Thursday, October 11, 2012

Applied Rhythm

Often in moments of quiet, driving down the road, sitting in a waiting room, resting on a bench at the Inner Harbor, my father, almost involuntarily, would put his hands together and begin softly clapping out a rhythm. A simple four-four beat. Leaning forward a bit, his arms resting on his legs and his hands dangling between his knees, he would one way or another add music to his day, like applying mortar to widening cracks and crevices. In his head, and in his heart, was a song always waiting, like a great conversation you can’t wait to continue. Or maybe it was his soundtrack, and in the quiet moments it resurfaces into consciousness. Whatever. Music was as much a part of him as an arm is to you and me. Natural. Flowing out like a spring. Music gave him joy.  Music gave him company.  Music gave him God.

Moving from piano to guitar to the banjo player, my dad had perfected the chord-melody style, allowing him to play melody but with a richer sound, without accompaniment. The largess of this benefit was not when he was performing to the crowds, but when he was alone. How I remember him playing mostly is where he was seated on the side of his bed, his collapsible music stand perched before him, practicing for hours. Tune after tune filling the rooms. He strummed with these large, triangular, brindle plastic pics; and from time to time, in between beats, he would drag the edge of his pick across his forehead, squeegeeing off his sweat. He would emerge from his room after a couple of hours only to guzzle a large glass of cold water, the front of his button-down shirt soaked in a big V from neck to navel.

From time to time, after an especially enthusiastic run-through of his extensive repertoire of standards like Whispering, Five Foot Two, Bye Bye Blues, he would resurface, shaking his head mildly in disbelief, and muse, "I played things on that instrument that I've never been able to play. It was like I was talking to God."  He was.

In the 73rd Psalm, St. Augustine writes, "...He who sings praise, not only sings but also loves him of whom he sings." Yet over the centuries, Augustine's words have become known more as He who sings [to God] prays twice.  Common among these words is the exultation of music and the exultation of God through music.  It is speaking to God.  The gift of music is a grace that allows us to reach our highest potential as human beings, and through it we're expressing our thanks and our joy and our gratitude. 

Music is one of the few sustenances other than food that feeds us beyond measure, as essential as love, family, and friendship.  It is the great communicator.  It is the great uniter.  It sends us as far away as we want to go.  It brings us home when we need to be.   It digs deep down into us.  It elevates us to distant pinnacles.  It stretches across the universe.  There is no one out of its reach.  It blankets us all.  Thank God.  Because it covered my father when he most felt uncovered.

As a predominantly deaf man, who retained a low percentage of hearing in one ear only after enduring an extended bout with childhood meningitis, my father stockpiled years of lonely, isolated hours full with music, banging on an old upright piano or slashing across the strings of an acoustic Epiphone.   Eventually parlaying his sweat into playing professionally in one of the most sought after duo's in Baltimore.  And later selling pianos and teaching music.  Wherever he turned--music.

After a neighbor who was downsizing for a move sold my grandmother a well-used upright piano, my father, still in grade school, saw his own mother sit down and begin to play, which he had no idea she could even do.  Songs like Heart of My Heart, Somebody Stole My Gal streamed out of her fingers; and she sang out loud and sweet, as though she were in a revival.   And then his sisters would chime in, Ain't She Sweet, Bye Bye Blackbird.  No hesitation.  Completely unabashed.  Music invaded his home and clung to the walls, new life permeating everything, like thick, overgrown ivy. 

Soon, too, my father sat before the piano and, as though for the first time, began to breathe, introducing  himself  to his own music, his own heart, his own soul, a new acquaintance growing into fast friend and then old love.  The peace enveloping him from the knowing that no matter what came and went, whatever was given and taken, implanted and extracted, music is constant.  This is what God gives us in music--an always.  My father would never truly be alone again. 

It's no wonder my dad became a performer and then a music teacher; he had to share what was shared.  Although song was so personal to him, and always with him, it wasn't all his; and that's probably why he positioned a guitar in my arms when I was four.  My dad once told me that the great Itzhak Perlman had said that his father forced him to play the violin when he didn't want to, and he now can't thank him enough, not because of his success, but because of his joy.  That's what my father wanted for me.  If I could stick it out, wrestling through the Volga Boatman and Marianne, eventually--the joy. 

I remember feeling a bit surprised to find other families in which no one played an instrument.  I thought everybody played something, or at least sang.  My sister played clarinet.  I toyed with the French horn and then the tuba and sang in one chorus or another since the moment I was old enough.  I didn't last long with my father as my teacher, especially because he knew when I practiced and when I didn't.  There was just no hiding it, so my lessons only lasted about four months, just long enough for me to learn the F chord for Silent Night.  To my dad's great delight, when I was 18 I did learn the guitar.  And to my great delight, it can never be unlearned.

