Thursday, April 28, 2011
I’d say that’s to be expected in a commercialized society, a culture of money and artificiality and plastic success, but a number of artists have made that distinction and done so in ways beyond my own ability. Besides, dwelling on it doesn’t make me any smarter or make my feelings of inadequacy go away. No matter my semi-educated hypothesises on the sociological patterns of Western democracy circa 2011, I am left with a blinking cursor and a blank screen in front of me. Every day it tells me something about myself, and much of it isn’t good. The blank page is a better mirror than any pane of glass. Whatever bullshit you got, you better be willing to either admit it or leave it to the side when you get there. What most people don’t understand is that the cynicism one finds in writers is not born from their observations of the world, but from their observations of self. From there, we move outward, but always with a firm understanding of the bullshit that lurks around the corner and inevitably leaks into our own existence. Perhaps that’s why I’m still doing this, so many years later, despite my lack of success.
I remember a time when I was more than an aspiring writer, a time when writing was as much about my own burgeoning future as it was an attempt to articulate what it meant to be human. Those days are gone. I’ll be thirty-nine in a few months, and while I can quote success stories from writers who found great recognition at a later age (like Frank McCourt), those examples are rare, and I’ve been at this for too long to believe that I will ever join such a group.
And yet, here I am again, back on the very same blog I started so hopefully six years ago. It feels like an old friend, and I click briefly through some of my past posts with a half smile on my face. I want to write more often here, but these days it has become difficult just to find the energy to write my daily fifteen hundred words. Many mornings will be spent in a sort of grovelling, grinding existence, willing God and my muse and whatever supernatural forces exist to help me on just this next stretch of the book, asking for just one more push. I check my daily word count with each new sentence. Some days, well, most days, I want to quit. I want to focus on training. Or perhaps just write the occasional article. And every so often, I don’t write at all. I consider myself freed from my own silly dictums and able to flip channels and burn up the sports blogs instead, certain that my life as an aspiring writer is most certainly over. What brings me back is the following morning, when I wake up and feel the horrible turn of my stomach from cheating on my muse. From cheating on myself. And so, despite my decade long string of non-success, I find my way to a Starbucks and re-enter the world that I’ve so diligently created over the past two years. I whisper to myself the same words that every aspiring writer says.
“Perhaps this book will be the one. Perhaps an editor will like it enough to bring it to the publisher’s attention, and perhaps the publisher will want to buy it. And once it’s published, perhaps critics will like it, and people will want to read it. And just maybe, if I’m really lucky, someone will take comfort in my story. Someone will learn something new about themselves and the world around them. Enough, perhaps, to help them make it through a particularly difficult time. And if I truly strike gold, someone will read my story and know that they are accepted, that God not only exists but loves them dearly, and that they need not be ashamed of who they are or what occupies their dreams.”
But knowing who I’m writing for doesn’t always help, because it’s easy to get worn down. Easy to sit and watch our favourite shows and movies and offer judgment, admiring the brilliance of some and the stupidity of others without realizing how much we have conceded. I’m not sure it would matter if we knew. There comes a time when dreams feel heavy and burdensome, when the cares of the world simply overwhelm us and we live with the hope of a few happy moments and a bit of rest. What are dreams to the one struggling just to get by each day?
The answer is that dreams are the oxygen of life. Without them, we die. What does it mean to live if life is nothing more than a minimalist existence of survival and pleasure?
I’ll be honest, some days I struggle to write three words. In the end however, despite the daily battles, I find myself in front of the blank screen and blinking cursor. I see too many people who have given up their dreams, too many people who have sold out for a night on the sofa and some easy laughs. When they look back, ten and twenty years from now, I wonder what they’ll say. Will they make excuses? Will they pretend that their dreams didn’t exist? Or will they face that moment writers face every day in the blank page, when they cannot fool themselves, when they know that anything less than the truth simply won’t do.
I’ve long been convinced that the secret to this life is to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing and do it. Excuses are easy, but they eventually become altars of pain and regret. What we often forget is that character and fulfillment run along the same set of tracks, and always meet when we will it, so long as we’re willing to endure. The challenge is to find our purpose and pursue it, even when we’re handed a life other than the one we expected. And if along the way we become the success that always seemed impossible, so much the better. Chances are, we won’t even notice.
Authour's Note (May 4, 2011): Upon finishing this piece, and dealing with more than a little discouragement the past few months, I sent a notice to Chris Jones, who writes for Esquire, asking if he could read my blog. Not only did he read it, he wrote a moving piece on his own blog in response. (FIND IT HERE) I was humbled and touched and encouraged by his words. I'm sure my next post will deal with that, and what it has meant , and what it may mean in the future. Thanks, Chris, for your kindness, and thanks everyone, for taking the time to stop by. I hope you found some encouragement here. :)
Thursday, March 17, 2011
“It’s a good thing I sat at the table first.” The woman said.
