I’m a competitive fellow. Yahtzee. Foosball. Air Hockey. It does not matter. I fear I’ve passed this to our sons. After a recent round of Spades where Wyatt exploded the game with a daring Blind Nil, he thumped his chest and announced his triumph and slid around the wood floor performing a gyration that we’ll just be generous and call a victory dance. After the spectacle, Miska looked at me with no small measure of satisfaction and said, “You have met your match.”

This competitiveness sometimes makes an appearance on my morning runs. If I see a jogger ahead of me, I’ll often set a bullseye on their back in hopes that I can gobble up the distance between us. My plodding pace rarely pulls the steam necessary to accomplish the feat, but I remember Browning’s wisdom about a man’s reach exceeding his grasp and my defeat then seems connected to the great mythic struggle which is, of course, a kind of a victory all its own. We competitive types work very hard to convince ourselves we’re still in the game.

This morning, however, I began my long, straight stretch down 5th Street when I heard from behind the faint patter of feet. With sound so distant, I guessed I still had a block on them; but the cadence and light, easy steps told me this was, unlike me, a runner deserving of the name. And I knew exactly what was happening: a bright red bullseye aflame across my back.

Immediately, I hit the accelerator. I’m not sure it would ever be fair to say that I dash, but my legs responded with eagerness, like they’d been training and waiting for such a time as this. For the next 1/3 of a mile, I hit and maintained my top speed. I’m not suggesting I was Carl Lewis, but I was determined that this runner on my tail would have to pay a price to take me down. He would not waltz past me, grinning and offering me a breezy “hello.” Twice, I glanced sideways, catching only a peripheral glimpse of my black-clad nemesis gunning for me. Twice, I revved my engines for that last ounce of breakaway burst.

I aimed for Brookwood, where I would turn left and begin my slow, final run up the steep incline to our house. If I could reach Brookwood before my lean, swift adversary overtook me, I would not be churned under by his powerful gait.

Elated, my toe touched the corner of Brookwood and 5th. I turned and took several steps up the hill, then spun around to spy the runner and measure my margin of victory. No one was there. I looked up the entire stretch of 5th toward downtown, and only saw one woman in pink walking the opposite direction toward the bus stop. No nemesis. No sprinter gunning for me. I was racing shadows.

I think we spend too much of our life running from shadows. The opinions and judgements we presume others will hurl at us. The histories that linger at the edges of our soul. The self-condemning mantras that consume our inner dialogue. All the dreadful possibilities of how our life might go very, very wrong. Of course, shadows have an upshot. Sometimes they do get us moving. But we can only keep up the pace so long.

Sometimes we might need to stop in our tracks, turn full circle and face whatever’s dogging us. If it’s a mirage, then we’ll know. If not, we can give the fast-closing terror a slap on the rump as it passes by and say, Alright, good one. But I’ll get you next time.

Often forgiveness can be an act of restrained power, where one who has been wronged and thus holds the noose chooses to let the rope go, to relinquish their ability to exact a high price. How many women have returned the house key to their wayward husbands begging for another chance? How many fathers have picked up the phone or written checks or taken midnight drives to the local precinct for the child who breaks their heart again and again? How many friends have welcomed back, with open arms, the betrayer or the squanderer or the friend who simply does not know how to be a friend?

For others of us, however, forgiveness is so difficult precisely because we have no power. The husband does not want to return. The child never calls. The friend, oblivious to the grief they have inflicted, bop along with their grand life and their fabulous new relationships — and if they ever even think of us at all, their thoughts come laced with condescension about how we sensitive souls are so easily offended. It is one thing to be wronged. It is a whole other thing when the person who has wronged us doesn’t give a damn.

This is why I believe forgiveness to be an immensely courageous act. To forgive is to relinquish the one weapon we still hold: our bitterness, the acid that seeps from our wound. The transgressor may not care about us now, but we believe that somehow our scorn or our coldness might one day exact revenge. Maybe one day they will feel the pain – and when they do, they will see us once again.

Jesus told Peter that we must do the hard work to forgive (which means to release, to let go) 77 times, which of course is not the number to stick at the bottom of the ledger but a signal that forgiveness rolls on and on. For some of us, this means we will have to face that one wrong with a tenacious grace, releasing over and over that single treachery that left such a gash in our soul. The memory wakes with us each morning, the sorrow slithers into our mind each night. And with great courage, we release it into the arms of love.

This does not mean we roll over and take abuse or injustice. Forgiveness, like love, speaks truth and knows how to say a firm ‘no.’ However, to forgive simply means that we refuse to hold power over another. We refuse to play the part of God. We know that love, not bitterness or revenge, is our only hope.

