Over Packing

I can admit it…I over pack.  I have the tendency to bring along way more than I need to.  I can’t help it.  Whether it’s a weeklong vacation or just a day trip, I always have these grand visions of us accomplishing way more than is humanly possible in the allotted time.  But what if there is a pool?  What if there is a baseball field?  What if we decide last minute to bushwhack 4 days into the jungle and I don’t have a machete? (This has never happened).  What if we end up remodeling a kitchen and I don’t have a wet tile saw? (Surprisingly, I’ve never remodeled a kitchen on vacation).  And so, I usually just end up squeezing a bunch of random stuff into every last nook of the van.  But when we break down on the side of the road and I can just simply reach for my flare gun, I guarantee I’ll be the one laughing.

If only this tendency of mine to over pack was limited to vacation travel.  If I’m honest, this is a pretty common theme for me.  I carry too much with me.  I always have.  I just don’t have the ability like some people I know to shake things easily.  It turns out things do not just “roll off of me.”  I guess this means I am, in fact, not rubber but glue.

While we’re being honest, my guess is there are a lot of people like me in this way.  Not in regards to vacation travel but in life.  A lot of us over pack.  I see it in the faces of people I walk by every day.  Without one exchange of words, it is clear.  They are carrying something.  And it’s heavy.  They are tired.  And for many, it hurts.  It’s all they can do to keep going.

Maybe it’s the weight of careless words spoken….

 

You are not good enough.

You are not talented enough.

I don’t like you.

 

Or the weight of what’s been done…

You have done too many things wrong.

You have hurt too many people.

No one can accept you.

 

This is the burden many of us bear.  We just can’t seem to set it down.  Regardless of where we’re going, you can be certain it’s on the packing list.

That is what makes Jesus’ invitation so surprising.

 

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Bring your junk.  Crawl if you have to.  Just come.

Last winter, my family was at the airport after returning from a family vacation.  After securing the bags from the turnstile, my oldest was quick to grab one of the bags (the largest bag) I had placed by my side.  He grabbed the handle and began to pull.  Knowing he really just wanted to help, I proceeded to grab the remaining bags and we began the walk to the van.  He started out fine but soon began lagging further and further behind.  I could tell the suitcase was beginning to get the best of him.  Soon I had to stop and wait for him to catch up.

Cody…why don’t you let me carry that for you?

To which he replied,

No.  I can do it dad.

 

After several more minutes like this, I eventually took the bag from his hand.  Now to be honest, this was really just a selfish move on my part because I was trying to speed things along.  My son just wanted to help.  He wanted to do it himself.  He wasn’t ready to admit the bag was too heavy.

But the bag was too heavy.

As he released the bag, he gave a sigh of relief and ran to catch up with the group.  I guess sometimes you just can’t feel the burden you’ve been carrying until it’s gone.

Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

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These Things Are Rarely Things [Materialism]

[This is a revision of a piece I wrote last year, hence the baby references of my youngest.  Otherwise, I thought it might be timely.  mb]

I said it again when I prayed tonight. I didn’t really mean to but it just slipped out, sort of like when you go into “sub-conscious prayer mode” and find yourself reciting phrases without really thinking about what you’re saying. Left unchecked, pretty soon you realize that you have just repeated to God the items you need to pick up at the grocery store tomorrow.  Embarrassing, I know, but anyhow I said it. I prayed “and thank you for all the things you have blessed me with.”

Which got me thinking how these “things” are rarely things.

I am writing this after the close of a truly spectacular autumn day. The magnificent yellows and oranges of the trees beg a second look. It is before such a backdrop that I was able to watch my blessings unfold. Today, it’s the sheer surprise and joy in my son’s eyes as he connected the bat with the ball in our backyard this afternoon. It’s my daughter’s silent expression of belonging as she plops down next to me on the couch. It’s our youngest’s unabashed raising of arms in the air in an effort to once and for all answer the “how big” question. It’s someone to share these precious days with. Family is my blessing today.

It’s funny how when answering the blessing question, my mind seldom visits the ideas of touch screen cell phones, flat screens, or designer jeans, and if it should happen to, it doesn’t stay long. That’s because these “things” are rarely things.

Sure, today I’m also thankful for meals and roofs and clothing, and each one of these is cause for thankfulness to our heavenly father, but I get the sense that when Jesus said not to worry about what you will eat or what will cover you, it was not simply about provision but also about priorities. Don’t get me wrong, my roof is great.  It keeps most of the rain out and most of the heat in, but for me today, it was more about what was going on under my roof that led me to be thankful. That is the “thing” I felt blessed by today.

