Finding Light on the Darkest of Days


Mostly, I remember Christmas Eve at my mom’s parents’ place, their little house lost in the middle of all those rolling hills and farmers’ fields. It was a small, cozy house, alone in the valley, a light on those dark Christmas Eve nights. We always arrived with hugs and shouts of “Merry Christmas!”, Grandpa looking at us with his lopsided, mischievous grin, and Grandma’s round face kind and beaming Continue reading “Finding Light on the Darkest of Days”

Memories Have Weight (or, On Returning to my Elementary School)


I don’t know exactly when I forgot this, but yesterday I remembered: memories carry a certain weight, the kind that presses in around the temples, heavy like an x-ray apron on the chest. Like a subtle strain of asthma, they can constrict the breathing, even slow down time.

Walking into my childhood elementary school yesterday felt like walking into a cathedral, one with walls covered in the scribbles of children, the paintings of preteens. The memories were unexpected, heavy. Those long, familiar halls were quiet. I could have sat down and listened, sat there for thirty minutes and let every memory speak to me, but that definitely would have been weird. I probably would have been escorted from the premises.

Instead, I walked to the old fifth grade wing, gave two short talks on being an author in what used to be the art room. 29 years ago, yes, 29 years ago, I sat in that room and tried, very unsuccessfully, to draw the red barn across the street, the red barn that is still there, smirking at me. I once, in that very room, made a paper mache underwater scene of a person being eaten by a shark.

While I spoke to the students, I tried pushing away the memories of playing four square and kickball and freeze tag just outside those windows. I tried ignoring the voices reminding me of my three best friends and baseball practice after school (my team wore orange uniforms sponsored by Lengacher’s Cheese) and the time the creek flooded and we went home early. You know, in those days, if you had early dismissal, your parents didn’t know about it. There was no automated call, no email advisory. If you had an unexpected early dismissal, you just showed up at home, startling your mother.

I tried to tell the kids what it is like being a writer, an author, what it’s like telling stories for a living, mine and other people’s.

“If you want to be a writer when you get older, write a little every day,” I said. “And finish what you start.” And also don’t forget about shitty first drafts, which is something I did not tell them, but hopefully someone will soon, when they’re ready for saltier language.

I drove home through those same old farmers’ fields, headed back towards the city. The Amish were baling their alfalfa, slowly, methodically, the way most harvests, including words, should be brought in. I remembered every small bridge, every stream I crossed. I knew where the fishing holes were, where you could cross without getting your rolled-up jeans soiled with muddy creek water. I remember the fields that kept the cows and the one that held the bull, the one we ran through as if our life depended on it.

Where does this longing come from, this longing only memories can bring? Is it a wish to revisit the past? Is it a desire to be at a point in time where you know what will happen next? Is it that time filters out the filthy grounds and leaves only the flavor?

The city rose in front of me, and then our row home. I walked in to my current life, a life I love. But I was also reminded of this: memories will cling to you like burrs, and you have to pick them off, one by one. I spent all night doing that. It was not a wasted evening.

What Happened 20 Years Ago This Month

This is me, 20 years ago. Yes, I had blond hair. There's no rational explanation for that.
That’s me at the far right, 20 years ago. Yes, I had blond hair. There’s no rational explanation for that.

Twenty years is an eternity. Twenty years is yesterday. Twenty years ago this month I was a junior at Messiah College, finding my way, losing my way, finding it again. Twenty years ago I was twenty years old. How old I felt! How experienced and worldly-wise! (Twenty years from now will I look at my 40-year-old self and chuckle, shake my head, feel such grace towards the youngster I was at the time?)

I played on the soccer team at Messiah and it was one of the greatest joys and disappointments of my life. On one particular Saturday in October, 1997, we were slated to play our arch nemesis. Campus was alive and plans were made and friends prepared to travel to the away game.

More importantly, after the game, I had a date.

A real, live date with a beautiful girl named Maile Silva, a girl who I had five classes with that fall. We both loved Modern American Lit and Counting Crows and Li-Young Lee. She was a dream, to be honest, and those blue eyes. Those blue eyes. She was so sincere, so earnest. So beautiful. Did I mention that?

Twenty years ago this month, Maile and I went on our first date. I raced out of the locker room when we returned from the away game, and I jogged, breathless, to my friend Karen’s apartment to pick up her keys so that I could borrow her white Honda (Civic, I think?) and take this girl Maile on our first date. Later, Maile would tell me she was horribly ill all day and almost called it off. If she would have, would I have asked her out again? Who knows. Who knows the twisting road we all will travel, where it leads, where it dead-ends, where we are left without it and must plow our own way through.

I picked her up and we went to a diner (which has since burned down) and then to a bookstore (which has since gone bankrupt) and finally to a movie theater (which has since closed). We are, literally, the only thing that has lasted from that night.

We saw the movie Gattaca. I remember the thrill of holding her hand, our fingers slowly touching. I remember, a few weeks later, kissing her under the lamp light at the side door of the Miller/Hess dorm, her friends giggling and watching us through the window three floors above.

* * * * *

This Saturday, we’re taking our six kids back to Messiah for homecoming where I’ll be selling copies of The Day the Angels Fell. I can’t wait to show them our favorite spots (although I don’t want to play the college up too much, because there’s no way we could afford the tuition these days).

Would the 20-year-old me even believe it if someone told him what his life would be like when he was 40? Six kids? Married for 18 years? Making a living as a writer? A novel published? Not making much money at all? A friend of Muslims? Driving around strangers to make extra cash? Traveled to Istanbul and Sri Lanka and Iraq and lived in England?

