Shards of Love

The morning began with a crash. Miska left the house at 5:45 for Bikram Yoga, and I woke at 6:30 to get breakfast and the boys rolling. Groping for the bathroom light, I knocked over a large Mason jar sitting on the edge of our sink. The jar shattered across our tile floor, and I was suddenly wide awake. Surely you’ve picked up that I am not an efficient or organized man, but I will say that over the years my thirty-minute-school-lunches / breakfast-for-Miska-and-two-boys / herding-Wyatt-out-the-door-for-school routine has become a work of precision that would make any NASCAR pit crew envious.

Today, however, the twenty minutes it took to pick up jagged chunks, scour the floor for the tiniest of slivers, vacuum the carpet next to the bathroom and get mounds of glass into the trash can threw the morning into a frizzy. I dashed about the kitchen tossing lunches together, throwing something that I think resembles breakfast in front of the boys and then spending maddening minutes desperately searching for my keys. I did find them … hanging in the keyhole of our front door where they had been all night, an invitation to all comers. Miska loves it when I do that.

I did get Wyatt to school just before the bell, but when I walked back into our front door, Seth (who goes to school 45 minutes later) greeted me. “Dad, we have a serious problem.”

I understand that last week’s snow storm frustrated many of Cupid’s escapades, and this was certainly the case for Charlottesville’s elementary students. Since school was cancelled, there was no party with chocolate kisses and no exchange of valentines. This was disappointing because Seth bought a box of valentines that included, with each, a self-applied mustache tattoo. Seth is a 4th grade romantic hipster bad-boy.

At any rate, the powers that be determined valentines would be exchanged today, and over the weekend Seth assembled his to distribute. However, upon review this morning, Seth realized he had left out two of his classmates. “I’ve got to get two more valentines, Dad. I have to. And I have more in the box.”

“Great,” I answered. “Go get them.”

“Well…the box is in the trash”

This, mind you, is days-old trash flush with rancid remains, wet coffee grounds and old pizza. This is the trash that is now full of sharp bits of glass strewn throughout. This is a Level One Hazmat scenario.

I grabbed a couple white 3 x 5 cards and handed them to Seth. “Buddy, you’re going to have to use these and make two more valentines. I’m not digging into that trash.”

But of course, I did. Seth was distraught, and that does this ol’ dad in. This will almost certainly be the last year we have a boy handing out valentines to his classmates, and while that’s a small thing, I think most of the beauty in our lives is made up of the small things.

Besides, you can’t let a mustache tattoo go to waste.

 

 

Gridiron Weight

Each year, I take the boys for an overnight trip for their birthday. Last year, Wyatt picked a train trek to DC. Two years in a row now, Seth has picked a weekend of Clemson football. Clemson (where the boys were born) and Baylor (where I grew up) are our two teams, but a visit to Grams, Pa and the Bears in Waco require a bit more time and financial commitment.

One of the great Clemson traditions is that after the game, fans flood the field as the team stays around for half an hour to sign autographs and pose for pictures. My hunch is that after many futile efforts to hold back the tidal wave cresting over the stadium walls, the athletic department threw up their hands and decided instead to create a massive marketing coup – they welcomed the chaos. Saturday night, watching thousands of young kids with wide eyes walking the turf amid larger-than-life Tigers, it was obvious they were solidifying the fan base for decades to come. The throngs pressed around the national play-makers: quarterback (and Heisman contender) Tajh Boyd, Roderick “Hot Rod” McDowell, Vic “The Beast” Beasley and Sammy Watkins, the streak of lightning who causes a collective short-breath in the stadium every time he touches the pigskin.

However, I watched several players (an offensive guard, maybe a defensive reserve or two) slowly make their way down the sideline, toward the tunnel to the locker room. No one shoved a mic in their face. If anyone asked them for an autograph, it was only the hyper kid running frantically player to player never even pausing to look the player in the eye or the disappointed kid who couldn’t break through the surging pack to the stars. I don’t imagine there were many people in the stadium wearing jerseys sporting their numbers. None of the left-alone players looked bothered or annoyed that they received none of the glamor. They’d done their work, and it was time for a shower. I wasn’t interested in autographs, but I did find myself thinking, Hey, man, you’re a fellow who digs into the trenches. We should sit down over coffee (or, I don’t know, a 4lb roast maybe). I’d like to hear your story.

