Be a spark or get tossed

Sometimes we get into a cleaning, sorting, trashing, unloading kind of frenzy when we’re feeling burdened by stuff and stuff’s attraction, demands, care and maintenance. 

When Sue Ellen hits full frenzy fury, I chain myself to a post to make sure I’m not tossed into a box subconsciously labeled “of no further use,” or as an item that “no longer sparks joy,” in Marie Kondo’s terminology. 

Some few things have outlasted every purge in our 44 years together. Thankfully, I’m one of them. 

But this week Oskar died. 

Oskar was a small food chopper and came as a wedding gift in 1975. It endured several super glue fixes in recent years before finally throwing up its blades and sighing, “Please no more nuts, carrots, celery for salads, or styrofoam bars to make snowflakes for kids’ plays.”

When we think of “things” that have lasted the duration of our lives together, now that Oskar is gone, we can name three. 

First is a sleeping bag I bought when I got out of the Army. Mine was to be a wild and free life after the olive drab constraints Uncle Sam put upon me. That sleeping bag, and a tent that turned out to be a portable rain forest, so impermeable it turned my moist breath into morning showers, along with a 1964 International Scout that had a mind of its own, were my tickets to adventure. 

I still use the bag. 

We married while I was still finishing my degree at Oklahoma Baptist University. Summers were stifling and neither our apartment nor our car had air conditioning, so we bought a Gott cooler and a bigger tent and spent many weekends at the lake. 

We still use the cooler

It often carries goodies as we travel to see our children, none of whom were conceived at the lake. Every time we pack it up, I marvel that it has been with us for so long. Yet, it still regulates the temperature of the items it contains, like the thermos I once gave a secretary. When I saw her using it the next day she told me she appreciated its capacity to keep hot things hot and cold things cold. 

I asked her what she had in it today. “Coffee and a popsicle,” she said. 

Sue Ellen was just 20 when we married. She worked at a bank and had her own apartment after moving out from a home with six siblings, and had neither time nor money to accumulate much of a trousseau. But she had started her dish collection of the then popular Yorktowne pattern from Pfaltzgraff. 

For 21 years, these were our “good” dishes, pulled out to impress company and only after the kids were old enough to know dishes were not suitable as heavy Frisbees. When my mom died we inherited her china, which became our company dishes, and the Pfaltzgraff became our everyday dishes. 

Funny how the exceptional loses its aura when pressed into common use. 

The Pfaltzgraff is heavy, and hard to spell. We can always peg the length of a friends’ marriage within a year or two if they feed us on Yorktown pattern Pfaltzgraff. 

Sometimes we look at new dishes, brightly colored, modern patterns, disposable. They might brighten up the kitchen table and provide a fresh perspective. But, they wouldn’t hold our food any better.

I confess I hold this feeling much more closely than does my wife, but there is something endearing and enduring about the consistency of an everyday implement that has been part of our lives together – every day. Not temporary, not disposable. Just consistent. Present. Available. Useful. Non-demanding. 

There is a fourth thing that we brought to our marriage, but it is more intangible. We each brought a part, insufficient of itself, but required for the whole – like the final spark plug required to make a dead engine roar to life. 

That, of course, is love. Our love for each other, a love we thought fuller and richer in the first blush of our infatuation than ever known by previous humans. Yet, it has grown with time into intimacy, interdependence, tolerance, forgiveness, adoration and the mystery of oneness into a force to overcome many an onslaught. 

When my mother died in 1996, my dad stood in the window as the hearse pulled away, kissed his hand and put it to the glass. I know our birth canal opens toward death, but dad’s slide toward the inevitable started in earnest that day. Losing mom wasn’t just grief for dad. It was an amputation. 

They had been married 47 years. I’m older than dad was at mom’s death and when I survey my environment, the accumulation of things around me and consider those few things that have been with Sue Ellen and me our entire lives together, it’s easy to dismiss the sleeping bag, the cooler and the dishes. 

The one constant that matters for 44 years has been my partner, my heart, my life. We’re closer now to the end than to the beginning, but every day still dawns a treasure. 

Happy anniversary, Sue Ellen. 

You won’t regret it, if you live

Next to a 5,000 lb. bale of cotton in eastern North Carolina

I ride a bike. A lot. I’m within spitting distance of 5,000 miles this year. 