At first I thought I’d misheard her. Was she talking to me? And what did she mean, exactly?
She was in her early thirties, tall, and very thick. She wore tight pants and an overlapping sweater into which her extra weight had been crammed and tucked so tightly that she looked as if someone had stuffed two cushions into a single pillow case. A very expensive pillow case. Her purse was probably worth more than my entire wardrobe. Her face had large features and included a full second chin that hung low but was kept in place by her jaw, which jutted out and up as she looked down at the people around her. It was hard to make out the rest of her features, framed as they were by an overwhelming trilogy of curls, makeup and perfume.
She strode over to the counter to order her drink, teetering on her knee high boots lacquered against her calves like black sheaves of armour. A few minutes later she came back and sighed heavily as she looked down at me.
“Can you please move your bag? It’s hard to get around here when you just put your bag anywhere.”
I moved the bag to the other chair at my table.
“All you have to do is ask.” I said. “We don’t need to hear your commentary about it.”
She harrumphed and sat beside me, wiggling around in her chair as if willing the wood to soften. I sighed and tried to keep my face neutral even as her perfume threatened to engulf me. I’d always hated people like her, people who stomped around looking down their noses at others and making sure everyone knew that the world revolved around them.
I turned the pages of my magazine, working hard to focus on what I was reading, but the woman soon started a conversation with an older man at the table next to her. Their conversation drifted from phones to him asking her occupation.
“I’m an accountant.” She said. “I run my own business.”
“Oh, that’s very nice.” The man said, his accent thick. It sounded like he was from somewhere in the Middle East, but I wasn’t be sure.
“I’m also a model. I’ve been modeling since I was eight.”
“Yes. My husband is always surprised how I can just switch things on and off. I walk into my business and I become this whole other person, like I’m totally in charge. And yet, I’m very carefree, which helps me when I’m modeling. He asks me how I do it, and I tell him I’ve been doing it since I was eight, so it’s like, no big deal.”
I felt something shift then, and I slowly packed up my bag as the woman continued to tell the kind old man about her modeling exploits. The anger seeped out of me as I listened to her, gradually replaced by a growing sadness. Moments earlier, I’d felt my anger peak. I’d been confronted by a wealthy, aggressive snob, who clearly thought the world should bend their knee to her. Now, I saw an awkward, lonely person struggling with her self-esteem.
I looked back only once as I left. She was squished in over the table on the smaller chair, bent over her phone as if waiting for it to ring.
For the rest of the day I went over in the incident in my head. She’d done nothing to alter my original impression, so why had I suddenly been confronted with a vision of a completely different person?
It was something I’d been thinking about for a while, and after a few days I realized what had happened. I felt like I’d been given a nudge to one of the great mysteries, and difficulties, of life. A way to help me deal with the ever vexing nature of greed and selfishness so prevalent in humanity, which I noticed was especially characteristic of the guy in the mirror. Some religions had a whole set of rules and regulations regarding what I’d learned, but for me it was much simpler than that. For me, it was doing the impossible.
Contrary to popular belief, the greatest battles in humanity are not fought over land or politics or religion. While we offer these reasons as to how and why people can do such horrible things to one another, the truth is somewhat more complicated, and simple, than we want to believe. Within the three pounds of tissue that hang loosely within our skulls, warfare of the kind we are only beginning to understand is waged on a daily basis. Billions of neurons sift through a constant sortie of signals through synaptic connections, communicating through long protosplasmic fibers called axons. These axons develop synaptic connections that grow and strengthen with repeat usage, and weaken upon disuse. The tendency is for the pathways to continue to strengthen, and as such, our responses become more typical as we age and develop routines. These routines include not only physical activities (think about how you always dry yourself in the same manner when you get out of the shower, for example) but our psychological tendencies as well, the way we think about the world and the narrative we draw from our experiences.
However, the battle within our brains is fierce, as every new signal competes for the attention of others. The decisions we end up making are never ‘unanimous’, no matter how simple a decision may seem to be. (e.g. I’m hungry. I’m going to eat an apple.) In that environment, every decision, every signal, is a fight for control. Every factor is considered, whether it’s our past, our experience, what we’ve learned or haven’t learned or even think we’ve learned.
The point is that people are not a single entity, not in the way we normally think of it. We are a hive of activity and conflict, of ideas and actions and thoughts that make little or no collective sense. Haven’t you ever wondered why a person can say something to you on certain days and it isn’t a big deal, when at another time it would be something you considered hurtful? Or why perfectly sane people contemplate horrendous acts for small or merely perceived slights? We can offer a variety of reasons about why and how people constrain themselves, but the point is that this perception that a person is a singular unit is not only incomplete, but inevitably becomes dangerous and divisive. If I associate one person with one event or one idea or one concept or one behaviour, then inevitably I am forced to choose whether I agree with them or not. If I don’t agree with them, then that makes them my opponent, or depending on what circles you travel in, your enemy.
