Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Holy Moley Mountain

In back of our apartment complex, a huge parking lot transformed, this winter, into the trailhead for what Tyler and I have come to call the Holy Moley Mountain--a place built of snow drifts, ice, and the occasional spot of dog urine. In our first foray up the Holy Moley Mountain, which the plows had formed during the first snowstorm of the winter, Tyler and I kept slipping back into the parking lot. Each time we fell, we screamed out, "Holy Moley!" and then we let the ice take us down.

Eventually, we summited the Holy Moley Mountain, with the help of a lot of hand-holding and the forward thrust of our new puppy, Harper Blanche Reynolds. (Harper after Harper Lee, Blanche after the name they had given her at the animal shelter). Breathless and at the top, we determined to "hike" the Holy Moley Mountain every day of the Winter.

As each successive storm has arrived, the Holy Moley Mountain has grown--and its formidable icy ascent has grown slicker, too. But Tyler and I find the climb even more thrilling. (Harper Blanche, I think, does not approve of the climb, or, for that mater, anything cold.)

Over Christmas, my kind and deep-thinking brother Michael gave Jennifer and I a card with a remarkable line from Mary Oliver's book, Blue Pastures: "Who knows, maybe the root is the flower of that other life." And the line has greeted us each morning we've woken of this winter.

As we welcomed our second son, Benjamin Peter, into the family, and as we went through the sleepless nights a second time, that line greeted us. As we've contemplated the loss of one life, in England, for the commencement of another, in Boston, that line greeted us. As we've struggled with the tension between studying something--theorizing possibilities of transformation and change through our doctoral programs--and doing something that actually creates a transformation (however tiny), that line greeted us. As we reflected on dreams turned upside down and swirled around and taken for walks around blocks we never thought existed, that line greeted us.

And in every circumstance, Mary Oliver's line has created a place of peace where worry might have reigned. Our culture is so adept at regurgitating the belief that flowering is what matters--reaching the finish line and raising one's arms in victory. But what if the root here is the flower of that other life? What if the roots that we often so impatiently seek to grow up and out and away from are the flowers, the finish lines, of the kind of life that matters?

When I ask myself that question long and hard enough, I am reminded of a line from a great professor I once had named Marv Wilson. He said, "The essence of religion is relationship." And I think this is true for so many areas of our lives--the essence of education is relationship, the essence of family is relationship, the essence of success is relationship. Our goals and dreams never seem quite so beautiful without the complex and remarkable system of roots beneath them. Or, if we take Mary Oliver's words to heart, maybe above them.

And as Tyler and I make our daily ascent up the Holy Moley Mountain, Mary Oliver's words live in every icy step. Because the summit of that mountain is not nearly as fun as the precarious trek towards it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Everybody Falls

Today, Jen and I ventured with Tyler into the Nashoba Valley Ice Rink where we proceeded to put on Tyler's thrift-store chosen purchase of ice skates, rent a pair for me, as Jen watched and waved from the sidelines while trying to figure out how to comfortably watch and wave from the sidelines at 36 weeks of pregnancy.

Tyler stepped onto the ice with a ridiculous amount of glee.

Ice!

And we are wearing sharp blades designed to glide along that ice!

"Daddy, how is there ice inside of a big room like this?"

"Well, they flood it with water and then make the temperatures super duper cooooooold."

"Whoa!" And with that whoa, Tyler crossed the threshold for his first touch of the freezing stuff while wearing blades.

And then the warm, ridiculous glee he'd been feeling a moment ago turned cold. Turned to ice, actually.

"I don't want to do this. I don't like--whoa!--I don't like it!" We had taken five or six steps, and already he'd wibbled an wobbled and had felt himself slide backwards and forwards and side-wards and he couldn't seem to get himself to stand straight-wards, even while holding onto me and the wall.

So I did what any parent would do in a situation like this. I pretended not to hear what he said. Instead, I pointed down towards the end of the ice where the hockey nets would stand, and I began to talk about something totally unrelated to the deep fear and the intense desire to get of the ice that he was feeling.

