Thursday, April 27, 2017

The What For

Three times in twenty-four hours, I was asked the same question - nearly the same phrasing.  Each time, the answer got more complicated.  At least I think it did, I'll let you judge for yourself.

"What's this even for?" Nick asked me this one evening as he was looking for a ping-pong ball near the dryer.  I looked his way and he was holding up a spent dryer sheet.  Now, if you didn't know what one was, I could see how it might confuse.  Is it a really lame piece of paper?  Why does it have a slight scent?  What on earth could one do with it?  I'd imagine these same questions coming to the mind of a future anthropologist several hundred years out as he finds them by the thousands in an old dump.

I explained what they were to Nick, which turned out to take longer than one might expect.  I showed him a fresh one, hit on some properties of static electricity, shamed myself to him by explaining they had a lot of chemicals in them - though I use the unscented ones - and weren't really necessary and that they basically just coated the fabric to make it feel softer and that one shouldn't use them on towels.

We all basically know the nature of this question in this context.  You've been there, holding up a leftover lock washer, bolt or even more curiously shaped part, fixing or assembling mowers or grills or bongs.  It's wondering about that toggle switch or a slider on a sound board.  It's wondering what an emoticon is or what the actual hell that icon is supposed to represent.  You say it to yourself as your bumbling about a word processing program to change your indent and you see all this stuff you can do that is way beyond my skill level.

The thing is, it is an answerable question.  Just because you don't know the answer, doesn't mean there isn't one.  You didn't follow the instructions.  You didn't look it up or haven't been taught something but the answer is available.  You were buzzed or...

Let's move on.

My buddy Kirby sent me the lyrics and simple tune to a song he'd been working on.  He plays a baritone ukulele and sang it like an old Irish ballad.  We had a nice long discussion about it and he asked me to do, like, a cover of it.  I changed the words a little, fleshed out the tune and taped myself doing it on my phone.

Here's a link to it if you're curious:

Somewhere in this exchange, he asked me "What's this for?"  It was a good damned question.

He was wondering about the endgame.  Would this lead to a final recording?  Was this just a lark?  Was it a song we might play regularly?  Were we just goofin'?  What was my level of commitment?  All necessary questions when considering what to do next with something.

My answer, which was understandably frustrating to him - and is, frankly, not a very good one - was: "This."

Yeah...  I'm like that.

(The boys aren't allowed to say the word "stuff" in their Science teacher's classroom and I think he has a problem with "thing" as well.  I wouldn't last long.)

Here's the thing, sometimes stuff is hard to explain.

By 'this' I meant the very exchange we were having.  For a couple of guys who had to call each other after midnight because it was cheaper then and exchanged cassette tapes for years to be talking about wave-files and digital algorithms is a moment to acknowledge.  We were collaborating, which I think is a basic human need.  We were laughing and teasing and thinking and creating.  "This."

But there's more to that this.

Our journey has been a similar one, his and mine, except for one major deviation - I had kids and he did not.  We've not spent a lot of time talking about the boys.  I share a baseball victory or a band concert now and again.  Maybe a cute story about their cleverness or stupidity or silliness, but, I try to not make it the focus of our conversations.  We've plenty of other things to talk about (sorry Mr. F.).

Would you mind an aside?

Thanks.  There's a delicate balance that must be respected between those with and without children.  I've many friends who are not parents and many of them have been annoyed by the notion that you haven't really lived until you have children, or that everything changes, or that it is something that simply must be experienced. 

Yeah, bullshit.  My friend Terri (remember the names are all changed around here, unless they're not) is a talented and successful ceramic artist.  She and I had a discussion about all this at a bar one night.  Another acquaintance, a dad, had been spouting off said bullshit and then had wondered off.  I told Terri that not all parents feel that way.  We laughed when I said something about how a lot of parents are in the opposite position, thinking the higher plane might be childlessness, and that I certainly had my moments like that.  It was a longish conversation, but my point was, and still remains, that hers and mine is a parallel experience, that her life was certainly not a failed attempt at mine, nor vice-versa.  Her inner journey as an artist, a creator, is just as important as mine as a parent, a creator.  It's about depth of understanding, it's about joy, love, inner peace, spirituality, Faith.  It's about work and desire and doing the next right thing.  However, you get to these places doesn't matter... getting there does.  Get it?

End aside.

