odd-solitary-rust-fence-piece

John Updike says he’s in complete control of his characters; he actually crafts the final sentence first, pins it up on his cork board and then writes his novel toward that finale. In direct contrast, Per Petterson says he has no control whatsoever over his characters and considers it cheating not to tell the readers whatever he knows as soon as he knows it (“you have to empty the well so you can fill it up again,” Per says). The point here is not to take sides, to become an Updikian or a Pettersonian (or a Steinbeckian or Lamottian or whatever). Rather, the point is that there is no one way to tell your story, either the fictional kind or the grind-of-life kind.

There is no one way to raise kids or build a life or do good in this world. It takes little courage to mimic another genius or wise soul. However, it requires much courage, as well as much skill and tenacity and chutzpah, to tell us your story the one way you have to tell it. There are lots of vehement voices these days insisting that the wise or just person must unequivocally see what they see, respond how they respond, get riled up the way they get riled up. Some of these folks are well-meaning, some are blowhards. Either way, you or I couldn’t possibly take on, in the same measure, everyone’s angst, couldn’t possibly take on everyone else’s top priority as our own. We must pay attention to the fire simmering in our own heart, must doggedly guard that place where we bear unique responsibility. You can’t tell another person’s story. We do, however, really, really need you to tell your own.

 

Dear John,

You know, we’re right behind you; we’ve just enjoyed the initial nip of Autumn over here in Virginia as well. For the first time this morning on my run, the air carried that crispness that makes me almost giggly inside. Mercy, I love this time of year. I love all kinds of times of the year, but this is hands down top shelf for me. Our Japanese Maples will start blushing soon, then commence their strip tease while our massive Tulip Poplar (his name is Ol’ Beard) will get all excited and puff out his chest and go fiery yellow and orange. I imagine Ol’ Beard winking at the Maples and saying, How you like that, ladies? We’ve already had two trips up the mountain for apples – and planning a third this week because the good folks at Carter’s Orchard promised me the Candy Crisps would be ready. Have you ever enjoyed the rapturous pleasure of locking your jaws on a Candy Crisp? They’re similar to Honey Crisp, only crisper and sweeter. It’s like plucking an apple pie straight off the tree. 

The chilled air and bright sunshine gave me, at least to the third mile, a new spring in my stride this morning – which is saying something because sleep was less than abundant this weekend. On top of writing work I needed to get done and final touches on a sermon, I decided to force a final last stand with those snakes you and I have talked about. I won’t go into the gritty details, but the picture you saw pretty much sums it up. With goggles, caulk gun and hoe, I went to war. I’m happy to report that it appears I am the victor. However, Miska and I also tackled another DIY project, installing a new light fixture in Seth’s room. It was a simple affair, should have taken no more than 30 minutes. Three hours later, after installing and uninstalling the light 3 times and after checking and re-checking the wiring (I mean, black to black and white to white, how freaking difficult can this be, Sherlock?) and after traipsing up and down from the cellar to our breaker box God knows how many times where I scratched my head while flipping the power on and off, I was forlorn and despondent. “Wait,” I asked Miska, “do we have the light switch on?” Yup, the whole time I thought the fixture wasn’t working, we’d failed to turn the dang thing on. 

I hear you on the whole iPhone headphone jack kerfuffle. Do you think that since we’ve learned we should be always poised and ready to pounce on some outrage that maybe we’ve lost all bearings on reality and now must have our daily outrage fix or we get jittery? If I’m honest, though, I didn’t much like the Apple gods doing away with the little hole — but only because I’m cheap. Those cute Minnie Mouse earbuds never work in my ears, and I’ve got a pile of old fashioned corded earphones that work just fine thank you. I don’t like them forcing me to purchase yet another pair just because they want to go all sleek and shiny. Of course, this assumes I’ll actually lay my cold cash down for another iPhone, which is not a safe assumption since they now cost as much as a used car.

I’m glad you read Kalanithi’s story. I read it last summer when we were in Denver (remember those days? man, that was a blast). The book was difficult to read, so soon after my mom died of cancer, but I was thankful for his courage. Wasn’t it remarkable how his whole life, even long before sickness hit him, scratched after answering this question: “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” He posed that question multiple times, and I think you’re absolutely right – this is another way of asking “What are the things you love, and how will you live in fidelity to those things you love?” I love Candy Crisp apples with thin slices of pepper jack cheese or a dollop of Trader Joe’s crunchy peanut butter. I love watching those Maples and Ol’ Beard set the yard aflame and laughing my arse off with Miska after we realize we never flipped on the dang switch and listening to that gravely Johnny Cash who, even though he was a rebel, often sang with a tear in his voice. I love two boys who consume an entire large Pizza Hut pizza each for dinner, and I love friends who write letters that remind me of how good this world is, and how good it is to have a friend to share it with. 

