Seeing Francis

I was sitting in the Philly airport eating my Smash Burger breakfast sandwich (I know, right?), trying to regroup from a before-the-crack-of-dawn flight. And who walks right up to the Smash Burger line? None other than Francis Collins, director of the National Institute for Health, a renown academic and scientist and Christian and thinker who’s done a heck of a lot to help a number of us recapture a sense of gratitude and hope as we ponder the many splendid wonders of science and remember how, as people of faith, we marvel and are not afraid.
 
I’ve never met Francis, but I’ve seen his photos numerous times and watched a great SMU commencement speech on YouTube (where he to conclude he pulled out his guitar and sang the graduates a folk song; he’s grand). So there he was, by himself, dragging his clicketty-clacketty carry-on around the food court, hunting down breakfast. I thought for only a moment, but I had an hour and he didn’t look like he was in a hurry. “Why not?” I thought, “Why not breakfast with Francis? It could happen.”
 
So of course I walked up to him, and how else do you start this introduction? “Are you Francis Collins?” I asked, and I may have been a tad exuberant.
 
He looked at me blankly. “What?” I went at it again. He wrinkled his brow and stepped back, as if I’d just asked, “Do you know I’m about to blow fire out my nose?”
 
“No, no,” he shook his head, bewildered. “Not me,” he said, waving his hand as if to ward off my tsunami of disappointment.
 
I returned to my table, deflated. He rolled his bag away, to find his bagel, sit down in peace and google: “Francis Collins.”
postscript: Mr. Collins, should you ever happen upon this, I would still dearly love to meet you. Smash Burger’s on me.

Wendell Berry and the Gift of Interruption

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.

Dear LeBron James

lebron james goes to cleveland

 

Dear LeBron,

You’ve done something extraordinary. You’ve made me pause and give attention to the NBA. When you dominate the bulk of NPR’s 7 minutes per week slated for sports coverage, then you have truly arrived. Most would think the signal of your cultural ascendancy was your gargantuan contracts, MVP’s, magazine spreads or championship rings. But no.

I want to tell you that I admire your return to Cleveland. I like Cleveland, I like a town with grit. What’s more, Drew Carey’s from Cleveland, so that makes Cleveland awesome. And for someone who has no legitimate connection with the city whatsoever, I’ve long had an inexplicable soft spot for Cleveland teams. In my opinion, the Browns have the best uniforms in the NFL. Brown and orange, so earthy. It’s like a color palette from Restoration Hardware’s Fall line. This observation will surely assuage the gloom of Cleveland Nation. Would you pass the word, tell them I said so?

But I digress. So, your return to Cleveland. There was no possible way for you to win on this one. You stay in Miami or take your sneakers — do you call them sneakers, by the way? Just curious. That’d be so fantastic and old school if you do — anyway, you stay in Miami or take your old school sneakers to any of the other high-gear franchises and you’re called a mercenary moneygrubber. You return to Cleveland and the history I’m sure you’d like to forget just cues again. You have to grapple with the fans who were devastated and endure the entire sports world dissecting your motives. You have to recount the images of your jersey being burned. You have to leave the fabulous Cuban food in Miami. Whew, I’m exhausted just writing it.

Anyway, it seems to me like you just said “screw it” and did what you wanted. I like that. (I also liked that you didn’t do the whole prime time announcement thing again. I mean, I know there was no way you were repeating that. And I know you’re sick of hearing about it, but man…wow…yeah, the simple print interview was much better. Live and learn.)

Of course, it’s possible this whole deal was a publicity coup. I know you’ve got big suits helping you navigate such things. But Lebron, the answer you gave for why Cleveland? rang true. You simply said that you wanted to go back home. I think that’s what we all want, in one way or the other. We want to return. We want to find our way back to our people, to the places or the friendships that we have carried with us even when we had to roam. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out who exactly we’re going to give ourselves to, who (or what) we are responsible for, where we will lay our weight down. But whenever we find that place, those friends, I hope we’ll all have the courage to name it home. I hope we’ll have the courage to draw a circle there and say, “Count me in.”

 

be well,

Winn

P.S. You know, the whole time I’ve been writing about you finding your way back home, Dorothy and Oz and getting those pony tails back to Kansas keeps popping in my brain. And I apologize because the mental image of you in a blue gingham dress and glittery ruby slippers is pretty darn hilarious. You could totally slam dunk the Wicked Witch, no doubt in my mind.

