Thursday, December 29, 2011

Letter to My Future Self

                              

The new year awaits. Can't stop it. Can't slow it down. At this time of year, I always enjoy the year-in-review stories and predictions about what may be. The past and the future simply fascinate me like nothing else. I'm not too proud about that, but it's where I live, most of the time. What about Time Travel? Should I go backward or forward? And why? Going to the past seems, well, a bit awkward and who wants to revisit adolescence, anyway! Onward to the future? Well, that could be terrifying. What if I am dead?! Still, I’d like to make a reservation to tour the terrain at each of these destinations, and I’d certainly have advice to give my younger self and (hopefully) even have things to learn from an older me. For me, living in the present is not always easy. That is partly why I am ending this inaugural year of my blog with a letter to myself, the Wayne that will be on January 1, 2014. Future Wayne, that is. A few years back, my daughter Esther showed me the 'futureme' web site and said she was sending an email message to her future self. I didn’t think much of it until we got that letter a few weeks ago, dated April 19, 2009. Esther is gone now so you can imagine how excited we were to “hear” her voice once again. Of course, her mother and I went into full panic and fresh grief mode so it wasn't all a “puppies and roses” moment for us. But worth the sobbing. She was so wise. I hope there are more such emails to come.

Over 1.7 million letters like that have gone out and now I’ve been inspired to do the same! So, in two short years, an email will arrive in my inbox from a younger version of me! What advice will it contain? Well, definitely, and primarily, I hope I am a wiser and better human being and that I have continued to do what mattered, caring a little more, loving more deeply, marked by a growing generosity. I will then have been married to Lori for almost 30 years! Have I been kinder, treasuring her daily, as I once did?  I have two amazing daughters, who will be 24 and 22, and who will still need my emotional support. Am I their biggest champion? Graham is almost 18 and Abe is 10. Am I the best dad ever for them? Have I leaned into a grace big enough to lead these boys on toward a healthy young adulthood? Esther’s book has been out for a while. Did it inspire readers to aspire to greater things? I sure hope my money worries have subsided! If I’m not taking better care of this body, I will have no excuse, as it has been so good to me…

In this Letter to My Future Self, I go on to offer some other, specific advice which you’ll just have to wait until New Year's, 2014 to read! The main thing is that I’d choose wisdom over revelation any day. I already know too much and without the appropriate application of knowledge (which is wisdom), such toxicity would lead to a spiritual and emotional collapse. I think the best advice for Future Wayne is to keep working at being here, in the present, rooted and grounded in today.

However, without hesitation, I’d still love to travel in time, in either direction, if I could. A police call-box just dropped in from the sky, you say? I'm in! Until then (or until a certain, unavoidable rendezvous brings me, unhindered, into that Mystery), I remain ready to ride, to do my duty, and that must be enough for now. May you be encouraged to live a brighter and bolder life in 2012, which is just around the corner, waiting, with childlike wonder...

That's me! Age 4.







Monday, November 7, 2011

A Contagion of Happiness


On a recent Friday afternoon, as I sat lazily reading in my car during a break from work, a vehicle attempted to squeeze into the narrow space adjacent me. As it did, it proceeded to scrape the side of my van! The driver recognized the problem and presently repeated the damage in reverse. I then jumped out, exaggerating the eyes-wide-open-palms-up, hands-8-inches-apart, universal sign for “What’s going on, here?” (Also known as the “What in the world is wrong with you?!” sign). Now out of the space, the driver looked at me and said these two phrases, twice for emphasis: “Nothing happened! Isn’t that funny?” Then, rapid-fire like, turned and drove off! I thought of chasing down this felon-in-training, of catching the license plate number at least, but, I reasoned, my prized caravan is 15 years old, and such violations have become commonplace in its history. Besides, it was a warm and beautiful fall day, so I sat back down and returned to my book.

