Sunday, December 21, 2008

Meeting Warren... And Wally Lamb

Why did it have to be so cold, I thought, as I hunched over and made my way towards the subway. It wasn't snowing, but the frigid air was damp and seemed to penetrate my layers of clothes and sink into my skin. Despite my eagerness to get home, I stopped in at the Starbucks down the street and bought myself a coffee. At least I was done for the day. Five clients in a row wasn't much for some trainers, but it always wiped me out. The barista had filled my cup a bit high, and even with the lid snapped on tight, it sloshed over my hand as I stepped back onto the sidewalk. Damn! The coffee was hot. I slurped it, willing myself to relax after five continuous hours of human interaction. As cold as it was, it was nice to be silent for a few minutes. I paused outside the entrance to the subway to get my token ready and in the process glanced over at the large Indigo across the street. The past week I'd met one of my literary heroes, Wally Lamb, at a book signing. His new book was about the collateral damage of anger, specifically the aftermath of the Columbine shootings. Although the subject matter in his books was often grim (though laced with hope), he was a storyteller par excellence and a truly great writer. It'd been quite a moment for me.

I opened the door to the subway and nearly tripped on the man inside the door. He was sitting up, with a cup in front of him for change. I'd seen him here before, but usually he was passed out. I pulled some change out and put it in his cup.

"How're you doing?" I asked him.

"It's pretty cold out there." He slurred his words, so that 'there' sounded like 'thar'. I could smell the alcohol on his breath.

"Where are you going to sleep tonight?"

"Probably here." He said, motioning to the hard red tile at the top of a stairwell.

For a moment, I was at a loss at what to say.

"I'm Steve." I said, offering my hand.

He lifted his right arm to reveal a cast beneath his weathered coat.

"What happened?"

"I'm not really sure (shhurr). I think I fell down these steps." He paused. "I'm Warren."

I held out my left hand and he took it in his own, gripping it tight, as if unwilling to let it go. Finally, he released it.

"Have a good night." I said, not quite knowing what else to say.

He nodded, working hard to focus on me. I'd started down the stairs when he called out.

"If I don't see you before Christmas, have a good holidays, Steve."

I swallowed a lump in my throat.

"You too, my friend. You too."

The subway ride was especially long that night. I thought about Warren the whole way home. Just five nights earlier, I'd met one of my heroes, yet it was my meeting with Warren that stayed with me for the next week.

It was snowing when I woke up. The kind of snow I liked too, fluffy and thick and falling softly, the stuff that brought to mind other worlds and dreams yet unfulfilled. I stood on the stoop with my coffee, the steam rising from the mug, staring across the snowdrifts and wind that whipped across the street. It was a good day to be home, I thought. Although it was a Friday, I suspected that quite a few people wouldn't be working today. A good day to write and read and perhaps watch a movie. As I stared out into the whitened world however, my mind drifted to Warren. I wondered where he would be sleeping. Back on the subway steps or perhaps a shelter somewhere. I tried to convince myself that he was in a shelter. I'm not sure why it made me feel better, but it did. For the moment, at least.

I headed back inside to work on my book. After an hour or so, I stretched, made another coffee and decided to spend some time on the stoop. It wasn't an exaggeration to say that a day like this -- the way the snow was falling -- was my favourite weather. There was something in watching the snow fall that spoke to me, a whispered assurance of the world's gentler side. Or a covering perhaps, I wasn't sure. I found it helpful for my writing, which had received a boost after meeting Wally Lamb.

I sipped my coffee and thought about what it'd been like in that stuffy room at the bookstore. Wooden chairs wedged together, about sixty people in a cramped space, sweltering because some employee must have thought the author would be cold. (I guess they didn't realize he was from Connecticut) I'd had to hurry when I arrived at the bookstore; most of the people were already seated. I bumped into the woman sitting across the narrow aisle as I pulled off my parka, apologizing even as I tried to scrunch my large frame into the last seat on the second row. I glanced around, somewhat nervous and excited. Despite having written for a decade, I'd never been to an authour reading before. The faces around me were mostly those of women in their thirties and forties, and one man who looked like a college professor. No other sweating weightlifters with shaved heads however, none that I could see. I fidgeted and squirmed in my tiny seat. When Wally Lamb finally came forward, I was nearly exhausted from the heat and attempting to hold my body upright in the rickety chair.

Lamb was in his late fifties, and reminded me of Sean Connery, what with the glasses and last bit of snow speckled hair receding from a lean, unmarked face. He read first from his updated bio, and then a bit from his new book. He told us how he'd searched for a story after writing his last number one selling book ten years ago, and how it had come to him in a New Orleans cathedral shortly after Katrina. He took questions, of which I asked the first, and when he signed my book, he was gracious and encouraging. What struck me the most, I think, was how much he had inspired me.

