See What Truly Is

moonlight row vision

One of the profound gifts discovered amid true friendship is the ability to see and be seen, to see the truth of who we are – past the frivolous fascinations, beyond our sabotaging nitwittedness, through the seasons of lethargy, estrangement or basic foolishness. Once, when I felt trapped in an undercurrent of self-disgust, Miska looked at me, clear-eyed and without even a hint of shame or distance. “Winn, you’re a better man than that.”

I believed her. For one, Miska’s proven entirely incapable of blowing BS, even if merely to make someone feel better. Miska’s a kind, generous soul, but she adheres to the school of straightforward love — Miska believes truth heals more than any lie ever could. Even more, though, I’ve learned to trust that Miska does actually see the truth, that she sees me (at least most of me). I believe Miska would say that I see her too, that love and fidelity through the long labor of love has trained me to see the truer places in her (at least most of them).

I also have a handful of friends, companions who, in various ways, see one another truly. This is one of the signs of a sturdy, weathered friendship: the capacity, as well as the commitment, to catch sight of the deep goodness in another – and to cling to that goodness even when it costs us to hold tight. I agree with the hopeful axiom Helmut Thielicke insists upon: “If there is one rule that is given to us by the command to love our neighbor, it is that we must always judge a person by his optimum and not by his failures.” We see with generosity. We see beyond the bluster or the isolation. We see the truth.

 

image: Massimo Valiani

For the Women in Our Lives

The past months have been dark and difficult for our home, Charlottesville, Virginia. The murder of Hannah Graham in September sent the community into mourning. Last week, Rolling Stone published an investigative article detailing a gang rape at a frat house party, but beyond this, the expose pointed to a broader systemic failure to believe and protect victims. (Severe Trigger Warning for this article should you choose to read. When I first read the article, I had to set it aside and return to it later.) There is outrage here at the University and in the city, as there should be. Institutions face a powerful temptation to maintain equilibrium, but this is an occasion where at least a few leaders need to lose their cool and light a fire and where everyone in power needs to make justice and truth their first priority.

This is not at all about only UVA; cities and universities everywhere face these horrors. However, this is also not only about the crimes but about our wider cultural impulse where sex-as-objectification exists as the norm. Other people (and their bodies) are often little more than material for us to use and then discard at will. We learn a lot of truth from our clichés: sex sells. It is not lost on me that this article came from Rolling Stone, and while I’m thankful that they brought evils to light, I can’t forget how the Stone has sold more than a few issues with overtures to sensationalized and dehumanizing sexuality.

In this one moment, I want to speak to my fellow men. Can we have a collective backbone and stand up to create a different reality? Can we become men of integrity and character who are a safe community for women? Can we have true friendships with women, where they know that we want nothing from them other than their true self, their heart and their soul and their wisdom and strength, their imagination, their laughter?

Can we throw down the hammer when another man in our company demeans a women or objectifies her or uses power in ways that harm rather than heal? Can we return to our best ideals? Can we help one another become better men? Can we have courage and learn again what it means to love, to give rather than take?

 

Tattooed With Love

I have lost my wedding ring. Twice. The first occasion was in the first year of our marriage. The ring disappeared at some point in the middle of a volleyball game, probably during one of my monstrous strikes where sheer power and velocity ripped the metal from my fingers. Probably. A group of friends, on hands and knees, scoured the ground with me until, to my great relief, we found the ring. The second time was years later in South Carolina. I could not pinpoint the timing, but my best guess was that it slipped off my hand while mowing the lawn. After days of searching and the kindness of a friend with his metal detector (I have very interesting friends), I conceded that my wedding band was finally gone.

We had planned to save up and purchase a new ring, but two years later we had yet to swing it. For her 35th birthday, Miska wanted a second tattoo, and she requested that I get inked with her — a wedding band tattooed on my finger. Something permanent, forever unthreatened by my penchant for losing things. So long as I never tangled with the Chicago mafia, this ring should never, ever slip away from me.

At the time, tattoos were illegal in South Carolina, so we drove to Athens, Georgia to have the work done by an artist who hung his needle at the Midnight Iguana. The experience inflicted less pain than I anticipated, and the adventure provided a weekend of joy and romance with Miska. The symbol of my love and commitment forever seared into my body.

