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 Hydra 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.

My grandfather Clifford Oden was a wise and practical man. A mathematics teacher, he worked the numbers and the angles, and I’m told he was the first full-time professor at LeTourneau University. Grandpa Oden tackled even the most benign problems with the methodical eye of a chess master, one slow move at a time. I loved going into his shop in their standalone garage, eyeing all the tools hung in neat rows, the lines of Gerber baby food jars each filled (and labeled, by type and size) with wood screws, metal screws, hex bolts, cap bolts (and nuts for each) round head nails, finish nails, masonry nails.

However, grandpa was not much for aesthetics. He wanted to get the job done properly and efficiently. Beauty never factored into the equation. When I became old enough to take on mowing his yard, he sat me down at the dining room table and pulled out a yellow legal pad. Grandpa sketched his back yard, calculating before my eyes the square feet of the landscape, translating his figures into steps taken pushing the Sears Craftsman mower. Next he drew a rectangle, demonstrating how efficient it was to mow in a box shape rather than in rows back and forth. “You’ll save hundreds of steps,” grandpa said, tapping his pencil on the pad for emphasis.

Recently, I mowed our new yard at our old cottage for the first time. It’s a backyard laid out by whimsy. We have a maple tree, a poplar, boxwoods run wild, multiple garden beds with ivy and bee balm and ferns of every sort. It’s lovely, but it’s a mower’s nightmare, with all the nooks and crannies. I thought about my grandpa while I mowed in a wide, circular motion, how proud he’d be to see me save energy and shave minutes off the job.

The only problem was, as I cut, everything seemed all wrong. I felt as though I were imposing something onto this stretch of ground. The grass was now short, but there was no symmetry, no elegance. On my second mow, I asked grandpa’s forgiveness and slowly, tediously cut in vertical rows, back and forth, back and forth. It felt like heresy. But when I was done, there was a beauty there that perhaps only a yard man could appreciate.

Sometimes we should save time or money or energy. But sometimes we should stand still and watch for the slope of a yard, the slant of a life, the near imperceptible aches of the heart. There are so many good, good things that refuse to be measured in terms of efficiency, speed or accomplishment. We best pay extra close attention to those. I wonder if we may be close to loosing too many of them.

Dear John,

You are so right. On days like these, we need a friend. So, here I am, writing you back right away. Last evening, I heard stories of the police investigators making their way through the pile of carnage and how they kept having to force themselves to tune out all the telephones ringing from all the bodies. Friends desperately hoping someone on the other end would pick up. Family members refusing to believe the worst. Such loneliness and crushing sorrow. They weren’t able to talk to those they loved. I wish I could do something.

Friday, you know, will be the 1 year anniversary of the shooting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. You remember how it felt when you and I stood on Calhoun St. in front of the memorial at the church, the deep sadness, wondering if we’ve all just gone mad? And now, a year later here we are again. One group gunned down because of hate. Another group gunned down because of hate. Have we? Have we just gone mad?

I appreciate very much Annie’s challenge to write words that will not enrage by their triviality. Yesterday, a friend dropped by to see our house, and her phone alarm went off at 6:00 p.m. It was a reminder about the moment of silence for the victims in Orlando. We all sat there, still. Those 60 seconds were the truest response I had all day. I wish we could have sat there quiet together.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

moonlight row vision

One of the profound gifts discovered amid true friendship is the ability to see and be seen, to see the truth of who we are – past the frivolous fascinations, beyond our sabotaging nitwittedness, through the seasons of lethargy, estrangement or basic foolishness. Once, when I felt trapped in an undercurrent of self-disgust, Miska looked at me, clear-eyed and without even a hint of shame or distance. “Winn, you’re a better man than that.”

I believed her. For one, Miska’s proven entirely incapable of blowing BS, even if merely to make someone feel better. Miska’s a kind, generous soul, but she adheres to the school of straightforward love — Miska believes truth heals more than any lie ever could. Even more, though, I’ve learned to trust that Miska does actually see the truth, that she sees me (at least most of me). I believe Miska would say that I see her too, that love and fidelity through the long labor of love has trained me to see the truer places in her (at least most of them).

I also have a handful of friends, companions who, in various ways, see one another truly. This is one of the signs of a sturdy, weathered friendship: the capacity, as well as the commitment, to catch sight of the deep goodness in another – and to cling to that goodness even when it costs us to hold tight. I agree with the hopeful axiom Helmut Thielicke insists upon: “If there is one rule that is given to us by the command to love our neighbor, it is that we must always judge a person by his optimum and not by his failures.” We see with generosity. We see beyond the bluster or the isolation. We see the truth.