When the athletic staff attempted to lead Tajh through the massive throng so the poor fellow could call it a day, Tajh kept stopping as hats and footballs were shoved in his chest. He looked exhausted. Tajh was doing his best to be the people’s man, but that was a whole lot of people. I wondered if he’d like to play the part of the second-string O-lineman, quietly strolling to the exit.

I don’t know what to make of all this, of our hero culture. I’ve no interest in making swipes. We’re desperate for women and men to respect, to believe in – and if sports participate in that, I won’t knock it. I do know we get carried away. One of our fellow Clemson fans, a middle-aged woman sitting near us, yelled at the offense in the third quarter, just before Tajh called out the snap: “Come on, part the Red Sea and let Moses through.”

It’s obviously gameday hyperbole, but I do wonder what it does to a soul to have this kind of weight placed on them. On the drive home Saturday night, we stopped for dinner. Seth, obviously overcome by the heat and exertion of the day, said, “Dad, you could totally have played professional football.” I chuckled, and I corrected him. Lack of talent aside, I could never have born that pressure. I hope we do not crush the good that is in the heroes we say we love.

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God Thinks Like That

There is a dog I sometimes take for a walk
and turn loose in a
field,

when I can’t give her the freedom
I feel in debt.

I hope God thinks like that and

is keeping track of all
the bliss He
owes
me.

                                       {Rabia of Basra}

I wonder when exactly my boys will figure out how easily they could take advantage of me. I challenge their mettle and help them stretch their courage and their strength and their patience, all the things necessary for becoming a good man, a good person. But what I really love best is to give them good things, to be extravagant, to delight them, to watch their faces break wide open with some unexpected pleasure. Thanks to a gift from friends, we’ll have a late Friday night taking the boys to the Parachute concert. In a couple weeks, I’ll be taking one boy to a Clemson game while the other boy will get party weekend with mom. When we were at St. George Island, I walked them to the surf shop so they could each pick out new boogie boards, and we spent hours and hours immersed in sand and water. These things are by far the better part of parenting, way better than the necessary duties – making the kids do their chores and monitoring video game consumption.

God knows exactly what I’m talking about. James tells us that God gives generously to all, without begrudging the gift. In fact the word translated generous includes the meaning of something done ‘in simplicity’ or ‘without reserve.’ In other words, God has a laser focus. God’s face is set like flint, fully intent on showering us with divine-sized largesse. It must be hard work for God when God must provide other kinds of grace, those things necessary if we are to be whole — but nothing so good as simple, lavish kindness.

So, the 7th century mystic-poet Rabia of Basra can rest easy. Apparently God does think at least something like that.

 

 

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.

 

Family Name

My dad taught me that our name was an honor we were to guard, something gifted to us – but something we must hold in safekeeping both as a debt to those before us and as the richest inheritance I would pass to my own children. My mom gave me a plaque when I was in the third or fourth grade, lettering on a bronze plate fixed to dark chestnut. It hung by my bed. I don’t remember the exact text, but it had “Collier” in bold letters across the top followed by a poem about a father giving a son his only treasure, his good name. The poem was cheeky, but the point stuck. Your name matters. Where you come from matters. Being a Collier means something.

Our name, I believe, is one of our pearls of great price. A good name cannot be bought, but – and here is the power – it can most certainly be given.

I remember my grandpa R.J. Collier’s lean frame perched on the top step of his porch, working those cigarettes, his cap tilted askew and his overalls hanging off his thin body, his green 1953 Chevy pickup parked next to the house. My grandma Collier died before I was born, and so visits to my grandpa lacked the gregarious matriarchal energy I’m told I would have experienced if my dad’s mother had still been alive. Grandpa Collier gave all the grandkids $5 in McDonald’s gift certificates every Christmas, and we in turn supplied him with a case of bottled Coca-Colas (R.J. insisted on the glass bottles).

When my dad, fresh out of high school, went to the bank to arrange a loan for his first used car, he met a roadblock because he was under-21 and possessed no credit history. The banker looked over his file and said, “So, you’re R.J. Collier’s son?”

“Yes,” my dad answered.

“Well, I know R.J., and that means I know something about you.” The banker picked up his pen and signed off on the loan, with nothing other than “Collier” as collateral.

When I have serious talks with Wyatt or Seth about their character or integrity, about how they are to treat others or how they are to make choices in this world, I’ll usually say something like, “You’re a Collier man, and this is how Colliers live.” My father and mother, like their fathers and mothers (this story could be written for my mom’s family – and for Miska’s family too), has handed us an identity. Being a Collier means something. I only hope to live up to the truth of it.

