jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Desperation

When these weary eyes won’t close,

and I pace clumsily in the bleak shadows of night,

and my worst fears are mined

from the deepest caverns of my soul,

like oily lumps of anthracite,

fueling the fires of pain coursing through me

hot and white;

when every breath is nothing but a bellows,

blowing life into the flames of pain and desperation,

and when I look in the mirror and wonder,

who is this stranger?

the sands of his face etched with despair and exhaustion;

when the faint hope of some brief respite

comes only with the threat of addiction,

I remind myself.

Daylight, slow as she is,

will come

and cooling rains,

though they loiter,

will fall upon me once more,

washing away the scars of my discomfort

and that my thoughts,

with time,

will once more be as crisp and clear as an October morning.

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Virgil Matthews: Chapter’s 8 and 9–Into the Fire

Author’s Note:  So here are the concluding chapters of Virgil Matthew’s story.  If you haven’t read the first seven brief chapters that you will find in previous blog posts.  If you enjoyed the tale, please share it with your friends.

There are many that drive a man to live a certain way.  The devout will take comfort in the doing or not doing of a certain thing.  The proud will drive themselves for the approval of other men.  Greed will drive a man to commerce or to thievery, which sometimes look very much the same.  Looking back, I can’t say why I took the path I did—going to sea—it seemed to find me more than I found it.  But as I said, I was hungry.

The work kept clothes on my back and kept me fed better than I would have fared as a foundling.  And, meager as it was, made me enough coin to do the same for my family.  If you were to ask me to name what it was that drove me, I’d have to say it was actually fear.  Fear of the workhouses.  Fear of going hungry.

I cannot say that I’ve been afraid of what many men feared.  The first time I climbed to the top of a mast it did not occur to me to be afraid.  Though I could scarcely swim, I never feared the water.  Not really.  Yes.  I did find something about John Ferguson frightening when I first cast my eyes upon him.  But I’ve had my share of differences with men. I’ve taken a few beatings from men I should have walked away from.  But I don’t suppose I could say I was really afraid of John, as much as I was wary of him.

They say every man will face a choice some day in his life.  A choice that will show everyone who he is and what he’s made of.  A choice that will reveal what a man fears most. I’d never given it much thought before.  The day John Ferguson died, I learned something about myself. I loved him like a brother.  And would have given my life for is—or so I thought.

Fire on board a wooden sailing ship is a terrifying thing.

The stories about how the fire began on Invictus vary depending on who is doing the telling.  Some say it was deliberate.  Some say it started in the galley, late that evening.  I was in my bunk when I heard men shouting.  Their shouts were more desperate than I heard during the storm. Perhaps it is because we were no more than three days out from port and the prospects of returning, if only for a while, to our families.  Perhaps it was because we all know that returning to port meant our pockets would be full of coin.

I roused myself from my bunk and ran towards the shouting.  By the time I arrived, flames were rising from the waist where the cooper and the smith did their work.  John Ferguson was there close to the flames,  was calling for another bucket.  A man was drawing water from the sea and passing it forward to others until it reached John. I joined the line stepping between John and another mate.  The was heat near unbearable and we backed away trying to stay clear of the flames even as we worked to douse it.

A plea for help from some other part of the ship cut our line in half as men abandoned our efforts to aid others.  As we back away from the flames once more, I begged John to let me step in to relieve him from the blunt of the flames.  But he would have none of it.

That is why I am here to tell my tale and he is not.

As the flames continued their advance, John stumbled, ensnaring his foot in a coil of rope.  I was on him quick as rabbit.  In the scalding heat, we both worked to release him from the trap.  But the more we worked the more he seemed to become entangled.

The inferno was but a few feet from us.  Kneeling there, I felt as if my body might rupture into flames at any moment.  The men who had been on our line were spasmodically tossing buckets at the flame, and I could hear the stray drops of it searing on the deck, bursting in to burning wisps of steam.

“Yuv got ta go,” John told me, his eyes full of fear and resignation.

