Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Now That I've Found You

                Last week, I stood in a line waiting to board a bus when out of the corner of my eye I saw a middle-aged woman scan the children huddled around her feet and one in her arms. With a puzzled face, she scanned again and then spoke the question that every parent dreads: “Where’s Caleb?” Within seconds, the mother’s face was bloodless and pandemonium ensued. I watched the mother, father, and two other adults disappear into the crowds of people. Watching so intensely myself, I barely noticed my friend and I had moved from the back of the line to the front. I looked at my friend and immediately said, “We can’t go.” I couldn’t leave without seeing the boy returned. But do you know what thought never occurred to me? That he may not return. On this particular day, it’s easy for me to remember that we live in a world full of loss. How do we move on when what we think should happen, will happen doesn’t happen? What do we do when what’s lost is never found? The answer: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.

                Though in a different time and culture, Cry, the Beloved Country, (like my story) is about a lost son. Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo must face the reality of his own vanished son Absalom who has gone to the city of Johannesburg to find work and has yet to return. The general truth about the city is now personal for the desparate father: “When people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back. They go to Johannesburg, and there they are lost” (39). But as good parents do, Kumalo will not settle for that and goes to find his son.

                To say his journey is long would be a gross understatement. Kumalo searches far and wide, confronting numerous obstacles and heartache along the way. As the book waxes on, we see the story of Absalom becoming grimmer and grimmer. Kumalo finds his son has committed theft, murder, and abandoned his mistress and child. Suddenly, the glorious reunion Kumalo once pictured is now as heart breaking as the dark jail room it takes place in:  

                ---My child, my child.
                ---Yes, my father.
                ---At last I have found you.
                ---Yes, my father.
                ---And it is too late.

                I won’t give too much away (in hopes that you’ll go read it if you haven’t), but I will tell you that Absalom does not come home. And so my question can be answered. My question is for Absalom’s father – for those who have lost – how do they go on?

                The best answer comes from Father Vincent who assists Kumalo throughout his journey: “When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house” (140). Rebuild. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Will that new house ever be exactly the same as the old? Did Kumalo have the same life without his son as he would have had with him? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean the house isn’t worth rebuilding or that life isn’t worth living.

                The other half of Father Vincent’s advice is that as you rebuild, you don't do it alone. In that painstaking moment when you think you cannot rebuild, when it “seems that God has turned from [you],” find the voice inside of you that “speaks in such quiet and such simple words,” whispering: “There is no doubt of it. [I am] not forsaken” – not by God and not by the people around me. Will it still be hard? Absolutely, but it will not be impossible.

                At the book’s end, Kumalo looks across his small village and sees the dawn coming. To those who have lost, who will lose – whatever form that loss may take – I hope you know that your dawn will come. As you see that you are still in darkness when others are in light, remember “the light will come [to you] also. For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for thousand centuries, never failing” (312).

Looking from my bus seat on that August day, I saw midst the crowd a small, red-faced little boy clinging to his mother’s side, and I remembered Father Vincent’s words: “Give thanks where you can give thanks. For nothing is better.”

              Please be patient for the time when you truly feel the dawn. You will likely find, as I did, that the time in the darkness makes you much more grateful for the light. There is a reason for the darkness, and “when [your] dawn will come, why, that is a secret.”

Writing Music: “Long Lost Child” by Mindy Gledhill and “You Found Me” by The Fray

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Chances Lost Are Hope's Torn-Out Pages

                “It takes a lot to ruin a life,” says my co-worker. Her voice was so casual. She could just as easily have said, “It takes a lot to ruin a pot of coffee.” At first, I was comforted. There is comfort in believing you can’t really mess something up, particularly when you’re a perfectionist like I am. My second thought was that it couldn’t possibly be that easy. Just do what you want and it’ll all be okay? Seriously? I like to believe that my life is slightly more important than a pot of coffee. So, it’s worth asking. What does it take to ruin a life? Or save a life? Or simply change a life? Maybe not even yours but someone else’s. What does it take? The answer is The Seventeen Second Miracle by Jason F. Wright.

                When Rex Conner turns his back as a lifeguard, he learns exactly how long it takes to change a life. Only seventeen seconds and little eight-year-old Flick is fighting for her life. Despite Rex racing to save her and a few CPR attempts, she loses that fight. And Rex is left to live with four words that even I don’t need the book to remember: “You killed my angel.”  Seventeen seconds and more than one life changed forever.