And if I don’t understand that people are not one thing, but many things, then I will never understand who I am, and I will never be capable of achieving humanity’s most difficult assignment. I will never be capable of doing the impossible.
The young man had walked for three days and three nights, and he was tired and hungry. He was wealthy enough to hire a caravan, but someone had told him that it was impossible to walk for three days and three nights without sleep, and so he’d set out to prove him wrong. His whole life had been like that, a life devoted to doing the impossible. He’d been the best student in his school and the best athlete. When he’d moved into business for himself, he became the richest man in the city. Women thought he was the most desirable man in the city, and men fought for his friendship. Everyone wanted to work for him because he was regarded as the best employer, and his kindness was on the lips of the poor and rich alike. He travelled the world and met with kings and queens, and everyone told him that what he had accomplished was impossible. Despite his success, the young man tried to be humble. Not impossible, he would always say, just difficult.
Yet he was restless and did not know why. Everyone had told him that he had nothing left to accomplish, but even after an admittedly young life filled with success, he was ready for a new challenge. He’d heard about a woman, some called her a Prophetess, who lived in a small village on the edge of the desert. They told him that there was no question she could not answer, and that her wisdom seemed to come from God Himself. She would help him, he thought. Perhaps she would set a new challenge for him.
It was morning, and the sun was already hot. He stopped at a rickety looking stand and bought a meat pastry. He asked the vendor where he could find the wise woman.
“Oh, you mean Annabelle.” The man, who was as thin as a stick and darkened from the sun, chuckled. “I hope that you have a good question for her. She gets annoyed with people from the city who don’t have a good question.”
The young man thanked the vendor, and after getting directions how to find her, headed down the road. He wondered what question he should ask her. He certainly didn’t want to waste the time of such a famous woman.
The directions led him to a small farm house. A herd of cows mingled with horses in the nearby field, and the door had pieces of paint peeling from it. What wise woman lived in a place like this? He knocked anyway, and was again surprised when a man answered the door carrying a young boy on his shoulder.
“Um, good morning.” The young man said. “I’m looking for Annabelle, the wise woman.”
The man rolled his eyes good naturedly and twisted his son around his back.
“From the city, eh? Well, wait there. I’ll get her.”
The young man was sure it was some kind of a trick and that this couldn’t be the right place, but he couldn’t leave now without being rude. And he was never rude.
The woman appeared in the doorway and led him out into the yard. She was tall and middle aged, with kind eyes and thick black hair. She folded her arms and smiled patiently when he introduced himself.
“You city folks are funny, you know that. Okay, you can ask one question. If it doesn’t annoy me, I’ll answer one more. Understand that I don’t like the rules, but I’d never see my family or get any work done if I stood around answering questions all day.”
The young man nodded respectfully.
“My whole life I have done what people said is impossible.” He said. “I have accomplished everything there is to accomplish, achieved every goal I’ve ever set. What, in your opinion, is the one thing that is absolutely impossible to accomplish, the one thing that no person has ever done?”
The woman looked at him, but didn’t answer right away. The kindness in her expression was so prevalent that it nearly masked the stark intelligence behind it.
“Where are your parents?” She said softly.
The young man gritted his teeth.
“They have been dead a long time. Two men robbed us when we were young, and when my parents tried to stop them, they were killed.”
“And what happened to the two men?” The woman asked.
“When I was old enough I went after them and saw to it that they were locked away for the rest of their lives.” He said proudly.
It was the first thing he’d done that people had said was impossible. He was too young to pursue such evil men, too inexperienced. He’d proven them wrong, as he’d always proved people wrong.
“Are they still in prison?” She asked.
Her voice was low and soft, but there was something within it that seemed to give it more weight, though he didn’t know what it was. Still, the young man was troubled by her questions. What did those men have to do with accomplishing the impossible?
“Of course. They will rot there for the rest of their lives.”
“Then your task is to get a judge to release those men into your custody. You are to look after them for the rest of their lives, provide them with a home, and care for them.”
The young man exploded.
“Do you know who I am?” he said, shaking a fist at the woman. “I have led whole armies into battle, traveled the world three times over, sat down with kings and queens. I have built hospitals and churches and shelters for the poor. After all that I have accomplished, you dare to ask me to care for my parents’ murderers?”
The kindness in the woman’s eyes had not gone away, if anything, it shone even brighter, though it was now tinged with sadness. This caused the young man’s stomach to churn and his eyes to well up.
“Do this, and you will have truly accomplished the world’s greatest feat.” The woman said.
The young man paused.
“I-I can’t. What you ask is impossible!”
“No. It is not impossible.” She said. “Just difficult.”
