The Willow & War Blog

Ice and Blue

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Today looks like the days my father and I would hike along the Mt. Hope river after a Nor’easter shot through our canopy of Birch and Oak, Maple and Spruce, leaving behind a new world.

We would embark from the warm harbor of the kitchen where my mother made magic; the sweetness of fresh baking, flour flung across a table and the frequent blast of heat from an oven door swinging open.

We crashed into the wild and winter, shrouded in canvas and cotton, post-holing our way into a forest subdued by snowdrifts and ice. That stillness only interrupted by the rattling of branches fencing high up in the balcony of hardwoods.

The intrepid blue sky impossibly deep behind the white, almost electric with a fierce saturation.

A landscape which has become more of a feeling, now.

Stars: Reflections on Looking Up

Your shit is too poetic, he said, and I get what he was trying to say.

My creative history was tainted with force and superannuated imagery.

Every script I endeavored for film, every essay penned, every charcoal swipe across a pad; all rocketed skyward but left the sacredness I was seeking in vertigo. I tried too hard to open heaven and blew the gates off their hinges. Quite the entrance to an empty room.

I held no reverence for our skin and the palette of divinity in every tone. I could not see that the very mess of humanity was itself sacred and whole, though the pieces were around me. I thought God was outside of brokenness, not inside it. A healer rather than a participant. Not afflicted like us.

And now on most days, I look up to feel small and placed well. I touch sacred ground and breathe sacred air and kiss sacred faces. I hold the divine and walk with any breeze, alone or together with one who is here. I look up again.

The wonder of the stars was always in how we held them, and that they simply were.

Sketch

I have a friend who carries a pocket-sized book with blank pages. At any moment he will produce a pen and draw the scene immediately before him. Thin whipped lines, depth, vanishing points. He says it's training. His eye and hand take in the world and distill all life and time into a two-by-two canvas.

I remember a river with lamps along the bank, a horizon and maybe blue ink. He does this frequently.

But unruled paper terrifies me. My writing slants and I cant draw straight lines. So I learned to do this with words between margins. To see and take in worlds. Then sketch the words like maybe you can see what I see.

We hustle between doors and pass life like an old man is just an old man. When he is, in fact, the gnarled bygone spirit of a titan, tethered to a world he used to rule. Now a bent husk wrapped in a tweed coat, he musters his way to a pharmacy, intent on numbing his frailty, letting his past slip into fiction.

A sketch.

Quick. Honest. Imperfect. Incomplete.

Infinite words and worlds surround us.

And this is how we draw everything, with dirt and wonder.

The Threat of Dreaming Out Loud

To those who almost lost the fire, or are in danger of it:

"This is the one course you need to graduate high school and I'm not sure you're ready for the real world."

Face flushed, jaw tight, I made my way across a scuffed linoleum floor to the door. Fluorescent lights cast shadows over my eyes. Pack slung over one shoulder. Brain swelling with latent comebacks and recalcitrant rage.

Never a model student by grade or conduct, I swallowed myself, reflexively shielding a fledgling flame of creativity and inspiration; trying to preserve this fragment of truth from the winds of assimilation and indoctrination.

Angst and scrambled idioms clogged my brain: I don't want your career and your machine. I don't want the world you’re selling. Say it. Write it. Scream it. Bury it in art and music and words.

I knew something, then. Fragile and honest.

My fingers brushed across a deep and indwelling truth, something massive, nonconformist, something beyond the mind of a sheltered, indignant 17-year-old. I felt it and dug my nails in because whatever it was, it was true.

Only years later could I know: people are born with a compass to the heart and keys to the cosmos but we trade in our familiarity with truth for the perfunctory tools of a role we're told to play. We become the line workers of mediocrity, fragile pillars of neighborhoods, schools, and institutions. We rise and fall only within the boundaries imposed upon us, to create an illusion of mobility and value.

But I didn’t have those words. Not yet. I could feel my humanity being ripped out and replaced with a motor. Kids like me got a label instead of a hearing. Discipline instead of discipling. We were called dissident. Angry. Hormonal. Distracted.

We got detentions.

