A Deeper Magic Within All of Us
This week we’re on deadline at PineStraw magazine, so as usual I’m a little crazy from the Chinese fire drill going on between my ears.
There’s always a story that fails to materialize, or a piece of art that just doesn’t quite work. There’s either a gaping hole in the well or not enough space, a cover that fails to inspire, or a piece of writing that somehow comes up short.
I’m a bear about good writing, and my partner Andie Rose is a lioness about great art. I sometimes feel like we’re ringmasters of a traveling circus where the animals are running wild right up until show time, at which point everything falls mysteriously into place, though this may be an unfortunate image given the terribly sad events in Zanesville, Ohio, this week.
In any case, somehow our magazines not only manage to come together, but also often surprise us with their final charm and beauty. I wish I could tell you exactly how this process happens. True, we both have had decades of experience at magazines, with great mentors who taught us how to create and present a story, and we certainly share a deep passion and enthusiasm for constantly improving the magazines we edit.
But something more mysterious and wonderful seems to be at work here — a deeper magic, I’m convinced. I’m tempted to call it the sweet hand of providence, the work of a thoughtful universe, or simply the Almighty working out the problems of this world on his or her own schedule.
As with most things in life, more is unseen than seen. The heart, which is the gateway to the soul, according to the ancient and wise, knows where it must go, even if it takes us kicking and screaming. Our overthinking the matter has usually impeded the process of creation.
“Philosophers do not easily recognize that there is a point where thinking — like boiling an egg — must come to a stop,” said Zen master Alan Watts.
Thus a wise Buddhist simply chops wood or carries water and realizes the way to heaven is heaven, at peace with simply being. A good Christian prays for strength with gratitude and is rewarded with a peace that passeth understanding.
Our lives constantly spin, reform and unfold. A gardener finds joy and renewal in the eternal struggle to make the Earth bloom, like a young filmmaker in the struggle to tell a similar story between nature and man.
Growth, Not Failure
Not long ago, in a conversation with my college boy son about a documentary film he’d been working on — and fretting about — for months, concerning the struggle to save the natural environment of Sri Lanka, I heard myself calmly tell him everything would be just fine in time, to have faith and keep working, and realize there is no failure, only important growth.
On this score, I assured him that “none of the things I most feared ever happened — and those that did produced a much better outcome.”
I finished my paternal pep talk with my favorite quote from Albert Schweitzer, who said the key to happiness is not success. The key to success is happiness. “Love this film and do the best you can on it, and then let it go,” I heard myself tell him. “This is just the beginning.”
Not surprisingly, his struggle was still on my mind last Friday morning, in Dallas. I had gone out for an early stroll around downtown and wound up at the base of the former Book Depository building, looking over sunlit Dealy Plaza, where President Kennedy was gunned down in November 1963. It was much smaller than I expected — but then again, so was I in those days.
Probably like you, I remember that warm Indian summer Friday afternoon as if it were yesterday. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Brown, was suddenly called from our history lesson, and the classroom erupted into chaos, a volley of spitballs and catcalls.
“What do you think is wrong?” whispered Lori Jones, who sat directly behind me and always wore her Girl Scout uniform to school on Fridays.
I liked Lori, though she rarely said a word. We’d been in the same class for three years, and she always wound up sitting near me. According to Della Hockaday, Lori had a secret crush on me, though I had a secret crush on Sherry Reynolds, who always wore knee socks but looked like a fifth-grade version of Tuesday Weld.
“It’s the Russians,” Woody Ham, just back from the boys’ room, explained. “They’re going to drop an A-bomb on us. I heard Mrs. Temple tell Mrs. Brown.”
“You’re crazy,” Bobby Eubanks told him. Everyone knew Woody Ham was obsessed with the A-bomb. He bragged that his daddy had helped build one.
A few minutes later, Mrs. Brown came back and told us we were all being dismissed, that our buses would take us home. Her pretty face was a mask of grief. With a firm but trembling voice, she told us the president of the United States had been shot and killed. She asked us to go home and pray for our country.
I went home and turned on the TV instead. I got a Coke and sat cross-legged on the floor directly in front of our large Philco black-and-white. I was in that same spot watching the next day, when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV.
