The One About A Squirrel

Photo by Evan McDougall on Unsplash
Note: For the next year, I plan to write a short story every day. Some may be 
palatable, even enjoyable(?). Others may be horrendous. If you like them, like them or share them. If you don’t, well it is whatever. I’m doing it as a challenge someone gave me. I’m calling these my fivers. I try and write them without stopping in five minutes, little to no editing after the time limit. Each story or post will come from a different prompt I am given. These are just exercises for me to be in the process of writing.

 

I grew up in small, rural America. Some people have called my area the rust belt; others have called it the snow belt. I called it home. In the sleepy towns of NW PA, there was a small private Christian school that I attended for most of my life from Kindergarten through 11th grade. The elementary wing of French Creek Valley Christian School had these decently giant windows to allow for natural light, as well as a good distraction for most of my classmates while some teacher went on about time, times tables, writing cursive, or the rudimentary knowledge of grammar. Grammar was the time that I would space out in the day, but I didn’t do it in a way that made the teacher genuinely suspect that I wasn’t listening.

One day, I don’t know for how long, but I blatantly watched two squirrels play with each other in the most jovial and playful manner. I don’t remember what drew me in; it might have been the changing of the weather. It was May! May in Pennsylvania was my favorite time of the year, and I found these two squirrel-mates living in a manner that made me envy them. While I heard this teacher go on about adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs, my mind was analyzing what I was watching. Plato made the statement that a student’s formal, lecturing education should happen later on in life while as a youth they should learn the control of self through body and mind training. Education was to turn the light of our eyes to the goodness within us, thinks Plato. Well, chubby little Phil wanted to be jovial and lounge in the sun while I played. I kept hearing my teacher sound like the parents’ from the cartoon strip Peanuts.

As the squirrels played, they seemed to drift farther and farther from me. I watched them intensely, using anything I could to get a good eye on their bonding time. It was somehow a chance to escape the confines of my education to live a child’s dream — to simply be within the world. The next thing I knew my escape was immediately interrupted by the teacher calling out my name. “Philip! What are you doing?” As I heard the teacher, my mind reinstated the necessity to be a drone. However, I was more than halfway out of my seat, leaning more than half of my body sideways to watch the squirrels. Seeking to catch my balance, I spoke the truth. I wasn’t paying attention teacher. I cared more about the squirrels than this grammar lesson.

As I recentered upon the lesson, my mind couldn’t help but go back to the squirrels. Squirrels are funny creatures! Yet, they are fascinating in a peculiar way. I learned something valuable that day that I more recently realized in my adult life. Jovial and playfulness come to us in the moments of sheer non-expectation. Those squirrels did not happen to plan it; no, instead, they found themselves raptured into it. We become overwhelmed by chance to do something many of dream about: to find joy within the most serious of times.

How dare these squirrels to interrupt teaching of grammar for some nutty fun and comradery. But TRULY, it was the opposite! How dare we intrude into the scared moment of joy, innocence, and profound connectedness with a quibbling triffle about constucted rules to communicate through a medium other than oral language.  A bit of pleasure within the fabric of life isn’t found by the removal of things. Friend, joy is located in the midst of life. Connectedness is found within doing, not planning. Playfulness cannot be prepared or forced; instead, it becomes playful from the busy. There is much to say, but squirrels, small creatures of God’s creation, taught me that at a young age. I’m still learning it.

Spelunking & Broad Shoulders

NOTE TO READER: Much of this was written in late July 2017, yet I updated it. I hope somehow you feel encouraged.

This may not come as a shock to some, but I wasn’t good at keeping my cool as a child towards particular people. I was in second grade when I realized there was someone in my grade school that didn’t like me, and he thought he could intimidate me and bully me. Strange because I was the tallest and biggest kid, but I was the one getting bullied. He would make fun of me for no apparent reason, and he made fun of me for being chunky. It was subtle jabs. Eventually one day, I told my pops about it. I was pretty upset because I didn’t know what to do. All I knew is that I wanted to cream him, maybe give him a black eye or two. I knew though I couldn’t do it.

As I told my dad everything, he looked at me and shook his head at me. He chuckled, actually! He brought me close as I was sitting in his office, put me on his lap, and told me something that has stuck with me since then. “Philip, my dear boy, you’re the biggest and tallest. Sometimes, other people will have a problem with you. They will do whatever it takes to rile you up. Force you to say and do things you’ll regret. People don’t like it that you’re okay with you…” I interjected as my dad did his typical hand movements when he starts to make a point. I believe I had a few tears in my eyes and I said, “DAD! What am I suppose to do? All I want to do is make him shut up.”

