Monday, November 25, 2013

Everybody Falls

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Can I fall too?"

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

And again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyler laughed. Jen smiled. And I laughed.

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

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

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

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

In short: we grow.

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Peaks and Valleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Me neither," Jen said.

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

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

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

Nice slight incline!

Incredible leafy colors!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you?

Think we're close?

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

Do you?

Think we're close?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Red Underwear

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


Goodbye, Charlie and Lola.

Hello, red underwear.

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

Red Underwear!

With a Superman logo right in the front!

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

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

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

And, yes, I thought of Charlie and Lola.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there's also love.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Research, Mosquitos, and Change

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

"They suck people's blood?"




"Why do they suck people's blood?"

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Really? You like mosquitos son?"


"Why?" I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

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

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

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

Do Something Completely Different
By Kathy Erskine

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

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Two Weeks Notice

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again.

And again.

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

And again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Never Wasted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Two Minutes

About two miles from our home, there is a really cool, ethical grocery store. There are three grocery stores a lot closer--and when walking, two minutes versus thirty makes a big difference (especially with the baggage en route home.) When Jennifer or I are feeling particularly energetic, we sometimes give each other a fun little smile which means, essentially, Want to go for the Far Grocery Store? That really cool, ethical one?

And when embarking upon such journeys to the Far Grocery Store--loaded up with either our hiker's backpack, a bike trailer, or canvas bags to lug the food home in--we kind of feel adventurous. Watch out, Indiana Jones, here comes the Reynolds Grocery Trip.

There are all kinds of obstacles along the way...

*Sudden rain! Bam! Quick, run, take cover, launch the umbrellas! No, no, feel the rain! Yes, yes, become one with the rain!

*Sudden hail! Bam! Quick, run, take cover. Yes, yes, take cover, this stuff stings!

*Tired four-year old! Bam! Quick, run, take cover! No, no, wait, stay, hoist him onto the shoulders, forward march!

These outings to the Far Grocery Store always feel like a Thing To Do. Not just a quick bop in for the list, but rather an all-out grocery-store hullabaloo, an activity, a main event. And Jennifer, Tyler, and I usually come home exhausted.

However, this past Monday, we had a first on a Far Grocery Store trip. About ten minutes into the walk / scooter back home, Tyler stopped scootering and boldly announced, "I have to do a pee straightaway."

So I asked what every parent asks their four-year old in this kind of situation: "Can you hold it?"

Tyler looked up at me, breathless and as if to show rather than tell his answer, he danced a little jig right there by his scooter.

I looked back at the super-cool, ethical Far Grocery Store shimmering in the distance. They have a super-cool, ethical, clean bathroom.But ten minutes walk back? In the opposite direction!? That would mean the ten there and then the ten all over again to get back to where we were, only much more exhausted. So, we're really talking fifteen back, and then twenty back to here.

Forward. Got to move forward.

So I calculate again and recall that there's a small divergent path off the sidewalk at one point up ahead, where Tyler used to pee when he was potty training and we happened to be out and about. That divergent path was, say, by my calculations, approximately, maybe...fifteen minutes up ahead.

I knelt down. "Hey little man, can you hold your pee for a little longer?"

Tyler looked up at me and said, "How long?"

And some sort of Parenting Instinct to Lie must have kicked in, because from the very marrow of my being came the words, "Two minutes."

Two minutes!?

Two Minutes!?

Immediately I thought back to my own childhood, whereby I would ask my lovely mother all kinds of time-oriented questions:

"Mom, how long until we can go to the comic book store?"

"Two minutes, Luke."

"Mom, how long until school starts?"

"Two minutes, Luke."

"Mom, how long until I can eat that cake?"

"Two minutes, Luke."

"Mom, how long until I can drive a car?"

"Two minutes, Luke."

It seemed instinctual. Everything was two minutes. The Christmas Tree farm five towns over where we drove to get our Christmas tree each winter was 'two minutes' away. The rest of the cleaning should only take 'two minutes.' Everything would be better in...

Tyler looked up at me with the faith of a child. "Okay, Daddy, let's g. But let's go SUPER-FAST!"

We sped up and off and into the horizon.

Ten minutes later, Tyler said, "Daddy, I have to do a pee SUPER BAD, straightaway!"

I looked up ahead and I could begin to make out that beautiful divergent path. Yes! We could surely make it there in...

"Two minutes, son! We can do it!"

And off we sped, time-warping ourselves forward to the safe-peeing zone, and then making it there just as my son's bladder was about to erupt.

Before my high school graduation in Windsor, CT many years ago, the then-Superintendent of Schools shared a quote that went something to the effect of: "He who is victories is usually he who can hold on just thirty seconds longer."

At the time, I thought, very powerful philosophy of sticking it out, hanging in there even when it feels like you have to quit.

But after Tyler and Two Minutes, I find myself thinking--now wait just a couple of minutes: just how long are these thirty seconds?

And I wonder if, sometimes, God is watching all of us, knowing exactly where the best Pee Spots are, and kind of telling us, "Hey buddy, just hold on for two minutes--just two more minutes." Because maybe, like a parent, He knows if he told us, "Look, it's going to be a long, long time before that wall breaks" we'd kind of crumple to the ground and just fall apart.