Nearly 50 years later, it was strange to stand in the actual spot and realize I was more fascinated than terrified by events back then. I may have prayed for my country, but I probably didn’t.
Better Not to Know
As I was having these thoughts, a rangy character named Sherwood walked up and asked me if I wished to join an impromptu walking tour of the area (along with a couple of cheerful tourists from California) to “hear what you’ll never hear on the official museum tour.”
Skinny, graying Sherwood, who said he had turned 13 the day Kennedy died, was wearing a blue museum shirt and had been employed as a museum guide, he said, for more than 24 years. “After all these years, I know every detail of what happened here — what people saw and heard, the known facts and figures,” he explained. “But it’s the unknown things that really make this a bigger tragedy than most folks know. That’s the reason 70 percent of Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill the president, not the act of a lone, deranged man.”
He began by saying the Warren Commission was simply a massive government whitewash, that 18 to 20 certified independent inquiries had concluded that as many as four assassins had been in Dealy Plaza that fateful Friday.
More than 500 people, for instance, gave Dallas police and FBI statements that they heard shots or saw a figure with a rifle behind the fence on the grassy knoll. A switchman on his lunch break and a trio of hobos on the nearby train tracks saw and heard exactly the same thing. These testimonies, according to Sherwood, failed to make it into the Warren hearings.
The famous Zapruder film and the ballistic reports proved the killing shot had come from the front, not from the upper floor, window where Oswald supposedly did his deed. Casings matching the same kind of bullet were found on the roof of an adjoining building but were never considered by the commission. Witnesses were ignored; others simply vanished.
Over the next 30 minutes or so, Sherwood explained how Oswald was a patsy for an unholy marriage between the mob — out for revenge for the Bay of Pigs fisaco and being tormented by Attorney General Robert Kennedy — and “a certain Texas politician who had everything to gain and the power to make it all happen.”
He meant, of course, LBJ – sketching out in remarkable detail how Johnson even told his own girlfriend the evening before how he planned to eliminate “the Irish Mafia” and do so with the help of J. Edgar Hoover and a handful of corrupt Dallas cops. Jack Ruby, deeply in debt and already dying of cancer, was simply the guy who finished the job.
The reason “other” evidence was sealed until 2009, Sherwood maintained, is that the nation would surely have been further traumatized if the conspiracy became known at that time.
“Sometimes we believe what we need to believe,” Sherwood said. “They put off the truth until everyone involved would be gone. I might have done the same thing. Sometimes it’s better not to know. The world just moves on.”
In retrospect, I probably should have taken the tour to get the official story. But I’ve lived long enough to think most things are never quite what they seem, including most official stories, and even human events witnessed by millions of eyes usually have a much more complicated explanation.
Something in my stomach told me that some of what Sherwood had said was probably, sadly, true, so I had a seat on a sunny bench and phoned my college boy, who’d been up all night finishing his Sri Lanka film for a special screening.
I was pleased to hear “The Elephant in the Room” was finally finished. There was relief and happiness in his voice. The fear was gone. He reminded me of myself when the Chinese fire drill finally ceases at PineStraw, and the magazine comes up even better than expected.
“Beyond fear,” wrote Dag Hammarskjold in his beautiful meditation “Markings,” “comes openness to life. And beyond that — love. What next? Why ask? Next will come a demand about which you already know all you need to know: that its sole measure is your own strength.”
I walked back to my hotel, not for the first time in more than five decades thinking about Lori Jones, the cute blonde girl who wore her Girl Scout uniform to school every Friday. One morning not long after the Kennedy assassination, our teacher Mrs. Brown began the day by telling us that Lori had passed away in her sleep the night before. No explanation was given.
Somehow, crazy as it seems, her death always bothered me more than Kennedy’s murder. For reasons I can’t quite explain, I think about her often when November looms. What’s seen and unseen, I guess, haunts us.
But my college boy’s film is lovely thing. I’m not surprised. And that’s enough for now.
If you’re interested, you can see it at Vimeo.com/the elephant in the room.
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw and O.Henry magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.
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