The young man shook his head and walked away. Love his parents’ murderers? It seemed he had found the wrong woman after all. He went back to the city, and for the rest of his life continued to accomplish things that people said were impossible.
When people talk about doing great things or achieving the impossible, it’s rarely framed in terms of relationships. Most of the time we’re talking about things that will bring public acknowledgment. Things like writing a best seller or becoming famous or making a fortune. And while these accomplishments are great things, they are not the greatest thing.
No, the greatest test for humanity was laid out two thousand years ago, as a Jewish Rabbi sat around a small fire with his students, young men who had grown up in an occupied country and seen their people slaughtered and harassed for centuries. When they asked him how they could be great, he told them something they had never heard before. He told them they needed to love their enemies. Anyone could love a friend, he said. Swindlers and tax collectors did that. Later, he would go on to tell them that they were to do two things in their life. To love God with all their hearts, and to love their neighbor as they loved themselves. And, as he would clearly point out in his next teaching, your neighbor was not the one living next to you, your neighbor was your enemy. His teachings made his students uncomfortable, and when he spoke to larger crowds later that same year, they too, were discomfited by his words.
Two thousand years have passed since this small town Rabbi stood along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and shared his wisdom. Many have claimed to follow him since, finding in his words and life both hope and peace. It is his greatest and most difficult teaching however, that we have most often chosen to ignore. A teaching we acknowledge but nearly always decide should not be taken literally. Surely he was speaking metaphorically, wasn’t he? And so instead of lifetime spent wrestling with the world’s most impossible test, we have added on to the Rabbi’s simple words by writing our own books and setting our own goals. We pick and poke at one another. We publish whole volumes on what separates us from the crowd, including certain groups within the crowd who also follow the Rabbi. We scream and dance and cajole and convince until we are exhausted, certain that if we just make enough noise, that we’ll make a difference or feel better about ourselves or that God will hear us and be pleased.
And so the world moves on, centuries pass, and more than ever we continue to fight and kill and criticize and attack. We couch our control of others in religious language. We use churches devoted to this Rabbi as battering rams for our ideas. We learn how to sound holy and unique and listen for people telling us about the great things we’ve accomplished, and yet when we look in the mirror, when the world gets quiet, the unrest rises and we wonder if perhaps there must be a greater task, perhaps something wonderful and impossible, that God has set for us.
A foggy gloom has descended over the city, and as I stand on our balcony, I can’t help but think how often I fail miserably at loving others, let alone my enemies. How often I cut people off or cut them up, how often I get into arguments or discussions that produce nothing but more angst and more despair, and how often I justify my actions by telling myself that I am on the right side or that I am right. It seems as though my desire is for others to do what I refuse to even attempt to do myself. More than anything though, I want people to be good… good like me. Except I’m not good. Not always. Sometimes I’m a jerk. Sometimes I say and think horrible things. But that isn’t all of me, even when I act like an ass. It isn’t “me”. It’s only part of me. If it was all there was to who I am, it would make sense for some people in this world to hate me, but I also know that I’m capable of good things, too.
It is impossible to love an idea you hate.
It is impossible to love a behavior you find detestable.
People however, are not one idea or one behavior. What’s true of me is true of everyone else. The woman in Starbucks may have been acting like a snob, but she was also lonely. She may have been rude, but she was also friendly with the old man. Our brains naturally label and generalize to help us sort through the constant stream of information, but too often we get caught up in labeling people. Conservative. Liberal. Atheist. Christian. Snob. Elitist. I know I do. But there’s no way we can even attempt to love others, let alone our enemies, if we don’t see in others what we recognize in ourselves, if we don’t understand that we are all an illogical collection of paradoxes and contradictions, of darkness and light, of good and evil.
Unlike our other dreams however, there’s no payout when it comes to doing the impossible. No financial rewards. No fame. People will not recognize you on the street. But my prayer this week is that you’ll see the other benefits that come from attempting God’s greatest test, that you’ll know a life of love and caring beyond what you’d ever hoped for, and that one day you’ll realize that you did, in fact, change the world. And when people around you, including your religious leaders, excuse you from this task by offering a new volume of reasons for its dismissal and exactly why it’s impossible, you’ll know what to say.
“It’s not impossible, just difficult.”
Authour's Note: Loving your enemy, both as a concept and practically, never means staying in abusive situations, be it verbal or physical. Toxic environments are to be avoided because our ability to love others is always weighed against our ability to love and care for ourselves. The problem of domestic abuse in the church (as in societyt) is a long one, but in the church it is particularly disgraceful when some preacher's use that which we consider to be sacred (the Bible) as a tool for power and control. (I'm talking to you, John Piper and Mark Driscoll) the Bible was never intended as a weapon to keep people in line. It is the story of a God and His people. To willfully submit to abuse is not to love someone. It is, in fact, quite the opposite as it enables anger and hatred. We need to stop enabling abusers and confront them with the truth of their hurtfulness. That is love.
