome here anytime!

“I was walking along looking for somebody, and then suddenly I wasn’t anymore.”
(A.A. Milne~Author of the Pooh books~1882-1956)

Wanna Hear a Secret?

Fascination with human misfortune.  We’re all eaten up with it.  The other day, there was an accident on the Interstate that runs through this corner of my state.  The accident was in the southbound lane, with no wreckage or emergency vehicles impacting the northbound lane whatsoever.  Yet, the traffic in the northbound lane was backed up for four miles.  One has to wonder why.  Caution on the part of the drivers?  Drivers stopping to help?  No, the reason for the traffic pile-up was curiosity and the desire to “be there”.  You know…”Oh the accident on 540?  Yeah, I was there.  You should have seen that SUV!  It was upside down and the top was smashed completely flat!”  When it’s someone else’s misfortune, we want to see it and have it known.  That’s why the news media is inundated with disaster stories; why the great majority of their output is about the misfortune of persons of interest.

Why is it that we have a right to know when it is someone else feeling the icy touch of tragedy, but we want the right to privacy when the adversity is our own?  We do everything we can to shield ourselves and the ones we love from the exposure of public scrutiny, but we are happy to learn the gory details when the disaster doesn’t touch us at all.  I’m not sure that I understand it, but I certainly know it to be true.  You see, personal secrets are one of those very strange subjects that are viewed in such very different light, depending on the angle of one’s view.  I hereby declare my right to keep from you any secrets that I desire to remain hidden.  I will not confer on you the same right.  Secrets belonging to others should be exposed whenever discovered, right?

As a side-note, I will admit that the onus of secrets shared by others is sometimes an excessive burden for me.  It happened over thirty years ago, but I remember it as if it was yesterday.  The first week in December of 1979, Bernie’s girlfriend came into the music store.  “I need to get Bernie some drumsticks.  Do you know what size he always buys?”  Well, of course, I knew that!  Bernie bought sticks frequently, since he was a rather advanced and in-demand drummer, and even taught a few lessons to supplement his income from the low-paying gigs he was able to schedule.  I sold her the Regal Tip Jazz sticks ($4.50 plus tax) and she was gone, with a quick remark which I was to recall later, though not in a timely manner.  “He’ll be surprised.”   A week of so later, Bernie and his girlfriend were in the store again.  “Oh!  Were those the right sticks she picked up for you last week, Bernie?”  I blurted.  The knives in her eyes could have inflicted mortal wounds, but Bernie laughed uncomfortably.  “I think they were supposed to be a surprise, maybe?”

I wish it were the only gaff I could report in my history of keeping secrets, but there are others.  Alas, I suffer from a disease common to folk of my ilk.  I am a talker, a conversationalist, constantly in search of pertinent material to fill the empty spaces.  While thinking on one’s feet is a desirable trait for such talkers, wisdom in selection of the material shared is frequently not a strong accompanying trait.  While flipping though the mental files which are germane to the subject being spoken to, at times an important post-it note on said mental file is overlooked temporarily.  You already know that I am painfully aware that words spoken cannot be unspoken.  “I’m sorry,” won’t stuff the offending words back in Pandora’s box, no matter how sincerely intended.  I am finding, as I age, that I am finally developing a capacity to keep quiet about the really important matters entrusted to me, but the less weighty confidences are still a little like smoke in the wind.  I’ll keep trying to do better.

I would also like to be able to tell you that my penchant for revealing secrets is proof that I harbor no secrets of my own.  I would like to tell you that, but it would be a falsehood.  There are circumstances in my private life which I will not discuss, because there is potential embarrassment, potential hurt, potential damage to relationships.  There are also truths which are simply not for public consumption, and therefore, will remain private and guarded.  Knowing this about myself, I am not sure why I am surprised when I hear, as I have on more than one occasion within the last week, about deep secrets, unhappy truths in the lives of people I know and some I love.  I have accepted the facade, the public face for so long that the ugly truth that resides behind it is a shock when exposed.  It would be no different if you could see behind the curtain of my existence.  By now, it is cliche to quote that humbug of a wizard who has tricked Dorothy and her friends into believing his publicity, but it is the desperate cry of every one of us.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

I am coming to understand finally (I tell you, I’m not a quick study), that most of my friends have sorrows they never will share; many of my family members are hiding hurts they cannot put into words.  This knowledge is changing the manner in which I look at people who cross my path everyday.  I understand a little better that each has burdens which are unbearable, secrets which they fear will be exposed at any moment.  I don’t know specifically how to help with their burdens, but I have it on good authority that there is One who does.  I also understand that He left instructions for us to get some practice at helping each other with these wearying loads, in spite of our own personal needs.  I’m thinking that just realizing that the load is every bit as heavy for them as for me is the beginning of a change of heart on my part, of a desire to assist.  It turns out that the phrase I utter countless times a day to my customers is exactly what all of us need to be saying…just a little more purposefully.

“May I help you?”

“Come unto Me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”
(Jesus~Matthew 11:28)

“Carry each other’s burdens.  In this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” 
(Galatians 6:2)

Can We Talk?