I wrestled against a system and a broken world and found myself shoving against an iron structure that had rusted into the earth. Kids like me shouted into the wind after pounding on the walls. Like in dreams when we open our mouths but no words come out. Fear. Or desperation. We are left breathless. Labeled. Dismissed.

Told that we’re not ready for the real world, when the real world is the last thing we could ever want. When the real world was a looming pronouncement, a judgement, a prison.

Kids like me didn’t have those words. We couldn’t go toe-to-toe with professional adults to criticize the underpinnings of a society they stood on. We were snuffed out and left smoldering. Embers of truth extinguished in the name of production. Any kindness throughout was truncated by good intentions.

But kids grow up. Some of us didn’t forget. We held the the flame and let it flourish. We held the truth and let it consume us. We learned. We lived. Scars and all, we’re here. Alive. Burning. With words.

Speaking over you, over ourselves, defective and deficient, like we found the keys to the prison.

You are ready for the real world, because the real world was made for you.

Because the real world is not the abject reality peddled to our children. It’s not bills and debt and taxes. It’s not small screens and canned ideology. It's not politicians with bad hair and game shows. Those are trifles and pieces of something beyond.

The real world is the world you will create.

It’s a half-finished epic, a canvas with spectacular strokes, a song with just the bass-line. The real world is today for tomorrow and tomorrow forever. The future being bright and unclaimed. The horizon being untamed.

The world is yours to take. Don't watch it through glass smudged by fingers tracing sunsets. The fearful love fear because fear is safe, but being safe is not being alive. Entire kingdoms are built on the backs of people who find solidarity in the shadows.

Your sight in not fractured. Your love is not diluted. Your gut is not wrong.

You are ready.

The world waits for the people who live.

The world waits for the burning ones.

Lifeline

Scratched hapless phrases into a journal, felt the weight of the gray morning on my mind, and with some effort, rolled the ink into one line:

Letting go is not the same as falling.

And I did not fear falling, but I had no idea how tightly I was holding on to the ropes and tangles that bound me. Face against cool granite. Knees knocking against a cliff.

The coiled imprints on my soul were marks of freedom. Rope burns were signs of faithfulness. I was tethered to a small world.

It took burning questions to char the cord and snap the tensile and when I finally released my grip, I found my feet on the dirt. There was no fall. There was only this belief of height, dismantled.

There was just the wind and the rope where I left it, braided cords nudged by the breeze. My lifeline, lifeless.

My soul, alive.

What I believed, within.

And so, I went to look for you.

On Writing

A radio host asked listeners to identify the sound he would play next. We weren't calling in for the prize but my mother and I waited for the DJ to roll the audio. She said it sounded like a dog sniffing the studio mic. I knew better.

It was the sound of a pen and pad. The scribble and scrawl of ink on paper. It was familiar even as a young boy and it's likely one of the only constants in my life; the wrist flick and dragging of lines. Page after page, year after year. Some days ran together before a journal would skip several months. Themes emerged. Struggles. Patterns. Growth. The silent brawl between my spirit and mind played out over years. Spewed theology. Loves. Hates. Certainties. Doubts.

I found freedom in poetry and short essays. My mind is never in one place long enough to sustain long-form writing. The release of the pen (or keyboard) comes in bursts and starts. Perhaps I'm a product of the culture that shortens "okay" to "k" but the Psalms were never too long and they painted the portrait of a king on his knees. That's not half-bad.

There’s no pretense here. I don't drift around art galleries and connect intellectually with a dribble of paint across canvas. I read famous poets and in all truth, don’t really understand the hype. I read classic literature and drop the books after several chapters. I'm not going to force myself to like the wine because it has the right year on the label. There are many writers more suited for the job of carrying the torch of true literary spirit. Novelists. World-creators. Social commentators. Ink-smudged prophets.

I'd be among that last category, if any. I'm no master of language. The words aren’t always there. But I see clearly. And I put that to words. I learned this later than I would have liked - that my gut and my sight were a gift. As is yours. How you see the world may not seem special, but your sight is patterned after your uniqueness. Thinking it needs to be corrected, aligned, is a fatal error. I spent too much time trying to hitch my brain and soul to my religion and narrow worldview. I cut that rope but didn’t walk away. I simply walked alongside and saw new things, or old things with new eyes.