I admit to being a little guilty of being a "helicopter parent."  I hover a bit too much, and I want to create for my kids a well-rounded childhood.  And so with the Brownies, the clubs, the camps, soccer and lacrosse, I want my daughter, who's old enough, to learn an instrument, hopefully of her choosing.  I may even apply a little bit of that force that Perlman remembered.  And soon, I'll prop my guitar in my son's arms.  I don't care about greatness or playing before crowds, but I can see farther down the road to that joy, loitering, to be discovered.  That gift waiting to be unwrapped. 

A couple years before my father's passing, a recording surfaced, found by an old fan of my dad and his partner.  The reel-to-reel, featuring my dad's partner playing wild Dixie banjo and my father providing the flawless foundation on rhythm guitar, highlighted absolutely extraordinary moments in musicianship.  It is documented proof that my father experienced what so many of us clamor to experience--to be a part of something great.  That recording, which is now on CD and MP3, has evolved from bootleg into artifact into heirloom.                                                        

Somewhere in my father's last hours, as he lay in his own bed, in home hospice, I leaned in and spoke into his left ear, his "good" ear, and I asked, "Dad, do you want to hear your songs?"  Although it was a time for silence, for peace, I felt that his music was his peace.  His eyes closed, he nodded yes.  And one last time he visited with an old friend, the old tunes, the old music, the old joy, assuring himself that he was not alone, that there is what God promises when we pray to Him twice--an always.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

All the Fun

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
(Walt Whitman, 1865)

“Can God fit in my Matchbox car?” my four year old son asks. 

“Sure,” I answer, “He’s everywhere.” 

“Is His stomach bigger than our pool?” he follows. 

“Sure,” I answer again. 

“Is He magic?” 

“You could say that,” I say.  I imagined magic is just what it must look like what God does to a four year old.  (Actually, it looks like that to this 44-year-old.)  So, without deconstructing God’s omnipresence, I let it stand as magic.  And why not?  It’s an easy out when he asks, “Did God make the trees?” 



“Magic,” I answer, which is much easier than explaining the evolution of cycles of plant life that God set into motion who knows how long ago.  (Well, He knows.)  Beyond that, it seems like magic.  Supposedly, we get the answers when we die.  But I don’t care.  I can’t imagine enjoying a tree more.  And if God says, “Look how easy it is for me to make a tree,” it won’t diminish my impression of a tree at all.  The trick won’t be ruined.  I feel for those who get caught up in the How How How.  Just sit and marvel that it is.

This, I think, is God’s plan—magic.  But there’s His BIG magic and out little magic, which, perhaps, introduces us to His BIG magic, by our own attempts at ours.  Perhaps I have a little better understanding, for lack of clearer expression, of God’s magic, God’s skill, because I grew up with my father’s magic.

I know at seven years old I was an easy mark, but my dad used to fool me over and over with this one magic trick (to be honest, all magic tricks) that I just couldn’t get enough of.  He would peal a card off the top of a deck, show it to me, let’s say a two of diamonds; and then he would rub the card on his knee, or better yet…my knee, and show it to me again—and it would change, let’s say to a king of clubs.  My eyes would pop.  I would examine the card, turning it over and over in my hand; and I would demand, “Again!”  And he would do it again and again and again.  I couldn’t get enough. 

Eventually, I figured out that my dad was doing a card trick, a sleight of hand, an illusion, skillfully done.  There was an easy explanation.  But not to me.  I just didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t figure it out, thankfully.  I would have spent my time focusing in on his hands, on the how, and that would have ruined all the fun.  All the mystery.  All the joy. 

Of course my dad wasn’t trying to make a fool of me when he would change a card or cut and restore a rope or close a sponge ball in my fist to have it then grow into seven sponge balls springing from my hand.  Instead, he was trying to make me see something—a world filled with magic.  Still, I would pester him for the secret, but he’d never tell, not till I was much older.  He didn’t want me to miss the fun.  He wanted me to have the wonder that abides with faith of its existence.  It makes life fantastic.  It allowed me to peer up at a vent in my attack and think, Yeah, Santa can fit through that. And now on a calm, clear night I peer up at a blanket of scattered gems across the black abyss and I think that I should never want the moment to end.  Now, I know a star is a gaseous sphere illumined via thermonuclear fusion.  That’s a BIG creation by God’s skill, but I can’t make one.  To little old me, it’s just magic.  Beautiful.  It just is.  If I get caught up in the how, I miss the glory.  And I think that’s God’s message.

In Matthew 14:19-21, Jesus feeds the hungry multitude of people:
19 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.
20 And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.
21 And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.
Now when they were done, Jesus departs to go pray, no questions asked.  It’s truly one of the most amazing moments in the gospels.  Thousands of people fulfilled from so little.  Satisfied in the marvelous.  Knowing that only God could provide in such a miraculous fashion.  And I’m so glad that Matthew 14:22, the following verse, doesn’t begin, “And one among them said, ‘Hey, wait a minute…Do that again, this time slower,’” hoping to catch Jesus produce 5000 fish from the sleeve of his tunic when no one was looking. 