Some days on the bike are sheer joy. Like when the wind is at your back, the sun on your shoulders, fields’ fertile pheromones filling your senses as you flitter by, cars giving you a wide berth and hitting 45 mph on a nice downhill and you’re smiling so much you get bugs in your teeth.

Some days are agony. Getting caught in a cold rain, or dark descending before you get home, or a friend crashing or another idiot throwing his Dairy Queen cup out his truck window at you makes you glad to reach your own garage.

But when I get home safe and sound, my skin tingling, my legs gorged with blood, every sense in heightened alert I’m always glad I went. Witnessing my children and grandchildren at the moment they learned to defeat gravity with that one extra push of the pedal to stay upright, stick out among my happiest memories. 

I remember the day I learned to ride.

I must have been 8 or 9 years old. We had no bike at home and we lived in the country where I never really saw cyclists, so it wasn’t like I lived longing to swing my leg over a bike saddle. That is, until we were visiting some family friends who lived in a tiny town and all of Richard’s buddies and him were zipping around the neighborhood like cowboys around their herd. 

On a bridge over the New River near Todd, NC

They weren’t shackled to the picnic table listening to the adults chatting. My sisters were talking boys or playing dolls with Richard’s sisters and I was going to have a long, boring, lonely day if I couldn’t latch onto the guys on their bikes. 

As much as I was intimidated by their easy rider skills, I ventured that it would be better to risk and fail than to consign myself to the outside looking in. Because the Almes had lots of kids, there was a spare bike and Richard encouraged me to come with him. 

Not having yet adopted the mantra “fake it ‘til you make it,” I confessed I didn’t know how to ride. “We’ll show you,” he said. And they did. 

I think the potential embarrassment of failure prompted my determination to succeed and I knew they didn’t intend to waste their afternoon teaching me a skill they were itching to employ. So, within probably 20 minutes, I was gallivanting around the neighborhood with all the vigor, confidence and windblown thrills of the gang. 

My legs still tingle remembering that critical moment of revelation when I trusted Richard and pushed the pedal one more time as I was about to fall over, instead of putting my leg out to catch myself. Risk, push, success. 

In a moment, I went from a near knee-scraped, broken-armed failure to being a rider. That day remains one of my favorites. I rode the wheels off that thing and when the other boys went home, I didn’t want to stop riding. 

And now, many of my favorite memories involve a bike. Riding with my kids and grandkids, RAGBRAI, hitting 50 mph down a hill, organized charity rides with friends, packing a clean jersey and a pair of shorts and riding for six days to the North Carolina coast, watching the fields we pass regularly transition from fallow to plowed to planted to harvested. 

A bike will take you to places, at a pace, you simply can never achieve on foot because you can’t go far enough or behind the wheel of a speeding vehicle because you can’t go slow enough. On a bike you’ll smell the teeming, loamy fields and the fresh cut grass – and people’s dryer sheets – and feel the warm womb of a wet breeze that heralds a coming storm.  

Deer won’t know whether to dart in front of you or hang by the ditch. Kids on porches wave and shout as you pass. And car-bound mortals fuming at stoplights as dusk falls shake their heads behind headlights and windshield wipers and mutter insults at the women who gave birth to such crazy guys in garish garments.

Still, any day on the bike is better than a day on the computer at which I write this. I concur with Mark Twain, who said, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.”

The wisdom of Bill

I was facing a big life decision recently so I went again to talk with my friend Bill. He’s the strong, silent type and a great listener but when he speaks, his voice always slices like a knife of insight through the goop clouding my thinking.

Bill’s place is very comfortable; shady with a great view of nature from where he rests – woodlands, pastures and now a large stand of loblolly pines that one day will be harvested. I laugh with him to think that when those trees are cut, people that have been driving by them for a generation are going to gripe and complain that the forest was cut down in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

They won’t remember the trees were planted 20 years earlier specifically as a cash crop to benefit the work of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where Bill grew up, and lived and worked most of his career.

I can hear him chuckling and shaking his big ol’ head, rubbing the bald pate once forested with hair. The more time I’ve spent with Bill the more I realize he’s always understood people at a level much deeper than his easy-going nature typically revealed. He’s not snowed by the self-important preening of others who gathered around his table, even when it looks on the surface like he takes their words at face value.

I tell Bill how much I appreciate him, how he and his wife, Louise, took us in and showed us the ropes when I started working where he worked. I was a generation younger, in a higher “position” on the organizational chart and from another part of the country. None of that mattered, only that we respected each other, each worked hard and we all loved our children.

