Cutting Grass in the Cemetery

Who decided you were good enough to be cutting grass in the cemetery? And who decided you were bad enough to be in prison? All it really takes is the unanimous decision of twelve of the living and any one of us could be holding the weed eater. 

And what does is feel like to be in an outside that is not barb wired, but still among the dead? To labor like a free man and wake up in a locked closet? All it really takes is a bad decision, a choice, a friend who robs the Taco Bell while you sit idly in the car. 

I see your head turn as I drive by, air conditioner on, radio low. Do you see me or see through me? Can you allow yourself to think about it without diving face first into the freshly dug grave? All it really takes is one step in the wrong direction. 

Buy Their Drinks: Notes to My Eighteen Year-Old Self

You are not terribly clever, although you may one day be. Today is not that day, so enjoy being this age.

No one cares what you think about anything, unless you agree with them, and then you are clever. 

Safety is a lie we tell ourselves to keep our blood pressure low. You are not safe and neither is anyone else. 

She is not worth your time and you are not worth hers. Work on being alone until you’re not. 

Over the next eighteen years the things you believe will fall apart, rebuild, and fall apart again. 

The sooner you become comfortable with this, the less of an asshole you’ll be. You don’t have a truth franchise. 

The list of reasons to drive off a bridge will only grow longer if that’s all you write down. 

Once you’ve lived twice as long as you already have, you’ll be glad you didn’t give up. 

If you’re lucky, a few other people will be glad you didn’t either. These people are good. Buy their drinks. 

This I (Don’t) Know

I don’t know much of anything. There are certainly some things I believe, and some things I feel, but not a whole lot that I can claim to know. Without question there are things that I experience, and when that experience is consistently observed, then that may be as good as knowing gets for me. I’m simultaneously jealous and suspicious of people who claim to know a lot of things that I think are unknowable. I think they’ve unintentionally mixed up knowledge with belief, and that’s easy to do. We use those words almost interchangeably, but they are not the same. 

Getting comfortable with not knowing much is tricky. I’m walking around with access to all of the world’s information in my pocket. And at least half the time I’m using that device to read Deadspin or browse Instagram. It’s not that those activities are necessarily stupid, but maybe it’s a little bit like asking the librarian if they have any comic books. All the information I could ask for is at my fingertips and, therefore, it’s easier to take for granted. We all do it. 

Here’s the deal, though: my monkey brain likes certainty. Believing that I know something – perhaps especially if I believe I know something that not everyone else knows – is comforting and empowering. Admitting that I don’t know almost feels like weakness. Here’s a example: what happens when I die? If you’d asked me that in the first thirty years of my life I would have known the answer. Now I don’t have a clue. Not a damn clue. I’ll either figure it out one day or I won’t. I don’t have much control over it now. I’m familiar with a lot of the constructs. I’ve heard what quite a few people think. But me? Yeah…I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone else knows either. We should all be okay with that. 

Being a parent to three inquisitive kids makes not knowing a real pain in the ass sometimes. I want to know, either for their sakes or for my own ego, but neither of those motivations is entirely helpful. I’m more inclined to think they’re better served – now and in the future – by hearing their dad confess to simply not knowing rather than feeding them a line that will eventually crumble. And by saying those words, “I don’t know,” we can start a discussion. By doing that I haven’t just dumped a bunch of my ideas on them, I’ve invited them into the conversation. And in that conversation, if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll stumble into a few things we can know. Like life can be hard sometimes. Like we belong to one another. And like right now, this moment, is all we have and it’ll be gone before we know it. 

The Hearse Graveyard

Driving by you know you have to go back. Go back on a Saturday when the people who work there are gone. 

Slip into the parking lot as casually as you can. You can always say you were lost, like a child. 

Headlights busted by rowdy youth. Rowdy youth whose great-greats rode in the back. 

Tires bald then brittle. Then brittle creeps up the doors and windows, the hood and roof. 