Two minutes can sometimes be a very, very long time. Two minutes can be an eternity. But I know that however long two minutes' takes, it's always worth the excitement of the adventure, the rush for the finish line, the joy of the journey. And when we arrive to that Pee Spot or Promised Land--sweaty and bladders bulging--I wonder if two minutes suddenly feels short once more.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Please Do Not Park on the Verge

Every morning on my paper route, I ride past a tall telephone pole on which is posted a sign that reads: PLEASE DO NOT PARK ON THE VERGE. Zipping past, I've never really thought much about it until today. It's in the moments when we feel we can't keep pushing forward that seemingly insignificant things take on momentous value. People giving a thumbs-up, a smile and a chat, a sign on a telephone pole. These are the things the paper route has taught me, and today, after I gave my two weeks' notice as we prepare to begin our transition back to the states this summer, a sign spoke the words on which I desperately needed to ruminate.

Maybe you do, too.

If you find that you're on mile 23, running and feeling the burn along your calves, the strain inside your thighs, the stinging circling your stomach--don't stop. Now is not the time to take a breather, wait and see, wonder the thousand what ifs your mind seems always ready to proffer. Now is the time to keep moving forward. Please, don't park on the verge.

If you find that you're parenting as best as you can, and certain patterns feel so hard to change, and you have so many questions about what you need to learn to do better, what kinds of behavior you're teaching, why your kid shares sometimes and sometimes hoards, why a temper tantrum happens when the day looks bright--don't doubt. Now is not the time to question your ability as a mother or a father, your commitment to growth, or your unconditional love. Keep moving forward, doing the best you can, but understanding that you are never going to get it right every time. No one does. Please, do not park on the verge.

If you find that you're chasing a dream, and yet rejection is chasing you, and calls come that are so close you feel the whisper of their tender-hearted declines--don't lose faith. Now is not the time to take it easy, sit back in your chair, and ponder other avenues or possibilities. Now is the time to work through the closeness until it gets closer and closer. Now is the time to lean into the wind that blows you back, using its own force to make your forward movement that much more determined. Please, do not park on the verge.

If the character arc you're traveling seems oddly void of worldly goods--be it money, fame, praise, prestige, success, respect--don't change course and seek signposts that point towards results over work, product over process. Now is not the time to consider what your bank account could have been, what your status could have been, where your voice might have travelled. Now is the time to get down on yoru hands and knees and watch a bee on a flower; now is the time to realize and fully grab hold of that ancient truth that the work itself is the reward for the work. The joy of the journey is itself the reward for the journey. The love with which you hear and respond to the people all around you is the greatest possible fruition you can fathom. A kiss on the cheek of an elderly woman when you feel like crashing down, a wave to a neighbor, the example of a wife who keeps on giving so generously to a homeless shelter, to friends, to anyone in need even though her own battle is fierce--these are the signposts of love. These are the acts of triumph. Hold onto these. believe these. trust these and keep moving forward. Please, do not park on the verge.

Among everything you are up against, remember that love triumphs if you only choose to keep moving forward. Love your wife. Love your son. Love the people whose paths you find yourself crossing. Let this be your legacy. Not a bullet-point list on a resume. Not a checklist. Not fears of inadequacy nor worries about accomplishments. Let the sheer fact that you never stopped moving forward be all the bullet points you need.

Please, do not park on the verge. Cross over it, believing that the triumph lies in this feat and no other.

Monday, May 6, 2013

George Saunders on Enduring Hardships Along the Way

Lately, I've been re-reading the interviews within Keep Calm and Query On--and I've been overwhelmed by the gratitude I feel towards these authors for sharing so much of their writing journeys. Inspired by the pluck and determination of the 14 authors whose interviews appear in the book, I wanted to share some snippets of their wisdom here. Up first is a powerful (and funny) answer from fiction writer and essayist George Saunders on writing your heart out, realizing you might have been wrong, but then writing your heart out all over again.

Can you recall any moments when you felt particularly discouraged as a writer? What helped to sustain your belief in your work and in yourself on these occasions?

There were certainly times where I should have felt discouraged but even at those low points I was arrogant or hopeful or deluded enough to put the bad news behind me pretty quickly, I think.  I once wrote a 700-page book about a Mexican wedding of a friend of mine, which was called La Boda de Eduardo.  Roughly translated: Ed’s Wedding.  Enough said.  That one took about a year of work and lots of late nights at a time when we had a new baby at home and I was working full-time.  So when it turned out to suck, that was a hard blow.  But in my heart I think I knew it sucked, so it was also kind of a relief—to find out I was right re. the sucking and that my taste was still active, so to speak.  And also a relief to put that book (or, libro, as I might have called it back then) behind me and move on to something more worthwhile and...alive.  There is something so wonderful about writing in a way that feels new and authentic, that feels in line with your true taste – trying to get that to that place is like seeking the Grail.  Whatever hardships have to be endured along the way, are fine – part of the larger quest, if you will. Although – I didn’t feel that way the day after La Boda de Eduardo went in El Garbago.

Monday, April 29, 2013

I'm Not...

Tonight, after a busy day and a busy weekend, Tyler lay in bed clad in Batman pyjamas swinging his legs back and forth. "I'm not tired Daddy--I have so much energy I could jump from my bed all the way up to the moon!"

Jennifer and I had spent most of the weekend outside with Tyler, watching with giddy, childish excitement on Saturday as he attempted a tall wobbly ladder-obstacle-course-thingy over and over again until he could do it; scootering to church on Sunday, then running and playing soccer in the backyard, then jumping on the tiny trampoline that our lovely neighbors gave us, then playing with various Imaginary People, then convincing various Imaginary People that it was, indeed, time to eat dinner, then convincing various Imaginary People that it was, indeed, time to take a bath, then convincing various Imaginary People that it was, indeed, time to go to bed.

The thing about Imaginary People is that they are incredibly useful allies in the journey to Try and Get Children To Do What You Want Them To Do.