"Steve, one more thing," he said to me as I was walking away, "Writing is more about perseverance than ability. Keep at it. You'll get there."

When I called Bethany, shortly thereafter, I was a bit giddy. Soon enough I was on the subway, planning my writing schedule for the next week. I bumped into three people at alternate places along the ride and exit, lost as I was in my plans for the future. I had literally ached the past twelve years for a word of hope about my passion, fretted and cried and laughed in my attempts to break through as a writer. I'd had some limited success, just enough to push me forward. Mostly however, I'd experienced too little recognition to think that I would ever really make it. Maybe this time, things would be different, I thought. Maybe Wally Lamb would push me past the finish line.

I interrupted my reverie to shovel the stoop, but it was still slippery even after I'd cleared it, and I walked carefully down the steps to put the shovel away. I'd fallen on these stairs before. Once safely at the bottom, I sipped my coffee, which was now lukewarm, and watched the snow fall. One thing bothered me. If writing was so important, why had I spent more time thinking about my meeting with Warren than the one with my literary hero?

We've all read stories of people who'd made it and their lives afterward. Part of the reason Wally Lamb had so appealed to me was his work with a women's correctional facility. Oprah's law, he'd said at the reading, when it came to success, was to take what you needed and pass on the rest. Collateral goodness, I thought. I wasn't sure where I'd heard the phrase, but it certainly applied here.

I liked Oprah. It was easy to be cynical about successful people, but she always struck me as someone who modeled what she believed. Here yet, was another example of her generosity. (Her Book Club had propelled Lamb to literary superstardom.) And here was Lamb, doing the same to give back.

I realized that my fingers had gone cold. I kicked the snow off my boots and headed inside to warm up. We all have ideas about ultimate success and what that looks like. Whether it's having our own business or being published or promoted or putting out a CD or making a movie or starring in one, it's hard to remember sometimes that the dreams we have are never less than the journey itself. That it is the journey towards the dream that must yield the fruit of a purposed and passionate life. Dreams provided hope and direction, but the more our dreams reflected egocentric ideals (this will be good for me), the less fulfilling they became.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that as much as I would love to have both the ability and career that Wally Lamb had forged for himself, a great success by any measure, my life would always be my own. Gifted, as we all are, with our unique set of talents and abilities, I realized that no matter how many books I sold, my life would always point to Warren. That the measure of my life would never be my literary status, but my willingness to speak to and for those who could not speak for themselves.

It is hard sometimes, to keep our eyes on those around us in the blinding light of our dreams, and harder still to keep our eyes on the finish line when life becomes difficult.

Dreams come cheap these days, don't they, especially at this time of year, when we are swarmed with requests and wants and needs. Through all the shopping dilemmas and packed parking lots and crowded malls, it is easy to lose sight of why we're here. My prayer this week -- this Christmas -- is that you will remember the dreams of your youth, not the small ones we rented as we got older, but the big booming ridiculous ones that once called to us to change the world. Lost in the great Wally Lamb of a dream, but aware that the true value of any dream was in the way it propelled us to help Warren.

Blessings, my friends, as you set the course for this next year. Don't be afraid to embrace your giftings and step towards what God has called you to do. Just remember that along the way, if you could, to provide the collateral goodness necessary to make both your dream, and your journey, a success.

Merry Christmas everyone.


Monday, December 15, 2008

An Interview With Ravin

I fidgeted in my chair and glanced down at my watch. 5:27am. I was about to interview someone famous for the first time. Not only was she famous, but a known killer. The conference room was small, with white walls and no windows, as she'd requested. No place to put a camera without her seeing it. I thought about the movies I'd seen and what I'd read about hidden technology. There was always a place to hide a camera if you had enough money, but we didn't have the budget. (and this was Canada) I leaned on the oak table and tried to catch my breath. What did you ask an assassin? What did you ask the most notorious at-large criminal in your country's history, one that was more popular than Jim Carrey or Wayne Gretzky or any of its other celebrities?

I checked my watch again. 5:31am. She'd only agreed to the interview because of the piece I'd written for the Post, which outlined her crimes in a sympathetic manner. I hadn't expected to ever meet her, but when a woman had called and identified herself as the Blonde Nightmare's agent, I couldn't say no. In the literary world, I was nobody. My piece was one of the few I'd published in the past few years, and the only reason the paper had bought it from me was because of an incidental run in I'd had with one of her friends. With that lead in, and with the media feasting over any scrap of news about her, they'd snapped up the article.