Over the years, the tattoo has launched many conversations. More than once, after a person clarifies that my tat is indeed a wedding band, they look at me with incredulity and ask, “But what if you get divorced? That’s really permanent” – as if my ink appeared in Vegas after a bender with no consideration for the inevitability that some day I’d regret the foolishness. I can’t tell you how much joy I receive from what follows. I look them in the eye and say, “Oh, that’s the point. Nobody’s getting this. I’m a goner, for life.” Typically, they respond to my effusive conviction with even more dubiousness. They raise their eyebrows. They take on a tone like a parent talking to a child about the Easter Bunny, affirming my very, very sweet sentiment. Once a hotel clerk visibly smirked, rolled his eyes and exhaled an under-the-breath chuckle laced with mockery.

I do not care. I’ve given my life away. This little patch of ink provides only one of the simple reminders.

 

Suffering Toward Joy

canopy road

It is remarkable the vast energies we exert in our attempt to avoid suffering. Painful relationships, painful memories, difficult conversations — it’s so easy, so tempting, to ignore those things that will cost us dearly if we stay with them. How many hopes abandoned, possibilities squelched, friendships withered – all because we did not surrender ourselves to the suffering they would require?

The apostle Paul believed that one of the many signs of a genuine love was the tenacity to be patient in the midst of suffering. We cannot truly love another if we are committed to not suffering. We cannot be present with others in their suffering if we are not willing to suffer along with them. We may not know how to silence the voices of shame or how to circumvent the reality confirmed by the oncology report or how to mend a shattered dream. We, of course, cannot return a boy to his mother or cleanse the mind of foul memories. We can, however, mourn with those who mourn. We can weep. We can bear with the pain and not turn away.

The way of love will always require some manner of suffering, the willingness to lay down one’s own well-being for the good of another. Perhaps this is why marriage provides us with one of our ultimate human enactments of love. Vigen Guroian says that marriage is an act of martyrdom, and he is right. If I want to truly love Miska (and I do), it will in some measure be the death of me.

But it will also be my life. Oh the joy. We suffer, not because we’re sadists but because we are committed to the truest and highest good, for ourselves and for others. We suffer for the joy that is set before us.

Circle Close

6a01116862b939970c0147e3de7d9e970b-800wi

Last year, a story hit the newswires of a pod of pilot whales floundering in perilously shallow water off the Everglades. Forty or Fifty short-finned whales stuck close to a narrow shoreline, and they were not moving back out to the deep waters, to safety. Several of the blackfish were ill, and this caused real worry among conservationists. Pilot whales are intensely loyal creatures, and when one of their number is sick or in jeopardy, the rest of the pod will not leave. The draw a circle and stay close.

This image – drawing a circle and sticking close – says a lot about the way I want to live, the kind of community I want to live in. I’ve sat with friends as we sifted through the rubble to try to piece their life back together. Friends have sat with me, in long stretches where I had nothing to contribute, where my darkness kept me locked up, closed off. But none of this mattered because we were friends, because we had entered together into a life where each of us were part of the whole. To be a friend means a lot of things, but at the least it has to mean we will not leave. We will stick close.

To be a friend is to be thankful for the joy and to endure the hard, knowing that life ebbs and flows. And if we miss one another in the sorrow, well, then we’ve simply missed one another. Whenever we don’t know what to do with a marriage that’s teetering or a child that’s on the edge or a friendship where’s there’s pain or uncertainty, we can simply draw a circle and stick close. I think we can do that.

Click

When I shared Holy Work, the poem Miska commissioned poet John Blase to write for me as a Christmas gift, I said there was more to the story. I’ll give you one of the bits now. Christmas morning was a real kick because I had also secretly commissioned John to write a poem – but as a gift for Miska. Miska and I had plotted and schemed in order to surprise each other with the exact same gift.

Here’s the second from the series, the photo and the poem.

winn and miska.laughter

I’ll surely forget many
things, many days, but
I choose to remember a
moment when everything
was so black and white,
was so very clear to me.
I kept your hands to my
shoulder and flashed my
grin, the grin you said
yes
to so many days ago now.
You then spilled your laugh,
the laugh that you and only
you possess. I know the ax
can fall at any moment but
for the space of one frame
there was no one else on
the face of God’s earth but
you and your laugh and me
and my grin, two unveiled
faces wide and alive with
smiles of great sweetness
captured in the click of an
eye. In that stark moment
everything, yes everything
was so very clear to me.