That the church so often covers up domestic abuse is one of its most disgusting and not-so-secret secrets. If you are in an abusive relationship, please take the necessary steps to get out, and do not let a pastor or preacher (like Piper) convince you that you do not have a right to a safe life. No matter how much they twist Scripture, understand God wants you to be in a position to love people, and when we hate ourselves, the result of such abuse, we cannot love others or experience God's love as he intends for us.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
What Is It Like to be Eighteen?
Well, my life is a strange sea of unsurety and absoluteness. Everything I learn seems to scatter what I've already learned to the wind, but what I do know is that it will get better. That I'm young still, and my whole life is in front of me. That's one thing my teachers and coaches never forget to tell me. You're young, don't worry. Everything gets better, and if you don't like what's happening in your life, all you have to do it is change it and try something new.
I believe them. And thank goodness, too. It gives me a lot of confidence to face a world that seems to shift every few months. The other thing that helps me get by is seeing how easily adults live. They do whatever they feel like, watch whatever they want, stay out all night if they're in the mood, and no one ever says anything to them. They're accountable to no one. I have to tell you, I'm looking forward to growing up. It's going to be great!
The one thing I don't understand though, is why they keep telling me to enjoy "these years", and joke about their life in high school like it was the best time of their life. It's not that they don't remember it exactly, or that they're lying, but I don't think they remember how so much of it simply sucks. They forget what it's like to show up at a party or a friend's house and not be wearing the right jeans. Or how nervous you feel when the hot girl comes over to talk to you. The adults reminisce about those times as if that stress was somehow fun. And if I try to explain how difficult those moments are, they forget that just because I'm laughing doesn't mean I think it's funny.
That's my biggest problem with adults. They look at me with those wide eyes that tell you they wish they could be my age, but then dismiss my struggles and patronize me with their stupid cliches that are supposed to make me feel better. I'm eighteen, I'm not a moron. And why do adults have to be so damn patronizing? They tell us that there's a generation gap, that we all need to understand each other a little bit more. Right. They tell us this, of course, while they're judging me about my clothes or hairstyle, which are different than what they wore when they were my age. They reminisce about these things with each other while my friends and I are there, as if we don't speak the same language.
And teachers, please don't get me started about teachers. If there is a dumber lot to understanding us than teachers, I don't know who it would be. Every year we get the same five teachers. One will be amazing, and their class will be a mix of fun and learning. These teachers are usually easygoing and coach one of the school teams. They'll look you in the eyes when they talk to you and actually listen before they speak. They're the best. Another teacher will be really nice and completely unable to control the class. We'll all like them, and want to behave, but that's hard to do when someone is texting you jokes from last night's episode of Glee. The third teacher will be an enforcer. They'll be super strict, rarely smile, and give you tons of work. The good news is that you end up learning. (If you don't drop the course.) The bad news is that no one will like the teacher though, because you're never fully convinced they're human, or think you're human. The fourth teacher will be old and boring and not care that they're boring. They'll do the lesson plans, keep the class under control by simply kicking people out, and never learn your name unless you're a troublemaker. The fifth teacher is the most common. Usually they've been teaching for a while (You can always tell by their voice, which is permanently set to baby tones) and they'll play more movies in their class than the local cineplex. They always make it sound like its OUR idea, too. "I'd prep a lesson, but it's Friday, and you guys probably want to watch a movie, don't you?" Why do you think us teenagers talk so much when we go to the movies? It's like class time. Movies are a great excuse for the teacher to turn the lights off and let us talk. These teachers always seem nice, and they grade easy, but they never coach, never get involved. Sometimes I'm not sure that they know we're even there.
Hmm. I don't think I should include that section on teachers, but I guess I'll leave it in because we're supposed to have a lot of words in this essay.
In conclusion, I'd say the best thing about being eighteen is that you have your whole life in front of you. The worst thing about being eighteen is waiting for that life to happen. The good news is that in a few years I'll be an adult and I won't have to wait for my life to start, I can simply do what I want, and if necessary, change things up. Right now, I'm limited, but once I graduate from university, all bets are off, and I'll finally be free!
Spending time in the mind of an 18-year-old, even as a writer, can be mildly uncomfortable. Not because the mind set is so different, but the way in which it challenges my expectations as an adult. We worship the young in western culture, but that worship is often destructive as we seek to make ourselves younger both physically and mentally, instead of remembering what the young see in us, and why they are so hopeful.
Not a day goes by where I don't meet someone my age (38) or even younger who has given up, who has traded in the dreams of their youth and reflected on the few wrinkles in the mirror by writing themselves out of their own story. Sometimes we do this through religion. We accept the "roles" placed on us like bindings because the priests of these cults assure us that it is only through these "roles" where we will find freedom. But for those of us who manage to avoid these traps, it still isn't easy.