I was getting nervous. Maybe she wasn't going to show up. Despite her popularity, the authorities were still avidly looking for her and had even offered a reward for tips leading to her arrest. She embarrassed them, I think. Her agent had said that she would meet me -- but that if things changed she'd be in contact with me. I sighed and doodled on my notebook. I didn't have to study my notes, I'd memorized them last week. What did I know about the Blonde Nightmare? About as much as everyone else, which is to say not a whole lot. Her story had become something of a legend in the past year. That she was a stripper, or a former stripper, only added grist to the story. When she'd started pulling men aside at gun point and making them strip, most of us thought it was little more than a wacky stripper pulling a well, very serious, college prank.

And then she'd shot her first victim. Roberto Gomez. He'd made the mistake of trying to attack her after she'd pulled a gun on him. She didn't kill him, but she didn't stop going after the men either. About a month after Roberto Gomez was shot, three young guys set a trap, but she figured out what was going on and one the three guys, Shawn White, was killed. The other two were hospitalized with gun shot wounds and bruises to the face, presumably from her kicking them repeatedly after she'd shot them.

There were two more incidents, and then she'd disappeared, amidst a swirling of rumors that she'd been captured by some Venezuelan cult. She'd come back from her experience changed, or so the rumors went. Her victims had changed too. She still patrolled the strip clubs, but the victims were chosen carefully, or so it seemed. Jeffrey Irons was a former group home worker suspected -- although never convicted -- of molesting two of the boys in his care. Marjorie Allenby was a convicted felon, a former foster parent who'd "accidentally" shaken a baby to death. There was a third victim, Jesse Stillco, a thirty two year old white male without any prior crimes or suspicious activity. None that I or anyone else could dig up, at least. All three had been killed -- two shots to the head -- execution style.


Apparently something had come up. I stood and tucked in my chair. Maybe it was for the best. Did I really want to interview a murderer? A killer? It reminded me of Dan Rather groveling before Saddam Hussein. A journalistic coup perhaps, but a cloying display that was nauseating to watch.

It was still dark and raining as I headed outside. I scrunched over and hustled down the stairs to my car in the underground lot. What had I been thinking anyway? I fumbled with my keys. Maybe it had been just some prank call, some kid-

"Robert Stephens?"

The voice was husky and strong. I turned slowly. She stood about five feet from me, and I glanced around the dimly lit parking space, suddenly realizing what I'd done.

"Relax, Robert, I'm not going to kill you." She said.

Her reassurance was strangely unnerving. I nodded, but couldn't find the words. Maybe I'd built her up too much in my imagination, but I felt myself nearly trembling in her presence. She was tall, nearly six feet, wearing a tight purple skirt and loose blouse. Her long blonde hair was pulled back and hung nearly to her waist. She wore no makeup that I could tell, but her lips gleamed a ruby red in the pale light. She carried a purse under her left arm, and I glanced at it, wondering if she was carrying a gun.

"I always carry a weapon." She said nonchalantly, reading my thoughts. "A necessity, I'm afraid."

I nodded dumbly.

"Well, when you're done staring, let's go for a ride." She paused. "You don't look much like a writer to me." She said, taking in my wide shoulders and shaved head.

"Well," I said, finding my voice, "You don't look much like a killer to me."

She laughed and touched my arm.

"Touché. Can we go?"

"Sure, but your agent said-"

"I don't have an agent."

"Then who- got it. Well, where to then?"

"Do you know where Vaughn is?" She paused and motioned to the receipts and empty Starbucks cups on the floor of my 1997 Geo. "I like your car."

I found her sarcasm annoying.

"Yeah, well, I wasn't expecting the Queen to visit."

She smoothed her face and then laughed.

"Good." She paused. "Good. Maybe you're the one."

"The one to what?"

She didn't respond, and I didn't press. We drove for a while, and the only sound in the car was the swish of the wipers. I wondered why we were going to Vaughn. It was a small town, north of Toronto, but I hadn't heard of any previous connection for her there.

"Make a left at the next street."

The town was ragged looking, but maybe it was the rain.

"Slow down." She said. "In here."

She pointed to set of buildings, and I turned in the parking lot. Andrew Munson Elementary School. Rain slid down the windows and when I looked over at her I thought I saw tears in her eyes.

"Why here?"

"My mom went to school here."

"I wasn't aware- I thought your mom-"

"She died when I was young. After she died, everything went to hell. Including me." She rolled down the window an inch and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Do you mind?"

I shook my head.

She lit one and took a long drag. It was hard not to stare. She reminded me of those classic actresses I'd seen in old film footage from the 1940's. Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner and the like. The way she held her head, the way she fingered the cigarette as if it were a prop. Regal, I thought. There was no other way to describe it.

I gave myself a mental shake. She was a killer. She was a stripper. My old priest had once said that what a person did defined them, and killing was what she did.