Bill doesn’t say much, but I know he cares. But, I digress.

I told Bill about the decision I faced. Comfort is cool; change is hard. His expression was stone cold, waiting for me to continue. The more I told him, the more I heard myself talking it through, the more it became clear which direction I should take.

I just chuckled. He’s always like that now, waiting for me to talk it through between us, without saying anything, knowing that eventually I’ll make the right decision.

With that out of the way, I tell him I know that he and Louise are enjoying their time back together again after several years apart, due to circumstances beyond their control. I catch him up on the kids, and sense his pride in them, as he’s proud of every kid who grew up at Baptist Children’s Homes, also due to circumstances beyond their control.

Bill acts as if he has all the time in the world, and I’m reluctant to leave him, but…life goes on. I thank Bill for his time and wisdom, rise to my feet, brush the fallen oak leaves from his headstone, and close the gate to God’s Acre behind me.

Thanks again, Bill. You’re always there for me.

Caught from behind

Basketball shot

We trailed the Fall River Pirates by 14 points with just six minutes left in the fourth quarter of a high school basketball game. Everybody beats this team, and we had too, earlier in the season.

Yet, we were getting creamed. Their fans were rocking. Ours were bewildered. My team finally put together a little rally to unveil a glimmer of hope. I was a starter, but not a star. I could shoot the ball, but as my coach told me, “You may not be tall, but you’re slow.”

The ball bounced off the opponent’s rim and I had a clear path to the rebound. I took it on the run and dribbled as hard and fast as I could the length of the floor toward our basket. Somehow a defender was there, between me and the basket. I should have slowed, faked left and gone right to the rim for a layup.

But, I didn’t dare slow down to make a move, because I was terrified of being caught from behind.

Our senior point guard could catch people from behind and knock the ball out of their hands and I always thought the guy who lost the ball must have been totally humiliated. Caught from behind. How awful. How embarrassing.

Instead, I dribbled right at the defender, and elevated to the apex of my 4-inch vertical, and shot the ball in his face. As any athlete can tell you, certain moments burn themselves into memory like a hot poker writing script on your belly, and you can recall them as if they happened after breakfast this morning.

I remember that shot because when I went up, the only thing I saw was a floating rim: no backboard, no bleachers, no lights, no ceiling, no defender. Just a big rim floating independently above me. I released the ball and fell down. I didn’t even know if I’d made the shot.

That moment returned to me last weekend during a mandatory quiet period at a four-day men’s retreat. The overall theme of the retreat – a “basic” event through Ransomed Heart ministries – was recovering a man’s masculine heart.

Speakers assumed every man carries with him at some level a wound inflicted by his father, a wound we must identify and forgive before we can be whole. After another thoughtful presentation, we were sent out to find a quiet spot at our expansive, wooded conference center to contemplate several questions relating to both our earthly and heavenly fathers, and our own willingness to grow into sons.

We were to consider the questions, “Where do you feel unfathered?” and “Where and how is your Father inviting you to become a son?”

“Since we are the sons of God, we must become the sons of God,” according to George McDonald.

I don’t know how those questions prompted the spirit of God to impress upon me the 48 year-old-memory of that rebound, race and shot moment, but the ultimate revelation for me is that I’ve lived my life afraid of being caught from behind.

It’s why I worked so hard, so long, at so many tasks, in so many places. It’s why I bit my tongue and choked down insights, information or contradictions I should have offered, rather than risking the opprobrium of my bosses, or peers.

It’s why I actually told W.C. Fields, my first and best boss in denominational life, that I was too busy to accept his invitation to ride with him in his glide plane on a beautiful spring afternoon. Dumb. One of my few regrets.

I had not learned to live into my position as a son of God, bold and free with a warrior spirit.

John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart and the amazing Beautiful Outlaw, says a man’s greatest need is validation. I was too afraid someone was going to catch me from behind and expose me as insufficient, not enough, inadequate. If so, from where would come my validation?

Of course, the point is that all the validation a man or woman needs is to recognize we are children of God. No one can catch me from behind when the Father is reaching for my hand to pull me over the finish line.

I made that shot by the way. And we went on to win in double overtime.

Sometimes you hit a wall

beach tideWhen the ocean is warm, I like to wade toward the waves from the shallow edge of the beach, my feet scratching a hold into the sandy bottom, feeling the water slide around my ankles, then shins, then knees. About the point when it gets really sensitive, I have to decide whether to keep walking toward London, or jump in headfirst and get soaked all at once.

