But at night, had they not heard the howlings of demented wind,
the sharp, clean, windy raining to earth of acorns? Had all of them
not walked down lonely roads at night in winter and seen a light
and known it was theirs? Had all of them not known the wilderness?
OK. I know I’m going to get clobbered, here. At least figuratively, by a lot of you. But I’m going to say it anyway, because it’s triggered by events that have just been coming down around me. And you write from where you are, is what I’ve always claimed. So I’ll just go ahead and say it. I’ve never liked Bible Studies or Prayer Meetings. Never been all that comfortable in or around such places. To me, Prayer Meetings and Bible Studies have always been just flat-out boring, and dreadfully dull.
I’m not talking about your Bible Study, or your prayer group, if you attend such a thing and enjoy it. I’m not saying you don’t get a lot of support from your “small group” people. So don’t go and get all offended. I’m only talking about my own perceptions. My own experiences. I come from the Amish. They don’t do such things. They never meet to openly pray, or study the Bible. Plus, they only have church service every two weeks. You come from a setting like that, and it’s a little different. It’s disconcerting when you suddenly walk into a world where there’s church every Sunday. And some sort of church or Bible Study every Wednesday night. It’s like, oh my, all of this is a bit much. It’s a lot of talk, from a lot of people who don’t have a whole lot of other choices. Do I really have to go? And it all got just a wee bit tiresome, for me.
I remember it so well, when I moved down to Daviess from northern Indiana after I left the Amish. The Wagler family welcomed me. And it was just naturally assumed I’d go to their church. Mount Olive Mennonite. A plain, plain group. Pretty much like the Beachy Amish, maybe even stricter in some ways. And that church welcomed me, too, just like the Waglers had. I was pretty traumatized right at that time. I had broken free, and I knew there would be no return. Ever. But I wasn’t quite sure what it was to walk forward. The people at Mount Olive made me welcome. They were kind, and I will never forget that kindness.
I remember the first Wednesday night service I ever went to, after leaving. Prayer Meeting, I think they called it. Same as a Bible Study, really, except it’s the whole church. Someone had a topic of some sort. “Topics” are usually dry as a bone. There’s lots of admonishing going on, about what it is to live right. And lots of Amens. After the topic that night, we split off into small groups. I tagged along with the little group of youth I was with, as we walked down to the basement. And we sat around, in a little circle. Someone asked for prayer requests. People said things like “We need rain. Crops are real dry.” Or “Let’s pray for so-and-so, that he’ll get saved.” I can’t ever remember a real meaningful deep personal request coming from anyone’s heart. But I digress. Back to that very first night. After the requests were gathered, someone started praying. A short prayer, maybe a minute or two. And then the next person prayed. I stirred, and looked around in panic. It was creeping right around, and soon it would be my turn. I’d never prayed aloud in public, before. I didn’t know how. What do you say? And then it was the guy next to me’s turn. He prayed. And then it was my time. My turn.
The only reason I remember that particular scene is because of that frozen moment. I sat there, silent and paralyzed. I couldn’t speak. After an agonizing ten or twenty seconds, I waved my hand. I pass. And mercifully, the guy on the other side of me didn’t blink or hesitate. He prayed his little prayer. And it went on around the circle, until it was finished. Nobody mentioned anything, about how I had not prayed. But I felt pretty ashamed. And yes, the next time at Prayer Meeting, I did manage to squeak out a few words. It was so hard to force myself. I just didn’t come from a place like that. And in time, I got to be decently fluent, when speaking aloud to the Lord. One thing, though. My spoken prayers were never, never long. They still aren’t. Not anything like the prayers from my heart. Those prayers go on and on, every day, like a preacher who doesn’t know when it’s time to shut up and sit down. I’m OK with that, though. I think the Lord is OK with that, too.
The Mount Olive Church people were pretty plain and strict. And if you didn’t show up at Prayer Meeting for a few weeks in a row, someone would come to investigate. Ahem. Any particular reason we’re not seeing you on Wednesday nights? And you shrivel, before an interrogation like that. You never really had a whole lot of choice. You had to go. A couple of things saved me, in the end. I came out to Lancaster, that first summer, to work for the money that I needed for college. And that fall, I enrolled at Vincennes University. So I wasn’t around, much, on Wednesday nights, anymore. I had a valid excuse, not to go to those Prayer Meetings. No one bugged me about not being there. And that was all just fine with me.
Those were Prayer Meetings. I’ve run into a few Bible Studies, too, in my wanderings. Little groups of adult singles, mostly, years ago. I went sometimes, just to mingle. And to meet people. But I was uneasy, at some of what went on. There was always lots of talk about some “victory” someone was living, right then. Lots of cheering going on, and bland talk about how good God is. Always, at some point, they’d try to get you to share your innermost dark secrets. Your sins. The stuff you were struggling with. The places of the heart that only the Lord knows. And maybe one or two other persons, in all the world, if that. I’m not gonna share that kind of stuff with people at a Bible Study. I’m just not, not when I just walked into the door. Why would I trust what they’re telling me to do? Why would I speak from the dark places in my heart? I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. I didn’t know them well enough, to go there. Not everyone was like that, of course. I met some real nice people at Bible Studies, people who truly cared, and were doing their best to walk a Christian life. It was the nosy ones that irritated me.
