Life’s River

Wyatt and the trout in an undisclosed location

Since the boys were tikes, I’ve taken each of them on a solo road trip for their birthday. It’s one of my very favorite dad-things. I always hope for a flash of memorable conversation, where a dad and a son share a moment with gravity. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t force these things. You just have to be open, and let it come when it will.

Since Seth’s birthday lands in October, we always nose down 29 to Clemson to see the Tigers feast on the poor lackeys who drew the short straw and have to spend a Saturday in Death Valley. But with Wyatt’s birthday in May, it’s been a potpourri of adventures. Watching his Yankees play at Camden Yards. A day zip lining. A weekend in DC, another in Texas hunting feral hogs.

Fishing has become one of Wyatt’s passions, but he’d never caught a trout. After hearing mythical tales, the sort whispered reverently from one fisherman to another, he was desperate for his own baptism in one of Virginia’s legendary wild trout streams. I apologize that I cannot be more specific with the name or location. I’m not a fisherman myself, but I’ve lived with one long enough to know that a man divulges his honey spot only when they pry it from his cold, dead fingers.

Our first evening on the water, Wyatt didn’t catch a thing. I take that back–he caught three branches, lost three pricey lures. While Wyatt worked his new St. Croix rod, a light model that needs to be caressed just so, I sat on a large rock at creek’s edge, under an oak’s shade. I watched the dead water, flat and lifeless. There was as much chance of a pig floating down that stream as a fish. But the closer I watched, the more I yielded to the stillness–I had it all wrong. Life teemed everywhere. Swarms of water bugs zooming across the surface. Microscopic tadpoles darting in and out as if they were engaged in serious business. Bits of leaves twirling in a small eddy, a miniature tornado. There was a riotous circus three feet from my nose, but I’d never known if I hadn’t gone quiet and waited for the gift to appear.

With my sons, with my friends, with Miska, with all the astonishing mysteries and joys outside my study window–this life is wondrous and abundant. I don’t want to miss any more of it than I have to. Sitting on that rock watching Wyatt cast, I gave thanks. I give thanks now.

And boy, did Wyatt catch a beauty of a brown. The next morning, we walked the stream. Wyatt cast and cast. The patience of Methuselah. He told me wisdom hard-won for any fisherman: sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t force these things. You just have to be open, and let it come when it will.

Advent: Aching for Peace

Yesterday at church, mid-sermon, great flakes of snow fell from the sky, as though God were dropping a fresh supply of winter manna. The school auditorium where we meet boasts three grand, 8-foot high windows, always opening to us a vision of oaks and leaves and neighbors. Those windows are, for me, the very best part about our space. They remind us that, as we worship, God’s world ‘out there’ is wholly connected to God’s world ‘in here.’ Our kind, patient folks put up with my dawdling sermon, doing their darnedest to listen while white beauty swirled around us. A wiser pastor would have just stopped and had us all take a gaze at this first storm of the season and then offered an Amen

However, this was the Sunday of peace, and lighting the candle, we prayed that God’s disruptive, healing peace might come to us again. Peace – it seems such a pipe dream these days, and it’s a word (like so many good words) that we now feel compelled to clarify and apologize for, to properly signal what we’re saying and what we’re not saying. But here’s where I am: I’m aching for peace.

To be sure, I’m not angling for anything easy or contrived or oblivious – that’s not peace; that’s avoidance. But I do want an end to relational hostility. I do want the hungry fed and the oppressed to be free. I do want enemies to become friends, or at least not to hate one another.  I do want that inner quiet that marks the way of wisdom: the capacity to live in tensions, the courage to refuse the rage of the moment, the open-heartedness that allows us to be surprised, the tenacity to never lose hope.    

So after a cozy winter’s nap, enveloped by the heat pouring out of our clicking, humming radiators, Seth and I returned to what has become our ritual. We pulled on our snow pants and gloves and toboggan caps and went for a walk into the dark, frigid night. We tell Wyatt and Miska that we must brave the cold because we’re on the hunt for grub. However, walking these lonely streets as the world sits enchanted by stillness, and with only the sound of snow crunching under our boots and the conversation passing between us, I think we’re actually out in the silent night searching for peace. 

There’s Still the Music

At times, it’s tempting to believe that the sadness has finally drowned out the joy, that all the rage or the disillusionment or the despair that overwhelms the soul has silenced every simple and beautiful song. But then you hear your two sons and their guitars, plucking their way through an old tune. You hear their attempt to find their voice, to make the words their own. You see their intensity, the way the melody gives them a language they have not accessed before. And your heart returns home again. You still know the despair and the sorrow, you’re no fool. But you know something else more: there’s still the music in the world.

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.

Dear John ~ 25 April 2016

Dear John,

I can picture you there at Pepperdine, as you imagined Sarah walking that campus, only without you next time — and knowing that it’s right for her, feeling the joy and heart-tug of such a moment. This weekend we found old pictures of the boys, pictures we haven’t seen for a long time. The boys were wee tikes, on their first soccer team. Soccer – hah! It was a full-on miracle if we could just keep them running in the right general direction. Seth was 3 and wore a headband, looked like a very short Björn Borg. Wyatt ran around mostly in circles, trying to position himself in the general vicinity of the ball but without ever actually having to kick it – but he made all these maneuvers very fiercely. Miska and I stood there staring at those pictures, doing what parents do whenever we find again proof of where we’ve been, of the love that flows so deep. It will be only a few snaps of the fingers and we’ll be packing our boys off to some university somewhere. My wallet’s already whimpering at the thought of it. I think I’ve told you I’m not feeling like a great dad these days, just feeling off, not generous and present as I want to be. I’m not beating myself up too much about it, but I do want to remember what I most want with my sons, who I want to be with them.

