Friday, May 27, 2011

On Reading The Road

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is more a book you walk than read. On every page, it was impossible not to envision myself as a father in such a place, in such a time: after the sun has shivered away, and the land is filled with never ending gray ash.

McCarthy recreates the world in its end, and reveals the inhumane souls that people it, ravaging the land and one another for any way to stay alive. And indeed, the vision is bleak.

And yet.

There is a father and a son, and they walk the road together, refusing to cave to what seems a paramount fact of life: it's over. But they go on. Always they go on.

This passage, words which the father shares with his son, forced me to read it three times and record it in my journal:

When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you cant give up. I wont let you (202).

What the father shares here is nothing short of a definition of hope--that authentic hope lies not in dreaming up a world that never was or never will be, but instead lies in confronting the world in which we live, day after day, and refusing to give up in the face of all that we find there. Such hope involves looking at the havoc we wreak upon one another and saying, I refuse to give up. I refuse to believe that this is all it ever will be, and instead I will keep walking in a way that speaks of humanity, love even.

And that is McCarthy's final reflection in The Road: love outlasts. Love outlasts every possible hunger; loves outlasts every vision of pain and tragedy. Love outlasts every offer of quick release. Love outlasts every brutal sin we have created. Love outlasts and it outlasts and still, it outlasts.

When I closed the pages of The Road, sitting in the old archives room at the city center library in York, I cried. For the sadness of what wasn't, yes. But also for the beauty of what is.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Safety of Libraries

Today, we've seen switches from sunny skies to thunder storms and then back again. This afternoon, Tyler and I left home to walk to a playground about a mile from home. While I usually am of the mind not to prepare much and to just set off on an adventure, today, I brought the massively oversized umbrella.

Just in case.

After buying two lollipops at the local corner store for six pence a pop, we headed to the playground to swing. Tyler noticed a variety of aircraft wheeling through the sky, and I sang songs about eating lollipops and noticing aircraft wheeling through the sky.

The sunny, blue sky.

And then clouds almost as massively oversized as our umbrella somersaulted into our day. And with the clouds came the rain. And with the rain came the thunder and lightening.

And then the hail.

Tyler and I launched the umbrella, providing a completely new world under which we could walk the five minutes to our tiny Fulford Library.

And this is what I expect Heaven to be like: running from a hailstorm, holding hands with someone you love, and entering into the safety of a place filled with books.

Free books.

Covers which call out stories of hope, betrayal, forgiveness, love, redemption, pain, loss, and joy.

Characters which beckon one to listen, if only for a week or two.

Plots which point back to our hearts.

Rushing into the Fulford Library today, closing our umbrella and leaving it soaking in a corner of the small safe haven, it was difficult not to theorize.

And I think theorizing is a valuable activity if your feet and pants are soaking through and small balls of ice are hanging onto your sandals and socks like the nettles of a pricker bush. Theorizing in a state like that usually leads to joy.

As Tyler and I rushed the children's section, the books indeed beckoned us in. Come on! Warmth! Friends! Hope! Possibility!

Shelter from the storm.

C.S. Lewis once said that "we read to know we're not alone."  I think he's right about that one. We read to find the shelter of the stories of other souls, who travel paths not unlike our own.  We read to find a place of refuge in which to rest our weary feet, dry our soaking, sometimes threadbare clothes.

At every turn of my life, it seems a library was always waiting to welcome me no matter what storm I find myself facing. Whether it was the John F. Kennnedy Elementary School library of Windsor, CT when I was seven and confused and unsure of who I was (and still sometimes am at 30), or when we first arrived in York and knew of no where else to go on a rainy, cold day other than the city center library--the safe haven of warmth and stories has always been there for me.

Words that make warmth wring out my wet life, and lend hope in the midst of hail. Always.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Date Night (A Bit Differently)

This past Friday, Jennifer and I had a date night.

Date. Night.

For two parents living abroad with a toddler, we finally came face to face with the stats: seven months, two dates.


Sure, we had those long evening conversations after Tyler went to bed; yup, we cuddled while we watched endlessly romantic comedies and a few intense sagas; indeed, we sipped wine and clinked glasses. But all that didn't quite feel the same as getting out.

When getting out as a married couple, it doesn't matter where you go, just the fact that you leave the actual premises of the house you occupy in order to prove a few things to yourselves:

1) The dishes can wait.

2) There is a whole world that exists outside of laundry, online grocery shopping, and toy-stowal.

3) Walking down a sidewalk in a city somewhere--anywhere--is pure magic.

