We’re All in a Barrel (Please don’t shoot!)

The tragic irony of human existence is that, after a life spent in search of ourselves, it is what we leave behind that says the most about us.  It is also an unfortunate truth that we are never more appreciated than in the years after our deaths.

I miss my dad.  We didn’t see each other often while he was alive (for all sorts of complicated reasons), but it was enough to know he was there if I had a question or wanted to talk to him.    As long as that potential was there, I didn’t think to miss him.  That is one of the greatest regrets of my life so far.  He deserved at least to be missed while one of us could still do something about it.  But I’m old and experienced enough to know that regret is a useless emotion—God, grant me the serenity, and all that—and so I do the only thing I can now that he’s gone: I miss him.

I hope that he can see me from wherever he spends his time these days.  I have no idea what I believe with respect to the afterlife, but just because I doubt something doesn’t mean I can’t hope for it.  Unlike regret, hope is never a useless emotion.  And if Dad can see me from that great park-bench-chained-to-a-tree in the sky, I at least hope I’ve given him a few reasons to be pleased.

First, thanks to social media, I’m finally getting to know all the Larkeys.  Well, probably not ALL of them—there are an awful lot of Larkeys—but several of them, at least.  Dad loved his family and always wanted me to be a bigger part of it.  I (for all sorts of complicated reasons) never quite felt a part of it.  That I’m heading down this weekend for an impromptu reunion of the cousins would make him inordinately happy.

Second, I am SO my father’s daughter.  Yes, yes, I look just like my mother, and I got a lot of my traits from her (my voice, the irrepressible compunction to question everything, and my sailor’s tongue, to name a few), but my personality is pure Jerry Lynn.  I’m a dreamer.  I don’t sleep and I loathe mornings.  I’m horrifically disorganized.  For Christmas, I’ve been known to ask for—and receive—things like a compound miter saw and router.  I don’t know the meaning of the words “I can’t do that” when considering a project (I might not actually pull it off, but I’m sure as shit gonna try…and, secretly, I totally expect to pull it off).

Third—and what I mostly wanted to write about here—I’m proud of my roots.  This one took me a while.  You see, growing up in a small, lily-white, mostly-Republican-and-nearly-all-Baptist Southeastern Kentucky town, I somehow ended up a liberal.  And not the typical Kentucky brand of liberal, which is really more Republican-before-Sarah-Palin (case in point: any elected Democratic official in the state).  I mean a f’real left-wing liberal, with card-carrying membership in the Sierra Club, the LGBT-themed Human Rights Campaign, and the Unitarian Universalist Church.

During my transition to this godless, granola state, I looked back at my forebears and relations—not specific folk, just the general people and place—and thought simply “How?”  How could we be so different?  How could my very square peg have ever sprung forth from such a round hole?  And how could I possibly cram it back in again without doing serious damage to both?  For a long time, the only answer I could come up with to that last question was “I can’t,” and so for a long time, I didn’t even try.

I removed myself from where I came from.  I went away to school.  All the way to Oregon at one point, which is just about as far as one can get from Southeastern Kentucky without a passport (and not just geographically-speaking).  I tried to minimize my Appalachian accent.  I preened when, one day, a young man working at the grocery store I’d frequented as a child took one look at me on my way in and said, “You ain’t from ‘round here, are you?”

For years, I had seen myself as a thing apart.  I was the Other, the square peg in a sea of round holes.  Eventually though, that sea—and all the perfectly round little fish that swam in it—became the Other.  The maligned and marginalized.  The less-than.  I was better than all those round folk, I thought in my worst moments.  I certainly wasn’t one of them!

Oh, but I was.  I am.  I’m still as square as I ever was—and there are doubtless some round peg folk who’d rather I kept my sharp edges to myself—but I can appreciate my roots now.  Because no one–no one–is Other.  Because somehow, where I’m from did make me who I am today, and damn it, I’m awfully fond of both of us.

When it comes to family and community, there aren’t holes at all: we’re all just a bunch of pegs—round, square, and otherwise—tossed into a giant barrel and shaken up every now and then.  In the process, we rub each other the wrong way.  We poke somebody in the eye, or knock some paint off.  We make a few scars and we get a few in return.

Sometimes, we find ourselves outside the barrel and we breath a sigh of relief.  We might venture off to see where else our peg will fit, and if we’re lucky, we’ll find a place that doesn’t bang us around so much.  But it is our time in the first barrel that shapes us the most.  It is where we begin that we become a permanent and irreplaceable part of something greater than ourselves.  I might be a square peg, but I don’t need a square hole to go home again.  I just need the barrel.

