Monday, August 26, 2013

Letter to a College Freshman: Dear Micah...

(Writer’s note: I’m at an age when many of my peers will be dropping off adult children at college next weekend. My Godson Micah will be a freshman at nearby Northeastern University come Tuesday, one of more than 150,000 students who will call the Hub home while in college.  He hasn’t asked for any advice—what 18 year olds do? But here’s what I hope for him as he begins his own journey as a young man.)

Dear Micah,

I can’t believe your family’s station wagon is about to be packed up with your stuff and that you are actually leaving home.  Though at your age it may feel like time goes by so slowly, that you cannot get to where you want to fast enough, the truth is that as you get older (like me) times speeds by faster and faster.  I remember like it was yesterday the day I held you in my arms, gently lowered you into the little river behind your Mom’s church and baptized you in the chilly waters.  I remember the time as a toddler that I turned my back for just one moment and you stuffed a big green maple leaf down your throat and almost choked. You scared the heck out of me!

And then I turned around and you grew up, and so now I picture you standing on Huntington Avenue, waving goodbye to your weepy folks and sister, wanting to rush off and just get started. Do that, absolutely but remember how precious and fragile and limited your time here on earth is—so pay attention to all you will experience in the years ahead. The classes you will love and the classes that will bore you; the friends you’ll make for life and the friends who will quickly pass in and out of your life; the games you will cheer at, the parties you will party at (be wise, ok?), the cramped dorm room, the bad cafeteria food—EVERYTHING!  It is all a gift and before you know it, you will be clutching a diploma then going on to the next thing. 

So Micah: all God gives us is right now, right now.  Be fully alive to it. Immersed in it. Appreciate it. Live into it.  Love it.  Don’t take life for granted. It is a miracle.

Call your mother—and your father and your sister and grandparents and me too, just every once in awhile. Stay connected. You are who you are both because of what you’ve done, but also you are who you are because of all the folks who have loved you into this time in your life.  It’s tempting to think that all our achievements somehow happen because we got this far on our own, a conceit the young and old easily imagine.

Truth is that you have a tender heart for others because of the tender heart your Dad possesses, especially for the underdog. You know right from wrong because your Mom’s fiercely wise and protective voice has been guiding you since the day you were born.  You treat women well in part, because of the work you’ve put in as a big brother to your little sister.  You’ve learned that blood is thicker than water because of all those hours you spent at my family’s Thanksgiving table.  Family is never perfect nor without pain or disappointment but while others come and go, family, at its best, always stays. 

So Micah: know you are loved, that folks at home care deeply about you: no matter how far away life takes you, no matter what you achieve gloriously or screw up completely.  Before college is over, you’ll do plenty of both.  Trust that the door is always open and the light is always on. And yes, the offers for free dinners, emergency loans and full laundry facilities are yours’ for the whole time you live in Boston. Promise.

Finally Micah, in all your strivings for college success—academic, social, financial, romantic—save some time and space to also work for a cause greater than yourself.  Devote some of your amazing youthful energy to making the world a better place.  College will try its best to convince you that you are the center of the world.  You are not. None of us are.  We’re put here by God for a short time, not just for “me” but for “we” too.  As the son of not one but two ministers and the Godchild of a pastor, you sat in church enough Sundays to know this lesson.  Live that out now, in your own way. 

God expects big things from you. So help build a Habitat house in New Orleans or serve a meal at the Pine Street Inn, or organize a protest against global warming or just be kind to a person in your dorm who needs a good friend. 

I know, I know, you’ve got to get going: unpack, put up your posters, explore the big city, start this new life.  You are missed already.  Be smart. Be careful.  And stay in touch.

Love, Uncle John   



Sunday, August 18, 2013

There's No Such Thing As a Perfect Call

“And it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ballgame!  Well, maybe.”
--“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, alt., Albert Von Tilzer and Jack Norworth, 1908

The old ballgame is about to get very, very new. Beginning with the 2014 season, Major League Baseball will use instant replay to settle disputed plays on the field.  That’s right—high tech is coming to the dusty old diamond. The era of the umpire, that oft maligned, all too human judge of fair or foul, out or safe, strike or ball, is going, going, almost gone. 

Picture this. Next May on a sweet and warm Saturday afternoon, Boston Red Sox jack rabbit base stealer Jacoby Ellsbury bursts off of first base, sprints for second.  The pitcher pitches, the catcher catches then stands tall, fires a rocket to the shortstop, who gracefully snags the ball, sweeps his glove down in a blur, tags Ellsbury as he slides, puffs of dust all around.  The crowd waits. The umpire finally raises his hand…“SAFE!” he barks. 

But then the opposing manager protests. Action stops dead. The call goes out to a windowless room in New York City where steely eyed technicians rewind and watch the play four, five, six times.  A perfect verdict, confirmed by colored pixels that can’t ever be wrong, is rendered.  Ellsbury is out?!

Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?  

So let me lodge a protest at this acquiescence to the gods of perfection. It’s not that there is something inherently bad about wanting to get a call right, just right. I get that. It’s not nostalgic whining at the sullying of the national pastime.  Steroids, multi-million dollar contracts and $200 nights at the ballpark have done that already. I protest because I mourn the loss of imperfection and human judgment inherent in a very human umpire, making his best call in the moment, most of the time getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong. 

Because that is all of life in a way: human life filled with mystery and ambiguity and questions, blown calls, stumbles, flaws, and mistakes.  I don’t always color inside the lines—do you?  The magic of life is found not in perfection, in always getting it just right, down to the last decimal point, but in playing, sometimes messing up, sometimes succeeding, always trying.

I know it is just umpiring in a game at stake here, but imagine a life ruled by the need for ironclad answers.  No wiggle room.  No shades of grey.  We’d never risk loving another because who wants to take that chance at being wrong, getting hurt?  We’d reject faith in God because who can finally prove exactly, that the hand of a higher power is at work in our hearts and world? We’d never have kids because who knows how they’ll turn out?!  We’d never risk anything, scale a high mountain, dream up an invention, write a novel, believe we can make a difference, because who can finally know if these attempts will triumph?

Even God blew a call one time.  A story. The world was wicked.  God opened up the sky and it rained and rained and rained, sparing none but Noah, his clan, the ark and the animals.  But then realizing what that awful power had done, God admits to making a divine mistake, makes a rainbow, says: “I…promise to you and to everyone…every living creature that the earth will never again be destroyed by a flood.”  No instant replay or do over.  Just a promise to try again and maybe this time get it right.

So in our time on earth, let’s just play. Allow the game to unfold as it will.  Sometimes, rarely, we will get it perfectly right.  Sometimes, usually, we will get it awfully wrong.  But always have faith. Trust that being safe or out matters much less than breaking for second base and then seeing what happens.

Play ball.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

In Praise of Postcards...

“Send me things in the mail. Wherever you go, I don’t care where you go, just send me something in the mail from where you are.” —Wallace Berman

I was away for six weeks this summer so on returning to town I faced thirty six days of accumulated mail to sort through, a bulky pile handed to me by my local post office guy, the one who knows me and always has a kind word. One of the secret pleasures of retrieving such delayed correspondence is imagining what might await you in that postal cache.

Maybe a love letter from a secret admirer? (OK—maybe not.) An unexpected thank you note…”Your kindness to my family meant so much.”  A newspaper article sent by a church member…”I read this John and thought of you.” A recipe from Mom, along with a note in her familiar and comforting script...”Make sure the beans soak overnight…” A sharp critique of a newspaper column: “Dear Pastor John, I must take exception with what you wrote about gay marriage last month. Are you sure you’re a Christian?”

Real mail. Real. Hand addressed, created by a real person, not printed out by a machine or spewed out by a computer.  Someone takes the time to put pen to paper, to buy a stamp, to lick an envelope and deposit it in a blue mail box.

Back to that collected correspondence…there was eleven bills…six insurance notices declaring that the company won’t pay…nine magazines…eight postcards about houses for sale I can’t afford…two postcards for rodent and bug removal (do they know something I don’t?)…one postcard from the dentist reminding me my teeth are plaque laden...sixty-two sales flyers…three out of date newspapers…ten pleading asks from the ACLU, my alma mater, and some school I gave $15 to twelve years ago…and thank God, finally, two, two pieces of real mail. 

The human art of letter writing is now so rare, seemingly going the way of live travel agents, ink stained newspapers and network TV. These days our trip from the mailbox usually leads straight to the recycling bin as we dump most of the day’s mail. There are still impersonal notes about debts to be paid, or a book from Amazon but when’s the last time you received or sent out a letter or a postcard or a hand written note? The United States Post Office reports that the volume of first class mail it delivers-- missives like hand written invitations and personal holiday cards and heartfelt love notes--has dropped by 28 percent in just ten years. We Americans just don't send or receive real mail like we used to.

It’s not that we communicate less.  We communicate more than ever before in history. We are over connected, buried under bytes of electronic “letters”.  2.2 billion world email users per day send out 144 billion emails every twenty-for hours—52,560,000,000,000 yearly.  That’s 52 trillion.

So many that emails inevitably languish in the inbox. (I’m at 5,669 and counting.)  Texts toll on the smartphone: answer me! Messages clog voicemail.  Facebook status updates go unread. So much information. So little time to digest it all.

Me? Every once in a while I need to receive a real letter. A real postcard. A real birthday card, with a swirly signature and an “I love you” at the bottom. There is something tangible, so permanent about the written word mailed forth: into the box, then the truck, then the airplane, then the truck again, then into the letter carrier’s pouch, then into my box at the end of the driveway. 