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.” 
(“The Walrus and the Carpenter” from “Through the Looking Glass”~Lewis Carroll)

“Do you have time to talk about a weighty subject?”  The phone had rung while I was talking with someone else on a different line.  The message the caller left asked me to call, “…if you have time.”  I wasn’t rushed this evening, so I dialed the number.  It seemed a good idea at the time.

As the question was asked, I considered the ramifications.  The caller had left me an “out”.  I could tell him that I was too busy; that I had other things to attend to.  It wouldn’t have been a lie.  These days, I find that there is always a spare task lying around unfinished.  Then again, I remembered Winnie the Pooh’s response when asked about Rabbit.  “Rabbit?  I like Rabbit!  He always uses short, easy words like, ‘How about lunch?’, and ‘Help yourself, Pooh.'”  That’s the kind of conversation I would prefer.  Weighty subject?  Could you just tell me that I’ve won an all expense paid trip to Tahiti instead?

The caller before him had wanted to discuss a weighty subject as well.  I had already been on the phone for half an hour with that weighty subject.  I can’t count the times over the last week that I’ve spent time, hours of it, on weighty subjects.  Maybe it’s time to stick to the light stuff.  Could we talk about football?  How about if you could tell me about your friend who had a successful deer hunting trip this weekend.  I could really stand to waste a few moments on the trivial.

I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about this recently.  I’ve seen the frequency of these weighty conversations multiply over my years as an adult.  I remember well the carefree years, with nothing of more consequence than going to work and paying the rent and the utility bill.  Easygoing conversations with friends almost always led to laughter; sidesplitting, tears-in-the-eyes, milk-through-the-nose laughter.  None of this somber, serious, quiet communication, resulting in subdued contemplation and sad consideration of how we got to this point in life.  I have to admit, the thought of being perpetually young appeals, at times.  I can’t help but wish that Ponce De Leon had found that Fountain of Youth way back in the sixteenth century when he explored far and wide, hoping to stumble upon it, but to no avail.  But then, as I consider this, I remember many of my young friends and relations who have actually chosen that path.  Well into their adult years, they continue the juvenile exploits which should have been left behind them long ago.  Partying, drifting, working at odd jobs (when they work at all), they deny the maturity which should come with the years.  They fight off the prospect of responsibility with every bit as much energy as others put into achieving milestones in their lives.  I see the arrested development and every part of me cries out that this is not how we were meant to be.

We move through stages in life, first carefree in the formative years when we are learning the foundational principals which will guide us through the minefields of the adult stage; then progressively more serious and thoughtful as time passes, understanding by our experiences and memories that life is not all fun, not all games.  Certainly, we still enjoy life. We still have the opportunities to laugh and celebrate.  I love those times.  Experience brings with it a certain accountability though, the opportunity to pay back the debt we owe to those who preceded us.  They took time to speak with us of weighty matters, to give advice, and to be right there by our sides when we needed support.  If we shirk our duty to carry that on, who will light the way for those who come after us?

I did speak of the “weighty matter” with my caller tonight, genuinely happy to have the opportunity.  It wasn’t the most fun I’ve had recently.   And, it’s okay.  I have said many times over the last months that the most important thing in our lives, besides our relationship with our God, is our relationship with our fellow travelers.  It takes the light-hearted, hilarious times we spend together, as well as the times when heavy subjects are broached and considered at length to build those relationships.  The people I never talk about serious matters with?  They’re my acquaintances, my “fair-weather” friends.  Here today, gone tomorrow…those relationships are built with craft paper and Styrofoam.  You see, we don’t build very high when we use light-weight building materials.  The really heavy stuff, the things that take work to put into place, like brick and mortar, concrete and lumber – those are what go into the structures that stand the test of time.

Weighty subject?  Yeah, we can talk about that.  We’ve got a house to build.  Why don’t you help me with that beam over there?

“Maturity is achieved when a person postpones immediate pleasures for long-term values.”
(Joshua L. Liebman~American author and Rabbi~1907-1948)

“It’s easy to say how we love new friends, and what we think of them, but words can never trace out all the fibers that knit us to the old.”
(George McDonald~English Novelist~1819-1880)

No East, No West

The old Native American answered my greeting hesitantly as he entered the store.  Since he’s one of my regular guitar quality-control technicians (loves to play all the new stuff!), and is almost always upbeat, it was a little disconcerting when he answered my usual, “How’s it going today?” with a mumbled, “Oh…getting by, I guess.”  Not wanting to intrude on his privacy, I switched subjects.  “It’s sure been a cloudy, dreary couple of days, hasn’t it?”  The weather is always a great fall-back area of discussion which doesn’t require a lot of personal information.  Not this time.

“That’s just it!” He exclaimed.  “I hate this!  And, there’s months more of it to come.”  I felt a relief, as we talked, realizing that his initial response wasn’t because of a family crisis; had nothing to do with a health problem or even financial woes (as I see more and more often).  Here was a kindred spirit who suffers from the same affliction I do this time of year.  The gray, overcast days actually cause a physical and emotional malaise, robbing us of our normal optimistic outlook on life.  Instead, our spirits are dampened to the point where we dwell on the negative, remembering with regret happier times and friends who are no longer with us.  Songs and photographs, along with other memories which should evoke warm emotions, instead deepen the feelings of loss and melancholy.  We sat, the old Indian fellow and I, and commiserated about our shared disability.  When he finally had to leave, oddly enough, I think we both felt better. 