There was a day when they shined. They shined and carried the brittle, bald departed one last time. 

Rides of dignity with the left behind dressed in jet black. Jet black like the paint long since faded. 

But who buries the cars that buried the people? The people that built the cars are dead.

A Celtic Vow of Friendship 

I don’t know the history of this vow, when it was first spoken or written down, but it has the distinct ring of truth. Liz Gilbert recently shared some of these words while interviewing Rob Bell, and I was immediately struck by the idea of not holding on to a cherished or preferred outcome. How often do I do that? Or worse, how often do I try to influence the outcome to fit my agenda? We can imagine what letting go of that would look like, and it’s equal parts terrifying and freeing. The piece of me that’s terrified is the one that likes control way too much. The rest of me realizes that it would actually create more peace, both for me and the people I call friends. One way chokes the life and the other gives life space to breathe. Anyway, these six lines say it better than I can. Enjoy this. 

I honor your path. 

I bring an unprotected heart to our meeting place. 

I drink from your well. 

I hold no cherished outcome. 

I will not negotiate by withholding. 

I am not subject to disappointment. 

On Community

My dear friend Courtney and I were discussing community today, and by discussing I mean texting, and with nearly 2,000 miles between us while we did. The irony was completely lost on me until I sat down to write tonight. Maybe that’s what it looks like in 2016, but – as much as I enjoy our iMessage back-and-forths – I’d like to believe we were made for something more. 

I don’t know what community looks like for anyone else, or even me to some degree, but I’m pretty sure I have an idea how it feels. There isn’t just the freedom to be my authentic self, there’s the expectation. Because if everyone is bringing the grab bag that is their life to the table and I’m consistently projecting an image of something greater (or even different) than who I really am, community is never going to exist for me. It’s also going to damn near ruin it for the people trying to live in relationship with me. Community is a team sport. Obviously this act alone is going to make some people very uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable for the majority of my life. It sometimes still makes me uncomfortable. The pre-packaged, mile wide and inch deep version has much greater appeal. It always will. Not everyone is going to love the authentic you, or me, or us. But some people, maybe just a few people, will, and the things we give up for the sake of authenticity are made up for in what we get back from being loved for who we actually are. 

A lot of us got taught from an early age that image was something to protect. Let people see the best you whether or not it’s the real you. As someone born, raised, and still residing in the American south, that was and is as much a part of the social fabric as anything else. Of course, it’s never put that bluntly, but it may as well be. The unintended consequence is people who, quite often, behave differently depending on who, what, when, and where. Which begs the question: which one is the true me? And if I never figure that out, will life become an increasingly tiring game of Win, Lose or Draw wherein I’m constantly having an impossible time of communicating what’s really inside me to people who should know me so much better? I think the answer to that question is yes. 

Here’s what I don’t know, and am hopefully not alone in: how do I create community when it – for whatever reason – falls apart? That’s the thing Court and I kicked around today. Neither of us had any answers. We’ve both experienced community, and then life happened and brought with it three divorces, some moves in state and out of state, and distance that made it impossible to share a meal or a beer or a kayak trip down the river like we had so easily before. The community still exists, but not in the same form as before. And what we’ve both realized is that the proximity to one another’s lives, and the experience of sharing all of ourselves with a small group of trusted friends is life-giving and, as Courtney put it, grace-filled. What that looks like now, and in the future, has yet to be seen. 

Perspective 

There are some songs that resonate so deeply with such a wide variety of artists (think the Byrds to the Ramones), that they all want to sing it. I think that’s the case with the Bob Dylan tune “My Back Pages.” And I don’t think it’s the weirdly specific and overly cryptic, as only Dylan can be, verses that vie for the listener’s attention. Not at all. It’s that beautiful refrain: “ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Hell yes, Bob Dylan. That’s the kind of lyric that’ll get stuck in your throat. 

