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.

The Day I Ask for Your Help

Fifteen years ago (I thought it was ten, but Miska had me do the math and bam! it’s 5 more than thought), I began my blog. For the past decade and half, most every Monday, I’ve scribbled a few words and posted them. This work has been my delight, and though some weeks the words may be lithe or fiery, other weeks they’re dinky and plain. It’s like our lives, isn’t it? Sometimes it revs; sometimes it putters. But the way forward is simply to keep moving, keep working, keep loving. Over these years I’ve slowly connected with you. Some of you are friends in the flesh. Some of you have become friends from a distance, with your emails or comments or Facebook connections. Some of you are quiet souls, but you’re there, reading. And I’m grateful.

I’ve always thought of my blog as one way that I can offer a small, simple gift to the world: a few words that I hope somehow contributes to the world’s beauty (rather than its desecration). I don’t know how well I’ve succeeded, but I’ve worked out of my desire to contribute something toward your own hope and joy. I pray that, here and there, you’ve found light and goodness in this space.

However, today is the day when I bluntly ask you to do something for me in return. Though it’s been 9 years since I’ve published a book, these longer works sit at the heart of what I have to offer as a writer. And yet, my books have received less than lackluster attention. The fine folks at Eerdmans have taken another gamble that they won’t lose their shirt on me, and they’ve published my first fiction: Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church. And cue the fireworks: It’s released today. Amazon, big boys on the block as they are, actually started shipping books early, but the book is finally available nationwide today. It’s a party!

And I will not mince words: I need your help. Publishers talk about how important a writer’s “platform” is, and while there’s obvious truth to this notion, I’ve never much liked the word or the energy that surrounds it. The reality is that according to the Powers that Be, you are my platform. You are the people who (I hope) believe in my writing, find meaning in it and believe it’s worthy of being read. However, we are small in number. And I need your help especially today and then over the coming few weeks. I really don’t have any backup team; you’re it. If you think that my books should continue, then I need you to throw a little weight my way.

Here’s what you can do:

Buy the book. A straight up ask. I give away most of my words for free, but these words I need you to purchase. You can find Love Big, Be Well at Amazon, Hearts and Minds Books or your favorite local bookstore. And if possible, it helps to buy books today, as we launch it into the wide, wide world.

Consider purchasing the book as a gift for your pastor, friend, sibling, aunt (heck, your deranged neighbor who stares in your windows at night – at least it will keep him occupied for a couple evenings). It’s like $13 at Amazon (and Hearts and Minds is offering a 20% discount), and if you buy a couple copies, you get free shipping. I mean, you might as well spend the money on this Christmas gift rather than a new toe-ring for Grandma or a new fidget spinner for the cousins.

Send an email to a few of your friends who you think might be interested and tell them about the book. Lots of people are looking for new books as we move into the holidays, and most of us snag the books that people recommend to us. If you want someone else’s recommendation to pass along, you can use either of these images I’ve shared or you can tell them that some reviewers have compared it to Wendell Berry’s fiction or to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Or better than all that, you can just tell them that a guy you know named Winn has written a book you think they might enjoy.

Review on Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes and Noble. Especially Amazon. The more reviews, the more people see the book; I don’t know how this magic works.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for your help.

 

 

 

Gonna Be Okay

Trekking through the airport las week, I saw grey-headed couples walking slowly, carefully, maneuvering those treacherous moving walker ramps and navigating hordes of oncoming crowds but holding hands tight, as they’ve apparently done for many decades. I saw multiple women with swollen bellies, patting their bump as they walked and chatted, a subconscious gesture of hope and blessing. I saw a dad holding his tiny, sleeping daughter in his arms, cradling her with her head buried in his chest, her blue pacifier in place; it seemed this young daughter of his was his only care in the world. I saw a woman wearing a hijab preparing to roll a wheelchair for someone who would never, ever wear a hijab.

Best of all, on my flight, I saw a middle-aged man (of one color) stand his ground firmly, yet kindly, with an airline stewardess until the young woman (of another color) seated near him, the woman who was terrified of flying, got the window seat she needed in order to feel a little safer. Then I saw this same young woman, at each lurch or shake from turbulence, look behind her, desperate for assurance, to the man who had become her fierce guardian. And I saw him learn forward, gently pat her shoulder and say, “It’s a little rough now, but you’re gonna be okay.”

We’re struggling friends, and all that’s wrong may seem to overwhelm what’s good. But that’s not the deep story. As my new friend said: It’s a little rough now, but we’re gonna be okay.

 

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.

Love is a Burning Thing

Carter’s slate grey Jeep idled on the street across from the historic red brick Palmetto Plantation House. The Women’s Ivy Auxiliary beautifully restored The Palmetto, a wrap-around porch with swings and wicker ceiling fans and rockers and green ferns accenting the khaki trim. Windows, six feet high, lined the front, allowing Carter full view of candles flickering, dancing, clinking of glasses. Palmetto House was booked year round for weddings and executive shindigs, a birthday party every once in while when a spouse felt the need to impress.

