An Old Friend

I visited an old friend this past week. I’ve known her since 1984. We spent lots of time together when I lived in Urbana, Illinois. We visited together at least once each week until she moved away in 2002. She moved to a small town near Schenectady, New York and changed her name. I knew her as the Elite Diner. Now she’s the Chuck Wagon.

I had to go about 900 miles to see her. According to the map, she was just a few miles off the road on my trip to Maine, so it seemed a good detour. Turns out it was a great detour.

I scoured the roadside as I drove down the Western Turnpike (Hwy. 20) hoping to see her at every turn. Then, suddenly, there she was. Just as I’d remembered her. Silver with red trim, the rounded corners, windows across the front. The Elite Diner.

She lived on the corner of Elm and Vine in Urbana the 18 years I had known her. She and her cramped parking lot took up the corner, so she looked bigger than she does now.

I parked and climbed a few unfamiliar steps, then entered surroundings that were familiar and comforting. She has not changed much on the inside. Same green and pink tiles on the floor with the same cracks in the tiles. The same silver, pink, and green on walls and ceiling, same booths, though reupholstered.

I sat on the same stool at the counter I had occupies hundreds of times, sometimes by myself, sometimes with one of my children on a stool next to me. The green Formica on the counter was the same. The seam in the Formica had been rubbed smooth and white from thousands of plates of food and mugs of coffee sliding over it.

I had spent hundreds of hours of writing, thinking, planning, or just gathering my early-morning thoughts. I’d had meetings with colleagues and bosses there. I’d commiserated with Bob the welder, who also had an infant son at the time. We’d compare hours of sleep or lack thereof from the night before.

But mostly, this became the place I shared with my kids. This was where we connected over coffee and hot chocolate, sometimes a sweet roll, sometimes a Number 9 (an unhealthy but totally satisfying plate of biscuits covered with hash browns and gravy). My children, now 32 and 25, never hesitated if I woke them before dawn, two full hours before their school started, as long as the question was, “Want to go to the Diner?”

I can’t tell you much about what we did while sitting there. We talked, or not.  Sometimes the talk was about school or homework. We listened to the music overhead and I sometimes I talked about (or made up stuff about) the oldies playing and what was going on with me when the song was new. And we watched and evaluated the cook as he labored over the fried eggs, pancakes, bacon, and other breakfast items being prepared. “Don’t pat the pancakes.” That’s one of my cardinal rules of breakfast cooking, if you care about tasteful, fluffy pancakes, that is. It’s also a pretty good metaphor for lots of things in life. That was something we always watched for.

I was sitting on this very stool the morning my daughter and I had a falling out that ended our trips to the Diner for a few years. It was a sad but necessary morning for each of us. As a friend of mine said to me, “Parenting is about teaching your children to deal with disappointment.” That was one of those morning when we each learned lessons we didn’t want, but needed.

To finish, John Powell’s post, click here.

Where Wounds Become Insignificant

When a wounded child climbs into its mother’s lap, it draws so much strength from the mother’s presence that its own wound becomes insignificant.  So too with us when we climb into the lap of our great Mother God.  Our crisis soon domesticates and comes into a peaceful perspective, not because it goes away, but because the presence of God so overshadows us.

When I read this in Forgotten Among the Lilies, I thought of Eliot, next to Bryce, slipping at the table Sunday, nearly falling to the floor but stopping as his ear clipped the chair.  Hard enough to sting.  Hard enough to crack the little eruption that is a child’s pain magnified by surprise and other people’s company.

I had one of his arms to lift him.  Maggie came over to pick him up because he was crying by then.  He complained about the pain and Maggie took him in her arms, his head to her shoulder, and convinced him by her hug that he would live through it.

He calmed as long as she held him.  Then he cried again, trading his mom for his dad.  David, master of redirection with the boys that he is, turned Eliot’s attention with a high-pitched question.

The image of a child in pain.  The image of a mother, then a father, and a few onlookers.  It seems like these words are easily seen.

What I Fear

A news story about the United Nations and the Roman church’s response to sexual abuse of minors and an article about the Texas teacher who assaulted her students by giving a boy a birthday lapdance.  I read those stories before I sat to write.  Of course I thought of how me and Dawn have been troubled over the ways we will shepherd our son through his natural social disposition toward a more realistic humanity because of the world’s wrongness or, the world’s distortion and because people in the world are wrong and distorted.