 

image: Massimo Valiani

viewA little over a week ago, we sold couches and beds and our ping pong table. We packed our books (so many books) in cardboard boxes and loaded them, along with our furniture and our clothes and our dog Daisy, for a short jaunt from Brookwood Dr. to Warren Lane. For eight years, Brookwood was our place of laughter and chaos, delight and weariness. It was the place where we lived – and I take that word seriously.

Miska asked me what I’d miss most about our house, and the answer was easy. Of course, what I will miss most is the memories attached to this specific place: the slope that ran behind our row of townhouses where the boys and I tossed the football, the pencil marks on the doorframe marking Wyatt and Seth’s rise to manhood and that spectacular view of Carter’s Mountain. I loved those mornings when misty clouds would roll over Carter’s, like a ghost flowing toward the valley. In the evenings, Miska and I would sit on the front porch with cups of tea in hand, watching the blueish-orange light fade over the ridge. “Over the past few years,” I told Miska, “this mountain has sustained me.” I didn’t know the depth of this truth, the gratitude I felt, until I spoke the words.

I am eager for our cottage on Warren Lane, eager for the ways these old bones and the land that surrounds them will, in new ways, sustain me and those I love. However, it seems important to pause, to say thank you. After our old house was empty, we went by one last time to say farewell. I went slowly through each room. I paused, remembering smiles and sorrows and so much hope. I remembered boys who were little, days that are gone now. In our bedroom where Miska and I shared so much, I had tears. I am grateful.

It requires no imagination whatsoever, nor an ounce of courage, to surrender hope. Anybody can play the cynic’s card. Nihilism may masquerade as some noble act of intellectual integrity, but let’s be honest – you can get there easily enough by just dousing every flame and then slinking into that dark hole from which you never emerge. When we surrender our life, it’s often because of that gutsy, valiant effort: inertia. Like Wendell says, “The word inevitable is for cowards.”

Anybody can bury their disappointment or pain in a cloud of overwrought ambiguity. Anybody can cut joy at the knees. Anybody can lay down and assume everything’s meaningless, purposeless, empty.

I want to demonstrate more mettle than this. I want to stare down all the confusion (and there’s much), all the failures and the impossibilities (and there’s more than a few), all the grief and sorrow. I want to see these things, embrace them even, and then summon things truer, deeper – maybe things more reckless. I want to believe in what is good, solid and just. I want to abandon the coward’s way.

Heart and Wires

I remember, in college, reading a pastor who suggested an exercise. List everything we’d ever heard in a sermon and everything we’ve ever read in a Christian book or picked up from spiritual mentors and friends. Pile up everything we’d been told a good Christian would do better, every discipline we should take on, every sin we should confess, every motive we should question, every spiritual practice we should rework. Catalogue all the evils within us. Reassert all the doctrines we are to cling to with our very life. Line up all the “shoulds” and all the “ought-tos,” heap on top of this teetering mass every time we were told more steps to holiness or more methods to spiritual success, more reasons to feel guilty, more ways to please (or appease) God.

I had heard many, many sermons (thousands). I had read many, many books. My pile was massive, heavy. It was my rock of gibraltar. I was exhausted by the exercise. I was exhausted by my life.

Now, in my 40’s, I could add a second exercise. List every cause I’ve ever been told should be mine, every injustice I am personally to right, every issue I am to have a passionate word for (or against), every way I am to prove that I am thoughtful, intelligent, evolved. Mark every way I am to be certain not to provoke or offend (even though these ways, often, stand at odds), every social moment I am to make certain raises my ire (or does not raise my ire).  If I allow myself to continue this exercise, to follow this rushing tidal flow, I find that I am again exhausted by my life.

We have a penchant for laying burdens on one another (or maybe laying burdens on ourselves). We seem to miss that we are all to do what is given to us to do. We can not fix our own life, we can not fix the world. We do that one thing, maybe two things, that has been given to us as a unique responsibility, and then we live well. We seek to be faithful and true to what we see clearly, to what good light has made clear to us, and then we release the expectations and the demands. We love and trust that when we need that next bit of light, it will be ours.”You do not have to be good,” writes Mary Oliver,

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…

No, we merely need to see the truth and fulness of our life, to see what beloved beauty and responsibility God has placed within us. And then we live, with boldness and delight. And we trust that God is doing the same with everyone else and then, somehow, when the Great Story finishes, love has won the day.

At breakfast for several weeks now, I’ve been reading The Great Divorce to the family, Lewis’ wild and imaginative vision of the future. After everyone settles at the table with their smoothies, bagels with cream cheese and bowls of cereal, I begin to read. I had forgotten that George MacDonald, the Scottish fantasy writer whom Lewis loved, appears as a character. So, as any good father would do, when MacDonald’s long, excursive conversation appeared, I casually slipped into Scottish brogue. I swelled with the potency of my dynamic reading, really bringing the narrative home for these dear ones gathered round me. There was no doubt I could pull it off — I mean, I’ve been there…for a week. And I’ve spent hours and hours watching Sean Connery and David Tennant.

