The Tree

About 18 months ago, we had to bring down a 100 year old Ash in our front yard, a truly sad weekend. But after the pros brought it low, we spent days splitting and stacking and hauling. Next, my friend Tom, the finest carpenter I know, loaded a couple large pieces of the Ash into his truck and carried them to his shop (an astounding place, by the way). A couple weeks later, Tom dropped off this beautiful bench. I’m finally getting to the staining, and we’re two coats down, looking like honey.
 
I’m thankful I had the chance to swing an axe in a crisp December with my sons, thankful for this big beautiful tree that has watched over this land for a century, thankful for the rest and conversation this tree will make possible for generations more.

Faithful with the Little Things

Last week on my run, I cut across the high school parking lot as I always do. The glint of copper and silver caught my eye, and there on the blacktop I beheld a quarter, a dime, a couple nickels and pennies. It wasn’t enough to make a poor man stop being poor, but it was real money, just lying there and waiting for someone to notice. Because I am the son of John W. Collier, there was no question what my next move would be. From the time I was barely big enough to waddle alongside my dad, anytime he would see any coin – any coin, a single penny – abandoned anywhere, he would always stop and pick it up, drop it in his pocket and say, “God says if you are faithful with the little things, he’ll trust you with bigger things.” I can’t tell you how many times I saw my dad walk out of his way to pick up a dirty ol’ penny, how many times he enacted his version of being faithful to the little things. If I had a penny for every time he picked up a penny, then I’d have a dump truck load of pennies.

So of course, I stopped, crawled down on the sticky asphalt and fingered the tiny scattering of coins. I tossed the grimy metal in my pocket, and I thought of what my dad would say right about then. I smiled, and I went back to pounding the pavement.

On my first run this week, I passed exactly that same way. I’m pretty darn certain it was even the exact same parking spot. And gosh almighty if there wasn’t another pile of coins, larger than the first one, just lying out in the open sun, like it was waiting for me. This time there were two quarters and several dimes and maybe 5 nickels and more pennies. It still wasn’t enough to buy 1/2 a latte at the coffee shop, but I doubled my take in one swoop. I’m no mathematician, but I have seen a calculator–and I know that crazy rule of compound interest. If this trend were to continue, I’d get to be faithful over bigger things indeed. So, grinning ear to ear and imagining my dad grinning ear to ear, I dashed off with a real jingle in my pocket.

Now I don’t know if Michael the Archangel gets a kick out of these distractions and dropped those coins, all the while chuckling and ribbing a few of his celestial buddies (watch this…). Or maybe some poor tenth-grader has an as-of-yet undiscovered hole in his North Face backpack and leaves coins strewn from here to kingdom come. But either way, I’m picking ’em up. That’s what my dad taught me. I’m raking it in.

 

 

Once Upon the Ides of March

Last Wednesday, I sat in the North Oval Room of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda. It’s an auspicious place, one of Thomas Jefferson’s pinnacle achievements now marked as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after Rome’s Pantheon, explaining how it was to “represent the authority of nature and the power of reason.” One could never accuse Jefferson of underselling expectations.

I took my spot on one lonely end of a massive boardroom table that seemed to stretch all the way to DC. Around the table sat professors I admire and respect, teachers with serious academic pedigrees. In other words, nothing like me. I was there to defend my PhD dissertation. After course work and languages and a grueling year of comprehensive exams, I’ve spent two years writing about Wendell Berry’s marvelous fiction and how God’s grace shows up in the common, everyday fabric: in that rich Kentucky soil, in those rivers and hills, in those sturdy friendships, in their sorrows, in the life they make in that one unique place. My hope was to better understand Berry’s writing, but just as much, my hope was to better understand my own world and how God shows up in the unique places and people of my life.