Yes, it’s puzzling and unbelievable.  But, so are we.  The mere fact that we exist, that we evolved over such a long period of time from something so small is that changing card in the cosmic deck.  Sure, my tiny mind would like to know how God does it.  I am tempted to say, “Do it all again.  This time slower.”  But, for me to dwell on the How How How, I might miss what God wants for me, what my father wanted for me—all the fun.

After my father passed away, some of his belongings were divvied up between my sister and me.  Among these artifacts were some magic tricks, a magic wand, linking rings, a life-like rabbit, decks and decks of cards, the usuals.  And in one bag of tricks, deep down in a corner seem, was a little rubber hand, hollowed out to fit over a fingertip.  I slipped it on the tip of my pinky, and it came to me when my dad used to show me his cupped hands with this little rubber, life-like hand in miniature reaching out from between the palms, as if my dad had captured a little man to show me.  Since then, from time to time, I interrupt my children at play in their rooms and dive on the bed, as though in hot pursuit, and reign in my cupped hands from under a pillow and rush over to my kids to show them the ensnared little man-sprite, whom my kids now call Guod (which is Doug backwards), his hand reaching out and waving to them; and then as quick as a flash he is gone again to dwell among us and watch over us from the shadows.  “Seeing” Guod always gets them going.

Last night the two of them composed a note to Guod, revealing their hope for his happiness and pledging their love to him.  Not missing any of the fun.  I hope they never lose that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Alright, Better, Wonderful

Sitting alone in my car at 1:00 A. M. in the deserted hospital parking garage, the doctor's words about my father's near fatal condition echoed in my skull: "He's not responding to the medicine.  He needs to be kept as comfortable as possible."  My father's congestive heart failure was causing him to fill with fluid, drowning him under his skin, each added ounce causing his heart to run out of steam, like wheels slipping in place.  The doctor's countenance, his forced half-smile, his hushed tones in his speech trying to comfort us all added up to his assuredness of my father's demise.  The night was going to be long.  And so I did what everyone else does in the grips of foxhole faith, I called out to God.  "Please, give me something, anything to let me know that he's going to be okay," I said, my head down and my hands on the steering wheel, squeezing so tightly as though I were forcing God to listen.
       When my heart slowed and I could see again, I turned the engine on, rolled down the windows to let the summer air in, and from the radio speakers began the first electric chords of The Beatles' song "It's Getting Better All the Time."  Anyone who knows me well knows that I am Beatles fan, as in the "fan" in fanatic.  And it is that fanaticism that has kept me well attuned to what popular Beatles songs are played on the radio.  "It's Getting Better All the Time" is not one of those songs.  It gets very little play in comparison to the dozens of other hits they had: Hey Jude, Let It Be, Strawberry Fields Forever, et. al.  So because it was this song at this moment, I knew one thing for certain-God was speaking to me.  He was picking a language I would understand.  It seemed a little heavy handed; I thought God was a little more cryptic, but I wasn't about to argue.  I drove home and slept, peacefully, knowing that this wasn't the end.
       The pastor at my church once said that faith is the opposite of our instincts.  We must see something to believe it, yet for faith we must first believe, then we will see it.  That's pretty tough for so many of us, the belief in things unseen.  So I know that there are those who say that God's talking to me through The Beatles is a pretty broad leap.  Still, sitting in that car, I experienced that X factor, that absolute rightness stemming from a total lack of rationality.  And that was fine by me.
       Arriving at the hospital the next morning, my sister was already in the ICU.  There was an energy in the room that was palpable, a surging charge.  My sister rushed to me, spouting, "The doctor said in the night Dad just suddenly began responding.  Fluid was draining out in healthy quantities."  However, the doctor later added that there were too many factors beyond just being 79 for Dad to recover and live beyond Christmas.  We were convinced otherwise.
       After a cafeteria buffet breakfast, my sister and I sat on a lobby bench to process the morning.  Reticently, I recanted details that unfolded nine hours earlier.  When I reached the crux of the moment, telling her how I deduced that God had picked a language to speak to me, cleverly employing a Beatles song as some sort of divine conduit, her head was tipped to one side and her eyes were piercing into my face.  "Stop!" she demanded.  And then she recanted the details of her morning.
       After driving home from the hospital, she pulled into her driveway, turned off her van, and sat there, not yet allowing herself to go inside.  In the pounding silence of the early morning, she called out to God as I had, "Please, give me something, anything to let me know that he's going to be okay."  As her van began to warm up, and not ready to walk, my sister started the engine for the cool air of the air conditioner.  Her radio had been on when she had stopped, so after the engine turned over, a song was beginning.  The words began to bore through the stratum of her prayer.  It was Bob Dylan, telling her, "Don't think twice; it's alright."  As she listened, a comforting peace began to gently knead her.  When the song was done, she cut the engine, went inside, and slept.
       My sister and I were of the same mind, thinking that God's media were not that conspicuous.  But why not?  Why can't God just chuck a brick at our heads when He wants a quick communiqué?  And so we sat there, gaping at one another, just as affirmed as we were spooked.
       A year later, at my father's 80th birthday celebration, Louis Armstrong crooned What a Wonderful World, to which my father, or the "miracle man" as one doctor called him, and stepmother danced, smiling, breathing with clear lungs.  I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Last and Everything

