Thursday, January 29, 2009

What We Failed to Do, What We Can Do Now

As the recession drags on and charities, the arts and houses of worship struggle to find financial support, I think of all the money we burned during the "good times." Houses and cars bigger or newer than we needed. Giant-screened TVs and all sorts of other electronic toys that tie into the whole entertainment space. Dozens of more pairs of shoes than we could possibly wear in a single year. Eating out several times per week. The list seems endless, as did our appetite for the spoils of a consumer and marketing culture that offered no boundaries and had every just-in-time product we could imagine to distract us from grappling with our own internal voids.

Now, as money is painfully tight or not there at all for some and the government addresses it by piling up debt that will burden my grandchildren, the organizations and endeavors that often give the most meaning to life and serve those in greatest need are suffering because of what we did not invest beforehand. How much more vibrant could that downtown art museum; little church on the corner; non-profit that provides scholarships or after school tutoring programs for inner city kids; or community theater be had we been investing all along a larger chunk of the discretionary income (or credit even!) that we blew on the junk culture?

It makes me angry, I must admit, both at the opportunities I might have missed to contribute more and our collective malady of not spending our time, thoughts and money on things that matter the most to the mind, body and spirit.

Now that the Economist and Engineer motifs (aptly described by Peter Block in The Answer to How is Yes) have had their long dance upon the stage and left us in shambles, it is time for the Artists and Social Architects to rise in prominence. We must begin and deepen dialogue on things that matter for ourselves, our families, our communities, our institutions. Dialogue must lead to a healthy, diversity-driven investment of time, talent and resources into the entities that enable us to live authentically with one another rather than propagate artificial lifestyles and nurse our wounds with commodities. The dialogue begins with each of us today, wherever we are in whatever sphere of influence we happen to occupy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Grist for the Wisdom Mill

Nothing goes to waste in the creative process, I continue to discover. On a larger scale, nothing goes to waste in life if pressed through as grist for the wisdom mill. But I am thinking of the writing life at the moment.

It is a delight to remember and weave into story a little memory such as shyly walking down the street as a 9-year-old, and having a couple of little girls call you a name. At the time it stung, but now it becomes a scene in a book or short story that enables the writer to explore the universal pain or fear of rejection. Or the first job I had as a 16-year-old at a Florida Burger King, hauling trash past the drive-through line to the dumpster while carloads of girls were heading to the beach. Another scene to share, touching upon teenage restlessness and a desire to be somewhere else and to not be dressed in plaid polyester. And perhaps another story could be the retreat I attended while in college, when we blind-folded each other and had to trust one another to guide us across the property near the water. Blind each of us are, the writer ponders, needing one another to more fully see and make the healthier choices.

I have loved and lost, been innocent and guilty, been full of joy and loaded down with despair, been full of health and quite ill, been profound and shallow. Grist, grist, grist.

"Listen to your life," Frederick Buechner coaches. There may be some scenes we would rather not hear again. It might prove worthwhile to turn up the volume a little and play the scene again from where you sit right now. "Keep digging," Buechner told me in a hand-written letter a couple years back after I had written him, "you might find real treasure."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The 7 Essentials According to John

Steven Covey has his "Seven Habits." During the past few days I have found myself mentally organizing seven key "essentials" to do each day for an "effective" life, whatever that means. Or perhaps a meaningful life...or a healthy life in terms of mind, body and spirit. Regardless, here they are, seven essential things to do every day:

Eat Well
Work Your Passion

Everything else is accessories.

There's sort of a ranking to my list, and you can feel free to rearrange or add or subtract. But my thought process here is that prayer to God as you define God sets the tone for everything else. Exercise releases the endorphins that impact everything you do and keeps you healthier and more available for all of life. Eating well addresses the latter part of the previous sentence also. Good spiritual, emotional and physical health make us more available to love--and loving someone or something, whomever or whatever it is, is a central part of being alive. Working your passion, or living out your true vocation, is a key window to sustainable joy. Reading engages and stretches the mind and ultimately sets it free.

And you just gotta floss. Good for the teeth, good for the health, good for the smile. By including floss on the list I am not being gum in cheek, by the way. Oh, that was bad.

So what's on your list of everyday "essentials?"

