Monday, February 23, 2015

On the Death of a Beloved Car and Friend: Long May You Run

"We've been through some things together with trunks of memories....we found things to do in stormy weather. Long may you run. With your chrome heart shining, in the sun, long may you run."         
 --Neil Young, "Long May You Run", 1976

After all, it’s only a car, right? A machine. A ride. Transportation to get from point A to point B.  A collection of moving mechanical parts with no personality, no soul, no life.  Who would actually fall in love with an automobile, and then when it expires, when it goes to the big salvage yard in the sky and takes one last road trip; who would be sad about the end of a relationship between a vehicle and a person?  Me.

Last week my sky blue 2003 Toyota Matrix station wagon died. It kicked the bucket, or actually the oil can, was a victim of this harsh winter and plain old age.  One day this coming week a tow truck operator named Chuck will hoist her up, then haul her away, never to be seen again, at least not by my eyes. After 182,436 miles of driving, my companion for these past eleven years and ten months (4,235 days to be exact), my little Matrix…it is finis.

No: she wasn’t a fancy car, a muscle car, a collector’s item, or a sleek ultra luxury import sedan that turned heads or elicited sighs of envy from fellow drivers. One relative called it “the clown car”. It was kind of frumpy in its own singular way, frugal on gas, basic in design, a utilitarian ride that started up almost every single time I put the key in the ignition, the first new car I ever bought. At the end of life it certainly showed its age. There was a missing hub cap lost somewhere in the snows of 2013.  A CD player and tape deck long since broken.  A cracked rear tail light.  A back bumper held in place by grey duct tape.  Eighteen peeling bumper stickers plastered to the hatchback. Everybody in my small town knew when John’s car was coming or going. 

But man, I loved that car. Even though it was a “thing”, an inanimate object, it somehow helped mark the passage of my life, contained the accumulation of so many days and so many memories. Daily, the car reminded me of where I’d journeyed and how fast time does go by. The sunny April day I picked her up at the dealership in 2003, the Red Sox had yet to win a championship in the modern era. A guy named Bush was in the White House and we’d just invaded Iraq. My now young adult all grown up nieces were then still in grammar school and my Dad was still alive too. 

Cleaning out the car one last time was bittersweet.  I found an old movie stub from a first date in a darkened movie theater years ago that I had with…well…I can’t remember her name anymore. There was a worn set of Mardi gras beads wrapped around the stick shift. I picked those up in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina.  I’ll save them. I found a hospital parking pass I’d used in visits to a parishioner, whose hands I held in prayer, who is now gone from the earth.  My long lost Leatherman multi-tool was buried under the front seat. So that’s where it went! 

Found objects all: each in its own ways telling a story, my story, life’s story.

Stories of late night summer road trips, the windows down, a baseball game on the radio, freedom on an open road in a moonlight kissed landscape. Stories of cross country sabbatical road trips all the way to Minnesota, so excited to go away, then reluctant to come back home. Stories of time with my Goddaughter Chloe, snug and safe in the backseat, singing at the top of her lungs, her blue eyes smiling at me in the rear view mirror on the drive to the Dunkin Donuts for a hot chocolate.   

There is something that is so real, so tangible about the objects, the things of this life that we claim as our own and which also claim us, like my car.  It’s tempting to think that all of our “stuff” is not that important, is the mere flotsam of living. That things are finally fleeting, disposable, forgettable.  But we humans are both spiritual and material. Ethereal and tangible. We live in our heads and thoughts, but we also live in this real world. Real. We touch. We hold.  We grasp. Our senses nail us to the earth and all that is within it and so real things do embody for us real and deeper meaning.  These objects are like spiritual totems, physical containers of a life, like my ancient automobile. Like Grandpa’s pocket watch, worn down and smooth from so many years of timekeeping. It now tells us the time. Like a favorite childhood book we still cherish, its pages frayed and faded, the scrawl of our childish signature on the inside cover.  Like the wedding ring passed down from mother to daughter and then to her daughter too.  Maybe things do matter.