“Just hold on.” I shouted. “I’ve almost got it.”

“Dunt be a fool, Virgil. Go now while yuv still a chance.”

The flames were so close I could smell the singing of hair on my arms and the back of my neck. Smaller flames licked at the soles of my boots, turning them into an oven in which my feet cooked.  An explosion from below, perhaps caused by flames finding some mislaid cache of powder or ammunition, blew angry red embers into the sky.   I felt them searing through my shirt, blistering my back.  Later, I would find the angry red welts when I laid in the sick bay.

That’s when I knew I was out of time.  And that John was too.

As the flames began to engulf us, I leapt over the railing, forgetting I could barely swim, and plunged into the sea.  As I did, I heard the screams of a man being cooked alive.  I could smell the burning of flesh and bone. In my minds eye, I saw his hair aflame, his beard being consumed.  John Ferguson was roasting in the flames.  I heard his screams long after he had stopped.

I hear them still today.

 

*****

I don’t remember being pulled from the waters or how I stayed afloat.   I don’t remember my shouts for deliverance.  Somehow the flames had been doused and most of the sails had been spared the fury of the fire.  Invictus was still making way for home.  I found little comfort in the knowledge I would soon be home, shaken as a I was.

I’m not sure when I realized it, but I could tell the men who were caring for me did so begrudgingly.  I heard muted voices whispering judgments and condemnation.  You see, John was beloved by the crew, the whole lot of them.  He could do the work of two men.  He could tell tales that would make men laugh or fill them with fear.  God himself would not take such a man as this, they reasoned.  His death was more tragic than that of another six that had perished that night.  They needed a reason for their loss of him.

Sometime during those final days of our journey, I became that reason.

I’ll spare you their words.  I know you’ve grown wear of listening to me.  But suffice it to say by the time we arrived home, burnt and broken as we were, stories of how I had abandoned my friend were set like hardened mortar.   At first, I tried to explain that I had asked John to step aside.  I tried telling them how his feet were somehow impossibly tangled. But the more I protested the harsher their protestations became.

With time my wounds healed.  At least those on my feet and back did.  The sea was all I knew.  But it took two years before anyone would let me hire on to a crew.  Even then I heard their whispers.  I saw their furtive glances.  So I kept to myself.  Did my job and tried to keep clear of trouble.  I even looked for opportunities to redeem myself, but the opportunity for heroic deeds never came.

John’s screams still haunt me. Like echoes from the past they sound when I am about to drift off to sleep.  Sometimes they wake me in the night.  But sometimes in my dreams, John Ferguson does not die.  Sometimes I free him from his bindings.  In those dreams John is grateful.  In those days we still talk of leaving the sea for life ashore.

I began my tale telling you I am a coward.  Perhaps that is true.  Perhaps I should have fought harder for my name. Perhaps I should have shaken men who had seen my efforts but were unwilling to stand with me.  Perhaps my cowardice kept me from such efforts.  But if I am a coward that is only part of who I am.  I am—I am a sailor.  I am a friend.  A father to his children.  A faithful husband.  I am a man who never took a day’s pay without returning a full day’s work for my wages.

Some day soon I suppose I will not wake up.  I will die in my sleep and if what the priests and ministers say, I will face my Maker.  If that is so, I will look Him in the eye and hope he is more forgiving than those men with whom I sailed.  If he is, then perhaps I will see my friend John once more.

If not, I suppose I am destined for the lake of fire.  But I have endured fire before and lived to tell of it.

I suppose I will do so once more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virgil Matthews: Chapter 7–Confession

I had known John Ferguson, a Scotsman by birth, more than fifteen years when we boarded Invictus for our final inglorious voyage together. When I first saw him, I found him rather frightening.  Narrow at the waist and broad at the shoulders, he wore an unkempt beard in which I supposed might be inhabited by tiny creatures.  His curly red hair looked like a pile of leaves and forest debris in which birds might have made their nests.  His eyes were malevolent orbs blue or green, depending upon the light: his fists seemed more suited for the hammering of iron than for coiling lines and tying knots.  When he first glanced my way I averted my eyes, fearful of provoking him in some unexpected way.  But when I finally heard him speak it was almost, but not quite, in the lilting voice of a young mother cooing to newborn infant.