So Jennifer and I were pretty psyched about our date night. We smiled conspiratorially to one another as we put Tyler to bed, singing the song that the Farmer sings in the movie Babe: the Talking Pig and then telling a fantastically long story about a boy named Tyler and his friends Alice, Benjamin, and Edward who go up in a hot air balloon and run into a thunderstorm, various talking birds, and a large helicopter, and then land on the moon and dig a large hole, wherein they find a family of fireflies that have been surviving (magically) in that crevice of the moon for eons feeding only on the light that comes from each other and then Tyler, Alice, Benjamin, Edward free the fireflies into space and they have (magical) wings that allow them to move and direct themselves even in space and then...

Tyler fell asleep.

Jen and I walked downstairs, and prepared to make tea. Herbal tea. (Berry-flavored.) Our date would consist of a long walk to Millennium Bridge, which spans the River Ouse, and then wherever beckoned from there. We would sip our tea, talk, laugh, and dream together.

Now, I've got to confess: I used to love going out to eat. When Jen and I first met, and she offered some coupons for us to go to a sub place for a buy-one-get-one-free deal, I declined and waltzed her off to the nicest restaurant in town.

But I have (slowly) come to see the beauty and power in not going out to eat, and in not going to really cool restaurants (not that there's anything wrong with it, of course!).Where I used to depend on money to create a magical night of romance, now I know that it's about the togetherness that happens.

Thus: our Friday night date. We carried our steaming tea in to-go cups, launched our massively oversized umbrella, and strode forth into the pouring rain of an English night. The sun was shining through a layer of clouds, and we stopped at the entrance to the trail that would lead us towards Millennium Bridge. The vista we encountered was, yup: magical. Rain shot through the descending light like sparks against a dark sky.

We stood shoulder to shoulder watching the scene.

And hour later, we found ourselves walking the 1,000 year old Roman walls that encircle the city of York. Atop the walls, we could look out and see the clusters of homes filled with modern technology, then glance ahead and see the intermittent towers that capped a turn in the direction of the walls.

All the while, we talked of our journey to England, whether or not we are legally sane, life before switching roles, what it means to trust God, and on staying disciplined along the path to dreams.

We we arrived home two and a half hours later, we both looked at each with that same conspiratory glance with which the date night began--that sense that something magical had taken place, and we didn't pay a dime for it.

Well, okay, maybe approximately ten cents if you tally the cost of the tea bags.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hugging Some Play-Dough Soldiers (Or, Some Notes on Changing the World)

Yesterday, Jen and I boarded a train from York Station to Leeds, Tyler in tow. It would be our fist time out of York as a family in approximately the entirety of our time here: seven months. Life without a car certainly does wonders to a family's desire to stay local. If we can't walk there, chances are we're not going.

But the Leeds trip arose as Jen and a friend were meeting with an organization called The Joanna Project. The organization works with women seeking to leave prostitution. While Jen and her friend met with the founders of the group, Tyler and I, along with another dad and his daughter, walked to the nearby Royal Armouries.

First of all: metal.

Upon entering the museum, we approached a massive hall that was aptly named the Hall of Steel. It was more like a monument to swords, axes, spikes, jousting sticks, and a whole host of other very sharp, pointy objects for which I knew no names.

I soon saw that the Royal Armouries was just a euphemism for Museum of All Kinds of Killing Objects and the History of How Those Killing Objects Have Been Utilized in Various Wars. Even so, the museum had wide open floors made of strong wood, and very few tourists--and it was also free. Thus, it made for an excellent place in which to allow our toddlers to run free.

To run like the wind.

Then fly like really fast running animals.

Then run and fly and run and fly some more. And then run. And then poop and pee and run yet again. And fly again.

If anything, the sight of so much weaponry sent the following notions drumming in my head: for real? This is what a massive portion of humanity's history is about: who fought who, when, and with what weapons?

Amazed by the extent to which we go to kill one another, Tyler performed the only appropriate act that can be performed in a place like this. On the third floor, exploring modern warfare, Tyler walked up to a mannequin soldier and asked me, "What his name, Daddy?"

I responded, "I don't know his name, son. Maybe it is Sam."

"He can talk to me, Daddy?"

"No, he can't talk to you. He's pretend. He's not real."

Tyler looked at the soldier wearing combat gear, a hard look on his camouflaged face, a gun in his hands.

"He not real, Daddy?"

"No, he's pretend...he's made out of play-dough. He's like a play-dough man."

Tyler looked at me, then looked at the soldier. Finally, he asked me, "I can give him one hug?"

"Sure. Of course you can."