The phone rang awhile later and I answered, to find one our African American customers from a large Eastern metropolis, who wanted to place another order.  I was happy to talk with her again, joking as we communicated about the items she needed today.  She said there were five items she needed and launched into the list.  Three titles later, she halted.  I could hear her muttering to herself, “I knew I should have written them down.  Why can’t I remember the others?”  Immediately, I realized that here again was a kindred spirit.  How many times over the last few years (maybe all my life)  have I forgotten people’s names, important dates, appointments, and miscellaneous other vital details?  I tried to put her at ease as she cast about in embarrassment to remember the lost information.  A few moments later, as  we consoled each other regarding this defect in our condition, the misplaced titles came to her and we sped on to the conclusion of our transaction.  In spite of the speed bump, we were able to salvage a potentially losing situation for both parties.  She will receive the music which is necessary for her church family to enjoy; I appreciate the profit from the sale, which enables us to pay the bills for a few moments more.  Better than that, we both realize that we’re not the only ones with a flawed memory.  Shared imperfections build bridges where no connections existed before.

Several other times today, my conversations reminded me of the common ground I share with so many folks…folks from many different walks of life, from diverse geographic regions, even from vastly different ethnicity.  I understand, of course, that the examples cited here lean to the negative connections, but we share so much more.  I talked with each of these folks about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and without fail, each one expressed their intent to share the day with family and loved ones, and talked about their enjoyment at the prospect.  Failures and infirmities, hopes and blessings – we all participate daily in a common lot.  Color, social status, nationality, environment…all of these things change the particulars, but they cannot alter the reality that we are really all one race, the Human Race.  We love; we laugh, we cry; we carry on.  I am excited to recognize the shared qualities of our humanity in many places I wasn’t expecting to find them.

Over and over in recent days, the news media has communicated the intent (and active programs) of many to splinter us.  There are some who would separate us by color, some who seek to ostracize those who are wealthier (or poorer) than they, some who want to point the finger of judgement at people of different faiths.  I refuse to participate.  Making clear that I believe firmly in a God who requires faith in His Son for salvation from the punishment for sin, I steadfastly maintain that His love compels us to love, not hate.  Compassion is a requisite in our treatment of those who are fallen, those who are needy, those who have no hope.  It is our calling and our lifelong quest.

Okay!  Done preaching now.  Over the last few weeks, I have noticed many of my friends listing the things they are thankful for, each day of this month leading up to the official day of Thanksgiving.  I don’t have the discipline to do that each day, but I will today tell you that, of all the things for which I am thankful (and they are innumerable), the one I am intensely aware of on a daily basis is the blessing of communication, of fellowship.  I love to talk (now, that will be a surprise to you!) and to listen.  I love learning new tidbits of useful (and useless) information from the people who cross my path every day.  Most of all, I love the opportunities I have to use what I learn of people to share the blessings I enjoy freely.  What a joy all of you with whom I interact are to me! 

I hope the blessing of people ranks high on your list of things to be thankful for too.  In everything…Give Thanks!

“In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North.
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.”
(William Dunkerly~English businessman and writer~1852-1941)

“Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices…”
(Martin Rinkart~German pastor and musician~1586-1659)

To the Letter

The doctor said the “b” word today.  I was in for my annual “Wellness Assessment”.  Don’t you just love the deceptively innocent way those two words just roll off the tongue?  “Wellness Assessment”?  It might as well be called the “Malady Assessment”, given that the conversation always centers around what’s wrong with me.  As usual, our conversation ran through a variety of subjects – from blood pressure, to asthma symptoms, to vertigo.  I mentioned in passing that there was a mole on my back which the Lovely Lady had suggested “looked funny”.  Those words could be used to describe many attributes of my physical appearance, so I had not been overly concerned.  The good doctor, however, took a look just to be sure.  “That does look funny,”  he suggested.  I am used to people agreeing with the Lovely Lady, especially since she is so often correct, but I wasn’t happy about his siding with her this time.  “Set up an appointment.  We need to do a biopsy.”  Yep.  That “b” word…No, not with a capital “b”.  Well, I hope not, anyway.

