Tree rings

IMG_20170409_083328_911I held the bowl in my hands, feeling its organic weight as I turned it over. The glossy surface was a marbled array of amber and blonde ribbons swirling about each other. Occasionally, the warm-toned hues wrapped around a dark streak or mark that interrupted their flow; stubborn rocks in the midst of a tranquil stream.

This is where the tree was tapped for syrup,” said the craftsman, pointing to a conspicuous, cone-shaped scar.

He was a wood turner, specializing in bowls made from various hardwoods. The particular specimen in question was a large maple vessel whose masterfully stained surface glowed like a campfire in my hands.

I ran my fingers over the rings of grain and the anomalies hidden within them; years of life, from sapling to felled lumber, wrapped around each other. Successive stories echoing outward from a singular core of origin, shaped by those that came before it.

Time and memory. Life and legacy.


We like to think that life behaves linearly: you wake up, go about your day, then go to sleep – you’re born young, live life, then you grow old. The thought is that we go from point A to B to C in a straight line, each stage having little to do with those of the past.

Not so.

Our existence is a concentric one, like the maple tree. Whether from intrinsic growth or external influence, each of our layers have specific contours and marks. People, places, and events are continually shaping us and consciously or not, we all circle back to them. Memories drift to the surface or we reenact old behaviors and choices when something from our present reminds us of something from our past. For better or worse, with each successive pass over those old layers, we either preserve their shape and carry it forward or try to cover it up, smooth it out, and move on. Like the tree, our current layer reflects the shape of those under the surface and in the past. Life is not a straight line.

I was reminded of this principle recently when a friend from college, Albert Keever, released his debut album. Aside from his incredible songwriting, the album also features the production and instrumental contributions of several other friends, including my former roommate. These people all played significant roles in my life at one time or another. Reading their names on the album roster and hearing the expressive work they produced together awoke some tucked-away college memories. Thus, began another pass over one of the richest and significantly impactful layers of my life to date.

I began college a decade ago. A decade. Whether or not that time-frame seems significant to you, the existential shivers it drizzles down my spine sure are to me.

I went to school in Boston where I now live and work. From my freshman to senior year at Berklee, the setting of my story encompassed the Back Bay neighborhood. At the time, the primary building on campus was 150 Massachusetts Avenue whose developers endeavored to convert the city block’s former hotel and bank buildings into a unified dormitory/classroom/cafeteria/library/storage/studio/performance space for students while preserving the original floor plans. The resulting compound is an MC Escher-inspired maze of whimsy, mystery, and music. Outside of summer breaks and an out-of-state internship, such settings were my home during those years.

The people I met there were just as unique as the architecture. Everyone from teachers to classmates and strangers to roommates bore wildly diverse talents and personalities. It was here where I would meet many long-term friends and share life. These are the friends with whom I would make music, eat cafeteria food, watch The Lord of the Rings into the morning hours, wrestle physically and spiritually, pray countless prayers with each other and with people on the streets through both jubilee and agony, and see God do mighty things we once thought were impossible. Bright as these moments are, these years are also marked by some of my darkest nights. In these buildings, rooms, and streets, I would face the coldest loneliness I have ever known, be haunted by an invasive compulsive disorder, and attempt to navigate a fear-based spiritual insecurity rooted in certain false teachings and my own misinterpretations.

This is an incredibly dense layer of my life and it was created almost exclusively within a small radius of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. It is truly amazing how one can climb the highest heights and plunge the lowest depths in such a small span of space and time. But it happened.

And after graduation, another confounding thing happened: I could never go back. In some undefinable yet indelible way, those same places where I learned and laughed and wept and strove seemed suddenly off limits. I pass near those same places during my daily commute. I can see the familiar buildings in the distance. I could bike to campus and revisit those same rooms if I wanted to. But I know there would be nothing there and I don’t know why.

My life is different now; marked with a little more routine and stability. Cafeteria food has been replaced by home-cooked meals, my wife and I spend the occasional all-nighter helping our beautiful daughter fall asleep, and frantic spiritual wrestling is tempered with wise counsel and the faith that God is indeed a good God. At times, I can’t quite reconcile how life then and life now fit together. The contrast between the two is so sharp that it can seem as though my memories of the past belong to someone else.

Maybe it’s because the people with whom those places resembled a shared significance have moved away. Maybe it’s because that’s just what happens as you grow older. And its not just true for college. Think of a house you used to live in, a significant period of your history, or a person you used to know but have fallen out of touch with. Whatever the objects are, they represent different layers of your life. Perhaps those layers are smooth and beautiful. Or they could be riddled with scars that persist to this day. In either case, there’s a reason you find yourself face-to-face with them from time to time. Maybe there are unanswered questions or simply memories that are worth savoring again and again. 