Our tent was one of those green canvas jobs, a relic from a past war I imagined, eventually donated to the Boy Scouts of America.  Or perhaps it was purchased in a bulk buyout at the local Sunny Surplus.  The tent housed two canvas cots, supported by wooden legs, very roomy for the camper under six feet who sleeps on his side.  My dad was six-two.  The cots were up off the ground, its legs positioned on the wide slats of the wooden skid that was to be our floor.  The corners of the tent folded around each other and never fully closed, so there was a generous flow of crisp air during the nights, just a few degrees above freezing.  Our breath across the lantern’s light created quite a billowing little cloud.  But no matter, it was camping, a father-son weekend with the Boy Scouts.  A little roughing-it to test our mettle was just the spirit of the scouts, build boys into men and all that.
Our sleeping bags were these wide, airy quilted and nylon bags, bought at the local mega-thrift store, probably more suited for novice camping in the late Spring or early Autumn.   We had been smart enough to pack extra blankets to keep good and toasty.  But I hadn’t the foresight to pack everything I needed, already breaking the time-honored credo—Be prepared.  During the night I couldn’t fully fall asleep.  What I had neglected to pack was a pillow.  Or maybe I thought, I’m camping, and mountain men don’t need pillows.  I don’t recall Grisly Adams needing a pillow.  However, this mountain man was more restless than the princess on the pea.  I just couldn’t get into a deep sleep.  My dad hadn’t packed a pillow, but he was warm enough and was able to use his blanket as a pillow.  I could have just used my blanket, too, but it was too cold to forfeit that layer from inside my sleeping bag.  Nonetheless, somewhere in the night, I finally fell into a cozy slumber.  And it wasn’t from sheer exhaustion.
When I awoke in the morning, my head was nestled atop a thick, soft blanket, folded and folded again to create a make-shift pillow.  I looked over and saw that my father, whose eyes seemed half opened, was lying on his side, with his head on one of his opened palms.  Somewhere in the night he took his blanket/pillow and slid it under my head. 
When I thanked him and asked him if he needed it, he said he was fine.  However, throughout the day I’d see him dragging, looking to sit on a stump or a log or any other natural seat he could find around the camp.  And there he’d plop down, and then arc and bend his neck side to side, trying to ply it back into a full range of motion.  He was so stiff and tired.  But he wouldn’t admit it.
And that’s how I often remember my father (not stretching his neck), giving up what he had, everything he had, for me and my sister, and then never letting on he was going without.
It’s that selflessness that Paul advises in his letter to the Philippians, 2:4.  Paul writes, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  Paul is not asking us merely to be considerate of the wants and needs of others; he says to “look to” them.  That connotes a focus and attentiveness to the interests of others, a vigilance toward them.  And if need be, do whatever it takes to aid those in need, especially putting yourself last.  Granted, that may seem easy enough, especially if it means just giving up a blanket for a night or two to a whining child to get at least a peaceful night of sleepless sleep; but it’s when we’re really “up against it” that Paul is including.  When it really costs us, not a little, not some, but everything.  That’s what’s so hard.  It’s hard for me, too hard.  But it wasn’t for my father.
When I was eight, I awoke one morning, a Wednesday morning, my favorite day, gym day, and dressed myself in a navy blue tee, blue jeans, and Chuck Taylors.  I opened my bedroom and was about to bound out, but I froze there in the doorway—all of our belongings were stuffed in bulging boxes, stacked higher than me, in the hallway.  We were leaving, or rather escaping.  I came to find that my stepfather had been abusive and threatening toward my mother, and we were escaping while he was at work.  My mother had no real money of her own, and my father and my stepmother had a little savings.  The quick, easy way to handle it would have been for my dad to scoop up us kids and set my mother adrift.  But that wasn't my father’s way.  Instead, my father put into action a plan that all but wiped him and my stepmother out over the next several years.
My father and stepmother, who shared my father’s Christian ethic, took us kids while he hid my mother in an apartment in a nearby town until he could get an apartment for my mother and my sister and me.  It was all very cloak and dagger.  Once a place was secured, we moved within the month.  The problem was, my mother didn’t work, and except for our boxes, the place was empty.  We could have gone into camp mode, but again my father wouldn’t have it.  They completely depleted their savings, which would take years of struggling rebuild, and furnished the apartment.  And it wasn’t until two years after did my mother finally find work, all the while my father and step mother paying our rent, bills, and child support, as well as their own expenses, a financial burden that would take its toll for years to follow.  Of course I didn’t know any of this at the time. 
It wasn’t until years later that I pieced the puzzle together through prying and gathering snippets of related stories.  And not once did he ever complained to us, nor let on what a burden it was to his finances.  He was, as Paul instructs, looking to our interests, putting himself last, costing him everything. 
I must admit that my dad’s selflessness actually irked me sometimes, not because he was
self-righteous or anything like that, because he wasn’t; nor was it because his example was a standard too difficult to reach, which I find it is.  It was because I couldn’t bear to see just how much he withheld from himself.  While he would account for his life with nothing but gratitude, I would see it as one long continuous sacrifice.  It wasn’t until my sister and I were both on our own did I see him actually spend a few bucks on himself for something he wanted, not just needed.  And he would really fret over buying a certain Mills Brothers album, or an “expensive” table-top illusion for his magic routine, or even a half-decent pair of shoes.  And as far as any dream vacation, forget it.  He’d see something on TV or read a piece in the Travel section and wish aloud, “Man, I’d love to go to Chicago.”  “Boy, I’d love to see Vegas.”  Yet, he may as well have been saying, “Man, I’d like to see the moon.”  My sister and I would say, “Go!  Just go.  Hop on a train and go.”  “Aaaahhhhh one day, maybe,” he’d answer, but as soon as the words left his lips, I’m sure he had already 10 reasons not to go.  He had the money already spent on scenarios that would never occur, but could, and they probably all benefitted someone else.  I think in many ways my sister and I tried to make up for that.