You know, we could do something with this idea of sharing the things we love. We could even sit down and chat about it and record it and put it out there just for kicks. I hear folks are doing stuff like that these days.

Well, in a few days Miska and I fly off to the Big Easy to celebrate 19 years of wedded bliss. Friends generously hooked us up with a little apartment down in the French Quarter. They say the locals don’t wait in line at Cafe Du Monde but just slip right into a table, so we’ll do that. I hope they’re shooting us straight and we don’t get the stink eye. They also say the apartment’s balcony offers a fine perch for people watching, so maybe I’ll have something good to tell you about when we get back. 

 

Your Friend,

Winn

 

Even though the heart of the Christian story centers on the fact that we humans, left to ourselves, make a real mess of things and are sunk without a rescue, we can’t quite make peace with such humbling news. We want to believe that given enough time and sweat, we can muscle or brainpower our way through just about anything. For most of us, it takes true loss — a child on the brink, the death of a dream, a doctor’s report we can’t ignore – before we come to terms with how powerless we really are.

In the Orthodox marriage rites, there’s a whole lot of praying. Less spousal promises. Less pastoral homily. But lots and lots of prayers. And lots of singing. Both bride and groom take their responsibility seriously, but they recognize that at the end of the day, without grace kicking in, they’re in a heap of trouble. So they ask for help, and then they let loose (as only the self-dispossessed can do), singing the joy. This seems about right to me.

It’s humorous (though also disturbingly familiar) to listen in on how often Jesus’ disciples brush Jesus off, the same way my boys do whenever I’m trying my darnedest to offer them fatherly wisdom (yeah, I know, I know, we got this…now watch what we can do…). We do like to pretend we’re accomplished, don’t we? We’re convinced we’ve got our life pretty much ready for overdrive if everybody would just get out of our way. Boy, we think we’re something.

The Collier version of one portion of the gospels reads thusly: Jesus looked at his stalwart disciples, that energetic band who could barely take a break from flexing their spiritual muscles, brilliant theology and heroic intentions, and said, “Well, la-dee-frickin’-da.”

Dear John,

I’ve been thinking about you and Mer a lot this weekend. Will to one side of the world, Sarah to another. I remember the day my dad dropped me off for my first semester at college. There was only one small item left in our van parked in front of the dormitory. It was one of those portable ironing boards, couldn’t have weighed more than 4 pounds, but my dad insisted he needed to carry it back up to the 3rd floor for me. I didn’t understand why until after climbing those few flights of stairs and dropping the board in my room, when my dad had no more excuses and finally had to say goodbye. Tears. I remember the tears. I had tears too after he drove off. Man, the love was deep.

I know you well enough to know there’ll be some red eyes over this stretch of days. That’s one of the things I love about you.

When you put all this together with Abbey starting high school, it’s overload. I know, we’re right behind you. Wyatt starts high school tomorrow, Seth’s full throttle in Jr. High. You know what’s the kicker? They both decided to play football this year. You know how I love the sport, and it was the best part of high school for me, but I never wanted to pressure them in any way to play. Not only is it a jerk thing to try to maneuver your boys’ passions, but also, as you know, we have lots more information on the perils of head injuries now. We’ve done a good bit of due diligence. I even sat in on a conversation with two experts: a pediatric neurologist and the guy who teaches the course called “Concussion” at UVA. Anyway, Wyatt and Seth wanted to play, and so they are. Thankfully, squads are teaching lots of new techniques. Did you know some teams are teaching rugby style tackling? My ol’ Texas coaches would sure be scratching their heads.

I will tell you, though, I love these days. As our sons’ bodies and minds and hearts are growing, I love seeing my boys step into new territory. I love seeing their wonder and their nervousness and their eagerness. I love how they are being challenged and are rising to the moment. I love how these rites of passage are stoking a new (old, really) fire in their young, strong bones. 

