Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Characters of Life

People tell me things.

I don't really know why. To them I can't be anything more than a glassy-eyed twenty-something standing behind the counter waiting to ring them up and send them on their way. But they talk to me anyway. Maybe inside they think that I'm an unbiased listener. It's okay to talk to me because they don't really know me. And I, never having much to say, myself; just nod when they tell me their stories. I don't know how to respond to them with words other than "Uh-huh" and "Wow" and things like that. Our conversations are overwhelmingly one-sided. I'm like a sponge into which they pour out their hearts. Kind of odd, but I've always felt a little odd inside, so that's okay.

There's a woman who comes in from time to time. I'll call her Gloria. Gloria has always seemed a little batty to me. She's in her mid-fifties, dresses like a teenager, and frequently hums to herself. Sometimes she smells a bit like marijuana. (Don't ask me how I know what that smells like.) One day she came in and mentioned having been in the hospital, and I told her that I knew how expensive that could be, because I had recently had a miscarriage and incurred $3,000 worth of expenses for my 6-hour visit to the hospital. Gloria then proceeded to tell me, in her perpetually-chipper voice, that she had lost three babies of her own and had never been able to bear any live children. "One was in my tube," she said. "And I lost another at eight months. They had to turn the ultrasound screen away from me. I'm gonna be one busy mama in heaven."

I was rendered speechless. This batty woman had gone through so much loss, and I had always dismissed her as something of a nutcase.

Another time a family passing through from Colorado stopped in to use the restroom. There was a husband, a wife, and two daughters who were probably ten or twelve. While the others were using the bathroom, the husband noticed the copies of The Land Beyond the Portal sitting on the counter. (I sell them there.) I told him that I had written it, and that it was a Christian suspense novel. We got to chatting a bit, and he told me that his daughters' biological mother had abandoned them, saying that it was okay because God wouldn't judge her for it, or something along those lines. The husband was a single father for years until he met and married his current wife; the woman in the restroom.

They bought a copy of my novel and I signed it for them. Then they went along on their way. But I was thinking, Wow. How could a woman bear two children and suddenly decide to leave them behind? What is she doing now? What made her choose to leave?

Then, the other day, yet another regular told me her story. She made the comment that the Dollar General shouldn't be called that anymore since the prices are all going up, and I said something about how there couldn't be "Five and Dimes" anymore, either. Then the woman (whose name I've never learned even though I've seen her multiple times a week for six years, so I'll call her Mary) told me how she was the youngest of twelve children. Her family was so poor that she had never even received a birthday present until she was twelve years old, and the only reason she got one then is because she asked her mother to please get her one. Her mother went to the Five and Dime and bought her a bottle of perfume and a necklace, spending maybe twenty-five cents all together. Mary said she has always remembered that.

And it made me think: What did *I* get for my twelfth birthday? I can't tell you without grabbing out my photo album. (Runs to look at album...) Okay. I got a curling iron brush thing, some CDs, and a puzzle box. I never would have remembered if I hadn't written it down in the album. I just take things like birthday presents for granted. But Mary, who had never received a birthday present until that age, cherished her gifts so much that she still remembers what they were more than fifty years later.

I often refer to customers as "characters." It's a small town. We have The Conspiracy Theorist. We have the Drunks. We have the Creeps. We have Farmers and Rich People and Poor People and Pot Heads. It's so easy to stick people into a box based on our immediate perceptions of them. Often they seem like one-dimensional characters whom you might see in the background of a movie or novel. But when they open up and talk, I remember that they're as human as I am and have fascinating stories to tell that give me little glimpses of life that are very different from my own.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Lady Gaga

There are two men I know who were both born on Christmas Day a year apart from one another. (I'll call them Bob and Steve.) These men do not know each other. They live in different states. As far as I know, they have never met.

Bob and Steve do not live in the states in which they were born. They both lost their fathers at a young age. Both ended up joining the military (Navy for Bob and Special Forces for Steve) and went to the Middle East. Both men have been married twice. They had no children with their first wives and fathered a son and a daughter with their second wives. Their sons have the same first name.