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The Holy Book

For someone who doesn’t particularly believe in the thing, I own an inordinate number of bibles. I just counted six on my bookshelf downstairs, and I’m pretty sure at least two or three made it into a recent “Donate” pile.

Two of them are student bibles, the non-KJVs that are actually readable. I used those back before I was a heathen, or now when I want to look something up. The rest have some sentimental value. There is the one my grandparents got me when I was “saved” (we went to a Southern Baptist Church where the moment when my soul was no longer doomed for eternal damnation was really a big deal). That one has my name engraved on the cover in gold and still looks brand new…which probably says something about my current spiritual status.

A couple of my bibles belonged to my Papaw. They’re big and leather-bound and falling apart because he actually read them. And since my Papaw was the nearest thing to God I knew as a kid, there’s a certain symmetry in my hanging onto them as an adult. I know now that he was just a man, with all the attendant complications and flaws that accompany folks of the human persuasion, but he loved me unconditionally and served as my soft place to fall until the day he died, and so he remains my reference point for divinity. I think his bibles might have been his soft place to fall, so, irrational as it is, my keeping them makes me feel like he’s still around for me.

The one that struck an unexpected chord with me recently, however, and the one which prompted this entry, was not my Papaw’s.  It was my dad’s.  For those who don’t know, my dad passed away a couple of years ago (he and my mom divorced when I was a baby), and like the human condition itself, our relationship was both complicated and flawed.  He was a good man, though, at his core, and if my Papaw remains my reference point for divinity, my dad will forever be my reference point for unrealized potential and promise.  And he pressed that promise between the pages of his bible.

I won’t get into the details of his tragic life and death, but it is enough to know that they were tragic.  He was bright and talented and troubled and, like my Papaw, he loved unconditionally and completely.  The bible that I inherited from him is a sparse testament to all of these.

It’s an unwieldy thing, the book itself.  One of those heirloom bibles that is meant to serve as a repository for family record rather than a thing to read.  Its front cover reveals that it was a wedding gift, given way back in 1976.  In it, he told of his siblings, including his beloved little brother Larry, who died too soon–at the age of eleven–in 1970.  My dad was fourteen at the time.  I think my young, unknown uncle’s death set in motion the events that would ultimately lead to Dad’s own untimely end.  Dad’s entry in the bible of his little brother’s birth and death, under the stark heading “Deaths,” was written in large, uneven letters.  In marker, rather than ink, as though he wanted the record of his brother to seep into the pages more completely, unfading and unerasable.

My own birth is in there, too.  It was likely entered sometime later, since he got the year wrong, but it’s there, in the same untidy scrawl that immortalized his brother.  With it, scattered amidst the pages, are pictures of me.  A photo he took, a newspaper clipping from an article about my eighth-grade drama team.  He didn’t see me often, but he kept watch, recording my various moments of being and doing in his sacred book.

What struck me most, however, weren’t the images of me, however touched I was to find them.  No, it was evidence of his own being and doing, of his hoping and searching and remembering, that made my chest ache and my fingers turn to keys with a need to keep my own record.  It was the pictures from his baptism, looking young and nervous.  An editorial asking simply, “Can I go to Heaven?”.  A note from a preacher thanking him for his gift, which I’m sure he couldn’t really afford.  The tabbed pages and highlighted passages that spoke of love and heart and peace and hope.

And, finally, amidst all this paper and ink were the broken remains of a laurel leaf, a perfectly pressed carnation, and a crumbling rose.  Mementos, no doubt, of happier times.  Of unrealized potential.  Of promises, withered and broken.  Pieces of his life that reflect all too accurately the man he was and the life he led.

I will keep Dad’s bible with a full and heavy heart.  I might even continue the family tree and insert my own mementos into its pages.  I think he’d like that.  My son, Ephraim, will inherit the book someday and, while he might doubt the sacredness of the book itself, he will hopefully understand that between its faded leather cover lies a sacredness of another sort.  It is a place where love was poured, where troubles and hopes alike were pressed into the pages as surely as the carnation and the rose.  Where family was remembered and preserved and held, as hallowed and soul-feeding as the text was ever meant to be.

But I will not add any more flowers to the book–their inevitable darkening and decay too perfect a symbol for the tragic side of life.  I’ll focus on the hope, and hope that my inclusions reflect my life back to my son someday as poignantly as my father’s do to me.