I wonder what it is about the human heart that causes us to cling so tightly to things made of metal and plastic.  What makes us hunger so deeply for “stuff?”  With the commercials for Christmas already in full swing, you can’t help but feel somewhat un-American if you don’t spend the next two months in a mall somewhere living on a steady diet of Auntie Anne’s pretzels and lattes or if your guest room closet doesn’t resemble a squirrel nest just before winter.  I don’t mean to sound cynical, and I sure love giving and getting as much as the next person, but I just worry sometimes about the amount of stock we put into things that are just, well, things.  Beyond being “just things,” they simply don’t last.  They are temporary.  Fleeting.  They have their moment in the sun but it is truly that…a moment.  Just ask the beanie baby that was once enshrined in an air tight glass case with the name and number proudly in view about the transition to becoming the dog’s chew toy in the backyard.  Okay, so maybe don’t ask the beanie baby…but you get what I’m saying.  The allure of things is short-lived.  The next thing will be replaced by the next big thing which will give way to the next bigger thing.

I imagine at some point in time an eager friend calling another to excitedly announce “Hey man!  I just picked up my new Commodore 64 Computer.  This thing is beautiful!  The green tone of the screen is even more vibrant than in the pictures.  And it’s got 8 bits!  I don’t have a clue what a bit is but there are 8 of them!  That’s gotta mean something!”

I’m guessing it’s been a long time since the Commodore 64 has received that kind of attention.  Now, it’s a large paper weight- a huddled mass of metal and plastic taking up space in some corner of the basement alongside crusty paint cans and a salad shooter.  This is the temporary nature of things.

Over ten years ago, I was in a small impoverished village outside of Tiajuana, Mexico.  Houses made of tarps and cardboard.  Sewage running through the streets.  Barefoot children walking among trash and debris.  Though this was over a decade ago, I can vividly recall the joy in the faces of several young boys as they played with a discarded hubcap on the side of the road.  They tossed it back and forth, rolled it, spun it…you name it, they did it.  And they laughed.  Man, how they laughed.  I had come to teach a thing or two to these “poor people” and yet, I was the student that day, for back in the States, I had not one, but four hubcaps.  They were attached to my car which was parked in my driveway which led to my house that contained my bedroom that was filled with drawers and closets and boxes and dressers full of stuff.  Things.  Metal and plastic just like that hubcap, but better.  Nicer.  Newer.  More-er.  I had everything and yet they were the happy ones.  I was jealous of them.  I longed to be like them.  I get the sense that the joy in these kids was very much related to the fact that they had very little.  They had learned at a young age not to cling tightly to things simply because there was nothing there for them to cling to.  A hubcap brought joy but I would guess the joy was more about the running and throwing and laughing and less about the possession of an object, for they possessed very little.  Maybe a better way to put it is that they were possessed by very little.  They used the thing without it using them.  As quickly as they snatched them up, they could set things down and move on.

It’s been over ten years and I’m still trying to set things down.

Water Walk

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about yesterday.  My son and I shared an experience together that was so deeply memorable and significant that I have had trouble getting my head in the game today.

Last week while on the Calvin College campus, I had heard from a student about a “Water Walk”, an event that was created by the guys from the band Jars of Clay on behalf of Blood:Water Mission and a student organization at Calvin.  A Water Walk is an opportunity to experience what it is like for Africans to travel several hours daily to collect the water they will need for that day for drinking, cooking and cleaning and whatever else they may need.

The women of the villages along with their children make this daily trek, sometimes twice a day.  They don’t make the journey because they don’t have anything better to do.  They make the journey because they have no choice.  It is a life and death matter.  So when the student explained what they were doing and why, I quickly thought of my oldest son Cody.  He’s five years old and starting to get to the age where he is observing the world around him and seems genuinely interested in life.  I thought it would be a good thing for us to share together.

Cody and I arrived a little early.  I was carrying my wife’s mop bucket and my son had an empty gallon milk jug.  He was intrigued by all the steps on the campus and was running around jumping off of things even though I was encouraging him to rest up for the trip.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I just imagined he would need the energy that was being used to jump into the flowerbeds.

Over the next few moments a group began to form and soon after that Dan, Charlie, Matt and Steve from Jars of Clay joined the group which had now grown to around 30 people.  I had known they were coming but I imagined they would just be kicking the walk off and sending us out.  I didn’t realize they would actually join us for the walk.  After a few thoughts from Dan, everyone began to choose buckets – some large, some small.  My bucket was the size of one of the smaller ones but I had the feeling I would be carrying more than water back with me, so I felt justified.