"Hey T-Man, can you believe that people try to hit a puck into nets on this ice? Whoa, man!"

But Tyler wasn't having any of that Distraction Game. And I felt a sudden pang for the days when distraction was all it took--back when Tyler was two and he wanted, say, ice cream. All it took for Jen and I to get his mind off ice cream was to introduce some ludicrously unrelated item.

"Oh, really you want ice cream? Well did I ever tell you the story about the MASSIVE DIGGER THAT TURNED INTO A SUNFLOWER?!" And, bam, see you later ice cream desire!

But today, at five years old, Tyler's ability to fend off distraction had grown as prodigious as a mountain. A big mountain. Maybe even Everest.

"Lets' go, Daddy I don't want to do this."

This time, rather than pretending not to hear, I fell. And I laughed. And then Tyler's determination softened.

"Can I fall too?"

"Of course, let's fall!" So we both fell and we both laughed. From the sidelines, Jen shot us a thumbs up and I shot a thumbs up back and then we fell again. And again.

And again.

Finally, Tyler agreed that it would be good to try and stand. So we stood, and we eventually crept further around the rink. After maybe 32 minutes, we had made it successfully one time around the rink. "Want to stop, buddy?"

"No, let's do it again!" Tyler uttered.

So we did, and the subsequent trip around the rink took us a mere 15 minutes. Then the third trip took us a whopping, Guinness-book breaking four minutes. By the time we'd gone around twelve times, the rink was closing, and we were ready to get off. But I felt this itch to see how fast I could go around myself.

So with the rink entirely clear of people, I let loose. It felt great, and though I am absolutely no pretty sight on the ice, it felt good to just go fast--however clumsy I might have looked. The only problem is, I can't stop. I mean, I can technically stop by keeping my feet still on the ice and then going and going and going until I cease to go. That--or just hit the wall hard.

So maybe it was because my son and my wife were watching. Or maybe it was because I'd forgotten that I didn't know how to stop. Either reason, I came in towards the gate of the rink--where Jen and Tyler waited--really fast. And I turned my skates quickly like I remember the guy in the movie The Cutting Edge do.

But instead of stopping really fast, like he did, I toppled over, banging my knee and elbow and back as I did so.

Tyler laughed. Jen smiled. And I laughed.

Because falling can sometimes be fun, and because everybody falls.

Tonight, as I type these words I can feel my elbow reminding me that one day I am really going to need to learn how to stop. Yes. But I also think back to Tyler's transformation from glee to fear as he stepped onto the ice for the first time.

And I think both have something to say about chasing dreams, about pursuing anything outside of what's expected for us, or from us. Starting is never easy, but before we start, we at least have those grandiose and ridiculously gleeful notions of what it will be like. Writing can be like this--a vision for a novel, a picture book, or a research project even. We can become inundated with our own hope for the thing. But once we cross that threshold, the warmth of the hope sometimes fades and we're left standing on something frozen wondering, can I really do this?

The good news is that there is an incredible amount of inspiration and energy that comes from stepping out onto something slippery--some mystery where you haven't before walked (or skated). Lewis Hyde says it best in his beautiful book, The Gift: "The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies." When we step into hopes and dreams and possibilities for our lives about which we don't have a huge amount of egoism and pride and so-called knowledge, then we put ourselves into the hands of mystery. And then we are ready to surprise both ourselves and the world around us.

In short: we grow.

This growth involves some glee at the start, yes. Maybe even ridiculous glee. But then it involves a whole lot of fear and trepidation and saying, I want to go back. Let me go back! And then it involves a whole lot of falling. Because everybody falls. But then you get going. I mean, you really get going, and you feel the speed and the joy and the fun.

And maybe--just maybe--once you really get going, you find that you just can't stop.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Peaks and Valleys

In England, Tyler constantly asked to hike Mt. Everest--and so we began training (with a tiny "mountain" I labeled Mt. Georges and which one could hike in a matter of minutes--possibly even seconds).  Once we moved back to New England, the request to hike Mt. Everest wore off some, and I thought it had been all but forgotten until one day he brought it up again.