As I was saying, we don't talk about the boys much, but he wrote a song of great tenderness, a prayer almost, a blessing.  He'd never said as much before, but from what he decided to tell me in this song, I learned that he thought about it, considered my road, considered the road of these young men coming up.  It means a lot to me.  That I guess is another thing I meant by my this.

As many of you know, I get the past and the present and, increasingly, the future all tied up in a big Gordian Knot in my mind.  I try not to let it bother me but it does incline me to look at things (boy, I do that a lot, damn you Mr. F.), well, longer.

Think about this, nearly forty years of shared experiences, a stray significant anomaly - the twins - and a song that floats up out of it all that speaks to a hope for the future?  Yes, that's the this I mean.  The neverending and neverbeginning now is deucedly complex but speaks to me, and you, I hope, so profoundly.

Oh, I hate when I get caught up in these time paradoxes.

So, the last time I heard the question was in a different context.  My friend Brian (remember the names don't matter) and I were talking over coffee.  We are both the same age, latish-fifties, and both have children.  We met in college some thirty-five years ago.  We've, well, lived life.  Though divergent paths, both have been rocky, twisted, rough and long; and both have been beautiful, joyful and rewarding.  We are both men of Faith and we talk about that a lot.

We were discussing Fr. Richard Rohr's book, Falling Upward, which delves into the faith journey and how it changes as we approach and begin our lives in what I like to call "elderhood."  We spoke of leaving our warrior selves behind, filling and emptying and protecting our vessels - our souls - and marveled at our profound lack of understanding faith and Catholicism and energy and eternity.  We shrug our shoulders a lot when we talk.

I shared my reluctance to tell people an absolute in my life that folks just don't seem to want to hear: I have no regrets.  People take offense at that, perhaps because so many embrace the burden of regret.  They say, 'what about smoking, surely you regret that?'  Yeah, it seems like I should, but... I don't.  I have too many fond memories of cigarettes and the people I smoked them with to wish it all away with a regret.  'What about that move you made or that girl you dated or that shitty Toyota you had or...'  Stop.  Too many lessons, too much insight, too much growth, came out of all that to say I regret any of it.

Brian said that more than once he'd benefited from an oddly specific lesson he'd learned from what may, at the time, have seemed a regrettable situation.  A horrible, rainy, very-bad, camping trip that taught him to build and tend a fire in the rain and, years later, a Boy Scout Jamboree where he used those skills to save a troop of boys from a very-bad and cold night.  It happens all the time to me as well.

He said he looks at setbacks and disappointment and confusion and hears his mind asking a simple question, "What is this for?"

It helps, I think, to ask that of the cosmos, or the Holy Spirit, how ever you might see it.  I do the same thing, perhaps you do as well.  It's in the wail of "Why is this happening?" or in the confusion of the question, "What am I supposed to learn here?" or in the feeling of heartbreak I hear in my own head, "What am I missing?"

Unlike the first two instances, this 'whatfor,' if you will, is, in the moment, unanswerable.  It is not rhetorical, there is no pat answer. In a way, I think when you ask the question it is a prayer, a prayer for understanding, clarity, peace, a prayer that goes out and remains unaddressed, impotent, untended.  But it echoes in us, in time, in the corridors of memory and can, at any time, be suddenly, surprisingly, well... answered.

It happens to me all the time.

In fact, it's happening right now, my now, yours and another now way down the road.

I should just say peace out and end it right here, shouldn't I?

Well, I can't say I'm gonna do that.

There's a lilac bush outside the garage, I've mentioned it before.  I just went out to get the mail and it is nearly in full bloom.

I planted the bush a dozen or more years ago, it was, frankly, a little runt of a thing and I didn't feel much confidence for its future.  I probably asked myself 'what for' as I dug and watered and tended it for all these years.  I've marveled at the beauty of it, the science, the botany, all that.  It was years before it bloomed and it did poorly for a while.  I wondered 'what for' about that old dwarf lilac more than once, I'd admit.

This morning, on our way out to the bus, I turned back because Nick was lagging and saw him hugging the lilac bush, face buried in the blooms, and, through the purple blossoms, I heard a muffled prayer, an answer, "God, it smells like life!"

And, that's the what for.

Peace and thanks for sticking with me, I appreciate it.

My friend Terri is indeed a real person and she is a beautiful artist and soul.  You can check out her FB page here, her work is lovely. 

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