Given that high school and football are now both part of our family life, Miska and I decided it was time to introduce them to Coach Taylor and those Friday Night Lights. Boy, it was good. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. The boys were hooked, but then I knew they would be. I wish every kid could have a Coach Taylor.

Well, I know you’re somewhere in the air heading to Pepperdine right now. It’s brave of you to battle the airlines again after that hellacious weekend you endured. I hope the next two days are good. You’re a good dad, and I’m thankful for that. We need good dads.

 

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,

Winn

Jacob’s name means supplanter or deceiver, and if a fellow ever earned his epithet, it was Jacob. Jacob hustled his brother Esau and then his father Isaac and then his wife’s father Laban. Jacob angled and schemed, and it mostly worked like a charm. This is the place where we’re supposed to explain how Jacob hit rock bottom or learned the folly of his ways. Quite the opposite, Jacob got most everything he wanted. Jacob was a man you’d be a fool to bet against.

However, perhaps Jacob had finally stretched his luck too far because this time Jacob had maneuvered himself into a real grade A jam. Jacob decided to return home, to the very place where he’d burned so many bridges, when a band of his breathless servants rushed back from a scouting trip: Esau and 400 warriors were on the warpath and charging their way in a great cloud of dust.

Instinct kicked in, and Jacob the Trickster got busy doing what he’d always done: working the plan, setting the traps, playing things on the sly. Jacob sent waves of emissaries to intercept Esau, with each group carrying lavish gifts that would hopefully overwhelm the aggrieved brother with outrageous generosity. Jacob maneuvered his family to a strategic position. Jacob gave instructions for an escape route if things went south. But then, with his bag of tricks empty, Jacob sat under the moon, wide-eyed and restless. He couldn’t do anything now but sit and wait. For the first time in his life perhaps, Jacob was out of moves, out of ideas. He’d played his very best hand, but he feared that finally, this time, his best was not going to be good enough.

Then, out of the shadows, a man jumps Jacob and the two go rolling in the dirt. They fight for hours, with neither able to finish off the other – and this is quite an admission because we soon discover that this “man” Jacob’s wrestling is God – or an angel, which for mortals like you and me is pretty much the same as wrestling God. Sweat and headlocks and jabs to the jugular  – and still, no victor. We get the sense that this mysterious midnight marauder has been holding something back, and we’re right. Finally, the “man” merely touches Jacob’s thigh, inflicting a wound so severe Jacob limps to his dying day.

Isn’t it interesting that when God wrestled Jacob under the moon, God brought only enough muscle to the fight to lock Jacob up in a draw? I imagine that mysterious Midnight Man taking a lick, wiping blood from his lips, and grinning. “Now Jacob, you sure can pack a wallop.” Jacob: man of tenacity and grit, a man who grabbed life by the throat and wouldn’t let go.

God seemed determined to show Jacob that his chutzpah wouldn’t be enough, that Jacob’s skill and cleverness and brute force would not, in the end, save him. However, God also seemed just as determined to not crush Jacob, to honor Jacob’s tenacity. I’ve had wrestling matches with my sons, where I had them in a vice grip they could never escape or pinned to the ground in a match they could never win – but they refused to cry uncle. Those boys made me proud.

Jacob hung on for dear life, insisting on a blessing. I think God was more than eager to oblige. Jacob may have been a trickster, but Jacob was also dogged, stubborn and tough as nails. Maybe we feel compelled to shame Jacob, to rebuke him for his misguided or arrogant ways. But God wanted to get down in the dirt with Jacob, wanted to wrestle him, wanted to feel Jacob’s strength up close. God knew that Jacob needed to lose, to surrender the illusion that his wit and braun would be enough. But God knew there was so much good there, so much to work with.

Those things we think are the worst parts of us – it’s likely there’s something deeper, something more true that has been covered up, something lost that needs to be found. Of course, we’ll likely have to lose at some point, we’ll have to relinquish our foolishness. But we only need to lose enough so that grace can take hold. God knows the strength and goodness that’s in us – God put it there.

chair and two umberellas
Not long ago, a friend referred to the beauty and sturdiness of “unfettered friendship.” Though he did not explain what he meant, I hear this as a friendship where there are no strings attached, where one feels the freedom to be their full selves without fearing reprisal or shame, where there are no expectations someone has to meet in order to be fully welcomed. We take whatever the other has to give, and we are grateful. And we let the other off the hook for all those things we wish they could give us but are simply unable to provide right now.

