Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Long and Winding Road

January 7, 2012.

If you’re counting in time, it was a year and a half ago. If you’re counting in life, it was forever. That’s the day Rayner texted me from the darkened cold of a road trip bus ride and said, “I’m done. I can’t play here any more.” A few days later he had withdrawn from college (“It’s too expensive for you, Mom, if I’m not playing basketball.”) and moved back home. To work. To wait.

You know those Hollywood movies when people do things on principle and then 45 minutes later everything has rolled neatly into place? This wasn’t like that. It was grueling—a 22 month five day trek through highs that collapsed and lows that found new bottoms. There were coaching calls and workouts, an injury, mixed signals, mind-blowing serendipity that led absolutely nowhere and then one day when it was over; when the fat lady had sung and he was moving on to a different life, a really good coach appeared, and saw him and paid for a flight to Arizona and said, “I’ve been waiting for you. How bout coming to Phoenix?”

And so he did. He put on a red shirt and wore dress pants on the bench and practiced and encouraged and became part of a crew of brothers. He also dug deep in life. Took an ax to the root of a few weeds, made peace, found a mentor for life.  And then as the good part was about to get going, it ended. The coach was gone and so was he. Just. Like. That.

He went to Europe with one of those brothers—a gift as unexpected as if someone had handed him a fistful of bills. Saw old things, made new friends, traveled by the skin of his teeth and the timetable of a Europass. And then flew back to reality.

He came home and made a hasty decision because what else could be done when you needed to get a degree and make sure it was paid for and in as little time as possible? Lightning would never strike twice. There would be no miracle and was that even a miracle anyway because look how it turned out. The days grew longer and darker and when it looked, once again, like this journey was over, someone struck a match.

An old friend said, “C’mon. Come play with me.”

Play. He had forgotten about that part.

The grind of day in and day out, hours and hours alone in a gym will do that to you. Toil and disappointment and maybe you were never any good because why is it taking so long. But what if it was just that you had forgotten how to play?

And so he packed up his car and oriented his yankee compass south from Free State Ground Zero. Through geography and Spanish moss he drove into history, believing he was heading for joy, only to arrive at the heart of his darkness. Deepest sorrows coiling round; despair and doubt nipping at his heels.

If not for those 22 months he might have given in. Packed up his tent and called it a day. Instead, tonight he’ll step onto a wooden floor, all 6 feet 4 inches and 200 pounds of him, proudly wearing the number of the #original44. Forgetting the years when he didn’t play, wouldn’t grow, couldn’t see. 

Into my heart’s night along a narrow way I groped; and lo! the light, an infinite land of day.    --Rumi

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

In the Land of the Living

Today is my birthday.

Since I’m the sort of person who refuses to go out for a birthday dinner unless I’ve been assured that no waiter will sing, announcing a natal day (even to my small but awesome group of readers) is a dramatic shift in behavior for me.

But this morning I woke up with faces in my head – some still in my life and others long since drifted away. I thought about my children, my parents, sisters, lovers, friends young and old. I thought of people I’ve known for decades and what a deep and abiding privilege it is to see the length of a life. And I thought of others with whom I’d spent a day and the way I remember things they said, how their words were often keys I needed to get through the next gate.

I recall those who left wounds, and how wounds turned into scars and scars into lessons and lessons into love that I could freely give away. And I thought about the people I’d hurt—in ignorance or fear, insecurity or worry—the way I handled hearts carelessly, mostly when I was young, but sometimes when I was older and oh so broken. How fervently I pray grace on these tender souls; healing and second chances for those I’ll see again, and mercy for those who must wait until we meet in another life.

I think of people I’ve never met face to face and how the World Wide Web first introduced me to kindred spirits 18 years ago on a chat list from Prince Edward Island. How it continues to this day, my Twitter and Facebook feeds spinning straw into gold, philosophy into friends, concepts into conversations and lonely moments into life rafts.

And I thought of these words, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.”

