Beauty for Life

Our youngest son Seth has gone deep into the world of The Hobbit. Seth reads stories from the shire with feverish energy. He sketches scenes from Middle Earth and regales us with talk of his beloved Dwarves. At every opportunity, Seth ventures into our neighborhood woods (woods he refers to as Rivendell) with his sack of Hobbit wares. He feasts on the score from the movie soundtracks, ticks off every character’s name, reviews minute details from the narrative and explains intricate plot twists and Tolkien lore. Seth’s our Hobbit savant.

All this is more than a boy’s fascination with adventurous play, however. Seth has found a language for his soul. Or maybe this language has found him. A few days ago, Seth was in our backyard, earbuds delivering haunted Hobbit melodies. He paced across the yard, swinging his sword as the music and the crisp air carried him to his distant country. When Seth returned to the house, he told Miska, “You might think this is silly since I’m only a kid. But the music was so beautiful it almost made me cry.”

We all need an encounter with something so beautiful that it carries us to the verge of tears. A landscape or a story, a friendship or a blessing, a dream or a joy. We need beauty, however slight, if we are to truly live. The human spirit can survive without luxury. We can endure ravaging hardship. But wonder, beauty, ineffable joy – these are our necessities.

Family Name

My dad taught me that our name was an honor we were to guard, something gifted to us – but something we must hold in safekeeping both as a debt to those before us and as the richest inheritance I would pass to my own children. My mom gave me a plaque when I was in the third or fourth grade, lettering on a bronze plate fixed to dark chestnut. It hung by my bed. I don’t remember the exact text, but it had “Collier” in bold letters across the top followed by a poem about a father giving a son his only treasure, his good name. The poem was cheeky, but the point stuck. Your name matters. Where you come from matters. Being a Collier means something.

Our name, I believe, is one of our pearls of great price. A good name cannot be bought, but – and here is the power – it can most certainly be given.

I remember my grandpa R.J. Collier’s lean frame perched on the top step of his porch, working those cigarettes, his cap tilted askew and his overalls hanging off his thin body, his green 1953 Chevy pickup parked next to the house. My grandma Collier died before I was born, and so visits to my grandpa lacked the gregarious matriarchal energy I’m told I would have experienced if my dad’s mother had still been alive. Grandpa Collier gave all the grandkids $5 in McDonald’s gift certificates every Christmas, and we in turn supplied him with a case of bottled Coca-Colas (R.J. insisted on the glass bottles).

When my dad, fresh out of high school, went to the bank to arrange a loan for his first used car, he met a roadblock because he was under-21 and possessed no credit history. The banker looked over his file and said, “So, you’re R.J. Collier’s son?”

“Yes,” my dad answered.

“Well, I know R.J., and that means I know something about you.” The banker picked up his pen and signed off on the loan, with nothing other than “Collier” as collateral.

When I have serious talks with Wyatt or Seth about their character or integrity, about how they are to treat others or how they are to make choices in this world, I’ll usually say something like, “You’re a Collier man, and this is how Colliers live.” My father and mother, like their fathers and mothers (this story could be written for my mom’s family – and for Miska’s family too), has handed us an identity. Being a Collier means something. I only hope to live up to the truth of it.

A friend told me recently that in English history, a Collier (a coal-er) was one who delivered coal to his neighbors. A Collier was one who went house to house carrying the light and carrying the heat. I like that. I like that very much.

Sons of Thunder

I'm slow to admit it, but I'll soon cross the line where I can no longer take Wyatt and Seth simultaneously in our Collier Men wrestling scuffles. Up to now, I could easily apportion one arm to each, grip them in a head lock and sing a tune until they cried uncle. 

In addition to growing stronger and larger, they're also smarter. They have learned the power of the alliance. Wyatt likes to stay low to the ground, so he causes a diversion, grappling with me on the floor. I can still manage him, but (especially if I don't want to lose a tooth to one of his roundabout kicks) I have to pay attention. While Wyatt gets me entwined, Seth climbs atop the highest part of the couch and (with a cry lifted from Nacho Libre) hurls himself through the air in a spread-eagle tomahawk dive. A dive that ends with a bony, 8 year old knee slamming into my ribs. 

These boys are relentless. Together, they're downright scary. If I want to postpone my inevitable demise as Wrestling King, then sooner or later, I'll have to go devious and sabotage their federation. I will have to sow discord among the brethren. 

But that won't work for long. Eventually, they'll lock arms again and charge me straight-on. I'll go down in a cloud of sweat and fury. And pinned to the ground, gasping for air, I'll wear the largest grin you've ever seen.

***

Speaking of fathers and sons, I have a piece, a letter to dads, over at the Washington Post.

