June 30th, 1990 - 17 years ago...

I stood at the head of the slanted line of men in black. I was clean shaven. I had a stylish haircut, long on the top and bowl-short on the sides and back. My brother was my best man and four other friends stood behind him. We were all boys. The air was heavy, the sun shone brazenly through the church windows. We had followed the old rules: Don't see the bride on wedding day. The organ music began and her maids commenced their procession down the aisle. They finally reached their appointed marks, creating a reflection of the boys on the other side. There was one empty spot at the front of the church - we were waiting for her. Her.

The white church doors opened, just like in those movies. And then she appeared, holding her daddy's arm and smiling. I had seen the dress hanging lifeless on a hangar. But now, it was full of life, her life. That tightness grabbed my throat and the eyes pooled up with tears. I couldn't help it. She looked so incredibly beautiful. And the person she wanted to stand beside on that day was me. Me.

He led her down the aisle as I will one day lead my girls. At least I hope it works out that way. He led her one last time. From now on, he was trusting me to lead her, guide her, love her in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, 'till death did us part. He joined our hands and then sat down, he took her as far as he could. It would now be up to us. Us.

Her. Me. Us. We both said, "I do" on that Arkansas afternoon. I'm pretty sure neither one of us had the foggiest idea what we were agreeing to. How can you? It's all words on such a day. Empty words. And what we agreed to was filling those empty words up, together. And how did we fill them up? With sickness (the flu, pregnancy, crutches) and health (running 5ks and organic peanut butter), with richer (glass screen doors purchased by a tax-refund) and poorer (a wooden porch swing purchased by a tax-refund), and weekend trips to B&Bs and a son and a daughter and then one more daughter, and churches and steeples and look at all the people, with cars and vans and ski trips and the fourth of July on Arkansas lakes, with disappointments and successes, with tears and anger, with risky job-quitting and dream chasing and snow and Colorado. Those and so much more are what we filled up those empty words with. Our lives. And we're not finished yet. Her. Me. Us.

Of Boxes and Circles

"The ancient people understood that our world is a circle, but we modern people have lost sight of that...Do people live in circles today? No. They live in boxes. They wake up every morning in the box of their bedroom because a box next to them started making beeping noises to tell them it was time to get up. They eat their breakfast out of a box and then throw that box away into another box. Then they leave the box where they live and get into a box with wheels and drive to work, which is just another big box broken up into lots of little cubicle boxes where a bunch of people spend their days sitting and staring at the computer boxes in front of them. When the day is over, everyone gets into the box with wheels again and goes home to their house boxes and spends the evening staring at the television boxes for entertainment. They get their music from a box, they get their food from a box, they keep their clothing in a box, they lives their lives in a box! Does that sound like anybody you know?...Break out of the box!...You don't have to live like this because people tell you it's the only way. You're not handcuffed to your culture! This is not the way humanity lived for thousands and thousands of years, and it is not the only way you can live today!"
- Eustace Conway, in Elizabeth Gilbert's the Last American Man

I had read about this book several years ago in a review in Outside magazine. It received high marks and definitely piqued my curiosity. But something happened, probably sneezed or something, and I forgot about it. I was with the kids the other night on our weekly trip to the public library. They made their selections and offered Dad (me) a few minutes to browse. I began to scan the shelves, eyeing each title and spine. And there it was - the Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert.

The book tells the story of Eustace Conway - he left his comfortable suburban home at seventeen and moved into the Appalachian Mountains. And he has lived there for the last twenty years, making fire with sticks, wearing clothing he makes from animal skins, and eating what he traps or catches. Animal skins? Locust and wild honey? Sounds biblically familiar. He emerges from the woods quite often to preach his gospel to schoolchildren and one of his consistent sermons concerns boxes and circles.

Challenge: Think of the boxes in your life. How many can you come up with? Handcuffed to our culture, aren't we? Repent, repent, for the kingdom is at hand. And it's not in a box.

There Are Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves

I was pondering a self-descriptive line to add to my blog and the line came to me - "too gentle to live among wolves." It is from one of my favorite poems by James Kavanaugh.

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who prey upon them with IBM eyes
And sell their hearts and guts for martinis at noon.
There are men too gentle for a savage world
Who dream instead of snow and children and Halloween
And wonder if the leaves will change their color soon.

There are men to gentle to live among wolves
Who anoint them for burial with greedy claws
And murder them for a merchant's profit and gain.
There are men too gentle for a corporate world
Who dream instead of candied apples and ferris wheels
And pause to hear the distant whistle of a train.

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who devour them with eager appetite and search
For other men to prey upon and suck their childhood dry.
There are men too gentle for an accountant's world
Who dream instead of Easter eggs and fragrant grass
And search for beauty in the mystery of the sky.

