We need stories, desperately.
I have a confession to make – I’m a sports addict. I've had a growing hunch, but this quarantine has removed all doubt.
No March Madness. No NBA playoffs. No World Cup. No Summer Olympics. No Opening Day baseball.
All the games have been cancelled.
There is no drama, no winners or losers, no comebacks or valiant one-second or one shot or one goal-too-short losses. There have been no ‘thrills of victory or the agony of defeat’ as they used to say on ABC’s Wild World of Sport that broadcast during the Saturday’s of my childhood.
We all have things that buffer us against the storms of life. For me, one of those things is sport, though I believe the underlying factor is story.
Enter the 2020 NFL draft.
This may seem silly, but I’ve had to fight back a few tears while watching the draft. Now, I realize the NFL is a major corporation that does a lot of things wrong. However, it also knows how to tell a great story. And, for these three days, there is real drama, competition at last between the teams.
Sometimes, we look at overpaid athletes (as a teacher who will, in my lifetime, earn less than most players do in a year or two of playing a game – I know) and are dismissive of them as real, struggling human beings.
Yet, each one of those boys-become-men drafted this weekend have fought through innumerable struggles to achieve their goal, just like you and me. And, most of them have done it under a spotlight. For every kid having their name called, there have been multitudes that flamed out or spent everything and came up short. Some of those guys will become teachers and coaches :).
For those drafted, it is a story of talent, sure, but also of hard work. And, if you’ve been watching like I have, many of these soon to be millionaires have stories of loss and great sorrow. Also - great responsibility to lost parents, siblings, or their community.
I would grade my youthful athletic self as slightly above average to decent. My point is - my love for sport is not some sort of hanging on. There never was much to hang on to. Especially these days, when my knees and hips and feet moan in pain every time I play 1-on-1 with my fourteen year old firstborn son Noah.
However, I’ve been coaching middle school boys’ basketball for nearly two decades, and I love all those boys I’ve had the great pleasure to coach, because in their precious lives, there is a valiant and beautiful story being worked out. There is hard work, belief, camaraderie, sacrifice, elation, and yes, bitter disappointment. After that, there is a choice. Give up, or press on. Many of them are young men now, with families of their own.
In my first two blog offerings, I've taken you into the natural world. I’d like to do that again, today, because I think all stories are intertwined in the same mysteries. I was up again this morning, and down at the lake, where the sun was cascading over trees, adding startling luminescence to the fog that was hovering over still waters. The birds accompanied this vision with their usual joy.
As I walked through the woods to the shore, I noticed a few wonderful things. A large stump, felled by man or weather, and yet from the side of its severed trunk, a thin twig was sprouting, with one plump green leaf. Also - an elder tree, lying on its side, its massive exposed roots bare and dry. Even as mosses and ivy crawled over and siphoned away its vitality, it was still pushing hopeful shoots toward the light.
I love the forest, because every story that could ever be told is found there.
Several of the writers I admire, and have been blessed by recently, find their inspiration in the woods and creeks and sky and shore. Annie Dillard’s “Teaching a Stone to Talk” is a wonder. So is anything written by Rick Bass or Alistair Macleod.
The writer who has most shaped my recent writing, especially my poetry (here’s my most recently published poem, out this weekend), has been Mary Oliver. Listen to what she had to say about stories and the wilderness in her essay entitled “Staying Alive”:
“I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything – other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned, that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion – that standing within this otherness – the beauty and mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books – can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”
This quarantine has many of us on tilt.
Last night, I hollered in anger at my boys and was compelled by truth to sit beside them and apologize. I had let my stung heart and mind become bigger than my hope and peace. My guess – many of us have slipped lately, have been less than the story we aspire to tell.
Remember the disciples, and especially Saint Peter. The God-man wonder of all history was beside them, suffering so that He sweat great drops of blood, and all they could do was hide in sleep. Then Peter hid in denial, and ran from his better self, his truest self.