If I dive in, I come up sputtering and shaking the water from my eyes. If I decide to keep walking, I lift my shoulders as if I can tiptoe past the sensitive and somehow get soaked without getting wet.

When I’ve reached water about waist depth, I can pause and enjoy, feeling the ebb and flow of the ocean, rolling to the beach to fill the little sand castle moats built by kids with red plastic shovels, and then drag them flat. When I turn to do a little body surfing, or at least to challenge the waves a little further out, I fight the water’s resistance, plodding resolutely forward where the surf breaks.

That is where the short walls of water curl up, spitting little white caps, and burst over me, whacking me backward and I have to retrace a couple steps just to get back to where I was.

In a windy spring season like this one, cycling sometimes feels like those days in the waves. Invisible walls of wind roll out from the horizon and buffet me. Side winds are most dangerous as they can make me wobble and lean the wrong direction at a most inopportune time.

Leaning over the handlebars, trying to carve a lane through the curtain of steady wind, a sudden burst hits me with every bit the force of a wave of water. It doesn’t knock me backward, but it feels like my wheels suddenly rolled into a vat of mush and I have to grind on the pedals to regain momentum.

Sometimes my daily news feed hits me like that.

Learning this week about the suicides of two young people who had survived the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February 2018 hit me like that blast of wind. In the same day, I learned the father of a child who had been slaughtered at Newtown had taken his own life after six years of dealing with his awful pain. Combine that with news of a dear friend whose life is suddenly upside down and my typically stoic countenance flipped onto its back, as well.

How much can we feel? How wide an opening should we tear in our hearts to absorb the world’s pain, in the vain belief that by doing so, we can somehow soothe it?

Much, if not most, of the information that hurts, enrages, mystifies, baffles and saddens would have passed unknown to us a half generation ago. But now, we know. With how much of what we know, can we engage? I don’t have the capacity to empathize with all the sadness of which I’m aware.

Yet, I want to share the pain of those I love because sharing is a salve that hurries the healing of open wounds. I want my ears to absorb their sorrows and my shoulders to offer pillows of comfort.

But, a hurting world is too much. Its pain is a flood. If I allow each swell of sorrow to whack me like a wave of wind or water, I’ll never move forward.

Each of us has capacity to care. None of us can carry the burdens of the world. Nor should we feel we must.

Because social media and news outlets pour into our senses a steady stream of pain, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, says too many pastors –those called to care –are “a quivering mass of availability.”

What to do? I’ll not cloak myself in a curtain of despair because I know that God loves His creation – so much so that He took on the form of man to help us understand the depth of that love.

Rather than be paralyzed by any tide of tears, I will try to let myself be moved only by those things about which I can do something.

And then, I will do something.

 

 

 

 

Foxes lurk outside school hen houses

Each Monday I go to a local elementary school to be a reading buddy for a second grader named Patrick.

Patrick’s school is in the part of town I don’t drive through without locking my doors. It anchors blocks populated with old, wounded cars parked half onto the sidewalks in front of old, weary houses.

Girls who look too young to wear makeup walk around broken pavement with a baby on their hip. There are no shops and no grocery stores on this side of the freeway, which slices the neighborhood off from a prosperous urban center like a cleaver through spareribs.

This morning in the media center I selected four books about farm animals. Most city kids think milk comes from the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, or that chocolate milk comes from black cows, and that McDonald’s whips up chicken in the back room.

We talked about pigs and cows, chickens and eggs. Roosters and hens. When I couldn’t recall what the thick red hangy-down thing is under a rooster’s neck, I looked it up on my phone. I actually googled “hangy-down thing on a chicken” and it came up “wattle.” Of course. Patrick laughed delightedly and repeated, “wattle.”

Chickens on the farm live in a coop, our little book said. Pictures showed a coop on wheels inside a fence. It said the farmer moved the coop daily to give the birds access to fresh grass and more bugs.

What the book didn’t say was the coop gets moved so that chicken droppings continually fertilize new areas. Hey, I grew up around farming.

The little book introduced hens and roosters and eggs and chicks. And then, it introduced a full page, bright colored rooster, with a bright red wattle, screaming lungs out at a fox, lurking on the edge of the fence.

“Why is the rooster so upset?” I asked Patrick.