The walk was really enjoyable at first.  It was an amazing 60 degree October day and the leaves were so vibrant and beautiful.  I was spending time with my boy, not to mention the members of one of my favorite bands, and I was exercising, which doesn’t really happen all that much anymore.  We weaved our way around campus, carrying empty buckets and enjoying conversation.  Cody and I were quick to fall to the back of the line, as his strides are half that of anyone in the group.  About 20 minutes in, he asked if I could carry him, hence the small bucket, and so I threw him up on my shoulders and we kept following.  We left the campus and headed deep into the nature preserve on the other side of the highway.

As we arrived at the location where we would draw our water, the group grew quiet.  Two of the students trudged into the mud at the shore and we made a line so they could fill our buckets.  The walk there had been very casual, but Dan asked that we walk back in silence.  He urged us to feel the weight of the water and to imagine that this was our life.

And that is what we did.

Several carried the buckets above their heads while others opted for the handle, a thin metal luxury unknown to most Africans.  At one point I tried to hold the bucket against my chest but my steps were too clumsy and I sloshed water up and over the sides and onto my coat.  Within a hundred yards of our filling spot, Cody was worn out.  He asked if I could carry him and so he went back up on my shoulders, him holding his bucket and me holding mine.  We again fell quite far behind the group.  Dan lingered back to walk with us for a while before catching up with the rest.  As I carried Cody, his water jug resting against my face, the water sloshed out of the spout and onto my skin, one time dripping into my mouth.  The water tasted awful.  “All of this work,” I thought, “to carry dirty water.”

I knew this experience would be memorable, but I didn’t expect it to be so moving.  Until you feel the weight of the water in your hands, it’s hard to empathize.  Cody and I had a unique perspective bringing up the rear of the group.  Never before have I seen splashes of water on the ground where someone had sloshed their bucket too much and thought, “there’s a drink for someone.  There’s another.  And another.”  Every time I spilled my own water, I imagined having one less drink to offer the little ones I was coming home to.  Dan said that if a child spilled their bucket on the journey, they would go back to the water source.  A child.

Over the next 30 minutes, Cody went back and forth between walking and being carried.  It was quite clear the novelty had worn off and he was thinking about being done.  As we approached the steps where we had started two hours earlier, I asked him to walk the final stretch, carrying his own jug.  The group had already finished.  But as we walked up the steps, I felt a real sense of accomplishment.  I was proud of what we had done.

But then it sank in; for an African that did this daily, there wasn’t a sense of accomplishment but instead, duty.  This was their life and there would always be another walk.  Tomorrow will look a lot like today.

On our way home, we talked about what we had just experienced.  Cody asked me why the Africans had to walk to get their water every day and I told him because they didn’t have water in their villages.  He asked why they didn’t have water in their villages.  I said because they didn’t have the money.  He asked why we had the money to have water in our house.  I said something really vague.  He asked again.  I answered again.  He asked again and before I answered, I realized he was asking a different question than I was hearing.  He wasn’t asking questions about being born in the right place at the right time or having the opportunity to earn a decent wage.  He was asking why we had the money if they didn’t.  In other words, why wouldn’t we just give so they could have.  It seemed obvious to my five year old son that if we have more than they do, we should give until they have the same.

I had no answer.

At dinner, my wife was asking about our experience at the Water Walk.  When we were talking about the water being dirty, she asked Cody why they had to drink water that could make them sick, and he said something I can’t forget…that I hope I don’t forget.  He said the reason they have to drink dirty water is “because they have no choice.  That is the only water for them to drink.”

After dinner, I walked to the kitchen and filled my empty glass with a turn of the faucet.  It overflowed the glass into the sink below.  I literally walked five feet for cold, healthy water.

Something is terribly wrong here.

 

To learn more about Blood:Water Mission and how $1 can give 1 African water for 1 year, visit bloodwatermission.com.

Lunch is Fifth Period And There’s A Taser In The Desk [How We Change]

Shortly after moving to Virginia, it became clear that I was going to need to pick up an extra job in addition to the internship I was doing at the church there.  So I did what every single one of us said we would never do- I became a substitute teacher.  I say this because we all know how subs were treated when we were in school and to put ourselves in that same situation would be like wearing a tuna-flavored swimsuit into a shark tank.  I remember one incident in high school when a student with a watch that doubled as a remote control kept changing the video that our substitute had set up for us to watch.  As you might imagine, this drove the substitute crazy because they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the VCR.  But because I needed the money and Virginia has low credentials for substitutes, there I was, filling out paperwork at the school administration building.  A few short days later, I was called for my first assignment; three days of in-school suspension detail at a local high school.