"Daddy, why did we never hike Mt. Everest?"

"Well, we practiced on Mt. Georges for a while, but we need to practice loads more before we hike Everest."

"Okay, let's do it! Let's practice." Tyler then stood up, ready to hike a mountain maybe a little higher than Mt. Georges.

Jen and I talked and came up with the idea of hiking Mt. Monadnock, a short hour and a half drive from us. We told Tyler about it and he began counting down the days.

When we finally woke up on Saturday, packed up food and water, and Tyler had put on his Batman costume (goodbye, red underwear; hello, Batman), we loaded ourselves into the car and set off for Jaffrey, New Hampshire--a place both Thoreau and Emerson had gone to hike the same mountain we were about to hike (though we doubted either Thoreau or Emerson donned a Batman costume).

I'm not precisely sure what we were thinking when we finally pulled into Monadnock State Park and the ranger on duty gave us a map, explaining that the peak measured 3,165 feet in the air.

"Wow, I didn't realize it was that high," I said.

"Me neither," Jen said.

"Is that as high as Mt. Everest?" Tyler chimed in.

The ranger winked at us and then said, "Go get 'em, Batman."

Jen just hit her 32nd week of pregnancy, and Tyler was a little under a week away from his fifth birthday. It seemed like the perfect Fall day for a stroll in the beautiful New England foliage. And for the first twenty--even thirty--minutes, it was!

Nice slight incline!

Incredible leafy colors!

Kind people remarking that they felt much safer on the mountain now that Batman was here!

And then thirty minutes into the hike, a cliff emerged in front of us. Tyler immediately ran ahead and began scaling it. I looked back at Jen as if to say, I don't remember anything about a cliff on this hike. Jen looked back at me as if to say, No, nor do I.

But there we were. (Did I mention how beautiful it was--and that we really thought we'd make it to the peak? And that, of the three of us, none of us much likes to quit anything? And that Tyler did have loads upon loads of energy?)

So, we scaled the first cliff. I tried to gauge being ready to catch Tyler if he fell from in front of me, but also lean back and see if my lovely pregnant wife needed a hand as she and Baby Bump made their way precariously up the stone face. But as I looked back and forth between them, this is what was really going on in my head: This is so awesome.

And then that cliff led to more cliffs and stone faces and further cliffs and stone faces and further cliffs and stone faces. I tried to picture Emerson and Thoreau on their bellies against one of the flat long stones trying to shimmy upwards and slide their feet into cracks. It's kind of a funny image, you've got to admit--and (like me) I'm sure that both of them must have farted amidst their climb up Monadnock. Probably often. When one is stretching one's body that much, and the stone is pushing against one's belly, I think it's basically impossible not to.

As we reached each new jaunt upwards in the stone, we would stop and turn to Tyler and say, "Are you tired buddy? Do you want to turn back?" And he would roar back, "No way! Come on, we can do it! Let's keep going!" And I would turn to Jen and ask, "How are you feeling?" and she would say, "Great--really good actually."

At 3,165 feet, the wind blew strong and the view was miraculous. The three of us held hands and looked out and looked back and we couldn't believe we were there. After a solid three and a half minutes on the peak, Tyler piped up, "Okay! Let's hike back down! Come on everybody!"

It's funny how going down usually feels so much faster than going up. And it's really funny how--sometimes--going down feels way, way longer than going up. As it did in our case that day.

After sliding down the steep rock faces and properly thinning out the butt areas of our garments, it wasn't long before we started asking one another, "Do you think we're close?"

Do you?

Think we're close?

Ever turn in the trail held the possible dénouement of our little expedition, and a ceasing of what were becoming sharper and more stabbing pains in our calves, knees, and shoulders.

Do you?

Think we're close?

But of course, we never were. Not until it was getting dark, and the parking lot opened before us like manna in the desert. We all ran out to the water fountain and chugged like this was the last water fountain on this particular stony face of this particular patch of Earth.

