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 soul is heavy or you’re carrying a story you need to unload or your heart needs laughter – 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.

We Need More Barbershops

barbershop1I’ve always wanted the experience of Calvin, Eddie, and JD in Barbershop – or those ragamuffin friends who shared gossip and Mayberry’s political intrigue under the lather of Floyd the barber. If I ever found an Eddie, I’d go in at least twice a week for a trim, but mainly to get the wisdom and to leave with a belly aching from waves of deep-gut laughter.

Instead, my last twenty years have been spent jumping from shop to shop, mostly vanilla corporate enterprises with all the zest and character of a microwave waffle. The models plastered on all the posters look like they stepped out of Abercrombie & Fitch, heads overflowing with perfect hair and eyes offering that ‘come hither’ smoky gaze. The fellas in the pictures surely have the six-pack abs to match, six more reasons I know I don’t belong. Usually, the stylist takes quick inventory of me, cueing up her pitch for product sales. My ever-widening bald spot is the easy target. Typically, I can’t count to 50 before I hear: “So, have you ever thought of trying our hair growth system?” or “I wonder if you’d be interested in our hair-thickening shampoo?” Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a joint like this.

I think Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a lot of the places we create. For all our talk about building communities (can you even actually build a community?), I wonder if what we’re frantically and fastidiously replicating is really only a bland and hollow shop where we hawk our wares and put our best face forward, where we can get things done as efficiently as possible.

I tell you, I want something jagged and real, even if it’s abrasive and unpredictable. I want the kind of friendships, the kind of church, where it’s plain as day that, from beginning to end, the only thing holding that tattered lot together is grace and good old fashioned forgiveness. I want to belong to a place where you know that if you pull that one scraggly string, the whole kit and caboodle would unravel to the ground. But nobody pulls that string because the love that binds you is too strong. So you simply let the string hang, and it reminds you to never get carried away by the illusions that you’ve got everything squared.

Several weeks ago, I went into one of these style shops and was surprised to discover I had stepped into a jolt of real life. There was an older woman seated behind me, her hair up in foil. Several other women were gathered round her, and they were emphatically extolling the virtues of the TV drama Dallas. One of the friends explained how she planned to catch up on the latest episode from her DVR that evening. “Oh, you are in for a treat tonight,” the foiled woman answered, with a twinge of gleeful revenge. “The Ewings are going to get their due.” Several other women slapped their legs and cackled their agreement.

“Now isn’t JR dead?” asked one woman who was not yet part of the Dallas obsession.

“Oh, JR is dead,” answered the foiled woman. “Dead dead. He died for real, so they had to kill him off right.”

“Yeah, he’s dead,” a third woman added. “He’s dead, and he’s not coming back.”

The whole bunch of ladies fell into laughter. The Ewings were going to get their due, and that was mighty fine with them.

I think Eddie would have stayed in this shop a while, me too.

Be Easy

Straining on the toilet
we learn how
the lightning bug feels. {Kooser and Harrison}

Wyatt, our ten-year-old, has moved into the big leagues, the upper elementary school where they move from class to class through cavernous halls and (because apparently the place was built before the advent of lockers) lug pounds of massive textbooks. The poor kids look like Notre Dame’s hunchback. The foreboding buildings can be a bit of a zoo because every 5th and 6th grader in the city calls this home for two years. It is a good school and Wyatt was eager, but there is an intimidation factor. He doesn’t know many kids, and the transition includes a period where you flounder. Just wait, I keep thinking, middle school is a whole other level of awkward.

Today, Wyatt has his first presentation. Wyatt has to stand in front of his class and tell a few strands of his story and explain his “artifact box.” The box contains several of his favorite things: a book (Hunger Games), a video game (NCAA football, 2006 – because his dad’s too cheap to get anything up to date) and a piece alluding to Greek gods because this boy loves an epic tale, particularly if swords and intrigue are involved.

Wyatt has been nervous since Friday. He’s told us multiple times his vision of a best case scenario: I hope I don’t go first and I hope the person before me does a bad job – but no one laughs at them — and then I won’t feel so much pressure. Not exactly generous, but I see where he’s coming from.

I explained the trick every father since Methuselah has passed down to their son, the one about imagining everyone in their underwear. That only messed him up more. I took a a second swipe. “Wyatt, all your friends in your class are in the same boat you’re in.”

“But dad,” he answered. “I don’t have many friends in my class. Only two.”

The year will go well for Wyatt, as will the presentation I’m sure. He’ll have more friends at the end than he has now at the beginning. Still, he has to walk this path. We all do. It’s hard to move into new places. It’s hard to carry the loneliness and the fear, the anxiety about who you are and whether you belong. And my experience tells me you can be forty and still live these questions.

This morning, we read (from The Message) Jesus’ words in Luke 7: Be easy on people. I love that. We have no idea what the person we’re meeting today carries with them, but we do know (if we’ve paid attention) what we have carried — and what we sometimes carry even now. We know what it is to strain at our life. We know what it is to be alone or misplaced or fearful. We know that there are times (many) when we need someone to pause for friendship, someone to simply go easy on us.

Today, I find myself praying for Wyatt, Let someone be easy. And I’m praying the same for you. Why don’t we all just lower our guard and open our ears, drop our sarcasm and our critique. Why don’t we all just go easy on each other.

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


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.