A friend told me recently that in English history, a Collier (a coal-er) was one who delivered coal to his neighbors. A Collier was one who went house to house carrying the light and carrying the heat. I like that. I like that very much.

The Swing of Love

hammocks_boys

Our nephew Micah who’s been living with us for the past year graduated from high school, and with his job as a barista going full steam and his college plans set, he moved in with new roommates. I’m sure the situation will fit the college lifestyle better than bunking with aunt and uncle, though I still insist that Miska and I can, when necessary, drop it like it’s hot. Wyatt and Seth were sad to see their very cool cousin go, but the grief was eased by the fact that Micah’s parting gift was to leave behind his Xbox 360.

With Micah’s departure, Seth regained his room. This meant Miska painting and organizing, resulting in fresh colors and one wall covered in chalk paint so that Seth’s artistic inspirations could have a large canvas. A couple weeks ago, Seth proffered a request, “Can I have a hammock in my room?” Now, you could not know this, but I have a love affair with hammocks. Friends of ours have a hammock in their yard, and on more than one occasion when they’ve been out of town, I’ve asked if I could use their house – and  it’s largely due to the hammock. Two years ago, I went hiking with several friends to Dolly Sods in West Virginia. One friend strung up a hammock, and when everyone else went on the day hike, I could not pull myself away from the swinging nest. I laid there, book in hand, enjoying the breeze and the contented experience of being rocked like a baby. Despite this love, however, I’ve only actually owned one hammock, purchased at a tourist-trap market in Mexico. It was a cheap nylon model, and it ended up in a garage sale next to the 25¢ golf balls.

So when Seth asked for a hammock, he did not need to make a strong case or ask pretty please. I bought two, one to install in each boy’s room. I considered a third for our bedroom, but I could not for the life of me concoct a reasonable case for how it would accentuate Miska’s well-designed feng shui.

I called a friend who has manly tools and who finds his way to a stud by tapping on drywall and would only snicker were I to pull out my battery-operated beeper. I called this friend because I have two boys who will now have a swinging bed mounted in their room. There is trouble in our future, no doubt, but my hope was to at least minimize the range of injuries for which we should prepare.

After an hour of tapping walls and considering hanging options and making a run to Martin’s Hardware for supplies (twice), we installed the hammocks. Seth has nested in his for hours at a time, reading. Wyatt has slept in his hammock the past two nights. I bought double-nester hammocks, partly because we got them on a screaming deal but mainly because I don’t know why you’d ever want to close off the possibility of curling up with your son and holding him tight and blessing the fact that there is such a moment so good.

The first day we hung them, I laid in the hammock with Seth. He laid his head on my shoulder. We sat and drifted easily back and forth. We were quiet. After a few minutes, Wyatt said, “Hey, Seth, I’d like a turn with dad.” Wyatt climbed in, resting his head on my shoulder. We drifted. I could swing with these boys forever.

 

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.

Sturdier Than You Think

I’m not the brightest skittle in the bag, but I’ve got enough sense to know a mom should not scoop poop on Mother’s Day. Emboldened by this remarkable insight, I took over one of Miska’s chores Sunday, gathering the fertilizing mounds our sweet dog Daisy deposits regularly across our back yard. Revelations hit at the oddest moments, and you simply have to take them as they come. Scouring the grass for lingering remnants, I thought of how many messes Miska and I have cleaned up over our years together. I’ve come to believe that a commitment to cleaning mess gets at the heart of the nitty-gritty grind of love, the sheer tenacity to stick with each other and piece together the broken pieces and the broken dreams (again and again) until you step clear into another of those beautiful but far too rare stretches of love come easy.

More than a few of our messes involve two boys, boys who both own our hearts and who regularly push our very last nerve and make us think we just might end up in the loony farm. If you want to push my guilt-o-meter, you can pounce on me during a bad day (or month) and start in with the litany of questions from God knows where about all the fatherly ideals someone decided we’re supposed to live up to. I’m not beating myself up over here. On the whole, I think I’m a pretty fine pops, but still there are far too many times when I have a short fuse or miss a really important cue or am too selfishly entangled that I forget that two of my main callings in this world are named Wyatt and Seth.

Miska and I tell the boys we’ve already started their therapy fund. When they turn 21, we’ll hand them their tubs of dollars and quarters, the name of the best therapist in town, and we’ll load up with them to go sit on those couches and sort out the myriad of ways we’ve screwed them up. Death and taxes are inevitable, but having your kids rack up a list of valid grievances is pretty darn certain too.