We climbed into the car and headed home--wearing joy on our faces and in our hearts. After all: we had peaked! We had practically had a day hike with Thoreau and Emerson! A woman seven months pregnant and a boy not-yet-five had made it! I kept saying how proud and amazed I was that they had both done it. Truth is, that whole day was like magic for us as a family. A true peak.

Fast forward two days: Monday. We all wake up saying, "Ow, ow, ow" with stiff backs and bellies and bums. We don't have the energy to even pour bowls of cereal. We are sniffing and some of us are coughing and there is mucus. Yes.

The whole day passes and we all take turns complaining about everything that hurts and how we're coming down with certain colds or possibly even--ack!--the flu!

When we lived in York, I taught Public Speaking in the Adult Education program there, and one evening I did a lesson where everyone in the class had to chart their life--basically make a graph and just throw some plots on it for their highs and lows, maybe adding a key words to describe what each high or low was--maybe their wedding day, an award they'd received, the birth of a child, or alternately, the death of someone they loved, cruel words spoken about their worth or value, losing their job.

The point of the Chart Your Life activity isn't actually to talk about each--or any--of these events. It's to hold all the graphs one on top of the other and see something strange and beautiful and somehow also ordinary: the graphs are pretty much identical. In the classes, there were old people and young people and CEOs and janitors and teachers and managers and lawyers and stay-at-home-parents; they were people who were wealthy and people who were broke; they were people from England or immigrants from totally different countries--and yet every graph was pretty much the same.

No matter who we are or what we have, our lives, charted, always have peaks and valleys. None of us is immune to pain and fear and none of us is blocked completely from joy. None of us remains on top a constant peak, and none of us remains in a constant valley. We are all more similar than we think. Those who seem like they live on peaks do not; and those who seem like they will never be lifted up out of the valley one day will.

And our little family expedition this past week places two more plot points on that graph: a great peak, and a painful valley. Neither lasts forever. Neither is a final resting place or a definitive this is it! But both have something to say of what matters in life: namely, that we seek to live it, in all its glory and pain. Or, as Thoreau said better than I could: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Red Underwear

Jennifer and I sometimes look at one another longingly whenever Tyler now roars out, "I am Superman--to the rescue!" Because it was a brief six months ago that Tyler's favorite show was the quirky, tender, violence-free Charlie and Lola.

Now?

Goodbye, Charlie and Lola.

Hello, red underwear.

At Target last week, the three of us giddily shopped the clearance rack in pursuit of a few necessary items: ties and a couple of pants to wear to work, some maternity clothes for Jen, and long pants and shirts for Tyler. As we approached one of the clearance racks in the boys sections, Tyler's whole face lit up.

Red Underwear!

With a Superman logo right in the front!

"Daddy! Mommy! LOOK WHAT I FOUND!" Tyler's who body began to do a dance, and he held the sacred red underwear in his hands as though it were something for which his little soul had been searching all his life. Finally! 

I looked at the price tag, exploring the first measure of a viable reason for saying No. But the price tag afforded me no such easy departure into the land of No-Superman-Status. It read: $1.96.

In my mind (yes, for real) flashed Jackson Katz's incredible documentary Tough Guise, which explores the very dangerous and deplorable ways we teach boys how to be men: through violence, bravado, and toughness. I though of the incredible and momentous readings in Critical Race Theory, which challenge us to explode the myths of equality-already-reached and instead see the severe structural inequalities, dominance, and racism built into our society.

And, yes, I thought of Charlie and Lola.

And I looked down into the bright eyes of my soon-to-be-five-year-old son holding red underwear with a Superman emblem right in the front.

"Please, Daddy? I can rescue people with these!"

And, okay, I caved. It wasn't so much that I chose the macho male route (at least I hope not) but rather that I wanted to allow Tyler to explore everything he wants to explore, rather than trying to hold him at a stage or a place that that brings Jen and I delight and glee.

Immediately upon returning home with the $1.96 red underwear with the Superman logo in the front, Tyler ran to his room, put on his blue pants, and then pulled the red underwear on top of them.

