Monday, February 28, 2011

Walking to See Atticus Finch

This past Friday evening, I walked into the city to see an adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird at the York Theatre Royal on St. Leonard's Place. I first read the book when I was teaching at Farmington High School, and a colleague of mine, Russ Crist, was surprised that I had never before read Harper Lee's classic. So he gave me a copy of the book, and I read it with my lower jaw hanging off my face the entire time.

Among other things, I had the distinct impression that a question had been answered in my heart.

Namely: What does it mean to be a good man?

Atticus Finch was my answer. When I read the book for a second and then, recently, a third time time, I saw more and more to the character of Atticus Finch.

But walking into the center of the city where I live to see a real, live Atticus recite the lines which have been committed to my heart was an expedience unlike any previous play or movie had offered. The streets into the center were calm, and the occasional car whizzed past, but mostly the quiet, cool air encouraged me to think deeply and wonder willingly.

Even in the center of the city--where the Viking Festival was in its climax and an estimated 40,000 tourists were visiting--it still felt calm, quiet, almost like I wanted to ask, This is York, right?

I arrived to the theater twenty minutes before the show was to begin, and just reading the title To Kill a Mockingbird was enough to give me goosebumps. I already began to feel sorry for my friend Phil, who would meet me to view the show. He was rushing into the city on his bike after giving his young daughter a bath.

When Phil arrived, we made our way through the throbbing crowd within the entrance of the theater and found our seats in the gallery.

Now, I thought a gallery was where art was displayed, and also something that could be used in the phrase "peanut gallery" which meant, loosely translated, "a place high up or behind."  The gallery where Phil and I sat was both very high up and very behind all of the other seats. We were in the front row of the gallery, which I thought was wise of me to select, but when I saw the front row, I realized that we would have to lean forward, our elbows planted on the rail in front of us, to be able to see the whole show.

But I would have sat that way regardless.

From the moment the curtain rose to its decent, my eyes were wired to the stage, listening to Scout tell the story of her father, and the story of her own journey towards Experience, by way of a crash course in courage and justice.

I cried.


Multiple times.

And when, at the close of the play, Scout remarks to her father, "Boo Radley is actually a pretty nice man," Atticus replies, "Most people are, when you really see them."

That was it.

Man, that was it.

The tears flowed like the River Jordan. (Or like, here in York, the River Ouse.)

The thing about Atticus Finch is that he fought the case that needed fighting. He didn't take it because he thought he could win. He took Tom Robinson's defense because it was the right thing to do.

So much of the ways we live is based on results: what will happen; what our chances of winning are; what the expected yield is; who will see what we do; the praise we might garner; the pats on the back we might earn.

More important than worrying about how we'll be received or what we'll accomplish, Atticus Finch knew that the way WE see others matters more.

Much more.

Walking home through the quiet streets of York, my mind played the line again and again.

And when I walked through the door of our rented home on Lesley Avenue, seeing my wife in our living room, peeking into Tyler's room and praying over him as he slept peacefully in his uptruck pajamas with footies, and climbing into bed myself, the only line written on my heart was, indeed, his.

When you really see them.

Oh, to see that way. To see through eyes that hold out hope and push away judgment. And to fight not because our chances of winning are good, but because the truth behind the battle is worthwhile.

What a way to see. What a way to live.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Purple Man

York is currently finishing its annual Viking Festival. Essentially, it's an extravaganza whereby tons of booths selling international food are set up, and then a whole bunch of actors dressed up as Vikings walk through the streets and pretend to fight one another with heavy swords.

Jen and I and Tyler walked into the city centre today to explore more of it, and what most fascinated our son was not the Vikings--although he did get to hold one of the heavy metal swords, which he immediately termed The Sword in the Stone--but a purple man.

After strolling side streets and saying hello to people, Tyler asked repeatedly to see the purple man again.

The Purple Man.

He sits on a bike in the middle of a shop-laden street, frozen mid-motion and covered in purple paint. His shoelaces are painted as thoguh fluing backwards from the wind--as is his tie, strings from his hat, and the lapels of his coat.

The only thing that isn't purple on the Purple Man are his eyes.

Tyler stood (and then sat) transfixed by the Purple Man, and all he could ay was, "Purple Man! Purple Man!"  When thew Purple Man gave Tyler a high-five, we had thought every uptruck in the vicinity had come to do a choreographed dance.

Such was the excitement, wonder, and awe on Tyler's face.

A man. And some color.