Ashes and Roses

I raised my drooping head, my soul dripping shame, in order to ask forgiveness. There was barely space to get the words free because she had already begun to pull me into her bosom and to bury her cheek in my chest. “I forgive you,” she said, without hesitation. Without demand. Without holding any part of herself back as penalty for my foolishness.

In marriage, you find yourself replaying the story of the Prodigal time and again. Sometimes you’re the one watching for the other to come home. Sometimes you’re the one needing to come to your senses and make your way back. Either way, love must be the central player if our marriage is to truly be a marriage.

Though calendars collide for no good reason, I find it timely that yesterday we were marked with ashes and today we celebrate love. Surely there’s a rhythm there. Dropping our pretense, lowering our guard and welcoming mercy makes all the rest of it possible.

Holy Work

Speaking of love affairs, last year Miska commissioned my friend John Blase to write a poem for me, his poetic reaction to a picture the two of us hold dear. I love the poem, as I love all John’s work. I love the picture. I love the ‘us’ that makes this holy work.

There’s more to this story, perhaps I’ll share it sometime.

WinnMiska

Holy Work

We’ve sat close together in
this strange and beautiful
providence long enough now
to know the secret to love is
more skin to skin than eye to eye.
I have felt your grief and joy
as you have felt my anger and doubt.
And we have both felt the urge
to sacrifice. to make sacred.
Some would call this mere empathy
but I find their lack of imagination
deplorable. No, our love affair stands
in this world of contradictions
with the fundamental texture
of one fiercely earned: it is palpable,
or as the Italians would say:
L’ho provato sulla mia pelle
I have experienced that on my own skin.
This alone is love’s holy work.
an even loyalty, steady and clear.

Long Love Affair

This morning as the family cleared the breakfast table, Miska put her arms around me and pulled herself in close. Seth, mouth still stuffed with bagel and cream cheese, made an observation. “Puppy love.”

“No,” Miska answered (and here you’ll have to imagine the sultry Spanish accent she carried), “No, this is a long love affair.” Then, to my delight, she leaned even closer and left a sweet gift with her lips. Seth, as any 9 year old boy should, groaned and buried his face in his hands. I sat there grinning and perky, taken off guard but hoping against hope that this breakfast banter wasn’t the end of things.

There was a stretch in our marriage when a morning simply couldn’t have gone like this. There was too much ice, too many questions, too much loneliness. The first four years of our marriage had been spectacular in almost every conceivable way, but life grows and love changes – and if you don’t go along for the ride, you’ll find yourself lying in bed with a stranger.

Through a multi-year traverse, a story maybe we’ll sit down and tell fully someday, we clawed our way back to a truly shared space. Back to the long love affair. Now, we’re in the days when we make our boys squirm because of our flirtatious amore. We’re in the days when even breakfast gets exciting every now and then.

 

Fifteen

You learn much about a woman over fifteen years. You learn even more if you add another four on top, the stretch of time it took me to buckle up my courage and stop acting the fool. When the time was right though, the courage rushed with a fury. I’ve been grabbing straight shots of 80-proof love ever since.

In those fifteen years, you learn that a woman needs you to clean up your pancake disarray as you go along, not after dinner’s done. You learn that when we’re in bed reading and she asks if I’m hungry, what she really means is: would you take your cute little self downstairs and make me some of your stovetop popcorn? You learn that asking her what she thinks of Schleiermacher’s pneumatology or Barth’s “strange world” after 9 p.m. is likely to get you nothing but a big ol’ roll of the eyes.

But you also learn that you’re welcome to quote poetry at any hour. You learn that tears cost her much but have a mighty power to heal those who receive them. You learn that true artists simply make beauty everywhere and half the time don’t even know they’re doing it. You learn that whenever she pulls out that orange-striped apron, watch out. She may start with paint and canvas, but when she’s done, all you’ll be able to say is my, my

In fifteen years, you learn what it is to give yourself to a woman, to know that she is your truest joy and truest pleasure. You also know, as much as you know a thing in this world, that you’ve only begun to scratch at her mystery, her allure.

 

winn and miska