One Spring my father was reading the paper and suddenly shared, “Says here that Tony Bennett’s gonna play The Hippodrome,” and in the same breath added, “but I don’t want to go.”  He knew that by merely saying something that smacked of a wish that we could fulfill, we would conspire to do so.  My sister and I saw it as our personal duty to make our father experience something of what he desired but of which he would refuse himself.  So knowing he wouldn’t spring for the tickets himself, we’d say, “C’mon, you know you want to go.  We’ll make it a birthday gift.”  And then he would convince us he had no interest.

A few weeks later, my car broke down on the side of the road and needed an alternator, and I called my dad later from the service station to see if he could run some money up to me.  He instructed me to go into my trunk and look under the spare tire.  Hidden there was a white legal-sized envelope with $200 tucked inside and a note in my father’s all-caps hand-writing that only read, “IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY.”   

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Little Old Me

When my father’s teeth pierced the skin of the Freestone peach, the sweet juice burst forth, out and down his arm.  He leaned forward, not wanting to stain the front of his shirt.  Too late.  He quickly took another bite, making a suction noise, eating over the cupped palm of his other hand.  Mouth full and eyes closed, he murmured, “My, God!” 
He wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist, and standing there in the kitchen, on a June mid-morning, just back from Mr. Bond’s produce truck, he began to rhapsodize: “To think, God gives us something like this.”  The peach held up before him, his head was nodding back in forth, as if in disbelief.  “Something this incredible, and all we have to do is pluck it from a tree.”  Again, he said, “My, God.”
He reached into the brown paper bag and pulled out another Freestone.  And while he finished the first one, he washed off a second. 
It was though I wasn’t in the room at all, and yet he was teaching me—Enjoy the small glories of God  because they make a moment great.  I stepped forward and he handed me the washed fruit, and then he reached for a third.  My father’s gratitude was genuine, knowing that something as awesome as God, not just considered him, but provided something simple as a peach for him; yet it was so incredibly fulfilling.  And why does God give us so much consideration and special care?  Possible, as one who loves us above all, He wants us to feel significant, especially when we may consider ourselves so insignificant.  Perhaps there is no better example of this esteem than in The Book of Luke.   
In Luke, there is a popular passage where Mary meets Elizabeth and they both exult in the blessings of their pregnancies:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!  But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.’
And Mary said, ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.  From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me --holy is his name.’
During their exchange, Mary gives praise to God.  And what she celebrates is how impressed she is by God remembering her, “[F]or he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”  Maybe a simpler way to phrase what she is thinking is, I can’t believe He remembered little old me.  God’s message is clear: The greatest of what He has to offer is not reserved for Kings or Queens or the most popular or a select few; it’s for all of us, especially the least among us, the anonymous.  That awe that Mary felt from God’s consideration is the awe I saw my Dad feel again and again, the awe that again said, I can’t believe He remembered little old me.           
I was always impressed about how long my dad could sit alone in his bedroom and practice playing the banjo.  Sometimes he would be in there for three or four hours, emerging only for a quick, cold drink of water, after which he’d belt out a well earned  Aaahhhhhh.  Dixieland arrangements of standards, Bye Bye Blackbird, Whispering, Bill Bailey, When the Saints Go Marching In. etc., would be ringing throughout our old Victorian apartment, over and over and over.  He’d be sitting on the side of his queen-sized bed, hunkered over his banjo, his music stand a foot before him, dripping with sheet music close-pinned to the sides.  He strummed with a large triangle-shaped pick.  After exhausting runs and rousing, momentum-building tags, Dad would take the edge of the pick and run it across his forehead, squeegee-ing off his thick sweat and whip-lashing his wrist to the side, flinging the salty fluid off into the ether.  When I went in his room, I could feel the immediate rise in temperature.
