Marred

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We moved into our home a little more than a year ago, and it feels like we’re finally getting to know it. The floorboards creek fiercely at the end of the hallway, something you may not notice in the afternoon, but when the whole house is fast asleep you may as well have dropped a box full of china. There’s a railroad line right across the street. Big freight trains pass through every couple hours. This was certainly something we were aware of before we purchased the home, but you don’t know it know it until it rumbles through a few hundred times. Rather than the annoyance it could be, the deep growl of it has become a source of comfort, a reminder that things keep moving.

Older homes in particular require an extra level of patience in learning what makes them tick (and creak, and groan, and make all manner of noises), and a certain amount of diligence in maintenance, including the patching of every minor crack and hole to keep it from becoming a hostel for field mice. But even with all of this attention and care, there are bound to be surprises, some minor and some major. After all, this home has seen a lot of life and a lot of lives, having been around longer than most people I know. Some of the people who have lived here have been tender, I’m sure, and some have been less so.

A couple of months ago I was entering the living room when I noticed a little patch of paint missing from the white trim around the doorway. The spot was just a little less than a foot off the ground. The paint underneath was yellowed and glossy. I assumed that whoever last painted the trim hadn’t prepped the area well beforehand, and with two little ones bumping toys and bodies into all things at all times, I wasn’t exactly surprised.

A couple weeks later I passed by the same spot, and it had grown just a bit. I may have cursed the painter under my breath. I can’t be certain.

Another couple weeks went by, and the spot had grown even larger. This time I bent over to really inspect it, and I noticed a few chips of paint lying along the baseboard. I had my suspicions.

When a few more days had passed and the spot had become even larger I called Finnden over to me. Given that the spot in question stood just outside his bedroom door, he seemed the most likely culprit.

“Finnden, have you been peeling away the paint from the doorway?”

“Huh?”

I took him over to the spot and pointed, “Here. Is this your doing?”

“No.”

“You’re sure? I won’t be mad.” (I was mad.)

“Mm-hmm. It wasn’t me, Dad.”

I took a deep breath and decided to let it go. I couldn’t prove it was him, so I chose to trust him.

A few days later I got home from work, and Finnden was playing on the floor of the family room while Karen was making dinner. She looked up from her cookbook. “Finn has something he needs to tell you.”

“Oh really,” I said as I hung up my coat. “What’s that?”

Finnden looked at me briefly, and then back at his Legos. “I’ve been picking at the paint.”

“He told me today,” Karen said. “He didn’t want to tell you. He was afraid you’d be mad.” (He was right.) She went on. “He does it during nap time. When he can’t sleep, he sits just outside his bedroom door and picks at the paint.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

I sighed deeply before answering. “You’re forgiven. And you won’t do it anymore?”

“No.”

“Okay then.”

A week later he and I were on the couch in the living room reading a book before bed. He was squirming terribly until he finally stopped my reading and told me he had to go to the bathroom. “It’s a ‘mergency!” I shooed him off to the restroom with a promise that I wouldn’t read ahead without him, but my eyes flicked to the spot on the trim as he passed by. It had doubled, nay tripled in size!

What had once appeared as a medium-sized abstracted seashell was now an entire scene. A seahorse now appeared to be kissing the shell. There was no mystery this time. And I was mad.

I stared at it. Glowered, really. I began to formulate the stern words he’d receive when he returned. Thank goodness that kid takes forever to wash his hands.

“That’s you.”

Those were the first words that came up out of the fog of my fury. What do you mean that’s me?

“He does the same thing you do. You pick. When you think no one is watching and no one will notice, you pick.”

I suddenly recognized that voice. And He was right.

I have marks on my soul. I have wounds that haven’t healed, and spots that tend to show. We all do. The shape and color of mine may be different, but in a way they’re all the same because they mar the us the Father makes us.

When I get scared, or bored, or tired, or stressed, or distracted I start to pick. I pry at the edges and reopen old wounds. And I hope no one will notice. I hope that maybe the spots are just inconspicuous enough that they’ll be glanced over or given other, easier explanations. But my Father knows. He knows, and he still looks at me with love. He sees my compulsion and still regards me with compassion. He looks at me with understanding and a deep desire for me to know the me he sees, whole and spotless.

When Finn finally returned we had a very different conversation than the one we might have had if he didn’t think a running faucet were so worthy of fascination. We’re a lot alike.

Sleep & Resist

Processed with VSCOcam with b1 presetOh little ones,
dozing is done,
and dreams have come
to carry you away.

Is this when games are devised
and songs improvised—
made up and stored
in the closets and beneath floorboards
or lined up on the secret shelves
of your unmeddled mind?

