Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It's Raining Snow

Before we arrived in York, my conception was that we'd get buckets of rain, but no snow. After all, as an undergrad about a decade ago, I studied in England for a year, and I never saw the white fluffy stuff to which growing up in Connecticut had accustomed me.

However, at the playground about a week ago, when I asked another Dad named Derek, "Heard anything about what the weather's supposed to be like this next week?" his reply kind of surprised me in that are you pulling one of my limbs? way.

Derek: Yeah, mate, it's supposed to snow.

Me: Oh, really? When?

Derek: This week.

Me: Oh, like tomorrow?

Derek: Yeah, mate, and then the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that, and for the entire week, as in the whole week, mate.

Me: (Stunned Silence...coming to terms with Derek's remarks as definitely not those of the limb-pulling kind)

And, indeed, Derek was right. We've had five days of snow. Not straight snow, of course, but every day, sure enough, it's raining snow here in York.

On the first day that it snowed, Jen and I and Tyler all wrapped ourselves up in layers and trekked into our little backyard. We built a single, miniature snowman. It was kind of a sad excuse for a snowman--what with his head continually falling off and smashing into a thousand tiny flakes. But we kept pushing the powder together, willing it to hold, and eventually it did.

It was Tyler's first snowman, and he loved it.

The next day, we built another snowman, incorporating the new snow into the mix, as well as the old, slightly hardened snow from the day before. The result was a vastly improved snowman, whose head was secure, and whose torso had grown considerably from the day before.

After five days of snow, we have as many snowmen peopling our backyard. Sometimes, at night, when the flakes fall soft on top of them, I wonder if the snowmen are thinking what I'm thinking, namely: How long can this keep up?

Then again, they're probably doing the snowmen-dance--ecstatic that their existence will be guaranteed for a least a little while longer.

Tyler was a little shocked to see snow at its first falling. He lifted up his eyes towards the heavens, opened his mouth, and let the flakes tickle his tongue in that way that only children can. (Don't get me wrong: I tried to catch as many flakes as I could on my tongue, too, but I somehow doubt that I looked as cute--or as innocent--doing it as Tyler did. I was, after all, kind of thirsty, so my attempts may have been tinged with a certain desperateness.)

Watching Tyler race back and forth across our yard, saying things like, Daddy, more snow! Daddy, more snow! every time he found more snow (which was often), I had to whisper a prayer of thanks. To watch a two-year old gleefully enjoy something as simple as fluffy precipitation is a real gift.

As we get older, it seems most of us trade in the sheer enjoyment of snow for the dreaded duties of the stuff: shovel it, move it, snowblow it, chip away at it, plow it, drive through it. We seldom consider using it the way children do. For kids, snow is a seemingly endless supply of building material with which they can construct people, places, and things.

Or, if we're anything like New England's most famous poet, we sit on the horses of our lives and wonder whether we should just abandon ourselves in it, get lost in its "dark and deep" woods during the cold seasons of our journeys.

The dilemma of snow for adults versus the joy of snow for kids became punctuated for me, this afternoon, when--right before putting Tyler down for his nap--I made scrambled eggs for his lunch. After the eggs, he was hungry for more, so I poured some yogurt in his little pink bowl, gave him a spoon, and let him go to town.

Glops of yogurt fell everywhere: across his Elmo shirt, into the crevices of his neck, on his ears...one glop even made it halfway into one pocket of his pants.

My instinctual response was to rush right in and start cleaning it up, or better yet, to try blocking the precipitation. But I caught myself.

Instead, I said aloud, This will be a show! (I really said this out loud.)

And then, I watched the yogurt cascade.


I doubt much of the white stuff made it into his mouth. But then again, when you're a kid, that's not always the point.

When precipitation hits our lives--whether snow, or yogurt, or confusion, or love--we really have two choices: 1) complain, lament, reasonably consider how to respond; or 2) Let the stuff get all over us, dance in it, wear it proudly on our Elmo shirts and in our pockets, and catch it on the tips of our tongues.

When it's raining snow, it seems like there's always some part of us that thinks--however briefly--why not bust out our rain dances?

Go ahead.

Do it.

After all, who's really watching besides a few other (seemingly) normal human beings?

Friday, November 26, 2010

European Jeans


I mean, Ouch!


I have a size 34 inseam, size 32 length, and so, when Jennifer was taking a bus into Leeds a little while back to a big store where everything is supposed to be very, very cheap, I said i would love one pair of 34 x 32 jeans.

And Jen, indeed, was victorious in her search for said sized jeans.

As I tried to slip my legs into them, however, there was a minor problem. namely, the flesh on my leg was caught in its tracks by the jeans. Literally, the jeans just kind of hung on to my thigh-flesh with their frictional jean-material.

