Fire, Earth, and Blood

This is an excerpt of the story Fire, Earth, and Blood found on Medium.com

Fire, Earth, and Blood.

My friend died today. He was executed.

My fault. Totally. My. Fucking. Fault.

Fire.

I met Jason Childers at the side of Krombek Street in Birchacres Ext. 3, or as our parents laughingly called it back then, ‘Tembisa View.’ I was almost 11.

I was desperately trying to coax a fire in a bundle of grass with a box of Lion matches I’d bought for 4 cents. The wind kept blowing out the flame before I could get a match to the yellowed tinder.

“You should sit down. With your back to the wind.” He always did have a way of condescendingly pointing out what you missed. His greatest gift, and biggest social challenge.

I whirled and glared, equal parts embarrassment and terror expressing as anger.

“What do you know? Who’re you anyway?” I snarled at the scrawny kid in his tatty khaki shorts, and holey ‘tackies’ that had once been white.

“Oh,” he replied sheepishly, as if it hadn’t occurred to him to introduce himself, “I’m Childers. Jason Childers. The other okes call me Jase.” He stuck out his hand, oddly formal. “But I don’t like it.” He added. “I’ve just joined Scouts and learned to make a fire.”

“Howzit,” I grabbed his hand, mollified, “I’ll call you J.C. My name is Foxworth Clark.”

J.C. laughed, putting on a plummy accent, “Delighted to meet you, F. C.”

Instinctively he understood I also hated being called ‘Foxy.’

“Now let me show you how to make a rrreal fire.” He held on to the Afrikaans rolling of the ‘r’ to accentuate just how great his fire must be.

We crouched down low to the grass, backs to the wind, and J.C. showed me how to cup the match in your hand and hold the matchbox close to the tinder so the match flared right next to the dry grass. After a couple of goes our little bundle of grass finally caught.

“I’m definitely going to join Scouts.” I said reverently. This was the most amazing accomplishment I’d seen.

In the haze of the African sun the small flames were invisible, and we didn’t notice the expanding patch of black until too late. Suddenly the surrounding knee-high grass was ablaze, the wind whipping it to a fury. “Jukkels,” Jason shouted, “we have to put it out!” We were on the corner of an empty lot in the middle of the new housing development. The fire was racing away from us at the roadside towards the three properties bordering the plot.

[Read More here… Fire, Earth, And Blood]

Those Hardest To Love

Back in 1988 I was a Junior COBOL Programmer for a Life Assurance firm in South Africa. One of the secretaries in the organisation, let's call her Grace, because, well that's actually her name, was particularly prickly. One of those cynical, sarcastic, unhelpful, glaring type of people.

She never left her desk to go to the canteen. She worked alone. Came precisely on time in the morning and left promptly in the afternoon. And few dared approach her for help. In fact no-one greeted her in the morning, neither did she greet anyone. Just sat down at her desk and busied herself with (seemingly) endless work.

When she was mentioned by others, no-one had anything positive to say. Common terms ranged from “unhelpful cow” to “downright bitch.” Her dress was ridiculed. Even her morals came under salacious fire. The common opinion was that her bitterness and obvious loneliness was a direct result of her biting attitude. She got what she deserved.

Which wasn't good enough for me.

So I made it my mission to befriend Grace. A zealous 21 year old whippersnapper naively trying to swim against the flow with a bitter woman a decade my senior. For purely platonic reasons. Whilst trying to maintain my friendship with my peers in a world of derisive remarks.

It took time. 3 months of walking out of my way to greet Grace on the way to my desk in the morning. Another month of inviting her to a coffee break. I used my every secretarial need, from stationery to appointments with superiors, as an excuse to ask Grace for help, despite her not being the secretary for our team. The beauty of that approach was that no matter her attitude, the job would be done, and I could shower her with gratitude.

Ever so slowly the cracks in her armour began to appear. I'd share a joke, that would fall flat, or an opinion on current affairs that would be greeted by a harrumph at best. But little by little our chats became more than work. Then we shared a coffee, and finally she agreed to leave her desk to chat over sandwiches at lunch.

Over 6 months we became friends, at least good acquaintances. Grace was still cynical and negative about everything. The government, the economy, the company we worked for, her superiors, not to mention everyone in the company who showed her such scorn. But she had a wicked sense of humour. And when she smiled it was as brilliant as the sun breaking through storm clouds.

One night at about 9pm she rang me at home, hysterical. She was about to commit suicide, and there was no-one she could tell apart from me. No one who'd notice her missing. So she got my home number from the company contact list (as a programmer I was often on call) and called, essentially to say goodbye to the one person she felt might even notice, if not care.

To say I was incapable of helping is an understatement. I was a young, arrogant technologist. Not a psychologist, or even counsellor. I had no training in counselling. Only the sense to refer her to a professional. So I listened and cried with Grace, then got her to agree not to do anything for one hour. Whereupon I called my Youth Pastor, who called her – yeah these were the days before 3 way phone conferences – and he counselled her.

