Once Upon the Ides of March

Last Wednesday, I sat in the North Oval Room of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda. It’s an auspicious place, one of Thomas Jefferson’s pinnacle achievements now marked as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after Rome’s Pantheon, explaining how it was to “represent the authority of nature and the power of reason.” One could never accuse Jefferson of underselling expectations.

I took my spot on one lonely end of a massive boardroom table that seemed to stretch all the way to DC. Around the table sat professors I admire and respect, teachers with serious academic pedigrees. In other words, nothing like me. I was there to defend my PhD dissertation. After course work and languages and a grueling year of comprehensive exams, I’ve spent two years writing about Wendell Berry’s marvelous fiction and how God’s grace shows up in the common, everyday fabric: in that rich Kentucky soil, in those rivers and hills, in those sturdy friendships, in their sorrows, in the life they make in that one unique place. My hope was to better understand Berry’s writing, but just as much, my hope was to better understand my own world and how God shows up in the unique places and people of my life.

There I was, sweating bullets, only to realize that right off the bat I’d made two unfortunate blunders. First, we set my defense date for March 15: the Ides of March. Ominous. Worse, just under the wire, I’d scratched out my heartfelt acknowledgments on the very first page of my dissertation and there, in an ill-advised flourish, I misused the word literally. I mean seriously? – literally? The abuse of this word is the bane of most every middle school grammar teacher in the English-speaking world. I didn’t have tons going for me in this context, but at least I’m supposed to be a writer. I’m supposed to understand elementary vocabulary. I felt like I was rolling into the Rotunda on my tricycle.

Thankfully, the defense went well, and I’m now done. It’s a marvelous feeling.

I’ve asked myself numerous times over the past 5 years why exactly I’ve done this. I’m not entirely sure, but at the most basic I did it because I wanted to and because Miska saw something important here as well. I remember the day when Miska, after years of batting around the crazy idea with me, said, “Winn, I think you have to do this.” That was the lynchpin.

Miska’s my best friend, my partner, the one I trust the most. Last Wednesday, on the other end of that long table, Miska sat there, observing, smiling. Every once in a while, I still hear people talk about the “self-made man.” That’s ridiculous.

 

Honeysuckle

Until I was seven years old, Miska and I both lived in Middle Tennessee, with only 75 miles separating us. Our worlds never intersected, but we watched fireflies under the same summer sky. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if we had met then. On Saturdays, my dad would often take his motorcycle out on the serpentine country roads. On a few occasions, dad loaded me on the seat behind him, and we’d roll through the hills. We always stuck to the backroads, and I wonder if it’s possible we might have rumbled past Tolleson Road. Is it possible I caught a glimpse of Miska running barefoot through the grass or lying under the big elm with her best friends, her dogs? Could I have happened by just as Miska rode the tractor with her pappy or right when she made one of her courageous jumps out their barn’s hayloft?

I don’t know, but I’ll thank God every day that fifteen years later, I found my way back to her. Strange that we’d meet in Florida of all places.

I was thinking of all this, our shared geography and the way of fate, this morning. As kids, we both remember loving the first scent of our Tennessee honeysuckle, and in our backyard now, the Virginia honeysuckle has made its first appearance. It’s a marvelous scent of life and lush bounty. And it’s a reminder of where we’ve been and the grace that has carried us to this place. Life is a wonder.

 

The Goodness She Offers

Miska and I sat in a booth at a mom and pop Italian diner when she told me she wanted to go to grad school for counseling. She had never so much as hinted at this before, but the moment I heard the words I knew it was exactly what she was to do – which meant it was exactly what we were to do since this would necessitate a move, a new job for me, a completely unknown future. A few months later, I was in the driver’s seat of a Penske truck pointed West. What an adventure those next few years turned out to be.

Part of the adventure was the joy of watching Miska’s artistic soul flourish. Miska learned how to tend to people’s stories, but it always seemed to me that Miska was becoming more a poet and an artisan than a counselor per se. It takes more than a little moxie to linger in the hidden places, to not know for sure what exactly you are walking toward. But Miska, bold as she is, has never flinched from such things.

It was no surprise to me, then, when Miska, motivated by her love for the earth and for the nourishing power of beauty, began to craft her own all-natural skin care products, soaps, candles and sundry other delights. This artisan work grew into Broken Elm Apothecary & Mercantile, her shop she opened a year ago today.

I want to tell my brave and beautiful Miska how much I admire her and how much I love all the goodness she offers this world.

And I want to tell all of you, dear readers, that in honor of Broken Elm’s anniversary, Miska is offering a 15% discount if you use the code ONEYEAR.

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.

 

Broken Elm

Our first two years of marriage, when we lived in Tallahassee, Florida, Miska worked in the office of the Speaker of the House. Miska kept the staff’s schedules, greeted politicians and lobbyists and expended her energy grinding out the administrative minutia that push forward the rusty wheels of government. Miska even wore suits to work. None of this was right of course – it was death to her soul. Only, she didn’t exactly know this yet. She had to live into the deeper truths of who she is.

Over dinner at a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant (checkered tablecloths, little candle, the whole bit), we had a conversation that altered the trajectory of our life. We moved to Denver for Miska to go to grad school, and though I had no idea what my job would be or how we would pay the bills, I knew important things were happening. Something powerful and alive had begun to resurrect in her heart, and I was hellbent on not missing that beauty.

In the years since, Miska’s voice and art, her way in the world, has grown solid and true. She’s a joy-maker. Miska is, at her core, a creator. Wherever she decides to give her energy, good and beautiful things blossom.