Life is vast to any one person. We've not yet reached the bottom of our own waters or the expanse of the heavens. We fire rockets into a void, aiming for bright lights. And we think we know something.

Yet, the pulse of the people is easily felt. In the quiet before dawn, you can feel it. In the slow breathing. In a hand over the heart, lips pushing warm air into cold air.

And I write because life is vast but the heart is not. We break easily. Brittle people conquering and shattering one another. So immense in our own little world. And maybe there's a way to stop that, or slow it down, or stop one heart from bleeding out.

Perhaps.

That's a reason worth trying for.

Advent Week 4: Light

“When the sun shall dawn upon us”

Crowning the horizon, chasing dark shapes from the valley, it comes. Slow. Defiant over the night.

We who sat hushed and holding hands, holding breath, holding embers, exhale.

Strips of light brush skin, spilling through dusty window panes. Refracted on the wall through the forested limbs, it dapples and drapes the world in newness.

We breathe again.

Shadows recede.

The light is come.

As if to say, did you think I would forget?

To which a few say through their tears, yes.

And still others, no, but the night was long.

and yet, “Because of mercy…”

…the light is come.

Mercy drags light into the valleys of death and the dark rooms where we shut our eyes and pray for morning.

Daylight breaks over the weary.

“To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

What other way is there? We learned in the dark the terror of power, of struggle, of unseen hushed words, whispers, stolen names, and we rise from the valley to walk.

Nobody rises for another grave.

Peace. The absence of chaos, or a shield despite it. Peace is a high calling but we’ve all seen the dark. Felt it. Hate it. But peace whispers of something different.

Peace whispers something about a cradle, a cross, and a crown. Peace whispers something about another king. Another way.

Nobody rises for another grave.

Mercy brings light.

Light brings peace.

Peace brings us home.

Burn

I light a candle for the cake. My son turns one. A flame shapes the very face I kiss in the morning. The face I cradle in one hand. The one I wipe tears from.

I light a candle and wrap my fingers around the heat. To shield the wind. To keep it burning while we stand in the dark, praying the children would just come home, demanding recompense from the sky. Someone is yelling on the microphone. Someone is weeping.

I light a candle in the sanctuary. Silent night. Holy night. Eyes mirror and reflect and wander and search for something like hope. Flames flicker under threat of breathing. We breathe slowly. Silently.

I light a candle on a table. We hold hands. We break bread. We say thank you. Thank you for these hands to hold. Thank you we are here around a table. Thank you the flame is still burning. Thank you for the rivers of wax witnessing to the life in the fire.

I light a candle alone

and I am no longer alone.

Happy

You don't have to be happy.

Let's just get that off the table. There's enough pressure to deal with every day without feeling like you've failed as a human being by 7am because you didn't wake up toothing the sun with a fake smile.

Like it's something you just pick off a lower branch on your way to work. Coffee in one hand, an extra-large grin in the other, no room for cream.

Life's not like the toothpaste commercials. 

I've heard so many people say to 'just choose joy'. Be happy! But that doesn't work. You know it doesn't. You've probably tried it. 

Prescribing happiness is a favorite pastime of motivational speakers and stay-at-home Facebook gurus who wear cartoon pajamas to Costco. 

It's been held up as the pinnacle of having your shit together. It's the holy grail for good people. 

But spend your life looking for happiness and you'll always be disappointed. Because happiness is a reaction. A response. A huge super-soaker of joy that is fun as hell to use, but quickly runs out of water.

You don't have to be happy.

Right. 

But.

But it's worth trying to be content. 

Maybe you'll stumble your way over to happiness after that, but try to be happy before being content and you're only fooling yourself. 

Because content is where you can be imperfect. It's where being okay is good enough for this moment. 

It's where we can be a bit of a mess - and on our way to putting the pieces together before dawn - we can breathe. We can breathe because we're not trying so hard to be happy, we're not pretending, we're not forcing, we're just accepting. 