Our two favorite Imaginary people are Mr. McGooga and Lucy. Mr. McGoogal is a 70-year old man who walks around with a duck on his head. (The duck can never be removed, even when he goes to sleep or takes a bath.) Mr. McGoogal always does things in an opposite or highly strange manner: he wakes up at night and goes to bed when the sun rises; he brushes his teeth with mud; he walks around naked outside and then puts on all his clothes for bath time; he eats dessert first and dinner second; he picks his nose and his butt (often simultaneously); he inevitably goes the wrong way when attempting to go anywhere.

Our other favorite Imaginary People Person is Lucy--who is almost two years old and cries often, always wants her own way, and consistently doesn't know what to do (other than knowing that she doesn;t want to do what her Mommy and Daddy think she should do).

Tyler often needs to correct what Mr. McGoogal does, or explain to Lucy why doing something she wants to do isn't necessarily the right thing to do at the moment. When tired, Lucy and Mr. McGoogal begin to sound an awful lot like one another--but when awake, they are so good at what they do (imaginarily) that they often make very real changes in Tyler's decisions.


Because at other times, even Imaginary People (no matter if they have ducks on their heads) can't even convince a four-year old that he should go to sleep.

Other times like, say, tonight.

While jumping to the moon did sound like a lot of fun, doing so would have caused an inevitable extra half-hour (including blast-off and then landing, plus the blast-off and landing back on Earth), and Tyler had already woken up early this morning. Jennifer and he had drawn endless pictures of beautiful things, I had done the paper route, and even thought the grumps made a few appearances, Jen and I gave one another that wordless, knowing parental look which said quite loudly: Early bedtime tonight?



Except, as Tyler lay in bed swishing his legs back and forth, attempting to start an uncanny amount of new option for what could be done instead of sleeping, even the star-studded prowess of Mr. McGoogal and Lucy could not be of aid.

And tonight those immortal, bold, four-year-old-mastered words came crashing all around me like a layer of bricks covered with sawdust that had been previously coated in a thick layer of mud which may, possibly, have had traces of dog poop mixed in. On the edge of exhaustion, and bereft of any real hope from Imaginary People.

"I'm not tired!"

I'm not tired!

I'm not tired!

So I did what any patient, kind, warm, loving, gentle, endlessly hopeful father would do. I pretended to be asleep.

"Daddy, did you hear me? I said, I'm not tired."

More pretending to be asleep. And I threw in a big yawn with my eyes closed tight because, hey, I was that sleepy.

Tyler stopped talking to me, then began swishing his legs louder and faster and louder and faster and--

Singing. We've got singing. Loud singing, with more leg swishing, back and forth and back and forth, and then the singing and the leg swishing began to work in unison, forming an even more imposing wall of Mud/Poop-Coated-Bricks that were crashing, crashing, crashing all around me and the singing and swishing and is he veer going to fall asleep because he REALLY needs it because he is SO OVERTIRED and what's with even the IMAGINARY PEOPLE not even working!!!???

And as I continued to pretend to be asleep, a decrescendo occurred. A glorious, melodious decrescendo. And then, a small bit of quiet, and then two beautiful words: "I'm not..."

And that caesura--that beautiful poetic silence--cause me to wake wide up from my pretend sleep and look full at Tyler's face. There my boy lay, peacefully sleeping like the overtired, exhausted child that he was.

And it dawned on me in that moment that Imaginary People are amazing. They're beautiful and helpful and downright giddy fun. But reality is also pretty great, too. Because a lot of us adults aren't much different than four-year olds--swishing our legs back and forth, trying to convince ourselves that we're not tired,  not sad, not in need of help, not in need of love, or a kind word, or hope, or just a little bit of truth.

It's hard to admit stuff. It's scary and we're afraid that we'll miss out on good things if we admit the truth. If we're sad, we wonder if it means we made the wrong choice. If we endure failure and suffering, we fear others will tell us we walked into it ourselves. If we travel through confusion, we worry others will direct our steps rather than simply love us through the unclear trail.

So we say things. We say, I'm not sad or I'm not tired or I'm not battling some pretty severe heartache or I'm not depressed or I'm not scared.

But the thing is, we are. The fact that we're members of the human family essentially guarantees that we're all of these things sometimes (hopefully not all simultaneously, though, because that would even freak out Mr. McGoogal).

But once in a while, we find a space where we can let a caesura slip into our exteriors. We find that place or those people with whom we can pause just long enough to allow the silence to create a space authenticity and love have a chance to breathe. Sometimes, we find ourselves saying just two words: I'm not...

And we pause, because we know we are. And knowing we are gives others the chance to hold our hands, fix their eyes, and respond with love. Maybe then we stop all our nervous leg swishing and fall into a deep sleep. And when we wake, the world looks new again.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Like half-broken branches
Our arms hang limp.
We see the sun but cannot reach out
And pull it towards us--
Cannot hold its light with our limbs.

But a thousand leaves open.
Palmed pupils dilate with
The determination that comes from
Feeling light before we see it,
Finding strength before we feel it.

And suddenly the soul that ferries
Water in our roots knows:
We will branch out once more.
New buds will emerge to hold
That same sun, now brighter than before.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Duck, Duck, Soar

A few days ago, on the first house on the morning paper route, I saw a limping duck on the front lawn. Another duck walked beside it, as if to protect it from any would-be villains. I stopped immediately, holding the Daily Mirror for house number 153 in my hands, and watched the limping duck.