But here’s what I need to remember, and I’m guessing a few of you need to remember it too. Love is sturdier than we think. As Temple Gairdner said, “After a while you find what has stood the shaking and abides.” And as the Scriptures tell us, what stands fierce and bold, beaten but unmoved, is love. Love abides.

Where there is true love, there is an impenetrable barrier. Love can take the furious gales, the egregious mistakes, the lapses in judgment. Love (and I’m speaking of genuine, selfless love) truly does cover a multitude of sins.

 

An Inadequate Grace

I’m in the middle of PhD studies at the University of Virginia, a “public ivy” that trades off with UC Berkeley most years for the spot of top-ranked public university. What this means is that there are multiple times a week when I’m the dumbest person in the room. I console myself with how I’ve got life experience, often by nearly two decades, on most of my cohorts; but this additional fact only means that on top of being slow, I’m also old. I’m 41. Welcome to college.

Being in a situation where your limits and inadequacies are laid bare provides a true gift. Since I’m a writer and a father and a pastor, this position is nothing new to me. Regularly, I’m reminded of how many better writers there are, how much better their books sell. Several times, I’ve found a copy of one of my books bargain-priced in the used book store, never read. I know this because I looked. Closely. Once, I found a copy at a bookshop across the street from the church I pastored. So I’ve pieced this together – one of my own parishioners thumbed through the book, shrugged and said, “Eh, toss.” That book sat on that lonely shelf for over a year. I know this because I looked. Regularly. I was only released from that gloomy wake because we moved four hundred miles away.

Further, I’m a dad, and most weeks I find the last few drops of my fatherly know-how circling the drain. I love those boys, but I will tell you that most of the time, I am absolutely winging it. When it comes to my pastoral life, it’s no different. There are many, many pastors who seem to have the right word and the right shine. We all like to play the part of the humble pastor, but God knows, some of us hit it on cue simply because we’re flailing about no matter when you look our way.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my stellar moments. From time to time, I’ll land a zinger of a sermon, and most days, I like the words I scratch together. While I flub regularly and have to say “I’m sorry” an awful lot, on the whole, I’m a pretty kick ass dad. I’m even learning to muck my way through a PhD.

But here’s the thing: the more we try to compensate for our weak places, the more we try to edit the “us” others encounter, the more we attempt to hide the fact that we really aren’t nearly as smart or agile or profound or intriguing as we suspect others judge us to be (or as we desire for others to judge us to be), the less we become our true selves, the less beauty we’re able to give away. Worse, as we maneuver and manipulate in all these places, we will find ourselves exhausted by our self-absorption. One of the graces Lent has brought me is this relaxing revelation: I am so tired of myself.

The world does not need perfection. It doesn’t need the best ‘you’ that you can dream up. The world needs you. The actual you. Foibles and giggles and goofiness and all. Would you be brave enough to give it to us?

One Final Day

Wyatt, our ten-year-old, has pneumonia. Fever, coughing fits and bouts of exhaustion have turned him pitiful. Surprisingly, after a week of antibiotics, his fever returned; and so I took him for a second trip to the doctor. The pediatrician poked and prodded and asked serious-sounding questions. “Does your cough feel like a knife? Have you noticed headaches? Any joint pain?” Wyatt took this all in, thinking hard, asking clarifying questions and attempting to make sure he got the answers right.

When the doctor left the room to grab some contraption she assured Wyatt wouldn’t hurt but was necessary to measure the oxygen in his blood, Wyatt thought this turn of events sounded most grave. Of course, words don’t have to work hard to carry an ominous tone when they’re uttered in a fluorescent-lit space spreading yellowish illumination over the stainless steel sink and the large plastic container of hand sanitizer and the hard, green reclining chair draped in thin white paper.

Wyatt considered the doctor’s words and asked, “Dad, do you think I have cancer?”

I assured him he didn’t, but the cat was out of the bag, the idea had been let loose. “What if I only had one day to live, dad?”

“Well,” I said with a shrug, “I guess we’d want to make sure your last few hours were great.”

Wyatt liked this direction, the possibilities. He had energy for this conversation. “Dad, if I only had one day to live, I’d need to do three things. I’d have to get you to buy me a phone. I’d have to smoke a pipe with you. And I’d have to read Les Miserables in a single day.” He paused, reflecting satisfaction with his choices and plotting strategies for this 24 hour feat. “Yup, that would be hard to do…”

What a way to go – filled with assorted joys, so much that I’d have to stretch to my very last breath to get it done.