Monday, March 06, 2006

The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree

“There's a man goin’ 'round takin’ names. An’ he decides who to free and who to blame. Everybody won't be treated all the same. There'll be a golden ladder reaching down. When the man comes around.”

- Johnny Cash – “The Man Comes Around” (From “American IV – The Man Comes Around” - 2002)

I just got back from a couple of hours of walking around the Recreation Center track like a gerbil, trying my best to stave off the “ravages” of age. I’m having modest success.

Yesterday I drove Nancy up to Kansas City. We spent a couple of hours rearranging the furniture in our loft, then went over to her mother’s place. Her mother is having cataract surgery today, so Nancy wanted to spend last night and tonight with her; to be sure everything goes well. This will be the second round for Velma. The procedure on her left eye was done about a month ago and was quite successful, so successful in fact that we’re thinking that the second surgery might mean that she won’t need glasses any more. Velma got the idea to have the surgery when her brother-in-law, Arthur, had the same procedure done near the end of last year. He was a hundred and two when he had it and he came through it with flying colors. Velma must have figured since she was only eighty-six the surgery would be a breeze. She seems to have been right so far. Modern science and old fashioned faith have partnered to produce some amazing results.

I think Nancy was a bit discouraged when we left. I couldn’t ask her about it, but I think it stemmed from her volunteer work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. The work carries with it a heavy premium on confidentiality, which Nancy and I must honor scrupulously. So, I can only read her discouragement through the lines. I picked up on it Friday when she came home from some sort of meeting. She’d left that morning looking forward to cooking a nice meal when she returned. But plans changed. As soon as she opened the door she asked, “Would it be alright if we ate out tonight? I’ve kinda’ got the blues.” There was a look in her eyes that said more than the fatigue of the day was weighing heavy on her. “You alright?” I asked. “Just a bit discouraged,” she said. I left it at that.

We spent some time Saturday morning talking about how difficult it is to fix broken things. As we passed the sections of the newspaper back and forth we would comment in unison. “Another murder in KC.” “Iraq’s on the brink.” “Weathermen are predicting a protracted drought here.” I tried breaking the ice. “Things seem pretty quiet here in Emporia,” I intoned hopefully. I think it half worked. Nancy smiled a bit and suggested, “Why don’t we just give this mess to the bad guys. They seem to want it so badly…let’s give them the mess and see if they can fix it.”
“Coach,” I pleaded. “We can’t do that.”
“I know…I know. But things just seem beyond repair.”

From that point on just sat and listened. I figured that was the best thing to do.

I think Nancy might have been experiencing a bit of do-good fatigue. She’s taken this volunteer work seriously and wants to do all she can to make a positive difference. That’s just the way she’s made. There are no half measures with her. The problem, I suspect, lies in her having seen the workings of the social welfare system and the damage it all too often inflicts on its beneficiaries. Having lived my formative years in the clutches of the system, I understand why she might have been more than a bit discouraged about things. I have a negative bias about it all, based on those years of experience in my youth. It’s a man-made system in which power is exerted from the top down, ending up with a massive squeeze of rules, regulations, and stereotypes. They’re all lumped together in the name of compassion, then heaped on, like bags of bricks, to the backs of the intended points of compassion. The end result is that the children bear the brunt of all the mistakes and posturing that make welfare the damnable institution it is.

In spite of what my experience told me, though, I know I needed to encourage Nancy. After all, she didn’t create the mess.

As we left for Kansas City yesterday morning Nancy decided to listen to some Johnny Cash. For her, that’s quite unusual. Her tastes are more classical. But, on this warm Sunday she wanted something more introspective, something in keeping with what she was feeling. As we passed the Lebo exit the mournful sounds and lyrics struck me. The tension of what she wanted to see happen was bumping up against the reality of the world and its systems. She wanted what’s right and just, but the system doesn’t have an ounce of justice or compassion in it. That, I think, has created tension between what she could see in her heart, the hundred million angels singing and children living lives of joy, and the “measured hundredweight and penny pound” of the institution grinding vulnerable children into nothing more than useless powder.

I listened and felt Nancy’s sense of helplessness. Somewhere between Lebo and Beto Junction I took my right hand off the steering wheel and patted her left. It was the best I could do, just a small act of compassion and understanding for my gentle soul mate. In the temporal scheme of things it was something very insignificant. In the Grand scheme of things, however, it was an other-worldly act of power.

As I think on it now I see that Nancy’s work acting as an advocate for “system” children also has this glow of other-worldly power to it.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the good that will one day triumph over all the systems of this fallen world. It’s at those times we have to keep on trying, knowing that while we cannot fix all things, we must also mirror the age to come when all things will be made right. That’s our task on this earth. The little acts of kindness and compassion will be rewarded. The day is coming when the chaff will be separated from the wheat, when sorrow will be removed. As it is written:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a beautiful bride prepared for her husband.
“I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever.”

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Johnny Cash

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