Would any of us believe it, if we could peer down a 20-year hallway? Would any of us recognize the self we are always becoming?

* * * * *

Twenty years is an eternity. Twenty years is yesterday.

* * * * *

Where were you 20 years ago? What about your present self would surprise you the most?

When Your Memories Are Wrong (This One Life #04)


There was a small trailer in Springfield, Missouri, with garish furnishings, the golds and browns and reds of the late-70s clashing in an artificial sunrise, like Middle Eastern mosaics. Or maybe everything is that color in my memory because that’s the filter of those 70s photos, the golden hue clinging to everything. We lived there from 1977 to 1979, but I have three or four solid memories from those two years. It seems a paltry offering.

I took a photo of Leo the other day as he stared out our bedroom window onto James Street. I was his age when we lived in that trailer in Springfield. It’s hard to believe I was once that little child, looking out into the big, wide world.

There was a door at the back of the trailer that led out into a space without steps, just a long drop to the yard. It was as deep as the cavernous abyss that Gandalf stands over and says, “You shall not pass!” That back door led into nothingness.

In my mind it is always dusk there in that Missouri trailer, always the end of the day when the sun wilts behind the hills and the grass is a blue shade of green. I don’t remember mornings there, and I don’t remember nights – only the cool blue of dusk as the sun is setting. These are my earliest memories.

I was only two, and I see those years through deep water. Images come back to me even to this day, delivered like unexpected lightning bolts when I pick up a wiffle ball or take the first suck of one of those ice pops in the clear plastic wrappers. I know there was a neighbor boy who let me ride his small motorcycle and play on his Atari 2600 – Pitfall Harry and Pacman. I remember wandering across the narrow street to his house and a kitchen that was a bit different than our own.

The clearest memory I have is of my Grandpa Beiler looking up at me. I stood, framed in the back door, the one without any steps, and he raised his arms to me, and I jumped down to him. It was a leap through the deep reaches of space, a leap for the ages. I imagine that he always smelled of KR and cough drops, though that could be my imagination. Was it him who always had bubblegum in his pocket, Big Red and Juicy Fruit? Was it him who popped out his false teeth and made strange, Munsch faces at me?

Later, when I was five or six and we had moved home, he paid me 25 cents to comb his hair on Sunday afternoons. He would usually fall asleep, or pretend to, football on the television behind me. But that comes later.

The strangest part of all is that I went back to that small Missouri town a few years ago, and someone pointed out the old trailer park where I had lived. I drove back the lane. It was tidy and clean, but not anything like I remembered it. For one thing, in my memory, it sat at the crest of a long, sloping hill, and behind our trailer – in my memory, mind you – the fields swept away, far and beautiful, always down, ending in a panoramic, prairie vista.

In reality, the trailer park was small, much smaller than I remembered. And there were no sweeping views behind the trailer where that old door to nowhere would have led. No, there was just a small, grassy back yard, and then a line of withered trees. Where did I get the that image of a never-ending view? Where did I get that vision of an unfolding slope and a Little House prairie?

Sometimes I wonder if our memories are more truthful than the facts. To me, as a child, that backyard went on forever. Perhaps it always would have, if I never would have gone back there to see it again. And who would have known the difference? I think I like it better the way I remembered it and not the way it is.

I wish I could unsee that line of withered trees.

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Silent Tears and Leaving Home in a Van With No Heat (#ThisOneLife #3)

Photo by Thomas Sheilberg via Unsplash

I’ve heard the legend many times, how my mom and dad, now barely 21, loaded me and all of their earthly possessions into a dark green van in the August heat and drove west for 24 hours. It wasn’t a nice little minivan – no, it was one of those box-shaped vans that more closely resemble a tank. I’m not sure if it even had any real seats in it beside the driver and passenger seat.

There is a photo I’ve seen of me and mom and dad in the back of that van. My dad had long, blond hair and a mustache, and he looked determined and fiery. My mom was a tiny little thing with large, dark eyes and long, brown hair. She was a wisp, or a thought, something a strong breeze might just scoop up and carry away. She looked a bit sad, I think because she was leaving home for the first time.

I sat there between them, barely eight months old, like a fresh piece of fruit recently plucked.

The van apparently had no heat, and later, when they came back for Christmas break, they wrapped me in a handmade, brown blanket that we still have somewhere. A 40-year-old blanket. It’s torn and has lost most of its stuffing. But it was a good blanket, in its day. I should look for that. I should show it to you.

I wonder what they talked about on that drive west, if Dad was excited to be heading off to Bible college, if Mom stared out the side window and cried silent tears at all those passing mile markers. Did they worry about money, with Dad going to school and Mom staying home with me?

It is a long straight drive from Lancaster, PA, to Springfield, MO. I made a portion of that drive many times, once I met your mother. I would head west on the turnpike, through PA and into OH, counting down the hours, listening to Counting Crows or Toad the Wet Sprocket. I would arrive in Ohio and our young bodies would collide in a hug and a shower of sparks, the kind young love creates.

Your mother and I, we made out on the sofa in the living room long after everyone went to bed, and I was scared of two things: I was scared her parents would come out and find us, and I was scared her mom’s little Chihuahua-Dachshund mix, Sparky, would attack me. Mostly though, I got lost there in the best kind of ways. When I found your mother, I found myself floating in a new world, a world in which I was no longer the center.

But that comes later. For now, I am a baby in Springfield, Missouri, and your grandparents are the ones who are young and lost, innocent and finding their way.

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To read this series of posts from the beginning, click HERE.