Over the years, we sailed the oceans together, got drunk, told one another embellished tales that often bordered on deceit, and, on occasion, promised ourselves we’d one day leave the sea for a less perilous, if not better, life on dry land.  As things happened, John never made good on his promise.

As we redoubled our efforts to insure our cargo was secure and that anything the deck was properly lashed in place, the ship began to rise upon ever growing waves and raced down their steep backsides at frightening speeds.  Invictus moaned and creaked like an old house on a cold winter’s morning.  She pitched and yawed in the night amidst unceasing bursts of thunder so loud we never heard the screams of the men we lost as the sea claimed her sacrifices for our journey.  We fought with the storm and ocean through the night, our way lit only by dim hope and the repeated flashes of lightening that illuminated the towering seas.

Perhaps, you’ve begun to grow weary of my tale.  I’ve tried to tell only the parts that matter—but I suppose you’d rather me get on with it.  And I will.  I suppose what I want to tell you is that I faced that storm, and many others, with the same kind of fearful determination any other seaman worth his wages would have.  I did no more.  But I certainly did no less.  Yet when a man tells his tale, pride and regret taint the memory and in that way I suppose I’m no more or less a man than any other.

So let me get on with my confession and tell you what you might well have surmised.  John Ferguson has been dead many years now.  My cowardice, it would seem, cost him a gruesome death.

I can still hear his screams today.

 

 

 

 

Virgil Matthews: Chapter 6–Storm Front

Author’s Note:  Virgil’s story was interrupted for a few weeks by some unexpected surgery.  I’ve missed him and am looking forward to seeing how things turn out for him.  Here’s Chapter 6.  If you haven’t seen the first five chapters, they precede my last blog entry.  “A vulnerable moment.”  Scroll back past them to get caught up.

 

I know I’m making a long tale of this business of how one comes—how I’ve come, that is–to be known as a coward.  Problem is, most folks see a thing—something you’ve done or not done—and knowing nothing of how you’ve come to that place, they seem to be perfectly willing to make their accusations.  But let me get back to my tale.

By the time Invictus set left the harbor that day, I had spent the better half of my life on board an East Indiaman.  Tea clippers we called them.  They were built to hold as much cargo as possible, not for speed.  Clumsy as they were in a race, they were full of men ready willing to give their lives to defend the treasures we carried.  In the beginning, I was feeble boy but I grew and with time, became an able-bodied seaman.

The trade routes we ran for the British East India Company were long arduous journeys and the ships were meant to hold as much cargo as could be safely stowed. We had begun our return journey later than perhaps would have been wise.  If you know much of the sea and sailing you know that we sailors are a superstitious lot.  But the apprehension of our late season journey home passed during the first weeks when the seas were calm and the weather forgiving.  With a belly full of tea, spice, and sundry other treasures, Invictus’ lumbered up the waves and down into the troughs in a hypnotic rhythm, lulling her Captain and crew into a hopeful ignorance.

It’s still not clear to me what happened, how calamity befell us—how I came to be known as the man I am.  But late one afternoon the winds rose suddenly and the sea began to churn.  On the horizon, we saw the storm into which we were sailing.  The sky was a brooding beast, a patient predator lurking the distance.  Men glanced up from their work with wary eyes as lighting flashed across the horizon.  Foreboding thoughts were pressed down with occasional comments.

She’s an angry looking bitch, but we’ll make our way.

Captain’s taken us through worse before, I’m sure.

But my closest friend aboard Invictus confided in me. “I dunnot lak tha looks o’this one, Virg”

A Vulnerable Moment

It’s been an interesting week or two for me. And I’m debating just how much of it to share. But I’ve always said writing is how I make sense of the world, so in the hopes of encouraging you, I’ll be a little more vulnerable than I might be otherwise. 

