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.