One of his legs was bent a bit, though as he sensed my presence it used that bent leg as best he could to flee me. I began to wonder what kind of number I could call about a duck with a bum leg. Who could help? And would it be good if I tried to pick the duck up and bring him somewhere--some kind of medical facility or some local guy who happens to be a Healer of Birds or a retired vet who might be looking for things to do because, hey, retirement is maybe a little more boring than it's cracked up to be.

My mind tracked back ten years, when my oldest brother Chris and I found a sparrow with a broken wing on somebody's lawn one day when we were out for a run. We watched the bird and finally managed to scoop it up, then run back home. We called about a hundred people from the yellow pages, before one of the vets gave us a number for somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who fixed birds.

In his backyard. Seriously.

So we got in the car and drove the hour to the Backyard Bird-Fixer Guy (who happened to be blind). We gave the guy the bird with the broken wing, and he held the bird in his hands, told us he was feeling for the heartbeat, and then said with a deep sadness in his voice that it wasn't good news.

That sparrow died, and I remember feeling crushed. Why? It was, after all, just a bird. Just a sparrow. But the time we spent with that sparrow, the numbers we called, the drive we took--all of it was imbued with such hope, and when we finally met the blind Backyard Bird-Fixer, my storytelling mind was already seeing a beautiful narrative arc to that adventure. Not so.

So as I watched the duck with the bum leg limp away from me, I wanted this time to be different. Sure, the world is a big place and there gender injustice, domestic abuse, children that need families, slavery, trafficking, violence, misogyny, and so many other tragedies to work against. But a few days ago, on my morning paper route, this was this duck.

This duck with a bum leg limping away from me. And for some crazy reason, this duck was what I could see and this duck was what I wanted to fix--some tiny living thing I wanted to see healed. Maybe it was selfish, maybe it was because I needed this duck to be whole again.

Maybe it was because--surely--my heart considered that if I could manage to locate a Blind Backyard Bird-Fixer yet again (this time in England) the narrative arc of this story a decade later would be different. Hope would win.

And then Surprise showed up. Because as I watched the limping duck, and the healthy duck, a car door slammed close by us, and both ducks spread their wings and lifted off the ground and reached up into the sky and sailed towards the River Ouse, a half mile away.

The duck with the bum leg had two wings that were strong and beautiful and bold and capable. And this duck didn't need to be fixed. He was going to make it as is: imperfect, broken, himself.

I suspect there are a lot of us limping around somebody's lawn, and maybe people take a look at us and think, I wonder if there's some guy somewhere who fixes people like that? And if we limp around long enough to listen to the voices that say we're too broken to get up where the air is a little thinner, the view a little better, maybe we start to believe them.

But once in a while something comes along and surprises us. It wakes us up. It gets our hearts beating just fast enough that we remember something deeply important: we can still soar. So maybe we reach out our two beautiful, bold wings, and we feel the wind lift us higher and then we head for thee rushing water.

Where, after all, we can float and a bum leg can't even be seen.

Today, may be remember what the poet Dennis Brutus claimed--that though tenderness may be frustrated, it "does not wither." Tenderness survives, and the soul aches to send us on an adventure beyond somebody's lawn. The soul aches for surprise.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Our Throwaways

As a kid, I loved going into my dad's workroom to try and build something. In my mind, the vision of what I would create with hammer, nails, and wood was magnificent--we're talking seamless symmetry, profound usage ability, all-around-wow-factor. The kind off thing I could bring in for Show and Tell to my second grade classroom with Mrs. Schwartz at John F. Kennedy Elementary School and watch all my classmates gaze and say, Dude, how in the world did Luke actually BUILD THAT?!

The reality of what I made during those workroom visits was, however, much different. One time, I tried to build a wooden rocket ship that would put NASA to shame. Instead, the pieces of my dad's scrap wood that I nailed and wood-glued together ended up looking more like a porcupine that swallowed a sink pipe than a rocket. Bent nails protruded from the thing and glue beaded around all it's edges. It's jagged sides all over could have sliced an onion or two or 343.

And my attempt to paint over these severe lapses didn't much help, either. Rather than make the thing look more like a NASA rocket, the paint had the effect of highlighting each mistake in a new and vibrant color.

So, as my seven-year old eyes examined what I had created and held it against the image of what I had wanted to create before I began working, I picked the whole thing up and dumped it in the trash barrel that sat below my dad's workshop desk.

The next day, it was sitting on top of the desk.

When my dad came home from work at Cigna in Hartford, I asked him how my failed attempt at a rocket made it out of the trash and onto his work desk.

"I love it, Luke, and I'm keeping it right there."

I didn't know what to say in response.

Fast-forward about a quarter of a century to this morning. My own four-year old sits at Jen and I's writing desk in our closet/study, crying. He's holding a piece of paper on which he has drawn airplane windows. He has stapled the end of the paper into a nose, and he has taped various parts of the paper to try and form landing gear.

But the paper has ripped, and the staples are coming out, and the tape is sticking more to itself than the intended plane. And so Tyler's tears are profuse.

"I'm throwing this away because it's all NOT GOOD."

And the tears.

Suddenly, all I can see is the rocket I tried to build so many years ago. The rocket I threw away.

So I pull Tyler onto my lap and I tell him the story of my wooden rocket, and how I thought it was so, so, so, so, SO bad. When I tell Tyler about what Bubba (my dad) did, and how the rocket sat proudly on my dad's workshop desk the next day, Tyler looks up at me through his own wet eyes.



I pick up Tyler's airplane and hold it in my hands. "To me, son, this is beautiful. I love it."

