Dear John ~ 28 March 2016

Dear John,

Well, we made it. Easter’s here. I’ve always appreciated the fact that while Lent’s 40 days, Easter’s 50. I like how we’re supposed to party even longer than it took to prepare for the party. In the Kingdom of God, the feasting alway trumps the fasting. I don’t know why some sourpusses want to live in Lentville all year round. Good grief. I cut back a few things during Lent, and it felt right, good even. But I’ll do as I’m told and happily snag a few extra joys this Easter. I’ve been saving Mary Karr’s 2nd and 3rd memoirs (Cherry and Lit) – looking forward to them. If my ankle holds out, I’m gonna give a go at my first half-marathon on Saturday, been prepping for a long while now. Maybe that one’s not exactly a joy, but the sense of accomplishment if I can pull it off will be a thrill, for sure.

My heart was heavy for you this weekend, as soon as I heard that your friend Jim Harrison died. A punch in the gut. I was just writing to you about Jim this time last week. Lots of writers fancy themselves unique, but then there’s a few rare bodies like Jim who just go out and flat live, rub life raw, down to the bone. I know you’ll give us some sort of eulogy at some point, and I look forward to it. I thank you for introducing me to Jim. It’s not lost on me that he died right before Easter Sunday, especially since I read him say in a couple places how Resurrection was the spiritual belief he found most credible. I’m sure you’ve seen how he amused himself with this bit, lines evidencing how much he loved this world and all its creatures:

In the forty days in the wilderness Jesus
took along a stray dog from town. When
they got back home Jesus told the dog he
had to go off to Jerusalem to get crucified.
Jesus stored the dog in his tomb and after
he himself was brought there they
ascended into heaven together.

In honor of Harrison, it seems a good time to mention something I’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and it’s bugging me. I’ve noticed this idea circulating yet again (seems to go viral every couple years), insisting how essential it is for a communicator (writer, preacher, teacher, etc.) to summarize all you’re trying to say in your sermon or your book in a single concise sentence. Can you believe such a thing? I can’t even summarize this letter in a sentence – nor would I want to. I couldn’t capture our friendship with a sentence, most certainly couldn’t capture my life with Miska within a short quip. It would take more than a string of syllables to touch the wonder I felt watching the full moon cast its glow over Carter’s Mountain last week or the depth of what I want to tell my sons regarding all the hopes I hold for them. Can you imagine asking Updike or Mother Theresa to boil it down to a sentence? I’d LOVE to hear the blue streak Harrison would have unleashed if a publisher had the gall to suggest such a thing. If all we need’s a sentence, what’s the point with the rest of it? 

I’m all for being clear as we’re able, all for slashing the fluff. But sometimes I think we may just edit every ounce of wonder right out of this lovely world of ours. All that to say, our life’s bigger than every attempt to button it up with a single anything. The work you’re offering (me too) is far bigger than this. Let’s keep at it.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

P.S. I loved hearing about the friends you used to pastor who gave their son the middle name “Blase.” That’s a gift indeed, makes up for a lot of crappy days, doesn’t it? I would tell you about some friends I used to pastor who a few years ago gave their son the first name “Collier,” but then that might come across as one-upping and that wouldn’t be very Christian of me. These moments make a man’s heart, glad, though, yes they do. 

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.

Friends in the Neighborhood

I think the future God has in mind includes all my friends living in the same neighborhood, within a few blocks. And we all have big front porches. Evening walks are the highlight of the day, and you always know one of those porches is where you’ll end up when your heart is heavy or when you’re laughing your head off and need a pal to laugh with you – or when you need to blow off steam because you’ve had all you can take of the numskulls.

I really don’t have the foggiest idea how our joyful end will shake out, but I’m betting all my marbles that it’s at least as good as this.