So, I put the jeans on top of our little closet wardrobe and left them there, as if to say, I'm not talking to you anymore, you European Jeans, you.

But the jeans talked to me. Oh, did they ever talk!

Jeans: Ah, couldn't quite handle our closeness, could you buddy?

Me: (Ignoring in noble fashion.)

Jeans: You ever going to try again? Or you going to quit...well...well?

Me: (Ignoring in noble fashion.)

However, today, the Jeans won. That, or I just got tired of wearing the same brown pants every single day until I felt like they were part of my official stay-at-home-dad uniform.

So, I inconspicuously slid the jeans off the wardrobe after my shower this morning, pushed and prodded my thigh flesh (and then my butt flesh) into said jeans, and made my way downstairs, where Jennifer and Tyler were playing in the living room with blocks and puzzles.

trying to act like everything was normal, I sauntered into the room, squeezed my lower half back into a chair, and said nonchalantly, "What's up, guys?"

Jennifer's smile made me smile, too.

"I thought those were too small?" She said, maintaining that beautiful smile.

"Well, they were...but then I figured, why not try--you know, really try? So, I did."

"Do they feel okay?"

"Yeah--but tell me honestly, if I wear these in public, are people going to stare at me all day and wonder what the heck I'm doing?"

"No, no, of course not. They look fine."

Later that morning, as we were saying goodbye to Jennifer as she was heading in to school, and Tyler and I were heading towards a lightly-snowed-on playground, I yelled out to her--wearing my European flesh-hugging jeans, "I love you! Bye, Babe!"

And Tyler immediately looked longingly towards his mommy, and then said, "Bye, Babe!"

I had to laugh that deep kind of belly laugh--the kind that comes up from your gut and enters the world like something funny that just came up from that deep part of your belly.

The part of the belly that European jeans really hang onto, let me tell you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's Not about Results

When I was a middle school teacher, I always told my students that it wasn't about the grades. It wasn't about any score, or any comparison; it wasn't about making the team; it wasn't about winning something. Instead, it is always, always about the work you put into it, and the way you keep facing the challenges that show up on your doorstep.

That's it.

I was pretty good at giving the above message in bold ways. Using stories and examples, I could make it funny. I could make it poignant. I could make it look and feel and walk and talk like truth.

But I didn't realize until a few nights ago how I still needed to learn to believe it myself. And it's thanks to my wife and her breaking through a core belief I hadn't changed.

It had been one of those long days where the sky hangs heavy, telling you, Hey, man, don't even try to come out, because as soon as you do, I am going to POUR on you. I'm not just talking drizzle; I am talking about sheets of water.

So we made the best of indoor time, doing puzzles, pretending to be joint Bobs the Builder, running back and forth between the washing machine (in our kitchen) and the front door (at the front door part of the house), banging on buckets, making trucks talk, and trading tickles.

But by the end of the day, I was wiped. Exhausted.

When I get tired, my mind usually races with failures--things I have worked really hard at, but which haven't come to fruition. It's like being overtired triggers something inside me that says, Ah, but Luke! If you could only work a little harder, you would have had success in this area!

This particular night, it happened to be the voice of condemnation over my writing.
My writing had come pretty darn close a couple of times.
And every time, I would hold my head up high, say, Getting there...getting there...and keep trying. Meanwhile, I kept telling myself what I had heard hundreds of writers say you must do as you wait for a book to make the rounds with editors: keep writing.

So, what did I do?

I kept writing.

I wrote ferociously. I wrote every story that popped into my head (which was a lot, I found, when you have an overactive imagination and some solid writing time while your son is napping).

But when the passes continued to come, I started to feel like I did when I was I was in high school, playing basketball.

Well, perhaps it's a misnomer to say, playing basketball.

The truth is, I didn't do much playing during the games. I made my high school basketball team--which was a steep challenge. We had a big school, and there were a lot of strong players, and our team won the state championship a couple of times.

I made the team, and worked hard under our demanding but wise coach (whose day job was a prison guard). In the off seasons, I worked four or five hours a day practicing drills, running miles dribbling two basketballs, sprinting suicides, shooting hundreds of free throws, completing shooting drills that were complete with sit-ups and push-ups mixed in between shots.

In short: I worked my butt off, ate zero bad food, and turned the spotlights on above our garage to do night drills when it got too dark to see.

But no matter how hard I worked, I didn't ever play much in the games. It was like this was this mental block, making me afraid on the court, causing me to hesitate, to doubt I could make the same shots that I made thousands of times in my own driveway every day.