For years, Miska has offered her creative art via her presence with people, in her work as a spiritual director. She’s kept most of her other craft close, only shared with family and a few friends. Sometimes this has frustrated me. I love what Miska creates, and I’ve wanted her to let her work out into the world. She has resisted. “The time’s not right,” she’d say. Typically, I’d feign agreement, while really thinking whatever...

Now, however, it’s time. I get to share at least some of her craft.

Broken-Elm-FB-Banner

Broken Elm offers Miska’s all-natural, hand-crafted skin care for women and men (that’s the apothecary) and, for the moment, hand-printed tea towels (that’s the mercantile). You’ll want to check out her philosophy on all this. I love it.

And in honor of the grand opening, there’s free shipping if you spend $30 (code: StartTheParty). Just in time for Valentine’s Day, gents.

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.

 

Bless all the Mothers

I understand this day we’ve set apart for mothers carries, for some, the hollow heaviness you’ve been unloading for years. I know that for others it pierces into your wounded sorrow as your longings go unfulfilled. I hurt for you. I pray with you. I hope for grace and love to flow your way.

But your heaviness bears witness to a profound good that should have been, a blessing that your soul aches to know. I must also bear witness to that beauty. We need more of this beauty, not less.

I understand it’s now chic to label these cultural moments as Hallmark fabrications. Allow me to dissent. If you wish, steer clear of the Gold Crown stickers and Target, quite fine. But do not miss the opportunity to bless a mom. Do not miss the opportunity to say, Thank you, mom who loved me or Thank you, woman who gave me a picture of mother when I had none to call my own. I do not despise Hallmark for prodding us. I only regret the Church didn’t think of it first.

The Church should be the first to bless. We should bless singles and married, bless the weary and the joyful, bless the mothers and the father and the children, bless the old and the young, bless the birds and the trees, bless all of God’s good creatures – and perhaps in the blessing, they will know they are loved. Perhaps in the blessing we will participate in their salvation.

As a man married to a woman who gives her heart and soul to children who will never, never (not for a single day) know what it is to wonder if they’re loved, I must bless. As a man who is son to a courageous woman who has given herself to the long, long work of love, I must bless.

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Women of grace, beauty and immense courage: When you desire to nurture and create life, you embody for us the power and creative love of the Trinity, the God whose very being emanates life. When you bring flesh and bone from your womb, you renew for us the holy truth that God, from the very beginning, births all that is good and beautiful in our world. When you show us what is true and pray over us with tear-drenched faith and point us toward the God who loves us, you articulate what God’s Spirit longs to speak into our heart. You, woman and mother, are a prophet of the Living God.

For those who ache for the children you’ve lost or the children you’ve yet to know,

For those who know wounds and loss from your own mother or children,

For those in the thick of the bone-wearying labor of loving children – and especially those who think you’ve been drained of every last ounce of energy,

For those with regret,

For those who, on behalf of your children or another’s children, wage war against some evil that would ravage them,

For those who are loving, mothering or blessing children not your own,

For those with new life in your belly,

For those who need to know the powerful ways your love, nurture, prayers, tears, fears, anger, weariness, hope, laundry, meals, midnight watches, exasperation and laughter have all participated in God’s mysterious act of creating beautiful life,

We bless you.

May the God who filled Mother Eve with life and who filled Prophetess Deborah with wisdom and power and who brought our Savior into the world through a women of remarkable courage, fill you with all mercy and joy today. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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.

Well and True

Fridays are Miska’s and my Sabbath. This usually includes at least an hour or two of one of our more rigorous spiritual disciplines: lying in bed watching Hulu, preferably with a small bag from Albemarle Baking Company in the bed with us. One commercial Hulu runs, over and again, stresses my sabbath experience. In this commercial, a certain cellular provider floods the screen with rapid images and text, highlighting the myriad ways their latest gadget can capture every solitary moment and detail of our lives. The experience overloads the senses.

Amid all the zooming and the pulsing data comes the narrator’s central thesis: “I must upload all of myself.”

Of course, this is ad copy, which means two things: (1) they don’t expect us to take them seriously and (2) what they are saying is sheer nonsense. The compulsion to broadcast our every opinion, our every whim, our every ham-and-cheese-on-rye for crying out loud – we call this narcissism. Of course, withholding yourself because of the meticulous way we are coiffing our public persona is narcissism too. It’s impossibly difficult to get loose of our self-absorption.

This is no theoretical question for me. I must wrangle with how much of my writing comes from a desire to feed the ego and how much comes as an expression of my vocation. In a business where publishers insist you have to build your platform, it’s a messy deal. The publishers have a point of course. A plumber’s gotta find folks who will pay him to fix their sinks, and any plumber who refuses to advertise because of his unsullied commitment to his craft will likely starve. Yet there’s something perverse about a writer or a plumber or a pastor or a real estate agent who are always trying to sell you something, especially when that something is them.

So what’s a person to do? I really couldn’t say, but this is what I’m thinking: the central question isn’t how much to share or not share. The focus isn’t the whens or wheres or hows. The truer question is how will I live well and true?

And this is not at all just about social media. How much of our energy do we give to the people and places we love? How do we interact with other’s expectations (a spouse, a parent, a boss, a pastor)? How do we give ourselves generously – but give in a way that’s truthful so that we’re actually giving ourselves rather than giving some false version of ourselves?

The ad ended with the punchline: “I deserve to be unlimited.” Not only is this false; it is also impossible. We are, thank goodness, all limited. This gracious limitation can set us free from the tyrannies that fight against our longing to live well and true. We are free to say ‘no.’

 

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.