I have to admit, I wasn’t at all disturbed by his use of the word, or even that I have to go back tomorrow and submit to the procedure, which is likely to hurt a little.  What I was really dreading today was the doctor’s reaction to my other vital statistics.  The cholesterol is still over the limit, the blood pressure a tad over the acceptable range, and the weight more than a couple of pounds over the norm.  I was sure a new diet (that would be the “d” word) would be discussed, or a program of exercise (the “e” word), or worst of all…the dreaded prescription (sorry, no letters for this one – I won’t even discuss it with him).  I dislike pills.  And no, it’s not so much about the unintended side-effects, even though I learned all about those from Alice.  You know, after she went down the rabbit hole.  I just don’t do well with pills.  At least, not long-term.  I start out with the best of intentions, religiously taking the proper dosage at the proper time, with the proper companion material.  Taken with food?  No food, but water?  Lots of water, but don’t lie down for thirty minutes?  All the instructions will be followed exactly…for two or three days.  After that, things seem to get a little fuzzy.  Did I take the dose at noon?  I didn’t drink all of the water.  Will it be okay?  I’m really not hungry now.  Can I wait to take the medicine until I want to eat?  Okay…that last never happens.  I’m hungry all the time.  But, you get the picture.  I don’t want to take medicine.  Give me a shot; let me endure the little bit of pain now and get it over with.  I hate things that are drawn out and require discipline.

Today, I was ecstatic that the doc didn’t rail on me about the “d” word, or the “e” word, or even the pills.  He suggested (gently) that I could get back to “e”-ing any time soon, but that was it.  I’m good to go!  Oh, by the way…come back again for the “b” word.  There was no urgency, but the lady at the desk says tomorrow at four is good, so I’ll see him again very soon.

My guess is that you’re laughing at my sense of priorities about now.  I’m not really worried about the possibility of the “C” word (yeah, it should probably be a capital “c” there).  I’m just fine with someone cutting something out of my back; I’m even okay with them checking that something they cut out for the “C” word, but I dread every appointment with my doctor where the “e” word could be used, leading to a little physical exertion on an ongoing basis.  And, the “d” word!  Any real discipline in what goes into my mouth on a daily basis would be disastrous!  I do play around a little with the “d” word fairly frequently.  Sure, I’ll pass up that bread, and maybe that dessert.  I’ll even skip the meat in a meal occasionally.  But if, on the spur of the moment, we have to select a quick meal, that Thickburger at Hardees will do just fine, thanks!  Sure!  Make it a large order of Curly Fries, too!  I certainly wouldn’t allow the “d” word to interfere with what’s really important to me.

I find myself shaking my head as I see the words (or letters) in b&w.  But, isn’t that how we are, all through life?  I think I may have mentioned my chubby friend from elementary school who, uninterested in running any more during our physical education period, hid behind a sapling half his girth and declared, while hiding his eyes, “I’m staying right here for the rest of the period.  No one can see me here, ’cause I can’t see them.”  Much like the fabled ostrich’s head buried in the sand (a myth encouraged by the fact that they really do lay their heads and necks flat on the ground to blend into the scenery when a predator is near), there is no safety in denying danger.  That path guarantees defeat.  That said, it is not necessarily safe to confront danger, either.  There is always the chance of defeat, of losing the battle.  But if we stand and face the peril, at least we have what is aptly known as a fighting chance. 

Have you ever been faced with a giant in your life?  My experience has been that bullies rarely (if ever) go away when you turn your back on them.  They can only be defeated by standing and resisting.  It will almost certainly hurt.  There may be pain involved, possibly extreme pain.  But, the long-term rewards are indescribable.  Then again, it is possible that the enemies you’ve faced were a little less significant.  Sometimes, the danger is as tiny as a thorn that sticks in the skin, wearing and irritating.  Left where it is, the result can be just as serious as the destruction induced by the giant.  Loss of function, infection, blood poisoning, even death can result.  But if we make the effort and take the time to remove the thorn and to repair the tiny amount of damage done, the relief is almost as indescribable as defeating the giant.

You understand that I’m talking to myself tonight, don’t you?  I’m happy that you’ve hung around with me as long as you have, and if some of the ideas are helpful to you, that’s great.  But, I’m psyching myself up for the long-term “d” word and yes, even for the “e” word program that is undoubtedly ahead of me.  I’ll go in tomorrow for the “b” word, too.  We’ll see how it all works out, but giants will be faced and thorns will be pulled. 

You can come along with, if you like…company is always welcome.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”
(Chuck Swindoll~American pastor/teacher)

“…when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
(Ephesians 6:13)

With acknowledgment and thanks to Chuck Swindoll for the concept of “Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns”.

The Night The Music Died

I wasn’t able to wait on her right when she came in the door, but I recognized the familiar face and let her know that I would be with her soon.  It was a few moments before I finished with the customer who was looking at guitars and moved to the counter where she stood patiently.  I greeted her and asked how I could help her.  I expected a request to see some guitar tuning machines, or possibly some fret wire.  I had even sold her more than a few guitar, and banjo, and dulcimer, strings.  Her talented husband was a cabinet maker who also built an amazing variety of stringed instruments – everything from the hurdy gurdy you see pictured on this page, to dulcimers, to bouzoukis.  The request for instrument parts never came today.

