Saturday, September 20, 2008

Day 20: North to Arkansas


"John Climacus compares the person led astray by acedia to a dumb beast: 'Tedium reminds those at prayer of some job to be done, and . . . searches out any plausible excuse to drag us from prayer, as though with some kind of halter.' Most anyone who has endeavored to maintain the habit of prayer, or making art, or regular exercise or athletic training, knows this syndrome well.

"When I sit down to pray or to write, a host of thoughts arise. I should call to find out how so-and-so is doing. I should dust and organize my desk, because I will get more work done in a neater space. While I'm at it, I might as well load and start the washing machine.

"I may truly desire to write, but as I am pulled to one task after another I lose the ability to concentrate on the work at hand. Any activity, even scrubbing the toilet, seems more compelling than sitting down to face the blank page.

"My favorite story about this state of mind concerns a university professor who went on sabbatical to write a book, and resolved to keep to a strict work schedule. A colleague who drove by his house one day was surprised to see him in the yard, wearing coveralls and hauling a hose. 'I started to work this morning', the man explained, 'and it suddenly occurred to me that I've lived here for over five years and have never washed the house'."


Kathleen Norris in her latest book, A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life

"You stupid man!" the woman said to our golf teacher. She stood there under the thick noon day heat with her hands fidgeting. Lumpy clouds plodded across the sky. Around us, amateur golfers clocked away on the driving range. Her dark chocolate brown polyester dress hugged her hips in the wrong way, wrong because the polyester announced too loudly her sagging fat, wrong because she was trying too hard to be a sexy 70-something-year old. Dad and I stood near Mike Marak, the local golf pro at Morris Williams, dumbfounded. Was she joking? Her two septuagenarian gal pals sat in their bulbous early 90s Chrysler sedan staring at us with the engine running.

"Excuse me. Excuse me. I'm looking for the Memorial Cemetery and I was told it was on Manor Road but we can't find it. Do you know where it is?" she had asked a couple minutes earlier.

All three of us, in unison, scrunched our face with eyes squinting, and rotated our heads back and forth scanning for a cemetery in our minds' eye--at the old airport across the street, up the road, down the road, beyond the golf course? Aren't all cemeteries "memorial"?

"I've got the ashes in the car and we're late!" she quipped. Her frustration turned her words into a sharp staccato.

"Well, mam," Mike, a mid-forties affable good old boy, offered politely, "I've lived in this part of Austin my whole life and I ... well I can't think of a cemetary by that name anywhere nearby."

She cocked her head and spat: "You stupid man."

Ding! We're in a movie! This isn't a Saturday morning golf lesson, this is a Charlie Kaufman movie with crazy characters and great writing and where the real and the surreal see-saw back and forth and of course an old, churlish lady says: You stupid man. But Kaufman keeps you guessing. You don't know whether you're supposed to laugh or get angry or walk away. He's the auteur filmmaker. Is the golf pro stupid ignorant? Well sure. He doesn't know the answer to "Where is the memorial cemetery on Manor Road?" Is he stupid imbecil? Well . . . maybe? But no. Not at all. So the unembarrassed ingrate geriatric lady with the ashes in the car running AC ten yards away says the first thing that comes into her mind and it's com-ple-te-ly normal. What else would keep the audience asking "What happens next?"

"Well call your wife or something to see if you can find out," she snaps, trying to help the stupid man.

It turns out, however, that the stupid man is now an angry man with an overwhelming desire to become un-helpful. "I don't have a wife," he bites back. "And it's one of the best decisions I ever made, to get rid of her." A stalemate between Bitter and Angry ensues.

Dad and I are still stuck in our game of redlight-greenlight. We're in redlight-means-frozen-in-place mode, with 9-irons hanging from our hands. I do have a couple of thoughts running through my head. "You stupid man? Are you serious? No, you're stupid, lady! Now get back in your car and you come back here with your question when you have a better attitude."

Dad pulls out his cell phone, Mike pulls out his cell phone, I stay staring, Mike calls the clubhouse to see if he can get an answer for this--what did he call her--"that old bitch"--when suddenly the old lady turns around and says "I'm leaving" and drives out of the parking lot with her two gal pals in the front seats headed only God knows where with those ashes that belong in a cemetery far away from Manor Road because Manor Road has never had a cemetery in its path.

Mike now starts cussing. I think he knows dad and I are the non-cusserly types so he usually tries to stay away from cussing. But the sad-mad-bad has understandably gotten the best of him and dad and I give him the silent pastorly go-ahead to be mad. "I'm sorry she said that to you, Mike," I eventually say. "Oh well, you know, people are mean, there are a lot of mean people in the world. I meet them all the time." Webster's dictionary defines "mean" as: un-charitable, malicious; miserly; bad-tempered; base. Meanness, I think, also makes you small. Mike restrains himself admirably from saying the f-word to the mean lady.

As dad and I leave forty minutes later I say it again. "Mike, I'm sorry again what the woman said to you." "Yeah well, she didn't want to be helped . . . ." I can't undo her statement, and I know that kind of stuff hurts, and having just heard his commentary about his wife I feel the best thing I can do is acknowledge the painfulness of it. At the moment I have all these good people pop into my head--Geno Hildebrandt, Cliff Warner, Travis Hines, Mike Akel, Nathan Sanford, some new friends, some going all the way back to childhood. I can hear them all the saying the same thing, very simply: "I'm sorry it happened to you." I realize all these guys have become, in my head as well as in my soul, a "What Would He Do If He Were in My Situation?"

It was a good golf lesson today. I progressed amazingly with my golf swing, and Mike was very, very happy for me. Dad did a great job of clipping the tee. It's been fun doing the lessons with the padre.

Tomorrow Phaedra and I drive up to southern Missouri to visit her grandparents. On the way we'll stop by John Michael Talbot's Little Portion Hermitage Monastery near Eureka Springs in northwest Arkansas. Before that we'll drop in on Russellville, just an hour and change south of Talbot's place. Russellville's where I lived for four years with my family and did all my high school. Russellville is famous for NBA player Corliss Williamson, a Tyson's chicken factory and a nuclear plant which I rode by every day when I was training for a triathlon the summer before my senior year. I haven't gone back in sixteen years. I feel a little queazy about it. What if I bump in to somebody I know? I don't know if I want to. I kind of want to slip in and out unnoticed, at least this time.

Almost twenty years have gone since I graduated. That person I was in high school, pictured above next to my best friend Nathan, is in some way like a stranger to me, and I'm not exactly sure how I feel about it. I'm a classic latebloomer, and to bloom late means that you often feel weird about the person you were before you figured out who you are today. I loved my high school years--the soccer games, the pep rallies for the Friday football games, the school dances, cruising up and down Main Street looking for something to do, the cheese dip at Stoby's, staying the weekend at the ten-children strong Sanford home, mowing lawns, midnight swims at the neighbor's pool--but high school is a funny time of life. So is that whole thing called teenagehood.

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