“Because the fox eats meat, and chickens are meat.”

And, because we read about dinosaurs last week, he reminded me that people are meat too. Like meals on wheels for dinosaurs.

Then Patrick made a simple observation that caused me to pause and cringe. The rooster screaming “cock a doodle doo” to the others in the coop “was like lockdown at school” he said. Matter of factly. Like saying, “I got a drink from the bubbler.”

His principal was like the rooster, shouting a warning and getting everyone into a safe position. Who knows who the fox represents. Someone hungry for meat. Someone anxious to see chickens flying and flopping around, feathers torn and floating through the air. Someone thrilled by the pierce of screams, who licks his lips on the taste of terror.

It was the simple directness of his statement that struck me. “Like lockdown.”

As the rooster is alert to an encroaching fox, the principal is alert to the possibility of a shooter in her elementary school. Alert to a fox. In the henhouse.

And Patrick, who comes to school with all his friends to learn reading and writing and math so he can grow into an independent, self-sufficient adult, is forced to learn also that foxes lurk outside his coop.

And they are hungry.

 

Climb a tree

Farm winter

The uppermost pine tree provided a new perspective on a familiar world to a boy willing to take a risk and climb to the top.

A newly enhanced, freshly framed aerial photo of the Wisconsin farm on which I grew up now adorns a bookshelf in easy view. Of course, every time I look over at it, I’m struck with an indistinct nostalgia.

Aerial photos are nothing now, with the advent of drones making common what once was a rare perspective. But this winter view of the farmhouse and out buildings where I roamed, explored, risked and discovered was unusual in the 1970s.

Entrepreneurial pilots provided such shots. They got them by leaning out windows with their cameras, and then taking the pictures to the farms they’d photographed to try and sell them to the farmer. Judging from the aerial photos I saw hanging in the kitchens of my friends, the pilot/photographers were adept at making the sale.

One of the features in the aerial photo of my home place is a row of very tall pine trees, forming a windbreak on the west side of the buildings. They were very, very tall trees when I was a kid. Now, they’re just tall.

Limbs on one of these trees grew almost like a spiral ladder, making it easy to climb. I scurried up that tree often and each ascent lifted me to a new perspective. Oh, not as dramatic as the aerial photographer provided, but still, a new look at a familiar world.

As I got older and braver, and my experiences at lower heights confirmed my ability to climb higher, I ventured onto the thinner limbs above me. These limbs were not as strong or secure. I didn’t feel supported and when the wind blew, the top part of the tree to which I clung swayed.

I wondered if it could support my weight, or if the thin trunk here would snap under me. I actually wondered sometimes if the lower branches would break my fall or even stop me from hitting the ground, or if they would break under my accelerating body mass should I plummet toward the ground.

I was nervous, yes, because I was clinging to an uncertainty. Yet the certainty learned from previous experience lay beneath me, just a step away.

Of course, mom and dad didn’t know I was climbing this high in the old pine tree. They did know I climbed it to a “safe” height. I built a tree house in it that I proudly showed them. But if they knew I was climbing so high, they would have been very nervous, and might even have forbidden me to do it. Or, they might have encouraged it.

That’s how we learn, isn’t it? By how we stretch the boundaries of what we know, of what we can be certain? By taking a risk?

It’s safe to learn to ride a bike when dad is running beside you with his hand on the seat. But you’re never actually riding a bike until he lets go.

It’s safe to learn to swim in deep water with mom’s hand under your belly. But you’re never actually swimming, until she lets go and you kick and paddle your way to the side, discovering on the way, that you no longer need to fear water.

You learn it’s safe to jump across the creek because wading at the edge taught you it’s not very deep anyway, and if you fall in, you’ll only get wet.

You learned to climb a ladder because you climbed a stepstool. You learned to pull yourself up on the monkey bars because daddy held you up at first. You take risks based on confidence achieved at a lower level.

We need to let our kids take risks.

I know, danger lurks around every corner in a parent’s mind. To let them risk climbing a tree might result in a broken arm. To risk learning to ride can result in a scraped knee.

But the alternative is a clinging, insecure child who will not venture out of sight of his parents. Translated to an insecure adult who will never reach for opportunities the next limb higher.

Let’em ride fast down the hill, jump the creek, camp in the back yard, run ahead of you on the hiking trail, attend the college out of state. You can’t protect them from every risk. You don’t want to.

Let’em climb a tree.