Living life against a backdrop of chaos

The man on the radio, who happened to be Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, said we are in “a proliferation of crises” like he has never seen before.

A passenger plane shot from the sky, makeshift morgues, the Ukraine on fire, allegations of children used as rocket shields, terrorists carving an ever wider and bloodier path through Iraq and thousands of children kept like dogs in a kennel on our southern border—a senator may call it a proliferation of crises, but to my eyes it looks like hell on earth.

We had a houseguest this week. As I put fresh sheets back on the bed and hung fluffy white towels fresh from the dryer in the bathroom, I enjoyed a moment of satisfaction. Order. Cleanliness.

A news picture showed a family fleeing, two adult sons, their mother walking behind, and one of the sons struggling to carry their frail and elderly father. Only the clothes on their back.

Me and my fluffy white towels.

Three of the little grands were in the backyard this week, playing in big old galvanized tubs filled with water. Dipping and pouring, yelling and laughing, waving the hose and soaked to the skin.

An image from the Mideast showed an anguished father cradling his wounded daughter in his arms, his white T-shirt soaked with grime, sweat and blood.

Where is the water to wash them?

The drone of a lawnmower in the distance is a reminder of simple routines. Hummingbirds dart in and out of the geraniums; we work, we eat, we sleep and look forward to an open house and a birthday party this weekend. Trying to reconcile the ease with the anguish is nearly debilitating.

C.S. Lewis addressed Oxford University students at the commencement of World War II as to whether learning was appropriate during time of war. The greater question, and why many beyond Oxford were listening, was how do we pursue ordinary lives while the lives and liberties of others hang in the balance?

Listeners may have expected a nuanced and comforting reply from the scholar and writer, but instead Lewis was jarring. He told the audience that we always live against a backdrop of death; we are always on the path to heaven or hell—terror simply awakens us to the fact. This veteran of the trenches of World War I said even the times we think are normal aren’t really. On closer inspection they, too, are pockmarked by disaster, emergencies and catastrophes.

We can’t put life, education, vocation, even daily routines on hold because disaster looms elsewhere and there are injustices that have not been set right. We forge ahead, building culture, pursuing knowledge and beauty, but ever mindful of the backdrop.

It’s not unlike an E.B. White quote that sits framed on my desk: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Lewis contended that theologians of the past would have considered the reminder of death a blessing, an opportunity to put your house in order—and not just the towels.

Fitness tax — feel the burn

When the strong-arming began to tax gym memberships and exercise classes in D.C. (as is already done in many states), opponents to the tax turned out to protest by striking yoga poses in public spaces—the warrior pose, the mountain pose, assorted poses with arms, hips and torsos thrust at interesting angles. The protest was so much more original than the usual placard-carrying protests that I immediately raised my free weights in support.

“Power to the posers!” It wasn’t much power, as the weights were only 2-pounders, but still. When all the posing and posturing ended, the council triumphed over their opponents who were, shall we say, stretched thin. Opponents to “wellness taxes” often claim such surcharges discourage people from joining gyms. If you ask anyone with two cases of soda and nine bags of chips in their grocery cart whether a tax on gym memberships keeps them from working out, the answer will likely be, “Cool ranch.”

My concern is that taxing workouts will one day include my personal morning workout, which consists of elbow bends as I lift coffee to my mouth in a series of strenuous reps. Lift, drink, repeat. Exhale. Lift, drink, repeat. Feel the burn.

I propose we liftall taxes (striking a warrior pose here) on gyms, classes and morning coffee reps, and instead raise revenue by taxing every silly and false claim touted by the workout industry.

I know. You’re saying, “That’s ridiculous, it can’t be done.” Of course it can’t, but I’m proposing it anyway.

Let’s start with “Sexy Summer Arms.” Every time a workout promises sexy summer arms, tax it. I’m sick of hearing about sexy summer arms. Most people have winter arms. They took all fall and winter to get that way and there’s no workout under the sun that will turn them into sexy summer arms before the next frost.

I also propose taxing that annoying online ad, “Five Foods You Should Never Eat,” which always pictures a banana. Tax them for disparaging the humble and potassium-rich banana. Dole will have my back on this one.

I also propose taxing the word “killer,” as in killer cardio, killer body and killer abs. When was the last time someone stopped a crime by using killer abs? “Put the gun down now, or I’ll flash my killer abs.” I thought so. Killer anything—tax it.

“A New Body in 2 Weeks!” You’re not going to have a new body in two weeks, you’re going to have an older body in two weeks. Tax it.

I also propose taxing all workout instructors with long arms. They make it look easy to lie on your back, extend your legs at a 45 degree angle, lift your head and chest, extend your arms and touch your toes. People with short arms cannot do this no matter how much the long-armed instructor purrs, “Stretch, stretch, stretch.”

Finally, tax each and every workout that promises to have you wearing Daisy Duke shorts. Nobody—I repeat, nobody—should be wearing Daisy Duke shorts. Not even Daisy Duke. Tax the shorts. Tax Daisy, too. The way the debt is soaring, we’ll need the revenue

The disasters we never know we missed

Walking through a Wal-Mart parking lot, I was surprised when a toddler shot past me. I looked to see where he came from and spotted his mother, halfway down the aisle of cars, yelling at him to stop.

He was laughing and giggling, barreling full-speed ahead toward the crosswalk. A large truck driving parallel to the store was approaching the crosswalk. There was no way the driver could see what, or who, was about to dart into his path.

I was ahead of the mom, but nowhere close to arm’s reach. The mother was yelling for the boy to stop. I yelled for the truck to stop—as though someone in a truck with windows rolled up could hear.

An older man, only a few feet from the door to the store, turned to look behind him. Providence turned his head to the right. Had he turned to the left, he would have missed everything. But turning to the right, he swept in the panorama: the approaching truck, the breakaway toddler, the distant mother.

Then, as though he had been training for this moment his entire life, the man took three broad strides and stood directly in the path of the oncoming truck, shielding the boy.

It was like having a front-row seat at a divine symphony. An unseen director cued the musicians and they played their parts with precision timing. The toddler crossed, the man stood still and the truck stopped.

When everyone resumed breathing, the momma was holding her boy, the hero disappeared into Wal-Mart and the truck drove away.

I wonder how many disasters are averted and we never know? How many times have we been rescued from a crosswalk and never known, never been able to say thanks?

Mothers have some faint idea of how these things work. The fact that certain models of children reach adulthood in one piece is evidence of the invisible hand of God.

Yet most of the time, we cross streets, change lanes, round corners and pass through the days of the week oblivious to the disasters skirting our path. We are unaware of how that second trip back into the house avoided a car accident. We have no comprehension of how orchestrated the casual conversations are that land us a job lead, the name of a specialist or a new idea for reviving a broken relationship.

The strings and the brass and the woodwinds play together and we are unaware of the harmony.

When our children were young, we taught them to play a little game called “I Spy.” When they saw something happen that might have the fingerprint of God on it, they were to say, “I Spy!” It was an attempt to foster gratitude and cultivate the practice of seeing beyond the tangible.

What I witnessed in the Wal-Mart crosswalk was an “I Spy.” It was good to be reminded of divine symphonies silently at work.