To Feel is Risky; to Go Numb, Riskier Still

Sometimes I wish I did not sense things so deeply and powerfully.

My heart and soul feel like they are always on the table, awaiting an ambush. I cannot help but drink in the majesty of a pink or purple sunrise; sense my spirit soar at "Adagio for Strings"; cry during movie scenes that summon tender memories of my father; appreciate a woman's natural beauty or scent; marvel at the wondrous color of auburn hair; float in the adrenaline of a good cardio burn; teem with anger at racial cruelty or arrogant abuse of power; or bask in the creative afterglow of having written something impactful.

Fully engaging my senses almost every minute of the day, living in the confluence of hopeless romanticism and a natural strength that The Gallup Organization's research calls "Connectedness," is a blessing and a curse at times. A blessing, because it is so central to the passion and creativity that have shaped who I am and launched so many relationships and career endeavors...a curse because to feel so powerfully and to seamlessly integrate so many of life's oft-bounded dimensions comes with so much risk, disappointment and pain.

Sometimes I wish I was a less complicated person who could simply abide by all the conventions. I've been told I "think too much," and maybe it's true. Perhaps ignorance really is bliss. I'm not quite sure.

To feel is to rejoice. To feel is to suffer. To love another, to be passionate for a cause, to rage against a wrong, is to drink from a cup I'd rather dismiss and sweat drops of blood I'd rather retain.

In the end, I doubt I have much choice but to continue to engage my senses in all of life's dimensions. To do otherwise is to move away from authenticity rather than toward it, and would create a false, empty sense of comfort. I do not want my life to one day end with even the ghost of a regret that I had not truly lived.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Words From the Coach

"Our goal every year is to win a national championship." These inspiring words from Tennessee Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt to a group of T-Mobile USA employees got my blood pumping yesterday. It gave me a nice emotional lift during what has been kind of a downer of a month.

Summitt's passion, forged by the experience of leading numerous women's basketball teams to NCAA titles, helped spur me to desire to "win a championship" every day in my faith, work, in my writing, in my relationships, in my health. To give it my all and hold nothing back.

Now the fun part, figuring out what that looks like! Or perhaps the wiser step is getting out of my own way and allowing the Spirit to play the game with and through me...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Faithful Where You Are Now

Today I was reminded that the leadership development work I do at T-Mobile USA is not just about helping us sell more phones and engender customer loyalty. A colleague shared how she took care of her eight month old nephew while her sister was staying in the hospital. As the baby took his first steps, my colleague captured this wondrous event on video with her cell and promptly texted it over to her sister. Her sister burst into tears as she watched her child take those tender steps, grateful that she had not fully missed the moment.

Those of us who see our full-time corporate jobs as our ministry in this season of life might sometimes question the meaning of it all. We produce products, services, ideas, etc., that we often believe will not matter a whole lot later on in the grand scheme of things.

But moments like the one I shared today lead me to trust more in God's greater purposes for this season that I cannot fully see, compared to my own inconsistent guesswork about what I am supposed to be doing with my gifts. The Lord has not yet opened the doors for me to spend all of my time doing what I most long to do--write--and so trust and faithfulness are what I pray to embrace. Be faithful where you are, he whispers, his consistent message across all seasons.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration of the Heart

I think it is a bit of a stretch to expect one man, even with considerable power, energy and vision, to "fix everything" that plagues us as a nation. Instead, we must leverage the inspiration we feel from the ascent of President Obama by tapping the unique and relevant power, energy and vision that has been granted to each of us in our respective spheres of influence.

Today, even today, where can we encourage another to think out of the box? Where can we relieve suffering just a little bit? Where can we choose simplicity over materialism, discipline over gluttony, active listening over assumption? Where can we speak out against injustice?

T.S. Eliot wrote a classic poem a century ago called The Wasteland, that painted a portrait of individuals caught up in inauthentic lives. Our country has in many ways become a "wasteland" of excess, division and general non-critical thinking. Now, the economic pain that has inflicted so many of us directly and at least our collective consciousness indirectly has opened our eyes to the decay we have permitted.