He then ran back out to the living room, "Let's go to the park because I AM SUPERMAN!"

At the playground, we saw two children we've played with before, Inian and Chandrini. They are delightful, kind, thoughtful children, and immediately they asked Tyler if he wanted to play with them. And he did.

I sat alongside their mother, explaining about the red underwear. She laughed and smiled, then said., "My kids don't even notice it, see?"

And it was true. They didn't. The three kids walked balance beams, played tag, played Octopus (a game they made up whereby an "octopus" tries to reach up onto the play structure and gran the swimmers' feet! Ah!), and then created an obstacle course.

I watched my son in the red underwear--watched how he giggled, held hands with Chandrini, giggled some more--when it was finally time to go--gave both kids massive hugs. And something in me calmed down. Just because he's in a Superman stage doesn't mean he's going to start acting tough and cool (and we especially hope not, because, hey, lets' face it: he's got a Dad for whom traditional notions of toughness are about as familiar as rubbing Crisco all over oneself and subsequently taking a trip to the Moon).

At lunch today, Jen was explaining to Tyler that on this very day nine years ago, "Daddy asked me to marry him, so today is our anniversary.

"What did you say when Daddy asked you about that?" Tyler wondered with anticipation and excitement written on his face.

"I said Yes." Jen looked at me and I looked at this beautiful, strong, loving, kind woman. Then Tyler interrupted our little reverie and said, "HAPPY UNIVERSITY!"

The thing about red underwear is that maybe it doesn't have to be what society says it is. Maybe it doesn't have to be about bravado and fighting and a one-size-fits-all definition of masculinity. Maybe it's possible to remake Superman into something other than a fighting machine. Because at some point we come to the conclusion that everything is flawed--all of it. There's no film, television show, book, interpersonal connection, article, essay, political stance that is flawless. There is bias and cruelty and ignorance in everything we create, because there is bias and cruelty and ignorance inside each of us.

But there's also love.

There is incredible love. And what is love if it's not the power to remake something, to rename and recreate and redeem? It happens in the small moments when we take one of the world's symbols and we transform it to mean something different--to allow love to so overwhelm that thing that it ceases to signify whatever it once did.

It happens when Superman becomes a stand-in for gentleness and thoughtfulness, and when the rescuing he's doing doesn't involve intense violence but instead involves intense connection. Maybe it happens when red underwear streams across a playground with giddy giggle and lots of hand-holding.

Transforming and renaming and redefining seems to be what Jesus was all about. You thought religion was about rules and standards and judgment? You're wrong. It's not. It's about grace and surprising forgiveness and love. You thought love was being nice to people who look and act and talk just like you? It's not. Love is hard, love is work, love is bravely caring for someone so hard that your caring breaks open the concrete doors of their own pride, fear, self-righteousness, guilt. Seems like Jesus had a never-ending list of You thought it was like that, but it's really like this. 

Like all of us, I am (of course) still learning how to navigate the cultural messages my son receives--and those that I receive. What to allow, what not to allow? How to explain certain things, how to teach certain things, how to transform certain things--in my own heart and in the world's? And while Jen and I both explore how to do this at each new stage Tyler approaches, we're holding on to one firm hope: that love trumps everything, and that nothing--not even Superman's red underwear--can long resist transformation in the face of love.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Research, Mosquitos, and Change

In one of our first few days in our new apartment on this side of the Atlantic, we went for a hike through the nearby forest to end up at Nara Park in Acton, MA. En route, Tyler was fascinated by mosquitos.

"They suck people's blood?"

"Yup."

"Really?"

"Yup."

"Why do they suck people's blood?"

"Well, because it's part of their purpose--what they do."

"Really?"

"Yup."

Tyler was quiet for a while as he swatted the suckers and veered off the trail to be certain to step on every medium-to-large rock anywhere in the vicinity. Then he stopped, looked up at us, and asked, "But why are they in life?"

"That's a great question, son. A great question. I'm not really sure."