This, as I understand it, is not a soft friendship — because if nothing is on the line for us, we are emboldened to be present without the anxieties that would make us always watch our words or say things just right or make sure we’ve got the intellectual artillery to back up whatever our opinion might be. We’re just ourselves, and we trust that our unfettered friends love us as ourselves – and that our friend will at times see us better than we see us, that their eyes may be clear when ours go foggy, their hope sturdy when ours wavers. Then, of course, when life turns, as it inevitably does, we’ll switch sides.

In these worn, leather-rich friendships, we can take a load off because both of us expect the other’s courage to rise up on our behalf. We expect that whenever we wander too far (and knowing what constitutes “too far” is a skill better left in the hands of gentle, unflustered souls), our friend will come find us, without recrimination or loading us up with heavy-handed garbage. Our friend will come alongside us and ask if we want to come back home. These friendships ground us in our life. They makes us truer women and men. These friendships allow us to breathe again.

 

image: “two umbrellas and a chair” by Manu Praba

I wonder how so many of us can sit in the same office suite with someone for decades, or sit on a pew in a church in the company of others for year after year, or sleep in a bed with one to whom we profess love, and yet know so little about their longings, their joys, their fears. How is it possible that we could live with ourselves for literally every day of our life and not know our own true desires and wounds and pleasures? How can we live as such strangers, to ourselves and to others, in this magnificent life we’ve been given?

Maybe we know more than we tell, only we have real difficulty knowing what to do with such intimate knowledge. It can be a fearful thing to carry tenderness and hope with you in such a snarling world. How do we move toward another when self-protective distance and a warped kind of self-reliance controls our narratives? How do we offer ourselves without apology but also without constantly scanning the room (or the comments section or the Twitter feed) to judge whether or not we’ve been accepted, whether or not we’ll have the grit to venture further down this uninhibited, self-forgetful path?

Willie Nelson refers to his life’s story as the history of his heart. I like that. Whenever I ask someone to tell me about their life, I’m wanting more than only the biological and geographical storyline. I’m also wanting to know how these places and triumphs and disasters, these loves and these disappointments, these plodding stretches and jolts of wild adrenaline, have formed that beautiful and unique fabric that makes them them.

Each of us are living the history of our heart. I hope we will have the courage to be faithful to this history, to see our life in all of its scuffed and lurching brilliance, to see others for the beauty of their unique history as well.

Jim Dollar

There is a kind of energy that flows out of the deep reservoirs of hope, faith and love; then there is a kind of energy that spews from the churning lava beds of fear, self-protection and anger. There is a posture of curiosity, good will and honor toward the other; then there is a posture of presumption, suspicion and damnation of the other. There is a yearning for healing and self-sacrifice; then there is a yearning for victory and personal (or tribal) triumph. There is a way of generosity; then there is a way of suspicion.

We can search for ammunition, or we can search for common ground. We can labor to discover the very best about another, or we can grasp after any conspiratorial hint of the very worst about another. We can live by narrow absolutism (all or nothing, my view of the facts is unassailable, any wise or noble or spiritual person must see it my way, etc) or we can grapple with the tensions of living in a complex world with complex questions and (sometimes) very befuddling answers. We can remain tenaciously committed to our shared human dignity, or we can succumb to our basest instincts and debase ourselves with a craven lust to win, no matter the cost.

There is a way of death, and there is a way of life. Call me a fool, but I believe (yes, even now) that goodness calls to us. Perhaps her voice is even stronger, more potent, distinct as she is amid the cacophonic braggadocio and screeching vexation. She’s a steady voice, humming a haunting, hopeful tune.

 

photography: Acadia coastline shot by Jim Dollar

I once heard Martin Marty explain how he believed we are arriving at a place where the theological divisions among Christians will no longer be classified primarily as liberal and conservative but rather as mean and not mean. While our religious convictions express our noble attempts to understand (and be faithful to) the triune God, any conviction that does not reflect the generous way of Jesus immediately reveals itself as a fraud. Sometimes it seems we’re overrun with religious blowhards (across the spectrum) whose every syllable drips with sarcasm, anger and scorn (not to mention ignorance, if not outright dishonesty, about the words and positions of those we despise). Thumping our Bible does not give us a pass on being a Grade A prig.