Of the many ways we could categorize a man, surely this is the most precise: one who can wear a kilt and one who cannot.

I’ve long had fantasies of wearing the Collier tartan, but a man should know his limits so the idea has never gone far. With Miska immersing herself in the Outlander series and with our conversations scheming of how to manage a Scottish walking tour, the moment has been ripe for my Gaelic visions to return. Imagine my delight, then, when I walked up to the counter at the convenience store and there behind the cash register stood a brawny man in a black t-shirt and a green and black plaid kilt. With cropped haircut and bulging, beefy arms, he appeared ready to stroll onto the green to win the Highland Games (the old world games – now televised on ESPN – where kilted men do things like tossing a cow over their shoulder for a hundred yard dash or race to clear a small forest with their teeth and bare hands).

I plopped down my credit card, watching him with a little bit of awe. “I love your kilt, man. I’ve always wanted one, but I don’t think I could pull it off.”

He grinned. “What do you mean? Of course you could.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I have it.”

“Well, here’s what you do. You buy a Comfy Kilt, they’re made for just wearing around the house. Try it on, get the feel of it. Figure out your way to wear the plaid.”

“A Comfy Kilt?” I was intrigued, though this rugged man at the jiffy mart giving me recommendations for lounge wear was not something I could have anticipated.

“You should do it,” he insisted. “You should.”

The fact is that each of us may need to find our version of a Comfy Kilt. If there is something within us to try or to do, we can ease into it, but we must not ignore it. There’s no need to fear being foolish or to give too much concern for how our skill is undeveloped or our courage shaky. Just try it on. Take it for a spin. Dip that toe in the icy water. Maybe we’ll find our own flash of brilliance. Or maybe we’ll shake our head and say, now that was ridiculous. Either way, it simply doesn’t matter.

It seems important for me that one day I buckle up the plaid, though surely (at first, at least) in the safety of my own castle. Almost certainly, the whole experience will be laughable. But then, isn’t laughter its own kind of gift?

 

canopy road

It is remarkable the vast energies we exert in our attempt to avoid suffering. Painful relationships, painful memories, difficult conversations — it’s so easy, so tempting, to ignore those things that will cost us dearly if we stay with them. How many hopes abandoned, possibilities squelched, friendships withered – all because we did not surrender ourselves to the suffering they would require?

The apostle Paul believed that one of the many signs of a genuine love was the tenacity to be patient in the midst of suffering. We cannot truly love another if we are committed to not suffering. We cannot be present with others in their suffering if we are not willing to suffer along with them. We may not know how to silence the voices of shame or how to circumvent the reality confirmed by the oncology report or how to mend a shattered dream. We, of course, cannot return a boy to his mother or cleanse the mind of foul memories. We can, however, mourn with those who mourn. We can weep. We can bear with the pain and not turn away.

The way of love will always require some manner of suffering, the willingness to lay down one’s own well-being for the good of another. Perhaps this is why marriage provides us with one of our ultimate human enactments of love. Vigen Guroian says that marriage is an act of martyrdom, and he is right. If I want to truly love Miska (and I do), it will in some measure be the death of me.

But it will also be my life. Oh the joy. We suffer, not because we’re sadists but because we are committed to the truest and highest good, for ourselves and for others. We suffer for the joy that is set before us.

I believe that every one of us wants to matter. We want people to listen to us or to follow us or to want us in their circle. In elementary school, the daily draft for lunchtime soccer found us scrupulously counting how many poor souls were left in line with us while we kicked the dirt and pretended to barely pay attention. In our grown up years, we watch jealously for who gets the party invites or the promotions or the skyrocketing social media stats. Miska and I have a friend who jokingly (I think) refers to her A-list friends and her B-list friends. I refuse to ask which list we make. If it’s not A, I prefer not to know.

Because of our desire to make it good (and this is not altogether a bad thing, we were made to splash our beauty on this world), we may begrudge others who hit the highlight reel. It’s a normal, human reaction, but it can be ugly. There’s a reason they call this the green-eyed monster.

However, when we live with the fear that our life may wash out with nothing of worth to show for it, a more insidious temptation seeps in. We begin to guard our life, to tame our voice. We begin to watch too closely for others’ reactions. We take our cues from everywhere but our own still, solid soul. We may believe that our possibilities are dwindling, that the power brokers must be wooed by our impeccable one-shot precision. Like Smeagol and his ring, we clutch our passions or our quirkiness very close.

This is why the old teachers told us that if we were to be true and to live well it is essential for us to risk our significance. To live with integrity, we must lay down the demand (though not the desire) that our life make spectacular impact. We must risk being the fool. We may still hope for that grand epitaph, but we leave the words for the dead to those who write the words for the dead. And what we do is we live. We live true. We give what we have. And we trust that goodness and love will write our final story.

