Monday, January 24, 2011

My Friend Micah

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

A Purpose; Full Life

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.