Later, Dad would emerge from his room and plop himself down in the corner of the high-back , patterned sofa, his button downed shirt blotched with perspiration.  “Man!” he would begin.  “I did things on the banjo I didn’t know I was capable of.” 
My dad was an extraordinary musician, but he would admit that his best moments were often not in front of an audience, but when he was practicing, playing alone in that bedroom.  Yet, he wasn’t upset by that fact.  From time to time, in a spirited reverie, he would explain, “Sometimes, I make runs and create something on the spot that I’ve never done before and just play at a level that I can’t normally play…It’s like God is right there, y’know?” 
What my dad reveled in those moments were what we all so badly clamor to know—that we matter.  He was simply glad to know that God was remembering him, thinking of him.  In some tiny corner of the world, my dad was sitting alone on his bed and playing his heart out, and God was listening to him, even allowing him to reach new heights, to experience a moment of greatness.  Maybe that’s why he could play for hours.  He wasn’t just strumming out his chord-melodies; he was communing with God.  While not as earth-shaking as the “immaculate conception,” my dad felt no less recognized in God’s thoughts, enjoying immeasurable treasures and delights that were put on this earth, just for him.  It is just this recognition that I’m trying to get my own children to see, if for nothing else than to experience sheer joy.        
I spent the first Saturday in November raking the leaves in my backyard.  It was one of those crisp, cloudless Autumn days, mid-fifties, and full of sun.  I whipped the leaves into a massive pile that was almost as tall as my three-year-old son.  As I topped the pile off with more leaves, he busted through them with laughter that was loud and uncontrollable, erupting leaves all about him.  This pattern went on and on as he seemed to only be able to utter one word—Again!  I couldn’t rake quickly enough to keep fortifying the mound.  Eventually, we collapsed into the nearby hammock, both of us gloriously exhausted, my son nestled under my arm, his head on my shoulder.  We swayed back and forth, looking up at the bare tree branches in front of the azure blue sky, giggling and catching our breath.  The high branches were a towering cobweb above us, with a few fluttering leaves dotted among the network.  When one fell, we would try to guess where it would land. 
“Isn’t this beautiful?” I asked my son.
“Uh huh,” he agreed.
“Man, God put this here just for us,” I continued, in my best attempt to have my boy beginning to see God at work in our lives.
“Is He here?” he asked.
“Is he on the hammock,” he asked.
“Yup,” I said, “so scooch over; make some room.”
“Does He like leaves?”
“He loves leaves!  Look at the reds and oranges and yellows and greens and browns.  He gives us these colors just to look at and to make big leaf piles to dive into.  Isn’t that nice of Him?” I said, and then I dug my heel into the earth and pushed off to increase the pendulum swing again.
Often it’s too hard to tell what my kids absorb and what they don’t.  Mostly, I won’t know until life plays itself out.  But, if I can do one thing for them, it would be to try to bring them joy, not from the grandiose, but from the seemingly insignificant, like a peach or a song or a leaf. 
Earlier this week, I saw a construction paper turkey, hanging on the door leading into my son’s pre-k class.  On each feather was written a child’s name and a quote of what he is thankful for.  Under my son’s name read, I am thankful for God.  I am thankful He is in my life.  Of course I can’t help but wonder, does my son think of himself as “little old me.” 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Arm's Length Away

The intermittent flashes of lightning seemed to have caused a strobe light, casting odd shadows across my room.  And in the far corner, the chair with the pile of clothes heaped on its back ceased to be a chair, but some deformed, demonic being, shape-shifted from what I had seen in the light of day.  It just stood there, waiting.  Perhaps waiting for me to make the first move, any move, breathe even.  Finally, after one crack of thunder, I slid out of bed and through the doorway, my pillow and blanket clutched in each fist.  I ran down the hall and entered my parents‘ bedroom.  They were sleeping soundly.  My father, who was deaf, couldn’t hear the storm at all without his hearing aid.  He was lightly snoring.  I stood next to his bed, staring down at him, about to wake him; but I didn’t.  I laid out my blanket and pillow on the floor next to him.  I lay down, an arm’s length away, and I went to sleep.   

