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.

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Small Sabbaths

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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.

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Liturgy of Longing

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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. 

A Prayer for Kindred Spirits

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My six-year old son played soccer for the first time this summer. At his first practice, I dropped him off and watched from the fence as he lingered on the sideline, right cleat atop his ball, and watched the others enthusiastically drilling their shots into the small net. His coach greeted him with a warm hello; my son looked at him, but said nothing, still moving the ball back and forth slightly under his foot.  

During the Red Light-Green Light drill, while others in the group shot toward the far cones as if drawn by a magnet, my son moved down the field – tap, tap, left foot, right foot. At first, he appeared lethargic, but then, I realized he was simply being cautious, his eyes fixed on the ball to make sure he never lost possession. His coach moved behind him and urged him on, shaking his head at my son’s turtle’s pace. But, as I expected he would, my son continued dribbling steadily down the field. I had to grin. Nothing that coach did or said was going to change the way my son dribbled.

Earlier this year, during a family overnight trip to Niagara Falls, he won a bundle of tickets at one of those arcades and chose to trade them in for a superhero pen and notebook set. Though he had barely learned to form his letters, he set about recording the previous day’s events meticulously in that little book. You should see the few sentences he wrote about seeing the waterfalls and dinner at the Rainforest Cafe. They veer and wobble across the page like an out of control automobile, but there’s such passion, such commitment to recording his world in a notebook. It reminds me a lot of myself as a boy. I found myself wondering where it comes from – this instinct to record experiences, to use writing as a way to make sense of the world.

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Making Things Matters

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I recently read The Song Machine, John Seabrook’s startling book about the state of pop music in the digital era. Among other topics covered in the book, Seabrook spends quite a bit of time talking about the process of making hit songs for chart-topping pop acts like Katy Perry and Britney Spears.

I’ll spare you the long version, but in essence, Seabrook describes the songwriting process now as an assembly-line system, where “beats” – intricate combinations of drum sounds – are created on computers, then emailed in batches to “hit factories” in California or New York, where another group of people – not the recording artists yet – are brought in to take the beats and add “lyrics.” These words are usually created to fit within the existing framework of the beats, with primary emphasis placed on rhyme and rhythm, not actual meaning.

In short, Seabrook explains, songs aren’t really written any more; they’re assembled from parts created around the world by people who might not even know each other.

Does that sort of process make you feel a little sad? Me, too.

Not just because it means letting go of the romantic notion of an artist toiling away to create songs that are deeply personal, yet still universally meaningful, but because it also means letting go of other things, like the connection between the artist and her art – the spark of inspiration Dorothy Sayers called “Idea,” which is that breathtaking moment at the beginning of a creative endeavor, when it seems the horizon opens up and anything is possible.

I guess I still believe that making things matters.

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Might With Measure: Some Thoughts On Masculinity

 

209984_1259970461My two boys are little cups brimming with physicality. Most days our house looks like a war zone of plastic weapons and combat toys. There are lightsabers, Nerf guns, bows, and arrows, plastic superheroes, and plenty of battle cries. When we’re reading a novel like The Horse and His Boy, which we just finished, you can see my boys sit up straighter, pay a little more attention, when the battle scene begins. At the risk of generalizing, it’s in their DNA, this desire for courage, justice, and high-stakes conflict. They love to battle.

But on days like the kind we’ve seen far too many of this past week, I confess, I’m afraid of aggression, and our current culture which is fraught with it. Aggression is instinctive. It’s selfish and acquisitive. And it’s easy. But look what havoc gets wreaked worldwide by naked aggression. Our films involve avenging and destroying, and our rhetoric is combative. Enemies are proclaimed, and outrage is the flavor of the day on social media. You’re not really communicating unless your remarks are full of venom, or at least point a finger in ire at the Other, whoever that is. And round and round it goes, this cycle of combat. 

So, no, I’m not a fan of aggression. And yet, I want my boys to grow to embrace their identity as the men they were created to be. But I think there’s something fundamentally flawed with equating masculinity with aggression. Being a man does not mean being dominant, running roughshod over the desires of the weaker, taking what they feel they’re entitled to, shoving finger-pointing, or brute force conquest.

So what is it? Well, this isn’t one of those “I’ve found the answers”-type posts. But, in the New Testament, the apostle Peter paints a helpful vision of holy masculinity. He compels husbands to treat their wives “as a delicate vessel,” with nurture and care.

I love that little simile. It’s too brief to be a complete set of instructions but it’s a start. It leads to actions like protecting the innocent, standing up for the needs of the weak, sacrificing one’s self for a noble cause, promoting order, cultivating a tender heart, and most of all, drawing close to the heart of God, who revealed himself in the form of a man named Jesus who wept at the death of a close friend, yet drove out of the temple by force those fraudulent sellers, and ultimately allowed himself to be murdered for the sake of the world’s souls. Not weak, but might with measure. 

C.S. Lewis found inspiration for holy masculinity in the chivalric ideal of Medieval knights: “The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”

The command in John goes: “This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends,” This, and not aggression, is how I pray my sons grow. I pray Grace that my life’s example would model these traits, and more Grace on those occasions when doesn’t. But, even more, I pray that the stories I tell, the stories that we all tell with our lives, would be full of the order, justice, and dignity which embody a vision of the coming Kingdom, where love will reign long after the last tear has fallen.

Fight for the Beautiful

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My older son was born the same week as the Pixar movie Wall-E, and I’ve always felt a bond with the little trash-collecting robot. Like Wall-E, I’m a bit of a pack rat, I have a fondness for old musicals, and I have a tendency to run into things when I’m trying to impress someone. Only a few years ago, though, when I heard director Andrew Stanton explain Wall-E’s driving motivation during a TED talk on story did I put together what it was about the robot that I truly admire. Wall-E’s driving force, his “spine,” as Stanton calls it, is to find and protect the beautiful.

How great is that?  

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