Margaret Feinberg

When I pause to trace the narrative of how I was able to bumble my way through the publishing labyrinth and into the writing vocation, the generosity of a handful of people (three to be precise) lead the story. Margaret Feinberg is one of those three.

margaretIf I recall, we first met on a writing project, a series of books I was editing for a new publishing house. The publisher passed along chapter contributions I was to consider, and Margaret’s words rose to the top of the pile. I was intrigued because she had a richness, an intimacy, to her voice that I’d seen precious little of among Christian authors. I immediately liked Margaret for two other unrelated reasons: (1) at the time, she was a ski instructor in Crested Butte (thus, living one of my second lives), and (2) if existing vocabulary didn’t fit her work’s needs, she’d simply craft her own words. For our project, Margaret concocted Inbetween, which she described as the “place between here and there. A piece of ground in the middle of take-off and landing…[where] paths are lined with sealed envelopes and foggy dreams.” Good, right? I’m pretty sure that a couple years later I plagiarized, using Inbetween without appropriate credit. Margaret, this is my public apology.

Over the next few years, Margaret had my back. She encouraged my writing. We commiserated over the lay of the publishing land. I remember several calls where we walked one another through potentially treacherous publishing negotiations. I doubt that two of my books would have ever seen the light of day if Margaret hadn’t been on my side. Margaret introduced me to Leif, her very cool husband – and they even allowed me to crash their house in Juneau, where I enjoyed the Alaska experience and watched their dog Hershey (it was on that trip that Margaret introduced me to Madeleine Peyroux, and I will be forever grateful).

Of course, in the decade since we met, Margaret has gone on to smashing success. Beyond selling over 600,000 copies of her various books and publishing efforts, Christianity Today named Margaret one of the 50 women shaping culture and church – and she’s received multiple other accolades and descriptors. You can read all about them on her bio.

Amid all this, though, what matters most to me is that Margaret is the same sincere and love-drenched Margaret I met ten years ago. Every once in a while, Margaret and Leif remind me that they pray for me, and I believe them. Margaret writes what she has come to believe – and she writes those things that she hopes to believe even more. Margaret writes as a woman who has seen something true, something she must tell us.

Margaret’s new book Wonderstruck has this quality. In it, she narrates the ways God found her anew, the ways God took her by surprise. Margaret began her traverse with these lines:

I have a hunch that I’m not the only one who has misplaced the marvel of a life lived with God. Faith invites us into an enchanting journey—one marked by mysteries of divine beauty, holy courage, irrepressible hope, unending love. But in my life, any sense of the splendor of God had faded. I knew I needed God to reveal himself once again to awaken me from my sleep, to disturb me from my slumber. And so I prayed for wonder.

I like the idea of wonder, very much. I also like how, in Wonderstruck, Margaret recommends the practice of three-word prayers. I can manage that.

Thank you, Margaret, for living generously. I hope many, many others receive the generosity you freely give.

The Table

There is a group of Charlottesville friends who have met for breakfast, somewhere between 7:00 and 7:15, every morning for over 25 years. I think these are the coolest people in town. They’ve outlasted multiple dives, moving from one to another after old haunts call it quits. The group began when several strangers found themselves, again and again, at the same coffee shop at the same hour. They figured they should make it official and formed “the breakfast club.” They’ve welcomed spouses to the circle, embraced retirements and job changes and danced the night away as they’ve married off their kids. I told one of the ladies I wanted to come and sit with them a few mornings so I could write a profile article on them. I’d sell the piece, but mainly it’s a ruse. I just want an excuse to pull up a chair at that table and pretend I belong.

When I think of my retiring years, I have several images. One of them is a group of old geezers, of which I am proudly one, at the same cafe every morning with the same group of scruffy cohorts. The fellas around the table are friends I have now, only in the future I’ve got us all pegged for living in the same neighborhood. We sit at the same outdoor table drinking from a french press. We laugh and tell stories and quote a little poetry. We talk about how insane and foolish and marvelously beautiful the world is. We talk, as we do even now, about the women we love and who have been kind (and crazy) enough to love us for so many years.

At that table, we experience a grace too many never know: we belong, and we like who we are – and we rest in the goodness of knowing others like who we are every bit as much. Helen Simonson describes it right: “They are a motley and ragged bunch … but they are what is left when all the shallow pretense is burned away.”