"So how did you grow up?" I asked.

She turned and looked at me for what seemed like a long time.

"Why do you want to interview me, Robert? Why do you want to know my story?"

"Well, it will make me famous. I might even make a bit of money with this writing gig."

"Wow. Well, at least you're honest." She paused and flicked her cigarette through the open window. "But I don't believe you."

"I just told you-"

"I heard you, and I know some of that is true. But why do you want to interview me?"

I leaned back in my seat and glanced out at the sagging school. I thought about all the kids I'd worked with through the years, the ones that had no chance, the ones that could barely make it into the school because of the family mayhem, the ones left alone and lonely, the ones who would step into adulthood four years and a lifetime behind the others. I thought about the young girls I'd worked with, the ones without protection, the ones who learned to take the abuse of life without ever learning to live.

"Well?" She said.

"I want to tell your story because I think it matters." I said, my voice quiet. "I think it matters that you survived. But I don't respect what you do and I want to know why you did it. You're a horrible example. You make killing glamorous and sexy. I understand where the anger comes from, don't get me wrong, but who appointed you judge and jury? What do I say to the teenager who reads about your actions and tells me your victims deserved it?" My voice started to raise, as I thought about the "fan" effect of the Blonde Nightmare. "Did they really deserve it? If you're going to go that way, don't you deserve it? Maybe I should be the one with the gun right now."

She looked at me, her face impassive. I fidgeted in my seat and clenched my jaw.

"Thank you for your honesty, Robert." She pointed to the school. "I don't remember much of my mom. I was ten when she died-"

"I said I understood-"

"Wait, Robert, please. Let me finish."

I nodded and swallowed back a sharp retort.

"But I remember how beautiful she was, how the men would always be at our home. My mom never made it to high school, so she took care of us the only way she knew how. Men loved to give her gifts, and it wasn't just the sex. She wasn't a prostitute, the way we think of it now, she just dated a lot."

I imagined the little girl growing up in an environment like that. It felt so... inevitable. It didn't change things however, about who she was or what she did.

"What I do remember is asking my mom why so many men loved her. Her answer is as true now as it was then. 'They don't love me, kiddo. They love what they think they see.'"

"It doesn't change what you did." I said. "It doesn't change what you do!"

"What makes you think I killed those men?"

"The reports, the rumours, everybody knows..." My voice trailed.

Without warning, she slowly pulled up her blonde hair and tugged it off her head. Her black hair was cut short, she ran a quick hand through it before setting the wig on her lap. She looked at me, and I suddenly saw her for the first time. Her nose was bent at the tip, and there were lines beneath her eyes. She was hunched over, her arms folded across her stomach as if she was in pain.

"My name is Felicia Kovolchuk." Her voice was no longer husky, but soft and quiet with a bit of a squeak to it.

I was in a sort of daze at her questions and at the change.

"How did you- Who are you?"

She looked down in her lap, and then back at the school. Her eyes filled with tears as she fidgeted with the wig.

"I don't know, Robert. All I can tell you is that I didn't kill those men."

I found myself wanting to believe her, to comfort her, but I'd seen a lot of acting in my days working with teens.

"Have you ever killed someone?"

"Once. It was an accident..." She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "I still think about it. He had a knife and..."

She took a deep breath. I could literally see her gather up her emotions and bundle them into a tight package, and when she looked at me again I knew that I wouldn't see that side of her again.

"Well, if what you say is true, why don't you go to the police?"

"Do you think they'd believe me?"

"Well, sure, I mean, why wouldn't they?"

She didn't answer, just looked at me as if waiting for me to get it. And I did. We were all just people, all guilty of stereotypes and projection. Felicia fit the bill perfectly for a classic femme fatale, and even as someone trained in helping young people find their way out of their projected familial roles, I'd done the same thing. There wouldn't be a jury anywhere that would believe her innocence, and certainly no police department. They'd assume she was acting, that she had purposely embarrassed them. And with her looks...

"What can I do for you?" I asked.

"You've heard my story."

"The cult, the kidnapping, the sacrifice... are you saying it isn't true."

She shook her head and reattached her wig.

"No. It's true. But I want to tell you what really happened. Maybe someday I'll be able to live free again, if enough people believe your story."

"Okay." I said, just to say something.

She opened the car door.

"Where are you going?"

"They found me. I have to go."

"Who found you? What are you talking about?"

I checked my rear view mirror, where a grey sedan had suddenly appeared, and it whipped past me in the parking lot. Four men in suits jumped out yelling directions at one another. One of them pointed at me, and I stared back, too terrified to move. Fortunately, they seemed more preoccupied with finding Felicia, at which point I immediately felt guilty. You're such a coward! When I looked for Felicia however, she was gone. One of the men pulled a cell phone and chatted on it briefly, before motioning to the others. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as the car whipped past my own, and I waited a full ten minutes before finding the strength to start the car.