But good can come out of pain, as countless people have learned. This is at hand the gift of a chance to peer more closely into our souls and see what is there. There is, if we embrace it, the possibility of an inauguration of a new era of vibrant, authentic living within our hearts. Strip away the distractions and the medicating but empty vessels of would-be fulfilment, unleash your talents and see how you can make an impact for the world and your own satisfaction today.

This is not just Obama's time. This is your time to shine as well.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"Revolutionary Road" Winds Through Your Neighborhood

Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet, is a flawless yet dangerous film. Flawless in its dialogue, cinematography, musical score, character development. Dangerous in how it provokes critical thinking and restlessness for any who dare to let ignorance be anything but bliss.

The actors portray the 1950s couple called the Wheelers, living on Revolutionary Road in the right kind of house within the most respectful of neighborhoods while raising the most admirable of children. He takes the train each day to cubicle hell, she stays at home each day in a hell of her own. The people about them are fully bought in to the American dream, but inside the Wheelers feel their personal dreams crushed and they lash out at each other through the pain of their own disillusionment because there is no one else to lash out to. Their angst is cinematic confirmation of the lyrics from the Rush song "Subdivisions," that declares how "the suburbs have no chance to soothe/the restless dreams of youth."

The Wheelers certainly are not representative of every suburban couple. But they point to a larger collective struggle to which few I have personally met will admit. It is the struggle for relevance and meaning after you've collected the zero lot line house and built the nuclear family and risen through the ranks at the corporation and learned to sing "He Has Made Me Glad" in perfect harmony within the pews. It is the hunger for something that tastes authentic, that does not feel like an imitation of what everyone else has or seems to want, that is not controlled by what others will think or say. Revolutionary Road is a fictional street, but it runs through most of our neighborhoods, and in the quiet of the night at times when sleep eludes us we can hear its crickets bleating within the confines of its perfect landscaping.

I left the theater believing it is harmful, to yourself and those whom you love, to repress or suppress your authentic self, to shrug off your dreams and let your talents get lost in the shuffle of rearranging commodities in a throw-away economy. The older I get, the less and less I want of Revolutionary Road and all of its delusional promises of contentment amid conformity. The more, instead, I want to scratch below the surface and see what is there, to explore both the joy and melancholy of my soul, to struggle all night with the angel and demand a blessing even if it cripples my hip and I don't quite walk the way that is expected of me.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Four Influential Works of Literature

Let me get ths out of the way first, to the dismay of some of you: I just don't have it in me for American Idol anymore. Not that I was ever a faithful, constant consumer of this sizable chunk of brain candy--but I would at least tune in the past several seasons for the opening episodes. This week, as the most popular show of the Bush era reignites even as the era itself is deep in twilight, I chose to stick with my usual evening routines of social networking and reading.

Last night, in particular, I selected an item that has been on my bookshelf for years but one I have--surprisingly, considering it is by one of my most favorite authors--never read. It is Frederick Buechner's Speak What We Feel, Not What We Ought to Say, an examination of the four works of literature that have influenced him the most and the themes of sadness present in the authors' lives while they composed them. I look forward to blogging more about Buechner's thoughts here, but for now will simply mention that the works and authors he interacts with include:

The poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
King Lear by William Shakespeare (which includes a verse that inspired the title of Buechner's book)

Buechner stirred me (as he often does) to contemplate what might be four particular works of literature that have had the greatest impact on me as a person and a writer across my lifetime. Here's my immediate conclusions:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I first read this in 10th grade when my English teacher highly recommmended it, easily picking up on my teenage angst and wanting to nurture my blossoming creative writing. I fully identified with Holden Caulfield's sense of alienation and his scoffing at the phoniness of the culture and customs around him. I return to this book every several years or so for a fresh read, and it continues to help me to think critically and own my inescapable identity as a person who follows a different beat. Thankfully, it's never been made into a movie!

The Stand by Stephen King: King is often thought of as popular fiction more than literature, but this intense masterpiece holds its own against any work produced during the past several decades. The character and plot development of this epic emotional, spiritual and physical struggle of a band of survivors in the midst of a horrific plague blew my mind even as a 16-year-old. It has served as a model for me on how to create interesting heroes and villians who offer complexity and interact in unexpected and profound ways.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Far more expansive and introspective than the film vesion, Steinbeck's work is a massive dive into the human condition and the need for grace amid our seemingly unlimited appetite for depravity. His story of Aaron and Caleb Trask and the characters they encounter is so profound that one of my homiletics professors in seminary, Ellsworth Kalas, assigned it as required reading. It is hard to read twice, but "once will do," as Cosette sang of seeing and falling in love with Marius in Les Miserables.

