As I walked back to my McDonald’s booth with two cups of coffee this morning, I passed by a table where four men – all probably within the 20 to 40 age range – were sitting. I heard this snatch of conversation from one of them; “All of my family are dying and we don’t have a Pastor.”
I did not hear any of the conversation leading up to this expression and I didn’t hear a response after. There was no laughter or unusual reaction around the table. The statement was delivered in a matter-of-fact tone, with no particular word inflection that I could detect.
I told my wife of my experience as I delivered our coffees, and we both speculated on its possible meaning. We realized there could be several, depending on the context of the dialogue that preceded the sentence, and the emphasis placed on various words within the sentence itself.
Consider these two variations:
“All of my family are dying and we don’t have a Pastor!”
“All of my family are dying and we don’t have a Pastor.”
The first could be construed as a cynical slap against faith as a comfort to the dying; the second might be a rueful acknowledgement that the speaker and his family have no source of religious solace at this sad time. My wife pointed out that we don’t even know whether we are hearing the speaker’s own viewpoint, or he is speculating on that of the dying. Who, exactly, is the cynic or the aggrieved, as the case may be? And, of course, this simple sentence can have many other meanings than the two given above. We talked about how this brief experience might have the makings of a short story – perhaps a key element in a novel.
Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. The earth’s atmosphere is composed of 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, 2% of a lot of other gases – and 100% full of ideas. They are in the air. They are all around you – in a supermarket checkout line, at a garage mechanic’s desk, in the seat next to you in a passenger jet – in a fast-food restaurant. Keep your ear to the breezes.