The following Monday morning, I left said van at home and this time walked the ten minutes to work. About halfway, I noticed some chalk graffiti on the bridge wall beside which I was walking. In various colors, I began to read postings such as, “Rock it!” “Go get ‘em!” and “You can do it!” Even Shakespeare was quoted:

“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” ~Twelfth Night

By now I was curious and began to anticipate the next wall entry, spaced as they were about 20 feet apart. The hopeful declarations intrigued me. Why would anyone get up early to write these inspirational phrases? I was feeling okay when I left for work but now I was becoming downright excited about the day. My walking path to work makes its way through the mass transit parking lot (Boston’s subway system, simply called the ‘T’). The messages continued, face up now on the blacktop: “Follow your dreams.” “Who Da Man? You Da Man!” and “Go, Sister!” Other quotes kept me focused until at last I reached the entrance to the sacred mountain (or, as the locals like to call it “the escalator to the train”). There I read a final challenge, which called upon the courage of all weary workers: “You got this! Carpe Diem!” I was so taken by this magical stroll that I returned at day’s end to capture in pictures some of the, by now, well-worn reflections.

I have sometimes been like that disconnected driver, taking little or no responsibility for the disarray around me that I have been partner to. Hand in the cookie jar, more than once, I have contested my innocence with a quick retort. “Wasn’t me” I might say. That’s not an option now. People are hurting and it isn’t funny anymore. I don’t seek to be a great person, just a good person (Well, maybe I do want to be Someone; but goodness really is greatness in disguise, isn’t it?). No matter. I really am grateful for the jolting object lesson that my bumper-to-car-door fellow traveler delivered that day. We are all giving and receiving messages of good news or bad. But I’d prefer to be like that pre-dawn chalk bandit, hand delivering hope like so many subway tickets to bleary-eyed commuters. After all, the Mystery Scribbler was responsible for the smile I spent the day trying to wipe off. Imagine that, going through your work day trying to stifle a contagion of happiness.

Go Ahead. You can do it. Dare you.










Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Swept Away"

There was once a man who had seven beautiful daughters. He loved them equally but his fourth child gave him a special measure of joy. As they lived next to the beach, it was her practice from an early age to spend hours dancing on the sea wall. At the restaurant which he managed, he would make it a practice to watch sometimes as she danced mostly for an audience of screeching seagulls and hidden sea creatures. She would turn and bow, laughing as the salty water sprayed her face. She was not afraid.

She was not like the others. She went to school, of course, and had many friends. In fact, all who knew her felt as though they were her closest of friends. Her father felt this way, too. He thought to himself, "I am her favorite. She adores me above all others." If someone felt sad, she would join them in their sadness. If they expressed contentment, then she would share in that, too. Even when she was unable to dance due to illness or weakness, she made it her goal to "lift up at least one soul a day" helping others overcome their hardships. In her unique style she would say, "Let us ascend to the challenge and not despair, for hope will win the day!" Animals came to her unsolicited. She spoke their languages and they understood that she cared. People of every age simply liked to be near her. One elderly gentleman on our island, a wise man who knows about such things, thought her the kindest human being he had ever seen. In his words, she was "An old soul with wild, sun-blessed hair!" "Hair," he said, "that seemed to fill all who knew her with warmth and light." The father himself used to call her, "My little bodhisattva."

Even her family accepted that she was exceptional. There wasn't much envy or jealousy, and even when conflict arose (as it sometimes does in families), no one could stay cross with her for long. Her grace and wit simply wore them down (or built them up!) and before long all could be heard laughing once more. Her big sisters especially praised her and felt she could do no wrong, felt especially that she was meant to do only good. Only later would they learn how very much she thought of them. The eldest sister was her standard, her model of perfection, and she thought the second sister to be entirely and perfectly beautiful. Together, they were to her the ideal woman she hoped to one day become.

And then it happened one morning that a great and rogue wave came and assaulted the beach. Her father had been watching her dance upon the wall. She had just smiled at him and then cart wheeled, knowing the special gladness that that movement brought him. "So elegant" he thought. "So full of serenity and calm." He had just turned away when the sound came. Looking back, he saw in her face an expression of surprise, as if a friend had arrived earlier than expected and found her not quite ready to leave. Overcome by the water she loved, she tried to tame it, to charm it, just as she had all of life until now. She could see her father swimming toward her and she knew she was going to be okay. She thought, "My daddy will save me." She was not afraid. He fought the wave and all the sea to reach her, but when, finally, he held her nearest his heart, it was too late.