And mostly, I remember this, about the nosy ones. They seemed garishly eager, to get you to talk. Come on. Share your struggles. Share your sins. It was, of course, so they could “pray” for you. You won’t get victory unless you confess. And repent. That’s what they told me. And the more they pressured me, the more I shrank from them. From what I’d seen and heard in the Mennonite and Beachy communities, people ask you to share your burdens so they can pray for you, sure. And I’m sure they do. Pray for you, from above. But then they run around and tell others, often. Their “prayer circle” friends, probably. Those that do, their talk is always cloaked with “loving” language, like, the poor boy is struggling and needs prayer. Please pray for Ira. But at its core foundation, stuff like that is nothing but flat-out gossip. That’s something I saw, growing up. Gossip, I mean. Not Prayer Meetings. And I can sense the roots of gossip, no matter what kinds of glossy words it’s coated with.
That’s all real sketchy detail, right there. And I know it’s sketchy, to explain where I’m coming from. It all was what it was, back when it happened. And I may have been a little overly sensitive. But that’s why I’ve always had issues with Prayer Meetings and Bible Studies. And that’s where I am, or was, until real recently. And to tell you why I’m in a different place, there’s a big time bunny trail coming up, right here. But I promise to circle back.
There’s an old friend in my life. His name is Reuben. We’ve known each other all our lives. We were pretty much best friends, in all that time. I mean, from back when we were kids. And a number of years back, he made some very, very bad choices. He chose to walk down some real hard roads. He made some destructive, destructive decisions. And his world blew up. Just blew up into smithereens. He chose to leave his wife and family, for an idol. He did that. Walked away from his family. And from where I was at that time, well, he chose to leave all we had known as old friends, for an idol, too. And we were totally estranged, he and I, for a few years. Oh, yes, we were. If you know the story, you don’t need to hear it told again. If you don’t know the story, then what you’re being told here is enough.
Let’s just say that I wrote savagely at him, right here on this blog. I swore to curse him and his seed forever. Never quite got that done, though. I wanted to, but somehow, it just never happened. And yeah, that writing is all still right where I posted it, back when. It’s a record of a journey, I guess. And no, I won’t point you to any of it. If you want to read it, track it down yourself.
He left, then, and moved to a faraway land for a few years. And then, about three years ago or so, he moved back into the area to reconnect with his broken family. Mostly with his children, his sons and daughters. He wanted to get back into the daily operations of his business at Graber Supply, too. And he reached out to me, to see if some kind of reconciliation could be possible. I was extremely skittish, when he approached me, put out the feelers. But I didn’t discount it. And over time, we got to where we could talk, face to face. And there was a glimmer there, of what once was before. I could see it was all worth repairing, the broken pieces. Time had moved on. It couldn’t be what it was before, I figured. The friendship, I mean. But it could be something. Something worth building back up.
And, yeah, I’m very aware that there are many people out there who have looked very strangely at me in the past few years. What are you thinking? We’re lined up, here, behind you, with our swords drawn. Ready to follow and strike and condemn Reuben for all his sins. What’s wrong with you? You were real mad. Seething mad, bent to destroy all he is or ever was. And then, all of a sudden, you just laid down your sword. Are you weak, or what? How can we hold our swords up, when you won’t hold up your own? How can we follow, when you won’t lead?
And yeah, I hear all that talk. Well, not so much talk as murmurs. I feel those people looking askance, all around me. And that’s OK. I am where I am. I choose to walk where I walk. If you think that’s weak, that’s OK, too. But my response to all such bloodthirsty Christians is this. Thank you. I appreciate your loyal support. But I got a simple thing to ask. Why don’t you live your own lives, and let me live mine? What possible business is it of yours, what choices I make about who I hang out with?
And over time, we relaxed a bit, Reuben and me. There was still some tension there, depending on what might come up, or what might be triggered in my mind. There were a whole lot of moments like that, in my head. But we worked hard at it, he and I, to reach a new dawn. And I have to say, it was all pretty seamless, when he came back into the daily operations of his company.
It’s been tough, for him, outside of my own issues. And no, this is not a sob story about the poor guy. We all pretty much deserve what comes at us, that way. But still, it has been tough. There’s a whole heck of a lot of judgment out there, at him. Totally deserved, I’m sure. But still. At what point does one begin to lower the walls a bit? Even for such a wicked sinner as him?
There’s always a light that comes shining through, at some point, in a story such as this. Or the telling of it probably wouldn’t be happening. And that light came last November. Reuben and I had taken to hanging out, after work, every couple of weeks or so. We sipped scotch, and talked. (When we reconnected, I swore I would never drink with him. It took more than a year, for that little oath to fall by the wayside.) And it was mostly good, always. But one day, after work, he seemed a little excited. He had read some article on some internet site, written by some leftist woman who worked for Fox News. I don’t remember her name, and it doesn’t matter. But she was pretty well known. She came from the high-browed, elitist crowd. She was way too smart, way too educated to believe in such a thing as God. Faith was for hicks. And she wrote about how she came to know Christ. She lived in New York City. The center of the world. And somehow, she got drawn to attend a church there. Redeemer Presbyterian. She heard the sermons of Pastor Tim Keller. And eventually, she wrote, the hound of heaven hunted her down. Jesus stood by her bed, in a dream. And asked her to come to him. And now she knew. Now she believed in Jesus. And she wrote very unashamedly about her journey. And about where she was right then, and how she got there.