But this was a wedding. The wedding Carter had imagined so many times, only he had always been the one in the tuxedo, the one saying I do, the one leaning over to whisper in Sylva’s ear, Hey, let’s bust this party. I need you all to myself. And Sylva squeezed his leg and gave him the look that let him know she was eager. At least that’s the way it always went in his head.

Carter was not wearing a tuxedo or even filling the role of guest. He was in his Jeep with Johnny Cash playing on the radio. John freakin’ Cash, he thought. Cliché. Carter thought it cruel of Sylva to invite him to the wedding. But this meant she really had gotten over him, really did believe he had moved past her too. Did she not hear him, those few years ago, when he told her he would never stop loving her? Carter hadn’t pulled himself together to make the ceremony, and now he sat glued to his seat, watching the festivities through the big windows, tears and anger and regret his only company.

But then Carter heard Johnny say that “Love is a burning thing,” and Carter found himself walking up the steps and into the great hall. The swing band paused between songs, and Carter picked up a champagne glass and a knife, ringing the two together more loudly than the traditional tap. Carter cleared his dry throat. “Hello, everybody.” He loosened his tie and coughed again. The room went silent, everyone turned Carter’s way. Sylva’s hand fell to her side. “Hey, thanks,” Carter said to the crowd, “I’d like to toast.”

“Sylva and I have been friends for a long time, since third grade. We spent most of our summers out at the quarry. I even tried to teach Sylva to fish, but it was no good. She couldn’t catch a fish if I handed it to her in a Kroger bag.”

Laughter filtered through the room. People love nostalgia and humor at moments like this.

“I didn’t care if we caught anything though. Didn’t matter. I was never really angling for a fish, but always for a kiss.” This revelation created a short, tense moment, but then the imposter in the tuxedo chuckled so everyone else chuckled too.

“I’m telling you this because I was thinking about the quarry just a bit ago. The quarry was where Sylva and I went after my dad’s funeral. I was seventeen, and I’ve never felt so lost. Sylva sat with me, for several hours, tossing rocks over the edge. We would just watch them fall, and we’d cry. Sylva’s that kind of person, a good person.”

Carter tilted his glass toward the man wearing Carter’s tuxedo. “You’ve got the real deal here. You take care of her, I mean it.” Carter lingered with those lines, like he wanted to be sure the fellow knew he meant business. Then Carter returned to his story. “Sylva said something to me that day when my heart was ripped up. ‘The love never stops,’ Sylva said, ‘The story just changes.’”

Carter raised his glass. “So I toast love that never stops, even when the story changes.” A few folks dinged their glasses and most everyone took long sips. Carter caught Sylva’s eye, the way he had so many times. He gave her the wink that was so familiar. Sylva’s smile was warm.

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.

Happy

Running on 5th Street this morning, I spotted one of Charlottesville’s Finest from the motorcycle patrol unit moving slow in traffic ahead of me. Tall, beefy and toned, the officer’s biceps bulged from his uniform. The Kevlar vest fitted under his shirt added to his intimidating dimensions, making it obvious this officer worked the gym, not the donuts. The officer wore solid black, from his taut shirt to his black pants down to his thick leather boots .

The officer pulled to a stop light. His beast of a machine, merely idling, sounded hungry. The muscular officer, firearm strapped to his side. The cycle grumbling. A man not to be tangled with.

Pulling closer, my ears caught tunes pulsing from the bike’s radio. Would you believe the officer had Pharrell Williams belting “Happy”? I may have even seen his leather boot tapping the asphalt.

Joy is everywhere.

Dancing

A Dream on Maple St.

Every so often (but not as often as I’d like), when the moon is just so or there’s been a little too much wine a little too late in the evening, I find my way back to this recurring dream.

We live in a village, an odd place nestled amid the lush green and rolling hills of the Shenandoah but also surrounded by the Rocky’s rugged ridges where aspens stand sentinel. We grow strawberries, apples and blackberries in the valley, but most afternoons we fill our knapsacks to overflowing and walk above the timberline for lunch with a view. Our neighborhood swimming hole is a high mountain lake, a spot we call Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have reeled in their first trout at Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have felt love’s first fire under the stars on a sensuous summer night. At this place, life blossoms.

We live on Maple St., a winding avenue lined with century-old oaks and swaths of verdant Midnight Kentucky Blue Grass surrounding every Craftsman cottage. Our little half-acre has a name, as do all the homes in our village. The hand carved wood sign attached next to the deep purple door on our wide, shaded front porch reads Elm Grove, but most of our friends simply refer to it as Elm. “Dinner at Elm tonight,” they’ll say. Or “Gonna run over to Elm to trade out books.” Our friends surround us, as friends should. Their homes, like their lives, create what we mean whenever we say neighborhood. Two doors down sits The Fable House. Across the street, you’ll find Casa del Amor and Shalom. One block behind us, The Abbey and River Stone. Each home a place filled with laughter, a place where we know ourselves more than we could ever have known ourselves on our own.

