Rusty Whitener - PASTOR, NOVELIST, SCREENWRITER

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Raccoons, Leaves, & CollisionsOctober 9, 2009

Jogging on the New River Trail the other day, I ran to within ten or twelve feet of four small black-furred critters on the path in front of me. I first thought they were skunks, a mom and three pups or kits or “skunkettes” or whatever adolescent skunks go by. You’d think I’d stop running and back off, but I was near the run’s end and it’s frustrating to stop short of the 30 minute mark. I’m sure “frustrated” would not have sufficed to describe my mind-set or body-set if they had been skunks, and my running had “frustrated” them.

They were raccoons, a mom and three little coonettes. Two of the little ones scurried off the trail to the right, while the mom stayed just a couple feet off the trail, eyeing me shuffle by. The third little one peeked at me around mom’s frame. Four robbers’ masks.

I jog for 30 minutes, five or six days a week on the New River Trail. My reasons are many. First, if I didn’t, my body would sprawl like Charlotte, N.C. in the nineties. Second, it makes me feel better, emotionally, about all things. Aside from the body’s chemical release, there’s the run my mind takes while my body jogs. We don’t do it enough – let our mind rattle off and away in many directions, unbound by routine or obligation or necessary focus. We need more times of unnecessary focus, when our mind and heart are free to roam at will over a myriad of topics.

When I’m jogging I remember old friends I’ve forgotten for years. Some of these friends are people. Some of them are books, or songs, or places, or animals or quotations or poems or even trees and vistas and rivers and even sentiments. Things I haven’t felt for a decade. Have you ever remembered the feeling you had driving a car, the first year you had a license? I just remembered it the other day while I was jogging. For me that sentiment was “Oh man, what a messed up world this is, that they’ve actually licensed me to be behind the wheel. The DMV gods must be crazy.” Then I’d recall my peers who were also licensed to drive, and I’d consider how fragile life must be if they’re letting Scot Mason drive. Scot was a perpetually high classmate. And I don’t mean high on ambition or Jesus or anything whatsoever redeeming.

When I’m jogging I look at trees and ridges and clouds and water and dirt. An occasional raccoon or deer also graces me. It’s important to regularly see things humans didn’t make, to touch God made things, to breathe them. The great theologian Hank Williams Jr. sang about visiting New York City and its dearth of natural setting: “I miss most of all, the freedom of the rivers and the pines. They don’t do much hunting and fishing up here, ya know. But I have seen a few squirrels and one porcupine.” If you’ve seen New York squirrels, then you’ve seen trapped hostages waiting to die. And I don’t believe Hank saw any porcupine; he just needed something that sort of rhymed with “pines.” The song came out in 1982, so he may have seen Deborah Harry or David Bowie, both of whom sported porcupine hairstyles. Or, his porcupine vision may have been chemically induced.

My wife Rebecca and I were in New York about this time last year. I wanted to see the Yankees in the original Yankee Stadium before the place was mothballed at the close of baseball’s 2008 season. Before the game, we strolled through Central Park, wondering aloud how we might set the captives free. I mean the New York birds that looked like refugees from Hitchcock’s movie. And the captive horses, that pulled hot dog carts and a few carriages lugging tourists on a manufactured romantic lap around the park, dodging taxis and tax attorneys.

But enough about NYC and death; back to life running on the trail. Sometimes when I’m jogging these days, leaves will fall in front of me and even on top of me. This is incredible. I suppose falling leaves are dying. But in a way they are being reborn, as compost and then, ultimately, some different Earth form. That other reknowned theologian, Snoopy, says to a fallen leaf, “You don’t know this, but your troubles are just beginning.”

But I love it when a leaf tracks me, falling right where I’m running. I even speed up or slow down, to see if the leaf and I might enjoy the splendor of man-leaf collision. I know, I’m different.

So it moved me, to see the four raccoons. We didn’t collide spatially, but we did cross paths at a certain point in time in a certain space. And that’s memorable. If you believe in God, and in His sovereignty and providence, then nothing happens outside of His specific ordained will and orchestration. That can be a hard thing to consider, when Evil and Suffering overtake us. But it is also a beautiful, miraculous consideration; God is moving all things according to His perfect will.

So God moves leaves to fall on top of Rusty. And on top of you. Carve out some time when you might get away from walls and TVs, from word processors and cell phones. And go cross paths with a passel of raccoons, or collide with a falling leaf. There’s nothing quite like it.