All the village wept. No one could recall such a wave. Town leaders called it "a fluke, a once-in-a-hundred-year's wave." Some offered that "evil exists and sometimes good people get caught by it." These were not comforting words. A few well-meaning religious people tried to comfort the father by saying that God somehow, "needed her." (They suggested this only once.) Many years went by and all the village went on with their lives. The father, however would not be consoled. For a long time he would stare at the empty sea wall and say quietly through his tears, "I am so sorry that I could not save you."

But he was a thinker. Indeed, he did nothing in this season of grief but spend his time at the restaurant thinking about thinking! How could such beauty and innocence simply vanish? And for what purpose?! Would it be enough that he had known her? That he had seen a vision empty of guile, that he had been witness to 5,000 days of grace? Can one be happy again after so terrible a loss? Should deep pain and emptiness keep one from loving again, from being there for all those who were not swept away?  After many days and many thoughts, he put his reflections aside with one, final insight: “Certainly, by now she would have wanted me to go on into this new stage of life."

Today, you can see him down by the beach, usually with a few grandkids in tow. Watch. Watch. He will lift the little ones up onto the sea wall, and there will be dancing. And he will smile, even laugh and remember. He has resolved to ascend. He is no longer afraid.

                "You belong to me, Not swallowed in the sea." ~Coldplay
        

                              
                                          



Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Even Such Is Time"

Even Such Is Time 
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust,
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days,
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord will raise me up, I trust.
~ Sir Walter Raleigh

This was one of the first poems I ever memorized. I have long been enamored with the idea of time and the changing of seasons. Speaking of which, did you notice that fall has come? I am always amazed when someone has a favorite season other than this one. Well, I suppose summer sounds better with its vacations and especially if you’re a kid returning to school! In New England where I live, autumn is an easy time of year to appreciate as the colors are so glorious. “But”, you say, “Methinks it was just winter as fresh be the remembrance of an eternity of snow!” And so time moves swiftly, its seconds strutting proudly around the clock, ending peaceful mornings, settling whole childhoods as dust collects on a scrapbook. Time, as we know it, on this furious sphere, remains the same for all passengers, young or old, past or present. We moderns simply record it more eagerly and pretend not to be unduly influenced by it. Indulge me as I mark the quick passage of 20 years and consider how one man has “wandered all his ways”.

[1990] A recent seminary graduate, I am the father of beautiful Abigail and am preparing to serve as the pastor of a new church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts.

[1993] In Idyllwild, California. Now expecting baby #3, I work as a security guard and as a case worker in a treatment home for adolescent males.

[1996] Along with my wife of 12 years and four children, I am a pastor of a church in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

[2000] I am sitting in Saudi Arabia where I work as an educator for the Saudi Navy. Fall isn’t quite the same here. Convenient markers consist of cool or cooler still. Rare is the rain. Palm trees and desert terrain refuse to blush brilliant orange. Now understand, I love the desert and the expected reprieve from sun and humidity in October is much appreciated. Here in the desert kingdom, my girls (with silent Graham in tow) are dirty-footed, bug-finding, kitten-saving, sand-dwellers who love their childhood adventuring!  The hummus and pita bread and olives from Saray's Lebanese restaurant, or a day spent with friends at the Aramco Oil Company compound where we might indulge in Indian curry and dhal and later swim in a pool designed by American engineers are real pleasures. We are most content coming or going, most alive traveling from here to there, happiest in transit.

[2001] We relocated to the Berkshires in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Can you imagine the beauty?! 9/11 tragically descends and shakes us all. The flight path of each plane from Boston literally went over our heads before jerking monstrously south… I am the new interim minister at a local church. The kids are home schooled (which means that they love school!). I read much of the Civil War masterpiece by Shelby Foote. I am in heaven.