There I was, sweating bullets, only to realize that right off the bat I’d made two unfortunate blunders. First, we set my defense date for March 15: the Ides of March. Ominous. Worse, just under the wire, I’d scratched out my heartfelt acknowledgments on the very first page of my dissertation and there, in an ill-advised flourish, I misused the word literally. I mean seriously? – literally? The abuse of this word is the bane of most every middle school grammar teacher in the English-speaking world. I didn’t have tons going for me in this context, but at least I’m supposed to be a writer. I’m supposed to understand elementary vocabulary. I felt like I was rolling into the Rotunda on my tricycle.

Thankfully, the defense went well, and I’m now done. It’s a marvelous feeling.

I’ve asked myself numerous times over the past 5 years why exactly I’ve done this. I’m not entirely sure, but at the most basic I did it because I wanted to and because Miska saw something important here as well. I remember the day when Miska, after years of batting around the crazy idea with me, said, “Winn, I think you have to do this.” That was the lynchpin.

Miska’s my best friend, my partner, the one I trust the most. Last Wednesday, on the other end of that long table, Miska sat there, observing, smiling. Every once in a while, I still hear people talk about the “self-made man.” That’s ridiculous.

 

Clemson: It’s All About Love

This may seem like a story about football, but it’s really a story about love.

In 2001, Miska and I moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where a little town and a little circle of friends welcomed us and, over the years, became part of the intimate fabric of our lives. I’ve been passionate for college football since I was a boy, but I was unprepared for Clemson. When we arrived, the Tigers’ football program was mediocre, flashes of brilliance overwhelmed by moments of disaster. However, the Clemson faithful captured me. They were generous to the fans of opposing teams, unflinchingly supportive of their school and all sports, had the most massive tailgate parties, were rabid in their enthusiasm (I mean, orange overalls…) and there was something sturdy mixed in with all this that went far deeper than only winning or losing. As Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s coach, says, “It’s all about love.” That says it right. These Clemson people loved their school, their history, the Blue Ridge mountains that surrounded them. And they loved one another. It’s cliche, I know, but the place really is like a big family – and it gets in your bones. So many of our dearest friends were Clemson students or alums, and they exuded a vibrancy, a joy, that was radiant. Like a bee to honey, I couldn’t resist.

I went to a small private college and never had this kind of loyalty or esprit de corps around a university. Once I realized what had happened to me and how, without intending to, I had thrown in my lot with Clemson, I’ve always wished I had attended the school or been a fan since childhood. However, both our boys have this. They were born in Clemson, and when they were only wee tikes I’d carry them atop my shoulders into Death Valley. Seth was all-in orange and purple from the beginning, and after we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, every year for Seth’s birthday, we road trip to a Clemson home game (sometimes Wyatt joins for a second game or the Spring game). Seth’s a man of tradition, and every year, he wants the same routine: pick him up at noon from school with Bodo’s packed for lunch, stop at Zaxby’s in SC for dinner, pre-game lunch at Moe’s on game day, a stop in at Judge Keller’s or the Tiger Sports Shop to look at gear, scream like mad for 3.5 hours inside Memorial Stadium, dinner at Bojangles on the ride home. Obviously, good nutrition is not a priority. Those weekends are about a day on the gridiron, but they’re so much more. It’s a father and a son, sharing a passion, putting miles on the road together. It’s me enacting, year after year, how much I adore this son of mine. I hope he’ll remember, come every fall and even when he’s old, how much he was loved.

So when Clemson stamped their ticket for a trip to the 2016 College Football National Championship, there was pandemonium in our house. I looked at tickets early, but they were astronomical. However, on Saturday night before the game, I saw how ticket prices had plummetted and how redeye flights to Vegas were dirt cheap. So, I woke the boys Sunday morning and told them to pack their bags because we were heading to Phoenix. Their eyes went wide, they jumped out of bed, and the next three days were a joyful, chaotic flurry.  I never imagined being able to actually sit in the stands at a National Championship game, especially cheering on your team. And to surprise my boys with this trip and then sit between them, one of them hanging their arm around my shoulder the entire fourth quarter – that was pure magic. 