Reuben was fascinated by that article. It was so open and so honest, especially coming from a mainstream media personality. And he followed the link the woman posted, to Redeemer Presbyterian. And in less than a week, I saw the change in him. He was listening to those sermons. He told me about it. I’ve never seen the man more excited. He sent me a link or two. And one Sunday, when I couldn’t make it to Chestnut Street Chapel, I pulled up that link and listened. Tim Keller is a very dynamic speaker. And no, I don’t mean he yells and carries on. He doesn’t. He talks very calmly, infusing his message with lots of humor. But it’s always, always grounded in Scripture. And his message was inside out, from all I ever heard, growing up. Not that I hadn’t heard it before. It’s right along the same veins that Pastor Mark Potter has been preaching at Chestnut Street, these past three years or so. The same stuff. Powerful stuff. Life-changing stuff. It doesn’t take you long, to grasp the real truth, what real freedom is, when you hear Pastor Mark. And it doesn’t take you long, when you hear Tim Keller.
Reuben listened and listened to those Tim Keller sermons. I know that because the man wouldn’t stop talking about what he was hearing. Always, in every conversation, it got woven in, somehow, what he’d heard. And it changed him, too. His personality. He’s always been a driven man, as you’d have to be, to build up a business like he did. And he’s always had a tendency, sometimes, to let the pressures get to him. He’d get all snappy and uptight and loud. That part of him disappeared, almost completely and very soon.
And he told me, early on. “Every morning, when I get up, that’s the first thing I do. I drink coffee and listen to a sermon.” Well, what do you do with that? You cheer the man on, in this case. As I did. I was hearing the same stuff at my church, just at a more entry level. It’s preached for people like me, people who come from a guilt-ridden background like the Amish. Here is the path. It’s upside down, from all you ever heard. That’s what Pastor Mark preaches. So I could connect with what Reuben was telling me about what he was hearing.
I thought the whole thing might fade, for Reuben. He was living pretty loosely, in some areas of his life, back last November. Just like I’ve lived pretty loosely with my scotch for some time, now. And I saw him ponder and reflect on what was or wasn’t right. Not as a lost person. But as a child of God, awaking to the light, struggling to grasp, to see, to accept the gift that was there for him. And the next thing you knew, he was driving to New York City every Sunday morning, to actually attend Redeemer Presbyterian. Right into the big old evil city, he went. Week after week, and Sunday after Sunday. And he wouldn’t stop talking about what he was hearing. The gospel. I marveled. And I told him. When you hear a particularly good sermon that you think I might like, send me the link. He took me up on that. Two or three times a week, here comes another email with a link. I made a separate file, the Keller file, for what he sends me. And when I feel the need, I go and click on one of those sermons. I listen to what he heard. And I completely understand why Reuben is so excited about it all. Tim Keller is a true (and flawed) servant of God.
And no, it didn’t happen as you’d expect it to in any feel-good Christian story. Where everything suddenly gets all cleaned up and everyone is reunited and singing happy praises. And now everything is perfect. It didn’t and it’s not. Life is messy, and it’s just as messy for Christians as it is for anyone else. At least it is, if you’re honest. Which a lot of Christians aren’t, because they think they have to act all happy and bubbly about what Jesus did for them, all the time. That kind of pressure is an awful thing. So this little story doesn’t end like that. Reuben did not return to his wife. They are divorced. They remain divorced. I don’t judge that. How can I? I’m divorced, too.
And time passed on. A month or two ago, he told me one day. He’d love to start a men’s group of some kind. A Bible Study, although he didn’t call it that. He had in mind that a few guys could just hang out, upstairs in the conference room at work. And listen to a Keller sermon. They’re only forty minutes long, right across. And then there would be discussion. Sure, I said. If that’s what your heart’s telling you to do, then just do it. “Ah, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure anyone will come if I invite them.” Well, try it. And he texted a few friends, a few weeks back. “Next Tuesday evening, at 6:30. I’d love to see you here, for a Bible Study.”
I’d come, I told him when he asked. But this is blog week. I don’t go out evenings on blog week, much. But go ahead. And that Tuesday, I asked him. Anyone committed to coming, yet? “No,” he said. “I guess I’ll just go and wait and see if anyone shows up.” And that’s what he did. The next morning, I asked him. Well, who came? “I had a very nice time,” he said bravely. “All by myself.” And I felt bad for the man. Here he was, all excited. Wanting to just get together with a few guys, and share what he had found. And no one came.