1984 by George Orswell: This is a classic I have not re-read since college, but reading it 20 years ago was enought to mpact me for a lifetime. It is chilling how conformist and identity-stripping our corporate culture can require us to be, even without our realizing it at the time. Protagonist Winston Smith finally surrenders his heart, mind and soul at the end to the totalitarian "Big Brother," even willing to betray his lover in order to "win the victory over himself." What are the little surrenders that we make each day to the collective pressures that govern our society--especially now, in this age of fear and reactivity?

There are many more titles I could list that have impacted me, but Buechner picked four and that will have to suffice for now.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ashes and Aspirations

I was driving alone the other day and perusing radio stations in the process. Suddenly I caught the snippet of a disk jockey's reflection on one of Nashville's Christian radio stations. Her words struck me with their simple beauty, as she spoke of learning to lay down and surrender the aspirations she had made for herself and her career across the past year. They had been "turned to ashes," she said with far more reverence than complaint, and she was learning to contentedly look to God to discern what was on his agenda for her to do next.

When she was done I turned off the radio. I did not want any other song or commercial or other medium of noise to disrupt the meditation happening inside of me. I thought of my own aspirations, the ones I have released and the ones to which I still firmly cling. Immersed in such an era of economic and social uncertainty, I am seeking to draw nearer to God and be willing to leave on the ash pile anything but my abandonment to his emerging life within me.

I wish I knew to whom the voice on the radio belonged. She helped me quiet my mind so I could more fully detect the voice of God.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tears in the Bucket

I finally watched the film The Bucket List last night, and dissolved into sobs at the end as Morgan Freeman's character Carter was laid to rest. The short scene of his wife crying over his body was just too similar to July 26, 2005, when I caressed my father's warm forehead as he offered his last breath and released his soul to the eternities.

So, friends on Facebook are already encouraging me to post my own bucket list. I am not sure one piece of yellow legal paper could do it justice. I've seen so little of the world still, even at the age of nearly 41. Chronicling all the places that Dr. Seuss still wants me to go would take some time.

But from the gut, here we go with an abbreviated list, in some semblance of order but not completely prioritized:

Get my novel published
Write in a Parisian cafe while sipping some great wine
Eat with my ethnic peeps throughout Italy
Write and edit full-time for a living and still pay the mortgage
Finish reading all of Hemingway's books
Own a beach house
Have coffee with a number of neat people whom I know through social networking but live far away from me
Go one full day praying without ceasing

Was it just me who noticed that most of my from-the-gut list revolves around writing or literature? So I don't want to jump out of an airplane or get a tattoo. Sue me. And I'm pretty sure I've already laughed until I cried. Of course, I'm always eager to do that again.

That's who I am, I suppose. God gave me words, and when I get immersed in their crafting, editing and reciting, I feel his pleasure a la the athlete in Chariots of Fire who had no choice but to run. Run, run, run, I will, until I trip over the bucket unexpectedly.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Endless Summer

Last night I had one of those strange dreams where people, context and memories blend together in a most unexpected recipe and hasten your awakening with nostalgia.

I was walking across a large indoor basketball gym, and there was a player I intuited to be a young Magic Johnson, shooting hoops with a few other people. One of them was a woman I knew in the dream but now cannot remember. I began chatting with Magic about the Summer of 1984, when the Olympics took place in Los Angeles, noting what a fun time that must have been for him. He struggled a moment to recall, then smiled and reflected how that was probably about 10 years ago. I laughed and noted that it had been much longer than that, all the while observing that Magic looked more like his college player self than the age he is today.

Then I found myself speaking to the woman about the Summer of '84 in general, how it was the best season of my youth--right before the worst season of my youth. It was the first summer when I was truly in reciprocal love, when I got my first car, when life seemed teeming with possibilities. The final year and a half of high school were tough for me, but that summer lives on like the "Endless Summer" evoked by the Beach Boys.