                But the question wasn’t “How long does it take to change a life?” it was “What does it take to change a life?” The story at the beginning of the book seems a little abstract because so many lives were changed in so many different ways. So, shall we turn to a simpler example? Years after the first story…a young teenage Miles tells his girlfriend Kendra why he likes her. When he finishes, a wise mentor asks “Kendra, how long did it take for Miles to change your feelings from insecure to warm and happy?” Pause. Don’t focus on how long. What changed her feelings…? Miles did.

                What changes people? People change people. Maybe not in earth-shattering ways like the first example but often in little ways that can make a big difference. The real trick is allowing ourselves to be changed and learning to perform and see seventeen second miracles instead of seventeen second mistakes. When the seventeen second mistakes seem to abound, we can’t stop looking for the seventeen second miracles. I hope you look a little harder at the next person you get on the elevator with or the friend who looks a little gloomier than usual. I hope you see an opportunity to be a miracle to them, to change their day, to change their attitude…to change their life and to change your own.

Writing Music: “Home" by Phillip Phillips and "Chances" by Five for Fighting

“We would do well to slow down a little, focus on the significant, lift up our eyes, and truly see the things that matter most” – Dieter F. Uchtdorf

Thursday, January 26, 2012

If It Makes You Happy, It Can’t Be That Bad…

                As a child, I hated salad. And you know what? I hated that I hated it. I wanted to like it so badly. I knew it was healthy and I was supposed to like it. So, I decided to make myself like it. I forced it down with a cup of soda for every bite. I ate it in public so I couldn’t spit it out. I ate it with tons of dressing then with none at all. I tried everything short of eating it while standing on my head. (Feel free to psychoanalyze me later) That little neurotic experience has never left me and this week it’s been on my mind as I’ve been asking myself, “Can you learn to love what’s good for you?” The answer: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.

                This book has haunted me for months now. I racked up enormous overdue library fees trying to figure out why it bothered me so much. I'll fill you in on why, but let me catch you up. The main character Macon Leary is a middle-aged man who writes travel guides for businessmen who travel for work but wish to “pretend they had never left home”. He tells them where to find a McDonalds in Italy, what hotel in Spain has the most American-looking bath towels, etc. He's the perfect picture of boring and yet somehow also complex and mentally unwell.

                In the novel, he has two love interests. The first is his wife Sarah who leaves him early in the novel because he seems to be living his life on autopilot since the death of their teenage son. He opens up to no one…not even the reader. Reading it, I often felt like I was watching a person who had no emotion at all. I guess I don't blame Sarah for being completely fed up with him... (That’s probably another reason the book haunted me)

                His second love interest is Muriel who is, to say the least, eccentric. She works about 5,000 odd jobs, is half of Macon’s age, and has “aggressively frizzy” hair. At first, Macon seems annoyed by Muriel, which is exactly what you would expect since his personality is so opposite of hers. He shuts her out just like he does everyone else. But her persistence pays off, and slowly we watch Macon go off autopilot.

                Now, what bothered me so much about this novel? I never decided who I wanted Macon to end up with. I know the “right” answers. Ethically, he should end up with his wife. And yet, Muriel seems to make him happier. What was “good” for him? Logically, Sarah is good for him. She is constant. She's married to him. She's stable and devoted. And yet... SPOILER ALERT: Macon doesn’t choose Sarah in the end. He makes efforts to go back to Sarah. He even breaks up with Muriel near the end of the novel, but he can't deny that with Sarah he returns to his "business as usual" self. He wants to learn to love what's good for him but can't.

                Can you learn to love what's good for you? Macon couldn't. In general, I don’t think there’s a yes or no answer my question. But what I only recently realized is this: Learning to love what’s good for you is much easier if you don’t know what you’re missing. Had Macon never met Muriel, maybe he could have learned to love Sarah again. Had I never eaten a cheeseburger, maybe I could have forced myself to like salad. Maybe that’s why businessmen read Macon’s travel guides. They didn’t want to risk seeing a life they wanted more than the one they had, a life that might not be as “good” for them but was more compelling. But what kind of world is that? Doing only what is “good” for you and not what you really enjoy---what you really care about? Is living life with blinders on really a living life?

                I’m not trying to endorse infidelity or to discourage salad-eaters, but I think it’s worth asking ourselves what is worth the fight. Choking down lettuce to satisfy your vegetable quota probably isn’t worth it. Especially when maybe, if you’re really lucky, there is a vegetable somewhere out there that tastes good and is stuffed with Vitamins A & C, too. One day, perhaps I will have my salad and eat it, too.

“You’ll know the emptiness was there when something comes along to fill it” –Lark Rise to Candleford

Writing Music: “Use Somebody” by Laura Jansen and “Rewind” by Stereophonics