Have one again next Tuesday night, I said. I’ll come, if no one else will. And so he scheduled it for Tuesday of last week. As that day came, I asked him. Did anyone commit to come? “No,” he said. “Are you still coming?” I plan to, I said. And I got to thinking. Who could I invite? This is Lancaster County. Everyone’s all busy all the time. It’s tough, to get something like this going. I called one friend. He’d like to, but he had other things planned. That’s totally OK, I said. I just thought I’d check.
Then I thought of my friend, Allen Beiler. He and his family have been coming to my church, now and then. I knew he was a market guy. Late in the week never suits him. He’s at market. But this was Tuesday. So I texted him. Would you like to come to a Bible Study here at the office tonight? I figured he would have something going. But he texted right back. “This is a little weird. I was just going to text you to see if you want to go hang out at Vinola’s tonight. So, sure, I’ll plan on being there.” Great. There will be at least three guys, I thought. That’s better than one, and it’s better than two. I texted Reuben. My friend Allen’s coming. He was going to text me to see if I want to hang out at Vinola’s. He’s coming here, instead. His response: “Amazing.”
I just puttered around at my desk after the others left at five. And right at six, Reuben walked in. He’d brought snacks and bottled water. He trundled everything upstairs, and set it out. Way too much food. And we sat there, talking, the two of us. We kept glancing out toward the road. A few minutes after 6:30, Allen’s big old dually pulled in. He parked, and walked up to join us. I made the introductions, and we sat and visited for a while. And then Reuben pulled up the sermon he had in mind for that first night.
We sat around the table and listened and took a few notes. Keller’s theme. Is God love or is He judgment? One side claims He’s all love. The other side focuses pretty much on judgment. And Keller asked. Does God judge us? Oh, yes, He does. He judges every single thought, every single action, every second of every day. Not that He’s standing there with a big old sledgehammer to whack you with, if you make a mistake (my words, not his). But He definitely judges everyone, all the time. Keller gets a lot said in forty minutes. He had several closing points. The one I remember was this. If God is the judge, that means we have no right to be. Not saying you don’t judge people’s actions. This is me speaking again, not Keller. We have to. In business, for instance. If you’ve given me a bunch of bad checks in the past, I’ll insist that you pay cash for any building materials you buy from me. Things like that. There’s ten thousand more examples.
But we never, never have any right to judge another person’s heart. Never. That’s God’s job. We have no right to be resentful or unforgiving at anyone who’s wronged us, either. No matter how deep that wrong was. And, yeah, I know a little bit about all that. It takes time, often, to get over a wrong, to heal from a wound that sliced deep. Lots of time, sometimes. And it takes Light that can only come from one source. Time. And Light. I guess it can all be broken down into two other things Keller keeps talking about, too. Forgiveness. And love.
And those two terms don’t mean anything close to what I was brought up thinking they mean. Forgiveness isn’t so much consciously forgiving someone else for the wrong they did me. It’s more like trying to get some small, small grasp of how deeply depraved my own heart is (Yes, is. Not was.), and how much I have been forgiven, simply as a gift, by grace. And love? That’s simply loving God.
After the sermon was over, we just sat around and talked. And it was open and honest talk. Good stuff, spoken from our hearts. And no, there was no closing prayer, although there certainly would have been nothing wrong with one. We just didn’t think about it. By soon after 8:00 or so, we were fixing to leave. And we talked about it. This was great. When can we do it again? We checked our schedules. We settled on next Tuesday evening, Oct. 14th. Here at Graber Supply, at 6:30. Allen’s going to pick the sermon we’ll listen to. Let’s try to get a few more people over, we agreed.
And now, for the first time in my life, I guess I can say I’m excited about going to a Bible Study. And if you’re a guy and you’re anywhere close, you are welcome to attend, too. I don’t care who you are, or what you believe. You can be one who sees things just like I do, or close to it. Or you don’t have to believe anything, about whether or not there is a God. You can be an agnostic, or an atheist. You’re still welcome. And I’m not just saying that. You really are. Yeah, you’ll have to listen to a sermon. That might be a negative thing to you. But it’s only forty minutes long, and I think you’ll be intrigued. And no, you won’t get clobbered, or ganged up on. You will be totally accepted. Same thing goes for all you judgmental Christians, too, of course. Come and listen, and speak your voice. You will be heard. I don’t care what your motivations are. You are welcome. And you will be totally accepted, too.
A couple of rules, and I mean, only two. You are expected to be cordial in your speech and conduct, of course. That’s a given. But the only two real rules are this. No drinking at the Bible Study. (You can go to the bar afterward, if you want. But you can’t drink there.) And if you smoke, you must step outside to do so. Those rules seem pretty manageable, I think.
I’m not sure where this thing is going, or if it’ll ever develop into much. For now, it is what it is, I guess. Just a few guys, hanging out. I’m looking forward to what might yet come, though.
We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest.
We must learn to sail in high winds.
Beach Week is almost an idol to me. Almost. But not quite. So I make no excuses for raving about it. It happens once a year. For one week. One minute, out of every fifty-two. Problem is, those minutes are condensed. You look forward, to them coming, for a long time. And then they arrive. They speed by at a highly accelerated rate. And then, they’re gone.