So farewell Matrix. You were a good friend: loyal, true and faithful.  Within your embrace I lived a lot of life, a lot of a good life.  You were metal and plastic and rubber and yet you were also much more than that. You were real.

Long may you run.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"American Sniper": What It Teaches About The Real Casualties of War

“In the beginning war looks and feels like love. But unlike love it gives nothing in return but an ever-deepening dependence, like all narcotics, on the road to self-destruction. It does not affirm but places upon us greater and greater demands. It destroys the outside world until it is hard to live outside war's grip."   
 --Chris Hedges, "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning", 2002

Dead silence.

Not one word spoken, none of the usual chit chat or banter, as the film's end credits run and the lights slowly come up in the theater and the audience departs. We are all numb, shocked, overwhelmed by the story we've just seen on the screen. The movie is "American Sniper". On a recent Friday night I took my 16 year old Godson to see it. "American Sniper" is the film adaptation of the book of the same name, penned by former United States Navy Seal Chris Kyle, "the autobiography of the most lethal sniper in U.S. history." One hundred and sixty confirmed kills, according to Kyle's account.    

"American Sniper" is a cultural juggernaut. The film has earned $300 million at the box office and is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The book was number one on the New York Times best seller list and is the number two best selling book on Amazon. The story continues in an ongoing trial in Stephenville, Texas, where former U.S. Marine Eddie Ray Routh is being tried for killing Kyle and fellow veteran Chad Littlefield, in February 2013, at a shooting range. Kyle and Littlefield were helping Routh in his recovery from the war. Routh has admitted to the killings. News reports say his lawyers will argue Routh is not guilty by reason of insanity.

You could not make up a more compelling or tragic narrative and it's been fascinating to watch the response to Kyle's story. Some see Kyle as a full blooded, red, white and blue American hero, a powerful symbol of all the virtues a nation desires in its warriors: courage, selflessness, service, and faith. To them, Kyle protected his men, did his job and then returned home with honor. Others view Kyle as a symbol of a war which never should have been waged. They cite studies like one by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. It reports the war has cost, thus far, $1.7 trillion, has permanently and psychologically scarred hundreds of thousands of returning veterans like Kyle, and caused the deaths of 4,489 U.S. soldiers and 134,000 Iraqi civilians.

After seeing the movie, I've come to view Kyle as a victim, perhaps a hero, yet most certainly a tragic and wounded hero; a fellow citizen asked by his country to do that, which for most of us as civilians, is unimaginable. And then we ask these same women and men like Kyle, to just return stateside. Go on with life, as if any one can participate in the brutality of warfare and not be changed by that experience forever.

I see Kyle's story as very, very sad, neither noble nor ignoble, unlike so many on the left and the right in American politics and life. They--politicians, the media, citizens-- are now scrambling to hold up Kyle as either as their savior or their goat. To me such exploitation is reprehensible, cowardly even, carried out by the many who stand on the sidelines and watch in safety as others do our fighting. It smacks of knee jerk partisanship and cheap patriotism, which asks for no sacrifice, beyond waving a flag and then shedding crocodile tears for the fallen.

Kyle's story lays bare the addiction that we have as a nation, world and species to the mythology of war, the imagined romanticism of taking up arms in some "glorious" cause. But to me, that's a lie, always has been, always will be. War is not, has never been, so neat or clean or morally clear. Instead war is the costliest and ugliest of human sins, no matter how we try to frame or justify it. War always takes down the innocent, even as we try our best to "surgically" carry out the battle. War is not some video game. War produces refugees, destroys civilizations, and perpetuates itself in an unending cycle of violence. War is hell on earth.