At first light, I crept back into my room, where the beast had shape-shifted back into an old wooden chair with dirty laundry heaped onto its back, never to return.  Who knows what got into me?  From some unknown place, a fear took a stranglehold over my seven-year-old mind that night, which I could not shake.  Waking up to such an image, I cried out in the silence for my father.  Wherever he was, it was the only safe place in the world.  If I was going to have any peace that night, it would only be when I was with him, even if it was lying on the floor next to him, feeling him close in my life.  Knowing, not hoping or believing, but knowing that when I’m with him I’m okay.  It is this knowing, far beyond faith or belief, but this actual truism that concerns Jesus in The Book of Mark. 

In Mark, 12:30, “Jesus was asked which is the most important commandment of all, He replied, ‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’”  One could read this passage and think, Okay, I love God…easy enough.  But what Jesus is saying here is not something to be taken lightly at all.  He is saying love the LORD in such an absolute and complete way that it may be impossible for most.  How many of us can say that we have such a genuine love like that for more than a few immediate family members, or maybe even friends?  How many can say that about just one other person?  And, how is a love like that even possible?  Can it be genuine just because it’s God?  Because a love like that just isn’t possible in an instant, just because Jesus commands it.  A love like that is only possible through a cultivated relationship.  It’s the unquestioning love of a child.  It’s the unconditional love of a father.  It’s the love my dad had for me.  And it’s the love he had for God, a love that stretched across a lifetime.   
I remember one of the earliest times I witnessed the relationship between God and Dad.  One afternoon, I walked into my parents’ bedroom, looking for my father.   He was sitting with his back to me on the far edge of the bed, and his head was down, and his hands were together and shaking.  With his “good ear” turned away from me, I could tell that he hadn’t heard me come in.  I just slowly backed out without him seeing me.  Days later I asked him what he was doing.  He said, "Praying."  I didn’t know he prayed.  So of course I asked what he was praying for. 

“Well since you asked, right now things are really tight and we have to pay the rent and buy groceries and I didn’t have any money coming in.” 

“So you were praying for money,” I asked.   

“Nonono.  I was praying for help.  I don’t pray for specific things, just help or guidance.  And then I stay open to however God answers.  I put it in His hands.  And He always has an answer.”  He said this with a confidence that was not for my benefit, but because he was genuinely at peace with his trust in God.  He spoke with the assurance of someone who was speaking about someone close, an old friend, a parent even.  He was speaking about someone he didn’t just believe in, but someone he trusted because God was someone with whom he had had a long, close relationship.  There was no distance between them.  And, there was no question that God wouldn’t come through. 

Consequently, the next day after I saw my father praying, there was a knock at our door.  It was my father’s sister.  She had dropped by, unannounced. She couldn’t stay long.  She just wanted to share a bit of her good fortune.  It turns out that the day before my aunt bought a lottery ticket or scratch off or something and won some money and she decided to share some of her winnings.  I know prayer usually doesn’t work that way, and it’s even dangerous to want it to; but on that day, it did.  My aunt put $500 in my father’s hand, and was gone soon after.  My father was proud of his sister, and he often spoke of her generosity; however, I don’t think he was surprised.  Why would he be?  Why should we be surprised when we get the love, help, and support from those closest to us?  My father was close with God.  They had a relationship, like father and son.  So why should a son be surprised when a father helps him out?  He wasn’t.

In his final days, bedridden and in and out of long bouts of light sleep, my father would call out, “I want Jesus!”  He wasn’t saying it like he wanted the faith he didn’t have.  Nor was he saying it as a wish to welcome Jesus into his heart just in time, as some sort of feeble loophole to gain salvation at the 11th hour.  He was crying out for Jesus, wanting him close.  Knowing that the safest place in the world is with him.  Feeling that any possible comfort is with him.  Admitting that any peace to be had is with him.  My father summoned Jesus as a scared child would cry out for one whom he loved above all, one whom he has known all his life, one with whom he has had a relationship of unwavering trust, as one would cry out for his father, alone in a thunder storm, desperate, needing only to sleep on the floor, an arm’s length away.        