Or
is this when you devise your disobedience,
plot your willful
resistance
to authority and maturity?

By all means, resist!
May these dreams consist
of playful joys for
a day will foist
upon you the burdens of adulthood
in time.

Resist!
My son and my daughters,
close fists against the coming of logic
and reason, giving reasons
for disparaging these seasons
of dreams in the day
and not just night.

If growing up is
growing out of daydreams
and made-up-things
then rebel!
Fume and marshall fury
against the onslaught of worries
that we hurry toward
when we grow old.

So, little ones,
sleep and resist
and dream.

Blessings In Branches

Cold and sunless and slushy and windy and colorless.

Winter is here, and it seems inclined toward proving right all the disparaging remarks everyone’s been making about it.

But we woke up on a recent Sunday morning to a blanket of snow, just enough to give everything the veneer of white but not enough to obscure the pointed blades of grass that poked up from underneath. But it kept coming. Karen and the kids and I sat at the kitchen table nestled in the corner of windows that looks out on the towering maple in the back yard. Our hands wrapped around cups of tea, cocoa, and coffee, respectively, as we willed their warmth to transfer to our chilled fingertips. We marveled as the snowflakes grew bigger and more beautiful, becoming the kind of snow that covers Christmas cards. My dad has always called those kinds of snowfalls “Hollywood snow,” and it was enough to cause Karen to exclaim, “We’re in a snow globe!”

Sunday is a day of rest around our house. A day for playing games, reading a book (if a quiet corner can be found in this boisterous house), taking naps, and sharing meals with one another and the occasional friend. That particular Sunday I also knew would need to be a day to run. Running and rest seem unlikely friends, but I knew that something about whisking through the woods near our home, the snowflakes falling and my breath coming out in puffs of ephemeral fog would be rest for my soul, the part of me that needed it most.

So as the rest of the house tucked in for a long winter’s nap
I donned running apparel and my warmest knit cap.
(Rhyme intended)

Throughout the first quarter hour I was sure I had made a mistake. I hadn’t run for almost a week because temperatures had plunged so low, and my lackluster pace through the woods was feeling like anything but rest.

Finally, I fell into a rhythm, and I was able to look up and enjoy the view. Not long after, I began noticing all the nests in the trees. Everywhere I looked the bare branches held birds’ nests. All summer long they’d been hidden by thick canopies of green, but now they were unmistakeable. Nests are often symbols of safety, security, and warmth, but as I passed underneath them I realized that I was finding them menacing somehow. I wondered why.

They were these bundles of leaves and splayed twigs set on barren branches, silhouetted black against the grey sky. The winter chill had sent all the birds seeking warmer climes, and now the nests stood unprotected and abandoned, standing out like tumors in the trees, mere caricatures of the vitality they once held. And the trees were as bare as bare can be. They were themselves with no adornment. They had been stripped. And only then could be seen all that lay in their branches. Only then could one see without obscurity what belonged and what did not.

I paused for a moment and gazed up at the branches swaying in the cold, creaking and clacking against one another in the wind-whipped snowfall. Then I ran on.

Truth be told, I am still in summer. My life is good in so many ways right now. I feel fortunate and full. But we all have our winters. Mine will come. It’s not pessimism. Just life. And I’m writing this down because I need to remember. I feel like that’s what God whispered to me, the restfulness he gave me on my run. He told me to remember. When my leaves fall, and my branches are laid bare to creak in the winter winds, I need to remember that while there is obvious blessing in the golds and greens of summer, there are also blessings in branches that are barren. Only in winter can we see what has made its home in us. Only when we’re stripped bare—seeing what we’re really made of—can we decide what will stay and what must go.

Say What You Want

Processed with VSCOcam with x2 presetI woke up to darkness, the silvery moonlight told me the hour was long before dawn. My throat was parched from the dryness of the Santa Ana winds that had been gusting throughout the warm, late-autumn in southern California. I rolled out of bed, opening my eyes only halfway, willing myself to remain mostly asleep as I went to get a glass of water. Then, somewhere in the distance between the bedroom and the kitchen, a question that I’d been asking myself profoundly changed, as if a light bulb had flickered on in the darkness of that hallway, sudden and illuminating.

For a long time I’d been silently asking: Should we have another baby?

Karen and I had asked this question before. The result was two children who filled our home with joyful laughter and who often filled my eyes with tears at the beauty and wonder and joy of living. Life was very full. So were our hands. Full enough that we hadn’t quite gotten around to asking the question again before God gave us an answer. Quite unexpectedly, he began a new life. We hadn’t known we’d wanted another child, but we suddenly discovered we desperately did.