After leaving the military, they became involved with their respective churches. They both have a penchant for teaching. They even look a little bit alike. It almost makes one wonder if they have some sort of parallel connection by being born on December 25. Could it be true? Who knows?

"What does this have to do with anything?" you're probably asking. "And what's the point?"

The point is, I was born on Lady Gaga's birthday.

When I first found out, I was a little miffed. How could she have stolen my birthday like this? True, she was born three years before me, but it still felt like the sanctity of my birthday had somehow become destroyed in my mind. Lady Gaga is strange. She wore a meat dress. She has political and religious leanings that are very different from my own. She and I couldn't be anything alike, right? The parallel-life birthday theory I had regarding Bob and Steve couldn't possibly hold true for the two of us.

But then I began to dig a little deeper. What I found spooked me.
This was me in 1997. I was wearing hair curlers and decided to stuff fake flowers into them. Because why not?

This was me in 2003 doing an Emperor Palpatine impression.

 This was me in 2004 portraying a denizen of Middle-earth.

This was me goofing around in Drama Club after school in 2005.

This was me and a friend in Drama Club, also in 2005.

This, too, was in 2005. It must have been a good year.

Conclusion: Lady Gaga and I both like to wear funky costumes. BECAUSE IT IS FUN.

The similarities run even deeper. I have always been fond of the arts. I studied piano for ten years and acted for two during high school. And, obviously, I write; and have done so for as long as I can remember.

We both attended Catholic grade schools, where we got picked on for being "different." Our professional names are not the ones our parents gave us at birth. We are both human rights advocates (though our respective causes are very, very different). We both are fond of Freddie Mercury. We like to contribute to charities. I'm sure there's more, but that's all I'll discuss for now.

So DO people who share a birthday share similar traits? Some would say it isn't Christian to think such things, but what if it's just part of God's sense of humor? I don't see what would be wrong with that.

And now readers, I ask you this: Do YOU know of people who fit into the parallel-life birthday theory? Tell us about it in the comments!

Monday, April 8, 2013


What? Two blog posts in one week? What is the world coming to?

I have a migraine. I woke up with one this morning (a common occurrence) and hoped that it would go away once I'd had my coffee (which happens on occasion).

It didn't. After only four hours at work, I had to go home because I could not function at all. I took two Tylenol and laid down on the bed in the Writing Lair to try to sleep it off. I didn't fall asleep, but the simple act of lying there with my eyes shut and a pillow over my head made the pain lessen by a miniscule amount.

Three hours later, I got up. I took a shower to see if it would soothe my head. It did, some. But it still hurts. And it will keep hurting, and hurting, and hurting, because that is the way it has always been.

I have suffered from migraines since I was a small child. Medicine does little to help them. It hurts to look at bright lights and to hear loud noises. It makes me feel sick to my stomach. Sometimes I am unable to eat because my stomach feels so bad. I even learned how to say "My head hurts" in Spanish (Me duele la cabeza), because you never know when that might come in handy.

These days I only get migraines two or three times a month, but that is enough. They have caused me to stay home from family gatherings and other outings. They force me to sit in a dark room without any visual or auditory stimuli so that the pain will gradually go away.

And it makes me angry. Why would God curse me with such an affliction? I know people who haven't had a migraine a single day in their life, and I have them all the time. It just doesn't seem fair. Why should I be in so much pain that I can't work, cook dinner, or spend time with my family?

But then I start to think. We ALL suffer in some way. A woman who has never had a migraine might be undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. An equally migraine-free man might have arthritis so bad that he can no longer work. A child might suffer the emotional pain of abandonment. Depression, anxiety, abuse, loss: all are forms of suffering, and every single human being has suffered in some way at some point in their lives.

I shouldn't be angry that I suffer from migraines. Do I enjoy them? No. Do I wish they would be gone for good? YES! But since migraines are a part of who I am, maybe I should just learn to accept it.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Whatchu Tolkien About?