But, that is not the end of his story.
He was redeemed, got back up and carried on in the faith, for himself and for generations of believers. His story is a comeback tale of epic proportion.
Our God knows how weak we are, and is not surprised when we fall. He is reaching out, always, wanting us to see what He already knows about us, that our story is one for the ages. We just have to believe.
Here's another comeback story I really like. Anthony Cassar is my thirdborn son Luke's godfather, a wonderful role model to my boys and me.
Our routines are disrupted, and that’s a worthy sacrifice to limit the damage of COVID-19 to our neighbors and kin.
We are beings that need ritual, pattern. Our bodies are made that way. For instance, I have not left my house to work in nearly a month. Yet, my body is so attuned to schedule that I still wake in the blue-gray of morning, before the rising of the sun.
During these weeks I’ve been staying up late, my night owl tendency unleashed, because there is no pressing urgency to rise. And so, when my body tells me it’s time to get up, I tell it to lie down a little longer. I’ve been sleeping in. For a parent of four relatively young sons (aged 4, 8, 10, 14), this pleasure seems well earned. I’ve enjoyed burying my face in my pillow for a few more lolling hours.
I keep waking each day, though, my body calling out for normalcy, some balancing of life. So, today I succumbed, rose and walked in the cool of the morning. (It was 41 degrees Fahrenheit, perfect for a sweatshirt and shorts!)
This is the Lenten season, where every day is filled with potential for repentance, and while I’m a poor ascetic, I remain grateful the Church has ordained an annual remembrance of our desperate need for salvation, and also of God’s great love and redemption.
It’s been a strange Lent, perhaps particularly for an Orthodox Christian, who is aided so richly by iconography and incense and light. Yet all people of faith have accoutrements of worship that we’ve been missing, and for this I am very sad. Thankfully, our priests and pastors and worship leaders have been vigilant, censing chapels, and chanting hymns and offering words and songs of encouragement. May God bless them for their faithfulness to their flock.
(We teachers are trying to do the same.)
Tears of joy and sorrow have intermingled as I’ve watched my priest and his wife and young daughter chant before God, alone. But they are not alone. Thank you.
I have been able to listen to my brother and his wife lead their congregation in song. Thank you.
I have also been able to listen to the wise words of Fr. George Eber, my parish priest from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I am grateful.
In one of Fr. Eber’s recent morning talks, he mentioned how the birds rise before the sun to sing, announcing the arrival of the day. He said it was a reminder that the long dark of night must end, and there is joy in the morning!
So, when the clock in my body woke me today, I consented to hurry out and listen to their song. I saw no one on my walk down to the nearby lake shore. I heard no cars, or trucks, or any human sounds. Only creaking of trees and rippling of waters; also the breeze. And, a symphony of birds! Chanting and chattering in a hundred hopeful tongues. Even the cranky honking of geese sounded lovely amid the jubilant refrain. I was reminded that all of creation worships God, even the somber stones.
It is spring. New Jersey is the garden state, so there is loveliness all around. At our house, I have a number of trees and bushes that are sprouting green buds of new life. There is a wondrous unfolding of pink and purple and white flowers. (Yesterday, between running routes and catching footballs from me, my 8 year old son Luke kept stopping to bring flowers to show me – oh, the pure elation of a child!)
We’ve been having April showers, and two days ago, nearing evening, a storm blew suddenly through, and left behind a momentary vision. Half the sky was hovering dark of passing rain cloud, the other half descending golden orange glow of sun. And arcing over the sky was an extraordinarily vivid double-rainbow. The sun was just peeking over our roof, and trunks of trees in my backyard had slipped into grey shadow, while the red and green and yellow spring buds were illuminated, producing warm colors unseen at any other moment.
This isolation is hard for so many, and it is much worse for the suffering sick and dying who are alone. Lord, have mercy!