Lies and Laughter

The week before last was a bear for Wyatt. Elementary school is like the rest of life: there’s sad people and fearful people – and the sad, fearful people take the meanness that’s been heaped on them and hurl it onto others. Sometimes my dad-self wants to march onto the school grounds and put the fear of God into a child or two.

After a particularly difficult day for Wyatt, I had words my son needed to hear. I got on the floor with him in his room, and we talked about the truth. We talked about words that are lies and words that are true; and we talked about how truth is something we hold tight, clinging onto for dear life while lies are the things we stare down and then, with a chuckle and a wag of the head, we say, You are just ridiculous. Wyatt liked that. He liked the word ridiculous, particularly when I repeated it, stretching it out (ri——di—–culous) while exaggerating the laughter and the roll of the eyes. These lies (the ones aimed at the soul) aren’t something to ponder and dissect; they’re something we disarm by refusing them the dignity of a conversation.

This is true for Wyatt in 4th grade. It’s true for me at 40 years. By now, the lies are predictable. I’ve heard most every one (or close cousins) a bujillion times. I can hunker down for the assault and follow that familiar cycle of self-violence. I can give that old snaggle-toothed lie my energy. Or I can stand up straight, breathe deep, and, with the lightheartedness of one who knows nothing’s at stake, I can have a laugh and say, You, old pal, are plain ridiculous.

After a couple of these conversations with Wyatt, he asked me, “Dad, when you’re a kid, is it bad to love your dad almost as much as God?”

“No,” I said, sensing tears, “not at all, Wyatt, not at all.”

I Wish I’d Laughed

Miska's been out of town a couple days, and this morning I was up early, downstairs with a friend and coffee. I heard the pitter-patter of feet on the hardwood above, the wild tribe arising. I found myself saying a prayer for these sleepy-eyed boys, for goodness and love and God to cover them all their days. I had an image of a Wyatt and a Seth, years from now – men who know themselves and their God and their work. My eyes grew moist. These moments catch us unaware.

Then breakfast came and the rush-to-school madness. No one would mistake me for being proficient at such things. My dialogue went something like this: Brush your teeth, get on your socks, grab your backpack, did you brush your teeth?, where's your other sock? uh, brush your teeth, is your homework signed?, where's you hoodie?, no. we can't take your four crates of legos, did we eat breakfast?, socks, boys, socks, Brush. Your. Teeth! Exhausting.

I finally herded the boys down the stairs with instructions to pull on their shoes. When I followed, I noticed Wyatt standing underneath the coat rack, mostly hidden by scarves and jackets and hats. Looking closely, you could make out two little legs and two little Nike tennis shoes. Wyatt was intensely quiet, convinced he was invisible.

I didn't play along. The clock ticked. My nerves were sufficiently taut. I tapped his shoe and, more gruffly than I wish, said, "Come on, Wyatt, let's go."

He did. Wyatt piled out of the mound of clothes, and he grabbed his bag. But before he headed to the car, Wyatt said, "Dad, you didn't even laugh."

I wish I had. I wish I'd laughed. Next time, I hope I do.

On the Second Day of Christmas…

The boys like pallets on the floor
during the holidays

Seth and our dog Daisy went running with me this morning. Seth wanted to bring along his pack of Mentos that arrived in his Christmas stocking. He thought he might need a snack. Seth wore his Clemson jersey, and we hit the pavement. We walked as much as we ran, which is alright with me – you can talk more with a slow pace. When we reached the spot where, when I’m running alone, I begin to pray for my sons, I told him. And I told him what I pray for each of them. We walked that road that has become hallowed ground. I love that boy.

When we returned, it was Wyatt-time. Wyatt had his big Christmas gift, a Lego Kingdoms set, scattered across his floor. I built a castle tower while he constructed a tower and a wall and another tower and sundry other expression of medieval architecture. Wyatt paused his rapid focus only for the several occasions when he felt the urge to comment on how painfully slow my single tower was coming. Wyatt’s decided he’s into rap, God help us; and so for Christmas I searched around for a rapper with appropriate lyrics. We listened to rapper Lecrae and stacked Legos, a strange combo that somehow works. Those moments are prayers, and those spaces are absolutely hallowed ground. I love that boy.

Tonight, I pulled the boys close and told them a story of Prince Calyn who was courageous and strong and true but who, if he would only have listened to Merlin, would have been wiser. But Calyn’s young, and goofing up is the way we actually learn wisdom — there’s plenty of time, plenty of time. Seth lay next to me, nodding off. After The End, Wyatt said, “That story’s alright, but you know…” He makes a tough crowd, but I’ll keep trying. If I want to tell good stories for anyone, it’s these two. Those moments are prayers, and those spaces hallowed ground. I love those boys, I do.