 

boyplayingfootball_winncollier

For a variety of reasons, during our years in the city school system, neither of our sons have ridden the bus. This year, however, they both start new schools, and they both will be passengers on the big yellows. Today was the launch, and the last 48 hours they’ve been a bundle of nerves. Do you think there will be a seat on the bus for me? Do you think I’ll know anyone on the bus? I hope I have a friend on the route.

This morning, before putting on his brave face and his over-stuffed pack, Seth told me, “Right now, I’m 12-14% nervous.”

Downtown, there’s a breakfast crew that meets every weekday morning at Cafe Cubano. For over 25 years, this cadre of friends has sloshed coffee, passed the news and (as they’ve told me) come to be family for one another. On my morning run, I noticed a new couple had joined the circle, a man and woman in their mid-sixties. Two more seats were pulled up to the table. The conversation was lively as always, only now new voices joining the fray.

I ran past, smiling and wondering what it must have felt like to be invited into that tightly knit group, one with such a history and story, how grand it must have been to have someone point to a chair and say, “Hey, this is for you.”

Decades separate the hearts in these two events today, but the moments are not so different. Children grow up, but we all still wonder if there will be a seat saved for us.

Late Saturday night, my sleepy family was in the sorrowful final hours of our summer vacation as we drove north of Greensboro on 29, southbound and northbound divided by a median and grey steel guardrails. Cars ahead swerved to the right lane, a chain reaction of red brake lights, like a row of dominoes dropping. Our Subaru joined the long line on cue, as traffic slowed to 40 miles per hour. A sea of red.

Except in the left lane. There, coming directly toward us and in the lane everyone else had vacated, were two steady white beams. I’ve seen these moments in movies and on viral YouTube clips, but here we were right at the action. A car cruised, unhurried – maybe 30 miles an hour, in the wrong direction on this congested highway. I gripped the steering wheel and watched incredulously as the turned-around vehicle motored past us, like he was on a Sunday afternoon excursion. Horns blasted him every inch of his traverse, but he tootled on.

I dialed 911, and the dispatcher told me they’d already received a number of calls about the joyrider. I have no idea if the fellow just got mixed up and was trying to find his way to an exit or if he had smoked something with punch, dreamily giddy with his luck at having the entire lane to himself. It could have been a hundred things gone wrong. But I do know that all the fellow needed to do was stop, wait for the traffic to come to a standstill, then make a u-turn. The evening’s drama and danger would have been over.

There are moments where we are given stark reminders that we as a people are careening in the wrong direction, where our ignorance or our foolishness is on high-definition display. Ferguson – and our reactions to it – provides one of these moments. This is the time for us to choose to do the one sane thing. We can stop. We can listen. We can grieve. We can change.

The one thing we can not do is simply drive forward, as if nothing at all has gone wrong. We can not simply tootle on, oblivious.

On your annual trip to the island, there are certain things you will only encounter if you rise in that hour when the moon melts and the sun yawns and stretches toward the new day. I know this because, left to the powers of inertia, these two weeks inevitably return me to my natural state: late nights and late mornings, something Miska has accepted (encouraged even), though she does not understand. When the wise ones speak of the ways that love must learn to sacrifice for the other, they typically do not have in mind grand gestures such as jumping in front of a bullet or draining your 401K to fulfill your spouse’s dream of sailing a 22-foot cutter to Portugal. Rather, I imagine they envision something more like your early-rising wife slipping gently out of bed so as not to wake you, making certain to leave warm coffee in the pot and ever so softly exiting to answer the ocean’s call.

However, at least once or twice on these trips, a fellow has to be the first to set the beans to brew, the one to sit solitary on the sand and watch the dolphins pass. All the better if the gods, aware that these moments are few, insist on their version of fireworks and allow me a front row seat as the Super Moon tips its hat upon exit.

When you sit quiet on the sand at dawn, this is when you catch sight of the large sand crabs who rarely crawl out their labyrinth tunnels during the day. One particularly large crab, with two beady eyes, emerges from his hole no more than fifteen feet from me. He climbs out slowly, eyes taut, watching me, watching me. He stares me down for minutes. I do not move. Is this how prizefighters feel, peering from their corners, before the first bell? I need to scratch my face, but I am in a contest. I do not want to lose, and I do not want to scare the fearful crustacean back underground.

The crab sits frozen, not so much as a twitch. After a long and vigilant surveillance, the crab commences a skittish dance, maybe 10 inches, to the right, tosses a small load of sand out of his claw, dances back to his hole, stares me down for another minute or two, then disappears. This scenario repeats over and again. The little beast’s eyes never slacken, never move off me. The dance is always sidewise, keeping me in full view. The crab moves quick, jerky. I am his sole attention.

