Monday, March 21, 2011

The Glory of Dirt

It gets in our fingernails and it won't come out. I'm not talking about the kind of dirt that gathers in corners of our hallways and lightly sits on window ledges, hanging out until someone comes along with some Pledge and a disgusting rag or some old Hanes underwear (as was the custom ion my house growing up) to whisk such dirt away.

That kind of dirt only wants to be dirt.

Really, it's dust. It's like the five-year old dressing up as Superman or Cinderella or Super-Cinderella.

No; today's blog is about actual dirt that is thick and everywhere and underneath the grass and when you hold it you feel the weight of it and you sometimes have to say, Wow, that is some serious dirt right there.

I'm writing about dirt today because Tyler has been having a love affair with the stuff lately. For a total of two hours and 25 minutes today, we sat in the backyard and dug in the dirt. Some neighbors were kind enough to bequeath us a large pile of dirt left over from their garden, and Tyler and I put it to excellent use.

We dumped it on the path that Jennifer had cleared away yesterday, and then we went town building Muddy Monsters, towers, large piles and small piles, and also sifting through it to find worms of various sizes. Each time we spotted a worm, Tyler's delighted voice rang out, "I hold that worm on my finger, Daddy?" and my voice rang in response, "Yeah!"

Many worms and ladybugs later (yes, we took some brief breaks from the dirt to explode the grass, and it was certainly amazing to watch how the weight of a ladybug tips a blade of grass back on itself at the median) we went inside for some juice, crackers with humous, and a nap. Well, Tyler napped, and I tried to organize our little study a bit.

But I couldn't stop thinking about dirt. I still can't.

And there indeed plenty of other stuff to think about. There are books to be written, projects to tackle, things to fix, financial situations to worry-over-but-then-pray-and-remind-myself-not-to-worry-over-them-and-keep-working, dishes to be cleaned and generic-brand Lego blocks to be picked up from the living room floor.

But dirt.

Man. DIRT.

See, the thing about dirt is that you never have to question whether it's there. You get your hands in the soil and you know it right away. It's there. You feel it, to see it, its dirt-ness gets right in through your skin and into some part of you that feels stuff like, well, dirt.

In a world where so much is in our minds--where so much is talked about, written about, discussed, and conjectured, I notice, today, how good dirt feels. How real. How tangible. How here.

For my current writing project, I have been allowing Robert Frost's definition of poetry to knock me upside the head as many times as I can let it without going blind. Frost wrote this: "My definition of poetry, if I were forced to give one, would be this: words that become deeds."

Words that become deeds.

Dirt is like that. Dirt was once a word. When God said, "Let it be!" and it was, the dirt became deed. It became real and earthy and thick and the way it is today, and the way we are today.

We live in a culture where it's so easy for words not to become deeds. We live in a society where we can say and write a whole lot of things but never really back them up or believe them or make good on the promises they hold within their letters.

But how do we live like poems? How do we allow our lives to be so imbued with action that the words we form in peace and silence and rest are not the Forewords of what we hope to be but the Afterwords of what we already have been becoming? How can we use words that begin as seeds but, by the time their meaning breaks free, become the very fruit that feeds us?

One humble suggestion is to go back.

To the dirt.

To go outside, roll up our sleeves, dig away a patch of grass and then plunge our hands right into the earth, worms and all. Let the dirt get in under our fingernails. (We can wash it off later, before dinner.) Grab a couple handfuls and roll that dirt around like it's as precious as the money we've got in our wallets, the dreams we've got in our hearts, the peace we so deeply fear.

William Faulkner said in his 1950 Nobel prize acceptance speech that "the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart, which alone can make good writing." Instead, Faulkner says, we're writing about lust and glands rather than the conflict that arises out of really trying to love.

One might say our tendency is to ease into grabbing the fruit without ever acknowledging the soil from which it came. We might honor Faulkner and Frost both by trying to remind ourselves of what matters--that before the words, there was the faith, and after the words, the deeds that remain for our progeny are those that were written not with our lust, but with our love--not with our hands scrubbed clean, but with dirt beneath our fingernails.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


As someone who loves stories and believes deeply in the power of words, I am so incredibly proud of my son right now. (Well, I am proud of him no matter what, but right now, my pride in him wants to swing dance around the tiny study in which I write.)