I felt it coming, that Friday. One more day, then the beach. It wasn’t so much joyous anticipation. It was more like, man, I need this break. And I kept sighing loudly at work as the hours crept by. I wanna leave. By 3:30, Rosita told me. “Just go. We’re tired of hearing you sighing. You’re not getting a lick of work done, anyway. Just go.” Yes, Ma’am, I said. And I clocked out and headed straight home. No gym. I had things to do. Packing, mostly. I never pack until the day before. Or the evening before. And I texted the tenant as I bustled about. Are you home? He was. And I walked upstairs to see him.
I had told him I would be leaving for Beach Week. And now, I just wanted to fill in all the details for him. We’re leaving tomorrow. And I’ll be back next Saturday. “Ah, man, have a great time,” he said. “Just relax, and chill.” Yeah, I plan to, I said. This has been one tough year. “I know it was, for you,” he said, looking at me. “Your family’s gone through some tough things.” Yes, I said. We have. He nodded wisely.
He’d pick up my mail, every day, he told me. I can’t tell you how handy it is, to have a guy around like that. You know the place is in good hands, when you leave. And I looked at him as I was getting ready to leave. I want to know if you hear any noises, downstairs, when I’m gone. If Billy (we named the ghost Billy) makes any sounds, I want you to tell me when I get back. “Not a problem,” he said. “I will, if I hear anything.” And I looked at him again. Are you afraid? I asked. He shook his head. Dismissively. “No,” he said, simply. “No, I’m not afraid.” I’m not afraid, either, down there, I said. That’s my home. OK, we’ll catch up when I get back. And I left him, and went back downstairs to finish packing.
The next morning, right at seven, I pulled into Wilm’s drive. We take turns, driving to Beach Week. Well, I always drive. But we take turns, taking our vehicles down there. We split the costs for gas and tolls, right down the middle. Last year, I took Big Blue. This year, it was her turn. She has a little Toyota. It gets way better gas mileage than my truck does. But it doesn’t have a lot of room. I pulled up, and unloaded my bags and packed them in, wherever they fit. Wilm flitted about, dragging out trays of tomatoes, and all kinds luggage and other stuff, like large floppy hats. She makes Amish peanut butter for Beach Week every year. We stuffed all our stuff into her car, and it actually fit in without obscuring my rear view mirror view. And by 7:15, we were pulling out. Next up, Nag’s Head, NC. The beach. It all felt different, this year, though.
It was a sunny day, kind of cool. And I felt the stirring inside, to get there. But still, there was a sadness, too, and a deep tiredness. We had seen things, most of us heading to Beach Week. Everybody went through something tough this year, seemed like. Medical issues, and no, I’m not just talking about my heart. Wilm has lost all her hearing in one ear since last year, and the other one’s fading. That’s a tough thing. There’s been loss. There’s been death. Our little group had seen a lot since Beach Week came down last year.
We pushed on, down Rt. 1 to Rt. 13, on south toward the bridge tunnel. Wilm’s little car chugged right along. And a few miles before the bridge tunnel, we stopped at the dumpy little gas station where we always do. I fueled the car. Wilm walked inside. In a minute, she had returned. “The restrooms are out of order,” she said. “Both of them.” What? I hollered. This place was a dump, we knew that. But it was tradition, to stop here. Not anymore, if their restrooms don’t work. We got into the car and headed on south, hoping to find another gas station before the bridge tunnel. Thankfully, there was one, the last one, I think, before the crossing. Next year, we’ll stop a little further up the line, I grumbled. That was a close thing.
Through Virginia Beach, then, and onto the coastal highway toward the Outer Banks. That old familiar run, the anticipation stirring inside. Janice texted Wilm. She and Melony and Brian were half an hour ahead of us. They had already stopped at the fruit stand and stocked up. We’ll meet at Awful Arthur’s for a bite, then head on out to the house. And then came the warning message. We’re in a terrible traffic jam, here. It’s stopped. We sped along, and soon enough, the brake lights flashed on the cars ahead of us. We slowed and stopped. Traffic piled up behind us. I mean, we stopped, right there on that four-lane road.
We sat and sat. I asked Wilm if she’d read my blog, yet. She hadn’t; she’d been packing half the night. So I told her my ghost story, in all the colorful details. The tenant woke up one night, and he knew there was someone looking at him through the cracked open door. She shivered. And still we sat. Janice texted. There’s a disabled car on the bridge ahead. Disabled car? What does that mean? I grumbled. Here we are, so close, less than thirty miles away. And here we sit.
After an hour, the traffic began crawling along. Slowly, slowly. Onto the long, long bridge leading to the Outer Banks. They had one lane open, the fire truck and a cop car sitting where the accident had happened. The disabled car was gone, with nothing but charred pavement where it had sat. “Wow,” Wilm said. “It looks like the thing just blew up.” Unbelievable, I muttered. Of course, it had to happen just ahead of us, on the very day we’re heading for the beach.
We got to Awful Arthur’s, eventually. And found a place to park, that opened up like magic. We walked in. Janice and Melony and Brian had already found a table. They greeted us. And we all hugged each other. This was the classical start of Beach Week. Hanging out, here. We ordered our food. And our drinks. Celebrate this moment. That’s how we felt. And that’s what we did. Laughed and talked, and caught up with each other. It’s always a special thing, the very start of things.