Throughout my entire high school basketball-playing journey, I probably played less than the minutes of a full game. (Which was 32 in our league--eight-minute quarters)

Afterwards, I looked back at that experience, and dealt with what happened by telling myself things like, Well, I learned a lot from it and I worked really hard, and I became very physically fit and healthy, right?

And I kind of thought that it was over and done with. Old news. Moved on.

But it was only in talking with Jennifer a few nights ago, as I began to bemoan my lack of getting a contract for Atticus & Me that she asked me about my high school basketball experience. Even though it was years ago, the first thing that popped out of my mouth was this: "It was an utter failure."

Jen: An utter failure?! Do you really think that?

Me: Well, I know I learned a lot and all that...but, really, my goal was to play--and I never accomplished that. So, yeah, it was a failure, essentially.

Jen: (She gives me this knowing look--but kind of sprinkled with confusion, and doesn't say anything. But her not-saying-anything-look says the following to me in very clear words: whoa, buddy, you are way off here, and I'm going to give you a minute to really let how off you are sink in...think about what you just said...and think about what is really true, deep down.)

Me: Wasn't it? A failure, I mean...


Me: Why not?

Jen: Because you worked at it. Every day you were out there busting your butt, when most other high school kids wouldn't have been able to do half of what you did--the way you worked, the discipline you learned. It was never about making shots in the game--it was always about the person you were learning to become.

Me: (Okay, I'll be honest: tears.)

Jen: Achievements are like tiny dots on a long line. The line is journey you take--the way you work at something, the way you live--and achievements and results are just single points. Do you really think that your life is all about the dots, and not about the lines?

Me: Well, when you put it that way...

Jen: (The look says: Now, you're finally starting to get it.)

And the truth is, I am. Starting to get it, I mean.

It's what I always told my students, and REALLY wanted them to believe and make a part of their lives--in the deep kind of way that core beliefs become a part of all of our lives. But even though I knew what to say to my students, I hadn't yet destroyed my own false belief.

I wasn't a failure because I didn't play much basketball in high school.

And as a writer, I am not a failure because Atticus & Me hasn't yet garnered a publishing contract.

Instead, I am finally learning to live out what I have often preached--and that, thanks to my wife, who challenged me to face the lies I had been telling myself. I am finally learning that it isn't about those tiny dots on the long lines of our lives that count. It's isn't about the results.

Instead, it's about something much more beautiful. It's about the way we draw those lines, the directions we send them towards, and the way they intersect other lines along the path they take.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Books to Read Right Now! (Get out of the Bathroom, Go Get These Books!)

The bathroom is a glorious place. It's a place of freedom, joy, creation. Ideas are born in the bathroom. Within its (usually) white walls, the incubator of inspiration pumps out the oxygen of possibility.

Okay, fine. Sound a bit ludicrous? Possibly it is. But that's what the bathroom is for me, a place of book-reading and teeth-brushing and cleansing and feeling rejuvinated and being ready to start a new day.

So, this is how badly you need to read the following books: if you're in the bathroom, reading a great book already; or if you're in the bathroom, allowing the bristles of that delightful toothbrush to breathe life onto the walls of your teeth; or if you're in the bathroom, feeling the hot water surround you like soemthing incredibly hot and all-surrounding...then leave NOW and go get these books.

Both are by author Kathryn Erskine, and both are incredibly, irresistably, beyond-words cool.

Mockingbird tells the story of a young girl named Caitlin who has Asberger's. Caitlin must cope with the grief of her father, and the grief of her school, and yet she cannot feel the way most people naturally do. As Caitlin struggles to make sense of the emotions that surround her, she learns what she can offer--the beauty she has to share.

The Absolute Value of Mike explores the life of a boy whose father can't share how he loves his son, and who doesn't see his son for who he really is. Mike is thrust into a fantastically strange and wonderful community where he has to learn to become the person he is, rather than the person his dad wants him to be. In finding his own voice--through turns hilarious, moving, and all too true to life--Mike also helps others to find theirs.

Both books moved me to tears.


I'm talking about the kind of tears where you close the covers of a book, hold it in your hands, look at it, and have a short conversation with the book that goes like this:

You: Book, wow. I mean, really, Book (sniffle, wipe tears, sniffle) wow.

Book: I know.

You: No, I know, but I mean, like, wow.

Book: Yes, I know. After all, I am the one who is holding all these words. Trust me, I've gotten pretty familiar with them.

You: Yeah, but, I mean, wow as in WOW. I just (sniffle, cry, sniffle, deep breath) you know, I just...you know?

Book: Exactly. I know exactly what you mean. You're lucky, though. You have eyes, and tear ducts to go along with them! I've got to hold all these beautiful, poignant words, but if I even tried to cry--I mean, if I so much as tried to squeeze out a tear--I would get nothing but paper cuts.