When I think about teachers harming students and family members harming students, it makes me shake my head in disgust.  Raising a child, a son in my case, is such an experiment in trust.

I think of those boys and girls who were molested–even if only in a psychological way, although such molestation always joins other kinds–and how their skies have fallen, been severely limited, or turned perpetually bleak.

What I fear is my son’s absolute proximity to children who are hurt, victimized, ignored, unseen, underfed, and unloved.  I fear the unnoticed ways all our children are hindered because of the stupid decisions of a person, a family, an institution, a culture which promotes poor ways of parenting as a society.

There is only so much a parent can do.  There are so many things that a father can’t control about his child’s path.  There is so much trust inherent in bringing home a baby.

I’d love to see my son protected and I will do everything I can to preserve his life, his whole life, his happy life, his enriched humanity.  But I do fear that I will change him and his budding openness to people in general because of the specific people who don’t deserve his beautiful self.

Allergies

Puffy eyes, a dripping, sniffling nose, tiny and multiple bumps that remind me of hills on his face.  It’s either an allergic reaction or an allergy, which is the same thing, isn’t it?

In some ways, the canvas of my son’s beautiful face made only more beautiful can be fixed by something diagnosed, something prescribed.  In other ways, the rumple in our lives that comes with spring is a reminder of how this wonderful son has things happening in him that I’ll never see, never be able to control, never be able to change.

Seeing him helps me see that as he grows, I must grow.  Grow to surrender that daily lie I live into so well: that I control any of this experience called raising a child.  I have a part and I’ll play it.  But there’s someone else in control.  That’s the hope and that’s the worse feeling in the world.

Parenting and the Divine Advantage

I think this quote can touch a lot of the places I’m walking through as a father.  It’s admittedly about a common prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, but it seems to relate to the giving and surrendering of the will, the offering of many little, hardly-noticed acts which are so common in parenting.  Can what a mother or father does be turned into the Divine’s advantage?  Can wiping a nose or a butt or a shoe be taken into the larger world of God’s stuff?  One would hope.

This is from Evelyn Underhill’s reflection on the phrase, “Thy Kingdom Come”:

Thus more and more we must expect our small action to be overruled and swallowed up in the vast Divine action; and be ready to offer it, whatever it may be, for the fulfillment of God’s purpose, however much this may differ from our purpose.  The Christian turns again and again from that bewildered contemplation of history in which God is so easily lost, to the prayer of filial trust in which He is always found; knowing here that those very things which seem to turn to man’s disadvantage, may yet work to the Divine advantage.

Things That Strengthen Us, pt 2 of 2

From Christian Wiman’s meditation, in My Bright Abyss (pg. 161):

Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us.  It may be the love of someone you have lost.  It may be the love of your own spirit for the self that at time you think you hate.  However it comes through, in all these—of all these and yet more than, so much more—there burns the abiding love of God.  But if you find that you cannot believe in God, then do not worry yourself with it.  No one can say what names or forms God might take, nor gauge the intensity of unbelief we may need to wake up our souls.  My love is still true, my children, still with you, still straining through your ambitions and your disappointments, your frenzies and forgetfulness, through all the glints and gulfs of implacable matter—to reach you, to help you, to heal you.

Things That Strengthen Us, pt 1 of 2

From Christman Wiman’s meditation, in My Bright Abyss, undoubtedly written first to the close loves of his life (pg. 161):

My loves, I will be with you, even if I am not with you.  Every day I feel a little more the impress of eternity, learn a little more “the discipline of suffering which leads to peace of the spirit,” as T. S. Eliot said, writing of the seventeenth-century poet and priest George Herbert (read him!), who died when he was thirty-nine and had only recently found true happiness with his new wife and new commitment to God.  My loves, I love you with all the volatility and expansiveness of spirit that you have taught me to feel, and I feel your futures opening out from you, and in those futures I know my own.  I will be with you.  I will comfort you in your despair and I will share in your joy.  They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives.  If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us.

Favorite Paradoxical Questions

I’m reading Christian Wiman’s plunging book, My Bright Abyss.  Christian is a poet, which means he’s a thinker and feeler and imaginative person.  I’ve come through the early chapters of his meditations, small but full chunks about art and death and love and sorrow.  He’s turning to the reality (the notion?) of God in the section I’m reading now.