Spoiler alert! Proceed with caution.

I have a terrible memory. I forget people's names. I forget people's faces. I forget classes I took and gatherings I've attended. I even forget the things I read and watch on television. The past twenty-four years are a swirling murk of fragmented memories that may or may not have actually happened--but every once in awhile sounds and images emerge from the brain swamp and I exclaim with glee, "Hey, I remember that!"

Like the time we went to see The Fellowship of the Ring in the movie theater.

I have no recollection of The Lord of the Rings prior to the release of the movie. I knew that the books existed, but I can't remember what I knew about them. All of that is as lost in the brain swamp as a shipwreck is in the Bermuda Triangle.

But we went to see the movie. I remember that. I was twelve years old. I don't actually remember watching it, but I remember that we got stuck in the very front row in the theater, so I had to crane my neck to see everything on the ginormous screen. I also recall that my sister, who was at that time approximately four months old, did not take kindly to orc battles and Ringwraiths and became rather upset.

I remember liking the movie. Then we bought it when it came out on VHS. (Remember those?) At some point I decided to sit down and read the book.

It was hard. The Fellowship of the Ring is a very long book, at least by twelve-year-old standards. Or was I thirteen by then? You guessed it--I don't remember. Then I eventually trudged my way through The Two Towers. I never read The Return of the King.

I do remember thinking that the books were mildly pagan in nature. Where is God in all of this? I wondered. None of the hobbits or elves or dwarves or anyone seemed to worship a deity of any kind. I think that maybe I was a little put off by that.

I couldn't have been any dumber.

Years later I learned that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and that Christians of many denominations praise his works for the symbolism and messages they contain. I was surprised, but not so surprised. When I was thirteen, I wouldn't have recognized a symbol or an allegory if they had done the Gangnam Style dance naked in front of my face. I didn't understand that sometimes things have different meanings that aren't immediately apparent. That understanding didn't come until my late teens, and even then it didn't come to me quickly.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to reread the series. I'm close to finishing The Two Towers, so I still have never cracked the spine of Book 3.

But it's almost like I'm reading completely different books. The symbolism practically jumps off the page at me. Take Frodo, for example. He isn't anybody important, but he is the one chosen to bring the One Ring to Mordor so it can be destroyed. It makes me think of how Jesus chose a bunch of "nobodys" to be his disciples. Then there are the "lembas" that the elves give the members of the Fellowship so they won't starve out in the wilderness. The description of them sounds an awful lot like communion wafers.

Perhaps the biggest allegory I saw this time around was Gandalf's self-sacrifice in the Mines of Moria. Gandalf is battling a demonic creature called a Balrog while an army of orcs is after the Fellowship. In order to allow his friends to escape, he lets himself fall into a deep pit while still fighting the Balrog.

Everyone assumes Gandalf is dead. But later, after the Fellowship is disbanded, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli spot an old man in the woods whom they assume to be the dark wizard Saruman. They even speak with the man and don't recognize him at first. When they realize it's actually the very not-dead Gandalf, they rejoice, and Gandalf tells them how he battled the Balrog in the pit of the mountain before ascending a long flight of stairs out of Moria onto the mountaintop into the sunlight. (Anyone familiar with the Gospel accounts of Jesus's death and resurrection should see the symbolism here.) At least they didn't think that Gandalf was the gardener.

I also noticed that Saruman rhymes with Ahriman, which is the Persian name for Satan. I don't know if this was intentional, a coincidence, or the work of Tolkien's subconscious mind.

And what of the "Christian" mercy that Gandalf extends to Saruman and Frodo extends to Gollum? Instead of smiting the two very unsavory fellows, they are each given a second chance, regardless of whether or not they will choose to redeem themselves.

I could go on and on. I'm simply amazed by all of the things I missed when I first read these books. Was I blind, or what?

Oh, Internet, how I love thee.