Life’s River

Wyatt and the trout in an undisclosed location

Since the boys were tikes, I’ve taken each of them on a solo road trip for their birthday. It’s one of my very favorite dad-things. I always hope for a flash of memorable conversation, where a dad and a son share a moment with gravity. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t force these things. You just have to be open, and let it come when it will.

Since Seth’s birthday lands in October, we always nose down 29 to Clemson to see the Tigers feast on the poor lackeys who drew the short straw and have to spend a Saturday in Death Valley. But with Wyatt’s birthday in May, it’s been a potpourri of adventures. Watching his Yankees play at Camden Yards. A day zip lining. A weekend in DC, another in Texas hunting feral hogs.

Fishing has become one of Wyatt’s passions, but he’d never caught a trout. After hearing mythical tales, the sort whispered reverently from one fisherman to another, he was desperate for his own baptism in one of Virginia’s legendary wild trout streams. I apologize that I cannot be more specific with the name or location. I’m not a fisherman myself, but I’ve lived with one long enough to know that a man divulges his honey spot only when they pry it from his cold, dead fingers.

Our first evening on the water, Wyatt didn’t catch a thing. I take that back–he caught three branches, lost three pricey lures. While Wyatt worked his new St. Croix rod, a light model that needs to be caressed just so, I sat on a large rock at creek’s edge, under an oak’s shade. I watched the dead water, flat and lifeless. There was as much chance of a pig floating down that stream as a fish. But the closer I watched, the more I yielded to the stillness–I had it all wrong. Life teemed everywhere. Swarms of water bugs zooming across the surface. Microscopic tadpoles darting in and out as if they were engaged in serious business. Bits of leaves twirling in a small eddy, a miniature tornado. There was a riotous circus three feet from my nose, but I’d never known if I hadn’t gone quiet and waited for the gift to appear.

With my sons, with my friends, with Miska, with all the astonishing mysteries and joys outside my study window–this life is wondrous and abundant. I don’t want to miss any more of it than I have to. Sitting on that rock watching Wyatt cast, I gave thanks. I give thanks now.

And boy, did Wyatt catch a beauty of a brown. The next morning, we walked the stream. Wyatt cast and cast. The patience of Methuselah. He told me wisdom hard-won for any fisherman: sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t force these things. You just have to be open, and let it come when it will.

A Future Born in Mercy

Gaudí commenced construction on the Sagrada Familía, a Basillica in Barcelona, in 1882. They say it’s on target for its expected completion date: 2026. Gaudí died in a trolley accident in 1926 at the age of 73. Believing his work was for God, whenever someone chided him for the ridiculous time horizon, he’d answer: “My client is not in a hurry.”

I don’t know the answers to the many vexing concerns of our moment, but I think a good dose of Gaudí would at least be part of our way forward. We hear the wisdom encouraging us to be attentive to this one present moment (this conversation, this page of this book, this purple Climatis climbing our mailbox, this act of resistance) rather than frantically pressing and swerving toward whatever’s next–and this is absolutely true. However, to truly inhabit attentiveness to the beauty and responsibility of each single moment, we have to also trust the long view, trust the long story. I get the sense that Gaudí was able to enjoy each stone cut, each piece of marble laid, precisely because he knew the future was not his to control, that he was to do his part (and do it well, with real diligence, no shirking) but he envisioned a future that did not ultimately depend upon him. He would draw his blueprints and lay his portion of the edifice, but then other hands would take it from there.

The work before us is larger than us, larger than our lifetime. We have responsibility, but it is a responsibility born and worked out in mercy. We do not strain toward tomorrow. We do our good work today, and then we trust.

The Slowest Virtue


breadking bread in denmark

Grabbing the radio nob, I nudged up the volume. The man explained how he decided to craft a hand-hewn casket, the box they would use to place his 94-year-old mom in the ground. The task would take a little time, though, because he wanted to cut each board and plane each angle himself. “A machine makes things too perfect,” he said. “That’s not life.” The funeral home agreed to hold his mother’s body, and he went to work, each cut of the saw an act of love. The son did not dally, but he did not rush. He took care with his labor, but he expected the casket to bare its blemishes without shame. The son shared a line from his credo: “I do not strive for perfect,” he explained. “I strive for fulfilling.”

I heard this story the same weekend the reader at church gave us St. Peter’s words explaining how each of us would need to “grow into our salvation.” It seemed to me these two bits of wisdom scratched at a similar truth. Pine boxes, when they’re built for the sake of love, cannot be rushed. The dead are happy to wait. In the same way, salvation (our well-being, our return to our good life in God) works on a slow, slow schedule. God, it seems, is happy to wait.

I imagine Peter amused at our self-important bluster, our fervent and so very serious spiritual disciplines, our flashes of theological indignation, our cause de jour. “Well now…” Peter says, play in his voice, “you’re ready to strip a gear.” If it’s true that we grow into our salvation, then this means we’ve got a ways yet before we get to wherever it is we’re going. The idea of growth assumes perpetual imperfection. The tomatoes and the cilantro in our raised garden beds will likely flourish in time, but wringing my hands or hovering over them with vigilant scrutiny will do nothing other than ruin my joy and provide Miska with cause to wonder if I’ve finally gone the way of the loon. I’m not aiming for apathy, but I would like to suggest at least a dose of calm the heck down.

If there’s a triumphant sin of our age, it just might be impatience. Many of us believe we exist on the razor edge where our well-being, reputation or identity always teeters in immediate jeopardy. We’ve got no margin to spare, no grace to spare. With so much at stake, we brandish this same sharp threat toward everyone we encounter. We are quick to denounce, heavy with sarcastic critique, wicked swift to pounce on someone’s blunder or poor judgment. We have so little patience with one another.

In God’s economy, however, there’s plenty of time. Time for mistakes. Time for new possibilities. Time for those zany detours that later just make you scratch your head. There’s time to accept our own foolishness as well as the foolishness of others. We have miles to go, and if we’ll allow it, love will get us there. But love is patient. And because love is patient, love is also kind.

Teilhard de Chardin suggested that to nurture gentle patience (towards ourselves and toward others), we must “accept the anxiety of feeling incomplete.” We’re all beauty-in-process. We’re all finding our way. We’re all just growing up.


*The image above is from sometime around 1929, on a rugged farm in Western Jutland, Denmark. The woman is baking bread in an oven dug into the rise of the hill. The wooden pole keeps the door shut while she watches over the bread. Slow, patient work.