Moral Quandary of Legos

After the boys left for school Monday morning, I came downstairs to this gruesome scene. Wyatt and Seth had a little Lego cum Star Wars battle on the kitchen counter. Apparently this crew means business. I mean, the Stormtrooper I understand. But the dolphin?

Right now, I’m taking a course at the University of Virginia on the Just War Tradition. This scene now raises a whole new host of questions for me.

Words from a Son

Seth turns eight this week. What? I’m pretty sure it was only this past summer that Seth was sneaking out of the house, leaving a trail of shirt and training underpants so he could dance in the front yard sprinkler, not a stitch of clothes to be found on the young buck. That was more like five years ago, I guess. Seth is still dancing. However, he usually keeps his clothes on. Usually.

Seth is all heart. His motto is why have a little drama when you can have a lot? Unlike other not-to-be-named members of our family that I’m married to, I can never remember those Meyer’s-Briggs profiles or Enneagram dealies, but whichever ones describe the person who loves hard and plays hard and laughs hard and wants to dive headlong into every possibility of beauty, joy and delight – that’s Seth.

Sunday night, as I was putting Seth to bed, he said the words every dad hopes one day he might hear. Dad, Seth said, when I grow up, I want to be like you. I might not hear those words again, so I’m going to savor them.

It’s Seth’s birthday, but in truth Seth-style, he’s the one giving the gifts.

Seth and one of his 50bujillion hermit crabs

the resting place of one of the crabs that didn’t make it

Seth’s Perfect Number

Seth turns 7 today. This boy brings immense delight to my heart.

Two days ago, Miska and I had (another) conversation where Seth, with a word and a wink, revealed his tenderness and compassion. As Seth hopped away (he’s something like Tigger, bouncing and twirling and smiling most everywhere he goes), Miska said, “Where did that boy come from?”

I’m pretty sure Seth came from us – I was there for most of it. Still, I share her question: Where did that boy come from?

When I arrived home yesterday, Seth had to talk to me. One of his classmates has been having a rough go. Whenever a parent visits their first-grader for lunch, the kid can pick two friends to eat with him out in the courtyard, with the turtles. But, for one boy in Seth’s class, this has not gone well.

“Dad,” Seth said, “you need to come eat lunch with me tomorrow.”

“Why, Seth?”

“Well, whenever a parent comes to eat lunch, ______ always asks nicely if he can eat lunch with them. And no one ever picks him! And he always asks nicely. But still, they always tell him ‘no.’ So, today I told him I would get my dad to come eat lunch with me – and he could eat with us.”

Insert: dad’s tears.

“And, dad, no one plays with him very much either. He likes to sit by me – but he has to sit by the teacher a lot (apparently, he’s a bit of a wild one…). So, dad, you have to come eat lunch with me. Tomorrow.

I did. Of course I did. Noon appointments cancelled, I had a lunch to go to. I was Seth’s co-conspirator in friendship and kindness. Really, I was just watching. And learning.

I love this boy. Happy birthday, Seth. You are a gift to this world.

Turks of Finance

This past weekend, we had a yard sale, clearing out a few closets and trying to unload a mish-mash of, uhm treasures, on unsuspecting neighbors. It took a bit of coaxing to convince Wyatt and Seth to relinquish a small collection of busted cars and forgotten stuffed animals. These toys were all buried in the dark recesses of their room, places where even an OCD-for-clean mother dares not roam (I’m not saying we have one of those in our house – just a literary image, work with me); but as soon as they caught wind of the fact that they would no longer own these tattered items they didn’t remember they had, you’d have thought we suggested they abandon their closest, dearest friend to a life of misery and pain. How could we…? 

Their disbelief at our cold-hearted ways did an about-face, however, the moment they saw the possibilities. They concocted a scheme. Rather than contributing to the family pot like the rest of us, they would keep the proceeds from their items. I’m not sure how Miska and I let that one sneak by, we’re still piecing that together. But now, finding stuff to sell was no longer a problem. They would have sold one another if they could have figured out how.

Next, the boys talked Miska into a lemonade and cookie stand. Lemonade Miska and I paid for, cookies Miska made. And the two young titans informed us that, if we cared to taste either, we were more than welcome to make a purchase. We could even charge it, if cash were a problem.

That afternoon after we finished, Wyatt and Seth were flush with capitalistic visions. And Wyatt wanted to share.

Wyatt: I know something a little bit good.

Me: What’s that?

Wyatt: When you guys die – well, its not good that you will die – but when you guys die, Seth and me are going to inhale a lot of money.

Miska: Do you mean inherit?

Wyatt: Yeah, we are going to inherit a lot of money. We’re going to have a big sale with all your stuff. And we are going to make a lot of money… like $200!

Two Benjamin Franklins, that’s it. And maybe the cost of a lemonade and chocolate chip cookie tossed in, just to be generous.