I was fortunate enough to avoid in-school suspension when I was a student.  I had my share of detentions but never crossed the line worthy of spending the entire day in a solitary classroom.  As the principal walked me into the stark white room, he explained my responsibilities.  “Keep them in their seats.  Get them to do their school work.  Don’t hurt anyone or get hurt by anyone.  Oh, and lunch is fifth period.”  I thought it a bit out of line to say but I wondered how I was supposed to miraculously create diligent workhorses out of misfits who had just been kicked out of class.  Did he really expect to walk in at the end of the day and find us telling algebra riddles (“Because seven eight nine!”) and crafting haikus about our favorite elements of nature?  As far as I could tell, all we had managed to do is put them all together in a room where, with their powers combined, they could wreak havoc on the substitute teacher.

The first day was borderline torturous.  I sat at my desk at the front of the class (a truly strange experience if you never have before) and read a book I had thankfully brought along.  I would glance up from the page to give the allusion that I had total control of the room.  I was watching.  I didn’t know what I was going to do if things got out of hand, but you can believe I was watching.

Repeating this throughout the day, I began to realize something that I hadn’t expected.  These kids, as it turned out, were in fact just kids.  Most of them had never spent time in prison or had their face digitally blurred on an episode of COPS.  Behind the hardened exterior, they were a lot like the kids on the other side of these walls in the rooms with colorful posters and learning.

I realized another thing.  It became clear that most of these kids had already accepted this as their lot in life.  They knew very little was expected of them and that a seat would always be reserved for them in a solitary room somewhere.  They were expected to fail.  Worse yet, they expected to fail.  Were they in charge of their actions?  Sure.  But sometimes it helps to have someone in your corner that actually believes in you.  Someone who loves you enough to call you out from the place you’re in.  For most of them, however, they had crossed some invisible line where, not only was there nobody to believe in them, nobody was even surprised by their poor choices anymore.  They had gone too far.  This was now expected.

The question this experience leads me to is this- how do we change?  When we are made aware that there is something wrong in our life, how do we fix it?  Do we just wait it out by sitting in a stark white classroom somewhere and let the bad seed die of boredom?  Do we just try really hard and, if we fail again, go back to the start and try really really hard this time?  What will cause a person to see the error of their ways and change their course?

I think change is mostly relational.  Seriously.  Think about it.  If there is no one to believe in you, why in the world would you ever need to change?  Sure there are these great moments of self-realization when a person pulls themselves up out of the depths and makes great change because that’s what they knew they needed to do.  I would bet these are few and far between.  My guess would be that for every story like that, there are thousands of stories of failed New Year’s resolutions, defeating addictions and hopeless misery.

Sometimes it takes someone else to point something out for us to know it’s wrong.

It’s like the time I accidentally put on a Polo Skirt in the middle of Eddie Bauer.  I honestly thought it was just a really long shirt until I heard my brother-in-law saying “Umm Matt…you’re wearing a dress.”  In that moment, there was no mistaking something was wrong.  I’m sure I would have figured it out (or bought it), but it was sure nice to have someone there to point it out to me.

I don’t know about you, but I can only muster up so much motivation to change myself.  I am too good at justifying where I’m really at.  I have really become quite convincing when it comes to fooling myself into believing things are better than they are.  “You’re not that out of shape.”  “You weren’t that passive aggressive with them.”  “At least you’re still doing better than that guy.”

This kind of self-deception is difficult with the relationships in my life however.  I’m sure you would agree.  The best relationships in my life are the ones in which I have a real sense that the other person is “for me.”  They stand in my corner.  They love me enough to call me out of the place I’m in.  And when this kind of person does call me out, when they humbly yet boldly walk out on a limb with our relationship in hand, it is very hard to return the same.  They make me want to change.

Ultimately, they give us a better picture of ourselves.  And who doesn’t want that?

This is most certainly one of the characteristics of God that I appreciate the most.  Contrary to what is easy to believe, God does not ask us to come perfect.  Not even close.  But do not confuse that with complacency on his part to overlook the place we’re in.  You want to talk about walking out on a limb for the sake of the relationship.  His story tops all else.  And now, in Jesus, God stands in our corner to give us a better picture of ourselves.

I don’t know about you, but I sure like his picture a whole lot better.  And I love that he still thinks there is hope for me yet.  It’s enough to make me want to change.

