Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Don't Let Life Pass You By

Ever wonder how a writer’s perception differs in terms of events, circumstances and the seemingly insignificant, mundane things of life? Writers take mental snapshots, if you will, of people, places and events, and we hold them in our memories, imprint them on our hearts. Years later, I still remember some of those fleeting moments. Long before we had cameras in our phones, I remember a scene as I rode the bus through the streets of Dallas on the way to work. An abandoned pair of well-worn cowboy boots sat on a step in a narrow alleyway. That “picture” stuck in my mind. I wondered about the man who’d worn those boots, and how they’d come to be abandoned.

I’ll always remember the handsome, young Italian priest, arms outstretched in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, the children running to him while other children ran alongside us, holding out their hands, hoping for a coin or two. It was like The Thornbirds revisited. Just a man of the cloth reaching out to the children. Right. Likewise the gondoliers in Venice cleaning their boats, singing along to Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” Just a group of guys doing their job. Right.

One of the most interesting things I ever wrote was on a tray liner at a Burger King while sitting in London’s Piccadilly Circus as I observed a man interacting with a series of young women who slid in to the booth across from him. It was pretty clear what his relationship was to those women. My heart ached for them, and it opened my eyes a bit to the ways of the world, that so-called “seamy underbelly” a small-town girl from Indiana had never glimpsed before. Then there was the bride outside a suburban Boston Marriott, dressed in her finery, running down the street alone – at midnight. These are the kinds of mental images that stay with me. I remember saying after the bride incident, “Now there’s a story!”

Take the time to watch and observe carefully over the next few days, and you might be surprised. Let me tell you what I noticed recently on my twelve-mile morning trip across a double-decker bridge stretching across the Ohio River dividing Indiana from Kentucky. This is a sampling of what I saw:

*An older man using a long metal stick, pointed at the end, to pick up trash on the side of the road. I see him most mornings as I turn the corner onto the main road from our neighborhood. He does his part to keep that portion of the road clean and litter-free. But he always looks somber, sad, the lines on his face etched deep, his mouth downturned. I wonder if he lives alone, how he came to pick up the debris so faithfully as his daily mission, what he thinks of those who throw their trash out car window with no regard.

*Four elderly women standing outside the Catholic church, hands clasped together, waiting until it was safe to cross the street. My eyes well with tears, as they often do, when I see these women. It’s their morning routine. They’d been to church, and I can’t help but wonder about them. Are any of their husbands still living? How long have they known one another? Where did they meet? What I see is deep friendship, and the caring and protective spirit they share.

*A four-car pileup. Didn’t look like anyone was hurt, thank the Lord, but a couple of cars were most likely totaled. Some drivers waiting to get past the accident scene were impatient, others bided their time. But almost all were on their cell phones calling work to say they’d be late. What did we ever do before cell phones were invented? They’ve changed the entire way we communicate. In some ways – like immediacy – it’s good. In other ways, it’s self-limiting and perhaps cuts us off from interacting and reaching out to new people.

*A woman pulling down her rearview mirror and applying mascara as she waited to turn onto a busy downtown street. Is this grooming in the car part of her usual routine? Why would she risk poking her eye with a mascara wand? What could she possibly have been doing before leaving home? Is she single, married, with or without children? Perhaps she stayed up late the night before and opted to sleep later. Maybe she’d been so busy taking care of everyone else in her family she hadn’t taken time for herself.

*A homeless man, a cart loaded with his worldly possessions beside him on a downtown street, poking in a trash can for leftovers. Puffing on a cigarette. I thank the Lord it wasn’t too cold. What kinds of things run through this man’s mind? How does he spend his time? Does he know about the local mission and nearby shelter? What kind of daily existence must he lead? That one’s difficult for me. It’s beyond the scope of my understanding, but at this point, I do what I can for him – I pray.

*The Coca-Cola driver unloads his truck in front of my office building, chatting and smiling with the office worker headed toward the revolving doors. The man with the Volvo station wagon stops to ask for directions. A noisy group of tourists heads to the Visitor’s Center to hear the life story of Colonel Sanders or the Muhammad Ali Center to hear more about The Champ. Multiple school buses line up by the Kentucky Center for the Arts, with children lining up by the front steps, smiling and chattering, ready to see a special play. They’re happy, full of the innocence and boundless faith of youth. Some of these children might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend a performance here. Their excitement shows in their body language, their facial expressions. It makes me smile as I turn into the parking garage.

I’ve seen a lot in one trip to work, but I’ve seen things I’ll imprint on my mind, in my heart. We can let the world pass us by, or we can stop and pay attention and use what we see to enhance our lives and our writing. Feel the emotion. Glimpse the beauty in life, the hope and the joy, to balance out the inevitable sadness, the loneliness. All the emotions that make up life. Until recently, I also worked part-time at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. One of the volunteers I worked with there on my last night – a beautiful, Christian woman and one-year breast cancer survivor with a headful of gorgeous, new curls she’d never had before – stood up at the end of “Mamma Mia!” to join in singing along to the finale, “Dancing Queen.” She had the most joyous smile on her face, winked at me and said, “Sometimes you just gotta dance!” Indeed.

Blessings, my friends, until next time!


  1. Great post! I sometimes feel like my mental recorder is stuck on "record" with no stop button and an infinite Hard Drive to record. Can be both a good thing..and a bad one when I need to focus on something else.

  2. LOL, Darren. I know just what you mean, and don't worry, I'm really a good driver. Hope to see you in Greenfield on April 9th! Blessings.

  3. well, that's the plan at this time. Oh, and make sure you goto "Greenwood"
    Somedays, I need to turn the recorder off, but I just let it run so I don't miss the next great story..

  4. LOL...and why do I keep calling it Greenfield? I'll make sure I make the right turn off the highway, but thanks for the reminder. Hope to see you there. Blessings.

  5. Great post. I totally have the Photo File in my head. Maybe some people are more visual than others, because I can watch fifteen seconds anywhere in a movie and tell my wife, "We've seen this one before." I also have these visual images locked in my mind from stores I've read. The first thing that comes to my mind is a scene in a short story where the author described men waiting for a pretty girl to appear from the end of one of the grocery ailses like a ball shot out from a pinball machine.
    Thanks for the post.

  6. You're welcome, Kenny. Thank YOU! Keep storing those visuals. Like you, I also have images stored in my mind from books I've read, and that's a sign the book really made an impact on me (kind of like that ball shot from the pinball machine). Blessings!

  7. Yep! I store visuals too for word pictures or for story fodder. Nice, JoAnn