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who toss them like a lost and wounded dove.
Such gentle men are lonely in a merchant's world,
Unless they have a gentle one to love.

The Quest

(The "Difficult Splendor" thread is going off-line for a few. But it will be back...)

I wrote my dad a note on Father's Day telling him how much I love and appreciate him. I also raised a few questions in the note - not as in "please answer these and get back with me," but rather, "these are some things I wonder about, dad."

When you were 40, in those still moments of the night, when you couldn't sleep, did you -
*Toss and turn over where the money was going to come from to pay your bills? Did you want more money?

*Wrestle with being a good father and husband? What did you use to evaluate yourself in those areas?

*Consider quitting your job and taking off after some dream? Walk away from the church and raise horses?

*Ponder whether your marriage would last? Did you look across the bed and wonder who this other person was?

*Work tirelessly at something, only to see it fail? Did you shrug it off or did it paralyze you for months?

*Feel connected to your sons? Did you want to enter their world, but didn't always know how? Did they scare you?

*Dream about other lives you might have lived, had you made different decisions? Did you ever tell anybody about that?

*Notice your body growing older, thicker, slower? Did you look at boys in their 20s and wish to be young again?

*Need to ask questions about God and faith and providence and sin? And if so, did you ever ask them?

*Want to get in a fight - just to feel what it felt like?

*Wonder whether other women noticed you?

Yeah, I know - these questions say a lot more about me than they do my dad. However, unless he's some alien from another galaxy, there must be some common ground there, some flesh-and-blood feelings and questions that all men ask of themselves. There is a part of me that wishes I'd have been interested in these things in my teens or 20s. But there's no way that would have been possible - I hadn't lived long enough for those questions to have any substance. They would have been asked prematurely and the answers would have been a mere exchange of information. In your 30s, you're so damn busy with getting started with job, wife, children, car payments, mortgages, exercise, etc., that questions like these hover around you like flies, but you swat them away. Ole' rabbit from the Pooh series - "busy, busy, busy."

But things begin slowing somewhat in your 40s, on several levels, and you start really pondering things. At least I am. You've had enough time to disappoint some people, betray some friends, lose some things dear to your heart, switch jobs, sire some kiddos, and really start being married. In other words, you've got a context for questions like these - they are much more than just letters and words. They're questions, with the emphasis on "quest" - the search, the longing.

I guess a bottom-line here is that I want to know more of my dad, maybe in hopes of knowing more of me. Because as different as we are, we're not really that different. Mike and The Mechanics sing a favorite song of mine entitled "The Living Years." One line especially haunts me - "I wasn't there the morning when my father passed away. I didn't get to tell him, all the things I had to say." Dear God, I want some time with my dad. Not to tell him all the things I have to say, but to ask him a few questions and listen. And hopefully, learn. I wonder if he wants the same from me?

A Difficult Splendor (5)

We had wrangled over the issue of tent-or-no-tent in the our planning. There was a certain pull in all of us to just sleep out under the stars. If the weather decided on a storm or two, then so be it. But that pull was tempered by some experiences we'd had on several trips when we were supremely glad we'd brought a tent along. One night, back in Arkansas, we awoke to wind and rain off the charts. That night, a tent probably kept us alive. So, discretion being the better part of valor and all, we brought a tent along on our hike through the Grand Canyon.

Now when I say tent, I mean tent. This was no ultralight, one a half man bivy, this was a full-out shelter. We're not huge guys, but we are big guys. Remember that one night in Arkansas, when the tent saved our life? One of the guys had brought a two-man megazoid or something and although it provided a balm in gilead for us, it was by far the most uncomfortable half-night of my life. In fact, as soon as it stopped storming, I got the heck out of Dodge and slept out by the fire with the walking sticks and spiders. Based on that one experience, we decided to bring along a three/four man tent that would accomodate our frames and packs and egos. And we figured one of us would carry it one day, another the next, and so on and so forth. It was that "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ" stuff.

Well, that tent quickly became a beast of burden. Our packs weighed in at around 50-60 pounds a piece and that's a heavy load. Add anything, and I mean anything, of substance to a back already weighted down with that kind of load and the pace slows considerably. My buddy (M) carried it in on the descent and about halfway down, his knees started giving him fits, so much so that we had to stop several times. My other buddy (R) and I looked at each other and knew that M needed some relief. His knees were not in great shape anyway and this was just the first day. So, we unstrapped the tent and R hitched that wagon to his star. And it wasn't too long on down the trail and R handed the burden to me.

I had trained for this trip - ran my four miles a day, used the off days for weight lifting, hydrated myself so my pee was clearer than sprite and had even dabbled in contemplative prayer. But when we strapped that tent to my pack, good-hella-mighty, it was like hoisting a draft horse on my shoulders. After my first step, the phrase "son-of-a-bitch" stumbled out of my mouth with perfect diction. My buddies looked over their shoulders and said, "Yep. That's what she is." And that's what she was the entire trip. The bitch.

