Category Archives: Life

How to Stop Time

I had one of those moments over the holidays.

You know the ones – when a phone call brings news so terrible that it stops you in your tracks – the kind of news and the kind of call that will stay with you forever. News for the receipt of which you will always remember exactly what you were doing, where you were standing, and whom you were with. You’ll remember that you were drinking the last few lukewarm sips of coffee from your favorite mug, the red brick-colored one with two small chips out of the rim, and that you never set it down nor drank from it, but clutched it tightly during the conversation. You’ll remember the sound of your wife’s bare feet moving across the cold wood floor and you’ll remember telling her what happened. And, as she reaches out to offer her comfort, you’ll remember the strangely dissonant image of the Christmas lights still twinkling on the tree beside you…

It was that kind of news.

Now, just a few days into the new year, on a morning where I am taking refuge from the bitter cold, work cancelled and car battery dead in the driveway, all final rights and ceremonies having been performed and all relatives safely returned home, I’m thinking about the nature of these peculiar moments in our lives – some intensely private and others nearly universal – the ones that seem to have the power to stop time.

We’ve shared many of these moments, as a nation and a world, over the course of my lifetime. As a Gen X kid, the Challenger disaster was likely the most formative of these experiences. We watched the news on one of the ancient public school TVs that Mr. Hay, my 6th grade teacher, rolled into the classroom just before lunchtime after the principal’s crackly voice had come over the intercom with the tragic announcement. 8 years later, I was sitting in a coffee shop a block away from my dormitory at the University of Minnesota, halfway through an extra-shot mocha and a cigarette, bleary-eyed and cramming for a sociology test, when I heard that Kurt Cobain was dead. 5 years after that I was stuck at the airport in Houston, returning home from Guatemala, when I first saw the grainy, haunting images of two angry young men stalking the halls of Columbine. 2 years later I was standing shocked and dumbfounded with my classmates in the atrium of the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs as the second plane hit the second tower. Just over a year ago, I was sitting in the lobby of the doctor’s office when a place called Newtown quickly overwhelmed my Facebook newsfeed.

Every generation has these shared moments. For my parents, it was the Kennedy and King assassinations and the Cuban missile crisis. For their parents, it was Black Tuesday and an end to the War. These are moments that are seared into our collective experience and consciousness – moments that serve as permanent timestamps on our shared lives.

And then there are those moments we may never share with anyone, when someone or something so precious to us was suddenly gone. Just like that. Gone. Like the moment I returned an urgent phone call from an old friend at 10:53 am on February 2nd, 2009.

Just like that.

Gone.

I’ve really started to wonder, lately, whether it’s only tragedy that has this unique power to stop time, to force us to remember every detail, to burn itself permanently into our beings.

Sitting here on this cold January morning, just a few days into the new year and just a few days after another one of those calls, I think I’m starting to piece together an answer.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see a band play – one which we’d seen a number of times before in different venues. This time, they were playing an intimate acoustic show in a small theatre, and we had been lucky enough to snatch a couple of the highly coveted tickets. It was the last performance of a 3-show stand, on a late Sunday afternoon, and it was being recorded for live album to be released in the spring. We arrived early enough to squeeze ourselves close to the stage and wait for them to come on. They emerged from backstage to hearty applause and raucous cheers and took up their instruments to play.

And then a beautiful and amazing thing happened.

The crowd fell absolutely silent and listened.

Not to just one song, but to all of the songs.

Those of you who go to shows these days know that this simply doesn’t happen anymore. Nobody was talking. Nobody was checking their phones. Nobody was getting up to go to the bar. They were listening to every single note and hearing every single word. Some had their eyes closed. Some were soundlessly mouthing the words. All were completely present and undistracted.

When we reemerged, blissfully disoriented, into the snowy Minneapolis streets some time later, it might have been hours or days or maybe just a split second. We didn’t know and we didn’t care. We wanted the experience to cling to us for as long as possible. We wanted it to have changed us in some profound and lasting way. We wanted to remember it forever.

Therein lies at least a partial answer to the question.

If tragedy can halt the wheels of time, so too can beauty.

I’ve got my long list of resolutions again this year, scrawled in another brand new notebook and sitting open on my desk while I write this. It looks pretty familiar to me after trying to live out the same words for so many years. It’s all so firm and finite. It says I’ve got 359 days left this year to get in shape, get my projects done, get my head straight, be a better husband, be a more productive employee, be a more dependable friend. It says each day that passes will either bring me closer to my goals or leave me stranded. It says I must race the calendar pages as they turn and the minutes as they tick inexorably away.

It says I’m running out of time and there’s nothing I can do about it.