In that chat before handing her over to my Youth Pastor, Grace told me she had been systematically abused through her childhood, then abandoned by her abusive family. She had been battling depression, alone, for almost 15 years. So she knew that you couldn't trust anyone. That the only kindness people ever showed was because they wanted something from you. From a beautiful, raven haired woman like her, typically sex.

I can't imagine the strength it takes just to go on by yourself in that mental state. Not to mention every interaction at work to be one of derision and antagonism.

Grace continued was at work the next day, and we continued to lunch together. The night of hysteria was never mentioned between us. But she was different. Less negative, more helpful. Her attire of corporate black saw muted colours creeping in. And before long she was lunching with other secretaries.

We maintained a repartee, but more and more she socialised with her peers.

Shortly after that the company was bought and saw massive restructures. I left to join the Baptist Youth Of South Africa's WOW Team and we parted ways.

I only saw Grace once again. We bumped into each other in the Sandton City shopping mall, shortly before I was to go for musical and evangelism training. Despite the both of us having plans, we dropped them and lunched together. Grace told me of the turn around in her life. Of falling in love, and getting engaged. And she wanted to thank me, in some material way, for saving her life.

Of course, I'd done nothing of the sort. But the lesson has stuck with me ever since.

Those that are hardest to love, often need it the most.

Partnership

I just heard the news that my daughter's boyfriend, Peter (or 'Pierre' as we refer to him) asked Emily to do the honour of becoming his wife. This wasn't a surprise to us, as he had done the “right thing” and discussed the proposal with Lucy and I a month ago.

To Peter's credit, he orchestrated a beautifully romantic proposal, with a Hot Air Balloon and Champagne Breakfast in the Hunter Valley Wine Region north of Sydney. Romantic. Sweet. And I dare say, both of them will be floating on cloud nine for some time.

As a father, and soon-to-be father-in-law, I'm again a n00b. My first time with daughter's marriage. Inside I still feel like a teenager, trying to make sense of the world.

On the outside I'm supposed to be a responsible (sic) adult. Wise and experienced 😀 But I still don't presume to give advice. My daughters are all figuring things out on their own. Just like we did.

But if Em was to ask me for a word or too, there is one humble suggestion I'd make:

“Love is a Verb!”

It's not about being “in love” (noun). It's about choosing to love. (verb) Every. Single. Day.

That's it.

This is a partnership.

Some days there'll be smooth sailing in glistening waters with a tail wind. Some days it may be a grind, heading into the wind. Some days you'll face storms, battening everything down, taking off the sails, and fearing whether you're even going to make it through. Every day will take work. There will always be sails to set, meals to prepare, steering the boat.

You will also need to navigate. To occasionally check the weather, the charts, and figure out where you want to go. Then keep a constant check that you're on track to get where you want to given the environment and weather.

But you choose to do this together. As one complementary organism. You choose to spend your time and money serving each other.

When the bad weather comes, and it will; when you're in a marina and there's a more tempting choice, and there will be; you choose to invest yourself in your partnership.

That's it.

I'm naive enough to wish Em and Pete the very best for their future in the “happy ever after” sense. Of course, which father wouldn't wish that? I'm practical enough to know that if they choose to love, despite what they're feeling, rather than because of it, they will make the best of it.

No matter what life throws their way.

What Do You Want For Christmas?

Project 2012: Day 357

Remember the time when you first loved someone?

A boyfriend or girlfriend, perhaps your newborn, or maybe when you were little and you couldn’t conceive of a world without your parents.

That time when you spent hours with them. Watching their every move, listening to their every word, and taking an interest in what interested them.

You would never ask “What do you want for Christmas?”

Simply because you already knew.

If you want to let someone know that you like them, or that you love them, you take a genuine interest in what they’re interested in. Usually you do this because you like them. But showing them this interest shows them that you like them too.

And the corollary is also true. If you have to ask “What do you want for Christmas?” unwittingly or not, you send the message that you aren’t interested in them. And that sends the message that you don’t really like them.

So here’s the thing: How do you take an interest in something that holds absolutely no interest for you?

Easy.

Start by simple observation. How do they spend their time and money? What shops do they go to? Who do they hang out with? What do they talk about?

What do they read? Watch? Listen to? Consume?

Read that. Not because you’re interested in the subject matter, but because you’re interested in the person. Reading about their interest will give you the questions to ask that will help draw them out. It will allow you to know what they want, because you’ll see it with their eyes.

What do they write? Sing? Play? Draw? Create?

SMS, email, blog posts, Facebook updates, photos, videos, musical instruments. Anything public (not their private journal). Consume that too. If there is one thing that leads straight into the soul of someone, it’s what they create.

Time

This takes time. And effort.

But the truth of it is, that as you take a genuine interest in someone’s interests, you will fill up their emotional bank. Unconsciously.

You will let them know that you like them, love them. More clearly than if you shouted it from the highest mountain.

After all. Actions speak louder than words.

Next Time

So the next time you want to ask “What do you want for Christmas?”

Stop.

Spend some time to think about what they’re really interested in. Read the mags they read. Go to the web sites they go to. It won’t be long before you have your answer.

Imagine someone bought you exactly what you really wanted without asking you? How amazing would you feel?