The day also held some baklava, an apple cream-filled turnover, and a grande coffee with cream from Starbucks. It even held a visit to the library bookfair and a trip to the Yorkshire Musuem (where Tyler was more fascinated by the leaves he could see through the window than historical dates)--but of it all, the Purple Man was hands-down the coolest thing we saw.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Writing (And Living) Through

Sometimes, the only thing worse than making a mistake is doing nothing.

In writing, yes, and in life.

As writers, we often find ourselves stalled at important moments. A character just had an epiphany about how she has allowed herself to be controlled by others. Another character has finally admitted the fear and lies he harbors within. The story's climax is approaching, the action climbs, the mystery mounts.

And we stall.

In life, we also tend to stall right before the biggest moments of opportunity. Right before our own stories are about to break open, break free, break the rules, and break barriers.

What connects figures like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Atticus Finch, Lisbeth Sanders, Mark Twain, Sojourner Truth, King Arthur, and John Prendergast? My list--randomly chosen figures whom I admire for their commitment to justice and truth--is peopled by fictional and real-life heros and heroines. Each one of them possesses a single characterteristic that, I think, is essential to be who we truly are as writers and as human beings.

Each one of these people does not stall.

This does not mean that they haven't faced the same kinds of crises we all face. It does not mean that they have not fallen on their knees or felt their souls crumble in heaps as they cried out, What's the point!? Indeed, many of them have, and for the real-life figures, it has often been well-documented (as in the case of Mother Teresa, who reveals in her posthumously published letters and journals, Come Be My Light, that she often felt God was absent from her life, even as she chose to continue doing the work He had called her to do).

There is a very big difference between stalling and resting. Or, perhaps a better way to phrase that asserttion would be to borrow a line from Mr. Han in the new version of The Karate Kid: "Being still and doing nothing are two very different things."

As we write or as we live, we need to be still. We should take the time to listen, think, pray, recollect, prepare and all of those other things that lend energy to our pursuits.

But once we stall, the fight is over. The Chinese have a proverb for it: "He who hesitates is lost."

Living through the confusion, the pain, and the uncertainty does not mean that we deny the fears we feel or the failures we face. Instead, it means that we look these foes in the eyes and speak honestly and authentically, growing those muscles that gather invisibly to push our voices out from our mouths and into the world.

The only way to go through something is, in fact, (and rather redundantly) to go through it.

As writers, we may need to write through scenes time and time again. We often find the paths our characters need to take by watching them walk down one and then realizing, Nope, that ain't it.

The same is true in life.

But making a mistake is a far better choice than doing nothing. We learn from our mistakes; our souls grow and our voices learn to speak more boldly. From doing nothing, we learn only how to continue to do more nothing (granted, in more modern ways perhaps).

The journey towards going through has certainly been a long one for me--and it continues to get longer when I stop and view the trail ahead each time I take a water break. But when I look back at the path I've already walked, I can smile and see that, at the very least, I don't stall my way through life or writing nearly as much as I used to.

I still do sometimes, and indeed, old habits die hard.

But when I'm writing a character now, and I find him getting close to the climax of the novel, I push him forward on his dragging feet--sometimes kicking and screaming the whole way. He argues with me, and he often offers an excellent list of reasons why I should let him stay the heck where he is.

But my characters aren't winning those arguments nearly as much as they used to.

And I sincerely hope that the same is true of my own life.

Friday, February 18, 2011

On Missing Sleep

In the past week, Tyler came down with a cold. It's nothing like the Winter Vomiting Virus that Tyler, Jen, and I all battled a couple of months ago, but the current cold was enough to wake Tyler up more than a few times each night, mucus attacking his throat and nose like angry red ants attack the kinds of things that angry red ants attack.

Thus, Jen and I have been lovingly batting our eyelids at that incredibly attractive persona: Sleep.

However, sleep has eluded us. We are both coming more and more to accept this as a somewhat stable truth: in the due course of parenting, Sleep is never a guarantee.

But I've had another reason to miss even more sleep than I should have this past week. A friend let me borrow Steig Larsson's Milennium trilogy, and I have been utterly and completely absorbed in the life of Lisbeth Sanders.

In the third book now, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (after having skipped the first of the three books because we had watched the Swedish film adaptation before leaving the States in September), it's hard to stop reading.

Lisbeth's journey is harrowing and tragic and sad and the part of me that won't stop turning pages keeps saying, She has to get justice! Someone has to do's going to be okay for Lisbeth, right? Right?!

And so, the pages turn and I keep hoping.

It strikes me now that Lisbeth's journey is far too familiar to many women the world over: at the mericless hands of players far more powerful than they, be they police officers, government officials, or men who happen to be on the same trains or streets where they walk, late at night.