There will be happy days. Or you'll be subdued. Or pensive. Or creative. Or angry. But contentment will draw you back to some center and release you from needing to be someone you're not. 

It's ironic when people are sad they can't be happy. So don't be.

If you're going to be anything, be okay. 

Find some peace.

And move on from there.


Sons

Call them sons.

Not boy. Not youth. Not child.

Sons. Who, even when their bones and sinews stretch towards celestial lights, will continue to be sons. As I am a son. Even as kings and fathers.

Sons of inheritance. Their father's eyes. Their father's love for mountains. Their father's heart. Their father's kingdom. Their father's dreams, maybe.

To be a son is to live forever. My father, a son. Me, a son. My sons.

Men, someday. Kings.

But sons, nevertheless.

Advent Week 3: Presence

The journal was removed from its leather sleeve and casually tucked in a corner of the workshop, beneath flakes of dried pipe tobacco and sawdust.

The card stock cover provided no context so opening to an entry from Christmas a few years ago was a surprise. It wasn't much writing. A few lines. Words scrawled hastily across a cramped page. A confession.

Too many gifts.

Not enough presence.

A time for reflection becomes a mad dash of color and light; a feeding frenzy for consumers of trivial things. Consideration and celebration are exchanged for a cheap plastic cradle and we move the star from above the stable to dangle it over a sack of toys like a carrot.

But the gifts are good. Giving is good.

Only, not at the expense of the gift.

The hope and promise.

I don’t want to see shreds of wrapping paper like breadcrumbs tracing back to when we should have bathed ourselves in the hope of a newborn king. To miss the grace is too great a risk. To enter Advent as dusty sojourners and not come out the end as light-bringers is a tragedy.

This is our chance to reclaim the glitzy warp-speed world for the manger. This is our chance to remember how the darkness froze in terror at the sounds of birthing from a stable. Mary’s groaning. First cries of life.

While people inside the inn ate, or argued, slept, or worried, on the other side of the wall, the king came unto us.

The stable is where you find us, the ones who pine for mercy. In the quiet corner, on the silent night, when hope came unto us.

Here we are, Lord. No lights but the stars. No sounds but our feet shifting on the hay.

Nothing but the presence.

And that is the gift.


Tough

You don't have to be tough.

Heavy chest, feels like 9am was a push. Cycle through the usual rotary of inspirational quotes or verses and come up empty.

Empty like the hands we're turning over. Palms facing sky, soft altars offering up one-word prayers.

Help.

Save.

Please.

And empty hands is a great way to begin. Because we can't be tough forever. We can't ride adrenaline and caffeine until we crash through our doors at 6pm.

You don't have to be tough. But if you want to be strong.

You need to let someone open those white knuckles, love, so you can receive.

Palms up.

Receive your name. It's been too long since you've just listened to it. You have worth.

Receive your hope. It's been too long since you've been built up. You have a name. You have worth. Your life has meaning.

Receive your identity. It's been too long since you've drawn your strength from anything other than effort. You have a name. You have worth. Your life has meaning.

And you're strong because of who you are, not what you do. Not what others see. But who you are.

Your identity is your strength. You don't have to put up the fists. You don't have to grind your teeth. You don't have to hold the heavy world.

You have to hear your name.

And be strong, again.

Nice

You don't have to be nice. 

Nice is the Botox of human dispositions. 

It's an injection of switchblade smiles to cover up the truth that we don't know how to be kind or civil. A true smile is in the eyes, but when we're nice, the paralysis only allows for a slight crease in the lips. 

Kindness, however, is that kind of natural beauty stopping people on the street. Because it's rare. And it's cultivated. It's attractive. Magnetic. It leaves you with an impression. It comes from a deeper place. 

Kindness comes from authenticity and unshakable identity. 

But not like Instagram authentic, where you're "real" because there's a trending hashtag. And not like your grumpy-ass friend who is just "being real" whenever she/he barfs up criticism. 

The real woman has molten iron in her veins. She's warm to the touch but is metal inside. She's not nice. Not even close. She might swear. Probably, actually. And she's either fearless or has more courage than you or I.

