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.

whirl-of-a-night

In those chaotic hours on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, two friends (Peter and John) raced, schoolyard-stye, to the tomb. After arriving breathless and after taking in all there was (and wasn’t) to see, they stood dumbfounded, mouth agape, like two boys who’d just seen a rabbit pulled out of a hat or a glamorous assistant disappear inside a small box. And though we’re told that John “believed,” we don’t know exactly what he believed because the Scriptures indicate that the whole brood of disciples were still very much out of sorts, baffled as they’d ever been (which is saying something). Luke tells us that Peter walked home in a stupor, thunderstruck by every remarkable thing he could not understand.

It’s striking, then, how Easter often becomes the day when we haul out our heftiest apologetic guns, overwhelming folks with our rapid-fire arsenal of logical rationale for the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection. Look, I believe it, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. I think Jesus, once a corpse, walked out of that tomb better than new. And I believe Jesus’ resurrection cuts to the heart of everything God intends to do in this world, the very heart of the Good News. I think resurrection matters not only because one man rose from the dead but because of the promise that, through Jesus’ triumph, the whole of creation will one day shake of its grave clothes to shine brilliant and new.

Yet resurrection, with all the hope and possibility it summons, ignites awe and wonder – not a mad dash for sharp pencils and calculators or a whiteboard where we can sketch vast theorems. If we have the fact of the resurrection, but we have none of the bewilderment or the astonishment, none of the unbridled joy at the sheer fantastic lunacy of the whole thing – I wonder if we’ve really got the resurrection at all.

This is not only about the event of resurrection, of course, but about our entire faith. “It is not the task of Christianity,” says Kallistos Ware, “to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” If there is nothing in our faith that drops the jaw, that moves us to inexplicable laughter, that unravels our sense of things…If our vision of God never hurls us to our knees or gooses us in sheer pleasure — we should return to the old stories and hear them again.

Dear John,

Well, we made it. Easter’s here. I’ve always appreciated the fact that while Lent’s 40 days, Easter’s 50. I like how we’re supposed to party even longer than it took to prepare for the party. In the Kingdom of God, the feasting alway trumps the fasting. I don’t know why some sourpusses want to live in Lentville all year round. Good grief. I cut back a few things during Lent, and it felt right, good even. But I’ll do as I’m told and happily snag a few extra joys this Easter. I’ve been saving Mary Karr’s 2nd and 3rd memoirs (Cherry and Lit) – looking forward to them. If my ankle holds out, I’m gonna give a go at my first half-marathon on Saturday, been prepping for a long while now. Maybe that one’s not exactly a joy, but the sense of accomplishment if I can pull it off will be a thrill, for sure.

My heart was heavy for you this weekend, as soon as I heard that your friend Jim Harrison died. A punch in the gut. I was just writing to you about Jim this time last week. Lots of writers fancy themselves unique, but then there’s a few rare bodies like Jim who just go out and flat live, rub life raw, down to the bone. I know you’ll give us some sort of eulogy at some point, and I look forward to it. I thank you for introducing me to Jim. It’s not lost on me that he died right before Easter Sunday, especially since I read him say in a couple places how Resurrection was the spiritual belief he found most credible. I’m sure you’ve seen how he amused himself with this bit, lines evidencing how much he loved this world and all its creatures:

In the forty days in the wilderness Jesus
took along a stray dog from town. When
they got back home Jesus told the dog he
had to go off to Jerusalem to get crucified.
Jesus stored the dog in his tomb and after
he himself was brought there they
ascended into heaven together.

In honor of Harrison, it seems a good time to mention something I’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and it’s bugging me. I’ve noticed this idea circulating yet again (seems to go viral every couple years), insisting how essential it is for a communicator (writer, preacher, teacher, etc.) to summarize all you’re trying to say in your sermon or your book in a single concise sentence. Can you believe such a thing? I can’t even summarize this letter in a sentence – nor would I want to. I couldn’t capture our friendship with a sentence, most certainly couldn’t capture my life with Miska within a short quip. It would take more than a string of syllables to touch the wonder I felt watching the full moon cast its glow over Carter’s Mountain last week or the depth of what I want to tell my sons regarding all the hopes I hold for them. Can you imagine asking Updike or Mother Theresa to boil it down to a sentence? I’d LOVE to hear the blue streak Harrison would have unleashed if a publisher had the gall to suggest such a thing. If all we need’s a sentence, what’s the point with the rest of it? 

I’m all for being clear as we’re able, all for slashing the fluff. But sometimes I think we may just edit every ounce of wonder right out of this lovely world of ours. All that to say, our life’s bigger than every attempt to button it up with a single anything. The work you’re offering (me too) is far bigger than this. Let’s keep at it.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

P.S. I loved hearing about the friends you used to pastor who gave their son the middle name “Blase.” That’s a gift indeed, makes up for a lot of crappy days, doesn’t it? I would tell you about some friends I used to pastor who a few years ago gave their son the first name “Collier,” but then that might come across as one-upping and that wouldn’t be very Christian of me. These moments make a man’s heart, glad, though, yes they do. 

Dear John,

So Easter’s coming Sunday. You probably remember enough from your pastor-years to recall how this is a pretty big day. I love seeing all the joy and laughter, some folks stepping it up a little with their Sunday clothes and all the kids wired for the candy they’ve had or the candy they know’s coming their way. The sun’s typically bright, the dogwoods and the daffodils showing off. The music has extra oomph. It’s a grand day.