I used to think the miracle was that the treasure—the Creator, the Holy, the Kingdom of Heaven—chose to dwell in humans who were the stuff of earth.  But is the miracle not bigger than this? Isn’t the real miracle the way that we become the treasure and the stuff of heaven? The way we believe in love even when it makes no sense? In kindness, though we’ve been proven wrong? In the bus’s arrival when there’s not a cloud of dust on the horizon?

And once we see this way, the world is forever changed. Then we say in time, as Emily said in eternity, “Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?”

Not every minute, nor even every day.

But today? Oh yes. And for that gift, you people of my heart, I am so grateful.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Small Flashlights

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
            --Frederick Buechner                   

Most days this is a nice quote in a book or a Twitter feed prompting thoughts demure and banal, “Yes it’s true isn’t it so very inspiring I must remember that.”

In a week like this one, we read with different eyes, eyes that see “…terrible things will happen,” and like vision acclimating to fog, perceive ghost ships everywhere we look.

In 1999 I saw Kevin Smith’s movie, Dogma, at Lincoln Center and walked through protesters for a post-screening panel that included the filmmaker. I’d lived in New York City for a year at that point but it was the first time I looked around a room and imagined where I would run if someone started shooting.

Two years later we boarded a plane ten days after 9/11 and when we landed, Mary Glen, all eleven years and big eyes looked up at me and said, “We didn’t crash.” It had taken all they had for my children to walk down a ramp and fly that day but it was a single pebble in an otherwise empty bucket that told them fear did not need to be their guide through life.

Do not fear.

It’s the command given more often than any other in the Bible and as teacher Beth Moore has said, “No one tells you, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ if there isn’t anything to be afraid of.” It was my awakening thought this morning and the one that seemed most to beg for words, I having no connection to the city of Boston or its storied race.

I’ve waited on doctor’s reports hopped up on fear so bad that I pulsated with it. I’ve been afraid to leave a room—much less the house. I’ve been afraid to start a conversation, answer the phone, reveal my heart, walk alone at night, walk alone through life. Afraid I would lose and terrified if I won.

And then the things I feared didn’t just exist in my mind; they started happening. Bogeymen knocked at the door like suitors. Waiting for the other shoe to drop became my resting state.

Here’s the thing about darkness—the worse it gets, the smaller light has to be to make a difference. 

I began to see beautiful things tiny as a pinprick. On dark and solitary paths, an unexpected hand would slip into mine; wisdom appeared in cookie fortunes, and strangers passed along road maps until I found myself in a new land, realized I was living the Bible verse that jolted me years ago and refused to let go, “Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day.”* 

The apostle John asserts that perfect love casts out fear. My guess is that the standard is much lower--that our forays into love require far less perfecting and far more “just doing” in order to be effective. 

So in spite of the fear that may be consuming you today, take one step and then another. Ask to find those who need you. Be bold and profess your love. Will yourself to vulnerability and rejoice that your fear will soon dissipate like mist. Hold an old hand; kiss a young face; look at a stranger and remember they were once somebody’s baby. Ask for help. Release your children. Be set free.

The beautiful and the terrible walk hand in hand. So should we.

*Psalm 139:12

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Passover, the Gays, a Dodge Stratus and Easter

It was an inauspicious start to an auspicious week, the great migration from slavery to freedom out of the gate on a Monday night.  As some of us were battling commuter traffic and figuring out whether we could push that trip to the grocery store back just one more day, brothers and sisters gathered around the world to ask a question for the thousand millionth time, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

And though I was not in my building in New York, riding the elevator with unleavened dishes and unbreakable matzo, I felt a shift in the unconscious as some of our number stopped and took note of the journey. At which point I was reminded again of this passage from Walker Percy’s brilliant book, The Moviegoer

Ever since Wednesday I have become acutely aware of Jews. There is a clue here, but of what I cannot say. When a man is in despair and does not in his heart of hearts allow that a search is possible and when such a man passes a Jew in the street, he notices nothing.
But when a man awakes to the possibility of a search and when such a man passes a Jew in the street for the first time, he is like Robinson Crusoe seeing the footprint on the beach.