He opens by restating something I’ve heard from you.  Christian says behind all of our beliefs, whatever they may be, is the child’s insistent question: Why?

This question has been your favorite for a while.  Like cornbread or chocolate or cookies, the word comes from your lips with regularity.  I can anticipate it the way I can you being the first to rise from bed.

And with your question comes the distant penetrating truth that whatever I say, whatever your mama says, exhausts.  Our answers, however clever, will meet an end, will stall in silence.  We will not answer every creation of your curiosity.  You have too many questions.  You’re too interested in each answer.

And it shows me how deep conversation can go, how full an answer quickly offered can turn into another invitation.  At my best, I take a breath and come up with another answer, one that can make sense to you.  And even while I’m answering it, I know that that shrunken answer won’t be fully true.

I want to tell you the exact truth, the best answer, even when I know you won’t grasp it.  Why?  You keep asking.  We keep trying.  And when we don’t know how to answer, you’re still waiting.  And we sit in quiet and ask silence to tell us.

My Fear of Losing You

Beneath our enduring friendship

the unspoken, latent fear

I never mentioned to you,

that I would lose you

to work, to poor health,

to a faraway move

or something unforeseen.

And then one day I did lose you.

Death sliced you from me

with a condor’s swiftness,

ripped you out of

my fearful grasp without

a moment’s hesitation.

Always death wins

in who gets to keep.

You are gone now

and so is my old fear,

leaving plenty of room

for loneliness and sorrow

but also sufficient space

for the savoring of love,

the one thing Death

could not take from me.

From Joyce Rupp’s My Soul Feels Lean

The Way Whole Worlds Change

Experiencing and anticipating all the anniversaries of my father’s death bring me both a sense of tenderness and pain.  The tenderness is joyous, the pain striking.

It was in April that me and Mark went to church with Pop, worshiped with him for the first and only time.  We drove down for the occasion and had planned to return within 24 hours.

We saw him serving as an usher.  He was proud to stand at the door of the church, excited in his way to greet people who came to church.  He was glad we were there, too.  I remember how he dressed that morning, after a night of laughing at me because I couldn’t sleep with my brother’s loud snores.  We didn’t eat breakfast because we were planning to see our friends at the Ole Saw Mill, a tradition for our dinners when we visited on short trips.

That was the morning my dad’s decline started as far as we could see.  He fainted in church that morning, during a not-so-engaging sermon.  My cousin called the paramedics, and they took a very long time to come.  There had been an accident at the Food Lion and “all” the trucks (two of them) were occupied by the injured going to the small hospital.  We didn’t eat at Saw Mill, not with dad.  Instead, we went to the hospital, called our aunts who came from Little Rock that afternoon, and waited to hear what dad’s condition was.

When our relatives arrived, dressed in their Sunday’s best, we went to get socks and fast food for dad.  Our aunts loved us, greeted us, checked in on their brother, and released us to go eat around 5pm that afternoon.  Some time after we got back to the hospital, it was clear that we could leave, that dad was going to transfer to the hospital in Little Rock the next day, and that, looking back, everything  was different.  That was in April.  May is dad’s birth month, the day being a week away.  Now that he’s gone, I’m looking at it on the calendar like a day I don’t want to come.

It’s strange being so close, and so far, from one year ago.  The whole world can change in such a short time.

Happy

When you ask me if I’m happy, in that light and fun voice of yours, even though it’s 6am or at a time so close to it that it feels like 6am, it lifts me and makes me feel happy, makes me remember happy, makes me reach for happiness in my heart—right after I tell you that I will be happy after I really wake up; you smile like I should be as awake as you, as if I, like you, slept for the last ten hours and not the last four or five.  And I wake up a little more because of the joy in your tone and for a little while, I convince myself that sleep will find me at the end of this day even though it’s been elusive for the last several.

The boy asleep

Grief: A Looping Line

The path of grief is not a straight line.  You don’t start off in the deepest slough then climb up each step to get back to peaceful.  Grief moves forward, but in a looping line.  You’re going along, making progress then you hit a loop and your stomach lurches and everything is flipped upside down and you land right back where you were a few weeks or months ago.  Eventually, the loops get smaller and spread farther apart, but they’re still there to…well, to throw you for a loop.

Read the full post here.