Beowulf’s people must have formed the word out of wind and whisper and the howl of wolves: wyrd, akin to Old English weorthan, which means “to become,” and also to Old Norse urthr, which means “fate.” This is what etymology tells us — as if we grow into our weirdnesses, becoming ever more distinct and strange as we age, fated toward mystery. “Weird” is one of those deep, enchanted words we moderns have dried of all but surface meaning. But Shakespeare had the Old English sense in mind with his three weird sisters around their bubbling kettle, aware of fate and time’s unfolding, certain of Macbeth’s betrayal and of the impossible, moving woods.
Weird: The word whistles like dark wind in loose windows, and speaks itself, sounds out its true meaning. And Mark was a weird fellow, holy and in touch with mystery, in ways I can’t plumb or fathom, the way fire is holy, the blue heat that springs from the wood, the way darkness is holy, or light.
A good friend of mine was worried about her relationship with her stepson. She felt as if she were watching that relationship dissolve like a mud hillside in rain — not turning bitter or angry, but simply disappearing. She had worked to form the relationship and establish trust, and now it was fading. And fading not because of specific events or conflicts that she might identify and talk about, but fading — simply, mysteriously — from the nebulous and varied forces that drive people apart as they age.
These are the small forces of fate. Oedipus encounters at a crossroads and kills a stranger who is his father, and makes his way, flushed but relieved, toward Thebes and the waiting Jocasta. This is Fate capitalized, manifesting itself in crossroads. Its story is a backward-looking one, recognizable only after it has been set down. In old age, reflecting, we note: “There I made the decision that changed my life, and there again.” Oedipus, blinded beggar at the end, sees how he came to all that he ran from.
But the small forces of fate operate not at the abrupt intersections where decisions are made. They flow along within us as part of our makeup, the core of our holy weirdness. So that a woman can become aware that the stepson to whom she has been so close has drifted away, as if she and he were leaves on a river, starting in the same place, that have ended up how no one can say, on opposite banks, with a wide expanse of water between them.
Mark hardly knew her, this friend of mine with the stepson. They went to the same church. It was a small church, and the members knew each other in the way that small congregations do. But that was it. Mark was a lector at this church. He sometimes made people uncomfortable; he couldn’t let the readings stand on their own. He commented on them, in personal ways, told how things in his own life exemplified them, or how the readings had affected him. He was a little too fervent, burned a little too brightly.
But he had a gift. A gift of the Spirit? Are there any gifts that are not? Are there any gifts that are not also burdens? Mark’s gift was to see into people’s hearts, their local and hidden concerns — into, if you will, their small fates and shapings.
One day after church he approached my friend, prompted only by his weird gift, and told her to quit worrying about her stepson. The relationship would be all right, he said. He said, be patient and wait, don’t force things.
When she related this to me weeks later, she was still baffled and amazed. He had no way of knowing these things about her. She hadn’t spoken her concerns to anyone, not even her husband. They were completely private, completely silent. She felt the presence of genuine mystery. Genuine weirdness. And she quit worrying. And her relationship with her stepson, as mysteriously as it had dissolved, re-formed and re-aligned itself.
Years before this happened, Mark had been a student of mine in an English literature class. Here is my own story concerning him:
It is hard to understand Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Donne, without understanding Christian ideas of salvation and mercy and grace and sin. We’d talked about these things, and Mark was a frequent contributor to class discussions — in some ways too frequent, and too fervent. He made me — here it is again — a little uncomfortable. I didn’t want to argue the truth of ideas of sin and redemption; I only wanted students to understand these ideas in order to understand the literature. But Mark often argued for or against these ideas, passionately and insistently.
We studied Donne, with his own religious passion pouring from his pen. (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” he pleads. Such words! God storming the stubborn, encastled heart which he made strong enough to resist that storming, so that Donne pleads for God to be unrelenting in his battering.) Shortly after studying Donne, Mark met me one afternoon as I was leaving my office and asked if he could talk to me.
I thought he had questions about the class and was surprised and taken aback to find him witnessing to me. For 90 minutes I listened as he told me the story of his conversion: the troubles he’d had with his father, the rebellion, the drugs, the alcohol, the wreck and ruin of it all, and then — the point of the whole story — his finding Christ, and the personal relationship he now had with him, and how he was saved.
It’s an old story, and one I had heard many times from saved classmates in college and graduate school, and from the Jehovah’s Witnesses I’d allowed in my door just to hear their stories — until I realized that all the stories were the same. To the individuals telling these stories, they were each of them unique and wonderful, stories of Fate in the largest sense, full of drama and scope. But to me they had become almost a genre, variations on a pattern whose template is the Prodigal Son — always rebellion, always dissipation, always salvation — and which changed from telling to telling little more than did the plots of the cheap westerns I had read growing up.
I felt something akin to exhaustion as Mark told me his version. I was on my way home when he caught me — out the door, away from students and their concerns — and then he led me back inside and for 90 minutes told me a story I knew, for 90 minutes led me toward an inevitable and predictable conclusion.
Yet in spite of my exhaustion and the fact that I hadn’t yet heard from others of Mark’s strange gift of insight, I nevertheless sensed that he had chosen me to hear this story. He didn’t just want me to hear it; he wanted me to hear it. This was not just some random knocking on doors, where any ear will do. So that, as I sat in my office chair and Mark sat in the student chair or on the edge of the desk, earnest and passionate, the whole situation a little awkward, I wondered: If I had been observing him during class and learning much about him, what had he been observing in me, and what interpretation — perhaps skewed — had led him to this conversation?