[2003] Kingston, Massachusetts. I serve as the interim minister of a protestant church. Abraham arrives! Oldest daughter Abby had been earlier stunned to learn that mom could even get pregnant! Now, my girls take turns feeding him, holding him, changing his diaper. Graham is initially disappointed as he imagined a fully formed play mate.

[2006] Aix-en-Provence, France. While serving as a minister in one of the most beautiful places on earth, we hear the announcement that cancer threatens the life of our beloved middle child, our hub-kid, our Star. She fights it, we hang on to hope. We know that surely, this child is blessed. She cannot die.

[2008] Now relocated to Quincy, Massachusetts, and deeply under-employed, we enter the Rabbit Hole. Esther is treated aggressively at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Angie enters her junior year in high school. We all struggle daily but begin to master the paradox of living in the moment while consciously storing memories away for the future.

[2009] Still in Quincy, I turn 50 and begin work as a Humanities instructor in a local community college. I love it! I also start working as a protestant chaplain for a social services organization. I basically work helping broken people get better. Our motto, “There are no limits to caring.” However, I cannot help my daughter and she has many close calls. More than once, we say goodbye to her. I have never been as vulnerable. I have never loved like this. Esther's illness is brutal. She is stronger still.

[2010] Esther has recently left us and “The presence of [that] absence is everywhere” (St Vincent Millay). We live a fog-life, stumbling, bumbling. People attempt to comfort us. We are disconsolate. We get the boys to school, brush our teeth, walk the dog. Our faith is changed. We are shattered and empty, but somehow, through the mist, perceive a growing wholeness. I remain reverent, hopeful and continue to look for full time work as we now have more than a decade of financial anemia to atone for.

As fall, 2011 begins, I find myself longing to live a more generous life, giving away not just time, hope and encouragement, but material things, too, like money and gifts. I plan to mark the onset of any future autumn by asking, “In the past year, how present was I and how much did I give away, investing in others?” I resolve to be available for my family, grandkids and for all those for whom I may have a responsibility including any strangers that chronos and chance might have decided to deposit at my doorstep.

When I was a kid, my Grandfather Larrett made sure that we never left a visit to his house without a gift, usually a coin, typically a half dollar. Mostly, though, I remember how much I enjoyed being with him and anything he gave me was simply a symbol of that affection. Time, itself, is a symbol of deeper mysteries, each minute a signpost to something Other. Let me suggest that any spending of time be done carefully, thoughtfully. When, alas! The “story of our days” is shuttered, may it be for us that something tangible was left behind, something that let the recipient of our generosity know that we were here, that we cared specifically for them. Bless them, yes, but be mindful to send them away with something to warm their belly, as well. The coin may be spent, perhaps forgotten, but the love will endure, for the heart has no season.
 
 
"Not all who wander are lost." ~Tolkien


Sunday, August 21, 2011

"The Way of the Dandelion"



This Thursday marks the one year anniversary of my daughter’s death. I was the one who closed her eyes, transfixed as they were on eternal mysteries. In the suspended months leading up to that night passage, we would often sit alone, not necessarily talking, just being together, and it was in such times that she’d ask for my hands. For a long time she’d hold them, then begin exploring each finger and nail, massaging my knuckles and palms, all the while whispering beauties. I like to imagine she was reminding them not to lose hope, not to give in and surrender to despair but rather continue to open in blessing. She could see I was stumbling in the dusk, rolling down a mountain of grief... but she was in motion too, only for her, it was toward the apprehension of an “undivided life.”*

Her exhausted body, in those final days, would not cooperate. It violated her, devoured her. Dis-ease is a good description. It is a form of terror. There is nothing simple and easy about violence and its victims. As Esther said in one of her videos, she was marked by this cancer, she had it, but it would not have her. And I think, no matter the brutality of life, we are all meant to aspire to completeness, a pursuit that she never gave up on. I would argue that each person longs for such a wholeness of soul as well as for deep and meaningful inter-personal connections with others.  Sometimes, because this is typically sought on our own terms, we mutilate the fragile vitality we’ve been nursing in order to get what we want, the way we want it. That's certainly one way to make something happen. It’s the approach cancer takes. Let me suggest an alternative vision.