For me, often the biggest difficulty is waking up in the morning and realizing that I'm 38, that my "whole life" is no longer in front of me and that I've actually used up more than half of it. Then I think about what I've accomplished over the past twenty years and feel the need to work much, much harder. What I never think about however, is the freedom the 18-year-old sees as a possibility in my life. Too often I have my head down just trying to finish stuff and forget that tomorrow I can do whatever I want. I can drive somewhere, go on vacation, start a new project, take up dance lessons, help an orphanage, start an orphanage, listen to music, watch a movie, sing and pray, pray naked, visit people in the hospital, throw a penny in the fountain, or steal pennies from the fountain... it's all right there in front of me.
That is my life. This is my life.
This week, unless you're a teenager (in which case, YOU ARE SO LUCKY), take a trip back in time to when you were eighteen. Think about what you remember the most from those days and what you loved and didn't love. If you were to have a conversation with your old self, what would you say? And what would they say to you? If you listen closely, you'll hear more than you ever imagined, and just maybe, they'll help you get back to the life you once dreamed about, the one where freedom is a common currency and youth is never wasted on the young.
Monday, January 24, 2011
I was walking to the entrance when I heard the bark and inevitable crash against the screen door. A long nose poked above the bottom grill, as Bethany came out to greet me. She was laughing, because Micah's excitement at a guest always made you smile. In my case, it helped my stomach stop churning as I walked into my girlfriend's house. It was my second time meeting her parents, and try as I might, I was still nervous. They had been friendly and welcoming the first time I'd come over, but I was still nervous, because I sensed that Bethany would be someone special to me, and these were her parents. Getting older hadn't erased the time worn traditions of the past, or my understanding of the importance of your partner's family on a relationship. Micah didn't seem to notice, as he jammed his nose into my legs and waited for me to pet him. He was a medium sized dog, a lab and poodle cross with short black hair. He had long floppy ears and paws that seemed a bit big for him. Best was that permanent grin on his face and lolling tongue, and as I bent down, he made a slobbering attempt to lick my chin. It seemed as if he was asking me if I would be his friend. I rubbed behind his ears and thought, I'll be your friend, pal. I stood up as her parents came into the room, and he bolted back down the hallway to say hello to them. They too were smiling, and he looked back at me as if to say "See, you're welcome here, Steve. Don't be worried."
He was right. There was no need to be worried that day or any other. I was welcomed into the family in a way I had never known, as Bethany and I moved through the stages of our relationship, from dating to girlfriend to fiancée to our wedding day. Through it all, with all the warmth I received from her family, Micah was always the first one to greet me, even as he greeted everyone else, and remind me that I was always welcome. Every time we came to the door for a visit, he would run down the hallway, barely able to contain himself, his tail wagging so hard that his whole back end would move. And if you bent down, he was more than willing to give you a sloppy kiss. Through it all, I never thought of him as my wife's dog or her parents' dog, although both were true. For me, it was much simpler than that.
Growing up in Ethiopia, where dogs are not kept as pets, my wife's parents promised their kids that when they moved back to Canada, they could get a dog. The kids held them to that promise, and when they finally chose one, they decided on a big, floppy eared puppy whose heart murmur made him something of a health risk, and much less likely to be adopted. They named him Micah. The adjustment of moving from one country to another was difficult, as it always is, especially for teenagers. Micah helped ease that transition. His boundless energy and affection grew, and his love for people seemed to know no bounds. If there were two groups of people in different rooms, he would often shift from one room to another, unable to decide where he should be. And if everyone happened to be in the same room, as would happen on Christmas, he would lie in the center of the room or hop up on the couch, completely content. He was always happy to be with people, regardless of the circumstances. And if the conversation halted, he was always there to remind us all to relax and enjoy one another, that there was always a reason to smile.
In the church we call it Creation Care. In politics, we call it Being Green or Environmental Advocacy. We name it because, well, humans name things. And over the past twenty years, some things have changed. Most people realize we shouldn't be clear cutting rainforests, that recycling is necessary, and most of us understand that the climate is changing. These are all good things, but it says something about our society that we need names and organizations and policies when it comes to looking after the world around us, and recognizing all living creatures as God given gifts, as personalities worthy of our attention. Some people say that it wasn't always that way, but a quick look through history dispels that notion, although our massive population increase and industrialization have made our ecological footprint much bigger. For me, it isn't about returning to some mythic past. The real question is the state of my own heart. Sometimes, I am just being selfish. Sometimes I don't want to care, because caring hurts. Micah always helped remind me that it was worth it to care, that tomorrow could be a good day, and that love covered a multitude of wounds. And sins.