But I know that’s a lie.

I’ve seen time stop in its tracks, out of tragedy, out of beauty, out of nowhere.

This year, I say to hell with this perennial list of resolutions. I’m replacing it with one simple admonition:

Let it in.

The sadness, the joy, the fear, the inspiration, the ecstatic ruin and the divine heartbreak of this life.

Let it in.

All of it.

Each and every moment.

That’s how you learn to stop time.

A Wayward Penguin

It was a simple quip at a company holiday party that started me on the topic of penguins. More specifically, partygoers were questioning a co-worker who had recently returned from a trip to South Africa, during which she had occasion to be in close proximity to a colony of Black-footed Penguins, whether they were “nice” or not. Without waiting to hear the answer, another opined that the myth of cute, cuddly penguins is merely a human construct, made to fulfill our own fragile emotional needs. I replied that I had heard they were known to be curious, but that this wasn’t exactly the same as being nice. A number of others, with the certainty that always seems to accompany the consumption of adult beverages, chimed in with their own additions to the now spirited “Penguins: Nice or Not?” debate.

It was at that moment that another reveler, who had sidled up silently to the group, shared his own tidbit of penguin-related knowledge:

“I heard that they sometimes go crazy. Seriously, I saw it on a documentary. Every now and then, one of them will just wander off and never come back.”

As you can imagine, the conversation pretty much ended right there with people nodding uncomfortably, murmuring their “hmms” and “huhs” and hastily shuffling away, myself included. But, in fact, this is exactly the kind of dark, quirky fact that tends to stick with me – and stick it has – for the three days since I heard it. Not surprising to those of you who know me, I’ve spent some of those three days trying to verify if penguins really do lose their minds and waddle off into the abyss alone.

It turns out that this puzzling assertion comes from a 2009 Werner Herzog documentary entitled “Encounters at the End of the World” which chronicles the work of scientists and researchers living at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. In one scene, while Herzog is interviewing one of the researchers about the dynamics of the adjacent colony, the camera cuts away to footage of a group of penguins heading for the open water. As they begin their long and arduous march, one turns back and returns to the nesting area. Another, however, stops in his tracks and looks back and forth between the two directions – one leading to the oceanic feeding grounds and one back to the collective safety of the colony. He seems, from all outward appearances, unable to decide what to do until he finally turns in a third direction, toward the mountains, and begins walking alone toward an almost certain death. Upon further questioning, the researcher insists that, even if the penguin had been placed back in the colony, he still would have wandered off again, on his own, in the same manner.

Apparently this happens with some regularity.

A penguin goes crazy.

I know what you’re thinking, you astute and skeptical readers. Surely there is some sound biological rationale for this strange and disturbing phenomenon. I will tell you that scientific explanations are hard to come by, but the sparse sampling of hypotheses I have found suggest that penguins possibly exhibit this behavior when they sense that they are about to die, just as many other species of animals are known to do. There is also a rigid line of thinking in the traditional psychological disciplines, of course, that humans are the only species with adequate consciousness to experience and act on things like depression and anxiety, and that we superimpose these feelings onto animals when, in reality, they are only capable of acting on basic stimulus and instinct. The case of the wayward penguin, in this vein of thought, is nothing more than a sentient creature getting its instinctive wires crossed and following a false impulse in the wrong direction. Any emotional implications we experience from witnessing such an act in nature, then, are entirely of our own conjuring.

I’m not going to try to settle the debate about whether animals have human-like emotions here in this brief and woefully under-researched blog post. I’m content to leave it to the scientists stationed at McMurdo to figure out the mystery of why, every now and then, a penguin will stop dead in his tracks, take one last look back at everything he has ever known, turn toward the mountains, and set off alone into the unknown.

It really doesn’t matter to me, in the end, whether he was driven by instinct or emotion, impulse or purpose, confusion or resolution.

It’s just that there are some days I feel a lot like that penguin.

 

A Different Kind of Life

I was going to wait until I was feeling better to write this, but here I am anyway… writing on one of those days when something feels profoundly wrong in the universe or in the world or maybe just in me. I should have written a few days ago when I emerged from the blissful beauty and solitude of the woods where the big oaks still grow and the flowing water trickles like a meditation foundation and roars like a symphony. It always seems so clear to me, after a few solid hours of trudging down muddy trails and plunging my face into icy forest streams, what I’m supposed to be doing in this life, the things I need to let go, the precious few I’m supposed to keep and hold close. It seems so simple out there to just breathe the animate air, close my eyes, and let the sunlit autumn leaves paint my eyelids with the answers to all of my questions. It seems so easy to be free.