Matter-of- factly, the gentle lady said, “You know he passed away.”  I didn’t know.  The tears in my eyes came unbidden, much as they do now as I write.  I was stunned.  I still am.  Her husband was a rough cut, but warmhearted, man who loved what he did.  He loved working in wood, and he was an artist at fashioning the material into musical instruments.  Oh…that wasn’t how I would have described him when I first met him.  I remember the first couple of items the aspiring instrument maker brought to me.  The woodwork was good enough in the mountain dulcimers, but he didn’t have much of a grasp of the need to marry the art of cabinetry and the science of sound in the instruments he was attempting.  Aesthetically they were acceptable, but musically, they weren’t up to the standards we were used to seeing in commercially made instruments.  That was close to twenty years ago.  He learned.  And how!  The last instruments he proudly brought into the store to show to us were fine examples of the instrument-maker’s craft.  I am deeply saddened that I’ll never again have the experience of seeing the pride in his eyes as I admire the fine craftsmanship in one of his instruments.  I will miss the discussions we have had many times of techniques, and styles, and the business side of marketing his creations.  I will miss a friend.

I spent a few moments speaking with his widow about him and helped her with a question she had about one of his instruments and she was gone.  Thirty-five years, she shared with him.  If I am stunned about the sudden loss, she is devastated.  Her world is shaken and, in her eyes, will never be set right.  I am confident that time will change the anguish and her faith will aid in healing the loss, but she is struggling.

I was still thinking about the departure of my friend a couple hours later, when a young man came in with an item to sell.  I recognized the piece and said so, not thinking about the direction the conversation would take us.  As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I remembered that I had sold the item to his brother just one day before he died, mere months ago.  He was twenty-one.  A fine guitarist, his music is now silenced (as far as we can hear).  I mentioned him and his family in a post back in May entitled “Memorial Day”, in which I also talked about the sorrow of my grandson at the loss of our family dog.  As the brother of the young man stood in front of me today, I saw a shadow cross his face at my reminder that the item he held had been purchased by his brother the day before he died.  “That was the last time I saw him…right out here in your parking lot,”  he said with glistening eyes.  I remembered that this young man’s car had pulled up as his brother had left the store and that they had stood, leaning against the back bumper of his car and talked for ten or fifteen moments.  As I considered the young man’s all-too-short life, and the empty place his passing has left in the hearts of those who loved him, my eyes filled again.

A couple of weeks ago, in my town and surrounding areas, homes and churches and businesses were shaken as an earthquake rippled under the earth’s surface. I felt the movement, noticed the light bulbs jingling in their shades and guitars jiggling on their mounts, and I even heard the whole earth almost groan as the wave passed. It wasn’t a disastrous quake.  It did make me think…a lot.  Where do you go when every safe place you trust is a potential trap?  In hurricanes, folks head for storm shelters; in tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, we have our cellars and hall closets and “fraidy holes”.  Not so with a severe earthquake.  The buildings we have built as solidly as possible are likely to trap us, the cellars – to collapse.  Even outside, there can be a danger of earth movement with sinkholes opening and rifts appearing.  Where is the firm foundation on which we can place our faith for safety?

I’m guessing that you can connect the dots.  We’ve got very few guarantees in this life.  Relationships we think are rock-solid dissolve without warning, in moments.  Friends and family members who were standing before us an instant before, seemingly healthy and immortal, are gone in the blink of our eye.  Fortunes are lost, governments toppled, and we look on, stupefied.  It seems that there is no safe place.  Well, perhaps, just one.  But, if you anticipate that it will keep you from sorrow and loss, that is not its promise.  Not from, but through, is the promise this Safe Place makes to us.  I don’t know why.  I’ll ask someday.

In the meantime,  I’m wondering if the music really died with my two friends.  Nah, I’m pretty sure the song goes on, just in a different place.  We have hope.  It is enough.

Oh Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
(“Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go” by George Matheson~Scottish minister~1842-1906)

Gift Horses (or, Mister Paul Gets Hooked Up)

A pretty late meeting meant an even later dinner tonight.  My earlier promise to the Lovely Lady to bring home something from the fast food restaurant meant that at 10:15 I was waiting, along with a bevy of college students, for the guys in the kitchen to complete my order (#265, the girl at the cash register had told me).  I checked messages on my “smart phone” as I waited, but happened to notice that one of the guys back on the food assembly line (does that term make it seem like it would be a good meal?) was waving at me.  I looked up and recognized a young man with whom I have dealt on numerous occasions in the music store.  As I smiled and waved back, I noticed that another fellow working on further back on the line was a customer of mine also, so I acknowledged him with a smile too.

With all the college kids around, I was feeling a little out of place, but that was only going to get worse.  Within a few moments, one of those men in the kitchen walked up to the counter and asked, “Which order is yours, Paul?”  I gave him the number, curious about the reason for the question.  As he walked back to his post, he called out loudly, “We’re going to hook you up!”  Now, I will readily admit to being out of the loop as far as today’s lingo goes, but I know enough to realize that this phrase can mean a few different things, not all of them operations in which I want to be involved.  The kids nearby chuckled a little at my confusion, but one of them said to me, “You must be somebody special.”  I’m not.  I’m so not special that I wasn’t sure what to expect when somebody was “hooking me up”!  I must say that I was relieved when no young ladies came walking out of the kitchen to talk with me, since that connotation of “hook you up” certainly wouldn’t sit well with a certain beautiful lady waiting for her supper back home.  One man standing nearby, who was of my generation, commiserated with me, saying that he hoped it was something good if they were going to hook me up.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