Have you seen Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting “Banjo Lesson”? I’ll include the picture below. Tanner was such a fine artist, and with this piece it’s believed Tanner painted a grandfather teaching his grandson the art, but it says a lot about what I hope to be with my boys: close, tender, attentive, passing along something of my life, something of my work, something of myself.

Anyway, we found those pictures of the boys this weekend because we were going through our storage closet, tossing things we should have tossed years ago but only get around to when you’re ready to pack up and move. Why is it that we give the house extra shine and complete those projects that have nagged us forever just as we’re about to say farewell? Isn’t that ass-backwards? Still, we’ve lived well here. I think we’ve played hard and loved hard and (as we like to say in Texas) we shot our full wad. When we haul out our last box and lock our purple front door, I imagine these old walls exhaling, maybe flopping on the floor exhausted, panting for breath but with a big grin and then saying, with a long sigh: “Those Colliers knew how to live.”

Yes, it seems time to pull our letter-writing back a tad from the blog-o-sphere. I’m glad we’ve done this, and will do it again here and there when the urge strikes. Friendship is one of my truest joys in this life. Thank you for being a big part of that joy.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

Henry Oshawa Tanner's "The Banjo Lesson"
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson”

Something Marvelous

two-trees

My oldest son (13) is now a solid two inches taller than me, the same two inches I spent most of high school begging God to grant me. Three or four times a week, he asks Miska to come and be the official eyes while we stand side-by-side so he can mark his progress. I was traveling four days last week, and nearly the first thing he said after I walked through the door was “Dad, I think I’ve grown taller.” He insisted we stand nose to nose so he could check. Whenever he looks down at me now, he’s beaming wide.

Wyatt’s also begun to walk into the kitchen and wrap his arms in a bear hug around Miska, catching her off guard as he lifts her into the air and swings her around like a doll. The other day he wanted to do leg squats while somehow strapping his younger brother Seth on to serve as his weights. I shut that one down, but he kept insisting how much sense it made and how easy it would be to use his brother as a dumbell.

Some days, the constant comparison grates on me (could we possibly compare how much he towers over me once a week??), but I know he’s testing his mettle. He’s seeing how he stacks up. My son is growing in awareness of his strength and his body, his manhood. And it’s so very good.

My son wants to know that he has strength in him, that he can do hard things and wonderful things. He wants to know for sure that there’s something marvelous about him – and he wants us to recognize this goodness too. He wants to stand beside us and imagine his place there and move toward it. Don’t we all want something like this?

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.

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.

A Seat Just for You

For a variety of reasons, during our years in the city school system, neither of our sons have ridden the bus. This year, however, they both start new schools, and they both will be passengers on the big yellows. Today was the launch, and the last 48 hours they’ve been a bundle of nerves. Do you think there will be a seat on the bus for me? Do you think I’ll know anyone on the bus? I hope I have a friend on the route.

This morning, before putting on his brave face and his over-stuffed pack, Seth told me, “Right now, I’m 12-14% nervous.”

Downtown, there’s a breakfast crew that meets every weekday morning at Cafe Cubano. For over 25 years, this cadre of friends has sloshed coffee, passed the news and (as they’ve told me) come to be family for one another. On my morning run, I noticed a new couple had joined the circle, a man and woman in their mid-sixties. Two more seats were pulled up to the table. The conversation was lively as always, only now new voices joining the fray.

I ran past, smiling and wondering what it must have felt like to be invited into that tightly knit group, one with such a history and story, how grand it must have been to have someone point to a chair and say, “Hey, this is for you.”

Decades separate the hearts in these two events today, but the moments are not so different. Children grow up, but we all still wonder if there will be a seat saved for us.

God is Amused

Most nights, I go to each boy’s bedside and tell them goodnight. I make a slight sign of the cross on their forehead, bless them, say a short prayer for love and rest, tussle their hair and kiss them on the cheek. There are nights when I do this with fatherly joy. There are also nights when, because they are 10 and 11 and have mastered the children’s equivalent of digging their bony elbow into my rawest nerve, I do this in faith, trusting the love I know is there.

One might hope that one’s sons, over the many years enacting this ritual, would sense a little of the gravity and maybe even begin to cherish these moments. I’m not asking my two sons to pit themselves against one another, like Esau and Jacob, scheming or pleading for my better blessing. I’d simply like them to put down Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or my collector’s edition of Calvin and Hobbes which they took without asking and actually notice that their father loves them, blast it.

Several weeks ago, I was in the room of my youngest. Sign of the cross, prayer, kiss on the cheek. “Good night, bud,” I said, hand on his head. Seth looked up, as if my voiced pulled him out of a fascinating dream sequence. Seth began to chuckle. “What?” I asked.

“Uhmmm…” Seth’s smile broke wide, more laughter. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Of course, this is where I jerked my hand away, leveled my most shaming look and slowly backed out of his room in disgust. Such a disappointment, this distracted, childish son of mine.

Ridiculous. I actually chuckled too, gave Seth another pat on the head. I probably asked him what girl was tiptoeing through his mind. I told Seth I loved him and left him to his sweet fantasies until the next night when we’d cue the whole spiel again. Obviously there was nothing heroic here, just how most any dad would respond to his goofball son being a goofball son.

Yet some of us think God a worse father than this. Somehow, many of us have learned to live in shame (or terror) of the ways we believe we disappoint the One who loves us. We live on the razor edge, vigilant over our every action, every motive, every belief. We’re so fearful that we’ll forget to pay attention, and heaven knows we can’t let that happen.

I believe God would love to chuckle with us in these moments. Keeping a close watch, getting things correct – these are not the center. Love is the center. “But still,” says Hafiz, “God is delighted and amused you once tried to be a saint.”