Kill the Weeds or Kill the Garden [Anger]

WeedsWe have several flower gardens at our home.  In the right season, they produce some really extraordinary flowers that fill our yard with a beautiful array of colors.  My wife gets all the credit there.  I really don’t do much to help with them.  Well, I don’t step on them.  I guess that helps.  But as far as the planting and maintenance goes, she is in charge.  I’ve been known to mulch, but I do not weed.  I can’t stand it.  Seriously.  I think I would rather eat the weeds with a nice vinaigrette than remove them with that two-pronged thing.  It’s possible I may have been involved in some undisclosed childhood weed incident that my parents aren’t talking about yet.  I’m looking into it.

Regardless, with all gardens there are weeds.  I didn’t make up the rules but that’s the way it is.  As sure as death and taxes, there are weeds.  And contrary to popular belief, they don’t just go away.  I may not be a “botanist” or a “horticulturist” or any other kind of “ist” but I know enough to know that if I see a weed and don’t do anything about it, it’s not going away.  Most likely it will actually keep growing and be even bigger the next time I walk past and do nothing.  Over time, it sinks its roots down deep into the ground.  It may even bud some flowers.  After a while you just become accustomed to seeing it there.  Ignored long enough, it may just be the only thing left.

I would never describe myself as an angry person.  I am fairly quiet and when really bothered by something or someone, I am much more likely to internalize than to express my anger outwardly. Unless I’m driving.  That’s a whole other story.  I learned to drive in New Jersey.  My mom taught me the driving philosophy that “everyone else on the road is an idiot.”  Sorry.  She doesn’t specifically mean you.  That is unless you were the red Jeep Cherokee with Pennsylvania plates that cut me off earlier.  In that case you may take it personally.  But besides the boldness that comes with auto lock doors and a gas pedal, I really would be surprised if someone described me as “angry.”  A lot of us would agree.  Honestly though, I think it may be because our definition of anger is a bit off.

It’s easy to identify “the angry guy.”  He’s the one that is raising his voice above the rest, face bright red and shouting things that make no sense because the velocity and volume at which they are projecting from his mouth is greater than the velocity of reason and rationality travelling from the brain to the mouth.  We would be right to say this guy just “verbally exploded” on his victim.  It does not take a therapist to diagnose that this guy is angry.  He is.  Really angry.

But what about the guy that doesn’t turn red and spit verbal shards of glass?  What about people like me who, when angered, just take the offense deep within themselves and soak it in?  What about people like me who take in hurt so deeply that we must build walls to avoid getting hurt again?  While “angry guy” embarrassingly spews everything out, he probably feels much better and is a lot less angry when all is said and done.  But people like me though, the people who go deep with our anger, we don’t feel better.  We just wait it out.  Sometimes for a really long time.

Some of us are still waiting.

At the risk of sounding like a greeting card, I believe our hearts are like gardens.  I don’t think this is too far of a stretch because in one of his stories, Jesus described the heart as soil that a farmer is scattering seed upon.  Just like a garden, when the heart is right, it is extraordinarily beautiful.  Just like a garden, when the heart is right, people can’t help but notice and want to be around.  And, just like all gardens, weeds have a way of creeping in.  Something happens to you and you are angered…you become angry.  A weed begins to shoot from the ground.  It’s usually not hard to identify.  “Whoa…that’s not a flower.”  At this point, you are faced with a decision…”do I deal with it or just walk past, hoping it will go away on its own?”  This weed is threatening the beauty and growth of the garden.  In the same way that I really hate weeding, I even more hate dealing with anger.  It’s so much easier just to live with whatever or whoever angered me in the first place and pretend like it’s not there.  Seems easier at least.  I often decide just to let the weed grow.  Maybe it won’t be noticeable.  Heck, it may even flower and bring some attention.  What happens next though is anything but beautiful.  The weed begins to sink its roots down deep into the soil of the heart.  These are the roots of bitterness.  Someone once said that bitterness is the poison we drink hoping it kills someone else.  It is the voice that reminds us why we are angry in the first place and why we should stay angry.  The roots begin to tangle their way through the rest of the garden, shooting up throughout and choking out the flowers.  Soon, the weeds take a beautiful heart and turn it very ugly.  The heart is consumed.  The garden is ruined.

The writer of the book of Hebrews in Scripture says it this way; “Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.”

It seems like the choice is ours…kill the weeds or kill the garden.

From a distance, it seems like there really is no choice to be made – you have to kill the weeds.  That’s what makes sense and yet, a lot of times, we don’t.  Many of us don’t deal with it because we think it is something that can be left that way.  It can’t.  I’ve tried.  Several years back, I was forced to deal with a lot of anger and bitterness.  To put it mildly, I was a mess of weeds.  It’s amazing how self-deceiving we can be.  I thought I was okay.  I thought because I didn’t yell, I wasn’t angry.  But the weeds were there and showed up in small ways.  I trusted with caution.  I loved with hesitation.  I had the relational capacity of a skeptic, always waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I was just so guarded.  So…distant.  My heart was anything but beautiful to be around.