Troubadors

On my jog down Main Street yesterday morning, I encountered a young couple busking. They were obviously new to the trade, out so early when the crowd is sparse and the tips will be almost nil. Perhaps this was their gig, just learning the ropes and stepping in slowly when there’s less risk, less comparison to the many fine musicians who, on the really good days, make Charlottesville’s downtown mall something like an open-air version of Austin City Limits. The fellow, hair flowing and guitar raging, wailed lyrics to songs I did not recognize. I would not call his voice powerful or beautiful or clear even, but he owned every syllable. I will not criticize; it worked for Dylan. The woman, however, sang meekly. As I ran closer, her voice grew softer and softer. Her eyes dropped to the ground. I think, for her, it was courage simply to stay in place and keep her mouth moving in hopes that sound might squeak out.

In the afternoon, I was again downtown for errands, and another couple had secured Main Street for their stage. This duo, however, were legitimate troubadours. I could imagine them as the coolest street-smart characters from a Dickens’ novel…if Copperfield had displayed a penchant for futuristic fantasy…and been set in Nashville. The fellow wore tight black pants, black boots and a black vest over his bare chest. A black-straw summer fedora topped his head, with a couple dark curls, like Jewish payots, dropping to his jaw. His guitar hung from his shoulders, and he played a folksy tune, a cross between the Avett Brothers and a circus tune if you can imagine.

The woman wore a black lace top and a black mid-length skirt. Black stockings rose to just below her knee, black shoes. Her body swayed as she worked the rhythm of her black accordion. Both musicians had face tattoos, shapes of elongated spider webs or perhaps a mythical Celtic symbol. They were a sight. And they could play and sing.

His fingers danced up the neck of his guitar, and she made that little accordion hum. The melody was haunting, crisp. This was music that, if you were to stay for more than a few verses, would eventually require some kind of commitment. Their open guitar case sat on the ground, a few wadded dollars and copies of a self-produced CD lying on the faded red velvet.

What fascinated me most, however, was two little bells sitting at the woman’s feet. These were the old brass-colored bells that you’d find in the mom and pop dry cleaners, the ones on the front counter with a note next to them saying, “We’re in the back. Ring for service.” The woman had these two bells with two different pitches (who knew?), and her feet tapped them, creating a magical rhythm that covered this space of crowded commerce with enchantment. She rang that bell and danced with her accordion, and we all were caught up in her beauty.

A woman with the courage to hold her ground and a woman with the courage to ring, ring those bells. We’re all in different places, we’re all learning to trust what we have to give. We all can add to the music of this old world.

A Matron of Grace

Glorious, glorious spring has arrived in Charlottesville, and all the Colliers are clapping our hands in delight and gratitude. On Saturday we pulled out the bikes and made a family caravan, like a line of eager ducks, downtown to the outdoor City Market. Each weekend, the Market takes over an expansive parking lot and packs in vendor’s booths, tight as sardines. Organic plants (three tomatoes, one red pepper and two basil for us), fresh produce, baked goods (Wyatt scarfed a blueberry muffin nearly as big as his face), those dangerous handcrafted tacos (line stretching at least half a block) and every manner of artisan craft (jewelery, paintings, woodwork, you name it). It’s a marvelous mess of creation, humanity and goodness.

After Wyatt picked out his colossal-sized muffin, I went to pay and found myself among a small crush pressed tight between two vendors, one tempting us with an assortment of fluffy biscuits, the other displaying tarts and pound cake and cookies. A perilous spot. I stood behind an elderly woman, in her eighties I suspect. She was tall, but slightly stooped. She wore a faded denim shirt, full sleeves and a dark blue skirt flowing nearly to the ground. Her silver hair touched her shoulders, a beauty undiminished by her aged frame and her shuffling movement.

Attempting to step away from the table, the matron turned toward me. She caught me unawares, and I simply froze. We met face to face, only two or three inches separating us. Without a hiccup or any hesitation, she smiled, big blue eyes. She put her finger up right at my goatee. “My, my,” she chuckled. Her kind, raspy voice barely more than a whisper. “Isn’t that a cute mustache.” And then she moved past me.