It is 7:12am now, and my two-year old has been telling a story in his crib for a while now. I will share his story, as it comes from his mouth (at the risk of including far too much information):

Look, everybody! Wow! Water coming: shusshhh shuussshhhh shuuusshhhh! Here you go, Karate Kid and Mr. Han. I found an uptruck for you. Mr. Han...I know Karate Kid and Mr. Han, you on DVD! Eat some food, yup we can do dat one. Let's go! Let's go Mr. Han and Karate Kid, let's go! I know, look! WOW! Oh, look, there's one! Daddy and Mommy coming in everybody, they wait at door, and come in a minute. OKAY! Let's go, everybody! Let's go! WOW! OKAY! You ready for DVDs? Yeah, I ready for DVDs! Whhooooooo! Ready, Daddy? Let's go!

Tyler's words, above, are the most beautiful ones I've encountered in a long time.

Being a Daddy has been teaching me to see the story in our words, the words in our hearts,a nd the joy that dances within both.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Boxing Out

In basketball, it's when you vehemently use your body to prevent the guy on the other team from getting the rebound. My high school basketball coach relentlessly drilled into us the importance of boxing out. It was one of those hard-work-without-glory type of skills, and most guys just wanted to leap for the ball rather than find their man first and use their butt and legs to move him backwards away from the hoop.

In high school, I worked hard to box out.

But I haven't used the skill since my most recent pick-up games which (I;m ashamed to admit) were more than a couple of months ago.  Okay, more than a couple of years ago.

Until yesterday.

Tyler and I were at a playgroup at the church, hanging with the Bob the Builder trucks, pushing dolls in strollers, and making choo-choo trains...well...say Choo! Choo!

It was all great and fun and delightfully giddy and imaginative. We even had tea (for me), juice (for Tyler) and chocolate-covered biscuits (for us both!).

It was great fun, indeed, until I had the relentless urge to urinate. Usually, I can plan my events and outings with Tyler so as to minimize my own need to pee while we're out and about. I found, early on, that he was far too curious about the stream and, generally, about touching everything in the bathroom-covered-with-a-thousand-germs.

So, I have designated public bathrooms for a  Tyler-diaper-changing-only visit when he and I are out together.

But yesterday, I just couldn't hold it. It was impossible. It was like trying to hold back Niagara Falls. Or something else really forceful that is very hard to hold back.

So Tyler and I made a trip tot he men's room at the church once the playgroup was over.

Needless to say, my boxing out skills were put to use diligently, and they came back in full force.

Tyler's trying to go for the stream from the right side! Quick--keep your butt low and BOX OUT! Good...whew...oh no! Tyler's coming from the left now, butt low, BOX OUT...whew. Now he's going for the toilet seat--quick! Dig deep and BOX OUT far, far left and low!

When Tyler and I left the men's room yesterday--my need to relieve myself, well, relieved--I also felt this incredibly odd sense that everything does somehow connect. After all, I never thought my bench-ridden time as a high school ball player would one day grant me a small victory while urinating with my two-year old in tow.

But it did.

(Not that I'm in any rush to box out again.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Relentless Sunshine

York has thrown us for a loop lately.

Pulled a fast one on us.

Gone and made a game-changing bucket from the cheap seats in overtime.

Jennifer, myself, and Tyler have come to know York, England as a place where the rain falls liberally and the clouds consistently hang out overhead like a group of kids gathered over a massive worm crawling slowly towards another massive worm that is waiting for the initial massive worm so that they can then crawl to a new location.

(Or something like that.)

But lately, the gray skies and the rain have been nonexistant. Instead, as I type these words at 8 am, we're in a phase of what I'll call Relentless Sunshine.

It just won't stop.

Constant sun shining is a really wonderful thing. It's especially wonderful when you open your bedroom curtains and remark, Holy crap! Another sunny day!? And then you kind of close your bedroom curtains and then open them again just so you feel like you actually have TWO sunshiney days instead of one.

And it works!

We're now going on day number four of Relentless Sunshine. Tyler has been to the swings often in the past four days; he has run around in our backyard; he has dragged an old broom across the grass in the backyard (for some reason, a favorite activity of his); and he has done a skipping-dancing-jig thing that looks kind of like running with a severe limp on the sidewalks of our neighborhood.

All in the name of Relentless Sunshine.

I haven't grown to expect it (yet). But if this keeps up, I'll start to wonder what in the heck is happening to the weather patterns to make it so.

I'll also start to wonder if, perhaps, Tyler will need to learn a rain dance. After all, one can take only so much Relentless Sunshine.