I pulled my car out of the parking lot. I didn't know what to think, because she'd been so much more, and less, than what I thought she'd be. Only one thing mattered however. I believed her. I believed that the Felicia I'd seen was the real Felicia, perhaps buried under years of allowing others to project their own fantasies on her. For a few minutes, she'd let down her guard and shown me the scared young woman inside that regal costume.

I hoped she would contact me again. And I wished I could do more to help her. I also wished I wasn't so scared at the thought of getting involved. I pulled out my cell and called my wife, who picked up on the first ring.

"I was worried." She said, without saying hello. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Sort of. I'm good."

"You're rambling."

I took a deep breath and told her what had happened with the other car.

"What about her? What's she like?"

"She's a scared young woman. I... I... want to help her."

My wife paused, and I could hear what she was thinking. Why us? What she said however, was the reason I'd married her in the first place.

"We'll do what we can, Robbie. Are you coming home now?"

"Yeah, I'll see you in a few minutes."

The rain continued to bleed down my windshield as I zipped back onto the highway and thought again about our meeting. I wasn't sure I'd ever see Felicia again, but I'd learned a lesson I wouldn't soon forget.

Over the next three months, Felicia contacted me several times. We never met in the same place, and her outfits changed as often as her wigs. She never again revealed herself as she had in that first interview, but she did tell me her story. She also met my wife, Joy, and had dinner with us once.

She's gone again now, said she wanted to do some traveling. There's more to it, of course, but for her safety and the safety of my family, I can't tell you any more than that. If I've learned anything this past year, it is the realization of how dangerous fantasy can be. Not only does it prevent us from seeing and accepting people in all their weakness, but it also prevents us from seeing how truly remarkable they are. It's a difficult lesson, but when we project on others who we think they should be, we cover what they can be.

I know there are mistakes in the story you are about to read, and I did take some license in my own 'projections' when I wrote it. Felicia read some of my early drafts however, and gave her approval, although she was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of her being portrayed as any sort of 'hero'. "I did what anyone would do" she would often grouse at me, especially after I would comment on her courage. Her only demand was that I record this book as a novel. "It isn't a biography." She would tell me, "and people wouldn't believe it anyway." Much better, she would say, that they find what truth they could in the story itself.

It's raining today, just as it was the first day we met. Joy and I still talk about her quite a bit, about how much she changed our life, and about how much her story has grown. When it comes to people, I'm not sure you can create a mythical figure. As history has shown us, the person is important, but oddly, they often finish a distant second to time and place, to the culture in which the story occurs, and to the way people respond. Felicia was not what I had expected. Nor would, I suspect, Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I be exactly as I imagine them. I'm not comparing her to these two remarkable women of history, of course, except in the understanding that beneath the story is a person like you and me. The truly surprising part of this whole ordeal was that in discovering the person, I found her to be more remarkable than the tale itself.

There's something else I have to tell you. Although I wrote the story, I can't explain everything that happened. There are some things that happened -- many of which I was able to verify -- that made me question the very core of my beliefs. About what's real and what isn't. About God and the supernatural. About why certain things happen and why we live the way we do. I can't explain it and I won't try, because in the end, it's up to you anyway, isn't it?

This then, is her story. The story of how one abused soul managed to survive her nightmares and in doing so, create a story of mythic proportions. The story of how one woman escaped not only those set against her, but also the expectations of those who would have her be more than who she was, and how, in the process, she created a legend.

This... is the story of Ravin.

-Robert Stephens, December 2008

Monday, December 08, 2008


I could hear the trees crackling in the cold as I headed out to start my car. The wind was quiet, but the cold was so intense it imposed a quiet stillness upon the neighbourhood, as if willing it to silence. It'd been a long week: an overlong stay from cold that had racked my throat and sapped my energy along with a difficult week at work. None of these mattered however, as I started my car and scraped the ice from the windshield. The sun beat down from a clear sky, bringing light but little warmth.

There were days I wondered why I bothered at all. Days when my life seemed little more than a treadmill upon which I ran with no destination or purpose. Today however, I disdained to entertain those ideas. As easy as it was to focus on the struggle of life, the struggle to making ends meet and my relationships work, more rewarding was the concentrated effort on seeing what could be. What one had and what might be in the future.