That exchange, those words, have brought me joy for the past two days. A very human moment, right up close. It was the most natural thing for that dear woman to put her hand to my face, to hold my eyes with hers, to speak a word of delight. My only regret is that I wish I’d possessed the presence of body and soul that she carried so easily. I wish I had kissed her on her cheek.

Maximilian Kolbe

kolbe01Raymund Kolbe was born in the Kingdom of Poland in 1894 and, with his brother Francis, joined the Franciscan Order in 1907. Kolbe was given the religious name Maximilian and after becoming a priest, he assisted the formation of a new Japanese monastery near Nagasaki. Sometime in 1936 or 1937, Church authorities asked Maximilian to return and oversee the friary near Warsaw. When the Nazis captured Poland, the world Kolbe had known ceased to exist. Though the SS initially arrested Father Kolbe and shuttered the friary, he was eventually allowed to return, with only four other brothers to maintain the property. Kolbe immediately organized a harrowing plan to hide refugees. Before their clandestine efforts were discovered, they sheltered nearly 2,000 Jews from persecution and hid another 1,000 Polish dissidents.

When Kolbe was arrested, the SS shipped him to Auschwitz, the notorious death camp. Father Kolbe was prisoner #16670. Though beaten, forced to labor long hours under excruciating conditions and given sparse food, Father Kolbe’s gentleness never waned. Prisoners recount how he would rarely rest and even in the night would walk bed to bed. “I am a priest. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

After one prisoner escaped camp, Auschwitz’s commandant instructed the guards to select ten prisoners who would be put in a bunker and starved to death as punishment for the escape and to dissuade any future attempts. When Franciszek Gajowniczek, imprisoned for aiding the Polish Resistance, was chosen, he sobbed. “My poor wife! My children! What will they do?”

Kolbe stepped forward and asked to go to the bunker in Gajowniczek’s place. The commandant agreed, and Gajowniczek recounts the moment:

I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?…I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this…

For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the last.


In the bunker, Kolbe prayed with the men, read Psalms, sang hymns. After two weeks, he was the only prisoner still alive. Wanting to empty the bunker, one of the guards gave Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid. Father Kolbe died on August 14, 1941.

One of Auschwitz’s survivors, Jerzy Bielecki, described Kolbe’s death as “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”

Franciszek Gajowniczek lived. He returned to his wife, a reunion mixed with sorrow as the war had taken his sons. Gajowniczek lived to the happy age of 95, buried in March 1995. Every year, Gajowniczek returned to Auschwitz. Every day of his life, he remembered this powerful shaft of light.

maximilian_smaller

Silver Angel

The first time I saw her, I did not know whether she was an angel or simply disturbed. With silver hair shimmering down her back, past her waist, I could not miss her form even given the distance. I know every inch of this sidewalk, these blocks, the feet and the faces that frequent this route with me, but she was new. The tiny courtyard where she stood, back turned to me, is the lone and final outpost where those from the institutional home can go for smokes. It’s a sad concrete island, with one small bench, where smoke from the mufflers mixes with the nicotine.

The silver-haired woman did not sit, and she did not smoke. She raised her hands, shoulder-high and palms up. The outcast island transfigured into a sanctuary. One quiet person in one loud space can transform ugly into beauty, isolation into presence, endings into beginnings.

As I jogged closer, she turned toward the street, and I could see her face turned upward. She had a gentle, expectant smile. A smile of contentment, of revelation. She opened herself to the sun. Her eyes were closed, but she drank the sunlight. The warmth washed over her open hands, like water poured from a basin. And her lips mumbled words – or were they trembling? The woman with silver hair stood in the bright, her countenance shining. She prayed into the light as an SUV and a Prius and one curious jogger passed.

The next morning, the scene repeated. Only this time, the shimmering woman stood outside the front door, atop the rickety stairs. She stood straight, a pillar. Her eyes closed and face upward toward the warm beams, hands hung by her side. The same radiance, the same settled, knowing smile. Cars whizzed, honks, a man walking in front of the fire station across the street yelled to a friend in a sedan. I jogged past. She did not move. She was in tune with something beneath it all, over us all.

I do not know if the shimmering woman is an angel, but if she is disturbed, one could do worse than being a bit disturbed.