A few months later, in a fifth-floor sonogram room in California, we held our breath while they searched for the heartbeat we’d never hear again.

In the difficult weeks that followed, the question of whether or not we would have another child crawled into a cave along with many other questions we couldn’t answer… or couldn’t bring ourselves to ask. Occasionally, one of us would whisper into that cold darkness, asking “will we or won’t we?” One time Karen coaxed the question out of its den, and we both stared at it for awhile. Then, like the groundhog, it crawled back inside waiting for the end of that long, cold, hard winter.

“Not yet,” we said. “See your shadow and return to safety. The thaw is still a little ways off.”

So there I was several months later, on a midnight shuffle from the bedroom to the kitchen, and the question of whether or not we should have another baby became an entirely different one.

Might there be… something… that God wants to add to the world through a… someone… he might bring into the world through us?

Suddenly the question wasn’t about me, which is what made me realize I probably wasn’t the one asking.

All my questions were pretty focused on us: Are we ready? How would it change us? What would Finnden and Ellis think? Could we afford it? And even… Would we need a different car?

But if I’m being really honest. Really and truly honest. The real question was: Will I trust him?

Because I was hurt. And I felt I’d been cheated. And I was already having enough trouble saying goodbye to a child to which I’d never said hello.

And I just didn’t want to do it again.

But at the same time, I did want to. I knew I wanted us to have another child. I knew it. But I wouldn’t say it. I pretended to hem and haw hoping that the mystery of whether or not the bottom could drop out again might be magically solved in the meantime. I buried the real question under the pile of all the other questions, the safe ones, unable to tell the truth.

I remember being at a birthday party when I was little. It was a hot and sticky summer day, and I looked up from my picnic table to see the birthday boy’s mom emerging from the house carrying a box of popsicles. Before anyone else noticed her I shouted, “I want a green one!” My shout was followed a moment later by a stampede of squealing children, and due to the impossible task of extracting oneself from the center seat of a full picnic table I ended up last in line. By the time I reached her only one popsicle was left. Purple. I hate purple. As I dejectedly took my purple popsicle from her hand I looked around at the other kids, most of whom quickly looked away, not wanting a share in my disappointment. Everyone knew I’d wanted a green one. I’d shouted it, for goodness sake. If I’d just kept my mouth shut I could have played it off like no big deal. I could have pretended to be okay with purple. But suddenly I was feeling sorry for myself, and everyone else was feeling sorry for me, and the embarrassment of it was making my eyes fill with tears I couldn’t conceal. Saying exactly what I’d wanted had made the loss of it that much harder.

So twenty-seven years later there I was, an adult, trying to make a major life decision with my wife, and I was afraid to say anything for the fear that the admission of it might make a possible disappointment that much more impossible to bear.

Should we have another child? I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t say what I wanted.

So God changed the question. He made it about something other than what I wanted. He made it about what it should have been about the whole time. He asked me to ask what he wanted.

So, in less than the distance between the bedroom and the hallway, my thinking changed direction. It would take many months for me to ask that question aloud. Longer still to admit I already knew the answer. There were many steps in between, tentative steps, slow, and deliberate, testing the ground to make sure it didn’t fall away. But bit by bit, we kept going. Karen arrived there long before me and began asking the question in earnest. Will we or won’t we?

Eventually we decided.

We will.

If you haven’t already heard (or seen)… in the very-merry month of May we are expecting a new addition to our family, and last week in a second-floor sonogram room in Illinois we learned that we’re expecting a little girl.

Memory Makers

Processed with VSCOcam with t2 preset“What was your favorite Christmas gift you ever received?”

How many times have I been asked this perennial ice-breaker of the season that feels both safe and on-point at the same time? I’ve never had a satisfactory answer, so I’ve always hated the question.

I remember a fair number of gifts I was given in my childhood, but once I subtract all the ones that I was given on days other than that one day, the remainder can be counted on my fingers (my preferred method of doing math anyway.) When the qualifier of “favorite” is added to the equation, the number falls to zero. I just can’t remember that many gifts.

On the other hand, I have scores of Christmas moments that play in my memory in the soft tones of sepia.

The day we skipped school—on what should have been a snow day anyway—to pick out our Christmas tree. The snow was heavy and deep as my family and I traipsed through the fields, and it incited us to snowball fights followed by cocoa in the barn as they baled our white pine, the variety my dad has always loved best.

Sitting beside the fire in the family room feeding album after album to the record player in the corner, the music of choirs, and orchestras, and the Chipmunks filling our home with Christmas cheer.

Painstakingly weaving together ribbons of red and white peppermint-flavored cookie dough into the shapes of candy canes so that Santa and all the Benoits could enjoy the memories that float back only when beckoned by taste and smell.