Ten minutes later, after Tyler had hugged all of the play-dough soldiers on the floor, we began to make preparations to leave the museum and meet up with Jennifer and her friend. Ironically, a certain synthesis is possible from the two reasons we went to Leeds: both exist because of the demands and desires of men.

Warfare and the abuse and use of women.

I think my two-year old son had it right--that we could some day learn as men to love rather than kill, to love rather than lust. If we can, perhaps my son will one day take his son to a museum holding monuments to peace, not war, and his wife might visit an organization researching how the use and abuse of women was stopped, rather than why it continues.

Maybe such a day will come.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Beginnings rock. I love the way possibility rages like a rhino hepped up on a trough of coffee at the beginnings of things. (Not that I've seen such a rhino.) I love the way everything feels open, plausible, free. In the beginning, the vision counts for everything, and everything can be a part of the vision.

Endings are pretty cool, too. They usually make me cry, or laugh, or nod like I have a secret understanding with whatever ending I am reading, or watching, or living. Yup, my mind offers, you totally get this, man! This emotion and wisdom is so stinking deep and profound, but its crawling into your soul right now, right as you nod and watch, live and breathe, watching the credits roll and the sense of completeness arrive.

But I'll confess: middles and me don't fare all too well together. I think it's because middles are far too independent, far too demanding, and much too stubborn for me to get along with. Then again, I am also all of those things, so blaming myself rather than middles may be a much more realistic and logical idea.

Middles also take work. A lot of work. Work that involves sweat. (Both real sweat and metaphorical sweat.) This work is the kind of work that doesn't get much recognition, either.

When you're just starting out with something, it's really fun to discuss and visualize and people can say, aaahhhhh and people can say interesting! and people can wonder about the journey ahead.

When you're finishing something, there's a consensus: you did it! Holy crap! You finished! You can use the fact of finishing to prove to yourself what you thought you couldn't do. You can use the fact of finishing to prove to others who bet on a much stronger, faster, prettier horse with a better-built jockey riding atop.

But middles don't really get much mileage for you. You can't share glowingly with someone, Hey, I'm in the middle of this cool novel or adventure or journey, and it's really hard and I don't know if I'm even going to be able to finish the thing because, well, it's really stinking hard and I'm am sweating profusely (both literally and metaphorically) and, did I mention that it's really hard?

Technically, you couldshare the above with someone, but you won't get those admiring looks in return. Instead, you'll get the strange, cross-eyed, are you nuts look in return, which doesn't really help you get through the middle of whatever you're trying to get through because then you find that you, too, start asking yourself, Am I nuts?

So how do we come to terms with middles? Okay, sorry, you're right: How do I come to terms with middles? Because you may be reading this thinking, Luke really has a problem. I'm fine with middles. Middles and me dance like we're old friends, cheek-to-cheek, and then we sip champagne and laugh together until an ending comes along, whereby we kiss each other goodnight and think lovely thoughts about our time together.

However, if you're with me on being a middles-struggler, then how do we come to terms with middles? Because, the bad news is this: they're not going anywhere. In the stories we write and in the stories we live, there are always going to be middles.

Middles fraught with tons of confusion, questioning, fear, worry, all-seems-lost-but-it's-not-but-now-all-seems-lost-again-but-it's-not-again-but-now-it-does-seem-lost-yet-agains.

Middles have amazing staying power. In a book I co-edited with Audrey Friedman, Burned In, we explored how teachers can stay motivated, even while the stats say that 50% of all teachers quit within their first three years. But Middles aren't like that. The stats are even more harrowing for middles: 100% of middles remain for their entire life, and sometimes that 's a heck of a lot of years.

Middles never quit.

So if we're going to learn to live well or to write well (and hopefully we'll learn to do both), then we have to learn to love middles. We may not fall in love with middles, but we've got to learn that old-fashioned, deeply true love is a verb kind of love for middles. We've got to look middles in the eyes and say, Alright. You and I haven't always gotten along. Like, remember the time I blindfolded you and set you on fire? Or, like, remember when I blended up jalapeno peppers and mixed them in with your pasta sauce? Or, like, remember when I called you a Squishy Poopie Head? Well, I'm sorry. Really. I'm going to try to love you. I swear. I promise. What? No, that's not me stepping on your face. Really. Oh, you're right, that is my shoe. Let me repeat, then, I'm sorry (for stepping on your face). I didn't mean it. I am going to try really, really hard to love you. I promise. Just have some grace with me, okay?