Those psychologist-types tell us that if there's something big and hairy underneath your bed, then you should give it a name and in the process of naming it, you take some of it's power away to scare you or make you pee your jammies. We named that tent, but I swear it still stayed as big and hairy and heavy as ever before. It kept scaring us. And I, for one, probably peed my Ex Officio zip-off pants more than once while carrying the Bitch.

There's always something, huh? You plan and prepare and hydrate and center down in a Brother David Stendall Rast kind of way, and then you have to strap something extra on, something you didn't really prepare for. About all you can do, if you want to continue the hike, is cinch it down tight, mumble a few "son-of-a-bitch's" under your breath, and keep moving. We had to make our intended destination for the night because it was near the source of life in the Grand Canyon - water. If you start whinning about a bitch or a monkey or anything else on your back and stop every five minutes to rub your feet and prompt your comrades to say, "Well, bless you heart" - well, you won't make the campsite and you won't be able to replenish your water supply and you'll probably keel over in some rock formation and start singing hymns of the faith while the buzzards come and pick your heart out and you're foaming at the mouth like some rabid dog and your last moment of consciousness is seeing your lifelong buddies eyeing your toes like they're vienna sausages or something. No, we made the decision to carry the tent and a part of this journey was doing whatever it took to make it. I do know this - I couldn't have made it without my friends. Folks quote Philippians 4:13 all the blessed time, they put it on everything from flip calendars to screen savers. But very few people know that after ole' Paul said, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" - he added, "But I sure am thankful for your help as well." I believe Paul knew a thing or two about carrying a Bitch on his back. And he knew it's nice to have a brother to pass it off to when you just can't go another step.

A Difficult Splendor (4)

We each looked at each other, winked, and stepped over the edge. And then we saw them.

As we were just stepping over the edge, they were coming up the trail, about to finish their trek. There were five of them - one older guy (25-ish) and four jr. or senior high age boys. And they looked like hell. These boys looked like lost souls out of some modern day Dante flick, doing penance for a litany of sins. Hollow-eyed and weary, sweat-ringed and dragging their tails. I'm not sure what kind of trip they were completing. The older guy brought up the rear, doling out minimalist shouts of encouragement: "Come 'on, guys...almost there." The boys never responded.

As we passed them on the trail, our eyes met each one, but never a word was exchanged. I tried to read their eyes, much like we'd read the eyes of the rim folks. Although not for certain, my gut told me these boy-eyes were saying, "Turn back now, while there's still time. Beyond this point, all hope is lost." As I said, I don't know what kind of trip these boys were on. Were these troubled teens on an introduction to nature trip? Were they pampered rich kids sent by their parents on a toughen-'em-up weekend getaway? Were they young christians, led by their youth minister, and they'd been out communing with God? On some level, it felt like they were a combination of all of the above. Young, pampered, troubled christians, led by an older guy, with an intention on toughening them up and showing them a little of God beyond skateboard parks and the food court at the mall.

As they passed us, I wonder if they could read our eyes? Could they tell that we were a little older, pampered, troubled christians, led by an unseen force on a trip through the canyon, with the intention of finding something we felt like we were missing in our lives? I kinda doubt it. The only thing they were focused on was the rim, getting back over the top to whatever life they'd left however many days ago. There are those who hike the Grand Canyon and remain unchanged. It's just a notch on the belt, something to brag about with friends back home, as in, 'Yeah, I've done the Grand." It's a trophy, of sorts. That is the attitude of the young boy. Trophies. Whether it's canyons, deer, or girls, the goal is to conquer it and put it on the wall or joke about it in the locker room. We were a little further down the man-road; we had no desire to conquer it. We wanted this place to swallow us up, conquer us, put us on the wall, or leave traces of our lives in the rocks to whisper to future travelers.

The first mile was a winding combination of chalk-like ground and the shade of pines. A few spots of challenge every now and then. But then we were greeted with a landscape straight out of the Old Testament. Rocks and heat and lizards and sand. I fully expected a hoary John the Baptist to emerge out of the rocks and exhort us to, "Repent, for the kingdom is at hand." Our upright postures quickly lowered to a hunched-over scrambling, using hand-holds to stabilize our steps; we'd gone from hiking to boulder-hopping. We immediately felt like some prophetic angel had taken a flaming sword and shoved it into our knees.

I've mentioned that the men on this trip included myself and two friends. But I've not yet spoken about the fourth member of our team, someone/thing that began as supposed friend, but quickly turned enemy. It's name was the Bitch. And it followed us our entire trip. And it gets it's own post...