Real people are not nice, they're kind. 

They're not agreeable, they're straight-shooters. 

They're not pushovers, they're resolute. 

Real people don't smile unless they want to and when they do, it's in the eyes.

Be real.

And be known for your kindness.

Freedom

Freedom.

That's what we're promised. Like we have to be convinced of this fact.

But we return to our cages. We're familiar with the coolness of metal on the soft of our cheeks. As much as it keeps us in, it keeps the rest out. And that feels like safety.

We learn to live the cage. It is the eternal excuse for the well-intentioned. At least I tried. That's what we say. Is that my voice?

Because to be free means we have something to lose. And choice. And the dread that follows hope around like a shadow, even on dark days. There's risk here.

Freedom is not peace. Or joy. Freedom is owning yourself. Freedom is unmerited grace. It has substance. Weight. Worth.

You are free and you have worth.

And anything of worth, I suppose, can be lost.

Freedom can be terrifying when all we've seen is a sunrise through the grate. To run towards that light...maybe we never thought that could happen. Better to not dream. Better to stay here. Better to keep to our solitary shadowy kingdom than to have something and lose it.

Or.

Maybe...

Better to risk losing something of worth than to forfeit the inheritance; what could be. Better to run in open fields. Better to try. Better to fail and rise again.

To rise, the same way our freedom came to us.

To rise.

This is freedom.

Advent Week 2: Promises

There is no cradle without the cross.

This is the tension in which we exist. what is and what could be. Life today and the promise of tomorrow. The true Christmas celebration cannot be whole without its fulfillment in the cross of Easter.

There is no light without shadow.

And I’ve wondered about this weariness I feel when we enter this season. With so many lights, how can something feel so wrong? Why is there such an ache?

Sink below the haze of the holiday frenzy to street level. Outside the proverbial inn are the dark corners of the holidays. Here we find the God we sing about. Here in the languid streets. Among the people.

We, the broken.

And this is the whole point, and why there is tension beneath the glowing lights: a season of hope is for the hopeless. A season of promise is for those who need to believe in something real. In a world gone mad with distrust, this is our gift. The deepest heart of Christmas is found in the hope of the cradle and the promise of the cross.

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

The irony of the hope we celebrate this season is that we keep it tucked within our homes and under our trees while our brothers and sisters around the world face harsh realities, a darkness the glow of our Christmas lights won’t reach; a cold the warmth of out fires can’t thaw.

For all the people.

And we remember. Hope does not thrive indoors. This news was never meant to be tucked and shuttered in our hearts. This is a season of good news. A season of promise.

Of cradles and crosses.

Of freedom.

For we, the broken.

For all.


Advent Week 1: Darkness

We begin Advent in the dark. The kind of dark you can touch. The kind of dark that has substance.

Before the first candle. Before we ignite in the heavy silence there is only darkness and it is here we must begin.

Before the light, is the dark.

In the terrible dark is the weight that sits heavy on our chests, ribs cracking under pressure, lungs gasping for air. Eyes open wide even in the blackness. Even though we know we will see nothing. In this dark is every fear.

It is loss. It is war. It is addiction. It is sickness. It is loneliness. Anxiety. Desperation.

The breaking point.

And the ache.

The wrenching of the heart. The jaw-grinding, body-shaking thirst for dawn.

And sometimes - listen to me - to ache is enough.

It’s okay to not be the strong one, for a while. It’s okay.

Just to know there’s more. To ache for it. To cry out for home. To know there are answers but to be unable to hold them for a while. Open hands.

To want something undefined, to want something defined, to want something because you don’t know what the hell else to do. Closed fists.

To ache for the world we know we can have but can’t seem to reach. To ache for the truth promised in all these holiday lights we cling to for a few short weeks. To ache for wholeness. To ache for touch. To ache for hope.

We can’t stay here, in the dark, but maybe you just need to know that, for now, to ache is enough.

Because to ache is to feel, to know, and to long for something beyond the dark. And sometimes, that is enough. For now, that is enough, because the light is coming.