I’m rediscovering that ritual this summer as I send three or four postcards a week from my travels around the United States, to my ninety-nine year old grandfather back in Massachusetts. He can’t get out much because of his age, so our family’s now bringing the world to him through postcards from his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

I get to actually write to him! Track down just the right postcard in a rural general store or a lonely highway truck stop or a tiny corner bookstore. Create a message with the essentials, the weather or sights or the food, the things of life.  “It is wicked hot here…I had an ear of the sweetest corn last night…saw a great baseball game under the stars…”

There’s the adventure of finding a town post office or a road side mailbox.  The sound of a creaking door, mouth wide open, then shut tight with a reassuring “clang”, a signal that love is on the way. That some one out here cares about some one there, you.  I miss you.  See you soon.  I hope my mail ends up on his refrigerator or side table, that it reminds Grandpa that he is mine and I am his, all through a $1.25 postcard and a .33 cent postcard.  No wi-fi, no keyboard, no cyberspace needed. Good deal. 

So here’s to the letter, the postcard, and the note.  A fading act of communication perhaps, but just today: I pray that when I walk to the mailbox I might discover within it the written word.  No recycling bin necessary.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lost in Starbucks Land, Trying to Find a Real Place In The World

“I am here, and here is nowhere in particular.”           --William Golding

When the idea for this week’s column first took shape, I was drinking a smoky and sharp grande cup of coffee outside of a Starbucks Coffee CafĂ© in Bedford, New Hampshire, right across from the Bedford Mall. At least I think that’s where I was.  I could have been at a Starbucks in Elkhart, Indiana…or in Rockford, Illinois, on State Street where two Starbucks are less than a mile and a half apart…or maybe it was in Minneapolis but with 22 Starbucks there it’s hard to recall which bistro I was visiting. The rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike? The one on Route 9 in Framingham? Not sure. 

I was some “place”, some “where” drinking my “Charbucks”, as some like to call that chain’s dangerously dark drink. Yet I was kind of nowhere too and anywhere, could have been at any one of that franchise’s 19,000 stores in the United States.  Not unlike the Comfort Inn hotels I stayed at while driving 3,000 miles across the United States on a summer road trip.  The Dick’s Sporting Goods I bought my bike supplies. The numbingly familiar interstate gas stations where I purchased my gas. 

All located in a specific place, some where on a map, yet kind of no where too.  Places so generic, so similar, so cloned one from another that in visiting there it felt like I was in Anytown, USA, any place.  But there was no “there”, there.

Yet on my trip I was also in places that were so very real: unique, odd, local, totally some where, points on the map unlike any place else. The tiny George’s Barber Shop in Saint Joseph, Minnesota, barely large enough for one chair, a dusty wall calendar, taciturn George snipping away. The Paul Bunyan Cook Shanty Restaurant in Minoqua, Wisconsin, an all you can eat dinner of fried chicken, white fish, spaghetti, apple sauce and cole slaw spilling over the plates. The Wild Rumpus Children’s Bookstore in Minneapolis, with a four foot purple front door for the kids to enter and a live chicken sitting in the front window. 

We live in strange times in our world when it comes to claiming and finding a “place”, a real place to visit, to dwell within, to claim as our own. Spending so much of our time now planted before a screen: typing out texts, penning rushed emails, surfing Facebook, tweeting on Twitter. Is cyberspace a real place?  When we are in “there” are we anywhere? Or no where? Some where? Every where? I’m not sure.

We travel across a landscape now so often paved over and built up with super sized boxy stores and uber chic outlet malls and on and off highways exits leading to McDonalds and Mobil gas, and Home Depot and places like every where else.  Where am I?  Phoenix, Arizona? Cedar Rapids, Iowa?  Freeport, Maine?  Manchester, Vermont? Who knows? Who cares? Fill it up.  Buy it up.  Then return back to the highway to visit another “place”.

But how important a sense of place is to this life: a specific and comforting and geographically defined and found space.  Holy ground to stand upon.  Land to dig deeply into. An address to return to again and again and again and in that journey back home to trust that we do have a real place, that there are still real places left in the world. 

The white church on Main Street, too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter but our place to reunite with old friends and talk to God and sip sweet lemonade on the back patio as toddlers prance and elders gossip and folks catch up.  No place else like it anywhere in the world.  A cabin in the woods, down a long dirt path, well worn docks floating on the lake, the splash of waves and the cry of loons and the buzz of hot bugs calling us back to this place.  The local bookstore.  The ice cream shop.  The post office. 

Real places.  Real dots on the map.  All some where.  Right here.  We all need a place, sacred spaces in life to live within, to visit, to love and to inhabit. 

Where is your place?  May God bless you as you seek to find it.