Consider the way of the dandelion. A dandelion seed contains what are called florets, those parachute-like extensions that can be taken by the wind up to several miles from their places of birth. Most eventually land, re-seed and create new dandelion plants. Likewise, many people in our own day feel shut out and cut off from spiritual community because of their country of origin, sexual identity and/or religious labels or lack thereof. Others are living dishonestly, condoning hateful rhetoric toward those they purport to love. Still, some live in an intellectually inhospitable environment while seeking to reconcile exclusivist doctrines that are increasingly at odds with a welcoming practice that they know, intuitively, to be good and right and more true to the heart of their religious and spiritual traditions. All of these people feel blown about, knocked around, used, uprooted, and transplanted. All they want is an authentic serenity. They desire to be who they were meant to be. Each of us has the power to remind our fellow parachutists that they are going to be okay. Imagine how far the journey is for a tiny, quarter-inch floret!  Tenaciously, most do land, and fertility follows. To be spiritually hungry is to be in the sending and mending business. At times, we do some huffing and puffing, veritable wind instruments that launch others on their way. Of course, we, too, must receive our detachment, and so ascend and, finally, reattach. We don’t get to hold onto beauty forever. We have to let it go, to grow.

What is dividing you? I cannot tell you what to believe, but let me urge you to open up to life and be who you are! Plunge in, upward, with me; let us roll along together and consider the heavens and earth before us and be transformed. Look down. The dirt in your toenails is still stardust and the ground below your feet, remains, every speck of it, sacred dust!  I had an excellent coach. A year later, I understand a bit about helping. I will hold your hands. But only you can release them in blessing.

*Phrase from the book A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." ~Jesus







Friday, July 22, 2011

"When Harry (Potter) met Esther"

      "When Harry (Potter) met Esther"


Is Harry Potter real? The 3,000+ people who attended the recent Leakycon conference in Orlando think so! In honor of our daughter Esther, the conference provided plane tickets and hotel rooms so that our family could go. We also went to the premiere of the final film with some VIPs where Esther's brothers seemed a tad confused that complete strangers knew their names. Everyone at the conference was given a This Star Won't Go Out bracelet and I usually found a way to mention to the wearer that I was Esther's dad! We were witnesses to love in action.

The "fandom" as it's called, is huge and has made a gigantic imprint for good on the lives of this generation. It was Esther's world so we tried to give her space to make friends and be herself. Now that she is gone, her friends have become our friends. No surprise there. And they are awesome. They know how to give hope and accept one another. They are eager to show compassion and love without restraint. They know how to tell a story and they know how to celebrate life! They proved that by rocking out last Saturday night during the "Esther Earl Rocking Charity Ball." The ball ended with chants of "Esther! Esther! Esther!" She was also remembered at three other events there, one of which was when I read from the first chapter of my Esther book. About 75 people came. I cried. They cried. We all hugged.

Esther loved the Potter saga. She especially loved the characters. My wife wrote perfectly about this very thing in the wonderful and recently released book, "Dear Mr. Potter" by Lily Zalon (see Lori's letter below). Harry's life seemed very familiar to us. Like Him, Esther was a flawed, but good and pure soul who had to make regular decisions about loyalty, being true to one's calling and resolving to confront evil. Hers was a great story! With the help of many amazing and wonderful friends (some pictured above) she chose the way of courage and the way of love. So, is Harry Potter real? Was Esther real?

   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Lovers of all things Harry Potter:

Harry Potter saved Esther.  He filled her world with stories, peopled her life with friends, and magically knit her into a community. 

Picture a nine year old girl, flyaway blond hair and freckles framing her sunny disposition, curled up in the backseat of a van on a cross-country trek from Boston to Southern California.  And barely a peep for three days as she and her sister read hot-off-the-press Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Buying two hardcover copies was well-spent money!  Esther had followed right after big sister Evangeline in her love for all things Harry Potter, reading and re-reading each volume, hours of discussion over their theories and expectations of characters and story-line.

