Thrash Early – Some Thoughts on Taking the Plunge

 

I had a conversation this morning with a soon-to-be-graduate. (Soon-to-be, as in, tonight at approximately 9:30 p.m), and she told me something remarkable. She’s going to college this fall in Delaware, and immediately heading overseas to study at university in Madrid. Cool! I said, what a chance to improve on your knowledge of Spanish in an immersion setting (and maybe catch a world-class soccer match). It’ll be life-changing, and you’ll come back speaking the language like a native!

Nope, she says. I took French in high school.

Come again?

Yup. Here’s this French-language student going halfway around the world to put herself into a hugely-challenging life where she’s bound to be discouraged and frustrated nearly every day, multiple times a day. Not for the faint of heart.

Now there’s two ways to look at this kind of steep-learning-curve scenario. One is with an aversion to risk, the instinct to play it safe and avoid it, settling for learning Spanish in a classroom, or even a French-immersion scenario.

The other is to embrace it.

What better opportunity for growth, for learning about the potential pitfalls of a risky endeavor, and discovering how to overcome them than to pitch headlong into the water? Maybe it’s a carefully-calculated dive. (It probably should be). But even if it’s carefully-calculated, it’s still a dive. And there’s only one way to dive. Whether you know how to swim or not, what’s bound to happen after you hit the water?

Thrashing.

In this scenario, or a hundred others like it which you’re thinking of in your own life – your dreams, your deeply-held passions – there will be a chance to leap, which will be followed by the potential for thrashing. Maybe even epic amounts. And, along with that thrashing will come frustration, discouragement, questions about the purpose and meaning of our existence, or this dream, all of that.

But, as with all new endeavors which involve thrashing early, my friend Ceara will be doing something extremely important: she’ll be getting the most difficult, existential-crisis part of her venture out of the way up front, to make way for growth later. There’s only one way to go from there – up.

If you’re going to thrash, as Seth Godin puts it, thrash early. It’s better than thrashing later. Because obstacles will come. But you’ll see them early.

So, what new endeavor are you considering? What risky, lump-in-the-throat leap of faith in the direction of a dream or passion? There will be thrashing. But if there’s thrashing to be done, let’s get it out of the way early.

The Earth Between My Fingers

My wife stood at the kitchen table the other day separating coins for a lesson she was preparing for her kindergarten students. She divided the change into piles, separating the great silver discs of quarters from the dimes and nickels, finding a space in the corner for that midget of a copper afterthought, the penny. As I watched her work, I found myself wondering the point of learning such an increasingly-obsolete skill as counting change. After all, my pennies usually end up massed in the cup-holder of my car or orphaned in a dresser drawer, and most of my transactions take place electronically, with 1’s and 0’s substituting for the metal coins and paper bills.

I’ve also wondered the same thing about learning handwriting, a mountain which both my children have labored so mightily to climb. Why suffer over the proper formation of a “q” or a “g” when punching the keys on a laptop produces the same result? So much of our communication these days is electronic, and voice-activated communication seems to be the wave of the future, it seems.

But the more I think about these seemingly-vestigial practices, the more I am reminded of how blessedly tactile they are.

Read more at Story Warren

 

Singing Harmony

I love to sing. But let me get something straight here. I’ve got what might best be described as a voice made for a choir. I can hit the right pitch, read music, adjust my dynamics, and really belt it out. Put me with a few dozen other singers, and we can really make some lovely sounds. But pull me out of the choir, put a microphone in front of me, and ask me to carry the tune solo, and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.

I’m even more limited when asked to sing anything other than melody. I learned fairly early on that not only was I unable to pick out the harmony part by ear, even when placed next to other tenors who were also singing harmony, I had trouble sticking with them. I naturally gravitated over to the melody part. Unfortunate for anything but unison singing, to say the least.

But, oh how lovely can harmony be! I was in church the other week, and the congregation was singing “Amazing Grace,” when one of the female vocalists came in on the final verse with a gorgeous harmony part. I was struck then, as I am nearly every time I hear a good harmony vocal, how the beauty of a harmony vocal can illuminate even the most familiar of songs. The melody is sharper, clearer, and it sings more beautifully, because of it. It was like hearing the song for the first time.

Here’s a confession I’m hoping you might resonate with: for much of my life, I’ve had a tendency to view my talents and creative giftings with a good deal of insecurity, as if the fact that my gifts weren’t incredible, world-changing, or spectacular – especially when compared with certain others – they weren’t worth sharing at all. Too often, I’ve found myself paralyzed by the anxiety over coming up short, being discovered to be not quite good enough with my creative giftings. As a result, I’m forgone the whole endeavor and remained silent, my microphone switched off, my mouth shut.