This past summer I'd had the great fortune to meet the woman of my dreams, a woman who loved me for who I was, in all my strengths and weaknesses. Unexpected and unprecedented, it'd taken me a while to accept it for what it was... a gift from God. Still, a part of me scoffed at the idea of an ideal relationship. Part of me brought back the memories of countless "false starts", of relationships that hadn't worked. Of relationships that had caused nothing but pain. Some days it was hard to hold on to what I had in the face of these painful memories.

I let the car warm for ten minutes before climbing in. The warmth covered me, and for a moment, I rested in its embrace before shifting gears and heading out. Memories were powerful things. Most of us lived, whether we knew it or not, by the force of our experiences. Unfortunately, it was these very 'lessons' that worked to keep us from experiencing so many good things in life.

As a teacher, Experience is narrow minded, and too often we give it the power to influence our future. Experience most often teaches from the basis of fear. It does not allow for exception or the exceptional. And if something happens that does not fit into the pattern of our life, the typical response is to shut it down. Better the devil we know... or so the saying goes.

For many years, this was true for me. It was easy to look at my life or at the people around me as their lives became absorbed by tragedy or apathy or both, and wonder why I even bothered pursuing my dreams. Everyone struggled. Why did I think that an exceptional life was possible for me? Of course, I never really thought about what "the exceptional life" looked like, only that I was certainly not living it. And that is where experience often fails us. While the emotional memories and warning signs can be powerful, they are often vague and undefined. After a while, we no longer think about what life could be, only that it is a disappointment. The real tragedy is that we often don't even know why.

The highway was clean, the snow piled lightly on the shoulder as I whipped along, staring ahead and at the empty, snow covered fields to each side. Stouffville was a small town about ten miles north from where I lived. Bethany had an important exam the next day. I was heading out to give her a study break, and a bit of brain food. (i.e. chocolate) Twenty minutes later I pulled onto Stouffville road, a hilly, country road that was often difficult to drive in the rough Canadian winter. It was clear today however, and I zipped along, anxious to see my girl.

It'd been a long time since I'd felt this way about someone. In fact, I was sure I'd never felt this way about anyone. Just the thought of seeing her, of holding her close, of laughing with her, was enough to bring a smile to my face. Every time I thought about her, about what she meant, I could feel my emotions quiver...

I passed a gas station and debated pulling over to get some snacks before deciding to wait until I got into town. Just past the gas station on the right hand side was an old cemetery. I slowed, glancing at the pale grave stones partially covered by snow, wondering, as I always did, about the lives of the people now gone. Had they reached for the stars? Had they lived as they wanted to live? Had they experienced the fullness of life?

I have always thought it amazing when to hear someone speak positively about life. Humanity is not set for 'positive thinking' and life deals more blows then rewards. And worse, in our consumer culture, we are not taught to be happy, but to be unhappy. Despite being the richest continent on the planet, we are taught from the time we are children that we are in need. Of something. Of everything. A new TV. A new car. A new house. New furniture or lawn equipment or computer stuff. New make up or clothes or power tools. Our culture is set against gratitude, because it is need that sells, not contentment. And of all the things that make our lives full, perhaps it is gratitude... simple thankfulness... that is most important.

I hear it all the time. This warning not to look at the world through rose colored glasses. True enough, if you're looking at those around you. When it comes to our vision of the world, we must teach ourselves to see the need in others and the blessings in our own lives. This is the proper view of the world, I think. The Kingdom idea that Jesus had in mind. Thankfulness is important because it is based on what is already present, and unlike experience, is detailed and sure.

Thank you, Lord, for my family.
Thank you, Lord, for my car.
Thank you, Lord, for my job and a place to live.
Thank you, Lord, for my loving wife, my partner in this crazy world.

Bitterness arises because too often we allow our culture tell us what we don't have, we allow it to muddle our understanding between need and want, and we allow experience to teach us that an exceptional life is impossible.

I waited for the light to turn green, smiling in anticipation of seeing my girl. I glanced at the bag of chocolate on my front seat. It would probably take her two months to go through it, I thought, unable to stop grinning. I pulled in the driveway a minute later, only to hear Micah, their family dog, go crazy in the hallway.

"Heya pal!"

The half Lab rubbed against my legs, wagging his tail and pushing his grey whiskered face into my neck. Bethany's parents laughed as I finally made my way into the hallway. I chatted with them for a while, enjoying it as I always do, until finally she came down. My heart beat a little faster as I kissed her and held her tight. I wasn't sure there were any words that could accurately convey my emotions at that moment, save one: exceptional...

It's easy to look at life and see what's missing. It's easy because it is exactly what our culture teaches us to do. Much harder is the practice of looking at our life and being thankful for what we do have. My prayer this week, as we continue in the Christmas season, is that not only will we realize how much we have, but how much we can give. Not only with gifts, but with smiles as well. With a love that only God can give. And perhaps the greatest gift of all, the echo of a life filled with thankfulness.