We headed to the house, then. Clouds rolled in, and rain drizzled down. A dreary day, to arrive. None of that mattered, though. It was big and brand new and bright yellow, the house. Built on stilts, three stories high. We pulled in and unpacked our cars. Dragged up all our luggage. I seized the room back in the corner on the second floor. My usual spot, a place where I could get away from late-night noise if I wanted to. The house was laid out just like the one we’ve had the last two years. Kitchen and dining room on the top floor, so everyone could enjoy the scenery. We trundled our supplies up in the little elevator. No big beach house is complete without an elevator.
My nephew, Steven, and his load arrived right shortly after we got there. Him and Fred and Greg and Courtney. Evonda was getting there late Sunday night. They had a few new people with them. Will and Brandon, Steven’s friends. And Malissa, Fred’s friend. It’s one of the most exclusive groups I’ve ever been a part of, the regular beach week crowd. A much harder invite to get than, say, to my garage party. And if new people show up, I’m totally fine with that. They had to pass someone’s screening to get there. We hugged, the old friends, and I shook the hands of the newcomers as Steven introduced us. And we all just kind of settled into the house.
A few people wandered off to the grocery store. That first day, we always spend a few hundred bucks on food and supplies. We moved a few couches out onto the top balcony. That was the meeting place, where everyone settled for late night talk. And it was the spot for the smokers in the group, too. Everything was all snug and comfortable.
The rain stopped, but the dark clouds roiled and brewed out there. And just as dusk was creeping in, I wandered out to the beach. By myself. Just to see and feel the sea. And no, I won’t say all my tension and tiredness washed away like magic in that moment. It didn’t. I just stood there in the wind, absorbing the waves, and the roar of the ocean, for ten or fifteen minutes. And then I turned and walked back inside to join the others.
We just snacked on stuff that night, no formal meal. Afterward, we all sat outside, as the night closed in and settled. And that night, the first night, we talked about death. Mom’s and Abby’s. About our families, and how the clans came from all over. We relived a bit about Mom’s funeral, and then Janice and Steven spoke about that awful week when Abby passed. How eternally long it had seemed. How people came, of an evening, and no one knew quite what to say, how to comfort Dorothy and Lowell. Not that anyone was blaming anyone. They were just telling how it was. How exhausting it all was. How, by week’s end, there were simply no more tears left inside.
“But there was one lady,” Steven said. “She came around one afternoon and didn’t even come into the house. She got busy, weeding the flower beds. And then she disappeared for an hour or so. Then she came back with mulch, and mulched the flower beds. She never said a word to anyone. She just came and saw what needed doing, and she did it.”
Our talk drifted to other things, then. And by midnight or so, it was time for sleep. Our first night at the beach. The one thing about the beach is, you sleep in as long as you want to. Sure, you go to bed late. Very late, sometimes. But you sleep in. I usually get up somewhere around 9:30, and wander up, all bleary-eyed, to drink some coffee and eat something someone fried up. But that didn’t happen that first morning. At exactly 8:00, there was a pounding at the door. Get up. Good grief. This is Beach Week. Why do I have to get up at 8:00?
I remembered, though, from the night before. Steven wanted to get out early, and go get our fishing licenses. We were gonna do some serious fishing, this year. Last year, we stepped out timidly, tentatively. Bought some cheap junk rigs off the clearance rack. And Steven had told me, at Abby’s funeral. He had taken those cheap junk rods and reels home, and cleaned them. The reel gears were made of plastic, and just fell apart. I guess that’s what happens when you buy from the bargain bin. Anyhow, he had discarded all that junk tackle. And he had gone out and bought some real good quality stuff. Mostly used, from Ebay. I had told him. That’s great. I don’t care that my tackle is shot. I’ll look forward to seeing what you got.
And that first morning, that Sunday morning, we were heading out at nine. To the tackle shop, for gear and tags. It was actually a pretty nice day. The sea was calm. When we returned, I checked out Steven’s equipment. The man went all out. He had four spinning rigs, for fishing from the shore. But he had heavier stuff, too. For shark fishing, he told me. Trolling rods, short and stout and stubby, with open reels loaded with 60 pound line. You can’t cast with those rigs. But Steven had all that figured out.
They had fetched along two kayaks, loaded them on top of the trailer he hauled down. The plan was this. Steven had been at the beach last summer, and somehow he got connected with an old shark fisherman. You don’t fish for shark from the shore, by simply casting in your line. You take one of those trolling rigs. You bait it with a large hook, and a drag anchor, so the bait won’t move, once it’s down. You set up that rig on the shore. And then a guy gets into a kayak, and hauls the hook and bait way, way out, beyond the breakers. The guy drops the bait, and heads on back in. And you sit there, and you wait for your drag to scream.
I was pretty intrigued by it all. Steven had even done the research, and gone and bought a little fishing cart. A thing on wheels, with all kinds of slots to stick your rods in. And lots of room for tackle and bait. OK. We had the tackle, to go after shark. And now, all we had to do was go and do it.