I remember the day I killed the weeds.

It was after hearing my teaching pastor talk about forgiveness.  He said that forgiveness is seeing the debt someone owes you and being willing to say “I’m not collecting.”  That hit me deeply because that was my deal- I was still waiting to collect.  I wasn’t plotting revenge through a series of menacing deeds but I held onto the debt the same.  I just wanted it to be even.  I wanted the scales of justice to balance out.  I wanted my name cleared.  I was waiting for a letter, an email, a phone call saying “I made a terrible mistake.  I was wrong.”  I would have settled for an “I’m sorry.”

In that moment, as those words rang both painful and hopeful in my ears, I made a decision- a decision that was as much simple as it felt impossible.  I stopped collecting.  Seriously.  I’m not just saying that.  In the midst of a bitterness that was choking the life right out of me, I stopped collecting.  I felt the weeds that had been coursing through my heart die right then and there.  I felt the cold roots of bitterness ripped from the earth.  Through strength that was not my own, I completely freed my debtors.  And that day, I myself was freed.

I no longer wait for that phone call.  Would it be nice?  Sure, but I don’t need it.  They don’t need it.  They’re already forgiven.

Am I forever delivered from the temptation to go deep with my anger?  Certainly not.  I still really struggle with this.  A lot.  But through this one victory, in the moment that I ripped the weeds from the hard soil, it revealed a freedom I had forgotten…a better way of living.  Simply put, things began to green up again.  Though by no means easy, this gives me hope that the hard work of forgiveness really is worth it.

Kill the weeds or kill the garden.

How Did I End Up In A Banker’s Box In My Brother’s Attic? [Belonging]

I found the box in my brother’s attic. I guess somewhere along the way I just assumed it found its way to a garbage can somewhere (possibly a rightful response to leaving my stuff at my brother’s house). I just wasn’t expecting to find it.  I’m not certain why I had gone up there in the first place. Regardless of the motive, I found it tucked back deep within the eave where the roof slopes rapidly into the floor.  It required a stealthy army crawl along the plywood flooring to avoid the roofing nails protruding through the sheathing above my head but the cost of dusty clothes seemed worth the price. There it was. A white bankers box with the handwritten scribble “My junk.” (How gentle I was in describing my possessions back then.) Though I had packed this box some eight years earlier, I still knew the gist of what I would find. “The gist” it turns out, is not preparation enough. As I swiftly removed the lid, it all hit me. No, not “contents under pressure.”  Nostalgia. Though this was most certainly not a memory box since memory boxes are for girls, it was filled to the brim with memories. Trophies from sports. Programs from various ceremonies and events. Newspaper clippings detailing accomplishments. Class pictures of friends.  A mug from prom etched with the phrase “I will remember you” along with a plastic crown (regal, I know). Countless other memories, some too embarrassing to mention, in this non-“memory box” box labeled “My junk.”

I don’t know what you remember about high school. I sometimes remember more than I would like to, thanks in part to boxes full of stuff I can’t bring myself to throw out. I remember freezing cold football games and long musical rehearsals, the solitude of study hall and the freedom of leaving campus for lunch with my friends.  I remember countless books and tests and A’s and F’s.  I remember having my heart broken.  I remember losing fifty dollars that I did not have gambling in a friend’s basement.  I remember face planting on a sopping wet golf course in the Poconos on Prom weekend.  I remember laughing really hard.  Sometimes for days.  I also remember hurting deeply, sometimes for longer.

For most of us I think the high school years are some of the most confusing. We want so much to be something, to be someone, that we attach ourselves to anything that promises identity. We join teams so we can be a part of something. We study hard so we can get into somewhere. We make friends so we can belong with someone. Belong. We want so desperately just to belong.  Mixed with this confusion was an overwhelming sense of fear.

What if I’m not a part of something?

 

What if I don’t get into somewhere?

 

What if I don’t belong anywhere?

I remember the fear of not belonging being enough to make an insecure high school student desperate, and desperation is an ugly beast.  That beast told me that true belonging would be fully realized if I would just be what everyone wanted me to be.  I wasn’t so sure, but the ugly beast assured me it knew best.  So I became like a Mr. Potato Head, adding to myself whatever would make me look more human among my peers, minus Mrs. Potato Head’s parts because there has to be a line somewhere.