Monday, December 01, 2008

The Power of Passion

"Sweet Hommmme Alabama!"

The voice was so off-key it made me smile as I walked the last part of the tunnel towards the busker singing his heart out near the exit.

"Sweeet, sweet home!"

The crowd filed through the narrow corridor, and I moved to the right, slowing slightly to get a look at this terrible singer. He was straight from the 1960's, with a scraggly beard and long hair. The one side of his guitar had some fur attachment on it, like one of those coats you see for small dogs in the winter. I was trying hard not to laugh as I passed by, but he caught my smile and misinterpreted it.

"Have a good weekend!" He said.

I nodded, his face suddenly bathed in a mask of joy as he belted out another song. His voice wasn't that bad, I thought. It wasn't the voice that had changed of course, merely my perception of it. And instead of laughing at him, I was suddenly smiling with him. All because of the singer. All because of his passion for his task.

I headed up the stairs into the cold night, unable to stop thinking about the simplicity and power of passion. If humanity was continually engaged in "a war of influence", passion was probably the single most important ingredient in the mix. Too often however, it was packaged and commercialized as nothing more than another item on the "psychological need" shelf. As just another thing to be learned and added to our repertoire.

It wasn't difficult to locate religious books on the "passionate life." Unfortunately, they inevitably ended up commoditizing faith and using passion as something to help market "the gospel." Suddenly the one thing capable of transforming the human experience, the one thing able to make our hearts sing in the face of life's tragedies, was downgraded into yet another product.

The ten-minute walk to my car was cold one. I shuffled forward, hunched over, unable to stop sniffling. My sickness had lingered these past weeks, and some days it was all I could do to maintain the energy at work before crashing at the end of the day for much needed sleep.

"What the..."

Jammed into my windshield wiper was a plastic bag, with yet another note "From the Committee of the Neighbourhood Watch." Although the spot I'd started parking in was legal, I'd picked the curb outside a million dollar home. "If you can afford to drive, you can afford to pay for parking." the note said. They left me these messages every day. The plastic bag was new, the latest effort to "preserve" the note in light of the snow and rain we'd received recently. Some days, just for fun, I posted the previous notes under my windshield wiper. A preemptive maneuver, one I supposed was better than being rude or writing a nasty message back. Something like "my car was a gift, you prick" or "your home is worth a million dollars, and you have time for this?" or "don't you have anything better to do?" But then, maybe that's why we get stuck on rules. Why we so often became stuck on telling people how wrong they were and how right we were about the slightest infractions.

People who had no passion often found zeal instead, and there was nothing more dangerous than a zealot. Unlike those who have found what makes them uniquely them, zealots have accepted the substitute, usually in the form of religion or politics and usually involving the delineation of the human race. Why my country is better than yours. Why my race, my gender, my sexuality, my whatever, is better than yours. A zealot is dangerous because the drive for life is adopted -- like playing a role -- and as a result, cannot be simply explained away, not without having to endure the painful psychological extrication from something they don't even believe in the first place. Most wars are started by zealots. Most religions are defined by them. The unfortunate truth is that those who love the least love the loudest, and so zealots often win the "war of influences" by default. Those who have found true passion do not wish to be engaged by those who they consider to be fake, and those who have neither zealotry or passion are inevitably influenced by both.

Part of the appeal of post-modernism, for me at least, was this sense that authenticity and being and yes, passion, should be more prevalent in my life. That too much of my life was fake. That too much of my life was about what was practical, or what others thought I needed, and not enough about the "real" me.

You can get lost in the philosophical aspects of "the real me" and what it means, but the heart of it was this sense that I didn't want to pretend anymore. That I didn't want to feel like an actor slipping into another role. That I wanted to unveil that deep sense of self and be at peace with how and who I was. We all have days when we feel a stranger to ourselves, when the world feels out of place, when we wonder just how we got "here" at all. Part of what held me back however, was this whole idea of passion. Releasing myself into that was not an option. I'd been passionate before, and it was more than a disaster. In essence, I became what I hated. Even now, thinking back to those times, I still feel the regret. And the loss.

So much the loss...

The rain had picked up, and it drizzled along my windshield, blurring the night into a sea of yellows and shadows. I glanced over at the two or three leaflets on the floor of the passenger seat left over from my parking spot. the ones from the Committee. I remembered a time when I was younger, driving in the rain, my floor covered with leaflets from another "committee". Religious pamphlets that explained "the gospel" (How to Know God) in four easy parts. I remembered delivering them, handing them out to people with burning sincerity and zeal to change the world.

