Those Dogged Daffodils

It’s not even Valentine’s Day for crying out loud, and yet the daffodils scattered across our front yard are punching their way out of the cold, hard dirt, reaching up toward the sunshine. This resurrection is an even more rigorous task than usual for these flimsy green shoots because the mammoth Ash we had to bring low refused to go quietly and left in its wake piles of split logs, mulch ground from the small branches and a towering pile of shavings from the mother of all stumps we had to grind out of the earth if we ever wanted to have another tree make its home here again. Yesterday, a fellow moved a truckload of wood, and underneath crouched those defiant, dainty daffodils, bits of green hanging on for dear life, nearly flattened to the ground, but pushing forward slivers of yellow and white. What’s a couple tons of wood to a tough ol’ daffodil?

They’ve got spunk, these early-bird jonquils. After all this effort, they’re out there basking in the warm rays, all the while daring Old Man Winter to bring his worst. Surely somewhere in the flora’s biological memory, it knows the warmth is a ruse, that we’re not done with the serious cold snaps. Yet there they are, risk-takers with a flair. If these daffodils could make their way to Vegas, there’d be a crowd around their blackjack table for sure. They might lose every dime to their name, but they’d go down in a blaze of fury and glory.

Such beauty and tenderness, such courage and tenacity. I hope they make it through the coming weeks. But if they don’t, I will be grateful for their burn-in-the-wind life.

 

Telling Your Own Story

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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.

 

The History of our Heart

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.

A Word for Cowards

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.

Signals for the Yes

As we embrace a kind of holy indifference for those things which are not our responsibility (at least not for now), we discover new energy for those peculiar spaces we are meant to inhabit, those conversations that perhaps we alone can pursue, that obscure work that few notice and might go entirely ignored unless we stray from the pack and get to it. So long as we expend our energy churning to keep up with everyone else’s burning emergency, we have no energy for the one life we must live. Inevitably, we find ourselves bone-weary, guilt-laden or perhaps worst of all – a cynic unable to live open, generous and free.

Last week, a good friend reminded me of David Whyte’s words I’ve long appreciated: “the antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.” To be sure, rest and leisure, kicking up the feet and laying low for a spell, is more than necessary. Yet, our deep weariness comes whenever our skill, energy or hopes do not burn from that deep truth God has tattooed on our soul. To live wholehearted, we must say no to many worthwhile things, and we must say yes to a few absolutely essential things.

I’ve happened upon a few signals (and I’m sure there are more) for how to know where my yes should be. I pay attention to the tears, particularly those moments where my heart takes a prick and I don’t know exactly why – this is a path I should follow. I pay attention to the joy, those jolts of delight or pleasure that always make me more alive, more gentle, more bold. And I pay attention to the quiet, those occasions where I sense a conviction of something I must do – but I don’t want to talk about it just now. It’s a smoldering fire; there’s heat but also a reticence to draw too much attention.

The Gift of No

Several years ago, I made a request of a man I dearly love, a man who has probably had as much influence on me as any person outside my family. My request was personal and relationally risky. I felt the queasy stomach that comes whenever you put yourself on a limb, exposing your desires and wondering if you’re going to look foolish or needy or prove to be a bother.

Still, I made the ask. And the answer was no. While the kind response provided a straightforward reason, he did not strain to soften my inevitable disappointment. He did not work hard to offer alternative possibilities, the way one motivated by guilt frantically searches for anything to relieve the tension. He did not pile on the many reasons why this situation was out of his control. The truth is that his answer was in his control. He simply concluded that he would not be able to meet my desire, and that was the end of the matter.

The finality landed a punch in the gut. I was not angry, but I was genuinely sad. I’m still sad some days when I reflect on the episode. However, I believe this dear man offered, through his refusal, a gift more precious to me than if he had granted what I wanted. He modeled for me the necessity and the power of a straight, unequivocal no.

It’s rare these days to find a woman or man who knows themselves so well that they are clear on where they must say yes and clear on where they must say no. Even rarer is the person so comfortable in their own skin that they know they do not bear the responsibility for how another handles the fact that they can not deliver. Those of us who live our lives under the weight of another’s expectations become a frail or embittered shell of our true selves. Do not walk this road. We need the true you, the strong you. To stay true, we must learn to say no with increasing frequency. We need to learn the courage of our no and trust that others will need to learn this same courage as well.

The Mad Dash

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, as though 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.

The Courage of Forgiveness

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.

Kilts and Courage

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?

 

Risk Our Significance

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.

 

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