And so we continued our walk, Tyler swatting the air around his face repeatedly and trying to prevent as many of the blood-suckers as he possibly could from sucking his particular blood. This was all strange and new because, well, there is no such thing as mosquitos in England. When we first moved over there three years ago, we learned that there is also no such thing as screens on the windows of homes. If it's warm, you open your window. No mosquitos get in because, yup, they don't exist there.

After we stayed at the playground at the end of the hiking trail--yes! a playground at the end of a hiking path! and a pond! and massive rocks! enough to make weary travelers and transitioners hearts' sing!--we made the venture back and Tyler found a spider as he lay on the forest floor and watched stuff. (We were tired and, hey, the forest floor is a pretty fascinating place.)

We watched the beautiful stuff on the forest floor for a while, but Tyler's question about the mosquitos kept bugging me. So, we decided we'd do some research at the Acton Memorial Library (where we'd acquired our library cards a couple days prior; library cards--the words reverberate with incredible beauty and joy).

Lee, the librarian, helped us look through loads of insect and bug books, but we never quite learned exactly why they are in life. We did learn, however, that dragonflies eat mosquitos.

"I love dragonflies!" Tyler exclaimed. Hey, so did I at that moment, as I gazed at the tiny lumps all over my arms and legs.

But later, after we were walking back to our apartment from the apartment complex's pool area, Tyler looked up and said, "Well, I think I still LOVE dragonflies, but I also like mosquitos a little bit."

"Really? You like mosquitos son?"

"Yup."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because, they are living creatures too, Dad."

Maybe it was the graphic pictorials of the neon blue dragon fly devouring the head of the mosquito that made Tyler feel a little back for the blood-suckers. Maybe it was something else.

Maybe it was some kind of deep insight that, hey, even though we can't see the good some other creature does, it doesn't remove all value. Maybe not.

But that night, after Tyler had drifted off to sleep and Jennifer and I stood looking at an army of boxes defiantly gathered in our apartment taunting us to try and unpack them at some egregiously late hour, something clicked. It was this: the point of research isn't to come up with one definitely right answer. The point of research is to learn to view things differently--maybe just a little differently at first.

To view one's neighbor a bit differently. One's community. One's self.

And that's the point of any adventure--big or small--too. We start off with a question that we can't figure out. So we have a go at trying out answers, taking ourselves outside of the normal spaces we traverse to see if new connections emerge. We seldom return with answers to specific questions. (And most of the time we return with, in fact, more questions.)

But I think there's a greater peace with the questions. I think, maybe, we start to travel more by wonder and less by knowing. Each time we research in this way--with our lives and with our minds and with our questions rather than our answers--I think we feel our way across hiking trails that are no less buggy, but are a lot more complex, beautiful, and mysterious.

In that sense, I'd rather learn to like mosquitos a little than to figure out their purpose for existence. And if all the research I ever do--both on paper and with my life--ends up yielding more questions than answers, I think I'm okay with that. (As long as there are people to talk about those questions with!)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

One True Thing from Kathy Erskine: Do Something Completely Different!


Kathy Erskine is a writer whose energy for peace is remarkable. The author of numerous novels, she is also someone with a gift for encouragement, kindness, generosity of spirit, and determination. Her novel, Mockingbird, won the National Book Award in 2010 and reading that book, for me, was the most authentic experience of poetry one can have--not just words, but seeing how words have the power to trasform life and create action. Kathy is also the author of the novels, Quaking, The Absolute Value of Mike, and the forthcoming Seeing Red (October 2013). Reading Kathy Erskine's novels is a choice to be inspired to see what is possible for humanity--beyond what currently is and into what could be when we choose to listen to our souls rather than our fears and prejudices.

I feel a special debt to Kathy, as well, for her encouragement and kindness in sharing wisdom, warmth, and writerly advice with me. Through much of our time in England, a photo of Kathy, Gary Schmidt and Francisco Stork hung on the wall in our little study--three faces speaking encouragement and determination. Thank you, Kathy, for your belief in the power of the human spirit to transform life. And thank you for rendering that power so fully in your work. Here is One True Thing from the wonderful Kathy Erskine.