What makes Lisbeth's story so fascinating, and yes, stand-up-and-cheer-for-her-ish, is that she sees the corruption within the system--she sees how despicably so many men behave, and they way so many wield power to abuse. Patriarchy, too often, is synonymous with misogyny. And so Lisbeth acts.

What stands out, of course, if the reticence and passivity of so many of us men. A recent book published by Lisa Shannon entitled A Thousand Sisters details the author's account of her transition from comfortable life to getting involved in the fight for justice for Congolese women. Shannon leaves a comfortable life in Portland, Oregon to travel to the Congo to work with women there, and she realizes what is at stake, and what atrocities are being committed against women every day, every hour, every minute, yes, every second.

Shannon's work is remarkable, powerful, and a model.

But what the fictional character of Lisbeth Sanders and the real-life journey of Lisa Shannon ask us is simple: Where are all the men?

Where are we, men, when women are abused? Where are we, men, when power structures that oppress women are held rigidly in place? Where are we?

The answer is, sadly, all too clear: we are often absent from the picture. As bystanders, we might like to claim, Hey, I'm not the one doing any injustice! But this line is woefully incompetent. Did such a claim work for those German citizens who sealed their lips during the genocide committed by the Nazi regime?

Before Jen and I and Tyler left for York, my brother Chris and I went to Washington DC. During our trip, we visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and I was struck--as most are--by the gruesome atrocities committed during the Holocaust.

However, in one area, I found myself standing facing a wall with a quote written on it in massive letters, taken from Elie Weisel's harrowing memoir Night. The line said, "God is dead."

As a Christian-male-feminist-teacher-writer--husband-father-Democrat, I stood looking at the quote for a long time.

A long time.

I asked God, How am I supposed to read this, Lord? How could I ever say to someone who has experience such horror that such a claim is false?

I stood there and asked God as tears came down my cheeks and my heart burned inside of me.

And then, God spoke.

I heard this small voice bubbling up, and the words that became etched in my mind and soul were: "I am not dead, but my people have remained silent."

The words shocked me at once in their simplicity and their truth.

And in every great tragedy--even and especially those tragedies committed in the name of God but really nothing more than mass murder at the hands of men pretending to claim God as an excuse--the above line has been true.

In the Rwandan genocide, where were we?

In the current genocide in Darfur, where are we?

In the destruction and violence against women in the Congo, where are we?

In the systematic oppression of women in every country on the globe, where are we?

It has become painfully obvious that men--even good men--would often prefer to remain passive on the issue. And it has also become painfully obvious that those who profess to follow a faith don't see any of Christ's numerous class to action on behalf of the oppressed as reason enough to look outside the walls of their own church, and try to find something meaningful to fight for.

Sadly, for many in the Church, protesting gay rights seems to be the only rallying cry to which they respond.

But Christ, if we read what he's said and done, does something far different. He fights for those who are oppressed. He stands with the persecuted, the defeated, the weak, the poor, and the needy.

Christ never says, blessed are the rich and he never says blessed are those who judge others.


It's time for men and for Christians to redefine--no, reinvent--the roles we have enacted for far too long. If we need a model, look at Jesus himself, who is startlingly different than most Christians I see today.

Jesus didn't dress in three-pieces suits, hang with the wealthy, and oppress women.

So, all of that to say that missing sleep is sometimes necessary when a voice of justice begins to creep into one's heart.

Perhaps we'll see a book like Lisa Shannon's come out which accounts for the way men will begin to stand up for equality and justice and oppose the oppression of women the world over.

Call me an idealist, but yeah, I'm holding my breath for this. It happens when those of us born into privilege are willing to peer out from behind the walls and see life as it is lived for the other 95% of the world. I've got a heck of a long way to walk on this path, but I want to try and follow the trail as best as I can.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Way We Walk

Today, as I made my way in the city center (or, rather, the City Centre as it's written on all the signs from Fulford Road on into York) I tried to really look at people as we crossed paths. Their faces so often seemed etched with concern. Most of us, I realize, look down as we walk, bundled up with our scarves, our coats zipped up to just beneath our chins, considering how we'll make it through the day, what we'll do about the problems that face us, how we'll find some way of living with freedom and hope.

As I passed the huge diggers that line a section of Main Street, I recalled how Tyler and I stood in front of them only yesterday, his eyes gazing on them as though they were a gift from God, placed there with their metal shovels, mounds of dirt, and massive wheels for his viewing pleasure.

Where are the diggers for us adults? What are the visions that call our eyes to look up and out upon something that warms us?

I think that for most of us, we reach a certain age and the idealism, perhaps, kicks off. Change the world? Naw. Too difficult. Too complicated.

Love in freedom? Hah! Impossible. Too many problems. Too many people telling us it's not that easy.