The younger guys and gals, zipping in for a latte to go and frantically fiddling with their phones (or some bedeviled futuristic contraption) while they shift anxiously in line, eventually begin to notice us. Each morning, they rush in, and each morning, we’re just passing the time, watching the world race by. Soon enough, as they strap themselves back into their Audis for their dash to the office, they fantasize about receiving an invite to what they have now secretly christened The Table.

 

Songs of Friendship

On my desk sits a picture of me conversing with two friends. We're situated on old pews at the front of an old stone chapel. Gold rays cascade through the row of four stained glass windows perched high, at the rear of the vestry. The light shoots a straight train from those lofty windows down to the tops of our heads, as if the sun wanted to pass a few final blessings before setting. 

Miska took my photograph and printed a line on it reminding me that "to love a person is to learn the song that is in their heart and to sing it to them when they have forgotten." She knows that these friends, along with a few others, do this for me. And I hope I do the same for them.

We all need people to remind us what is true about ourselves, pointing out with great delight our strength and beauty and splendidness. We need people who believe in, and trust, the deep good God Almighty has firmly planted within us. You can go anywhere and hear someone sing a song of rejection or regret, duty or obligation, judgment or dismissal. We need more songs of hope, more songs of everlasting friendship. We need more blessings before the sun sets. 

Slow Friendship

alanfrombangor

Last year, Dominion Power sent a crew through our neighborhood, switching out the old style meter boxes with a new digital model that, at the end of each month, shoots our monthly kilowatt usage to who knows where. Probably to an accountant in Wisconsin. So far as I know, I'm not co-dependent on the electric company, but as much money as I give them annually, there's something lacking when I don't have an actual person stop by my meter, checking in to see how my energy's doing.

I wish there were meters we could hot-wire to our souls, to tap in and see how our energy's doing. Miska regularly asks me (as I do her), "How is your heart?" Too often, it takes me too long to answer. This hesitation often signals that it's time to perk up, time to pay attention. We all need a person (or several) who will ask us these sorts of questions, people who actually want to wait and hear the answer. There is no substitute for a living, breathing friend whose mere presence in our life offers grace. Over years, these soul-friends see the ebb and flow. They notice the signals that trouble is brewing or sadness has knocked us a blow. They have the courage to tell us we're pushing the edge and need to taper down, and they have the history and the love to remind us, in the sketchiest places, that we've been here before and will be here again. 

Long-life friends give space to slow words and slow questions. They understand that knowing what to say is not nearly as vital as being willing to pause and be present. To let the moment be whatever it will be. To simply enjoy the conversation.

These friendships rarely happen quickly, and they must always endure relational swampland – that mucky stretch that stinks and provides little immediate joy, the muck you simply have to sludge through. Friendship that endures the years – and thrives amid the years – continually releases the demand for friendship to be efficient or to follow a straight line. Dominion Power replaced the meter because another could do the job with less hassle, less people, less cost. Obviously, they're aiming for profit, not friendship.

Other than Miska, I have a couple friends who do this for me, and I hope I do this for them. I'm horrid at staying connected via the phone, but the last week or two, I had to ring a couple of my pals. I simply needed to hear their good voice. I needed to be connected with that solid ground we share. I'm committed to them; and they to me. I don't know where the years will take us, what swamps we will traverse. But I'll walk it with these men.

If you don't have such a friend, I truly pray you find one. Until then, you could be this friend for another.

Friendship

The older I get, the more I value the simple cadence of friendship. I crave the spaces and people who are music for my soul, who help me see where I shine as well as where I fade – and who care not one bit which it is because the friendship we share isn’t about getting anything fixed but about walking together toward the person we truly are. True friends see the good in me more than I’m able to see it myself.

Buechner got it right. “Friends are people you make part of your life just because you feel like it.” I have a few friends like this. I hope to God you do to.

I have an image. We’re sitting around a night sky (probably Colorado), miles from the noise. We have a fire popping. We have our pipes. We’re sitting round a circle, our breath blowing mist into the crisp air, deep rhythms. We sit, maybe for an hour, silent, with only puffs of smoke and crackle of fire to distract. Finally, someone shifts, signaling a readiness to speak. We listen expectantly as he breathes in, soon to break the long quiet. Well, he says, peering into the fire. He exhales a long sigh, his shoulders releasing again. We all nod in agreement and then return to our conversation amid silence.