That first day, Sunday, the sea was calm. That would change, later in the week. The days all fuse together, at the beach. So I’m not exactly sure when what happened happened. I guess I could go look at the pics. Anyway, either Sunday or Monday, I caught the only fish I caught this year. Three little things, almost too small to celebrate. But I was proud. And it felt good. We pitched our little fish into a tub, to use later for bait. For shark.
And the sea was calm and the air was clear, those first few days. It’s impossible to describe the calming effect the ocean has on who you are. Impossible. The waves keep crashing in, and you stand out in them and watch. Or you sit back in a chair, fishing pole stuck upright in the sand, and watch. You watch, either way. It’s eternal, and it’s unfathomable, the sea.
And it’s all kind of random, the things that came down at Beach Week. Turns out the brand new beach house was painted bright yellow for a reason. It was a lemon. Half the light bulbs were burned out, and didn’t work. Janice was horrified to find mold in the washing machines. And the first morning, a curling iron blew up in the hands of whoever plugged it in. Bad connection. Janice got right on the phone. This is unacceptable. We were at the beach for seven days. I think there was a maintenance man on the property on at least five of those days. I’m not sure if we’re going back to that same house, even though the rental company offered Janice a $600.00 discount next year, and promised to have it in tip top shape. It was shoddily built, the whole place. A brand new house shouldn’t act like this house acted.
On Tuesday night, I think it was, the boys set up their shark rigs. In late afternoon. We ate early that day, at 5:30. And then we walked out to the beach. The kayaks were loaded. The water was calm. And Fred and Brandon paddled way, way out, and dropped the bait. We sat there, in our chairs, and fished from the shore with the spinning outfits. And waited to hear the drags scream on the dropped baits. All stayed quiet. The sea rolled and roared. And we just sat there, and absorbed it. Most of us drifted back to the house, around 10:00 or so. Steven and Brandon stayed out. But there was nothing biting that night, when it came to sharks.
Moving along, then. After Tuesday, at the beach, you might as well wave the week good-bye. That’s how fast it goes. The days whoosh right on in to each other. And you feel it, the end approaching. Last year, and this year, I was fine with all that, though. You feel what you feel. You see what you see. And when the end comes, it’s fine.
Wednesday. It was windy, out there. The sea roiled and rolled. Still, the boys dropped their bait, way out there. And early that morning, Brandon pulled in a large sting ray. A flat fish, ugly and uneatable. I wasn’t there when it happened. A large crowd gathered, Steven told me. The sting ray had swallowed the hook and bait. But the crowd insisted. Release the fish. So they did. No pictures, even. I grumbled at Steven. Good grief. If you pull in a hundred pounds of anything from the sea, at least take a pic. The story wasn’t done, though. Later that morning, when I was out there, fishing, the sting ray washed up to the shore. It had died. Butcher that thing, I told the boys. Let’s cook it and eat it. And they did. Cut it up for frying. And suddenly, right then, the drag on one reel started screaming. Brandon stepped up and hauled it in. Another sting ray. This one was hooked only on the lip, so the guys flipped it on its back. Unhooked the hook. And turned the fish back to where it came from.
Wednesday night. Hymn sing. Many from the group came from the plain Mennonites. Not me. But others. And Wednesday night is church night. We always sit around and sing hymns, after dinner. And that night, it seemed to be dragging, the tradition. But Janice and I insisted. So we all gathered, and someone got out a hymn book. Fred strummed his guitar. And suddenly, we all got into it. We sang a lot of old classics, some of them twice. I think the neighbors probably think we’re bipolar. Every night, so far, we had sat outside on the deck. Drinking and talking and laughing real loud. Smoking, too, those who do. And suddenly, on this night, loud hymn singing erupted. I mean, it was good, it was loud, and it lasted for about an hour. If you’re an English neighbor to something like that, you’ll have to be scratching your head.
The sea was roiling on Thursday morning, too. Janice told us this would be a morning for the pool. It was a bit chilly, out there. But she had gotten our landlords to heat the pool for practically free, because of all the maintenance issues. A pool session is a structured thing. First, you mix up a light drink in a large cup. Last year, we used flower vases. It was claimed that I stored those vases in my garage, for use this year. But for the life of me, I couldn’t find them. So Wilm brought along Mason quart jars, for the pool drinks. That morning, Janice mixed up a bunch of drinks in a bunch of those jars. We each grabbed one, and headed down. I sat off to the side, and just dangled my legs in. Most of the others relaxed on the floats we had bought earlier at a discount store.
A pool session goes like this. Each person takes a turn, being questioned by all the others. And I mean, nothing is really out of bounds. You are questioned. Drilled. Interrogated. I used to never join these sessions, because I didn’t want to talk. Last year was the first time for me. And this year, too, I wouldn’t have missed it. I was the first one up, before everyone was out there. So I got off pretty easy. How was your year? Crappy, I said. What do you see, coming up? Not sure, I said. I’m uneasy, inside. I’m writing on my blog. I traveled the Midwest, this summer. Long term, I think I’m gonna end up there. They drill you about relationships, too. It’s not been good, I said. Well, I said a lot more than that. But I don’t have to drag all that out, here.