Do what brings joy to your heart? As if! Anyone who thinks it's possible to live in a world where capitalism is king and still follow your dreams--well, you haven't woken up yet. But you will. (Voice furrows eyebrows and nods slowly) Oh, you will.

Whatever reasons we have for letting go of simple joys like seeing a digger on the sidewalks of our lives, we do. It happens to us all. It's the time-tested and impenetrable subject of all great literature, from Homer to Shakespeare to Harper Lee to Toni Morrison.

Our English teachers (including myself, here) call it The Journey from Innocence to Experience, and I'm sure many of us have filled in flow charts and graphs finding the precise points when characters let go of Innocence and claimed Experience as their rallying cry.

And right they should. There is, truthfully, no other way.

But the question that ping-pongs itself back and froth across the gooey web of mess behind my eyes is: Whoever decided Experience would only have one face?

When we walk, most of our hearts are heavy for two reasons, I would venture: money and success. We have neither and want both. We have one but not the other. We have both but want more.

We tell our wive or husbands to wait. We tell our kids to hold on. We laugh our hearts down and we bully our souls. Not down, dang it all!

Instead, we must get a little more money, a little more success.

We convince ourselves--like heroin addicts--that one more hit will be enough. Just one more promotion. One more sale. One more account. One more title.

Just a bit more money. A touch more for retirement. A few extra dollars in this account. A bit more spending cash. Then--YES! THEN!--everything will be good and there'll be time to hug our kids and talk to our husbands and wives and listen to our hearts and remove our hands from the mouths of our souls.

Yes: Then there will be time and there will be space. Just let us finish our checklist of Capitalism's Approval! Is that so hard?  Sheesh!

But then, there's the way we walk.

That stubborn demonstration of what's really going on inside us. Who we really are.

See, we don't walk like a free people.

We don't walk with our heads facing up and out.

We don't walk with a sense of authenticity about us.

We don't walk like people who feel pain but band together and somehow make it through.

We walk like people who live in captivity, constantly reminding ourselves that one more slice of the pie will bring us just enough freedom to let go of the whole game, once and for all.

But the truth is: no one wins. None of us, no matter how much we dedicate our lives to the gods of money and success, ever win.

And that, I think, is the real reason we walk the way we do. Deep down, we know it. We know we can never win. But, what would everyone think of us if we stopped playing the game?! How could we!? They'd think we have gone mad!

But maybe we'd walk a little freer. Perhaps we'd hug our kids a little tighter, listen to our wives and husbands a little more, laugh a little easier.

The interesting thing about walking is that you can do it differently every time out. Just because we may have walked a certain way into work today, doesn't mean we have to walk that same way home. There are countless ways to watch your feet slap the pavement of time, countless paths to take, countless visions to behold.

Maybe it's time to try something different. After all, who knows what diggers may sit on the sidewalks we have yet to discover.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Diaper Bag / Writer's Backpack

Before Jen and I and our little man moved to England, we worked pretty hard to narrow down our possessions. At the time, working as a teacher and also writing on my own and being a dad, I had quite a few bags.

Now, in the time of As Few Possessions as Possible, I have one.

The bag I have is a backpack, black with Swiss Army emblem on top (purchased at target a few years back for a cool $29.95 and holding up quite well still), and bright silver zippers crossing all over the thing, with hidden pockets just in case you want to practice the art of storing things in a new pocket each time out of the home.

Often, my bag holds assorted diapers (size 6), a variety of butt creams (currently, we've got a bit of Desitin left along with the actually-called Butt Paste), three extra pairs of toddler's socks, a Winnie the Pooh sweater and tiny jogging pants (just in case Tyler and I are out and about and he gets wet/food all over his clothes/has a bowel-explosion/other unforeseen circumstance).

Tonight, I did what I normally do on my writing afternoons or nights: I removed all above materials and into my bag went my big blue journal, a few pens, my tiny laptop computer, and my flash drive.

There it is--the transition from Daddy to Writer.

But then again, as I thought about it, it's really no transition at all. It's what we all do. No matter what we've chosen to do with our lives, we're always turning to different things, listening to different needs, and using our hearts to work towards a whole host of possibilities.

What makes me tick as a Daddy is what makes me tick as a Writer, and vice versa. I bring my daddyness into my writing, and my writing life into my daddyness. I have a heck of a lot to learn about both roles--but every time I make the switch from butt cream to laptop, I tell myself, You're learning, man--and isn't that what this whole thing is all about: learning how to love no matter what we do?

I'm about to pack up my Writer's Bag and head homeward, while it will once again become my Diaper Bag. But maybe, just maybe, it's always both.