Do Something Completely Different
By Kathy Erskine

The way my life has twisted and turned, not at all the way I thought it would, I guess I’d say that one true thing I’ve learned is to expect the unexpected and deal with it. I can do all the planning I want but I can’t control time, weather, other people, life. You just have to learn how to deal with the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes there are a limited number of moves you can make during a given hand. But if you step away from the table for a moment and look at the whole room, there are always options. Like doing something completely different; sometimes, you have to take your hand of cards and make a collage.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Two Weeks Notice

Seems like, lately, everything is a precursor to my eyes becoming watery and my head telling my heart, you'll be back, really, you'll all come back every few years to see people you've come to know, walk the obscenely curvy, narrow streets you now are no longer afraid to bike on, and catch the # 7 bus into town.

And yet.

Almost three years ago, Jennifer and I and Tyler--then not yet two years old--boarded a plane at Boston's Logan Airport wondering if, in fact, the apartment we'd leased on nothing more than a phone call and a York, England address would in fact, well, be real. We carried pretty much everything we owned, which by the time we boarded the plane was, well, whatever we could fit into three suitcases. We had enough money to make it a few months and then, well, then--

A few months turned into a few years and Jennifer finished a draft of her PhD thesis on human trafficking.

Tyler went from almost-two to almost-five and in that span concocted analogies that made my aspiring-poet / bathroom-humor-loving dad-self rejoice, such as: "Poops are like thunder; pees are like rain."

I worked as a dad, writer, night-teacher, and morning-paperboy.

Together, we all learned something we didn't expect to be the point of this journey. (But then again, what we learn from the adventures we choose to traverse is seldom what we think we'll learn them beforehand.) We learned that gender roles are tough to reverse, no matter how progressive a family is. But they're worth murkying up and seeing what results.

We learned that living without a steady salary is tough. Really tough. But the freedom to experience what an entirely different class of life is like is priceless. We learned that no judgment is ever warranted--no matter how well we think we might understand someone else's situation. (Or, as Mother Teresa put it much more succinctly, "If I am judging, then I am not loving.")

We learned that life is about learning. There is no getting it right the first time. Period. No one gets it right the first time. (And if they did get it right the first time, they probably just hid their earlier attempts!)

We learned that it's really, really hard to set one's heart on something, and then be rejected from that vision again and again.

And again.

And again.

Until finally, the dam breaks and--!!!--rejection, again.

And again.

But we learned that--trite though it sounds, I'm sure--this is where authentic love happens. In the seemingly endless caesuras after defeat, rejection, almost-but-not-quites, there is an incredible and breathless space for love. The kind of love that doesn't come easy and doesn't feel easy but that, when chosen, feels like your heart is, quite literally, bursting open.

In that openness, it seems there is space for the whole world to fit.

We learned that perfection is a ploy. And even if it weren't, we wouldn't choose it anyway. Perfection leaves nothing to imagination, mystery, depending on others, vulnerability, risk, joy, pain, hope. We learned that choosing the latter is much more fun.

We learned that people are remarkable. I mean, remarkable. People! We learned that people will stop and talk and invite you in to show you their pictures of America back when they lived there fifty years ago, laugh as your son plays with the cat, cry when they remember their own adventures, then ask you if you'd like tea.

People--old people--will smile at you and give you the thumbs-up on a morning paper route, totally disregarding the fact that you are a fully-grown man who didn't have time to shave that morning.

People--little people--will hug you and show you pictures and tell you stories and the light in their eyes will look to the light in yours and will beg, beg, beg for that connection of no words but kindness, seeing, really seeing.

People--regular people--will surprise you with a knock on the door, an offer to join in a basketball or football game, a pat on the back, a phone call or a text message checking in, a sunflower seed that will grow taller than you and next to which your whole face glows yellow.

