Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Being a 32-Year-Old Paperboy-Man-Dad-Writer-Teacher

Exactly twenty-two years ago I earned the first job of my life: I would deliver 18 newspapers to our neighbors on Alcott Drive and nearby Brewster Road in Windsor, Connecticut for the now-defunct Journal Inquirer. [Note: even though I often delivered the papers later than required, I don't think I played any hand in the newspaper offices shutting down ten years later).

I was ten years old. I was excited. After all, I'd be making my very own money for the first time, necessarily precipitating (and sustaining) the momentous occasion of being able to ride my bike to the local gas station and purchase obscene amounts of candy without asking my mom for money. In the life of a ten-year old, this is huge.

In the life of a thirty-two year old? Not so huge.

In fact, kind of small. Tiny, rather. Miniscule. Microcosmic. Shameful?

So three weeks ago, I got a phone call from the corner store near the home we rent in York, England. Two and a half years ago, when we first made the leap to give away all our possessions, leave jobs, switch roles, and relocate across the Atlantic Ocean (how's that for subtle, slow change?) I saw a sign in the window of this corner store. The sign said BOYS AND GIRLS NEEDED FOR PAPER ROUTES. But we were newly expatriated, broke, confused, and I was slowly realizing that thinking along the lines of quick-book publication-to-sustain-family-making-crazy-leap wasn't exactly a healthy, sane, reasonable, or in any way bright way to think about life.

So, while we figured things out [ahem, continue to do so] and while I enjoyed being a stay-at-home father and writer, I saw the need for a little [ahem: microcosmic] money to help the cause. I figured I could deliver the newspapers before Tyler woke in the mornings and still be ready to go for a day of Lollipop walks, riding swings on various playgrounds, Finding-dog-poopies-walks, and endless reading of truly delightful picture books. [note: picture books are divine. All books are divine. but picture books are especially divine because my son and I both appreciate their awesomeness at the same exact moment.]

The thing is, the corner store never called back.

Until two and a half years later. At which point, Jen and I had talked at length about what God's been teaching us along this seemingly-crazy journey, numerous books have been written and revised and written and revised with great passion and hope and (yes, sometimes) gritting of the teeth. At which point I'd read some of the best novels of my life (Wuthering Heights, Okay for Now, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Middlemarch), and at which point Brene Brown's incredible research and challenge in Daring Greatly had come to present itself to Jennifer and I.

In choosing to do something that doesn't make sense and doesn't follow the arc of what's expected, we--all of us--open ourselves up to criticism. We open ourselves up to the notions that maybe we're making a big mistake. That maybe we're making problems for other people, messing with the Status Quo when the Status Quo would much rather be left alone, thank you very much.

Jen and I have certainly encountered those moments where we'd look at each other and wonder, "Did we really need to give away all that awesome stuff? Remember the drying machine! The DRYING MACHINE!" And during these crisis-type moments, we usually did what any sane, wise couple would do: we scrounged for loose change and bought a bag of Cool Ranch Doritoes and a beer to split. Or, rather, we closed our eyes and prayed, and challenged and encouraged one another, and reminded ourselves that anything different or new isn't easy. It's not supposed to be.

And usually after those moments of crisis, we'd come to another realization: we don't want it to be easy. We want to grow. We want to learn. We want to see life from a different perspective. We want to consider totally different narratives--both for our own tiny family, and for the larger family of which we're all a part. We want to crack the shell of those words Jesus said--love your neighbor as you love yourself--and touch and taste what's inside. We want to ask why not? more than we ask why? And more than anything else, we want to learn what hope looks like when its face is pushed into the dirt. [note: Hope's face doesn't have to be ground into the dirt, does it? let's not get too carried away.]

And so, on my first day of being a 32-year-old paperboy-man-dad-writer-teacher, I loaded thirty newspapers into a brightly reflective yellow bag on which the words THE DAILY TELEGRAPH were splayed. I walked the route that first morning with a sense of hope, even fun. And then, pushing the crosswalk button after I'd finished, I saw a teenager finishing her route too. She even had a matching reflective yellow bag like I did!

Cool! Thinking we'd have that instant job-sharing connection, I smiled wide and tossed a hearty, "Morning!" her way.

And that's when it suddenly descended: the shame. She smirked first, then looked towards the ground in utter disbelief. I realized then what I must have looked like to her: a guy in his thirties with a stubbly beard working as a....newspaper carrier? For real?

And there are moments when all of our lofty goals and assertions sometimes turn back towards us and become our accusers. Moment even when our dreams turn to face us, lift their fingers, and say, You really thought so? For real?

Did we really think coming to England two-and-a-half years ago with no money and changing family roles and knowing no one was going to be easy?


Did we think it was going to be as hard as it felt that particular morning?


But then something amazing happened. Something magical. Something miraculous. (Usually, these kinds of events happen just after the moment when everything you've fought for and believed in tends to suggest that Possibility has taken a permanent vacation).

It snowed. It snowed massively, so that a week into my new paper-route job, I was led to drag a cart with triple-sized Saturday morning papers from door-to-door amidst freezing temperatures. Was I grumpy? yes. was I wondering what it was all for? Yes.

Until I looked back along the sidewalk and my wife and my son were walking towards me. I mean my wife and my son. There they were, holding hands, walking towards the third door of the route, twenty-seven papers left to go. My four-year-old boy grabbed that metal cart alongside my own hand, and my wife grabbed the other side. "We'll do it together today," Jen told me, with a look in her eyes that blew every notion of failure or mockery or impossibility to smithereens.

And that Saturday, we did the paper route as a family. We dragged that cart through the ice and the snow of the roads, yes, but also through the ice and the snow of my own heart.

Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly that when shame strikes we need to say in reply. "This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are no the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame." God says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, "My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness." And my four-year old boy says, "We can do it, Daddy! Come on!"

The beauty of all of these words is that they are not results-driven. They're not about the end product of success or failure--but rather they're about the singular decision to get up and keep going.

Three years ago, I used to wake up and put on an ironed shirt and tie, ironed trousers, and grab a leather satchel filled with student essays and notes for important upcoming meetings. I used to have a binder with PhD coursework for a program at Boston College.

Today, this morning, I did a paper route. I passed by teenagers who aren't much different that the ten-year-old boy that still, sometimes, makes his voice known inside of me.

The trajectory of this character arc could, possibly, be markedly seen as failure. If this life were the stock market? Forget about it.

But when I examine what this experience has been about--what's it's taught me and my wife and our son--there's no way I would trade these last two and a half years for anything. Because, see, there are many other moments like that snowy Saturday morning. There are so many other moments when everything seemed lost or impossible, and then Hope would break through and prove that despair and criticism and fear have no permanent place. They're squatters.

With six months to go on this crazy England journey, I think it's possible to characterize one of the biggest lesson I have been learning in a single line: what matters more than anything else is the way we embody love towards one another. It's more important than all our credentials, all our achievements, and all our significance.

Whatever you face in your life right now, may you face it with the quiet certainty that the love within you is stronger than the circumstances outside of you. And if you need a reminder of this truth, I highly suggest a stint as a 32-year-old paper carrier.