After arriving home from Phoenix and hoping that Clemson-lightning would strike twice, I reserved a hotel on the outskirts of Tampa, the sight for the game more than a year away. I snagged a good price, and I knew that come January 2017, rooms would be scarce and prices outrageous. I did this in hopes for one more opportunity to take the boys to see Clemson play for all the marbles, maybe even a chance at redemption since they came up short in the desert. The boys knew we’d try our best to go again; however, this year, ticket prices never came down and as of Saturday night this time, they were hovering around $1200 a piece. I told the boys the chances of finding tickets we could afford were next to nil and that it probably made sense to admit we’d done our best but to call it quits. Seth, ever the faithful one, said, “But dad, we’ve got to at least try. And anyway, I just want the trip and the experience with you.” After clearing the lump in my throat, I loaded up the car.

We left Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and drove through North Carolina where, for more than 2 hours on I-95, we creeped and skidded across sheets of ice. The temperature gauge said 1˚. Every time I thought of turning the car around, I’d look over at Wyatt and Seth, eager, hopeful. We kept pointing South. On Monday, we pulled into the HCC parking lot at Raymond James Stadium and over the next 3.5 hours worked the parking lots and sidewalks in search of tickets. The entire time, we saw only 2 genuine tickets (along with a number of scalpers hawking counterfeits), and they were $2,000 each. The boys were troopers, but I’ll be honest, I was struggling. I wanted so badly to at least get those boys in, at least get Seth in.

About an hour before kickoff, when things were looking grim, we made our way over to the one merchandise tent we could find because Seth had decided that if he couldn’t get inside, he at least wanted to get one of the Clemson National Championship scarves. Of course, the scarves were all sold out. Are you freaking kidding me? Maybe this is the place where I’m supposed to say that the trip was epic and we made memories and getting tickets wasn’t really the point. But getting tickets was at least part of the point. The trip was indeed epic, and I’m so glad we gave it a go. But it still smarts, that we were right there, so close, and I couldn’t get them inside.

Finally, as the bands and the announcer warmed up the crowd for the tip off and after it became obvious there were no tickets to be had, we dashed to our car, dialed up the radio and gunned it toward the hotel. We rushed into the Flying J Truck Stop, loading up on pizza, wings, Dr. Pepper, “fruit” snacks and blueberry muffins. We raced to our room and for the next 4 hours raised holy ruckus on the third floor of the Country Inn & Suites. When Deshaun Watson threw that final TD to Hunter Renfrow, we screamed and pounded and ran in circles. Wyatt jumped up and down on the bed like it was a trampoline. My eyes may have been wet.

That night, Wyatt came over to me and laid his hunk of a frame over me, placed his arms around my neck and buried his head into my chest. “Dad, it’s okay that we didn’t get into the game. I just wanted to watch it with you.” So yeah, it’s all about love. It truly is.

The Beauty of Inefficiency

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.

Breakfast Laughter

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.

Honeysuckle

Until I was seven years old, Miska and I both lived in Middle Tennessee, with only 75 miles separating us. Our worlds never intersected, but we watched fireflies under the same summer sky. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if we had met then. On Saturdays, my dad would often take his motorcycle out on the serpentine country roads. On a few occasions, dad loaded me on the seat behind him, and we’d roll through the hills. We always stuck to the backroads, and I wonder if it’s possible we might have rumbled past Tolleson Road. Is it possible I caught a glimpse of Miska running barefoot through the grass or lying under the big elm with her best friends, her dogs? Could I have happened by just as Miska rode the tractor with her pappy or right when she made one of her courageous jumps out their barn’s hayloft?

I don’t know, but I’ll thank God every day that fifteen years later, I found my way back to her. Strange that we’d meet in Florida of all places.

I was thinking of all this, our shared geography and the way of fate, this morning. As kids, we both remember loving the first scent of our Tennessee honeysuckle, and in our backyard now, the Virginia honeysuckle has made its first appearance. It’s a marvelous scent of life and lush bounty. And it’s a reminder of where we’ve been and the grace that has carried us to this place. Life is a wonder.