I felt myself involved in Mark’s story in ways the story itself didn’t reveal. Previous witness—stories told to me had been the teller’s story solely; this one however, was also mine, or at least Mark thought it was partly mine. It was about him and his life — but he thought it concerned me. It was the difference between picking up a book in a store and buying and reading it because it looks interesting, and having a therapist recommend that you read a book without telling you why. In the first case you’re reading a book; in the second you’re reading about yourself, but you’re not sure what about yourself you’re reading, or what you’re supposed to learn, or just where you should locate yourself in the story, where you should recognize yourself.
Listening, I felt an edginess. I felt a desire to protest, to interrupt Mark and say: “It’s a literature class, Mark. All those things we’ve been discussing — you can’t read my spiritual faith or receptiveness or stubbornness out of them. You don’t know me. Whatever you’re trying to tell me, you have no basis for it.”
Mark graduated and married and left the area. Then he returned after a few years and settled into a job at a local sawmill. I saw him occasionally, and we’d talk. He’d ask about my teaching and writing; I’d ask him about his life, and he might do his Groucho Marx imitation, and neither of us ever mentioned that conversation in my office. It remained, however, for me at least, as background color to all our meetings. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Mark watched me to see if his story had had its intended effect. And, as I began to hear stories of his unique ability to see people’s problems, I began to wonder if I’d been mistaken. I thought he’d witnessed to me because of some interpretation of the things I’d presented in class. Now I projected backward and wondered if, after all, it had been something else entirely. Had he sensed a vacuum in my life that even I didn’t know? And where was it?
I had expected Mark to go into a career where he could use his intelligence and was surprised that he was doing manual labor. But he made people uneasy. He made me uneasy — and I liked him. I heard he tried some other jobs unsuccessfully. I heard he’d experienced some problems with his marriage, though they had been resolved. I have no idea whether either of these things were true, but they seemed possible to me. Living with or working with the kind of intensity and fervency that Mark exhibited would be difficult for most people.
But I also heard that he was considering further schooling, for ministerial/counseling work. Could he have disciplined his strange and weird gift, he might have made an incredible therapist, able to sense the fears and needs of people without their speaking them — fears and needs they might be unable to recognize themselves.
Part of the use of any gift is learning how to hide it. Unfortunately, there is a reason that young, intelligent people are often classified as nerds by their peers. They don’t know how to contain their intelligence. They have to speak out what they know all the time, in every situation. Their gift discomfits others. The classification “nerd” is protection against discomfiture, and a way to contain and understand the mystery and power of the gift.
The writer who hides his ability with the language instead of flaunting it draws people into the heart of meaning. The musician who lets technical skill reveal the music rather than letting the music reveal technical skill causes our hearts to shift in our chests. The mother who knows precisely how to get her children to do what they ought but allows them to believe they are doing it on their own, the basketball player who disappears into the game’s flow but whose contributions elevate the play of his teammates, the manager who seems to be doing nothing while his company makes money and his employees are productive and happy — these are examples of people who have learned how to discipline their gifts into near-invisibility, and hence use them powerfully and effectively.
Maybe, in time, Mark would have achieved this discipline. Maybe, in time, he would have learned to quit spooking people with the insights he had into their souls and hearts, and the intensity with which he felt life itself. Maybe he would have eventually been regarded as a quiet, effective minister or counselor, pretty ordinary, really, who just, somehow, changed people’s lives without their quite knowing how. Maybe, in time, he would have become so competent at using his Weird gift that no one at all would have thought he was weird.
But, before he was even 30 years old, a piece of wood flew backward off one of the immense saws he tended. It hit him in the forehead and killed him instantly. There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. No safety codes were violated, no guards removed. It just happened, an eruption of the random and chaotic into the orderly working of the world, one of those shocking things that leaves the mind nowhere to go for understanding. Mark was in precisely the wrong place at precisely the wrong time, a precision so exact it confounds reason. Another second and he might have moved his head an inch or two, and the lumber would have sailed harmlessly by — another story for him to tell, another chance for Groucho to roll his eyes and make a joke.
Many people believed, as Mark himself would have, that God took him, called him home in this sudden and dramatic fashion, for reasons no one understands. But it might also be that the world is just, sometimes, random, and sometimes randomness is violent and indifferent both, and all we can do in the face of it is acknowledge it and be dumb.
It is all weird. Weird, weird, weird — a word that might be chanted, a word cast out from the human mouth to sound the shape of mystery and fate, and the way things become what they are and the way that they end. A word that, understood and heard correctly, gives us goose bumps. I look back now for the crossroads in all this, the intersections that mark the fateful points, but I can find none. I have only this vague and poorly understood sense that Mark was the closest thing to a shaman I’ve ever known. Shamans have always made people uncomfortable, even in cultures that knew what to do with them. Our culture doesn’t, and I imagine that shamans in our culture don’t know what to do with themselves. And I’m still wondering why Mark chose me to hear his story. I’m still wondering where to locate myself in it. Why is he still talking to me? What am I supposed to hear?
Kent Meyers, who lives in Spearfish, South Dakota, has published a book of essays and a collection of short stories as well as the novel, The River Warren.