“There you go, Mister Paul!”  The to-go bags were plopped down on the counter with a smile and that was it!  The young man turned and headed back to his station; waving over his shoulder at me, along with his friend, as I thanked them.  I noticed that a few of the college kids were shooting darts at this old man with their eyes, since I had ordered after them, but was getting “hooked up” with my late-night supper before they did.  It was uncomfortable in a way, but I also felt a little honored by the special attention.  I shrugged apologetically toward the kids and headed out the door.  Upon arriving home, the bags were opened, to find that the guys had given me a couple of desserts, which I hadn’t ordered.  Oh!  So getting me my meal wasn’t all of it.  Here was yet another way in which the young guys had “hooked me up”.  I am grateful, but instantly, my brain is asking questions.  Were those really for me or had they made a mistake?  Those guys making minimum wage shouldn’t be spending their money on me!  Maybe they weren’t supposed to do stuff like that.  Would they get in trouble?  For a moment, I wondered if I should go back and try to pay for the extras.  That was about the time I remembered my Dad’s advice.

“Son, if someone wants to do something nice for you…let them.”  He said the words quietly, with the dinner check in his hand.  I was a proud thirty-something adult and the last thing I wanted was to let my father pay for the meal we had just enjoyed together.  I was prepared to argue until he was forced to give me the ticket, but something in his words stopped me in mid “But…”  After he paid for the meal, he explained as we drove home.  “I lost a friend a few years ago because of that very thing.  We had eaten out and he wanted to pay, but I insisted.  I won the argument.  He never spoke to me again.”

I have never forgotten the advice.  Oh, I sometimes slip up temporarily, but not for long.  I like my friends.  I don’t want to lose them over a stupid thing like pride.  And that’s all it would be.  I have thought long and hard about the principle at work here and there are two things I am sure of.  The first is that I don’t ever want to rob my friends.  Allowing them to do nice things for me is not robbing them, but taking that opportunity away from them is.  The second thing of which I am sure?  Pride breaks up more relationships than anything else.  For some funny reason, pride which refuses a gift incites pride (in the other person) which insists that the gift be accepted.  If an argument ensues, one of the combatant/friends will win, but both may lose.  Again and again, I’ve seen pride drive people apart, never to be reconciled.  The little two-letter word “No” placed in front of the words “Thank you” can be so much more damaging than the latter without any sign of the former.

I’m grateful for the friendship shown by the two young men tonight.  I don’t deserve it, but I’m happy to accept it.  Generous spirits shouldn’t be extinguished by the wet blanket of vanity.  May we never forget the great gift of graciousness.  With it, we increase the worth of others, with no damage done to ourselves.

Thanks for hooking me up, fellas!

“Every gift from a friend is a wish for your happiness.”
(Richard Bach~American writer)

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…”
(James 1:17)


I have frittered away my time tonight.  No, I haven’t spent my time eating fried bits of batter, but I have spent the time unproductively.  The two meanings come from completely different roots, with the proper usage for my current condition being the one which originally meant “to fragment into pieces”.  Since there has been no cohesive thought which has sprung to mind, around which to construct a blog post, I will try to keep this one short (but, don’t count on it…).

My main problem this evening is the thought that perhaps I’ve fallen out of step with the folks around me.  It’s almost as if everyone has moved on into a different room while I was admiring the artwork on the wall.  Does that seem a strange concept to you?  It did to me at first, also.  I have said a few times that I sometimes feel I’m going through life unaware of my surroundings, unenlightened about the ebb and flow of the conversation of people in general.  It’s not always true, but I feel that keenly tonight.  It’s been coming on for awhile.

The last couple of weeks have awakened me to the thought that I am often clueless to the undercurrents.  I’ve told you of my disappointment in folks I thought I knew.  It seems that every new day brings a revelation of things happening which I am totally unaware of, in spite of my involvement in the process itself.  Friends, customers, folks at my church…many have situations in their private lives which are devastating to them or, on the other extreme, exciting for them and on both accounts I am blissfully uninformed.  Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be for me now, but I’m not sure I like it much.

We are fortunate to have the Lovely Lady’s mother come to dinner with us most Sundays.  Over the last year or so, we have noticed a distance growing in her interaction with the group at the table.  We have blamed it on her growing deafness, but I suspect that there are other factors at work.  It seems to me that the aging process moves us through seasons of life, seasons when we are sometimes more and then sometimes less engaged with those in our vicinity.  When we are younger, we have our finger on the pulse of many people around us; responding to their joys and their pain; jumping in to help when we see a need.  As time goes by, we seem to disengage a bit, perhaps seeking to feel the hurt less, perhaps just because our own problems seem to increase as we care for aging parents or ailing spouses and the ravages of time affect more of our long-time friends.  We even experience the sorrow of loss more with every passing year.  I have seen this in other folks of a certain age, but I’m not ready to move into that stage of life.

I don’t think any of us want to become irrelevant.  I’m also not sure that it’s a clear and present danger for me right now, but it seems that possibly we have to work to stay engaged, even as the milieu in which we find ourselves changes.  Our sphere of influence shifts continuously throughout life and we have to adapt with it.  I’m working through that in my head right now.