You: Good point. I never thought about it like that.

Book: I know. That's why I am glad we're finally having this conversation. Throughout our entire relationship, I've had to watch you reading my words, and I have endured your crying and thinking and saying hhmmm in that deep, serious kind of way that you do. But now, I can finally share with you how lucky you are to be able to do that.

You: Yeah, I hear what you're saying.

Book: I'm glad.

You: Me, too.

Book: Let's have this conversation again, okay?

You: Okay. I promise. I'll read you again, and we'll have this same conversation. I swear.

Book: Great.

And indeed, these two books are the kind of books with which you'll want to have that conversation again, and again, and again.

Mockingbird, in deserving fashion, even just won the National Book Award.

It's a great joy to read a book and so deeply love it, and then to see it held under a light, as if others, too, are saying, Word up, Home Slice.

Yes: read Mockingbird and The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine. Both, I promise, will dig deep into your heart.

And if you read them, could you e-mail me the conversations you have with the books afterward?

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Tyler's newest passion is puzzles. We own seven small cardboard puzzles, and he loves putting them all together, taking them all apart, then putting them all together. (Then taking them all apart, then putting them all together.)

Lately, when dinner is ready, we have to pull Tyler away from the puzzles to get him to eat--even when the meal involves cheese, which, usually, is like offering gold to a pawn broker. But even when some sort of cheesy goodness is waiting for Tyler a mere ten feet away in the kitchen, Tyler chooses puzzles.

As he works hard, pushing pieces into their correct spots, his tongue inches out of his mouth just a bit. He makes very, very small grunting sounds--the way you'd expect an ant to sound if you could configure a microscopic microphone and attach it gently and carefully to the little ant's facial component.

Tyler works hard at it. And when he is pushing with all his might for a piece to squeeze into a spot where it just doesn't belong, what do I do?

I desperately want to reach over, take his hand, and help him drag the puzzle to where it will fit seamlessly into place, and we can all take a deep sigh of peace.

And I'll comfess, once or twice I have performed this unwise deed. But mostly, I sit through it, coaching him, telling him what he can try, and saying things like, You can do it, Tyler! Keep trying it...almost there, son, keep going!

But it's hard for me. I want to solve the problem for him, and quickly. But by pushing the piece in place, I'm only short circuiting his own ability to work hard at something, and to be able to feel the joy that comes in "getting it"--or, alternately, the frustration that can mount when "getting it" doesn't come easy.

As I watch Tyler work on his puzzles, I can see his confidence grow. I watch the recognition that lights up his face when he sees that he has misplaced a piece, and the glimmer that dances across his eyes when he spots its rightful niche. 

And how many times, in my own life, do I wish there were someone bigger than me--someone older, wiser, smarter, more experienced, more anything--who could come along, reach down, and grab my hand to repostion a puzzle piece with which I am struggling?

How often I wish God would simply say to me, Okay, Lukey-Lukerson, step back away from the puzzle. Grab a coffee, and let me place the pieces in their proper places, quickly and efficiently.

(I don't know why God calls me Lukey-Lukerson in my head. You'll have to ask Him about that.)

How I wish!

But I realize that were someone else to configure the puzzle for me, I would stay the same--exactly as I am now. And the next puzzle I face, I'd face it with the same sense of frustration, discouragement, and need that I face it with today.

Instead, I'd rather like to think that God's going to let me keep working on the puzzles in my path, encouraging me all the while, Lukey-Lukerson, you can do it. Keep at it, son, keep trying.

Now, if there were some sort of chessy goodness awaiting me at the other end of a particularly difficult puzzle, then, man, now we're talking.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

No Great Things

Mother Teresa is a fascinating figure--someone who everyone seems to know about, but also one whose life befuddles many. I always thought of her as a timid, shy, self-sacrificing woman who quietyly served the poor for her entire life.

I was wrong.

Okay, I was partly wrong. She did indeed serve the poor for her whole life. And she was a self-sacrificing woman who put her faith before her own needs. But timid? She wouldn't have had the word "timid" in her wardrobe of how to live.

Reading her private journals and letters, contained in the recently published volume, Come, Be My Light, I was shocked to find how relentlessly she pursued what she felt to be her mission. Once she felt Christ calling her to start the Missionaries of Charity, the order she created, she refused to take no for an answer from any bishop, cardinal, or even the Pope himself.

Come, Be My Light contains hundreds of letters she scribed and sent to bishops, cardinals, and others in the hierarchy of church, requesting blessing, permission, and funds to start her order. Repeatedly, these ordained men told her to wait, to be patient, to allow them time to think it over.

And repeatedly, in a word, Mother Teresa wrote back, no.