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Take and Give

Whenever I get the New Yorker magazine, the first thing I do is go through and read the cartoons, starting at the back and working my way to the front.  It’s my little ritual.  It’s my little treat, like starting with dessert, a little cup of chocolate mousse before the meat and potatoes.  And then I scan the articles and memoirs and stories for an entrée.   This is an actual luxury.  Having two kids and taking class at nights, there’s very little “me” time to be stolen for something as decadent as reading for pleasure, especially during the week.  I could do it at night, but I’d be out in seven paragraphs. (And, I’m really not a bathroom reader.)  So I read in chunks, a page here, a few cartoons there.  I take what I can get.
One afternoon, I was sitting on the sofa, chugging my way through a two-page essay, while my 3-year old son was at the dining room table in, drawing with colored pencils.  He brought in his first drawing for me to look upon, orange and brown circular scribbles, which after much spinning round and holding it near to my face and far, it was explained to me that it was a mountain vista.  (Then I saw it right off, of course.)  My son must have relished the ooohh-ing and ahhh-ing I gave his work because he began quite a prolific phase following the mountain landscape.  He was rushing back and dashing off scribbled masterpieces for my immediate perusal.  The problem was, I was starting to read the same paragraphs over and over.  I couldn’t even remember what I had just read. 
After the fourth piece, I said, “Why don’t you just make a pile and I’ll look at them all at once when you’re done.”  Holding the fifth out to me, he said, “I made it for you.”  And then he just stared up into my face.  Uncle.  “You win,” I said, and then I pulled in his newest piece for further scrutiny.         
I actually had to remind myself that he was seeing mountains, that he was proud, that he was doing the most important thing in the world at that moment.  More important than some magazine.  And the last thing he needed in the world was a brush-off from Dad.  He needed one hundred percent of me, living for him.  This is not always the easiest.  Sometimes, I have to be reminded, like the best of them.
There’s a passage in The Bible in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, 10:24, where Paul commands, “Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.”  This passage is widely interpreted, yet the common denominator of those interpretations is simply this: Paul is clarifying that no man should seek his own gratification, especially at the expense of others.  To always be considerate of others is what is most important.  In short, live for others. 
When my father used to sell pianos and organs, sometimes he would have to drum up business by demonstrating instruments at festivals and shows, grabbing leads from passersby who showed a smidge of interest.  “I’ve always wanted to learn how to play,” they would say.  Or something like, “You mean it’s just that easy?”  And then my dad would attempt to reel them in.
On some of those Saturdays, my dad would take me along, often by default because there was no one home to watch over me.  My dad would hand me a fiver for a hotdog and a drink and to play some of the games designed to entertain children, ring toss, fishing with magnets, or maybe I’d get my face painted. 
It’s fair to say that, like so many young boys, I idolized my dad.  He was the bedrock of our family.  I even emulated him.  If he rolled up his sleeves, I rolled up my sleeves. If he picked up a walking stick in the woods, I picked up a miniature version.  And so when on one of those Saturdays at a craft show when I was looping around the circle of wares I found the perfect homage to what my dad meant to me, I didn’t think twice about handing over whatever paltry sum that paid the price for the monument I had found to my father.
At one of the craft tables, an elderly woman with light brown hair and white roots was selling her creations of walnut figures.  She had cleverly taken halved walnut shells as heads and fixed little twigs beneath them to resemble bodies and glued each on to tiny planks of painted wood.  And next to each, she had written words of inspiration, Hang in There, You’re the Best, Best Friend.  And then there was the “World’s Greatest” figurines, World’s Greatest Teacher, World’s Greatest Secretary, World’s Greatest Fisherman.  But they all melted from view when I spied the one that seemed to have been specifically made for my father—World’s Greatest Dad. 
After paying the proper coins, I scooped up the walnut-faced talisman and cradled it in my hands, as though I were holding a chalice; and I weaved my way back to my father.  “Dad, I got something for you,” I beamed. 
He stared into my outstretched hands and merely said, “Don’t spend your money like that.”   I didn’t know what he meant then, that he would rather I spend it on me.  Still, I was crestfallen.  Deflated.  I saw that he was genuinely disappointed, which made no sense to me.  I expected him to lose his breath, gather me up in a firm embrace, and we’d have one of those Lifesaver father-son moments we’d always remember.  Instead, he may as well have slapped the craft out of my tiny hands. 
But then his carriage changed, perhaps sensing my devastation.  He picked up the walnut man and began to study it, even remarking that he thought it looked a little like him.  He said it was a treasure.  I knew what he was doing, but I didn’t mind.  I wanted so badly for him to like it and to see that I was making a public, proud gesture about how I saw him.       
More often than not, what Paul asks in his letter to the Corinthians goes completely against our instincts, our own desires to feed our own selfishness.  Obviously, that is why Paul must make a direct plea to that point.  Even the most righteous must be reminded.  Even my dad had to remind himself.  And at the moment when he saw the crushed spirits of his boy, he endeavored to make it right. 
Over the next several years, I’d run into the little walnut man from time to time.  He was always there, but I hadn’t consciously focused in on him.  He had blended into the background, as would an old dime store lithograph or a yellowing bouquet of silk flowers.  But he was there.  My father saw to it.  I’d turn a corner and see the little statue on a shelf or on the back of a side table or on some ledge.  Because it was once important to me, it became all important to my dad to return my gesture with a small symbol of pride in what we meant to each other.   Across moves and room rearrangements, he lived quite a long life, that little guy; until only in recollection once I had become a man did I discover that he was actually gone. 
As none of us dads would, my father didn’t actually believe he was the “world’s greatest dad.”  But I did.  And so by just shutting up and accepting a little gift from me, he was allowing me to celebrate what he meant to me.  In his taking, he was giving.  Giving me the consideration I was hungering for.  Giving me everything I needed.   Living just for me.