We can never live in the past, nor should we try. When God puts our lives into motion, they orbit upward and outward, like the concentric veins of the maple wood bowl. Each layer is built on the foundation of those beneath, but is a different one altogether. It need not bear the same old contours and scars. We are shaped by the past but don’t need to be defined by it. There are many things in my past that I don’t understand yet. They still cross my mind now and then and I wonder what brought them into view. Maybe someday it will all come full-circle.

**Please visit the following page to sample and purchase (please!) Albert’s album: https://albertkeever.bandcamp.com/

Wonder

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I wonder sometimes, if there’s a thing I can do
To best hold on to my memory of you
For the lives we live seem to differ in pace
You are growing so fast while I’m frozen in place
Was it a month, a week, or an hour ago
That your very first tooth had begun to show?
Now with three others where I thought there were none,
You’ve already arrived when I’ve only begun

I wonder sometimes, what it must be like
To see as brand new what I thought was common in life
All things are miraculous and more mysterious than not
Such things are the things that, somehow, I forgot
You are a master, by nature, of a most precious art
To love like a child and to be childlike at heart
May you never lose one single grain of this craft
It will lead you to truth when simple days have gone past

I wonder sometimes, what great changes you’ll make
In this mad, spinning world that seems to orbit ’round hate
Children, they say, are a God-send indeed
And God sends what can mend this shattered world’s need
In your short time you’ve made quite the start
For you’ve melted the ice of this calloused heart
May it never be said that you have nothing to share
You have strengths that will come when their time is prepared

I wonder sometimes, if God gave me you
To teach me the miracles that he can do
To make known the manner of love he conveys
Through the lamb and the lion in which he’s portrayed
For a lamb I will be, by your side as you grow
A friend and a guide, the most gentle you’ll know
But should any fool dare to wish you harm or disgrace
’till death or Time’s end, I’ll be the lion they face

I wonder sometimes, if I’m doing things right
To figure by day and to ponder by night
What can be done to preserve what has past?
How best can I make this memory last?
Can I save you from worry by keeping you small?
If I could, would I notice you growing at all?
Can this be the reason that it seems to be
You’ve acquired your age so suddenly?

I wonder sometimes, how the sum of times wondered
Renders the remainder of days that are numbered?
Alas, it is true that no effort can add
One single minute or second of life to be had
So teach me once more, my child my dear
To be unprepared for right now and right here
To give each day the patience and marvel it’s due
That I may cherish each moment with the wonder of you

Enough

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We don’t have a big home, but we have a home
There aren’t too many rooms to heat, but we have rooms to heat
We don’t have a lot of money, but still we have some money
Nor is there fancy food to eat, and yet there is food to eat

Though riches have their grandeur, we have what is grander
We don’t have too many things, but indeed we do have many things
No gilded clothes upon our backs, but there are clothes upon our backs
Others may not our praises sing, but with reason for praises we often sing

We’ve no space to flee from each other, but alas we have space to be with each other
A hungry soul thinks it desires more stuff, but a hunger-slaked soul no longer desires more stuff
The quantity is small of our heart’s contents, but quantity does not make our hearts content
They say if we had more we would have enough, yet what more could be had since we have enough?

Fragments 10/10: The end of all things

I began a 10-day experiment on October 30th. For 10 days, I am:

  1. Setting a timer for 15 minutes
  2. Writing what I can during that time
  3. Stopping when the time is up
  4. Posting what is written without any final editing

For additional context, check out the first post in this series by clicking here.


START

It will be a time when words cease. The lion will lift its paw and every tongue will give pause, as an orchestra before the conductor’s suspended baton. It will be as though one was looking for a country and, having dashed for miles through hill and valley to find someone to point him in the right direction, suddenly comes to understand that the very terrain he’s traversed in frantic longing is the very soil he has search for all along. 

The greats of every age will take their place among the humble and the humble among the great. For all will be instilled with the simple knowledge that there is nothing left to say and nothing left to do. As a once busy mind, weary from sorting through the archives of yesterday, today, tomorrow, and a thousand days more, finally slows to a still sleep, so shall the infinite neurons of our souls fold their hands and take their seat to watch eternity unfold. 

Things that could not formerly give pause will be further stilled. Stars may cease their relentless consuming and mountains, their solemn humming. It will be as though a translucent sheet were dropped from view. Things once invisible will now be made plain. Things once in the forefront of focus now obscured in the midst of larger, grander light and colors, or things as impossibly small yet undeniable as the bending of a grass blade in the wind. 