I was only a few syllables in before everyone erupted with laughter. What was that? asked my beloved son Seth, incredulous. Isn’t MacDonald Scottish? asked my wife, the joy of my life. You sound Indian, with a twinge of Mexican.

Yes, that’s right, Seth added, as if he’d just discovered something. Yes, you sound like an Indian pirate.

Wyatt was too busy holding his gut to actually utter any words. I muddled my way for another page, soldiering on, consistently interrupted by hackles.

Today, we returned to the reading. Mercilessly, MacDonald had much more to say. Undeterred, I charged back in, returning to my Scottish cadence that apparently sounds nothing at all like the Scots. Maybe somewhere in South America? Or Southeast Asia?

Still, I took another swing, butchering the text so violently that I’m sure ol’ Jack Lewis himself winced. However, I persisted for two reasons. One is that I’m still convinced I can get the Scot thing down. Mainly, though, I want to give my family every reason to laugh. It was so good to see their smiles, to hear the belly-deep guffaws.

Dear John,

I can picture you there at Pepperdine, as you imagined Sarah walking that campus, only without you next time — and knowing that it’s right for her, feeling the joy and heart-tug of such a moment. This weekend we found old pictures of the boys, pictures we haven’t seen for a long time. The boys were wee tikes, on their first soccer team. Soccer – hah! It was a full-on miracle if we could just keep them running in the right general direction. Seth was 3 and wore a headband, looked like a very short Björn Borg. Wyatt ran around mostly in circles, trying to position himself in the general vicinity of the ball but without ever actually having to kick it – but he made all these maneuvers very fiercely. Miska and I stood there staring at those pictures, doing what parents do whenever we find again proof of where we’ve been, of the love that flows so deep. It will be only a few snaps of the fingers and we’ll be packing our boys off to some university somewhere. My wallet’s already whimpering at the thought of it. I think I’ve told you I’m not feeling like a great dad these days, just feeling off, not generous and present as I want to be. I’m not beating myself up too much about it, but I do want to remember what I most want with my sons, who I want to be with them.

Have you seen Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting “Banjo Lesson”? I’ll include the picture below. Tanner was such a fine artist, and with this piece it’s believed Tanner painted a grandfather teaching his grandson the art, but it says a lot about what I hope to be with my boys: close, tender, attentive, passing along something of my life, something of my work, something of myself.

Anyway, we found those pictures of the boys this weekend because we were going through our storage closet, tossing things we should have tossed years ago but only get around to when you’re ready to pack up and move. Why is it that we give the house extra shine and complete those projects that have nagged us forever just as we’re about to say farewell? Isn’t that ass-backwards? Still, we’ve lived well here. I think we’ve played hard and loved hard and (as we like to say in Texas) we shot our full wad. When we haul out our last box and lock our purple front door, I imagine these old walls exhaling, maybe flopping on the floor exhausted, panting for breath but with a big grin and then saying, with a long sigh: “Those Colliers knew how to live.”

Yes, it seems time to pull our letter-writing back a tad from the blog-o-sphere. I’m glad we’ve done this, and will do it again here and there when the urge strikes. Friendship is one of my truest joys in this life. Thank you for being a big part of that joy.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

Henry Oshawa Tanner's "The Banjo Lesson"

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson”

Recent stories reveal Facebook’s hand-wringing over the current “content collapse,” where users are sharing less personal material and more secondhand posts (just passing along news articles, videos of cats playing the piano in a tutu, stuff like that). One prevailing theory for said collapse suggests that as folk’s networks have expanded to include God-knows-who, people have grown more reticent to hand off their privacy to the vague crowd. I’m sure there’s merit to this, but I can imagine other reasons why we might be seeing more memes of Trump and Bernie and less stories about our wild weekend escapade or words from that novel that made us weep.

Further, I think this conversation has resonance with what many of us experience in the fuller experience of our life, even if we’ve never once clicked into that alternate universe known as Facebook. Why are many of us becoming more careful about what we broadcast within our circle of friends (real ones)? Why do so many of us find ourselves withdrawing a little more, growing a little more quiet, sharing a little less?

One reason may simply be that we’re growing tired of ourselves. The exhibitionism of our narcissistic age has flat exhausted us. We’re tapped out. We’ve discovered that though we have good things to say (we really do) and though our voice matters (it truly does), it’s exhausting to try to be as clever or profound or unique as is required to maintain the high that comes from that first hit of recognition. It’s marvelous to be seen as the smart one, the accomplished one, but pursuing such a thing will likely crush us.

It’s one thing to offer what we have, with courage and without apology. It’s another thing to be unable to have a sense of ourselves apart from a steady stream of affirmation. Maybe some of us realize we’ve been promoting a life for too long; we want to get on with living it.