The thing is: Jen and Tyler and I went back home for a visit this past summer. After two years away from America, everything felt new again. The backyard in which I grew up playing kickball and building forts and going on various missions felt oddly soaked with mystery and joy and possibility again.

And when Jen and I and Tyler set ourselves up for a week in my parents' basement, I sauntered into my dad's old workshop.

There, on his work desk sat my wooden rocket. Its nails still offensively bent out at every angle, the paint still highlighting each mismatched side and each bubbling ball of glue.

For the part twenty-five years, my throwaway has been my dad's inspiration.

So often, we make the mistake of thinking that it is only our successes, the images of perfection in our heads, our achievements and our triumphs that are memorable and meaningful. And sometimes, these things are meaningful and memorable.

But sometimes, it's not the image in our heads that matters, but rather that imperfect practicality that works outward from our hearts to our hands. We believe in something, we go for it, we create it as best we can. And should we hold the authentic creation up in front of us and feel defeated because it doesn't match the perfect image, we might do well to remember that our throwaways could end up being someone else's prized visions.

W.B. Yeats wrote in his poem When You Are Old, "How many loved your moments of glad grace / And loved your beauty with love false or true. / But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, / And loved the sorrows of your changing face." I once recited these line to my wife, because I could find no better articulation of what love is. Real love concerns itself not with the perfections we find in one another or in our own creations. Real love is concerned with the pilgrim soul; real love is concerned with loving the wounds in one another, in ourselves, and in the stories we make and live.

25 years later, I am finally proud to close my eyes and see the image of that rocket I built--with its jagged edges and bent nails. Perfection wouldn't have been anywhere near as beautiful, or as memorable.

Today, may we seek to find the pilgrim souls in one another--to love each other not for the precision with which we think, live, or act--but because we've got our own host of jagged edges and bent nails. And may we seek to see our stories through the lens of the pilgrimage we're on rather than the distance between us and an image of success.

I'm thankful that I've now got a beautifully stapled, taped, and marker-drawn airplane on my desk to remind me.

Friday, March 15, 2013

What Binds Us Together

So a few weeks ago, on a particularly dreary early morning, I was doing the paper route while bemoaning a lack of sleep and a particularly annoying case of the runs. I made it halfway through the route--to house number 18 on a small cul-de-sac--and in the window near the front door I saw a very old woman, sitting in front of the morning news on her television.

As I came up to the door to push the newspaper--The Times--through the mail slot, she looked up at me. Clad in mismatched winter hat and gloves and stay-at-home-daddy-fleece pants and a large puffy coat on which I wore a bright florescent orange vest (the British marketing campaign for safety paramount), I smiled through the window at this 80-ish-year-old woman.

Through her thick glasses and early morning eyes, the woman broke into a smile.

So I smiled even wider back at her.

Then she smiled even wider back at me.

Poised in our small dance of ever-widening smiles, the day suddenly became brighter to me. My stomach even felt calmer.

And then I did what any 32-year-old-American paperboy-living-in-England-while-writing-and-daddying-and-teaching-night-classes would do: I gave the old woman a thumb's up.

She slowly raised her arm and gave a thumb's up right back at me.

And everything was going to be okay. I knew it. Margaret (the name of the lovely lady, I later learned) knew it, too.

Fast forward to this morning, and Tyler is on the paper route with me. The deal is: he can come on Friday and Saturday mornings because he doesn't have any pre-school on those days, and so the hour and a half walk doesn't exhaust him before a day of playing knights and castles and galloping with other four-year olds.

We made it halfway through the route, and then an absolute gem of a lady, Claire, comes running out of the Bed & Breakfast she and her husband, Bob, own (The Adams House B & B). Poised in each of her hands is a bacon sandwich: one for me, one for Tyler. We smile wide and thank Claire and Tyler looks up at this lovely lady and says, "It's delicious!" I repeat the words.

And when we're finished with the paper route, we make it back to the little corner store to drop off the florescent yellow bag (safety in florescence!) and Amid is behind the counter. Amid and I usually chat for five or ten minutes after I drop off the bag, but this morning he's particularly amused by Tyler's amazement at a Spiderman magazine on the front counter of the shop.


Amid laughs while Tyler swoons, and then Amid reaches into his pocket, pulls out the pound that the magazine costs, and says to Tyler, "Here you go, little man, I buy this for you. Okay? This good?"

Tyler looks back at Amid with the stunned shock of great joy. Then he looks up at me as if to say, Daddy, could this really be true? Could life be THIS amazing?

And I smile back at my son, then at Amid, and I think, Dang straight. It's true.

Because what binds us together isn't the fact that life is hard. Yes. Life is hard. Life is going to give us circumstances and situations and walls that we can't see past. Life is going to make us question ourselves and our dreams and our hopes. Life is going to sometimes mock us and laugh at us and hurt us and make us think that there's just no way we're going to be able to keep moving forward.

But that's not what binds us together.

From the pages of Crime and Punishment to Middlemarch to War and Peace to Things Fall Apart to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry to Okay for Now to Mockingbird to Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities--what binds us together as humans is the response of small kindnesses, little acts of courage, tiny decisions to help one another to keep moving forward.

From the small village of Orica, Honduras, to the big city of Moscow, Russia--from Marlborough, Massachusetts to Dehra Dun, India to Flagstaff, Arizona to York, England, what I have seen and what I know to be true is this: all of us are facing battles that we sometimes feel are too big for us. All of us are facing situations around which we can't always seem to wrap our hearts. But when one person--one single person--smiles at us with sincere kindness in their eyes, that battle becomes just a little bit easier.