This ritual is an unspooling thread, passing bitter herbs and salty tears from hand to hand across continents and centuries. An unwilling hero, a people in bondage to an unjust land, too many children and not enough time. The starter's gun firing before anyone was ready. How many of us, waiting waiting waiting, get to the end and balk—wishing to run back in for a sweater, a kiss, a last glimpse at a former life.

The first night ended, brisket was portioned into Tupperware, corners of matzo broken off and nibbled, though G_d knows we’ve all had enough and who really likes it anyway. Kitchens swept and falling into beds with sighs and laughing and dreaming of next year in Jerusalem.

Only to awake with the curtain already up on Act Two, as a people weary of Less Than found Equal Signs in unexpected places. I have a Love/Hate relationship with Facebook (it’s really mostly hate) but Tuesday all was forgiven. Like a thermometer rising, the town was painted red.

But that wasn’t the point really. We all knew that there were allies without math symbols and plenty of Westboro Baptist church members still waiting in the wings. Logos don't solve problems. But how much joy does it give you to know that we have people in our midst who are finally being seen and loved just as they are? Are we not in a miraculous age when jocks tweet disdainful pictures of hateful protests and receive responses that promise a speedy arrival and righteous retribution? (I see you Sam Cooper and Hayden Murray)

Two times that day I opened Tweets to find writing so real and true – evangelicals willing to give up the old securities for new freedoms, though there is no doubt such efforts placed Rachel Held Evans and Tony Jones squarely in front of trigger happy firing squads. We are all passengers on this train witnessing a history-making course correction.

No short trip—this is an odyssey for us all, a recognition that we have not perhaps been our truest selves. Yet when we can see each other with new eyes, looking both ways past labels and preconceptions we see our wanderings and missteps for the gifts that they are, the time they gave us to walk and talk with someone new.

Wandering in the wilderness feels like second nature to me now.  Open spaces and unexpected detours such a part of the landscape that the only constant was the ever guiding hand to which I clung. So I was not thrown on Wednesday night when Mary Glen called at 12:30 am and said she’d had a blowout in the ever-faithful Dodge Stratus. I put on a coat, hopped in the car and headed north to meet her in the parking lot where that steady transport, battered and unbowed had said, “Thus far and no farther.”

We waited for AAA in the darkness, high-fiving once again the best service $100 can buy and headed home as our driver assured us he could drop the key in the box and leave the car with our favorite mechanic. We made plans to replace the tire, knowing it only needed to last until July when her commute to the Shakespeare Festival would end. Daniel its original owner now well-moved to Philly, she would close the show and head west to a land of public transportation.

Except that morning brought different news. A broken axle and other maladies meant $1500 worth of repair for a car that wouldn’t command half that in the open market. It was time to say goodbye—an unexpected departure and a sorrow that caught us all off guard. Even now I write with tears in my eyes of a car that cost so little and gave so much. For four years it traveled to Texas and back without complaint, took the hits of two uninsured drivers and carried hope and dreams to LA and back again.  There was no explanation but a spiritual one—God had our back and like manna in the wilderness, would provide a ride until the day we didn’t need one.

As I explained all of this to a colleague, refusing to feel foolish for the tears in my eyes, I knew in the depth of my soul that those two million stubborn Israelites were just like me—doubting and faithless and bitch bitch bitching until the moment when they weren’t. When they just gave in and said, It’s ok if I’m here forever as long as You’re here with me.

And then you take a step and the road is paved; food is plenty and street signs everywhere you look. It’s what you dreamed about, right? Longed for during that dark night of the soul when “What the fuck?” was the only prayer you could manage and you knew God could handle it just fine.

In that moment of testifying I saw the Promised Land with its dinner menus and health insurance and steady paychecks. And I saw the wisdom of the desert—hope rising from despair, the unlearning of rules and a trust daily brokered with a God who did not fail. That life, oh my goodness, it was so hard. It was so sweet.

It may seem as silly as a pile of rocks in the Jordan, but when we tell the story of how this life grew against the odds, we’ll illustrate it with a silver car.