Not that I'm complaining. But there's something fun about being able to say, Yup, got another rain today, but then the skies opened up something fierce and this blue burst through and it was like, WHOA....and then it rained again.

Right now, this is what I'm saying: Yup, another Relentless Sunshiney day today. The blue was there and it stayed there and the sun was there and it stayed there and it was all like, WHOA....and then it stayed there and then the moon plopped itself onto the black and then we went to bed.

I guess, in a weird sort of way, when it rains often, the sunshine feels like an extraordinary and remarkable friend who you know loves you and will always come back, even if he is away for a while. And maybe being away makes you appreciate a loyal friend like that more than you would if he was always just hanging around, finding massive worms.

(Or something like that.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

25 Pence (!)

About 34 cents, if Google's currency exchange is accurate. It was the price, recently, of the movie The Shawshank Redemption at a charity shop in the center of York.

I was in town to have a morning coffee and get as much writing done on a new project as I could. I woke excited, revving those writer engines of Just Get It Down On the Page and You Can Always Revise Later! As I opened up my tiny, (miniature, really, but I love it) e-book and began where I left off in Microsoft Word, I was already relishing the second-hand book-store crawl I knew was coming.

Three hours later, I breathed deep, rubbed my eyes, leaned back in my cafe chair, downed the last of my coffee, and re-saved (for the umpteenth, yes, obsessively umpteenth) my work.

Then, it was off to the bookstores.

I found Zadie Smith's White Teeth, a novel I have wanted to read for a while, and was delighted to see it for 2 pounds. Then I found Selling Your Father's Bones by Richard Scofield, a non-fiction volume about the flight of the Nez Perce against the onslaught and terror of the Westward Expansion in America. At the next shop, I found the social justice rallying Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by R.J. Sider (had heard of this from Jim Wallis's The Call to Conversion and was excited to find it waiting on the shelf for a couple of pounds) and also Equal to Serve, about the quest for women's equality within the Church. At the last stop, I found a puzzle for Tyler, and four films, including Shawshank for 25 pence!

Last night, as Jennifer and I heard the beautiful lines about hope narrated by Red (Morgan Freeman), it was hard not to realize that when we cease to hope, we cease to live. A powerful reminder for only 25 pence (or, rather, 34 cents!).

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Poop Never Fails

When I began this blog a couple of years ago, I never intended for it to become a dumping ground for poop stories and experiences. But when you're a stay-at-home father of a toddler, and you already have a proclivity for poop (when I was in college, I wrote a short story called "The Wad"--though not for any class, of course), well, I guess some things just happen.

As a middle school teacher, poop was a wildly popular way to rivet attention of my students. I could use poop to get my students interested in a book, a story, a thesis essay, or even a grammatical exercise.

As a high school teacher, poop was, undeniably, still a valuable go-to player when the class seemed to be sleeping no matter how hard I tried to build a bridge between my passion and theirs.

And as a college instructor, teaching an 8am section of Freshman Comp, yes: even there poop could perform wonderfully to suggest to my students that if they arrived within the first three minutes of class time, they might hear a funny (and true) story about Mr. Reynolds and poop.

So, call it like-father, like-son, or just call it what it is. But, today, the nap saga continued. Tyler may be going through some growing pains, he may be having some nightmares, or it may be some separation anxiety he's developing when it's time to bid goodnight for a late-morning snooze-a-roo. Or, alternately, he may just be moving out of the nap phase.

Whatever the case, today was shaping up to be another battle. His shrieks were telling me: Daddy, please, for the love of all things beautiful in the world, DON'T MAKE ME DO IT!

As I once again sang the sweet syllables of that classic hymn "Amazing Grace," Tyler's contribution was, well, not quite as amazingly graceful as has been the pattern prior to the past few days.

So, when I finally plopped him into his crib, and he stood there looking at me with a face drizzled with tears and red eyes, I caved.

Call me a softie. Tell me that Tyler has me wrapped around his littlest finger.

This may very well be so.

But instead of closing the door and dealing with another twenty minutes of shrieking, I decided to try my old ally, my longtime companion, my great friend who has never before let me down.


I left Tyler's room and told him that I had a surprise coming back to him to help him feel happy-happy-joy-joy while he went to sleep.

He caught some of his tears and responded, through heavy sobs, "What--sob, sob--is it--sob, sob, sob--Daddy?"

"You'll see!" I said with evident glee at my opportunity.