In those days, God was all, and the pamphlets were as much symbolic of the driving hunger for a life that mattered as they were a real part of what I believed. To friends and strangers alike, I burned with a fire that would not be quenched, and I refused to take no for an answer. God could change their life. He had changed mine. Be changed! Be like me!

I quickly became the master of the argument. I could walk people through Scripture or discuss the nature of God in philosophical terms. I latched onto every new archeological discovery that "proved" the Bible. I shouted and beat my chest into the winds and rains of a culture infatuated with everything but God. For four years, I carried pamphlets in my car, knowing that I might need them. Understanding that a soldier must always be prepared to fight. I was the epitome of passion, and living the life I had always wanted. Or so I thought...

The rain had stopped, and I turned off my wipers as I glided to the final stoplight before home. The leaflets lay crookedly on the floor, my gaze inexplicably drawn to them once again. What I didn't realize when I was younger was that I wasn't living a life of passion at all. I'd become a zealot. I didn't understand the difference between the two, and didn't care. That wasn't unusual of course, since zealots generally don't care about such "trivialities".

Of course, there's nothing trivial about the difference between being a zealot and living a life of passion. Passion comes from within you. It is not forced, and it isn't fake. Zealousness is always amplified with external help. (This is why cults and fundamentalists maintain such strict "socializing" disciplines. Get a zealot away from the bolstered environment and it breaks down quickly.) In my case, I was going to church four times a week. I had no non-Christian friends. And if I did hang out with a "non-believer" (catch the language there) my goal was to convert them so they'd believe what I believe.

Passion does not seek imitation but likeness. Someone who lives a passionate life is not looking for disciples or converts, but seeks instead those who find in life -- in all its heartache and pain and joy -- a humane reality that is at once authentic and real and heartfelt.

Important question: does a Zealot know that they are being "fed", that they have been given a "passion alternate" by people who inevitably use this psychological drug to control both people and their environment? Sometimes. Rarely. I didn't understand why it all felt so wrong until I left the church for two years. Somewhere along the way I realized that I had accepted the "zealot's pill" as an alternate to a life of real passion. The life God intended for me.

The rain had changed to snow, and I pulled into the driveway, still thinking about the busker with the fur guitar. I picked up the leaflets from the floor and threw them in the garbage on my way inside. No more games. The house was quiet, and I unlocked my room and stepped in, grateful to finally be home. These days I had a better understanding of passion and what it really meant. Why it was so important, and how much it meant to follow a life led from both above and within.

One only had to go on the internet to find crazy and hateful dialogue from people who called themselves Christians, or Christos, followers of Jesus. Clearly, they had, like me, accepted the life of a zealot, rather than the passionate life of someone in pursuit of God.
Passion is not enthusiasm. It is not charisma or results or what appears to be excitement, although that can be part of it. Passion is the allowed expression of our inner self in our daily life. It is the freedom found when we anchor our heart to our life. Zealousness is much different. Zealousness is comparative. It is always seeking to convince, to influence, and to promote. Passion has no need for this, because the goal is not to see other transformed by us, but to see in others the freedom we find in our own uniqueness, our own special-ness, our own stamp of God's creative touch. Passion invokes invitation. Zealousy invokes coercion. And lies.

(Part of the reason so many young people leave the church when they are eighteen is because the church, like other human organizations such as political parties, knows zealousy better than it does passion. Young people do well to avoid it.)

A life of passion is one of moments, when time stands still, when there seems to be complete unity with what we are doing and who we are, when our actions no longer look to the world for recognition. It is in those moments, when our passion has united the "all" of who we are, that we know what it means to be fully human. And the result is stunning. Someone who is truly passionate does not need to sell or convince anyone of anything. They do not need to convince or coerce or convene.

They need only to live.

The house was quiet, and I turned my music on to put the finishing touches on my latest novel. I still hadn't made it as a novelist, and there were days when I wanted to give it up, but I could fell my inner self smiling when I wrote. It was my passion. And to that end, I didn't need a publisher to convince me I'd made the right decision. I would write because I was supposed to, I would write because I was born to, I would write... and I would love every minute of it.

Passion has always been an important part of life, especially in Western culture. Too often however, we have accepted the substitute, and in so doing, have cheapened our faith. Cheapened our relationships. And most importantly, cheapened the world's perception of a Creator much greater, and much more loving, than we give Him credit for.

We all have passion inside of us. It resides in the parts we rarely visit, past the pain of disappointment and the cynicism of a life spent watching zealots. Past the discouragement of those closest to us and the "good sense" that keeps us as square pegs in round holes.
My prayer this week is that you will work past the pain and hurt, that you will open yourself to the person you have always wanted to be, and that you will discover the life of passion -- complete and broken and yet still joyful -- that God had in mind when He created you.