And finally war always comes home, no matter how far away it might take place. That's my takeaway from "American Sniper". War echoes on in the hearts and souls of people like Kyle. War always, always, wounds the warrior: in body, mind and spirit. We can try our best as a nation to ignore this truth, to salve our collective conscience with parades and tributes and platitudes, but finally these all ring false. Just ask the more than 700,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have applied for disability benefits, or the 2.6 million veterans still struggling with physical and mental health problems.

War is so much more than a movie or a book. War is as real as life and death gets on this earth.  Maybe that is Chris Kyle's final legacy.


Monday, February 9, 2015

When It Comes to Lying, The Truth is Often Hard to Face

“If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”  --Mark Twain

I lied. There it is.

Like many insecure adolescents, in my early teen years I got in the bad habit of sometimes lying to others when recalling the events of my young life. Like saying I caught the winning touchdown pass in a football game when the truth was, it was just another score. Or bragging about how I was the boss in my first high school job, when in reality I was just another one of the guys in the warehouse.

I'd like to say I've been completely free of this temptation now that I'm all grown up, but the truth? Like all humans I am still tempted at times to lie about the circumstances of my life. Embellish a personal story to make it more interesting. Shift the narrative to put me at the center. Omit details to enhance the drama.         

We humans lie like this for one simple reason: to make ourselves look better in the eyes of those we tell our story to. We lie out of insecurity. We deceive and exaggerate in the hope people will like us more. We lie to puff up what we've done, to hide what we've failed to do. Lying, not telling the truth about who we really, really are: it is the oldest and most dependable of human sins. Just four chapters into the first book of the Bible, Cain murders his brother Abel in an act of jealous rage and almost immediately, God asks, "Cain, where is your brother?" His answer? A lie: "I don't know." 

The temptation to lie about ourselves is buried deep in our spiritual DNA as humans. Sure: we can always self-righteously say that we never, ever, ever lie. That we are so much better than those who deceive. That we are rigorously honest: would not, could not, fib or obfuscate or cover up or fabricate. Not me! It's hard to confess, but I know I've got a bit of Cain in me. I'm ever aware of that most human of struggles, especially when I fail or screw up or make a mistake and want to cover up or cover over.

Can I then just tell the truth? Fess up. Own it.

I wonder if that's what NBC Nightly news anchor Brian Williams felt last week when he apologized on national TV to millions of viewers and to veterans and admitted that he made up a story about his battlefield valor. Williams was a passenger on a helicopter in the Iraq War in 2003.  The lie? That his chopper was forced down by rocket propelled grenades. The truth? The incident happened on another helicopter, not the one he was on.          

Williams said, "I made a mistake recalling the events of 12 years ago." The fallout has been immediate and swift. Williams has stepped away from anchoring while NBC investigates. He has been crucified in social media and the press: mocked, vilified, and shamed for all to see, often with a tone of cruel gleefulness on the part of his critics. The downfall of one of the best journalists on TV has been ugly and sad to witness. No matter the outcome, Williams' reputation will never be the same again, even if he returns to the air.  All because to make himself look better, he failed to tell the whole truth. How human. 

I do wish Williams would go a bit deeper in his admission. I wish he'd just say to the world, "I lied and I ask for your forgiveness." That's what those of us in a faith tradition are blessed with: the opportunity every day, in relationship with our God of mercy, to bring our whole selves to the Creator.  To admit that we are human and broken. To remember that we all fall short. To own the feet of clay we stand upon daily and then to confess. Take responsibility.  Receive graceful forgiveness and then move on and try, try again. To have the courage to go to those to whom we have lied to, hurt, or deceived, and ask for their forgiveness too.

I'm not sure if I think Williams should return to the anchor chair. I leave that to others to judge.  But I do know that Williams' very public and sad downfall reminds us, that in spite of protests to the contrary, we are all just human. We are all Cain.  We all face the temptation to lie, in large and small ways, hundreds of times a day. Most of the time we tell the truth.  Sometimes we do not.  The gods and God: they may be perfect but you, me?  Not even close.    