But it strikes me I’m looking at this gift thing all wrong.

Read more at Story Warren

Maybe The World Isn’t Crazy… (Taking the Oath)

befunky-collage

I’m not sure I’m going to get this right. I’m not even sure I know what
I want to say here. But for someone who was born with both a heart for justice and a genetic inclination to opine and judge relentlessly – and seek to win every argument I’m in – I feel like I’ve reached a tipping point in my life. And it goes a little like this:

I don’t want to label.

I don’t want to categorize.

I’m not interested in what box I’m going to put you in. I humbly ask you to not put yourself into the box of a label.

You’re not defined by your labels. Know why? They don’t exist. They’re an illusion, see? A mirage. An external construct.  

The only label you need is the one you were born with when you came into this world.

Person.

Why these thoughts? Why today, January 20, 2017? To quote Caleb Chapman of the band Colony House, “I’m not scared of fighting, I’m just a little bit over this conversation.”

I don’t think we don’t have time for this anymore. A label leads to a stereotype, leads to a pre-made judgment about identity, leads to a heightened sense of apprehension and wariness, leads to a conflict, leads to a fight, leads to all-out war.

See? Done. No more labels.

And once I’m done watching the labels fall off, what am I left with?

I’m left with your story. A complicated, nuanced, contradictory story.

I was talking to a colleague the other day about how teaching teenagers is so fascinating in this regard. One day you’re having a heart-to-heart conversation with a student from a broken home about their struggle to just roll out of bed that morning and get themselves breakfast and to the bus on time, let alone finish my thematic analysis essay. They look you in the eyes, tears smudging mascara, lip quivering, and you see how broken they are, and your heart breaks for them. They tell you they’re working hard to get caught up, but they could really use more time. So, you grant the extension and walk away from the conversation hopeful that something has been accomplished.

The next day, the same student snaps at a classmate, says something horribly inappropriate, and winds up in the office, and the paper never gets turned in.

So which was the Real Them?

You know the answer, I think. Because you’ve been looking in the mirror for a lifetime now, getting acquainted with a beautiful, label-free, contradictory, complicated person whom some days you can’t even begin to figure out.

Both.

Neither.

I’m not sure really. But when it comes to living life in community with my friends and acquaintances, I know one thing.  

I want my first instinct to be listening. Hearing. From every range of the spectrum that exists, I want you to tell me your story.

Where you’ve been. Where you hoped you’d be. Where you dream of going.

“The story of any one of us is the story of us all.” Frederick Buechner.

“We are all the same it seems/behind the eyes/Broken promises and dreams/in good disguise.” Amy Grant.

Again, Caleb Chapman. “Maybe the world isn’t crazy. Maybe it’s you and I.”

The danger of a label is the danger of a single story.

“To create a single story,” says Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her mesmerizing TED talk, “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” That’s because, she goes on, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

They make one story become the only story. Yikes. Guilty.

There is no single story. There is no person who’s just one thing. Not me, not you. So I’ll take my own oath today.

(Raising right hand).

I swear I will, to the best of my ability, take the time to listen, to set aside labels, to pay attention to the story behind the eyes. To both the person whose socio/political/ideological/geographical/religious/cultural perspectives are the same as mine, and to those who couldn’t seem more different than mine.

So help me God.

Will you join me? Will you listen? There’s a story there waiting to be heard.

And I want to hear it.

Motown in the Morning (Who Writes The Story?)

writing-1-600x250Last December, in some bizarre attempt to be festive, we started the odd family tradition of waking our children for school with the radio blaring Christmas music from the living room downstairs. Don’t judge. So, for a few weeks, they (and we) were treated to Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole at an obscene volume while they fumbled for blankets and buried their heads under pillows.

When Christmas ended, we kept the tradition going for a little while, with the musical selections drawn instead from a Motown channel I’d added to Pandora on a whim. Not too long after the adding of the channel, however, my older son dialed up the channel on his own. Yup, he boarded the soul train right there in the the living room, grooving to the Jackson 5. Or maybe it was Smokey Robinson. Sam Cooke? Since then, the Motown channel has been among our go-to soundtracks for wrestling matches and dance parties alike.