Note: “Speaking the truth in love” actually requires love. Even if I speak with the wisdom and authority of angels – if I don’t have love – then I’m doing nothing but clanging those cymbals. Have you ever heard someone (and it’s usually a child) just banging away on those blasted cymbals, like a hammer pounding your brain? Obnoxious, isn’t it?

I think Marty’s observation also makes sense for most every form of our public discourse. I wonder if our political divides may, if the current debasement holds, become less democrat/republican and more mean/not mean. Like many, I’ve come to loathe election season because it reveals the very worst about us as a people, our seeming inability to carry on a meaningful conversation about important ideals – a conversation exuding generosity rather than venom, a conversation eager to understand rather than merely score a kill, a conversation where we see the other as a beloved fellow human rather than an impersonal object or a despised enemy. We are so fearful, our patience so razor thin. It only takes a word, an image – and a hundred cat fights break out.

I’m an optimist, I suppose, but I believe that many of us will come to our senses. The antidote to meanness is, of course, the simplest thing: kindness. Kindness does not signal we’ve gone weak. Rather, when kindness takes root, it tells us we’ve abandoned our childish ways and let courage take root. We’ve learned we have no need to vilify another. We stand in the truth we understand, and we seek to understand more (and who knows how this will change us?). We’ve learned that meanness will only ruin us. We know now that if we fight savagely for some ideal, then even if we achieve what we claw after, there will be nothing left worth having.

shenandoah.06.22.16

Next to my desk, I have a shelf of books intended for the nourishment of my soul. On this shelf sits (among others) the Book of Common Prayer, Celtic Daily Prayer, Working the Angles, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry and Hiking Shenandoah National Park: A Falcon Guide. For me, poetry and prayer and long walks in the woods are all three ways of doing a very similar thing. My jaunts in the Blue Ridge mountains, immersed among pignut hickory and shagbark oaks, asters and goldenrods, teach me the same language Scripture leads me toward: gratitude, wonder and restfulness. The Orthodox speak of the book of Scripture accompanied by the book of nature. This makes sense to me.

Last week, I went for a long walk in the Shenandoah. I started the trek feeling a heaviness, the weight of many questions. But true to form, over the 9 miles or so, the weight trickled off my shoulders, a lightness returned. I took a couple detours to examine flora, beautiful luxuries that exist carefree knowing only their need to bask in the shade and sunshine, their single task to emanate beauty. As I neared a creek I needed to ford, I looked up to find a black bear on the other side, perhaps 15 yards away. There are roughly 800 bears in the park, but I had yet to meet one in a standoff. She intended to cross my direction, and I intend to cross hers. I was happy to let her win, but she inched down the brook, munching leaves as she rambled. I inched up the brook, watching my escape route with vigilance. She really was a marvel.

Image quality low due to Photograph fear high

Image quality low due to photographer fear high

Arriving at my destination, I drank crisp, cold water from my Hydro Flask, crunched on my Pink Lady apple and my chili lime cashews. I stretched out my legs and read Barry Lopez reject (through one of his protagonists) “the assertion, promoted today by success-mongering bull terriers in business, in government, in religion, that humans are goal-seeking animals.” Rather, Lopez affirmed, “we believe [humans] are creatures in search of proportion in life, a pattern of grace. It is balance and beauty we believe people want, not triumph.” I read these words, and I uttered an amen. I’m nearly certain one of the birches waved its green leaves in agreement.

I strolled back to my car, a heart filled yet again. Switching out my Keens for breezy sandals (a sweet moment, as any hiker will attest), I hopped into my truck and turned the engine. As I pulled onto the road and turned up the radio, NPR voices and the crackle of static greeted me. At that elevation and at that distance from any city, I was picking up two NPR broadcasts, interlacing. Two shows on two different topics, moving in and out like waves back and forth along the shore. I heard only snippets from each conversation, not enough even to really follow the topic. However, between the two separate shows talking to two separate panel of guests and apparently interacting with two very different themes, I heard – within only 90 seconds – the word anxiety spoken 5 times. I had only dipped my toe back into the “real world” before I was again battered by fear, by hand-wringing, by high-pitched rhetoric.

So I remembered that bear ambling over the creek, with me watching my backside. I remembered those lacy white wildflowers that forced me to stop and gawk. I remembered Lopez’s conviction of our deep longing for a pattern of grace. I pointed home, and I ignored the enticement to drink in all the fear.