So, actually I suppose I am not guilty of frittering.  It doesn’t seem very productive at times, but just the awareness and seeking for direction can be a positive thing.  I hope those of you who have already made the move to the next room will wait a moment for me.

I’ll catch up as soon as I can.

“For age is opportunity no less than youth itself, though in another dress, and as the evening twilight fades away, the sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
(From “Morituri Salutamus” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow~American poet~1807-1882)


“There was a buzzing noise and then it wouldn’t work.”  The kid with the pierced nose and plugs in his earlobes stood dejectedly with amplifier-head in hand and told me his story.  His heavy metal band had been rocking out at a very loud jam session in the garage when disaster overtook them.  I was afraid to learn of what transpired after the buzzing and ceasing-operation part of the event, but I encouraged him to go on.  “Did you unplug it and bring it right in?”  It was no surprise when the young man sheepishly (How does one look like a sheep with a large piece of rubber in one’s earlobe?  One might well ask…) revealed to me that they had not chosen that path.  “We figured that the fuse had blown, so we put in another one.”  I suggested hopefully, “The same size, right?”  No such luck.  “Well, we just pulled one out of another amp that was sitting there.  When we turned it back on, it buzzed again and then smoke poured out of it.  It smelled awful!”

I checked the fuse and found that the little glass and metal device was marked 10 amps.  The notation beside the socket said to use a “2 amp Slo Blo replacement fuse”.  They had inserted a fuse that took five times the current which would make it fail into a circuit which had already blown out the standard sized one, thereby guaranteeing extensive damage to the rest of the amplifier components.  No wonder the young man was standing there looking “mutton-headed”.  Again and again, I have told my customers that if a fuse blows, there is something wrong with the unit, not with the fuse.  The vast majority of them still believe that the fuse is at fault, when it is actually the only thing saving them from having a much bigger problem.

Warning signs.  Why do we ignore them?  The little yellow light next to the fuel gauge came on in the Lovely Lady’s car this afternoon.  What do you think we’ll do about it?  Pull out the bulb and replace it?  Check the relay that sends current to that bulb?  No, of course not!  I’ll take the car to the gas station and spend an inordinate amount of money to put more fuel in the tank.  The light tells me that I’ve already ignored the other warning sign, the gauge itself, for too long.  Disaster is imminent.  The correct response is not to attempt repairs on the warning system, but to remedy the situation with actions which will avert the disaster.

How many times have we read of lethal fires in homes where the homeowner has smoke alarms installed, but they are sitting with almost dead batteries in them and the leads disconnected.  Oh, you’ve experienced the annoyance.  You were sitting in your easy chair and you heard a “beep”.  Moments later, the sound was repeated.  When you finally responded and looked for the source, you realized that the battery in the alarm was low.  How did you respond?  If you were smart, you inserted a new battery and forgot about it for another year or so.  If you weren’t so far-sighted, you just reached up and took the wires loose from the battery and promptly forgot about it for whatever length of time it took you to notice it again.  Well obviously, the battery being connected was causing the problem, so you cured that dilemma. That is, unless the genuine disaster occurred and then the absurdity of the so-called solution would have been revealed.

We’re surrounded by warning signs which we ignore at our peril.  Open doors which we left locked should be a warning of an intruder, not a sign of a defective lock.  Incoherence and loss of memory in a normally astute person should prompt us to call 911, not simply to disparage the lack of intelligence in the loved one.  A child who tells us that they have a tummy ache probably doesn’t need a bowl of Spaghetti-Os.  Most of us would not miss these signs, but we miss others which are just as, if not more, important, all the time.  In our personal relationships, in our private lives, we ignore the most obvious of signs and we lose our way.   I’m not going to tell you the alarms which I have going off with frequency in my life, because you’ll just be able to gloat that you don’t have those to deal with.  I’m also not going to speculate on yours; that would just give me cause to feel superior since they wouldn’t be my struggle.  Instead, I’ll invite you to think about the warning signs present in your life right now.  If you stop a minute and consider, you’ll know the ones I’m talking about.  Pay attention to them.  They may save your life, may save your marriage, may just keep you from shaming yourself.

The alarms are not the culprit; they simply let you know that something is wrong.  Today, I will be thankful for, and pay attention to, blown fuses and low fuel lights.  There just might be one or two others I’ll be heeding, as well.

“The first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office…”
(“Henry IV”~William Shakespeare~English playwright~1564-1616)

“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”
(My mother, along with a few others)

Getting an Education

“Hey, can you teach me to play the guitar?”  The teenager had been watching the twenty-something year-old man playing an intricately-fingered song on his guitar as both of them sat in my music store a week or so ago.  The young man looked at the boy in front of him as if he were an alien, just stepped out of a transporter field from an unknown planet.  At least, that’s what I figured the strange look meant.  “Nah…I don’t teach at all,” he replied; just a little too quickly, I thought.  As I watched (and listened), I realized that the look was something else.  Now, where had I seen that look before?  Oh yes!  It was what we like to call the “deer-in-the-headlights” stare.  Fear?  This guy knows his instrument like the back of his own hand!  He’s been playing since he was just a young boy.  What does he have to be afraid of?