No, I will not wait.

No, I will not allow you time to think or pray.

No--this is my mission, and I must act.

We have been told that faith wihtout works is dead, and yet, all too often, in religious communities of today, a complacent, easy-does-it faith has been substituted for real action that serves the poor, feeds the hungry, helps the homeless, and frees the oppressed.

It seems that many of us are content to allow the status-quo to hobble on by, and discuss the minor complexities of religion, or faith, or spirituality's connection to social life. Bob Dylan sings that we "read books with the big quotations" but "the conclusion's on the wall."

Indeed, the conclusion is on the wall. It's on many walls, staring us in the face so forcefully that we look away, or cover the wall with our flat-screen televisions.
If the norm is ever going to change, it's going to take enough people realizing that something is awry with the norm. Jim Wallis writes, perceptively, in his book The Call to Conversion that often people will get excited and inspired to work for social justice and to free the oppressed, but sooner or later their passion is toned down by a consumer society that relentlessly markets capitalism and fear and easy-does-it methodolgy until that seems like the only possible way to live, think, and act.

But then there's Mother Teresa. How are we to make sense of her? Yes, we can say, Hey, we're not all Mother Teresa, nor can we be, right?

Yes, we can say that she had some supernatural ability that we don't.

But the truth is a lot harder to hear.

She was a normal, small, woman who refused to take no for an answer when it came to following what she knew she had to do. She relentlessly fought to make the vision in her heart one of reality in the world.

I would argue that we all have visions of what this world could be--ways it could be better. If we let go of some of what commercials, advertisements, and media constantly sell us, we can start to see those visions. We can also start to see how the talents we each possess can work togther to craft a new way of living.

Mother Teresa once said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." Now is the time to do small things with great love. And to act relentlessly towards this end.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Tea Box

I had lost my wedding ring (now found, not to worry!), the day had been busy, and my body felt as though gravity was having a party on my shoulders. So, when Jennifer called Tyler into the hallway just outside our living room last night, whispered something into his ear, and then sent him rushing, smiling, towards me, I was hoping for something fun, or funny, or exciting.

Something to lessen the weight of gravity, you might say.

When Tyler said, "Here you go, Daddy," and then handed me a Twinings tea box, I thought, Hey, tea, not so bad. I guess I can make a hot cup of tea and that will help me take a breath, relax, and bid that constant friend, gravity, depart for a moment or two...

But when Jennifer followed after Tyler, saying, "Well, 30 days until you turn 30, so I wanted to start the countdown...open it up and check it out..."

Her smile grew wider as she watched me, and then I knew, This is going to be a heck of a lot better than Twinings Tea (nothing against you, if you're reading this blog and you happen to love Twinings Tea, or work for Twinings Tea, or had a dream last night that you had actually transmogrified into a Twinings tea bag and are now struggling with the weight of disappointment as you are slowly--slowly--coming to terms with the fact that you are not, in fact, a Twinings tea bag, but instead are a human being).

And it was.

A heck of a lot better than Twinings Tea.

Inside this gem of a box were thirty index cards, all folded up, on which thirty sayings about writing had been lovingly scribed by Jennifer's hand. I began pulling out the inspiring little quotes and was delighted to read the wisdom, advice, challenge, and encouragement of so many remarkable writers. To say the least, it gave me the slight edge over gravity last night.

So, because these thirty little quotes have so inspired me, I thought I would share some of them with you this morning. However, you can't have the Twinings Tea Box. I'm keeping that.

In no particular order, here there are--great thoughts on the art of writing, but also great thoughts on the art of living:

"I write when I am inspired, and I see to it that I'm inspired at nine o' clock every morning."  --Peter DeVries

"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."  --Walter Wellesley 'Red' Smith

"I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I write and I understand."  --Chinese Proverb

"One of the marks of a gift is to have the courage to use it."  --Katherine Anne Porter

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."  --Mark Twain

"Suit the action to the word, the word to the action."  --William Shakespeare

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."  --Mark Twain

"Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it is against his will."  --Goethe

"I'm going to write because I cannot help it."  --Charlottle Bronte

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."  --Barbara Kingsolver

"No, it's not a very good story--it's author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside."  --Stephen King

"Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write."  --Rainer Maria Rilke

"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong."  --Claude M. Bristol

"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."  --E.L. Doctorow

"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."  --Robert Frost

"Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of a temple and take alms of those who work with joy."  --Kahlil Gibran

"Any work of art must first of all tell a story."  --Robert Frost

"Only write from your own passion, your own truth. That's the only thing you really know about, and anything else leads you away from the pulse."  --Marianne Williamson

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On Loving the Film, Little Women

Okay, I admit it: I absolutely love the film, Little Women. A few nights ago, on Jennifer's birthday, we had borrowed a few DVDs from our neighbors--the kindest people I have ever met. David and Jill have been married for 30-plus years, and one of their daughters who lives with them, Jemma, treats Tyler like he's her own son. They continuously bring little trinkets and toys for Tyler, and basically see us like we're part of their family.