People of all shapes and sizes and colors and faiths and no-faiths and languages and cultures will look at you and will be willing to connect. If you are willing to connect. And then everything that is assumed to be accurate and aligned and just-the-way-it-is is, well, no longer is.

We learned that it's true what the African proverb says, "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together." And, man, it's fun to go far.

We learned that laughing on the couch in the living room when one's wife is Wonder Woman and one's son is Superman and oneself is Lex Luther provides two hours of fun that is free, ridiculously giggle-filled, and utterly exhausting.

We learned that watching the Queen ride through the streets of your city is a powerful experience, but just as powerful is talking with the man a few streets over who hasn't eaten in a while and of whom no one is lining the sidewalks to catch a glimpse.

We learned that having family who loves you--family that saw all your many imperfections growing up, knows you underneath the grand visions and the big dreams, loves you still, and always will. And the thought of going home to their arms is thrilling.

We learned that adventure isn't one big choice to do something wild. Adventure is a thousand small choices to lean towards things a little unlike what you always thought they would be like.

We learned that we know a lot less than we did three years ago, yet feel more full.

In two weeks, we'll board a plane (preferably the absolute cheapest plane that flies across the Atlantic) and head back to Boston's Logan Airport. And in the next two weeks, I'm going to cry a lot more. Because I'm grateful for the chance to have seen life from a different angle. And I'm grateful to the thousand teachers I have had over here in York--teachers of all ages and cultures and walks and perspectives.

Success, in its raw definition, didn't necessarily happen over here the way I'd thought it might. We're not going home wealthy and prestigious and as bestselling authors. But in that caesura that follows suggested defeat or rejection, there's a kind of success that burns inside of me deeper than anything else I have ever known or felt in my entire life.

It burns so hard and, were it to explode, I venture it'd be big enough to let the whole world in. The success being over here has taught me, in the simplest articulation possible, is this: to say thank you, and to mean it. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Never Wasted

After the Great Fire in London in 1666, architect Christopher Wren worked with determination to full redesign the city--getting rid of the old medieval planning and using, instead, an organized grid pattern that would make sense and allow for a new city to rise from the ashes of the fire that destroyed it.

Wren had not yet built what would become his masterpiece--St. Paul's Cathedral--but he had already proven himself to be a spirited, inspired, and clever architect. He submitted his plans for the rebuilding of London to King Charles II, but they were never adopted. The new London eventually emerged as a mere sibling to the old London. 

Wren's energy and hope--his plans for the new city--were wasted. 

When we teach, and parent, and write; when we dream and explore the world around us; when we chart a course for the journey ahead and become giddy with the possibilities--the plans don't always work out. Not the way we'd hoped they would, at least. Things change, and what we once designed in such bursts of passion and creativity sometimes seems wasted--pointless.

There is an old story I heard about ten years ago about a man and a boulder. God brings this man in front of the boulder and says, "Push." 

The man seeks to be obedient and passionate in his efforts, and so he pushes. And he pushes. And he pushes. But day after day, month after month, the boulder never moves. No matter how tirelessly the man asserts his strength, the boulder sits still. 

Finally, the man rages at God from his own apparent failure of God's direct call on his life. But God only laughs and says, "I told you to push only." 

The man becomes even more embittered--feeling this whole pursuit to be a wasted effort. But before the bitterness can consume him, God says, "Look at your arms. Look at your chest. Look at your legs." And them man is shocked to see himself: muscles have appeared and his body does, indeed, feel strong, capable, ready. 

His work was never wasted. He had assumed the call was towards an immediate result, but instead the journey had been something else altogether. God then says to the man, "Now I can move the boulder." 

Christopher Wren's inspired plans for the rebuilding of London never did come to any use in the United Kingdom. But across the Atlantic Ocean, in a city called Philadelphia, Wren's visions were given an exact reality. The whole city was built upon Wren's seemingly wasted efforts. 

When we cannot see the fruits of our work, and when we feel our work isn't worth being seen, it may be that we are growing strong though we do not realize it. It may be that we are designing cities oceans away from where our eyes now reach.