We moved to France, and Esther discovered Harry and the Potters online.  And we discovered she had cancer: thyroid, already metastasized to her lungs.  Surgery led to treatment, and finally brought us back to Boston and Children’s Hospital.  In December 2008 we nearly lost her.  During the months of recuperation the Internet became her window to the world.  She found out about LeakyCon, scheduled for May just a few miles from our house.  Esther wanted to be strong enough to go.  She got a wig, and we mustered resources and chaperones so she could venture, oxygen tank in tow, into the real life world of wizardry, Nerdfighters, youtubers, and the HP Alliance.  Her real and online worlds had coalesced! 

In Harry Potter’s world evil is tangible, and life is about training to fight it.  Children can be heroes and their youth never limits them.  Obstacles are challenges, and defeat makes us stronger.  As the stories unfold it becomes clear that the darkest battles must be fought within ourselves—and are overcome only as we cling tightly to each other.  Esther embraced these truths and filled her days with loving and being loved.  

In the end, even Harry’s magic couldn’t stop Esther’s cancer.  On August 25, 2010, her tired lungs finally rested.   But the stone that rests on the earthly place where we remember our Star shares the message Esther lived for 16 years:  “Love is Stronger than death.”  

So thank you for your stories, JK Rowling.  Thank you for teaching us we can be heroes, Harry.  And thank you, each and every friend, for loving Esther.  You gave her courage and hope and friendship.  She gave us back love and light.  “Lumos!”

~Lori Earl




Friday, June 17, 2011

Married 27 Years ~and counting!


I have now been married for 27 years! If I had a secret it would be to marry up. Fall in love with someone better. I am serious. I first spotted Lori when she was an 18 year-old freshman at Bethany College. I was smitten. I would say it was her green eyes, smile, laugh and the allure of her traveling life that first attracted me. Then her cocky, punchy personality, together with her love of God and advocacy for those less fortunate, that worked to bewitch me. Mid way through that first year, I fell hard but she wasn't interested in getting any closer than being good friends. So, at years' end I took her out for breakfast to Davenport and told her I was over her (a big lie). After that, we wrote (I was away from the campus the following semester) and life went on.

Then, one day I briefly appeared on campus, and she found her heart strangely warmed by my presence (I played cool but was hoping...). As I was leaving, she walked me out to my car and this is what happened. I said, "Lori, stand here." Moving myself back about six feet I added, "Okay, now, slowly turn around." To which she responded, "What?" "No, no, just do it. Turn slowly like a ballerina, or model. Then stop and face me again." She obliged and, in some mysterious way, in that moment outside Craig Chapel, I won her heart. She already had mine. She was simply perfect to me and I let her know.

Later, she agreed on a status update (thankfully!) and we made it official on June 2, 1984. I was mad with love then. I love her still more deeply today. She makes me crazy but has also made me good. It's not a perfect marriage but ours is a reasonably happy one. I know I've lifted her a bit, as well. She gave up a lot to travel with me. With another, she could have been a religious princess, and would have been financially secure, too. I regret that I have not been kinder, or given her more of that security, but she has always had my heart. And I kind of like her more, now, too, as our days together continue to unfold. Especially on that rare occasion when she turns toward me, slightly embarrassed, that irresistible grin intact, and I am again in my court royal, a duke with his duchess,  just we two, together.

Thank you, Lori Lanei, for saying yes, then and now and for letting me come up there with you, making me a better human being. I know it was, and is, crazy, but you are ever the one for me.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Love is Stronger than death"

“Love is Stronger than death.”
–Song of Songs 8:6
-From “Hope” by Emily Dickinson
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all

Dear My Star,

I finally went to the cemetery earlier today to see you. In such places, I wonder, is anything more powerful than death? Spring-time says yes, and just this week thawed the ground enough to allow the installation of your tombstone. And it is perfect. The Red India granite stone is regal, yet welcoming, just like you. You chose it well even if it is the second most expensive stone on the market!  I was surprised (and relieved?) to see that you weren’t there. This concerned me as I’ve been accustomed to meeting the dead in cemeteries.