Each of us works our trade. I have a little writing shed behind our cottage, fitted just between Miska’s herb garden and the three-level tree fort Wyatt and Seth built. The fort’s a little cattywampus, but nobody cares. I craft my novels the first half of the week and craft my sermon the second, though these two acts overlap more than some prefer. I visit parishioners, but I just think of it as visiting friends.

If you’re rolling your eyes because this sounds sweet and idyllic, hold on for one more bit: the first Friday night of each month during Spring and Summer, we take turns at each others’ place for a homemade ice cream fest (the hand-churned sort) with every conceivable flavor: chocolate chip, strawberry, peanut butter mocha, caramel apple – all loaded with fresh cream and piled high. We eat bowl after bowl, and we never gain an ounce.

Give a man his dream.

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.

Busy Living

Easter Sunday was Simon’s favorite day of the year. This was new because for most of his life, it had been Thanksgiving.

When the family was young, Thanksgiving meant laughter and stuffed bellies and football at the city park. Once the kids flew the coop, Thanksgiving provided the one time of year when everyone found their way back home. They rendezvoused at their Appalachian cabin and blew the weekend gorging on country ham and Mary’s famous yeast rolls. They sat by the fire, on the porch swings and on the lakeside dock, reading novels they’d swapped or catching up on the months they’d been apart. They picked up their decade-long Spades tournament, keeping a long-running tally on a legal pad sitting atop the fridge. No one knew what score they were playing to, nobody cared. They took meandering walks among the Hickories and the White Pines. On Saturday night, they went into town for Uncle Carter’s famous BBQ and then to The Rusty Nail for local mountain music. Thanksgiving carved out a haven of joy and simplicity.

Since Mary died, however, things were not so simple.

One might think that Simon gravitated to Easter because of the story of resurrection, the possibility that Simon might one day hold Mary again. The fact is Simon was not drawn to Easter so much because of what it said about the dead but because of what it said about the living.

The first Easter after Mary died, Simon sat in a pew toward the back corner. Mary had only been dead three weeks, and it was late Easter morning before Simon decided to actually show up for the service at St. Thomas. He didn’t want anybody telling him to say Allelulia. He didn’t want to make a joyful noise. He didn’t want to endure a boisterous homily. Jesus may have walked out of the grave, but Mary lay underneath six feet of cold dirt.

When the Reader read the Gospel text, however, Simon noticed how all the characters were running everywhere, frantic, and it amused him. Mary Magdalene running to the two disciples, then Peter sprinting off to the tomb, only to be overtaken by another disciple whose jet speed forever ensconced Peter as the brunt of Easter-sermon humor. All the running struck Simon as funny, and he chuckled, louder than he wished. Folks on nearby rows raised their heads and looked his way. The Reader seemed startled for a moment before she regained composure.

Patrick, Simon and Mary’s oldest son, had always been in a hurry, always forgetting something. At least twice a month, Patrick would leave his lunch or homework or tennis racket he needed for practice. He’d dial his mom or dad, asking them to make an emergency trip to school. Twice, when Patrick went backpacking with friends, he called Simon from the trailhead two hours away, once needing his sleeping bag and once his hiking boots. The last phone call caught Simon on a stressful weekend as a publisher’s deadline loomed. After a terse conversation, Simon slammed the phone. “What’s wrong with this kid? He busts around without a care in the world, expecting someone else to pick up his life. The boy needs to slow down, I swear…”

Mary stood at the kitchen counter, holding her tea. She watched Simon and smiled. Simon knew that look. He knew wisdom, ever so irritating in moments like this, was coming. “You know, Simon,” and Mary paused. She liked to pause when she knew she had Simon’s attention. “Patrick forgets because his life is so full, he can’t keep track of all the good things. I hope he keeps forgetting a few details as long as he possibly can. The chaos means he’s living.”

Simon did not know why the resurrection reading carried him to this memory. It must have been the chaos, the frantic running. Simon laughed, interrupting the reverent worship, receiving confused stares. Maybe Mary Magdalene and the disciples scurried about because, on that shocking morning, their life just took off without them, insisting they catch up. Maybe their circuits overloaded with all the previously unthinkable possibilities. Maybe they were invigorated with the brilliance of how much life mattered, how much their life mattered. In the first Easter story, Jesus’ grave split open, and this meant everybody needed to get moving, get busy living.

That afternoon, Simon dialed up Patrick, just to say hello and that he’d been thinking about him. Then Simon poured a dark cup of coffee, sat on his back porch as the sun warmed his face and wrote the first page of a new novel.