STOP


I wrote these words on the train this evening. Recently, my commutes have been split between reading books and listening to podcasts. The material I’ve filled the time with has ranged from philosophies that are way over my head to thought-provoking commentaries on racial tensions to comedic banter.

Today was different. Receiving much media input can make one bloated so I felt the need to produce some output to balance my equilibrium. Before I left work, I ripped a few pages out of a spiral notebook and folded them into my pocket.

After entering the subway station, an announcement on the PA system indicated that the incoming train would not be taking any passengers. Moments later it rolled up to the platform with empty passenger cars and closed doors. It remained at the platform for about 10 minutes while the air became so thick with a foul exhaust that I covered my nose with my pulled-over-the-shoulder sweatshirt hood. Some component of train machinery pierced the air with intermittent, staccato splutters of steam. We waited as the digitized voices on the PA system announced the delays. The train eventually rolled out of the station and was followed by the one that would take me home. I found a seat, set my timer, held the papers taught against my leg to form a writing surface and wrote about the end of the world.

That may sound morbid but it’s the truth, and I wasn’t approaching the subject from a morbid perspective. If you’ve ever read The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, you’ll recall that the end of the book (the last in the seven-book Narnia series) tells of the sweeping destruction and renewal of Narnia. If you’re familiar with the last book of the bible, Revelation, you’ll see some parallels between the events described by both C.S. Lewis and the apostle John. In both accounts, the events that take place are beyond words. There is chaos and order, fury and silence, tragedy and jubilee. The last image we are left with is a deep peace and joy. For the past few days, I’ve had it in my mind to put some thoughts on paper on this subject and to highlight some of the stillness and beauty that have been touched on by these authors.

In the bible, John has a vision of what ‘the end’ will be like. Human language is apparently inadequate to describe all of it. “And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby” (Rev. 4:3). Jasper and ruby must be the closest equivalents in our language to what he saw. I think that’s awesome. I’d like to think he was so perplexed by what he saw that he was helplessly grasping at words to try to convey the image. As John discovered, sometimes glimpses of God and eternity are hidden in the marvelous shimmer of a ruby. Other times, they are depicted through a sweeping C.S. Lewis epic. Or sometimes  a simple train delay at the end of the day. May our attempts to capture those glimpses in our words, images, and memories always fail just enough to keep us looking.

This little light

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Arise, little light of mine
Now is your time to shine
Though darkness is growing
And storm winds are blowing
Now is your time to shine

The shadows are mounting in strength
Still you must burn your true length
You will pay full cost
To light the path for the lost
Still you must burn your true length

The hearts of others may die
Yet keep your fire alive
Friends may betray
And turn from the way
Yet keep your fire alive

Take heart, little light of mine
Now is your hour to shine
Though it is lonely to be
Aflame in solitary
Now is your hour to shine

When evil begins to show
Be bold in your noble glow
When sacred is defaced
Right and wrong, misplaced
Be bold in your noble glow

Remember why you were made
When all good things seem to fade
God’s light evermore
To bring shipwrecks to shore
When all good things seem to fade

Be strong, little light of mine
This dark world needs you to shine
Till all wounds are mended
Till long night is ended
This dark world needs you to shine

Fragments 9/10: Carpentry

I began a 10-day experiment on October 30th. For 10 days, I am:

  1. Setting a timer for 15 minutes
  2. Writing what I can during that time
  3. Stopping when the time is up
  4. Posting what is written without any final editing

For additional context, check out the first post in this series by clicking here.


START

(Shhhick – Shhhick – Shhhick)
(Shhhick – Shhhick – Shhhick)
(Dee-alee-aling!)

“Good morning!”
(Shhhick – Shhhick…Thud)

“Good morning, how are you?”
Fair as the weather, I’d say.”
“That bad, eh?”
“Well not as bad as it could be but ‘fraid not as good either. Landlord and I are having some ‘mis-agreements’.”

Four thick fingers shot higher than necessary above his head in vigorous air quotations. 

“About what?”
“Eh the usual: rent, standards o’ cleanliness.”

He’s the shopkeeper across the street. He stopped by every morning for a chat. Recently, most chats have involved some rehashed ‘mis-agreement’ with his landlord. 

“I thought you two came to some sort of understanding last week?”
“Well we-ah…heh”

A coarsely-haired tree-limb of an arm swung suddenly upward, placing a stout hand on top of a glistening scalp. It remained there while its owner 

STOP


This is another one I’d like to come back to at some point. I knew more detail about these characters than I was able to squeeze into a 15-minute write. The main character is a carpenter who works across the street from his shopkeeper friend. They have this unbalanced relationship in which the shopkeeper tends to show up unannounced and unload some issues onto the readily listening ear of the carpenter. In the long range of the story, the developing troubles of the shopkeeper would be indicative of some larger scale issues affecting the entire community. The carpenter would undergo some sort of transition from helpless bystander to fated activist.