I've never followed the accepted creed that older means wiser. Never really counted the difference between a sixteen year old and a sixty year old. When I was a youth worker, it often became a point of contention, because the accepted wisdom was (and remains) that a forty year old adult has more to offer than a child. Or that a person has more to offer than an animal. I still don't believe it. For me, it was always about what one did. Loyalty, faithfulness and love always seemed to be God's stamp, his ideal, and whoever exemplified those characteristics were the ones I wanted to follow, the ones I wanted to model. In this, it was never about who could help me achieve greater status or help me reach my goals, but who would be there when they were needed, who would truly be a friend.
I have a lot of memories of Micah. This past summer my wife and I took him for a walk across the street to the school ground. We'd brought a Frisbee, and most of the time he couldn't decide whether to chase the Frisbee, roll in the grass, or come over to us for some more pets. We laughed the entire time.
I remember the way he would sit on my feet when I was petting him, as if afraid I was going to move. I remember the way he would leap up into my wife's lap when we visited, though he was much too big to be a lap dog. I remember the way she would hold him, and how he would purr in his throat, something he had learned from his old friend, Sunshine (a cat), who had passed away three years earlier and had been one of Micah's closest friends. His burst to the door when someone came over was legendary in the family, as was his inevitable welcome.
For me though, my greatest memory is that second time at my wife's home. Crouching down as he slobbered a kiss on my chin, and hearing the question he asked every newcomer to the household.
"Will you be my friend, Steve?"
I'll be your friend, pal. I'll always be your friend. I love you, buddy.
Saturday, January 01, 2011
Making Your New Year's Resolutions Stick
The library is busy today. Mrs. Hinkle has brought in her Grade 6 class, and he sits in the far corner watching them between shelves as he balances a book on his lap. He's twelve years old, and he should be in the cafeteria eating lunch with the other seniors, but Adam is sick this week. No one else will sit with him. Grade 7 was supposed to be a good year, but it's even worse than last year. He wishes that he had more friends, but the other kids don't seem to like him. They've never liked him. Mrs. Hinkle's class finally leaves, and he opens his book again. It is thick with a black cover. For the next little while at least, he will spend time in a world where he is accepted.
The cafeteria is quiet, and she nibbles on an apple as she closes up her binder, her homework finally done. She pulls a thick book with a black cover out of her bag. She likes it here once the lunch crowds are gone. It's one of the few things she'll miss from high school when she graduates at the end of this year. She knows that most people don't realize how lonely she is, that she doesn't seem the type. They think that because she's pretty and athletic and rich that life is easy for her. They don't know what it's like to be in her home when no one is around. They don't know about her dad's drinking and her mom's constant yelling at her and her little brother. Her mother is fixated on her marrying someone rich like her father, but all she wants to do is help people. Sometimes she works in the Community Living class and helps with the developmentally disabled students. She'll miss them, too, she thinks. Her mom called her a "stupid little idiot" for even considering such a "wasteful" career the one time she mentioned it. She shakes her head and opens her book. She didn't think she'd like fantasy, but it's a safe place, and for some reason it always makes her feel better to spend time in this world with these characters.
The camera in my mind switches off as I stare at the blank screen. After nearly 17 months spent on my novel, I can still see them, more clearly then when I started. Writers write because they must, but in many ways this project is about those for whom I hope to inspire. I know that because I see them periodically, all ages and races and genders. They are old and young, successful or not. Some have money and some don't. Some look strange and dress differently. Others wear suits and dresses and never do anything to draw attention to themselves. After a decade of youth work and a lifetime of jobs in a variety of fields, I know them because I was one of them, because I am one of them. If there is one common element in the people I see reading a thick book with a black cover, it is this: the world does not make sense, and it has rarely been kind to them.
It is all in my imagination, of course. I have not yet published this novel, and there is only a remote chance it will ever find its way into a school library, but without my future readers to encourage me, to push me forward, I don't think I would have gotten this far, and I'm not yet done. Every day is a struggle, as I grapple with knowledge that I will have spent two years of my life working on a project that no one else will ever see. I'm convinced however, that most of us trying to live a purposeful life often find ourselves in a similar situation. There is no guarantee that our ideas will work, that we'll reach our goal, or that we'll end up at the top of our chosen field. It is more likely, in fact, that we will not get there. That someone else will attempt what we've attempted and do it better, or have better contacts or better timing. That is the way the world works, and the reason so many parents and educators encourage us to be practical about our choices and use money as a way to gauge our success.
HARD TRUTH: You have a much better chance to be successful in making a lot of money than you do in pursuing your dreams. But no matter how much money you make, if you quit on discovering your purpose and passion in life, you will have ultimately failed, no matter what it says on your bank statements.