We're probably still going to want to do some serious fingernail-digging into the flesh of middles every now and again. Maybe more now than again. But if we can somehow keep committing ourselves to love middles, to find that there is beauty and truth and redemption even before the end, and that there is possibility and freedom long after the beginning, then I think we'll be happier writers, and happier people, too.

I for one have got to give it a shot. I've only got so many hate tactics left to employ for middles, after all.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Beah's Book

I just finished reading Ishmael Beah's remarkable and harrowing book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. So many lines and passages drilled themselves into my heart, but in entirety, Beah's journey as a boy soldier forced into combat during the Seirra Leone civil war is a more a statement of what might be rather than what has been.

After his tragic ordeal as a soldier has come to an end, and he is able to undergo rehabilitation, Beah is sent to new York to meet with other children from around the globe for a UN conference. He writes about the experience, "It seemed we were transforming our sufferings as we talked about ways to solve their causes and let them be known to the world," (198).

The power of words is not lost on Beah. My mind didn't have to work to visualize this bright young man sitting amidst others who were forced to do things and see things and experience things for which language fails--and yet to see hope etched on his face. To see that in connecting with others and in talking about his experiences, he was able to find that preventing atrocity from being visited upon other children was worth the words.

What is worth our words? How often do we find ourselves sending out words as though they were paper airplanes--not caring what they do, or whether they rip or tear as they journey forth? Readng Ishmael's memoir makes it difficult to come to terms with the ways in which we use language--and how we try to bend meaning so that it will bow to control, rather than love.

I thank Ishmael Beah for the courage to share his own journey, and for implicity asking us to join him in using words to forge hope out of suffering the world over.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Two Worlds

On Saturday, I worked alongside five other people to rework a yard not more than ten minutes from the home Jennifer and I rent here in York. The project originated through an organization in York called Besom, who work with families on state-assistance. Without saying too much about the family, I can share that each time I walked from the backyard to the van in the front to deposit an armful of shrubs or a pile of prickers bushes that had been cut down, I had to breathe deep to prevent myself from crying.

Then, last night, Jennifer and I watched the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. We had left for England soon after the film came to DVD and we had never seen it. Watching the film was a powerful experience, and it brought back flashes of when Jen and I had gone to India, staying in the tiny village of Than Gaon in Dehra Dun, many years ago.

Finally, last night, I was finishing up the book Homegame by Michael Lewis. It's a delightful read about his journey as a father of three, and how he copes with the uncertain waters of parenthood. However, what struck me reading last night was a comment he records from one of his daughters, "Daddy, we're poor."  The daughter had been watching an interview with Bill Gates, and even though Lewis's family live in a beautiful home in a nice area and can afford nannying help, his daughter assumes this fact based on an interview with one of the richest people alive.

The synthesis of these three experiences kicked in this morning, when I woke up to find that most of us claim to live in a world where we still don't have enough. How else can a family or a person make enough money to go out to restaurants, movies, buy a variety of appliances, replace and fix those appliances, afford clothes within our closets that run deep enough to hide a full-grown shark--and yet still complain that--like Lewis's daughter--"We're poor."

I think one part of the problem is that many of us who have about 90% more than most of the world has aren't often faced with real poverty or real need. In our neighborhoods, we don't have to see it.

For instance, in anticipation of the big tourist season here in York, police recently swept through the downtown city center and "cleaned out" all of the homeless people. Where they were pushed off to and where they went, no one knows. But they were forced out, the prevailing wisdom being that those who travels many miles to spend gobs of money on designer clothes and highly fancy tea meals aren't interested in seeing hungry people along their spending journeys.


It's the boundary most haves use to assuage any sense of love or compassion. If we can get ourselves to live in communities with big enough walls that are far enough away from those who are hungry and addicted and afraid and have no family or friends on which to lean, then we can continue a basically comfortable life while convincing ourselves we're doing all we can.

When we lived in Massachusetts, Jennifer and I attended a very large church north of Boston. The church did a lot of wonderful things, but what struck us most painfully was when the church described the great need in and around the city of Boston, saying they wanted to plant a new church to minister to and serve those in need.

And then, they proceeded to plant this new church in another highly wealthy area.

I think, what struck me most regarding the confluence of the work-day experience and the movie and the book was simply this: most of us don't actually want to see what the world is really like, and offer our hands to help figure out how we can love. It's confusing. It's hard. And doing so makes it inordinately more difficult to buy nice bottles of wine or own multiple properties.

But the more the haves journey to parts of the world (and parts of our own towns) to meet with and see and talk with those who struggle to feed their children and to find stability, the more authentic love flourishes. And when authentic love is unleashed in the world, it's a force to be reckoned with.