But this week has been a week like so many others, when my mind has become clouded with habitual worries and anxieties and it won’t let me sleep at all. I can feel it pushing at the back of my eyeballs and tensing all of my muscles. My words feel too clumsy and too numerous, my perception of safety limited to the walls of my own house. The world outside seems way too loud and far too fast – over-stimulated, overmedicated, over-processed and overwhelmed. It is at times like these I always return to the same question:

If this is the world we’ve built for ourselves, why are we so often unhappy living in it?

I think part of the answer lies in the fact that progress has now become synonymous with commodification to the point that even personal growth and transformation seem to require a vast array of products in order to be fomented in our lives. Our brand preferences have become our identities and we’ve been thoroughly convinced that changing them somehow changes us, too. From fashion to pharmaceuticals, we’re not just being sold products anymore; we’re trying to buy our own redemption.

The problem is that with each new product we buy, we become increasingly comfortable with the notion that the cures for our unhappiness exist somewhere outside of ourselves and that, by obtaining them, we no longer have use for the much tougher internal processes of reckoning and discernment. As I’m sitting here trying to write this, I’m fighting nearly constant urges to check my email, scroll through Facebook posts, turn on the TV, see what there is to buy on Amazon… anything to distract me from feeling how I’m feeling right now. With everything at my fingertips, I could easily stay distracted and detached until the discomfort passes. In fact, I could easily stay distracted and detached for my entire life. We all could. And sadly, many of us will.

Which is why I chose to write today, dear friends, even though I feel like such a mess. Tonight I’m hiding in my house, but tomorrow I’m going to try again – not to go out and buy things but to do things to get me just a little bit closer to where I want to be. Tomorrow I’m going to try to live a little more openhearted and a little less distracted. I’m going to try to pay attention to all of the beauty and the pain around me and not bury my face in my iPhone. I’m going to try to hold a few precious things close and let the rest go. I’m not going to run back into the woods this time. I’m going to stay right here.

I’m going to keep trying to live a different kind of life.

Breaking Brave

I was trolling the news feed per usual this morning, wading through the daily litany of clever quips, obnoxious reposts (“like” if you agree!), kid pictures, pet pictures, food pictures, inspirational quotes (the posting of which I am a chronic offender) and the like, when I came across this status update from an old friend:

I have recently come to terms with the fact that I have bipolar disorder. I see now that it has been plaguing me my whole life and doing damage to those I love most. Took my first step towards changing that today. I’m getting help. It’s going to be a long road. Thank you to those who have been there for me.

A simple statement, really – a message so basically earnest that it could easily suffer the swift and certain fate intrinsic to the billion other digital updates and proclamations pushing through the feeds, each one bumping the last into cyber-oblivion, someone’s deepest confession briefly replaced by an Instagram of someone else’s delicious garlic mashed potatoes – before they are both buried in the information graveyard forever. This one stuck with me, though, long after it had been replaced by the latest moronic thing Ted Cruz had to say about, well, just about anything and the new Buzzfeed list, “13 Telltale Signs You’re Stuck in the 90’s.” (I’m listening to Pearl Jam while I write this, so… yeah)

Apropos though, since I think this all started for us back then – back during the time when we were the ones to shake off the shallow indulgences of the 80’s and reclaim some of that righteous anger that had faded as all the hardcores OD’d or burned out and all the straightedges grew up. Maybe grunge didn’t save rock ‘n roll, or maybe it ruined it, but it led us back to Minor Threat and Black Flag and The Clash and everything else that made us feel angry and broken and brilliant and saved all at the same time. We weren’t riding the bleachers at the pep rally; we were walking the rusty beams of abandoned bridges, suspended and suspect, using the dizzy edges to measure our will and our worth.

It’s a miracle we lived through it. Yet, in the years between then and now, we haven’t been without casualties. We’ve watched each other be broken, one by one, in ways both subtle and spectacular. When Tony died, I made a drunken backyard bonfire of my old journals and poetry books and sent their ashes swirling into the sky – to try to shake the stubbornly clinging past – the one that would never let me back away from the ledge we once peered over together. But that aching urgency was burned into us to begin with, and no fire could ever consume it.

For better or for worse, this is who we are.

Which is why, my old friend, your update from this morning hit me so hard. While I’m still playing the tortured poet and grasping at ghosts, you’ve made the tougher choice – to look up and live on. Picking a fight with your demons is one of the hardest things we can do in this life, but you never were one to shy away from a challenge. I remember you standing under those stage spotlights and belting out your lines years ago.  I want you to know how brave I thought you were back then. I want you to know how brave I think you are right now.  And I want you to know I think you’ll win.