Sighing as every dad does. My dad got quiet and let me into something that has rung in my ears since those days. “Son, you’re a Worrall. You’re going to have to get broader shoulders. You’ll have to keep getting bigger ones as you grow up. Then, you gotta find a way to let it roll off your back.”

Broader shoulders? Let it roll off my back?? I was confused. As my dad explained what it meant, I realized that it could be my superpower. I was a pretty imaginative kid, but you’d rarely see it. Somehow, I’d use this superpower to take on other people’s burdens and figure ways to lighten their load. I’d meet with other superheroes and save the world. Silly, but we all have done it!

Fast forward to today. I’m twenty-six and second grade was a long time ago that kid is gone. (He and I never became friends, and I eventually got the last laugh. No, I didn’t do anything cruel, hurtful, or destructive.) Still, I hear my father’s words: “Broader shoulders, son.” But, I don’t know if I can have broader shoulders. I’m beat up, and I feel my fragility. I can be so much more; I can be better, stronger, smarter, etc. Nevertheless, all I feel is despondent.

A song by Penny and Sparrow called the “The Literal Heart,” has some lines that echo that feeling within me.

“I could be so much stronger than I am right now
With broader shoulders and a sturdy frame
But that would cost me time and change
That I might not be willing to make

It’s gonna take every drop of young blood I’ve got
So hold on and stop and settle down

I want to sit still and empty
I want to learn the hollow route

A lonely piece of mountain
I want to sit and shut my mouth
But I’ll be damned, I’d rather sleep…”

Now, before I go any farther, quit with your gripping and statements, “Phil, you’re being melodramatic.” Well, your cheeky comments show how little you know me. I detest all forms of weakness and vulnerability in my life. Stoicism has served me well in life, but it does some damage if you’re not careful, which I haven’t been careful when drinking that hemlock.

But, I need to make a point. It is difficult for me to admit that I don’t have broad enough shoulders for everything life throws at me. Why? It is because I want to be rock, not needing anything… or anyone. That seems pretty anti-Gospel because I unquestionably need God at every point in my life.

This point has come clear within some deep emotions and feelings that have surfaced which have kinda uncovered how genuinely vulnerable I am. There are only two people who I think know me to that point that can call me out without me becoming defensive. By calling out, I mean this fact that I carry too much on myself and have the biggest and broadest shoulders with nothing phasing me. No, they aren’t my parents. They know who they are.

What’s my point in this? Well, I take this whole Gospel and Jesus being God thing seriously. And, I too often still associate my life with God through faith as one that is a steady increase in holiness and true purity. In reality, it is sometimes like spelunking. So, my point is that my shoulders aren’t as broad as I want them to be. Within the Christian life, the moments of spelunking can look a bit antithetical to everything we have been taught that we are to progress into holiness. More often than not, we find that we are taking steps backward, and we forget to realize that God came for all of us and God understands the complex nature of life with Him and neighbor. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean we are taking steps backward; it could be the catalyst moment for growth and deepening of our faith.

Anyway, I know I’ll continue to try and have the broadest shoulders. Additionally, I hope in a God that gets why I try to do that. I believe God meets us in the midst of the spelunking so that God’s Gospel found in Jesus Christ looks even more captivating and beautiful. Following God and living out the Gospel isn’t a punctiliar moment, even though we want it to be. It takes a lifetime, and God knew that when He sent His Son.

What Is My Pipe For?

The world is in bad shape, but we don’t want to let our pipe go out under and circumstances, do we? —Karl Barth to Dietrich Bonhoeffer

(cf. Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 120)

Some might know that I enjoy pipes, yet many of you do not, so don’t be upset. That would be childish. Some of you probably scoff at me, but eh, whatever. Did you know scoffing is a past time? There is an old Indian proverb that states:

“A pipe is to the troubled soul what caresses of a mother are for her suffering child.”

Or, you can listen to this brilliant guy, Albert Einstein:

“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”

When I was younger, everyone told me never to smoke, and I didn’t. Yet, I started reading into the lives of many people I highly respected, realizing they all had one thing in common…they smoked, whether that was pipes or cigars. They are men I look up to for their wit, intelligence, and the impact they have made in my own life: Mark Twain, Charles Spurgeon, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, Karl Barth, Beethoven, Bonhoeffer (he was a cigarette guy, you can’t blame the man). For women out there reading this, Millicent Fenwick and George Sand smoked pipes. Now, I on occasion smoke because it is what calms my mind, brings some sense of clarity to a situation, and reminds my soul the depths of meaning in life. It is those simple and small moments that can bring the greatest amount of contentment.