And so today arrives with new white shoes and sinners trudging into churches with saints—Easter, in all its chocolate-covered American convoluted glory; Jesus emerging from that tomb every year, every day, every hour. Of all the uncertainty and doubt with which I have made peace in my life, one thing I will tell you and you can take it to the bank—this great Love is going nowhere but with you. 

A holy week indeed. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Day Like Any Other

“Things fall apart: the center cannot hold”
--W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

“There are no rules, but the center holds.”
                                    --me, a report from the field
5:30 am arrived with the news that Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian writer, was dead. I know only a teaspoon of Achebe’s prolific writing ocean--his most famous book which also happens to be Hannah’s favorite, Things Fall Apart. Throughout the day the phrase ran through my head as I considered the unlikely literary hero, an educated Nigerian speaking truth to power at both ends of the spectrum when colonial became post-colonial and a country wrote its own, often painful story with the instruments left in a hastily emptied desk.

In a 1994 interview with the Paris Review, Achebe noted that his love of stories led him to understand that they only reflected one point of view.

"There is that great proverb -- that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. ... Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian," he said. "It's not one man's job. It's not one person's job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail -- the bravery, even, of the lions."


The morning was still dark when it carried such a story to my door--weighty with life and chronicle. Next to its deserving subject matter, Rustin Dodd’s profile of KU player Travis Releford is most notably marked by its animated, yet effortless prose.

With the evening’s game still three meals and a thousand nerves away, Travis Releford’s story reminded me that even high roads have unexpected left turns and occasional detours. I remember when he was in high school, all AAU swag and post-season honor, an anointed Jayhawk in a town where the bird is even more mythical than usual. Who knew there would be time on the bench and a redshirt season ahead? That the day would come when all that seasoning would produce an unexpected harvest of wisdom, a joy perhaps sweeter because of its delay?

These lessons are not for the faint of heart and seldom are they for the young—perhaps the reason I was so moved. Here is a young man who did not wither, rooted in local soil and standing tall in our midst. With gratitude for the witness, I headed in to work.


Eight hours later, I left the office and drove through basketball fans to a stage just south with a slightly different performance scheduled. When I told a colleague I was going to the ballet, he shared that while he’d thoroughly enjoyed the program's first two pieces  - a Balanchine-esque modern composition and a psyche-busting pas de deux, he hadn’t much cared for the more traditional Midsummer Night’s Dream that comprised the second act. Willing myself to objectivity, I laughed my way through dinner and headed into the freezing night with a cleared head. Thank God.

I’ve never been a dancer and I saw my first ballet only 3 years ago so my reaction is typically that of a child—raw response to creativity, talent and beauty—the fury of gravity defied, paragraphs spoken in a glancing embrace. It’s a language all its own, yet oddly, not unlike the conversation happening just a few blocks away with four quarters of choreography and breathtaking moves. Such highly specialized skills—such unspoken dialects. Put a boombox on a street in Nairobi and watch the people talk without ever saying a word. Roll a ball onto a playground and walk away. Come back an hour later and every kid there will be speaking basketball.

Magic—it’s a universal language.


And on a day when I thought I’d reached my enchantment limit, I got home and found a little more. Flipping through the channels in search of a KU game I knew was on (and never did find, thank you very much) I found something else instead—soccer in the snow. A World Cup Qualifier between the US and Costa Rica got caught in a blizzard in Denver and became yet another symbol of the surprises a day can bring. For the rest of my life I’ll remember with a smile the images of grown men playing a game they’ve known since they were children with a kind of joy I last saw in Riverside Park.


At the end, an hour into Saturday, there was one more gift, the best kind of all—one I got to give. Mary Glen got home from a 14-hour day and came upstairs cold and weary, landing on my bed in heap. The day before I’d listened to her dear friend Lizzie Quinlan’s band for the first time and knew that if anything could bridge the distance between Kansas and California, this might be it. I pressed play and watched her tearful cheeks mirror my own; familiar voices, notes and inspiration shimmering through the airwaves, love and gratitude sailing back. All I wanted was an anthem, somewhere to be from.