When one single person gives us a thumb's up, or rushes out into a frosty morning with a bacon sandwich, or buys a Spiderman magazine--that battle suddenly becomes more clear, more manageable, more hopeful.

Because despair makes its living in a solitary way. Despair wins when we don't let others in--and when we don't reach out to others as well. Philo said it best when he exhorted: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is engaged in a battle." Jesus said it pretty dang well too when he said, "Love one another as you love yourself."

The small ways we show kindness to one another are what bind us together. These kindnesses can take the shape of seemingly insignificant acts--but each one wields a powerful blow to the wall of despair. Every tiny smile, every small nod of the head in belief and hope, every resistance to judge and mock another--these all translate to cracks in the walls life shows us. And as these cracks deepen and grow, the full force of hope is unleashed.

What binds us together isn't the very different, divergent ways we struggle against the pain of our lives. What binds us together is the small act of kindness that we give and receive. Though these acts of kindness may wear the mask of insignificance, in reality, they shake the very foundations of despair.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Finding Light

At the bottom of our little street there is a small wooded area known to us as The Magical Forest--namely because, well, it is magical. Prickers are really angry dragons whose chocolate has been stolen by desperate Chocolate Bandits (who only steal chocolate because they have never known the sublime sensation of receiving chocolate as a gift). A large broken tree that hangs down a few feet above the ground is actually a massive trampoline which can catapult a small boy as far as, say, the moon. And a low-looping branch is (of course) a Smoothie Rest Stop on the treacherous journey to the heart of the Magical Forest.

And all this is quite risky and marvelous and the Magical Forest grows and changes with each visit to its wonders. But a few weeks ago--down at the very edge and end of the Magical Forest--Tyler and I noticed a low branch from a tree which someone had pushed into the ground. It was a couple of inches in diameter, and whoever did the deed must have really worked at it.

And succeeded. The branch had been pushed directly into the ground, then covered with a fairly large rock, and then a long, heavy board had been laid across the branch and nailed to it and the base of other small trees nearby. In short: someone had ensured that this branch would grow straight into the ground. (Why someone did this escapes me.)

Tyler and I looked at the strange little experiment and we both wondered aloud what had happened to that branch.

"Daddy! Maybe the Dragons use it as their slide that goes straight into the ground and way way way way WAY to the middle of the earth!"

Tyler's hypothesis was a very good one. I nodded my agreement of this possibility. But then something magical happened in the Magical Forest. Something really magical. Super-duper MAGICAL.

Tyler stepped onto the branch that has been forcefully burrowed into the ground. When he did so, a tiny little thing with green buds on it two feet away moved. Tyler climbed down, and I asked him to do it again. And again: the tiny little thing two feet away moved.

We proceeded to do our own experiment--moving the branch in the ground as much as we possibly could, and each time, the little plant moved. Then, we went over the the little plant and pulled and prodded it and--Holy Crap!--the branch moved.

Deductive reasoning and a little bit of dirty fingernail digging unearthed the truth for us: that branch had said, essentially, I don't think so. That branch had remained underground for two long, hard, deep feet and then it had managed to break the soil and find the light.

Tyler and I discussed how the branch might have said exactly those words: I don't think so.

As a brave, bold knight would say them? I DON'T THINK SO.

As a climber of Mt. Everest must utter them, fighting back defeat and despair? I...don't...THINK...SO!

As an astronaut who has just glimpsed the moon through her tiny little rocket window? I don't THINK SO!

However the branch said these words to whoever forced it into the darkness of the ground, to the heavy rock that lay atop it, and to the board nailed in its path to light--the words came. And--man!--to have heard them.

Now, on each journey to the end and edge of the Magical Forest we make sure to spend a few moments with this most Magical of Branches. We shake, tenderly, both the branch and the plant and watch the reverberations travel along the two feet of hidden, dark growth. We point to the green buds that get bigger by the day, and we wonder at how marvelous the leaves will look when Spring finally announces that it's time.

And I know that many of us, pushed into the dirt by the circumstances of life, bearing heavy weights, often think that the darkness we might find ourselves in is it. That our chances at budding may be irrevocably lost or bound with the heaviness and pressure of nails.

There is a beautiful moment towards the end of George Eliot's Middlemarch when two characters--Dorothea and Rosamond--are meeting and the scene is set for revenge, hatred, bitterness, and despair to reign. Both parties have been deeply hurt and profoundly misunderstood. But then Dorothea decides on a different route: instead of burrowing further into the darkness she bulldozes the walls that stand between her and Rosamond. She shares with bold honesty and remarkable forgiveness all that is on her heart. And in the face of such courage, Rosamond, too, cannot maintain the grasp on her own bitterness and spite. It's at this poignant moment that Eliot writes, simply, "Pride was broken between them."

Pride was broken between them.

In the place of a bitter reluctance to renewal and hope, these two characters tear down the walls that divide them and they break out into open light. Instead of pride, they choose confidence. Instead of a haughty sense of comparison and competition, they choose cooperation and boldness moving forward.

Last night, in the Public Speaking class, each of 12 students shared the start to a speech called One True Thing. We talked about the need to break past the walls all around us--and to refuse and refute the lies of Shame, Fear, Despair, and Bitter Criticism by using bold, clear, and passionate voices to say what we believe.

And as I watched these 12 people of all different ages share their bold truths, I couldn't help but allow my eyes to do what they wanted to do: yup--tear up. I felt an incredible sense of gratitude for just being able to hear these voices. For watching these voices bud with the beautiful green of courage and hope and--in clear language--the I don't think so that the Magical Branch uttered.