I went into Jen's and my bedroom, opened up my sock and underwear drawer (no, this isn't going quite where you think it is, but not too far from it...) and I grabbed one black sock. It was from a pair that had been given to me by our neighbors as a Christmas present. The sock has a graphic of Bart Simpson on it wiping his bum with a long piece of toilet paper.

I went back into Tyler's room, the coveted surprise in my hands.

I proceeded to bend down, give him the sock, and then tell him a very detailed and vivid story about a young boy learning to use the potty for the first time, as his Daddy and Mommy watch him. Many plops and splashes later--and after some of the movement falls ont he floor--the boy's tummy ache is all better, and he smiles with pride as his newfound skill.

Tyler: laughing like crazy.

Me: Goodnight, precious boy.

Tyler: calm.

Me: Thank you, Poop.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Butterflies Shrieking

This morning, Tyler and I went along with another stay-at-home parent and her daughter to Tropical World. Just outside of Leeds, the place is packed with butterflies, meerkats, turtles, parrots, and snakes. Tyler darted from one display case to another, while his friend, Alice, did the same.

Every view of every new animal was a magical one. Whoa! Meerkat eating something!

Hey! Butterfly on pineapple!

Yellow snake sleeping!

Turtle playing hide-and-go seek!

It's hard to watch two kids so amazed by animals and not also be amazed, too. It's hard to watch two kids jumping, smiling, laughing, and not be amazed. It's hard to watch two kids and not be amazed. Period.

But after we had made it back home to York, bid farewell to our friends, and made the five minute walk back to our home, the amazement turned into...well...not so much amazement.

Nap time, you see.

Tyler and I both tend to need our naps. Him because his little body is so frantically engaged in any activity while he's awake that it needs a little snooze to help him get through the full day and continue on his endless path of amazement. (Yesterday morning, for instance, he spent a full twenty minutes hanging off a green bench in the park trying to see if he could reach various branches. All it takes is a bench and a few branches and voila: a magical game.) I need the naps because they provide those pockets of time to flip open the miniature screen of my e-book, open up the current writing project (or this blog, or, okay, e-mail) and type away. Bang the keys. Watch the words form little congregations and then watch those congregations sing some songs.

But today, the transition from butterfly kingdom to nap world wasn't so smooth.

The shrieks started when we began singing our nap-time songs. As I attempted, "Good Night, Butterflies," Tyler's acapelo version sounded more like: "Aaaaahhhhhhhhh! EEeeeeEEEEAaaahhhhhhh!"

Me: A-MAZE-ING GRACE, How sweet the sound...


And so we sang.

When I finally gently placed him into his crib, said I loved him and kissed his forehead, it felt like the battle was already lost. As he gripped my hands (No, don't make me lay down on this pillow and sleep! How COULD you!?), I silently prayed, Lord, help! Him! Sleep!

Twenty minutes later and and two texts for support and prayer to my wife, Jennifer, Tyler was sleeping peacefully.

Dreaming, perhapss, about butterflies.

Amidst the naptime saga of today, beauty emerged. Yes, I am going to write that (perhaps) over-dramatic, corny-ish, tending towards making the microcosm of Tyler's room in York a macrocosm for understanding something bigger about life and about the world.

See, I can't help it. Because one of the things my remarkable wife write in a text of support was this: "Dreams do not have to be perfect bubbles floating just beyond our reach, but rather can live imperfectly among our daily realities."

I know. That's what I thought. Pretty stinking cool words.

She doesn't know I'm sharing them with you all right now. But I know that she won't mind, because I think they can bring the same kind of encouragement and support to you as they did to me.

So naptime didn't go great today. No perfect bubble floating there.

But the saga of struggle for napping doesn't diminish the beauty of the butterflies. And in fact, it may even do the opposite: it may make the beauty more real, more authentic. Indeed, such moments may help us allow our dreams to live imperfectly among our daily realities.

Perhaps that's a pretty darn good definition for life. After all, we're going to encounter butterflies and shrieking, no matter how much we try to avoid either. Some of us cloak ourselves with cynicism, thinking it's all going to be hard; none of it matters; and none of it changes much, anyway. Others of us cloak ourselves with denial, refusing to embrace the difficulties we come up against, thinking every challenge is somehow a personal attack.

That middle ground--where dreams are authentic and life is beautiful--seems to somehow embrace all that we experience and allows it to teach us for the journey that still lies ahead.