So I'm saying a prayer for Brian Williams, that in the midst of the storm, he might seek and receive some grace.  He lied.  But I do too sometimes.  We all do. 

And that's the truth.

Monday, February 2, 2015

God: Grant Us the Serenity To Accept (Maybe Even Love) February....

“It snowed all week. Wheels and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the business of living continued secretly behind a pale but impenetrable curtain. In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city.”     
--Truman Capote, American Fantastic Tales

I like snow. Heck, I even love snow sometimes. 

I know that might not be a very popular sentiment in these parts right now, buried knee deep in winter. Thirty inches of snow last week.  Twelve new inches, maybe even more falling, as I write these words. Oh…and another five to eight inches forecast for later this week.  Snow.  Forty plus days of winter down. Forty plus days to go until the first day of spring. Spring. Spring!? It’s located somewhere in the netherworld of mid-March which can seem so far away in these early February days.  Even Punxsutawney Phil scrambled back into his hole on the 2nd, no groundhog shadow in sight, just six more weeks of cold.   

To use an apt cliché, we are in the depths of winter. Deep winter. No turning back. 

Snow banks climb high on slushy suburban streets as we drive through tunnels of white, and a purple light of dusk falls and snow swirls all around. Venture into the city: snow is jammed cheek to jowl on sloppy byways, buried cars underneath it all, entombed, stopped cold. The sun’s light from a steely blue sky is slanted, sharp and hard, feels chilly even as it sparkles and shines off the snow pack.  The “tick, tick, tick” and “whoosh” of the furnace is our household symphony.  The screened in porch on the back of the house sits abandoned, a light dusting of snow dancing in little eddies around summer furniture piled high, comatose, refusing to wake up until it is warm again. 

And yes, still, I do so like the snow.   

You see we do live in a snowy place, New England, yet still at this time of year when it finally does snow, so many of us suffer from weather amnesia and that’s kind of fun to witness, join into. Act surprised, shocked, betrayed even, by a winter whack of precipitation. Groan dramatically as the list of cancellations slide by on a TV ticker. Sit all bundled up like couch Eskimos and watch as breathless weather forecasters and oh so serious news anchors warn of a coming “snowpocalypse”.  Shake our heads in disbelief as frenzied neighbors and friends swipe every last loaf of bread and gallon of milk off supermarket shelves.


Down deep I think we all relish having such weather extremes to talk about, complain about, joke about, moan about. We’ll kvetch in exactly the same tones next August when the first heat wave hits and it tops 100 degrees. I’ll bet next summer we’ll remember all this snow, the big blizzard of 2015 and then we’ll smile, look back fondly. “Remember that huge storm? It was wicked!”     

Come on. You love the snow. Admit it! Just a little bit?

Because finally, in February, snow and winter are just non-negotiable. Mother Nature is the boss.  We can’t wish the season away or dream it away or push it away.  Therefore my advice for all of us is to fall back into the snow and make a snow angel.  Build a snowman or woman with the kids.  Strap on ice skates or snowshoes or skis and embrace the snow.  Pop the DVD into the TV and watch “Frozen” for the 113th time with your child and sip some hot chocolate in between singing all the lyrics loud and proud. Enjoy a snow day. Layer up with long johns and fleece and go for a long walk with the dog, a hike in the hushed hills and silent stillness of nature. Shovel and snow blow and get those winter weary limbs moving.

And pay close attention to winter miracles, precious gifts from God. Cold air going in and out of your lungs in great clouds of white mist.  The mystical quiet of the day, as if the world is brand new again. The squeaky crunch of footfalls as you make your way to the mailbox. The resurrection like rush when you come back into the house from the cold and begin to warm up.

Yup. It is the second month of the year.  Winter.  Check the calendar. And since it is absolutely going to keep on snowing, we might as well enjoy it.  I’m in.  How about you?