Whatever darkness and dirt may be piled on top of you right now, may you hold to the hope that even after two feet of despair, the light may still be found. Reaching upwards, the opportunity to break ground and bud is there, waiting. And there are innumerable people waiting to see what kind of leaves you'll grow, and how--exactly--your voice will sound when you utter those beautiful, bold words, I don't think so.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Real Mt. Everest

Today began with deep sea diving and ended with a trek up Mt. Everest--and all without leaving the comfort of our pajamas. Earlier in the week, Tyler and I had taken the train to Hull (residence of famed abolitionist William Wilberforce) to go through the subatarium, The Deep. While there, we saw sharks, jelly fish, blue lobsters the size of Arizona, and wolf-eels.

(The wolf-eels were hands down the absolute most remarkable. They lurk, usually, on the sea floor and crunch crab shells for food. They're gentle giants, though. And they mate for life. When the mother births eggs, she wraps her 2-meter long body around the eggs to protect them. Then, the father wraps his body around the mother to protect her and the eggs.)

Since our visit to Hull, we've been exploring the deep sea worlds of our carpet (layered with a thick blue blanket on top, along with fish masquerading as bath toys). Today, we stood atop the couch, science goggles covering faces, and invisible air tanks on our backs, and leapt into the wonders of the ocean.

Roger Priddy's Fabulous Atlas for Kids
Later, after looking through a fabulous picture-book atlas by Roger Priddy, Tyler became fascinated with Mt. Everest. Some of his friends at school are from Nepal, and Tyler immediately began what would become the days; refrain.

"Daddy, can we go to Nepal and climb Mt. Everest right now?"

"Well, to get to Mt. Everest, we have to buy place tickets, and pack our bags, and then ride our bikes to the train station, and then get a train to the airport, and then fly to Nepal--so that will tale a loooooong time!"

"Well, let's start packing our bags then, Daddy!"

I thought for a bit and then said, "Hey, let's climb Mt. Everest in our imaginations--just like deep sea diving. Come on!"

We robed ourselves in winter coats and grabbed ice picks that looked an awful lot like tree branches. Still wearing pajamas (ahem, snowsuits), we pulled our sub-zero goretex boots on and made the long trek to the Nepal at the bottom of Lesley Avenue. We hiked through the treacherous pricker bushes (ahem, ice cliffs) and narrowly escaped the pokey broken branches (AVALANCHES!) until we finally made it to the peak.

I looked at Tyler with wide eyes and a big smile. "We made it, son!"

Tyler half-smiled, then looked back at me. "Okay, but Daddy." And there was something in that Daddy that was the seed of a deeper longing. Something far more expansive. Something far more challenging. Something far more...


"Since we already did the pretend mt. Everest, can we go home and pack our bags and ride our bikes to the train station and take a train to the airplane station and take a airplane to THE REAL MT. EVEREST?"

"Well, see, the REAL MT. EVEREST is so so so far away that we need to plan way ahead."

"Daddy, what does plan way ahead mean?"

"Plan way ahead means we have to think about it a lot, and have oxygen tanks, and real ice picks, and super big boots, and super big coats."

"But Daddy, I am not very big yet, so super big boots will go over my belly button!"

Our day progressed, and we managed to make it back down the other end of the street from Nepal to our kitchen. We ate a lunch of salad, mangoes, and wheat bread and butter. After lunch, Tyler looked up at me with a half-smile.

"Daddy, now that we ate SO MUCH FOOD, can we please please please go to the REAL MT. EVEREST?"

Tyler pushed his chair back form the table, jumped down, and proceeded to show me an array of varying skills and abilities.

"See, Daddy, I am SO STRONG and I have SO MUCH ENERGY because I can jump and run and even reach up almost to the top of the sky."

After discussing the difficulty of getting to the REAL MT, EVEREST at two o' clock on a Thursday afternoon to climb it, well, that afternoon, we decided to do some research. I showed Tyler the gear people wear when they hike Everest, and we printed out a picture of the mammoth mountain so that Tyler could gaze longingly at the towering beauty as it gazed back at him from his wall.

Before we hung up the picture, Tyler asked me if I could write something on it for him.

"Sure, my man, what shall I write?"

The REAL Mt. Everest

The picture now rests proudly on Tyler's wall, right above his bed. Tyler now sleeps soundly.

However silly and ignorant Tyler's desire to climb the tallest mountain in the world, it strikes me now that we all need a dose of that kind of silliness and ignorance. There's a beautiful line from the film Amazing Grace, based on the life of William Wilberforce, when a close friend, William Pitt, announces to Wilberforce that he wants to become prime minister. Wilberforce chuckles and says, "No one our age has ever taken power." To which Pitt responds, "Which is why we're too young to realize that some things are impossible."

Ah! To hold onto that innocence which still doesn't realize that some things are impossible. I think this kind of  holding-on is, possibly, the only real ally of authentic barrier breaking. When we're at the threshold between innocence and experience, we often make the mistake of thinking that to enter one is to leave the premises of the other.

Maybe not. Maybe there's a way to move forward into experience and learning and growth and reality without totally relinquishing the dreams of youth that maturity often associates with impossibility.

Jen and I often remark to one another that if we knew, in advance, what these three years in England would entail, we would have been hard pressed to make the same choice again. Would we really have given up everything and come across the pond literally broke if we didn't think a big pot of gold was soon waiting for us. (A few months at most, surely!)