While some people seem comfortable with sharing every bit of pain they experience, I’m generally not one of them. But pain, if we let it, can be a wise teacher. If we look carefully for the source of our pain, be it physical or emotional, we can learn a lot about ourselves and maybe even others too. This past Sunday,  

my latest lesson with pain began at the end of a lawn mower starter cord. 

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at starting this shiny red contraption by turning the ignition key, I resorted to the old-fashioned way of cranking the ornery beast. On the third pull of the rope it roared to life. And simultaneously, I felt the unmistakable pain of a disc exploding in my lower back. It was unmistakable because I’ve ruptured two discs in the past and had two very successful surgical repairs as a result of my misadventures. Now, I’ve had three surgeries. And as I write these words I’m hopeful the skill of my surgeon will result in a claim of a third successful surgery. 

After starting the mower, I somehow pressed through the pain and got the yard cut. Albeit, it wasn’t my best work. When I was finished, patches of grass I’d missed dotted the landscape like tiny oases of Mother Nature’s refusal to be tamed. I’m sure my neighbors thought the work had been completed by some near-sighted nine-year-old who just wished he was playing a video game. 

Over the following Monday and Tuesday a series of MRIs, X-Rays and CT scans confirmed my own diagnosis and my doctor promised to see me again Thursday. Only when he had reviewed all of my deductible-based evidence he had amassed would he then offer his thoughts about surgery. In the meantime, he put me on a mixture of medications intended to make me “comfortable.” But no amount of narcotics was sufficient to make me comfortable prior to that Thursday appointment. And Wednesday morning I awoke in such perfectly exquisite pain that I couldn’t get out of the bed.  

Since I live alone and am reticent to let people see me in pain, I pondered the most dignified way I could get to the ER. After an hour or so of debating with myself, I called the fine people at Huntsville Emergency Medical Services Incorporated. The kind dispatcher wondered if she should stay on the line with me while help was on its way, but I told her I was going to need to crawl to the front door to unlock it. Which I did with the stealth of Gollum muttering “my precious.” It wasn’t a pretty sight I’m sure. And you’d be surprised at all the things you see when you crawl through your home. But that’s another tale for another day. 

When Joe and Charlie arrived, the EMTs, they helped me navigate from the bed to the gurney. This was not pleasant. And I’ll confess there was no dignity in it. In truth, I was six feet seven and 250 pounds of helplessness, alternately cursing (not at them) and crying out in discomfort. As a writer, I’m rather proud of how well I  managed to string together bits of profanity in a creative symphony of pleading. Nouns became verbs; verbs became adjectives; and adjectives became pronouns in my litany of prayer for both the saved and the damned. 

In a moment of unexpected but profound comfort, Joe smiled and noted I was hanging off both ends of the gurney, suggesting that I  might not fit in the freight elevator. We laughed at that in a kind of macabre amusement. But after a bit of work, and my awkwardly pulling my feet into the gurney, the door finally closed and we were on our way. Mercifully, the only other witness to my awkward exit from the building that morning were the kind eyes of Kathy, the property manager at my apartment. Passing by her, I tried to remember if I’d paid my rent. (I had.) 

So what of my pain? To see me was to know something was wrong, but there was no blood. There were no broken or wrapped bones. There was no visible evidence that I was injured beyond the contortions of my face. All I had was the claim of my own distress.  

On the ride to the ER I worried I would face a skeptical medical staff weary of those poor souls whose addiction drives them again and again to the ER in hopes of a prescription for narcotics. God knows I was hoping for more than that. I wanted the good stuff. The really good stuff that makes the world seem like an effortless place to be. Hopes of Dilauded and Valium danced in my brain like joyful children playing in a spring shower. 

But what if they didn’t believe me? What if they left me to writhe in pain for hours while some secret society decided if I was worthy of their magical potions. Thankfully, I knew I had insurance, so I reassured myself that maybe I’d be okay. I tried to look at the nurse I met as if didn’t care if I got the meds or not, hoping my feigned indifference would convince them I wasn’t a pill shopper. 