It's surprisingly mild today, and I'm out on our balcony with only a toque and a sweater. The air is wet, though it isn't raining, and the gray sky covers the city like an old blanket. After the familial rush of Christmas and hectic jostlings of Boxing Day, the New Year seems birthed out of an ambience of quiet reflection. After Christmas, it's my favourite holiday, a chance for us to hit the reset button on our lives. And while our responsibilities – family, children, and work – remain, it offers us an opportunity to examine things from the inside out, to look in the mirror and be honest with what we see. Too often, I think, we spend New Year's more worried about where we'll be celebrating than attempting to make the next year a truly NEW year. And the result is that we end living the same year over and over, besotted on all sides by worries and anxieties, and feeling powerless to grasp the controls of our own life.
As someone who trains in gym, my friend noted the other day that she hates the first six weeks of the year when all the 'resolution babies' fill up every square inch of the place, making it impossible to find equipment or room to work out. It only lasts about six weeks though, she said, before things get back to 'normal.' I would say that for most of us, we shift back to 'normal' a lot faster than six weeks. Only it doesn't have to be that way.
"Normal" is the world we've always inhabited, the one where we fill the role other people expect us to fill. It's a comfortable place because we know it so well, and it's comfortable for others because they know us in that role. Unfortunately, our role is rarely something we've chosen. Other people have chosen it for us, and because it doesn't revolve what we feel is our underlying purpose in life, it shifts and changes depending on who we're with and what others say. That's why resolutions don't last. Whatever we want to be, whatever goals we set, must always stem from both the passion(s) and purpose God's given us. We weren't born to live someone else's life, and yet too often we cede control, and thus our lives, to the forces around us. Family expectations, friends, religion, culture, political ideology, the list is endless. Everyone wants to tell us who we should be until it all gets so confusing we throw our hands up and just stop; we stop making choices based on who we are and how God made us, and allow others to define us according to what makes them comfortable.
The purpose of writing my novel is to create a safe place for people who have suffered and feel like God has let them down, people who feel lonely and befuddled by the cruelty of humanity. But that purpose is something that has extended into my youth work, my training, and my relationships with friends and family. My purpose makes tomorrow necessary and exciting, in that tomorrow belongs to me. It hasn't always been that way, and for years I wondered why I couldn't stick to my resolutions, why my goal sheets always ended up half-done. I was the ultimate 'resolution baby.' I finally realized that my goals had to be tied to my purpose in some way. Once that happened, my resolutions actually started to change my life.
Remember, there's a difference between purpose and passion. Purpose is the underlying reason why I exist, my attempt to fill one of the gaps in our broken world. It is always other oriented and selfless. Passion is the method by which I hope to bring about my purpose. (My passion is writing, but my purpose is to create a safe place for those who feel left out, and to be an encourager. My writing, my passion, attempts to reflect my purpose.) Passion can be anything. It can be work, a hobby, kids, the elderly, cars, or whatever. It is the one (or three) thing in life that makes time slow down for you, the one thing that makes everything else dim for a while. The key is that your passion must reflect your purpose in some way. And I mean something outside your own success.
What about you? What's your purpose? If you don't know what drives you or what changes you'd like to see in the world, maybe this is the week to stop and take a look around. Think about your family and life growing up, the people you see at work and school. What upsets you? What's the one thing that breaks your heart when you look at the world? That is your purpose. It is your reason, and if you let it, it will become your greatest anchor to a life of wonder and change and wisdom. Without purpose however, no matter how great our passion, we are bound to a life of narcissism and misery. The world will never be enough unless we try to be enough for the world.
My prayer for you this New Year is that you'll take your time in making your resolutions. Discover your purpose and find your passion first, and then watch as your resolutions grow into lifelong resolve, and your world changes into one of your making.
It's time to go inside. I can still see them, my future readers, but they are starting to blur as another face appears. He's an 18 year old carpenter's apprentice named Josh. All he wants is to become a professor and be alone with his books, and perhaps find some community in the world of academics. He's known loneliness and rejection throughout his life, and as he tells me his story, I understand. I've been there, both as a kid and as an adult, and so I do my best to listen carefully to what he says. There are times I miss the hesitation in his voice, or the sarcasm, and I need to go back. Sometimes I miss the crackle as he talks about his family, miss the red in his eyes. He seems older than eighteen, but tragedy does that, I guess. Most days I wish that I was a better listener, and that you could hear Josh tell his story directly, around a fire or on a stage, but perhaps my ears will be good enough. Perhaps my humble translation will find its way between two black covers, and into libraries and school bags. The whole gang, Josh, Caitlin, Synelle, Mattie and even Ryleste, they would all be happy with that, I think. The balcony door swings shut behind me, and I open my laptop, unable to stop smiling. It's time to listen.
Authour's Note: Thank you all for your patience these past couple of months. I haven't posted as much as I'm in the middle of "first draft" writing, which is involved and particularly heavy, especially as I'm attempting to 'hear' 1800 words a day, along with paying the bills, and spending quality time with my beautiful and amazing Bethany. In the Spring, I should be back to posting more regularly. Comments and questions are welcome as always. Happy New Year, everyone.