Probably not. But then we would have missed the greatest adventure of our lives. We would have missed riding bikes in the pitch black night with tiny lights clipped on front and behind, Tyler riding in a bike trailer. We would have missed pulling our wheeled luggage the two miles back and forth to the grocery store to go shopping. We would have missed seeing that even without money, the greatest joy we have ever experienced is still possible. We would have missed feeling totally broken inside, and then waking up the next morning to find that what broke the night before was only the shell, and not the seed inside.

Will Tyler and I wake up tomorrow and book a flight to Nepal?

Maybe we'll put that particular dream on hold a few decades. But in the meantime, I hope to never be a father that says it's impossible. I want to be the kind of man who looks into the bright eyes of his son and says--unequivocally--you ever hike THE REAL MT. EVEREST and I'll be at your side.

Friday, February 15, 2013

One True Thing from My Dad, Harry Wilson Reynolds, III: A Spark Always Exists

Dad and Grandson Tyler
It's a fitting time to share One True Thing from my father, since being a paperboy has been recently on my mind. When I got that first paper route as a ten-year old, I remember one of the all-time highs of doing the thing (rivaling even the obscene amounts of candy-purchasing-power I now possessed) was Saturday morning breakfasts with my father. Instead of taking my bike around, as I did from Monday though Friday, on Saturday morning my dad would tell me to hop in his tiny 1982 Ford Escort, baby blue, and off we'd go. He would help me deliver the papers and when we were finished, we'd drive over to A.C. Peterson's Diner on the border of Hartford and Windsor, Connecticut.


Dad Snowblowing Nemo!
That word deserves its own paragraph because that's what my father and I built our relationship on. Pancakes. We would sit at A.C. Peterson's and eat mountains of pancakes with a huge ball of fresh butter in the middle and pure maple syrup streaming down the sides like avalanches off Everest. My dad would plunge a fork into his own thick stack and--bam!--literally a full quarter of the stack would disappear into his mouth. I still don't know how he managed to do it. He'd ask me about school, about writing, about what I thought of life. And each time his fork would plunge in I'd watch with a massive smile, waiting to see what correlation of syrup and butter and pancake would make the journey to his mouth.

On Sundays, throughout my childhood, my dad would cook his own pancakes in our home kitchen. He was a fixture by the stove--and as each of my four brothers and I would wake, and my mother, and when my grandparents arrived, my dad would stare out with wild, wonderful eyes and ask, "How many!"

Indeed, it was more a call to arms than a verifiable question.

What I appreciate most about my dad is his relentless enthusiasm for life. He's had to face some walls that I can't even imagine trying to scale, but every day he has woken up and tried to pass on to his five boys a sense of the wonder of life--the fact that we can hug one another, laugh with one another, noogie one another, fart (constantly) in front of one another, listen to one another, love one another.

When I was in high school, I did a creative writing project whereby I wrote 50 poems and then revised them and collected them into a small poetry book, called Eggs, Sunnyside Up. My dad read the thing and then, one Saturday afternoon, drive me into Hartford and brought me out for a cup of coffee at a place called Zuzu's, where we sat up in the loft and I tried to get used to the flavor of coffee while he told me how proud he was of me. Then he brought me to a print shop and together we chose a cover, font, style, size and he paid for thirty copies of the book to be printed up.

Dad and His Five Boys During a Camping Reunion Trip
Many years ago, during my first year of being a high school English teacher, there came a point where I just felt like I had nothing left. I had a stack of essays to grade and I'd already put them off long enough. Now it was Sunday, and I had promised--promised!--my students that I would have them back on Monday no matter what. The problem was, this particular Sunday I could barely get out of bed, let alone conceive of grading 26 five-page essays.

My father drove thirty miles to meet me at a local coffee shop--Lasalle's--and sat with me for five hours as I relentlessly graded the things. Everytime I looked up at him with weary eyes that said--I can't do this job, let alone grade these essays--my dad would walk over to the free refill station and grab me another cup of joe, then place it in front of me. "Come on, Lukie-babes, you got this. Yes! Caffeine it! I put extra cinnamon in there, Luke--you got this!"

Dad and Tyler and I in Summer 2010
And, as often happens when my father comes out with his phrases that arise from his deep enthusiasm for life, I had to smile. My father must have gotten me about twelve cups of coffee that day (and pancakes were a part of the meeting earlier, to be sure). And he made sure to sit across from me until I finished.

In this life, we all face walls that we wish we didn't have to. We all come up against circumstances that we wish we could change. My father has faced a lot of those. But he's always chosen to keep going at it--to keep pouring another cup of coffee and look for a way to find some enthusiasm (or at least invent some strange new phraseology). That's the big lesson I hold onto from my father: don't quit, and while you're not quitting, drink a heck of a lot of coffee and pile your pancakes high.

Without further rambling from me, One True Thing--poetry style--from my dad.

A Spark Always Exists
By Harry Wilson Reynolds, III

Once, when the first snow came,
I saw with wonder
The small tracks.
Sprinkled across the ground,
Like small jewels cast aside,
By a thoughtless Giant.
As I grew
I saw only muddy tracks,
The need to shovel paths,
Jobs to be done,
And the ever insistent song of belonging.
As my step grew slow,
My mind churned unceasingly:
Things that had gotten away,
Magic that had died,
Names of things that I could not remember.
Dead light
Bathed me daily,
Whispering the lost song of life,
Stealing my last gasp.
The promise of redemption,
Just out of reach,
Haunts my every thought.
The journey continues
Along a familiar path,
Worn low by replicated desires,
Demon friends that encourage,
Sameness that blankets the night.
Somewhere in that maelstrom
A spark of me exists,
To be blown to life
Amid the rubble of life's hardness,
It's disappointment,
It's stolen expectations.