I’ve recently been fascinated by the stories of ordinary people who are thrown into the midst of extraordinary circumstances. Martin Luther King Jr. is one such figure. Sure he probably doesn’t seem like a ‘ordinary’ person knowing what we know now. He wasn’t a politician or a legislator. He was a preacher who wanted the nation and its people to live harmoniously. Nothing special there; most people share that desire and can relate in some way. But the gospel he preached compelled him to do no less than the extraordinary things we now know him for. I wanted to write about a Martin Luther King Jr. Those are real characters. Things happen in our world and our lives that act as turning points where we have to either continue being a bystander or roll-up our sleeves and do something, whether we know entirely what that something is or not.

There were a few experiments in this free-write as well. First is the sounds. I like the use of sounds words (officially known as onomatopoeias but that’s a mouthful to say and type) and tried using a few here.

Shhhick – Shhhick = The carpenter planing a piece of wood
Dee-alee-aling = The bell above door of the carpenter’s shop

The other experiment was the dialogue. I don’t have much experience writing dialogue between two or more characters (this is the first free-write that includes it). It’s fun though. Aside from the descriptions and actions of a character, I think the things they say and the way in which they say it can express a lot of detail about who they are and their general demeanor.

Do not be afraid

Don’t panic. Fear is our enemy. Not a policy, not a political party, not any one particular person. Fear is.

Fear ties the hands of those who would use them to do right. Fear binds people to their seats when it is time to stand up. Fear closes the mouths of those who would speak the truth. Fear turns the eyes and minds of the valiant away from the reality of “what is?” to the uncertainty of “what if?”

Fear plays on both sides.

Fear whips the passive bystander into active aggressor. Fear clenches the fists of those who have by telling them they have not. Fear uses one hand to stab in the back and the other to point an accusing finger at “those people.”

What great movement has ever been accomplished by anyone who chose fear over action? What memorable words have ever been penned or declared by those who squelched the fire in their belly with the safety of silence and indifference? This has never happened and it never will.

We’re all familiar with the paranoia and slander that has filled our airwaves and news feeds these past months. Some of it directed towards specific individuals and others towards entire people groups. Now that a larger, more powerful microphone has been given to some of the voices that have spread such toxic things, it is tempting to be afraid. Don’t be. Do not be afraid.

The problems of this present age are the same as those faced by our predecessors. They are dressed differently but their methods and weaponry are still the same: fear. But know this: This is good news. If the poison hasn’t changed, the antidote hasn’t either.

Fear is a commodity that is bought and sold, not an inheritance that is given or received without choice. It falls apart when people refuse to buy and it trembles in the presence of of those who refuse to believe its deceptions. The power of the schoolyard bully and the political tyrant are equally hard-pressed when even one individual has the audacity to cast off the luxury of standing by and doing nothing. To say, do, or even think differently than the status-quo of hate is to heave a boulder at the glass house of fear. Do not buy into fear or its byproduct of hate, thus betraying yourself. If you must fear anything at all, fear not the enemy at your door but the enemy in your mirror.

So no matter how the politics of our country may change, it is up to you and I to resist fear. Whether you have been unfairly exempt or included in the sweeping criminalization of various people groups during this season, you have a strength to contribute to this effort. Love and be kind to others no matter what stereotypes have been forced upon them. Be unafraid of any stigma that may come your way for doing so. Speak up and speak out for the violated, stand in the gap between victim and oppressor with a love that will lift up the one and set an example for the other, reach out to those who have been shaken by our nation’s volatile climate. Do not wait for anyone else to do it. The hate you may endure for doing so is no match for such compassion.

If you are a Christian, you come from a long lineage of fear-resisters; you are not alone in the struggle. Jesus told us “You are the light of the world…Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Though the whole house is dark, a single light will penetrate it. Jesus’ entire earthly life was spent as a solitary light in a dark world. The world has never been the same since. If you want to be a light to others, you have to step into the darkness. You won’t be alone when you do.

Esther was a queen who used her position of influence to dismantle one man’s planned genocide of an entire people group. The words she received from a friend to help her maintain focus are just as applicable to us in our present positions of influence: “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). 

What about Martin Luther King Jr? Mother Teresa? The kid in school who stood up for you when you were getting picked on? That co-worker who not only didn’t laugh at the racist jokes being casually tossed around the lunch table but said something to stop them? Each of these refused to be scared into silence and inaction. What about you and what about me? Such accomplishments are within reach. We have work to do. Today is the day to overcome fear.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).