We fished the roiling waves, too, when it was all windy on the beach. Steven and Brandon stalked the sea. Fishing, fishing incessantly. I wasn’t quite that committed, but I did join them when I wouldn’t have other years. You cast in your line. And then you sit and watch those foaming waters roiling in the wind.
And late one afternoon, I was inside, all restless. It was windy out there. I finished the book I had brought along to read. P.G. Wodehouse. Summer Moonshine. I hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time. Nobody was going on any runs, so I took a walk down the street. Half a mile or so, to one of those big beach stores, where everything is half off after Labor Day. And I mean, it is. Good quality T-shirts for six or seven bucks. I wandered around, and picked up two or three. And then I started walking back.
There was a little bar, there, on the way back. Well, a restaurant and bar. What the heck? I thought. I’m out here, by myself. I’ll go in and have a beer. I don’t drink beer, much. But it seemed like the right kind of drink for that moment. I wandered in. Can I sit at the bar? I asked the matron.
It was pretty much deserted, the place. Including the bar. Late afternoon, before dinner. A few people way down on the other end were just finishing up. We chatted a bit, and then they left. I ordered a local brew. The barmaid was young and very pretty and smiling. And I got to chatting with her. Is it really true, that everything is 50% off, at these stores, after Labor Day, or is it all a ruse? I asked. She smiled very brightly. In the busy summer months, they have sales. But not half off across the board. So, yeah, it’s true.
I asked her a bit about herself. She had just graduated last year, with a degree in journalism, and some sort of minor degree. Business, maybe. I don’t remember. And we talked about what it is, to write. And she told me. She was heading to Chile next spring, to teach English. I cheered that, quite loudly. Yes. Go. Travel. You don’t have to figure out what you’re doing with your life, right now.
I sipped that beer for probably half an hour, as we talked. And just as I was winding down, fixing to leave, I couldn’t help myself. I told her about my writing on this blog. And my book. She got all excited, and claimed that she’ll definitely go out and buy a copy and read it. I scrawled the title of my book on a scrap of paper, and signed it. And then I walked out, back to our beach house.
And I thought about it. It’s so strange, how the book has affected my life. It’s a connection point, if you want it to be. Not that it often is, in a setting like that. I don’t often tell strangers I’m a writer, especially not in a bar. But in the right setting, in the right moment, where it seems fitting, I do.
The week wrapped up, like lightening, that quick. There’s so much left untold. Like the grease fire on Sunday night, I think it was. The girls were cooking bacon on a flat pan, in the oven. The grease rolled right off, and started a real fire. For a few moments, there was lots of confusion and shouting. Don’t throw water on it. The guys doused the fire with wet towels, while I ran around and opened all the windows, to let out the smoke. It was tricky, there, for a moment. The place could have burned to the ground. But it didn’t.
We feasted on lots of good food, every night. Gourmet burgers, grilled by Brandon. Steak, grilled by Fred. And one night, there were sting ray appetizers, wrapped in bacon. Don’t ever let anyone tell you sting ray ain’t fit to eat. It is fit. And it’s delicious.
And on the very last evening, at almost the last hour, there was a hue and cry from the beach. A shark. Brandon caught a shark. We all rushed out. A small crowd of gawkers milled about, all excited. The boys were still wrestling with the beast. A shark. Probably five or six feet long. Lots of good meat, right there. Let’s butcher that thing, I said. It wasn’t to be, though. There was no time. It was late, already. And people were heading out early, tomorrow morning. Steven unhooked the hook with some kind of tool, careful not to get too close to the shark’s teeth. We snapped a bunch of pics. And then Brandon dragged the fish back into the water by its tail. Set it free. Maybe we’ll get to eat it next year.
Saturday morning. Steven and his crowd left real early, to get Fred back home for a singing gig. The rest of us cleaned up the place. Packed everything out. And loaded our cars. Beach Week was over, for one more year. It had come to an end. Just like everything has to.
Was I rested? In some ways, yes. In some ways, not. The tenant hadn’t heard anything from Billy, down below, when I got home. I was relieved about that. But still, there was a restlessness, deep down. And I got to talking to a friend about it, the other day. My writing’s not coming, this week. I sit and brood a lot. I think there’s something spiritual going on. And he asked. “Do you have bitterness in your heart? Unforgiveness, at anyone?” And I thought about it, and I looked at him. Yes, I said. Yes. I do.
“Well,” he said. “You can have all kinds of clean rooms in your heart, as a Christian. But if there’s one room that is corrupted, that spirit will settle and stay. That room will bug you. Because you’re allowing darkness in there. You have to clean that room, and get rid of that bitterness. Get rid of that unforgiveness. It doesn’t mean you don’t have reasons to feel that way. It just means you let it go. Cast it out.”
I’m so tired, I told him. Tired of all the unrest. I want to clean it all out. Get rid of all the crap that shouldn’t be there. I want my heart to be free. He offered to pray for me, right there, that that would happen. Yes, I said. I want you to. He placed his hand on my shoulder. And then he spoke to the Lord, as one would speak to a friend.