Who would have thought that my kids would come to love the Temptations and Marvin Gaye? It was, for me, a very small example of a larger truth: they’ll make their own choices, follow their own paths, be their own people. And, even though I don’t consider myself a classic type A, this can be at times quite distressing. There’s a fascination – at least I’ve felt it – with the desire to create little carbon copies of myself in my children. Or if not mini-Me’s, there’s this instinctive urge to be in control, to grab the wheel with clenched fingers and make every twist and turn, guide and direct, control (there’s that word again) their progress through every plot twist of their story. This is all done, I suppose, in the hopes that I can cushion their falls, that heartbreak and soul-wrenching conflict will be remain a distant drumbeat, and the resolution of their story will be smooth and beautiful.

But their story is not mine to write.

Read more at Story Warren

Small Sabbaths

dsc_0758

Photo by Ming-Wai Selig

This summer, quite by accident, my son and I stumbled into a new bedtime reading routine that has been so nourishing and therapeutic, it’s opened my eyes to a fresh vision of rest and margin. One night, as we were heading into his room, my son pulled a chapter book from his bedside table and told me simply, “I’m going to read this tonight.” I gawked for a moment, feeling a bit unwanted, if you really must know, but then I had to smile. This was a step up the ladder, a big one actually. So, I found a book of my own, and there we lay for twenty minutes or so, reading quietly beside each other. The practice – he calls it “side-by-side” – has continued on and off for the past few months.

And it’s been beautiful. In the near-quiet, I become aware of so many things – the steady rise and fall of his chest, the sound of his breathing and the occasional sigh or sniffle, the scratching of an itch on the top of his head, or on his neck, the rustling of pages turned. I feel his little elbows jabbing into my side, his warmth, all of it. I read beside him most of the time, but sometimes, I just lie there staring off into space and doing, well, nothing. Nothing productive in a world governed by agendas, anyway. What I’m really doing is sabbath. A little rest after a long day of rush and noise and schedules and bright screens and yellow highway lines and stop lights. A little rest. A little Sabbath.

Read more at Story Warren

Liturgy of Longing

pexels-photo

Today, on the kind of postcard-perfect fall day that only one who has lived through sub-zero winters can truly appreciate, I felt the magnetic pull to change my scenery, take it all in, get out and go. So pushing pause on all obligations for an hour or two, I hopped in the car and drove north, past the oranges and reds of autumn on one of the countless country roads that twine through these gentle New York hills. I didn’t know where I was headed. I knew there would be coffee involved, and I had snagged my notebook and a pen. But what would happen when I got … wherever I was headed, was entirely unwritten, like the blank pages in my book. I was waiting, the prayer of anticipation on lips – “Show me something amazing.”

If, as Augustine and others suggest, we are longing creatures, we are born to desire, then there is always something pulling us toward it. It’s the force of love, our true north, if you will. Of course, far too often, instead of being drawn toward true north, I’m pulled in a different direction, a free-falling chunk of rock hurtling through space, out of control and out of orbit until it crashes down in some cow pasture in Nevada and wonders, “How’d I find myself here?” Too often, there is clutter, chaos, or worse, utter numbness.

But I don’t want moments like that. I want the moments that pull back the curtain and show the truth in all its goodness, beauty in all its transcendence. We’ve all had them. They’re moments of wonder which stop us cold and awaken the longing inside us. They can seem spontaneous, as if we stumbled upon something lovely amidst the daily routine, like today’s sudden drive. 

But do they have to be? Can we schedule them? Can we craft a liturgy of longing?

I think we can, because we must. We dare not wait for these moments. Sometimes they do hijack us, take us by surprise, tie us up and demand we pay attention. But often, we must be the catalyst. We must schedule anticipation. We must, I am realizing, make a ritual out of preparing to be taken by surprise. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ll put it on my calendar. I’ll plan my day around it.

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives,” writes Annie Dillard. “What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” So what are we doing? I’m well aware that the rhythm of my life doesn’t always leave enough rest for these such activities. I don’t always land on the right beat, and I end up trapped inside other routines, liturgies of materialism and self-gratification. But these activities are vital. They pull us out of our story into the larger Story. They awaken something that sleeps inside us, opening the eyes of our spirit to something bigger.

My friend Jon and I have been talking about scheduling hang time. The plan, as best we’ve worked it out, is to go grab a burrito, find a table, and … 

We don’t know what we’ll talk about, or where our time will lead. But we’re going to share our stories and see what happens. It’s exciting, isn’t it? To consider the possibilities of what might happen when we schedule time to anticipate wonder? I pray for the courage to clear away competing voices and reorient my compass toward true north, not just when the whim strikes, but regularly. Constantly. Reliably.