So, when we sauntered over to borrow a few DVDs, Jennifer was very excited when she saw that they owned Little Women. And what perfect timing: her birthday!

Never having read Alcott's book (though having toured her Orchard home in Concord, Mass. with Jennifer and our little Tyler in tow--forcing us to leave the tour halfway through--I knew she was a remarkable woman), I can't say what it was that made me not look forward to seeing the movie.

After all, Jo was a writer, right?

And, it was about a family making it through ups and downs, and the trials and joys that a full life offers--right?

I began watching with this mindset: okay, two hours, and then we'll be through it. Maybe there will still be time to read before bed...

When the credits rolled, this was my mindset: Holy crap! Whoa! I mean...whoa!

During the course of the film, the March family had hooked me, and I was keenly invested in what turns their lives would make, and whether Jo would ever write the kind of stories that came out of the depths of her soul, as the kind German professor had challenged her to do.

One line above all stands out to me--though there were many powerful lines from the film. When Jo's very (very) old Aunt Marge passes on, Jo and her sisters and her mother walk through the massive house Aunt Marge had owned. She lived in it entirely by herself--and she was fairly miserable.

Jo's mother states the following regarding all that Aunt Marge had, and her perennial unhappiness in life: "Her blessings became a burden because she did not share them."


Is there any more succinct way to make that claim? If there is, I can't conjure it up. It fits beautifully with what Mark Twain once said: "To get the full value of joy, you have to have someone to divide it with."

And it all too powerfully brings back to mind a decision I made while I was an undergrad studying in England (many) years ago. I had decided to use one of the six week breaks from classes to travel Europe largely alone. So I flew to Venice, Italy (big mistake to start off in the most romantic place on the planet by myself), and trained up trough Rome, then into the beautiful Alps of Switzerland and the tiny village of Gimmelwald, and then into Germany and the history of Berlin and Wittenburg. It was an incredible journey--indeed--but I constantly felt as though something was always missing.

And it was.

The things I learned, the joy I experienced, the blessings I encountered along the way, were only half as good as they might have been. Indeed, the solitary trek taught me things about myself, sure, but the joy. The joy that I longed to share with another human being.

I think Jo's mother has it right: the blessings we encounter throughout our lives--whether as a result of our own hard work, or whether given freely to us--indeed can become burdens unless we choose to bless others in the ways we have been blessed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Poem for Today

This morning, the sky in York was bright and blue and beautiful. No sight of rain. With an early cup of coffee, I climbed the stairs to our tiny study, opened my old blue pad, and wrote the following poem.

The things that cannot shake
Do not speak in our currency.
Their exchange rate mocks our money--
Of what value is paper, gold, or worry?

The things that cannot shake
Enter through holes we have not plugged;
They surface on the wounds we forsake;
They stand on the moments we might begrudge.

The things that cannot shake
Make love real--
Where the soul, in passion, refuses to break,
When the heart, in humility, will kneel.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Keeper of the Bowls

Yesterday evening, I walked alongside David towards St. Oswald's Church Hall for our third Thursday night of the bowls. It's no exaggeration to admit that I've come to love the soft, slow pace of the game, the smiles delivered in pure authenticity from a league of grandfathers towards the lone, wet-behond-the-ears American new to the game.

One man, particularly, stood out to me last night. His name is Brian, and we sat next to one another during the tea break. While we muched on biscuits (cookies!) and sipped tea, I peppered Brian with questions about his life, and each of his responses only gave way to more questions on my end.

Brian is 90 years old. He is the Keeper of the Bowls. He rents the hall; he keeps the books (it costs £2 per person per night to attend); he ensures proper storing of the mats and other such essentials.

I shared with Brian the story of why Jennifer and I and Tyler are here in York, England rather than continuing life near Boston, trying to get a mortgage and a fence as most families our age are doing. As I spoke about Jennifer and Tyler, I watched Brian's eyes fill with soemthing like joy.


So Iasked him, "How many children do you have?" I figured it was an approproate question, since I read his eyes as saying, I love my wife, I love my kids as I spoke about my own family.

But I was wrong.

Brian: "I never married."

Me: "Did you ever come close?"

Brian looked up at me and now the joy tipped into that sorrowful kind of acceptance. I saw my mistake. The happiness that danced, previously, in his eyes was happiness for what I am able to enjoy now, not what he had or has.