 

The Lingering Moments

I probably have until July before Wyatt, our oldest, stands taller than me. That looming event feels like the crossing of some kind of fatherly Rubicon. His shoes are already 2.5 sizes larger than mine, and last week when I needed to borrow a pair of running socks, he answered, “Sure, dad – but they’re too big for you.” Wyatt said this without jest or boast, simply matter of fact. As of last Sunday, I can still take him one-on-one in basketball, but only by sheer intimidation. Dads have a special knack for rattling their kid’s psyche, it’s a gift. For some ridiculous reason, Wyatt believes I can still beat him in a 40 yard dash. In a few weeks, Wyatt turns thirteen, so my days are numbered. In so many ways, my days are numbered.

When he was a tike, Wyatt endured acute sensory issues. At night, he didn’t want any blanket on his body, and many kinds of clothes were problems for him. He was a porcupine whenever we tried to hold him close. Affection was hard won, but we persisted. I want to be the dad who can always kiss his sons, even when my sons have sons or daughters of their own. So I regularly tousle the boys’ hair and kiss their forehead. I hug them and squeeze their shoulders and tell them, each morning before they leave for school and each night before they go to be bed, that I love them. Our youngest, Seth, soaks up the affection, and for years I’ve hoped we’d eventually win Wyatt over.

Last week, Wyatt, Seth and I walked into Whole Foods to buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I walked between the two, my left arm draped over Wyatt’s shoulder and my right arm draped over Seth’s. In turn, both boys spread an arm over me. We walked in step, like the Rockettes. I realized how I was no longer surprised with Wyatt being the first to come in close, the one to lean heaviest into me. As we entered the store, I believe I sensed Wyatt slow to pull away, as if he wanted our walk to linger a few moments longer. I know I did. I want so many of these moments to linger longer.

Relax a Little

A conflation of events conspired this year to keep our boys from summer camp, and this weekend they were reminiscing over memories from last year’s adventure. Seth reminded us, as he does each time the topic of summer camp comes up, that he missed us terribly. “I almost cried every night,” Seth lamented, his nine-year-old voice full of pathos. “I almost cried every night because I missed you so bad.”

Wyatt, our blunt realist, chimed in. “I did miss you guys at camp…” and Wyatt paused for only a millisecond. “But mainly I was glad I could go to the Snack Shack and buy Cheetos.”

Our children need us. They need our love, our care. We’re parents, and we’re necessary dagnabbit. It’s also good to remember, though, that our children probably don’t need us as much as we think. This kid-raising gig isn’t quite as precarious as our hand-wringing suggests. We could relax a little. Sometimes the kid just needs a bag of Cheetos.

 

Be loved. Be brave.

This morning around the breakfast table, we opened our box of question cards. Each person receives a card, and each person answers a question. Seth’s card asked him to state our family motto. Because Seth takes such things seriously, he needed time to consider and asked us to return to him. Midway into the next person’s question, Seth’s hands shot up, and he blurted out, “I know it! Be loved. Be brave.”

You wonder if your knucklehead parenting has done anything more than make plain as day your woeful inadequacies, if anything you have said or done has even begun to break through. And then, over sourdough and oatmeal, your son says Be loved. Be brave.

That gets at the soul of it. If the boys know they are loved, and if they hear the call to courage, I believe we’ve covered the bases.

I hope these words for each of us. As far as mottos go, we could do a lot worse.

Be loved. Be still and know that you are loved. Receive love when it’s offered – and watch for it because it will be. I know anger and meanness will swing your way, but I promise you that love will come too. Hear love in the wind. Look for love in the common kindness of a friend. But the most difficult part, as I’ve come to see it, is to let love reach us. It’s a scary thing to live awake and open.

Be brave. The temptation will be to back up or quiet down. To pull in. But we need good, solid people who will live the one life only they can live. And live it in technicolor, with an audacity that makes it impossible for the rest of us not to marvel at the goodness of it all.

Be loved. Be brave.