But you were there. And yet, you weren't. If there is a there, there, then you are, there (whew!). Mystery. I took the first photos of the site for your friends and even recorded some of my thoughts a la Esther, on your Flip camera! My comments were totally unrehearsed except that I’ve been having similar conversations with you all along over these, long nine months. I know you thought I was your friend but I’m really just your dad and I’ve been worried that you might be lost somewhere, in trouble somehow. I have had nightmares but I cannot dream directly about you and you know what a dreamer I am. I want so much to see you! I can’t go into a store without thinking, “This would be excellent for Star.”  You were so easy to buy for and so grateful for anything I brought home. “Oh, a tomato! How thoughtful, dad. That’s perfect.” “Awesome! I have never heard of the ‘Infinite and Dreary Chronicles of Drooling, Alien, Sumo-Wrestling Babies' but, hey, can’t wait to start reading!”  Many times I have wanted to tell you about my day or get your advice or watch the newest Dr Who episode with you (you’d love them now!). No one around here likes espresso. Someone said you’d now be forever 16 but I don’t think of you that way. To me, you are, at once a chipper five year old holding her new star pillow and an ancient bodhisattva-like wise young woman listening, blessing, ever ageless.

What does one do when a great party ends? Clean up? Relish. Remember. Is that enough? Esther! One young woman got a tattoo with a star and ‘This Star Won’t Go Out’ printed right on her wrist! She put it there because that’s where the cutting starts and, now, with such a reminder, literally right in front of her, hope has enlarged, self-harm is diminished. People are talking about you and are inspired to overcome all kinds of things in your memory. I understand that. You were a burden sharer and burden bearer. But we needed you here. I need you here, now. If I had a wish, it would be to see you, but, if I could draw you up from the underworld, you’d be horrified to think I'd used my wish on something so trivial! Still, I am angry that you are gone and I guess that means I am in denial. So be it. I am a denier, then. This is what I deny: death does not win (said with an undignified small d). Love is Stronger. Love and hope are conjoined, if you separate one, you kill the other. If hope survives then love endures. Where even a sliver of love exists, the thinnest of hopes has room to grow.

I left the cemetery and headed straight to the tattoo parlor. ‘Love is Stronger than death’ has been etched on my heart for some time now so I’ve decided to make it official. That phrase, along with your name, ‘Esther Grace’ and a shooting star, will soon appear on my body for all to see. Perched where I am, that’s my understanding of your final, resting place. It ain’t final.

Love,

daddy

"Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is stronger than death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned." ~Song of Songs 8:6-7


Friday, April 22, 2011

An Easter Religion

Bob recently said something like, “I think Easter is about Jesus kicking death out of life" (or, "...kicking life out of death!”). That’s not his real name or actual PG-13 rated comments but his thoughts remain powerful. Let me back up. Some of the work I do involves leading groups of addicts, prisoners, generally broken people, those who freely admit they need fixin’. Over the past few weeks I have been asking them about the meaning of Easter, the primary holy day in Christianity. The Easter story is about a very good man who died a terrible death because he would not compromise his message. Jesus stayed true to what he perceived to be his duty, his calling, only to end up a victim of the dominant power-of-that-day's cruelty. Of course, according to the Bible, he did not remain dead for long but actually returned from the land of death more alive than ever, as “Bob” expressed so memorably.  

A follow up question might then be how to live a fuller life now that death has been permanently “adjusted”? Thankfully, the New Testament gives us a definition. It tells us what an authentic, meaningful religious experience looks like. We read that true religion is entirely action-oriented, with specific behaviors expected from us rather than any requirement of, or adherence to, a faith statement which typically specifies what is to be believed without exception. The Letter of James says, “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” (James 1:26-27 New Living Translation).

James is challenging us to limit our speech to words that build up, restore, encourage and punctuate them as needed with compassionate acts done on behalf of the truly vulnerable among us.  He further enjoins us to pursue a posture of subversive resistance to whatever power structures currently prevail in our age. This description of good religion is also a prescription for deepening the religious and spiritual life.