Brian shared with that he had proposed once, but that it didn't work it. He had almost proposed to a second woman years later, but never got down on his knee and asked. He spent his life working as a bookkeeper, and he said his moments of greatest happiness were when he worked in the living rooms and studies of the hoems where his clients lived--doing their books, yes, but also soaking up the playfulness of family that he watched.

Now, the only night of the week that Brian gets out is Thursday--the night of the bowls.

My heart felt drawn to his for some reason, and there was a certain rightness about the man himself--that kind of rightness whereby you instantly know, this is a good person; he has a good heart.

And so, I invited Brian to join Jennifer and I for dinner one evening at our little home on Lesley.

He smiled, but the wistfulness of days long since passed was no longer there.

"Oh, oh, that's so very kind of you, but...well, Thursday is my only night out, you see."

I accepted Brian's declining of my offer, but before we ended tea to return to bowls, I rpmised him that I would continue to invite him each week until he agreed to come.

He smiled, and said that would be fine.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Growing...Well, Growing...Old? (!?@#)

After a month in York, we're starting to feel a lot more comfortable with our little home, and our new little life. We even recently got some new things up on the walls which were bare for so long. We were at the Newgate Market in the city center this past Sunday, and we saw a guy selling posters.
Laminated posters!
For a couple who rejoices anytime we're able to manage a trip to any kind of store where home furnishings can be purchased--it's amazing how much becomes miraculous without a car--we were overjoyed to see posters for sale. Only a couple of miles from our home.
Laminated posters!
These babies were some serious goods, so we ended up choosing four large posters with which to decorate our home: one copy of Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his "I have a Dream" speech, with the entire speech in text below the image; one copy of some semi-motivational poster featuring a person dressed in a thick red coat climbing a huge, snowy mountain; one copy of Churchill's war slogan, "Keep Calm and Carry On"; and one copy of the original Casablanca movie poster.
After hanging them around our home later that night (eventually using tiny nails and a hammer that we got for a pound at a store called Poundworld--the UK equivalent to the Dollar Store or Family Dollar in the US), we felt like a King and a Queen in our little place.
It doesn't take much.
(Did I mention that these posters are laminated?)
After Tyler had practiced using his own Bob the Builder plastic hammer in the same spots where I used my Poundworld hammer moments earlier, and we had gotten him down to bed for the night, we breathed a sigh and sat down in our living room.
Then, we got up.
We washed the dishes, cleaned up the fake hammers, screwdrivers, saws, Bob the Builder trucks, diggers, excavators (you get the picture), and threw a load of laundry in.
And this is the interesting part. As I was throwing some clothes into the washing machine, I noticed my pant cuffs dragging along the floor. My shoes were off, and I thought, Hey, these pants need to last me three years, I don't want the cuffs to get all worn out already, etc...
So, what did I do? I did what anyone in my place would probably do: I bent down and rolled up the bottoms of my pant cuffs.
I rolled up my trousers, you might say.
I was wearing--to articulate it a bit differently--the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
And in a little more than one month, I am going to turn 30 years old.
So: I'm not even kidding when I tell you that this line flashed into my mind like a flashy flash: I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Turning around to see if the ghost of T.S. Eliot was, in fact, standing behind me in the kitchen, whispering his old poem as he watched me throw in in this load of laundry (he did, after all, emigrate to Britain, right?), I felt a little silly.
And a little old.
But then, I took solace. Because in that same poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,"--which I still remember vividly from Mrs. Ferrero's 11th grade English class at Windsor High School--Eliot also asks "Do I dare disturb the universe?"
Now, that sounds like a question I still want to answer.
(Instead of the latter question he asks, "Do I dare to eat a peach?")
So, I'm okay, right? I'm not already starting to think that I'm old. I still want to disturb the universe a little, right?
After all, I was just rolling up my pant cuffs because hey, these pants have got to last three years.
As long as the laminated posters will.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Doing Without

I knew this move to the UK would involve giving up a few material possessions which I've come to hearitly enjoy: the car, the drying machine, the huge collection of books, the nice apartment 40 minutes west of Boston. What I didn't expect was to have to work at doing without something else.


For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a teacher. In high school, when we had to fill out the endless numbers of "What profession do you hope to join...?" forms for colleges, our guidance department, teachers, or scholarships, I always felt lucky to have an immediate response: High school English teacher and basketball coach.

And I lived that dream for a while. (Well, I coached girls' Lacrosse and was the newspaper Advisor for a bit while I taught...close enough, right?)

But after we had our son, that dream wasn't what my heart thirsted for anymore. Don't get me wrong, I still love teaching, and some days as a stay-at-home-dad I do wake up and think, If I could just get back into that classroom with my 7th graders and talk about Deborah Ellis's The Breadwinner, or do a poetry project with them, or just be silly as we learn... 