For those who can, set your alarm for half an hour before sunrise. Drag yourself out to listen to the song of creation, praising the God of order and innovation, of steady and surreal.
Yesterday, on a sudden, a wind that hearkened to tornado days in Oklahoma blew through and bowed the trees and flung debris in every direction. I was on the sun porch watching my boys play in the yard. They were frightened horribly and went running in circles yelping; there was also an amazed gleam in their eye, grateful for such a marvel.
We moved into our current home nearly a decade ago. I began working hard in
the yard right away, trying to live up to the legacy of beauty my father (a landscape artist, truly) instilled in me. This earned the friendship of my neighbor across the street who was also much devoted to her garden. In the years since, she’s been occupied several days a week, cultivating the flowering of her property.
Untold hours were spent there, laboring and loving and creating.
This past summer our neighbor sold her home and moved away. The new neighbors, a young couple just getting started, tore out all of her flowers and shrubs. They’ve begun something good, but most of my first neighbor’s toil of is lost.
Recently I was on Facebook, and saw a post from my old karate instructor and dear friend Patti regarding her previous home. She shared a picture of the landscaping. Impeccable, elegant, a marvelous ointment for the soul. My pops created the design and we worked together in that yard and many others for years, softening the suffering of the world with flowers and leaves and roots and trunks. Patti sold her home recently, and now her paradise is also gone, replaced by grass, boring and plain. Someone commented that it was like trashing a virtuoso painting.
One of the last jobs my father ever did was for my aunt and uncle in Fort Worth, Texas. It was also a wonder, a truly uplifting and astounding touch of splendor. When they sold their home, the new owners also rendered my father’s art null by ripping it out for more asphalt.
These are all very sad stories. They recall an account of Thomas Jefferson working so diligently to make Monticello a marvel, only for it to be overgrown within years of his death. Its grandeur has since been recaptured, perhaps, by the national park service, but one speculates that again in future those memories will be erased by war, or economic collapse or unseen consequences of climate change coming.
Every single thing we build in this world, even our art, will pass away in its concrete form, though we try and hold on. It is mind-boggling to consider all the cultures and histories of the world that have already been destroyed and forgotten.
Like the national park service at Monticello, my mother has tried to preserve her own yard, planted and cared for through the years by her beloved. She wants to hold on to the gifts he gave. But even in her yard, his, there is a slow fade, as if his voice is drifting slowly to a whisper before silence. She won’t live there forever, and one day new owners might annihilate my father’s vision once and for all.
These truths can be hard. What use is there in living, in lifting feet to walk or hands to industry? I’ve been reading my father’s journals off and on through these desolate years since his passing. I want to read them slow. I want to have some piece of him yet to learn, some tone of voice or aching and jubilation of his soul for all of the days coming until I’m also on my way.
He struggled with sadness and frustration and many other things, burdened like us all. His life was work, but it was also joy. He was frequently a failure, but he also pressed on. My pops did a lot of great things in this world. Some lingering beauty hovers among aging maples, mugos, crepe myrtles and privet, barberry, boxwood, yaupon and pine; thickening rings, limbs and blossoms will continue to remind of his hunger for awe in many yards across Texas and Oklahoma for decades to come. Some will outlive us. There are also a number of recordings beaming from sound systems in untold homes and cars that also testify to his commitment to worship God in song.
My father was an artist, but he is mostly remembered for the good he gave to others. His art is loved because he was.
We are told to accumulate treasure in heaven that cannot be touched by moth or rust. Even as I mourn the destruction of my father’s art I rejoice, for I know his humble offerings to others on behalf of his Lord are eternal; the changing of lives endures. I think a lot about the quality and quantity of my writing, but the question for me is not whether my art is beautiful.
Rather, do I love?
NOTE: I wrote this a while back, but thought that its message was appropriate for our current situation, which is one of gloom. Nevertheless, ‘love conquers all’, and if we’ll continue to reach across the social distancing to one another, we still retain great power of healing and hope.