But I also know it’s an important day because this story we’ll be telling, this moment where we remember that Jesus rose from the dead and kicked evil to the curb – this day is pretty much the whole ball of wax, isn’t it? St. Paul seemed to know a thing or two, and he said that if Jesus didn’t raise up from the dead, then we’re all in a major heap of doo-doo. I tend to think everything in Jesus’ life pointed to this climactic moment when he sloughed off those grave clothes and walked back into this world he loves, this world he’d literally gone to hell to salvage. Some folks think that Jesus got a resurrection because he had to have a cross, but I think Jesus got a cross because he had to have a resurrection. What do you think about that? I don’t know, maybe that’s parsing truths that don’t need parsing. I know this though – what I most need, what most everyone I know needs, is a resurrection. I think most of us live fully aware of the death rattle; we’re just wondering if the story’s really true. We’re wondering if Life and Love really do win in the end.

But here’s my problem, John – I’ve been pondering my sermon for a mess of days now, and I’ve got nothing. Nada. At the moment, my heart feels flat as a pancake. Dry. Dull. Dead. Maybe that’s right, for now. My pastoral workweek calendar says I’m supposed to have a sermon prepared by 5 p.m., but my soul knows that first comes an evening where Jesus shares what must have been a very lonely meal with his disciples, clueless as they were to how he was pointing toward death. First comes a Friday we’ve named Good, though it’s the strangest good I know. Today, I’m leaning toward resurrection, but my soul knows there’s the valley of the shadow of death to walk through between here and there. Why can’t the story of God’s salvation of the cosmos fit into my nicely arranged to-do list?

I’ll tell you this: I do hope some worthwhile words present themselves to me before Sunday. The folks with whom I’ll gather to announce Resurrection are kind and generous, and most will put up with me and my bumbling ways. But still, I would like to have something helpful to share. Every hope I have is bound up in this Jesus who put death in a chokehold and refused to let go. I’d like to do it justice, if I’m able. 

So all that to say – light another candle for me. And if you get some flash of inspiration and want to write a sermon to pass my way, I’m all ears. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Dear John, 

I do hope you plugged in your lights; I love how you’re that guy on your block. And as I read your story about the man who looked like your father hitching a ride to Wyoming, I kept wishing things would have arranged themselves differently so that you could have pulled over and let him toss his bag in the back and then pointed north, maybe gotten him to Cheyenne and swapped your stories on the way. 

I have big news to share. You know that cozy craftsmen farmhouse we’ve had our eye on? It looks like the Colliers may load up our books and move on in. It’s old and needs some TLC, but it’s got good bones. There’ll be some elbow room there, space for Miska to do her gardening and room for the boys to roam a little. Good neighbors sprinkled around us. One of the things I like best is that it’s the kind of house deserving a name. Miska and I have always wanted to own a place with a name. Not too long ago, I looked at a house on a small parcel of acres boasting lines of gnarled oaks. The house was in disastrous shape, but there was a small slate sign on a post near the front driveway: Oak Grove – I almost turned a blind eye to the money pit and bought it because of that dinky little sign. I don’t know what all this is about, but I think it’s something about being responsible for a place with a history and a future, about belonging there, about being caretakers for something that is more than just the square feet where you place your pillow. Anyway, it’s not a done deal, and we don’t have a clue yet what we’d name it. Miska says we’ll have to feel the spirit of the place a bit before we’ll know her name. That sounds like Miska, doesn’t it? 

Did you notice how Wendell Berry and Jim Harrison were back to back on the NY Times By the Book section? There was some kind of literary voodoo going on there, to have two fellas you and I read and discuss so much tag-team in the Times. In the interview, Wendell was as contrarian as ever – those poor interviewers just trying to do their job. When they asked Wendell who he hoped would write his life story, he was appalled at even the thought. “Nobody,” he said. “As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.” In spite of his protests, I actually do hope someone will give us a good biography in the years ahead; but I honor how Wendell knows a life can never be captured in a book. It has to be lived, and this living of this marvelous life is a beautiful and profound mystery. And each of has to live this life for ourselves. Too many of us are constantly looking over our shoulder, watching for everyone else’s cues to tell us how we’re doing, to signal that we’re thinking properly or have the acceptable opinion or are doing something valuable. I’m sad to think of all the uniqueness and goodness that gets squelched this way.

I’m actually thinking about this particularly today because of you, my friend. Tomorrow is your birthday. If I’ve done my math right, this is 49. I wanted to write today and beat the crowd of well-wishers. I want to tell you that you are living your life well. You bump along, as all of us do, but you’re a solid man. I admire how you seek to be true to the people in your life, true to the things you believe. You live with the kind of sturdiness that all good men share, but you also live with a twinkle in your eye. You know some truths, and you keep searching for more – but you also know the mystery. Because of your friendship, I find that I am more myself. I find that I am less lonely. After God created John Blase, I just know he leaned back and chuckled and said, “Now that’s good. John’s gonna ruffle some feathers, isn’t he? Ha! That’s good.”

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

P.S. Your comment about a nest in your beard reminded me of this picture. Remember ol’ Beardcat? He was a strange, crusty fella, wasn’t he? You don’t get the sense he was living looking over his shoulder. 

beardcat