Many of us exist in the way of the crab. We live skittish, furtive. We take all our cues from others. We hop sideways, eyes strained for any hint of disapproval. Even when we show ourselves or offer something of ourselves, we move measured and tentative, a demonstration that we’re about to hang our sense of well-being on the way our gift will (or will not) be received. We want to be noticed, and we do not want to be noticed. It’s an exhausting, tenuous subsistence.

I want to tell the crab to watch the waves and the gorgeous moon and those magnificent dolphins, not me. I’d love to see the crab dance bold, maybe strut the Tango or even the Harlem Shake across that sand. Now that would be something.

Wendell Berry & Winn

Whenever I scratch out the short list of writers who, whenever everything is said and done, will have been my companions and teachers over the long story, Wendell Berry will certainly be there. Several months ago, I had the chance to visit with Wendell on his front porch, a misty day when the clouds were gray and the breeze steady. The conversation was rich, and there was much laughter. Later, a friend asked about the time, and I found myself saying, “You know, I felt enjoyed…” For a man who has spent his life writing of the necessity of presence, on that day Wendell practiced what he preached. And I am grateful.

Today is Wendell’s 80th birthday, and in the Collier house, birthdays are a big deal. I did not want the day to pass without wishing Wendell a wonderful 80th.

Among the many things we chatted about on that quiet Kentucky day was the work of writing. I shared with Wendell how I often feel pulled in disparate directions, that my life does not have simplicity of focus. True to form, Wendell dismantled the idols of our age, the idols of our art. The notions of the aloof writer enveloped in a cocoon of creativity, where the craft takes precedence over everything else — that is not true to the human soul, to any work we do that is truly good. Wendell shared much with me, and I will share this little bit with you:

You have been given a gift to help you resist the temptation to believe that your writing must never be interrupted. The modern idea that our art must always come first and never be interrupted is complete BS. I can’t live that way with my land. When you have a mule and it needs something, you can’t tell it to wait. I can’t tell Tanya to wait. I couldn’t tell my kids to wait, I still can’t most times. I can’t help but be interrupted by my neighbor. Now, I have some ways of being unfindable when I have to be, but I’m going to be interrupted.

Happy birthday, Wendell. That’s 80 good years. Here’s to the beauty of interruption. And to being unfindable here and there.

I have a little history with rejection. When we were dating (and during our engagement), Miska tossed me to the curb. Twice. Both times, I more than deserved it, but the pavement hurt nonetheless. Once I was in a conversation with a highly respected literary agent, beginning a conversation about the possibility of his firm representing me. He asked how many readers I had on my site. “Well, I’m working on it,” I answered, “but maybe a couple thousand when it’s going well.”

“A day?” he asked.

“Uh, no, per month.”

The phone went silent. “Well…” the agent began, slowly. “Let me put this in context. One of my authors sometimes hits 100,000 per day.” There were a few short pleasantries to follow, but the conversation was effectively finished.

I’ve had religious leaders tell me I was no longer part of the fold (fair enough), and I’ve had an employer tell me they were eager to get rid of me (that stung a little). As of last month, all three of my books are now out of print, and while perhaps this is not exactly rejection – it does mean that readers have chosen to leave my blood, sweat and tears on the shelf. Anyone who wants to be a writer must have at least a twinge of masochism. The rejection pile will be tall; and there are days when the stack (and the voices the stack represents) looms so large you can’t see past it. We all have our stories. We all have to contend with the voices.

Of course, not all rejection is final. Sometimes it eventually works out well (Miska and I are working on 17 years), but sometimes a ‘no’ is truly a ‘no’ (the agent is not on my speed dial). Not all rejection is final, but all rejection levels a blow.

But rejection offers us a gift as well. For some of us, the conflict redirects our passions, showing us where we need to go – only we needed the push to make it happen. The employer who couldn’t wait for me to hit the door oversaw a corporation masquerading as a Christian ministry. I should never have been there. If I had lingered for the next few years, I would have died the death of a thousand cuts.

For some of us, the blow will stiffen our spine, put a fire in the belly. With Miska, I needed to step into my life with courage, and Miska provided the wake-up call. With writing, while I wince at every ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ the process eventually leads me back to the desk, back to the words. I return with a deeper hunger, a deeper commitment to the work I must do.

This is not finally about only your work but your life, about receiving all that comes, sorting through it, learning at every turn, discarding the junk and tenaciously trusting the good. Allow these encounters to guide you, not bury you.

Maybe what I most want to say is this: rejection does not define you. Every ‘no’ grants the opportunity to peer deep, to ask again what it is you really want to give yourself to. And then, whatever the answer, get to it.