Farewell to Friends

Only a handful of times in your life (and that’s if you’re lucky) will you receive the gift of encountering a person so selfless, so generous, that it cuts at all the cynicism you’ve accumulated, all the broken down ways you’ve come to expect the world works. I’ve had the good grace to have a couple such people befriend me over the years. Two of these are Stuart and Shannon Hayes.

When Miska and I moved to Clemson, South Carolina, the Hayes invited us into their world. Though they easily could have, they didn’t guard their turf against the newcomers or hold back and let us flop around on our own. Instead, they welcomed us and began to live their life with us. With boys close in age, we shared war stories and picnics and, when we could, a night out with wine and wives.

I remember Saturday mornings when Stuart and I took our boys out on Bowman Field. Stuart coached the kids through soccer drills and I (if I remember correctly) was in charge of drinks. Stuart invited us on their annual grandpa/father/son camping trip; and though it may seem a small offer to him, I’ll be forever grateful for including us. Those things go a long way with me.

I think of Shannon as the patron saint of hospitality. She never cared when we dropped by her house, always happy to push aside laundry or adjust her plans when her friends popped in. She beams infectuous joy and watches out for the forgotten people – and has a voice that, I swear, belongs on one of those vintage folk vinyls. Shannon lives with an open door. And she loves with an open heart.

My friends have packed up their belongings and will soon pack up their family for a move to Germany. This past weekend, a large number of people who love them – and have been loved by them – gathered in Clemson to wish them farewell. I had a previous trip planned with a group of guys from our church, and I wasn’t able to make the weekend. I’ve told Shannon and Stuart how I feel about them, how much I appreciate them, but I want to say it again here. In case you haven’t had the privilege, I want you to know them too, just in time to bid them safe journeys.

And – I encourage each of you to consider those few people in your life who have loved extravagantly and lived selflessly. I encourage you to tell them that you noticed – and to tell them that every bit of it mattered.

My Friend Raul

Some people leave you feeling more lonely after you were with them than when you were by yourself. We all have too many of those people in our life. Most of us are dying to be seen, known.

I have a small cadre of friends, a handful really, that knows me – all the stuff that makes me me, good and bad. One of these friends is Raul Cruz. I first met him in Denver in the summer of 2001. That night, he introduced me to the tunes of Santana (being a soulful Puerto Rican and a smashing musician, he has led me to many Latin musical delights over the years), and I also had my one experience at a high-end cigar bar. Something melded our hearts, and we’ve been soul friends ever since.

Raul called me this morning, offering me a gift. “Winn, I love who you are – I’m you’re biggest fan.” Who does that?

Raul does. It is not uncommon for me to find a voice mail from Raul, saying he loves me or is looking forward to when we see each other again. One rough morning, I checked my messages and heard Raul’s voice praying a prayer of blessing over me, my life, my family. It was beautiful. I probably cried – or I should have.

I love Raul’s family, his amazing wife Tara and the rest of the clan, Lydia and Liam. Miska and I love being with Raul and Tara – and Raul is the kind of dad I want to be when I have teenagers (and what’s cool is that I can say these same things of several of my friends).

I’ve seen Raul awash in tears. I’ve been with him as he was curled up, like a baby, on the floor in pain. He has held me and hugged me (and even kissed me – I told you he was Puerto Rican, right? No sense whatsoever of personal space) when I’ve been in the darkest places. I’ve cussed at him, and he’s cussed at me. We’ve hiked together and biked together and laughed and cried. The thing is, he’s my brother. And we (and our families) are going to grow old together. I’m just hoping for the day when we live on the same block. Maybe when we are old geezers, the guys with worn-out plaid jackets who shuffle to the park to smoke our pipes and play chess.

Before Raul hung up today, he added, “I feel like I should tell you – whatever you are doing today, it isn’t as urgent as you think.” His words struck home. Words from a friend.

Like John Lennon, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”