Fortunately, I got the medicine I needed. But as the discomfort subsided, I realized how afraid I had been to let anyone see my pain. I hadn’t wanted a friend to drive me to the ER. I didn’t want to be a bother. I hadn’t wanted to seem helpless. I didn’t want people who respect–or at least like me–to see me near tears or hear me cursing like a demon being exorcised from a beleaguered soul. While I would gladly have come to the aid of any one of my friends or family who needed such assistance, I just didn’t want to be seen as vulnerable.  

But now, since my surgery, I’ve had to rely on people who love me to bring me food, take me to the doctor and even clean up my apartment. When you have back pain whatever you drop in the floor stays on the floor for a while. But strangely, all their kindness hasn’t been awkward. It’s been redemptive. By allowing others to help me, I’ve learned some things about myself and about them too. It has continued to reinforce the knowledge of just how rich my really life is—even with spine I’d trade for a couple of chickens, a goat and a nice cheeseball. 

The phone calls and texts and messages I’ve received during the monotony of my recovery have been overwhelming. And the friends who have come with a cup of coffee and sat with me, if only for just a few minutes, have made a profound difference in my recovery.  

Pain, no matter what kind it might be, is a nefarious thing. It shrouds our mind with lies and unearths our deepest fears. It makes us wonder if we will ever return to the fragile thing we call “good health.” But I’m learning it is also a teacher. I’m learning not to run from it. I’m learning not to try to hide it behind a facade of perfection. No, I don’t wander through life asking people to indulge me while I tell them about all my trials and pain. But I’ve widened my circle just a bit more. I’ve let a few more people see what’s really going on inside me. It’s made a big difference in my life. I know it’s scary. Maybe you should try it too.

And if your looking for someone to talk to, message me. We can get a cup of coffee when I’m back on my feet. Until then, we can chat by phone or swap a few texts. 

Peace. 

Virgil Matthews: Chapter Five–Old Men

Author’s Note:  For the first four installments of Virgil’s tale, please scroll back to the entry labeled Virgil Matthews: Coward

 

It seems I may have wandered off course.  But that is the province the of old men, I think.  Ask me of my youth and I will regale you with labyrinthine tales that still twist and wind, exploring every illuminated crack and crevice of days long since passed.  Ask me of yesterday and I will stare into those same places, my eyes blinking, seeing nothing but darkness.

To grow old is to be left in the company of ghosts.  On those treasured days I find the strength to wander into a public house, still fearing that the worst of my failings might be the cause of other men’s laughter, the men with whom I once drank ale and broke bread no longer come.  The man who serves me does calls me friend, but this is but a courtesy.  Though he is polite, he is not my friend.   Yet I do not allow myself the indulgence of melancholia.

Though my vision, even on the brightest of days, fails me, and though my scarred hands are thick, knotted and aching when the days are are long and warm, I will not allow myself the deceitful respite of regret.  I have come to terms with where my journey has led me, with this land I inhabit today.

“Come with me, boy.  If you will work, you will eat.”

Somehow, woven into the towering man’s brusque proposal, there was a thread of kindness.  He frightened me, but hunger overcomes both pride and fear; or so it did in me. So I followed him through black and white and gray hues of East London.  After months of avoiding the work houses, snatching but a few hours of sleep each under some alcove, petty crime, and begging, my resolve was failing.  The voice of my father was still strong within me, but I was more half-dead than half-alive, and, as I have said, I was hungry.

Virgil Matthews: Chapter 4–The Blessing

Author’s Note:  To find the first three installments of Virgil’s story, be sure to scroll down a few blog entries.

 

Men choose to live their lives on the sea for myriad reasons.  There are those men, restless souls that they be, who cannot bear the monotony of a life ashore. Boarding ships of elder and fir, they find their balance only in the rocking pitch and yaw of a vessel coursing across the deep.  Some abandon terra firma simply because they are following the path of their fathers and father’s fathers.  The purest among them set out upon the seas for a nobler cause:  to find something within themselves that is true and honest and strong.  I went because I was hungry.