So I am pondering this dream, grappling in the pre-dawn hours right now with the reality that my Summer of Summers is nearly 25 years old. And I'm asking myself what I have done across the years to keep a sense of summer alive in my heart, and what more I could be doing.

Summer is that era of abundance, preceded by spring with its emergence of new life that builds upon winter, that crucible of death and reflection. I know that summers cannot last, that they must yield to autumns and the changes that are inevitable. Time holds us green and dying, as Dylan Thomas observed in Fern Hill.

But in the moments of green, under the vibrant skies of summer, part of me is still a youth and more alive than ever...and the world is the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games with all of the majesty, music and potential. My spiritual disposition is that eternal life is already stitched into my soul, and so perhaps I am forever young despite whatever blows winter chooses to deliver.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Redemption and "The Reader"

The film The Reader was a compelling selection for two people who love literature and are intrigued by World War II-era story lines, so it won out last night over several other worthy releases on a rare trip out to the cinema. Just as expected, the work's powerful themes of guilt, redemption and misplaced loved resonated profoundly with pockets of my soul that still reflect at times on choices made across different epochs of my life. The film poignantly and tragically illustrated the impact of just one or two of these choices, and how they can affect countless others or simply change one person's way of relating to others for many decades.

As we drove home, I found myself particularly stuck on a series of poor choices I allowed between the summer of my 21st year and the summer of my 23rd. I realized last night that decisions I made or words I used caused hurt to three different people, each of whom were very different from the other and had roles in my life that were quite distinct from one another. The hurts all took place in a vacuum, none of them interrelated except for the common denominator of myself, caught up in my own reactions, desires and fears, unable or unwilling to see the larger picture at the time.

It's easy for many to chalk such things up to the immaturity and recklessness of youth, but as The Reader editorializes, harm you receive or harm you inflict can leave even the smallest nick upon your heart. Just a slight abrasion, perhaps, or the dullest of aches that is barely perceptible on most days. We can put lots of energy into segmenting buckets of our past from our present state of mind, but these rusty old containers continue their slow drip, and at unexpected moments a tiny drop lands on our tongues and we remember.

Just as the film ended on a note of atonement, I continue to find that unexpected, even larger drops of healing and restoration are always drenching the ground before me. Sometimes I am paying attention and taste the grace of this redemptive rain. Sometimes I even make better choices in the present as a result, not always. Similar to how The Reader depicted several time periods of the protagonist Michael's life in order to capture its textures and unfinished business, so I recognize how I am an incomplete work--ever groaning toward the fullness of the life I was meant to live and stumbling an inch or two closer on most days.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Resolve for Every Moment

The danger of writing a New Year's Day blog is a certain pressure to say something profound about the dynamics of a new year. But the truth is, I am not sure the simple turning of a calendar from 2008 to 2009 makes a significant difference. Aside from new (and presumably thinner) business budgeting and first quarter metric targets, most of our situations are pretty much the same as they were at 11:59 p.m. yesterday. Same goes for our checkbooks and our job security, as well as the state of our marriages, the unfinished yard work outside and a host of other realities.

Some of us, I suppose, need the symbolic, psychological lift of a fresh number to increase our motivation toward elusive goals or aspirations. I've been there. What I'm seeking in this season of life, however, is steady discipline--to keep making incremental progress, day after day, week after week, month after month, regardless of what time of year it happens to be or what year it happens to be, until time itself becomes irrelevant and everything revolves around the sacredness of the present moment.

I find that waiting for the calendar to flip to January puts me in a reactive stance, along with any other external events I am looking to for the blast of a metaphorical starting gun. The easy attraction to such externals, I believe, is the fact that we are submerged in so many reasons not to do something worthwhile, something above and beyond the norm. Every day presents a multitude of obstacles to what we truly want, most of them of inherent value in their own right but a little less than best...and so, knowing this on at least a subconscious level, we gravitate toward the "big event" that will give us that little extra juice to persevere past mediocrity.

But the juice is at hand in everyday, ordinary life and the precious moments that must be recognized. Its scented nectar is recognized by those with a nose to smell, its beauty available for beholding by those who will see, its wordless song of reaching for the prize tuned in to the ears that will hear.