Aflame

Over the past few weeks, the maple down the street has changed from dingy, faded summer’s-end green to splendorous burnt orange and crimson, like blood and fire against the azure autumn sky. Every year it sparks in me a memory, or maybe something deeper than a memory; an image emblazoned in the archives of my past, filed away but far from forgotten.

There was a massive maple tree just like this one on the winding avenue that led up the hill to the house where I grew up. Every year it would ignite with the same impossible colors before yielding its leaves to the unrelenting autumn winds. I biked past it hundreds of times as a kid, returning from some friend’s house or some adventure deep in the woods, then drove past it hundreds more as a teenager, coming back from some keg-strewn bonfire in some gravel pit outside the city limits, racing to get home before curfew.

It isn’t just the image that has lingered with me, though, but all of the longing and turmoil spilling over at every moment in those days. I used to wear an old canvas army surplus jacket in the fall, full of rips and bloodstains and cigarette burns – each one hard-earned. I walked its threads like tightropes, dancing while they frayed beneath my feet. We were all so close to the edge back then and we wanted to be – to see just how close we could come, how much we could feel, how much beauty and pain and inspiration and heartbreak we could take.

I always felt those things the most in the fall, when somehow the world dying all around made me feel like I was being reborn.

But those flames have turned to embers now, glowing faintly beneath the years and layers of habit and routine. I’m not sure it’s possible to ever feel anything as intensely as we do when we’re young – or if we do, maybe it’s us who can’t last. After all, we’ve already said goodbye to some friends who tried to walk that edge for too long.

Last time I was back in the old neighborhood, I saw that they had chopped that old maple down, removing the last landmark by which I had tried to navigate my way back to the wild heart that used to beat in my chest. I sat at the stop sign blinking slowly, trying to make it reappear, until the honking of the cars behind me tore me from my reverie. For a split second, I swear I could see its jagged outline in the rear view mirror as I drove away.

This autumn is warmer and later than it should be, with the leaves in my neighborhood just starting to change and clinging tenaciously to the trees. All except the maple down the block, that is. It hasn’t been willing to wait for the colder weather to set itself aflame. It glows and burns like a personal protest against the slow death of winter it knows will come far too soon.

Though I know it, too, I just can’t seem to burn like that anymore. But I’ve still got those embers glowing somewhere inside of me, and I’ve still got a chance…

Kevin Ware and the Nature of Healing

It was sickening to watch.  Midway through the first half of Sunday’s epic Louisville vs. Duke Elite Eight basketball game, Cardinals guard Kevin Ware went up to contest a routine 3-pointer from Duke’s Tyler Thornton.

When he came down, he suffered one of the most horrific injuries in college basketball history, shattering his lower leg so badly that his broken tibia tore right through his skin.  With the crowd sitting in stunned silence and traumatized teammates sprawled on the court weeping, television announcers struggled for any words to convey the weight of what had just happened.  Louisville coach Rick Pitino wiped away tears as he pulled the team into a close huddle around their fallen teammate who, before they carted him out of the arena and rushed him to the emergency room, had only one thing to say:  “Don’t worry about me.  I’ll be okay.  You guys go win this thing.”  And win they did.  But, as brave an exhortation as it was, and as epic a victory as it produced, it couldn’t change the tough reality facing Kevin Ware.

In a split second, his young life had changed forever.

In the days since, I have been as obsessed as anyone with Kevin’s injury and recovery, following every tweet and update about his surgery, about the steel rod they put in his leg, about how he was already up on crutches the next day, about how he will travel with his team to his hometown of Atlanta for the Final Four.  Like so many others, I pumped my fist when I read his New York Daily News quote:  “This is a minor setback for a major comeback.”

The kid’s got an amazing attitude and, by most accounts, could be playing again in a year.  In between now and then undoubtedly lie some of the hardest days Kevin Ware will ever experience, not only building his physical strength back, but also learning to trust his leg again – an emotional aspect of recovery that many athletes say is far more difficult than the rehabilitation itself.  Even though their post-surgery bones and ligaments may be even stronger than they were before, the residual trauma of having suffered a serious injury won’t allow them to believe it.  It is only through repeated testing and retesting that they begin to regain their confidence and learn to trust the strength of their repaired bodies; no small task when every plant and pivot and jump feels just like the one that caused the injury and their brain is telling them to do anything to avoid feeling that kind of pain again.