“I am dying, Virgil.”  My father said, his body covered with weeping red blisters.

“Yes, father.”

“It will be soon.”

“Yes.  Soon.”

Together, we accepted our fates.  He, his death.  Mine, the life of a foundling.

In truth, I believe my father welcomed death.  When the pox first invaded him, he resisted.  More for my sake than for his own, I’m certain.  My father had never been a kind man.  But after my mother’s death, whatever ember of warmth that might have once burned in him was soon drowned by grief and ale. What remained in him, however, was some vague sense of responsibility to keep me warm and fed.

Sitting there at his bedside, I was Esau to his Isaac.  He offered me the meager remnant of his few un-stolen blessings.  “Do not let them take you to the workhouses.”

I nodded, receiving his blessing.

Virgil Matthews: Chapter Three–Casting Off

Author’s note:  This is the third installment of Virgil’s tale.  Chapters one and two precede this blog post.  Please be sure to read them before proceeding.  Thanks.  

 

It was an auspicious beginning to our voyage.  The sun was warm and white and slowly rose into an endless azure sky that morning.  The air was cool and as full of hope as our hold was with bread, dried beef, potatoes and fresh water.    Our Captain (I’ve long since forgotten his name for I have lived more years than a man of such meager gifts should be granted) was preternaturally calm, gazing over the deck as God himself might have after six days of labor.  I suppose not even the Captain—churlish though he was most of the time—could resist the spell of Poseidon’s deceit that morning.

The East Indiaman on which we sailed that morning had returned from her prior voyages without incident.  Her three masts, rigged with square linen sails, had captured winds and raced across the seas undaunted by its terrors:  treacherous storms, starvation, unquenchable thirst, jagged lurking reefs, the madness of reaching for a horizon without end.  Yes, her hull had ached and moaned and creaked, crying out for the comfort of the harbor as even the best ships do.  But she had never faltered, had never given her crew reason to succumb to thoughts of their lifeless bodies, lungs filled with the ocean, floating atop cresting waves in some macabre ballet until they finally sunk into the murky depths of eternity.

As the Invictus cleared the harbor that day, I glanced over my shoulder only once knowing that my wife was about the business of her day just as I was about mine.

Virgil Matthews: Coward–Chapter Two

Author’s Note:  If you haven’t read chapter one of Virgil’s story, please scroll back to the prior blog entry.  

 

Like most boys, I had my childhood dreams of glory.  I often imagined myself the slayer of menacing dragons, the redeemer of maidens held captive in high towers, and as a fearless warrior sacrificing breath and bone and blood for my companions in some great quest.  Gallantly, I took up my sword, riding my stallion, its nostrils flaring, into the fires of hell and struck down demons.  And in my dreams, men eagerly followed me into battle, inspired by my fearlessness.

But we boys must grow up.

Somehow, we become men.  And we learn the hard reality that the battles we must fight are rarely quite as glorious as we had once dreamed.  Yet these battles are no less treacherous.  Along our journeys, we find our battles must be fought in high places, in the darkness, or in the unexpected cacophony of thunder and lightening and wind.   Worst of all, we find we must fight our battles in the deep black waters of our own souls.

And we must fight them alone.

Virgil Matthews: Coward

Coward.  It is an ugly word: a summary judgment of a man’s inadequacy, a dull and dirty knife used to cleave a man’s soul from the deepest part of him without anesthetic or antiseptic, an accusation of irredeemable failure, a pronouncement that a man is bereft of the essential quality of what it is to be be authentically and unmistakably a man.  It is a word oft spoken by men whose days have not been too short to encounter the sort of trials that slowly, unceasingly, and mercilessly suck the moisture from their once verdant souls until they, like the ones they accuse, have become the withered and cracked branches of a once-proud oak.  It is a word often spoken by fools, an accusation by men who must allege the shortcomings of another, making another man less so that the accuser might be more.

My name is Virgil Matthews. I am a coward.  But that is not all I am.

This is my story.