It honestly relaxes me, or it allows me to clear my head and approach a problem in a new light. The reason for this is the patience you have to have before you even start smoking. You have to prepare: matches, packing, cleaning, and lighting it up. The process itself takes my mind away from the situation, and it allows me to focus on something else for awhile. Then, after a few minutes, I am able to begin again my contemplation on fixing the situation or ruminating on things I have read.

So, I use my pipe as a distraction. I smoke not for the fact of not understanding the possible health risks, but the idea from Ecclesiastes to enjoy those things which God has made. Tobacco is something God made to be enjoyed occasionally. Also, the occasions, when I smoke, are a carpe diem moment for me. I’m assuming you’ve seen Dead Poets Society. If you haven’t, oh man, it is such an iconic scene with Robin Williams. He leans in with the class near the trophy case and mutters the words: “Caaarppeee…Carpe Diem… Seize the day boys.” Earlier, he comes to the poem by Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” and he says,”Seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…” Just watch the clip, you’ll see.

Anyway, I use my pipe as a distraction, a moment for simple enjoyment, and it allows me space from people. Pipes distract me from problems and conundrums. Also, the pipe allows for me to dwell on other thoughts with little or no stress. I understand you still see my vice as a problem, yet I will take my petty vice over others. I digress from my main point, Aragon states, “None knows what the new day shall bring him.” Usually, I smoke my pipe at night before sleeping. Hence, the pipe enables reflection on the day, those activities and words stated never to be reflected on again. Moreover, I come back to questions that popped up in my day from reading that I shelved away for a proper opportunity. Thus, I smoke my pipe for a multitude of reasons.

I leave you with an excerpt from Mark Twain’s essay, “On the Moral Statistician.”

You never see more than one side of the question.

You are blind to the fact that most old men in America smoke and drink coffee, although, according to your theory, they ought to have died young; and that hearty old Englishmen drink wine and survive it, and portly old Dutchmen both drink and smoke freely, and yet grow older and fatter all the time.

And you never try to find out how much solid comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment a man derives from smoking in the course of a lifetime (which is worth ten times the money he would save by letting it alone), nor the appalling aggregate of happiness lost in a lifetime by your kind of people from not smoking.

Of course you can save money by denying yourself all those little vicious enjoyments for fifty years; but then what can you do with it?

What use can you put it to? Money can’t save your infinitesimal soul.

All the use that money can be put to is to purchase comfort and enjoyment in this life; therefore, as you are an enemy to comfort and enjoyment where is the use of accumulating cash?

—Mark Twain, “The Moral Statistician”

C.S. Lewis on Originality

“No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” 
                                                                                     —C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis is one of the apologetical and Christian thinking giants of the past 70+ years. This one quote from Lewis hit me in the face while re-re-reading through one of the many of his essays entitled, “Members” . From a young age, I hated being compared with other people. If you ever wanted to see me blow a fuse, all you had to do was mention myself in the same sentence with someone else. As I have grown older, I realized, it is natural for people to compare and contrast other people with people who are familiar, and they do not understand explicitly what they are doing. So, in reaction to that, I was always seeking (confession: I still am) to be original.

I do not want to build on people’s work. I want all the glory; I never want to share it. You think I probably should use a past tense, but it is not in the past…it is a present issue. It has always been my thing to make a name for myself, I mean it is part of the American Dream. When I read these lines from C.S. Lewis, God sucker punched me in the face*. Most of my life, I have been uber focused on being original, different from everyone else. Because I have been so focused on it, I take my whole identity to be wrapped up in my originality. Now, I am already different from everyone else: the parents God gave me, the education, my genetic makeup, and a laundry list of other things. Yet, the Christian Life is not about being original from everything else.

My obsession for originality, thus having other ascribe a high value to me is completely and utterly a perversion of my identity; it is absolutely based upon what I or you think I should do or be. God is nowhere to be found in it. It is sin, let us not be coy about it. Sin is a perversion, a twisting, of what is good into something for what it was never intended to be. Yet, here is the great, amazing news. Jesus knows. It is the whole reason why the Son of God came. Jesus is my originality. I do not have to be original, God has already done it. I can, now, be a simple guy, doing my work.

 

*(Sidenote: I believe God speaks through many things other than just or only the Holy Scripture, yet normatively, authoritatively only through Scripture. All the other speech are pointers back to Scripture where the Word of God is revealed, i.e. Jesus Christ. There is loads more to say about it…and I’m still working it out.) 

(Some of the thoughts in this post will be updated, teased out more, or otherwise corrected. Blogging is an ongoing process.)