A few days later, the young man was back.  Confidently, he took down a guitar and started playing a blues riff on a beautiful acoustic guitar; first playing it repetitively, until I started to have a thought that I could get tired of this droning chord/arpeggio pattern.  Right about then he added in a little melody line, keeping the bass and mid-range notes of the riff going as the new notes worked their way around the (by now) familiar minor rhythmic pattern.  Around, up, and down, the melody wove itself into the music, until you couldn’t tell the old from the new.  I love having talented musicians play music in the store, even though I rarely take part myself (no talent, you see).  Just then, I noticed another young man sitting on an amplifier back in the corner.  Not nearly as accomplished a guitarist, he was listening with obvious respect for the talent of the first player.  He did have a guitar in his hand, and his fingers were moving on the frets and over the strings near the tone-hole, but you could only hear the first man playing.  I watched to see what would happen. I was pretty sure of the pattern of events to come, but waited for them to play out on their own.

Sure enough, within minutes, the hesitant, almost inaudible chords of the second guitar started to grow in volume.  The young man watched the hands of the talented player as the music continued to fill the air and, as he grew a little more confident, began to “second” the lead of the other player.  It wasn’t great, but the chord changes grew a little less clumsy after a few moments and the song,which at first had seemed perfect, was augmented and became, if possible, even more satisfying.  I heard, as the novice player stumbled a time or two over a change, the voice of the expert coaching him on the upcoming chords.  The next time, the change went more smoothly.  Moving away to take care of a customer at the cash register, I still kept my ear attuned to the harmonies issuing from the guitar section.  Within the next few moments, a distinct change came over the music I was hearing.  Both the lead and the second, or rhythm, voices had altered quite drastically in character.  The lead part was coming from a different guitar and was now a bit choppy; it faltered once in awhile, while the rhythm part was fuller and more confident.  The two players had changed roles in the musical conversation, with the younger player being a bit less fluent in the language being spoken.  Patiently, the other man called out a note or fret number once in awhile, even stopping a time or two to show the necessary lick to the young learner.

I wasn’t anxious for the experience to end, but eventually it did, with one of the men having an appointment to get to.  I marveled at the episode, even though it’s not an uncommon occurrence at the store.  And, because I don’t want to spoil the opportunity for it to happen again with other inexperienced players, I didn’t point out the obvious to the accomplished young musician.  He is a teacher!  He says that he can’t teach and he believes that to be so, but the evidence speaks against his conclusion.  All that’s necessary for teaching (and learning) to occur is for a skilled individual to be concerned that another, less skilled individual not be left to stumble around in the dark.  After many years of doing similar extemporaneous education myself, I am finally admitting that I teach on a regular basis.  I too, have told many people that I cannot teach, but experience has led me to understand that this is a fallacy.  On any given day, as a non-teacher, I teach multiple students about their instruments, about technical details of playing, and even once in while…I can teach a few principals of music theory, although it’s more a case of the blind leading the blind when that happens.

You say you don’t teach?  Wrong!  All around me, I see teachers.  Kids teaching other kids how to do tricks on skateboards, athletes teaching other athletes the finer points of their specialty, hunters sharing tips on woodcraft and the art of field-dressing with their buddies.  Even the Lovely Lady learns (and teaches) new forms and techniques of various handcrafts from her co-workers as they visit together during their breaks.  The list goes on without end, because that’s how we learn.  Person to person, parent to child, expert to amateur, the gift of ideas and technical ability continues to be given again and again.  While technology has an amazing, ever-expanding ability to store and share data, it won’t ever eliminate the need for the exchange of ideas and the demonstration of both time-honored and new techniques from one person to another.  Some will argue with me about that, but I contend that machines simply don’t have the capacity to understand the ability of the learner or to change teaching methods to fit the situation.  Even if you are sure that I am wrong, I will have to be be shown the evidence in person to believe it.  And someone showing it to me will prove the point of my argument.

Throughout history, we have passed information and instruction from one generation to another.  There is not one of us who doesn’t teach in one form or another.  Some are incredibly gifted at it; some have developed their talent into a vocation by pursuing educational degrees.  But, I maintain that the carpenter, the auto mechanic, the musician, the seamstress…all have the same responsibility to teach, to insure that their knowledge doesn’t die with them.  It’s also how we pass on our belief system to the next generation, insuring that they understand why we believe what we do, what drives us to behave as we do, and how it changes us and gives us hope.  Many have abandoned teaching about their faith because “we have professionals to do that”.  Our children and their children are the losers.  The instruction to God’s people thousands of years ago still applies today in myriad ways: “Talk with your children about My words when you sit at home, when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up.”

Nothing has changed.  Teach!  It’s what we do.  Oh, yes…it can’t hurt to learn a little more along the way, too.

“Be an opener of doors for such as come after you.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson~American poet and essayist~1803-1882)

“Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.”
(Albert Einstein~American Physicist~1879-1955)