You see, my friend Bob sort of non-came to my Monday night spirituality group for several weeks before he actually committed to coming. We meet Monday nights in the kitchen area and he’d have an excuse to come by, each week staying a bit longer, maybe more coffee, or ice cream or something he forgot. One night, he finally decided to stay for an entire meeting and in the last three months no one has brought more visitors to our group than he has! The other night he said in front of a dozen men that he decided back then to stay because he kept hearing me say that the journey to God is paved below and covered above with mercy, that the love of God knows no outsiders and that, though we are often lonely, we are never alone. He said my message each week was like a broken record! “No matter how much we’ve been through, there is always hope, hope, hope but we can’t do this without God’s help or without each other.”  Those are his words, exactly. That's the stuff Easter is made of. Good news, indeed!

                                         #1 in need of fixin'!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jerry's 50th Birthday!

It is Time for Hope. And it's time to begin a blog. I've been writing regularly for nearly 35 years but never online. In fact, my journals and other writings span a width of three feet on the shelf! I need this forum if only because there are lot's of good stories out there and I imagine using these pages to shout out a bit about that. I am convinced that there are always good reasons for spreading the virus of hope.

Consider 50 years ago this year, for example. It was then that the Peace Corps was organized, the Jaguar car was unleashed, and three smart and handsome men were born: Barack Obama, George Clooney and my brother, Jerry! In fact, March 27th is Jerry’s 50th birthday! He has a beautiful wife, three adorable daughters and lives in comfortable southern California where he has long been a lead fifth grade teacher at Palm Elementary school. He's a big guy, a strong man with wild hair, a friendly smile and kind eyes. He hasn't really grown up yet and still thinks people are mostly good. He continues to believe in mystery and romance and in making daily sandwiches for his daughters' lunches. He acts in a local theater group and when asked he can literally perform magic. He even spent a couple of years traveling the world doing yo-yo tricks to inspired school age audiences before deciding it a better thing to drop all that in order to increase family time.

He’s also an entertaining and spellbinding storyteller blessed with a wicked sense of humor. As a friend, he listens carefully to what you say but can easily be persuaded to engage in constructive debate wherein he can argue his point better than most!  In earlier times he could be heard saying, jokingly, "Listen, I studied history and philosophy as an undergrad and have a graduate degree in education so… end of subject". But he is most passionate about compassionate action and the everyday application of the Golden Rule, which he thinks is the only thing worth fighting for, anyway.

Oh- another thing, he reads everything, all the time. Always has. As a child, he'd hole up in the bathroom or bedroom and read non-stop usually from the pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica! The result of all that learning was to establish him as an incurable idealist, convincing him for all time that nothing and no-one is a hopeless case. Transformation remains central for him and his self-improvement is obvious to any onlooker. He's a brave man and the first person (after my wife) that I’d choose to have at my side in a crisis. He is a faithful friend, completely loyal but in no way tameable! And he's an unrepentant dreamer. It’s true, sauntering as he now is past the 50 yard-line, that he struggles more with cynicism but remarkably he continues as decidedly a-cynical; he remains an innocent.

His 5th graders will come and go like so many seasons and mostly they will never know what treasures he has freely bestowed on them. But hearts were meant to be given away and his routine investment in the lives of others cannot be measured by fallen calendar pages, the graying of hair and mustache, or in milestone birthdays. Life has taken this boy from whiffle-ball king to half a century, just like that... and now begins the period known as the "youth of old age".  Jerry's life is a sacred calling, a holy journey. He is still in the battle's middle, raising kids, and leading many others to think a little wider and believe a little higher about this thing we call living a good and meaningful life. His emptying, broken heart continues to mend and bend, willingly, for the sake of the other.

So, reader, will you this day consider him, who, in spite of obvious imperfections, has sought to lead a soul enriching life? If you see him, would you salute him? Savor his story. We are witness to the construction of a grand human being. The very kind of man he has spent his life reading about (all the great ones read about all the great ones). I have read his life and it will hold. He is my hero, this simple Quiet Man. He is every bit 50 years of good news. Jerry Earl, yet another reason to believe it’s time for hope.

Jerry and Wayne, definitely in the 80's