It’s actually quite surprising what can happen for you when you let the ugly beast guide you.  At first you may actually be caught off guard by the words you hear coming out of your own mouth – because you don’t really feel that way about that person and you know mom would not approve of the use of that word, whether as an adjective or a noun.  It gets easier and easier, however, as people start moving towards you to see what you might say next, because you’re funny, and they like that.  They really like that.  And inch by inch, you have earned your way in.  You now belong.  Well someone belongs…but it’s not really you.

So, on that winter day deep within a frosty attic, a stark reality was brought to light.  All of these things I was, I no longer am. Sure there is something to be said about these experiences making me into who I am, but I don’t mean it like that.  I’m talking about the way in which a fearful and confused high school boy utterly clung to these things as proof that he was something.  I can no longer cling to them.  No one in my world cares if I was a lead role in a musical.  No one loves me because I was prom king.  I can no longer find belonging in that.  My world just doesn’t spin that way.  It’s like the college student that still hangs out in the high school parking lot in his letterman jacket.  At some point, the jacket must come off.  These things that I found myself in got lost somewhere along the way between the Christmas decorations and my dad’s collection of Popular Mechanic magazines.  In the midst of gold-sprayed plastic and yellowing papers with curled edges, I somehow ended up in a banker’s box in the attic.

And the irony of it all?  Some ten years later, it still feels really good to lift that lid sometimes.  Maybe not physically like the bankers box in the attic, but you know what I mean.  Someone starts talking about football or whatever your thing was and your mind begins thinking how to work in the fact that you were the starting QB for your high school football team or the first who-who for the varsity what-what (extra points if you could not only work it into the conversation, but lead them to ask more).  You catch a glimpse of interest and admiration in their tone and, honestly, it’s compelling.  So you tell a little more (and exaggerate just a little) and pretty soon, the warm rays of approval are shining down upon your skin.  And that’s when you feel it.  Belonging.  In that moment, you belong.

I mean to take nothing away from you.  I love remembering the past (half the reason I can’t throw the box away).  There is nothing like sitting around with old friends laughing about the time someone said something to someone at that somewhere.  It just brings a smile to my face thinking about it.  Certainly we can visit those moments, those days when life was different than it is now…but we cannot live there.  I guess what I’m saying is this- if I am not growing…if I am not letting new people and experiences into my life…if I am not setting the past aside and living in this present reality…and I mean really present…than I might as well be in a trophy case in the school gym or in a yearbook on the bookshelf or in a white banker’s box deep within my brother’s attic.

Spastic Colon [Insecurity]

ER sign1“If you could be known for anything, what would you want it to be?” I remember hearing that question several times in grade school, though it may have manifested itself in different ways, such as “what do you want to be when you grow up” or “what do you want people to say about you at your funeral?” (Which incidentally, that last one makes me think of that joke that ends with “Look! He’s breathing!” I don’t care who you are. That’s funny.) Regardless of how it’s phrased, the question is the same. What do you want to be known for? I am yet to meet a person that really doesn’t care about the answer to this question. “I hope that when my life ends I will have made not one single contribution to the human race, all the while living a life of obscurity and ambiguity, resulting in a silent passing in the night whose effect is only measured by the space it takes to write about it in the Obituary section.” We just don’t say this. I think the truth is, we really do care what we’re known for. We care deeply. We try hard. Really hard.

When I was ten, I had some stomach issues. I’m not talking about the “I ate too much and if I see another fast food commercial on TV it’s going to get ugly” type of stomach issues. I used to get these ridiculously terrible pains in my stomach that resulted in a visit to the Emergency Room. This happened multiple times but I only remember one of the incidents clearly. This particular night I woke up with some discomfort in the basket. The discomfort quickly escalated into a pain that can only be described as a cross between getting stabbed in the gullet with a Ginzu knife and someone parking their camper in your small intestine. It became clear that this was not going away, nor was I going to wait and see. I came to a conclusion; I needed to call in backup. I started down the hallway to my parent’s bedroom to wake someone up. I paused at the door. Entering my parent’s room was always an uncomfortable moment. Not necessarily because of that, but rather because their room was somewhat off limits and I never really understood why. I imagined it would be like the movies where someone opens a door and a blinding white light reveals a room ablaze with poker tables, a three ring circus, or a herd of galloping minotaurs. As I stood there outside the door, hearing no hooves and smelling no cotton candy, I proceeded to quietly turn the knob and open the door. I made my way through the dark past my dad, who was immoveable once asleep, to my mom’s side of the bed. Bending down in order to position my face several inches from hers, I whispered “Mom!” After my mom put her skin back on, she informed me it would be better if I would just “jiggle the knob” and enter the room loudly rather than sneaking up and scaring her half to death. This seemed logical enough, though it didn’t really answer the minotaur question.