Sitting in the pew on Christmas Eve singing songs… filled with words… about a story… that made my head spin.

And Christmas mornings with my family and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends-who-are-family in a circle that pressed against every wall of the room, a sea of humanity and joviality among waves of piled presents.

So there were presents. Lots of them. The gifts just aren’t what I remember best. I remember moments: the feelings, the people, and most of all, the traditions. My mom and dad were great keepers of traditions. I know this now that I have children of my own because I’ve learned that keeping traditions does not happen by accident. Traditions are chosen and they are kept with diligence. Rarely are traditions easy or natural, and they are never found in the shortest distance between A and B. Now and then a tradition may be something we’ve stumbled into, but even then we must have the presence of mind to recognize what’s begun and the determination to carry it forward.

Likewise, I believe that childhood itself is not something that happens by accident. Part of the job of being a parent, I think, is to cultivate and protect childhood, and one of our tools is tradition. We are Memory Makers, and we wield a magic wand of… well… magic. Because what else can we call what happens when we invoke a moment and a whole host of wonder, and laughter, and joy come galloping on, the cavalry of Christmas past? I want my children to remember so much more than presents. I want them to remember their Christmases and their whole childhoods as peace met with wonder and mystery because that’s what I believe God meant for all of life to be.

A few weeks ago, Karen and I had the chance to make a new tradition with our family, though in one sense, we were reviving a tradition. Growing up, my family and I always went out to a farm in the country to cut down our own Christmas tree. As one of my favorite childhood memories, I’d always dreamed of continuing this tradition with my own kids, but since the experience lacked some of its Currier and Ives charm in the arid climate of southern California we’d set the idea aside.

But this year, on the snowy day after Thanksgiving, we traipsed out to a farm about forty-five minutes away and began a new tradition. What made the day even more special was that we were able to share it with the ones who had taught it to me, my mom and dad. I was reminded again that traditions require a little fortitude. There’s no arguing the fact that hunting for a pine in the frigid cold and cutting it down yourself is not the most expedient method for finding a Christmas tree, but the horse-drawn wagon, the most perfect tree there ever was, and the sheer joy on the faces of my kids as they dashed through the snow assured me that the work was well worth it.

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Free To See

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI still have trouble framing my experience in the Middle East. Trying to communicate it results in collections of sentences that do little to capture what I actually felt. But I look back at the photos I took, and I’m there again.

The trip was unique in many ways, but the most profound was that I was simply an observer. My job often takes me to unique places, but I’m always there with a mission in mind, a story tell that comes with a timeline to meet. Those constraints dictate every decision, usually keeping me at arms length from the place itself.

Just past the security line in Chicago one of my supervisors stopped me. “I’m hoping you can turn off your storyteller’s brain on this trip,” she said. “There’s certainly a story to tell here, but this time around, just experience it.” 

She could have given me no greater gift than those few words. I was free to see, really see.` 

And I did.

I took only my iPhone. I thought about taking more, but as a father of two I saw this as one of my rare opportunities to travel light. I also wondered if everything might feel that much more immediate if I limited myself to a singular and simple tool. I easily get bogged down with arranging the perfect equipment, dialing in the perfect settings, and composing the perfect shot. I miss moments that way. Travelling with just my phone allowed me to just shoot.

Don’t think, just snap. 

Along with the pictures I took I tried to jot down a few questions, thoughts, and emotions as often as I could. In all of these writings a few words and themes seemed to repeat themselves again and again. I wanted to share a few of those.

Tension

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Reminders of the tensions that partly define this place are everywhere. This device, used by security forces to detonate bombs that may be discovered on the premises, sits just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Pride

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Normal History

There’s no region more rich with history. All of humankind can trace our beginnings back to this area, and there are near-constant reminders of what this place means to the people of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths alike. Yet there are very real people here living very real lives, normal lives. Their daily activities take place amidst the constant collision of old and new.

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Division & Disparity

I sat sipping tea, while contemplating the view from my sixth-floor room at the Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem. Though the Jacir may be a little worse for wear in places, it still provided a sharp relief to the slums of the Aida Refugee Camp outside my window.
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Holy

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The trip involved several visits to holy sites, unrecognizable places crawling with tourists, trinkets, and ornate icons. Across the crowded plaza from the wide wooden doors at the entrance the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—the cathedral that stands over the place where many believe Jesus was crucified and buried—was a tiny open archway. Curious, a friend and I stepped through into the quiet of a little courtyard, peaceful and bathed in sunlight.

I was reminded that sacredness can invade any place and every place… if we’ll let it.