But what I realized after my latest post as a 7th grade teacher in Hudson was that I just wanted more time with my son. I wanted to be more a part of his life, more a teacher to him.

And after a month in York, no part of me regrets the change.

What I have been realizing, however, is that being a teacher involves a lot of encouragement and praise. I loved the students I have taught, and I enjoy keeping in touch with many of them over e-mail. I tried to care for them the way I would want to care for my own son if he was in the 7th grade. And my students cared for me, too. They would make these splendid cards, tell me nice things, and generally give me a feel-good boost.

So while the move to England has involved dealing with some withdrawal from our material do-withouts, it has also involved learning to do without the same kinds of praise. Indeed, after I make Tyler a pretty darn good grilled cheese sandwich, or successfully quell the rising tide of a tantrum (I'm batting maybe .375 on that front...okay, maybe .275), he doesn't write me a thank-you note or tell me that I have inspired him to go out and change the world.

Indeed, I relish and thank God for Tyler's reckless hugs, his wild leaps into my arms or catapults onto my stomach-area-ish, but largely being a stay-at-home parent is about learning how to work without the praise and recognition that a teacher receives.

Having done both, I realize now that I stand in the midst of a great opportunity. It's a chance to throw off my ego, my pride, my insecurities which often sought others to confirm that I am doing something well. Instead, it's a chance to begin to hear the quiet voice of God, whispering those encouragments on a hard morning when Tyler wakes up at 5am with a massive poop; it's the soft encouragment of God telling me to continue trying to get Tyler to nap well, even as the screams erupt from the room over; and it's the heart of God encouraging my own heart as I am reminded that nothing worth doing in this life can be done with the puspose of only doing it to please others.

There is a higher level to love than that.

I have a heck of a lot to learn about what it means to live a life of doing without. I am still going through the ups and downs of realizing that anytime Tyler and I want to go somewhere, we've got to walk.

And I certainly have a heck of a lot to learn about living without pats on the back. As a teacher, I learned to enjoy and thrive on those pats. As a stay-at-home-dad, I am learning to work hard for the sake of love alone--love for my wife, love for my son, and love for the characters I craft through fiction.

Doing without praise is hard for me--I'll confess. But it's also rewarding in a new kind of way. After all, the praise and encouragment of others always ends, and then we're left standing there, the same as before. Perhaps the most concise and poignant way to state the process I am learning to love is a line from a favorite movie of mine, Cool Runnings.

John Candy, who plays the coach of an olympic Jamaican Bobsled team, imparts to one of his athletes the following truth: "If you're not enough without the gold medal, you'll never be enough with it."

It reminds me that praise never creates anything--and it can never substitute for what matters most: our hearts. And so doing without is really about learning to be comfortable in our own skins, all things (literally) aside.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Broken Bananas

A lot of things can be fixed after they've broken.

Bananas aren't included.

Tyler has ripped pages out of his colorful books; he's torn posters off the wall in his excitement to see them in closer view; he's enjoyed tearing off the various trucks from the Bob the Builder magazines. And with all of these mishaps, tape can provide a glorious solution.

But a few days ago, after we had peeled a banana for Tyler to eat, the thing just broke right in half.

"Fix it, please, Mommy Daddy, fix it," came Tyler's assured voice.

And of course, nothing worked. We didn't stoop so low as to try actually taping the banana, but I will I admit I held the broken top of the banana onto the bottom half and said, "All better!"

(I'm not proud of my attempt at ease here, but I have to confess that I tried the above method.)

Tyler was onto me right away. "No! Fix it, please, Daddy Mommy, fix it! Fix it!"

As his cries began to escalate into teary-eyed confusion as to what kind of world we live in where everything can't be fixed, it was hard to explain that this is, indeed, life.

Later that evening, it occurred to me that a lot of us still expect that broken bananas can be fixed. We might spend our whole lives trying to mend things that, in fact, need to be dealt with as is. Because, meanwhile, we're neglecting things that really could be fixed with the time, energy, and determination we possess.

We often spend our time trying to "fix" the way we look, the way others think of us, the size of our noses or the size of our homes. Often these pursuits are just as futile as trying to wrap a piece of tape around a banana and say to ourselves, "All better"

Instead, there are a host of things that are, indeed, broken, which we could fix if we tried to determine ourselves, our time, our resources, our attention.

Things like homelessness.




A world is waiting to see if we're going to ever realize that we have all that we need to roll up our sleeves and dig into the real work we are called to do. Otherwise, the things we choose to fix won't ever make a genuine change in the lives of others, or ourselves.