“What is it, Matthew?”

My mom brought me in to the ER late that night. I was writhing in pain but doing my best to appear like it didn’t hurt that much but still hurt enough that I belong there. You don’t want to hoot and holler so that all the people in the waiting room begin whispering, trying to figure out what in the world could possibly be wrong, while all the small children bury their faces in mom or dad’s jacket sleeve from the sheer horror of the situation. On the other hand, you don’t want to stroll in as if you mistook the hospital for a mall while doing some light shopping before taking in a movie. It’s a sensitive balance really. After a short wait and a long clipboard, my mom and I approached the counter. I continued rehearsing just what I would say over and over again in my head. This is critical. You don’t want to leave with fewer parts than you came with.

“How can we help you”?

“Directions to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, please.” “Genie in a bottle with three, no four wishes!” “World peace and giant biceps.” There are many answers to such a question but I imagine she was speaking medically and so that is how I approached the question. Here was the problem in that moment. Talking with the nurse next to mine was another person in line who was one step ahead of me in explaining why he was there. Correction: he was accompanied by a police officer who was so kind as to describe for this patient why he was visiting the ER that night. The patient was a young white male. I don’t know how old he was but I assumed he was in his late teens, as he had facial hair that I at ten and my brother at thirteen didn’t. He was wearing baggy clothes and a bandana on his head. Just below the bandana was a large gauze pad he was holding tightly to his forehead. His face had various other scrapes and cuts. I remember hearing the police officer describe the details of the “gang fight” this upstanding young man had been a part of. It was enough to make an already burning stomach queasy. The nurse then proceeded to ask him a long list of seemingly unnecessary questions. Now I’ve never been in a gang fight (it’s on the bucket list), but I’m pretty sure that the date of the last measles vaccination is irrelevant. That is, unless the opposing gang was birthed under the banner of spreading measles throughout the entire tri-state region. In that case a measles vaccination would be very appropriate. After the nurse was finished gathering information (he’s a Capricorn and enjoys long walks on the beach), it was gang fight boy’s turn to share. In his account of the incident, he mentioned getting hit in the head with a lead pipe, hence the gauze pad and steady direct pressure. Man, a lead pipe to the head. I’m sure that hurt like the Dickens, but what a story!

“How can we help you?”

This was directed at me. It was my turn to reveal my ailment…my “battle scar.” Suddenly my pre-rehearsed story just sounded lame. To make matters worse, as gang fight boy awaited further instructions, he was now turned toward me. All of the sudden, I just wanted to go home. I didn’t care that my stomach hurt. I didn’t care that my mom had to recount our family’s medical history back to the early 19th century in order for me to be seen by a nurse. I just wanted go back to bed in hopes I could sleep it off. I didn’t want to stand there and declare out loud “My mommy brought me here because my tum tum is ouchy ouchy!”

I didn’t want the handcuffs or throbbing skull…but I sure wanted the lead pipe.

I don’t remember clearly how the rest played out. I do, however, remember being sent home with a diagnosis of “spastic colon.” Which I believe is cause for question…how did the word “spastic” ever come out of the medical community as a part of an official diagnosis? What are they even trying to say? I picture a colon hopped up on Red Bull that won’t stop babbling about the time it ran into the small intestine in a Wal-Mart in Florida. Sorry. That made no sense whatsoever. Colons would never vacation in Florida.

Anyhow, I can’t help but wonder, why was it so difficult for me to just admit what was really going on? I had issues. Who cares? Truth be told, I care. I care deeply. I try hard. Really hard. And I would be willing to guess I’m not the only one. Somehow I think we believe that all of the things we don’t like about ourselves, the things we fear others stumbling upon, the very things that hold us back, that these are what we will be known for. I am fairly certain “He had a spastic colon” will not be written in my obituary, but I still protected that sensitive information like a manila folder in a spy movie. For some reason in that moment in that hospital, I feared the rejection of a complete stranger who I would never share a single exchange of words with. Why? Because that is what insecurity does in us. We feel if this or that were to ever get out and come into the light, we would be exposed for what we truly are. And, when what we truly are is finally known, most certainly there is no one that could like us, dare love us. So we let others skim the surface, revealing just enough to make them like us but not enough to risk they won’t. We are the little boy in the shallow end convincing ourselves that the deep end is not worth the possibility of failing the swim test and looking stupid in front of the entire watching world. So we splash around in chest-high water, with the glimmer of the diving board in full view. We give in to our fears, letting them tell us who we are, who we will be, what we have become, all the while ignoring the one legitimate fear living among us…the fear of never being.