Kevin Ware is going to have overwhelming support from millions of people as he makes his journey from injury to recovery, as millions of us have now been public witnesses to his pain.  We cannot un-see what we saw and we won’t soon forget it.  Though the struggle will be his own, he certainly won’t be going it alone.  He’ll have Lebron and the rest tweeting their well wishes at him every step of the way, and he’ll have all of our thoughts and prayers to pick him up along the way.  As well it should be for a great kid in the midst of a comeback, not just in basketball but in a troubled life as well.

As I’ve been trying to wipe the terrible image of Kevin Ware’s leg folding obscenely under him, replayed twice in slow motion on CBS before they quickly pulled it, from my mind ever since I saw it.  There is something so indescribably awful about the way it ended up jutted out at nearly a right angle, skewed to one side, bones sticking through flesh.  Such severe and grotesque injuries may bring out our worst gawker tendencies but they also compel us to be compassionate.  I would bet there wasn’t a single person in Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday who wasn’t sending that kid every ounce of love and prayer they could muster, even the most rabid of the Duke fans.

Despite our love of competition, there is still something inside of us that can’t tolerate suffering.

But that thing, whatever it is – that instinct that drives us to rally around the fallen only engages when we are able to perceive pain.  Kevin Ware’s pain was in our faces in a manner so real that we couldn’t possibly ignore or escape it.  We could see his pain reflected in his mangled leg.  We could hear it in his cries.

The trouble for us, though, is that most of our injuries are hidden from view.

All of this has me wondering how much differently we would treat each other if all of the pain we carry around inside of us suddenly became visible to the world.  What if we could tell that our rude waiter just had his heart broken into a million pieces or that our conflict-averse boss had been abused as a child?  What if we could see our emotional scars the same way as cuts or broken bones?  Would we treat each other with the same empathy and compassion as a college basketball star with a badly broken leg?

Call me naïve, but I really think we would.

So, as we root for Kevin Ware to come back stronger than ever, let’s remember to root for each other, too.

Our hearts, after all, can take an awfully long time to heal.

Our Daily Protest

The last few weeks have been, in many ways, the kind of weeks I love most – full of big projects and big risks, tight deadlines and public spotlights.  They have found me in Capitol hallways and hearing rooms, but also in community centers and church basements, sitting on cold metal folding chairs sipping countless cups of lukewarm coffee and listening to the true stories of people’s lives, told so openly and earnestly that they make my own fastidiously constructed narrative feel like a fable.  I love the feeling of momentum and purpose, love the moments of commitment and connection when groups of people decide to link arms and take up a cause, love when the young ones get that first notion that their lives could mean something bigger than themselves, love when the elders rouse their tired and battle-weary bones for one more good fight.  It’s times like these when there’s no denying how blessed I am to be living this life and doing this work, when my eyes are clear and my heart is full.

As they always tend to be, though, the highs have been counterbalanced by lows – in the unfortunately coupled forms of cynical calculation and petty undercutting – sometimes even by those I’ve stood with for years in their own struggles.  What I’ve come to understand is that the perception of scarcity – the notion that if someone else gets something you won’t get yours – can make people act in some really terrible ways sometimes.  And lest you think I’m climbing up on my self-righteous soapbox, dear reader, let me assure you that I have been this person, too, slicing and carving my way to “victory”, leaving the tattered remains of relationships along the way.

It’s not difficult to see why this is such a pervasive pattern, not just in politics and public life, but also in our most intimate relationships.  Suspicion, dysfunction, and competition are the three core principles upon which most of our modern entertainment is based.  They seep into our collective consciousness whether we know it or not.  They turn us into people who value kindness yet revel in degradation.  It’s no wonder we start to believe that the only way to succeed is to destroy each other in the process.

I don’t believe it’s too late for us, though, and I don’t believe this is really who we are – and I certainly don’t believe we were meant to live this way.

So, here’s what I’m going to try to do starting today:  I’m going to believe the best about people.  I’m going to believe that most people, if given the chance, will choose to do good in the world.  I’m going to believe that the versions of ourselves who give comfort to strangers and pray for people we’ve never even met during times of crisis are stronger than the ones who tear each other down for our own gains.  I’m going to believe that our collective humanity is bigger than our individual insecurity.

I’m going to believe these things even if I’m proven wrong time and again.  Even if I get taken advantage of and called naive.  Even if I get hurt.

Of all of the mini-revolutions I’ve tried to start over the years, this is probably the only one that really matters in the end – the one without spotlights or strategy, notoriety or name.  It won’t require endless coalition meetings or multimillion dollar budgets or reams of research on the opposition.  It won’t even require us to sign a pledge or a petition.

But it will require us to believe the best about each other – stubbornly, genuinely, perhaps naively – in the face of so much erroneous evidence that we shouldn’t.  And it will bind us to act accordingly.

A simple agreement serving as our daily protest.