What a beautiful and terrifying thing perspective is. It can feel like your very footing is being washed away when it starts to shift, but – at least in my experience – once you give into the mudslide, things have a way of coming together at just the right time. And not to lock in place again as some new and improved rule book for life, but so that future shifts in how you and I see the world aren’t so jarring. 

I’m fearful of the person who still sees the world as they’ve always seen it, who views themself and their neighbor through whatever lens they were born with and makes no effort to do otherwise. And I’m equally fearful of becoming that person myself. Who am I, at 36, to think I’ve somehow figured it all out? And even if that was possible, why would I want to? What purpose would the rest of life have? Telling other people to get their shit together and be like me would get old quickly. One does not get invited to too many parties like that, and for good reason. 

I was so old at twelve. It was 1992 and I was interested in politics (this can be detrimental to your access to parties as well). It was 1992, I was interested in politics, and I was a member of an evangelical Christian family. What a time to be alive. I read and listened to Rush Limbaugh. I got familiar with campaign literature. I did not like Bill Clinton at all. Conspiracy theories had weight in my life. I had this stuff figured out. It was us and it was them. What else mattered? As it turns out, quite a bit actually. 

Bill Clinton was in the last two years of his second term by the time I left for college, and I had become a big fan. The man was a hell of a president, a skilled communicator, and a gifted politician. My perspective had changed, along with my landscape. And it’s kept on evolving, and without being restricted to how I vote. Every time that shift occurs, sometimes willingly and other times less so, there’s an opportunity to see the universe a little more clearly. If I allow myself, I may just be able to understand me and my damn neighbor a little better. And after walking that proverbial mile in their shoes a funny thing happens: the experience becomes shared, the joy and pain becomes real, those shoes become mine. Then what I once believed, once used to label or define people, once mistook as the end instead of the means, all becomes a memory and a lesson. 

I’m younger than that now. 

Going Home

There were three years of my life when going home actually felt like something important. It was my first three years years of college, and going home often meant a holiday or a break. It felt special. The summer before my senior year my mom died of cancer, and going home felt impossible and like something I wanted to avoid. So I did. And then, a year after college, I got married and effectively created my own home. It wasn’t my only reason for marriage, but now, after thirteen years, three kids, and a divorce, I can see that it was part of my motivation. In the hierarchy of motivations it wasn’t the best or the worst one. But it played a part. At 23 I couldn’t see that, and even if someone had spoken that truth to me then, I can’t imagine I would have listened. 

I’m listening now, or at least trying to. To people – some I know and others I don’t – much wiser than me. Some of them have written books and others provide little encounters with truth while ringing up my groceries. If we’re lucky we get to experience more than one perspective as we pass through this life. It’s difficult to embrace the perspective of “parent without primary physical custody who lives two hours away” as a lucky one, but what other choice do I have? Thich Nhat Hanh, the brilliant Zen Buddhist, writes that “the first step in the art of transforming suffering is to come home to our suffering and recognize it.” Come home? To suffering? There aren’t a lot of people signing up for this trip.

There’s nothing worse than going home after I’ve dropped my kids off at their mom’s house. My youngest cries when I hug him goodbye, and I cry when I get in the car. And then I drive for two hours and walk into a quiet, empty house. A house where, just hours earlier, it was the center of activity, of trampoline jumping, homework finishing, guitar playing, and Lego building. And it feels like a punch in the gut. And I fucking hate it. And it’s necessary whether I want to admit it or not. Because what I’m learning is that I have to own this particularly painful perspective in order to either transform it or be transformed by it. Maybe both. 

Full Disclosure

Typically the hook isn’t so prominently displayed. The give away not so obvious. And that’s how advertisers get us. The message, the product, the pitch, it sounds so good. Too good, even. But we’re sucked in quickly because – at the end of the day – we’re all good consumers. Our disappointment isn’t fully realized until the thing we bought doesn’t work, look, taste, or feel like they said it would. It so often happens this way that I find myself surprised when an item is as good as advertised. I’m used to being ripped off. And this is so much a part of our culture that I think it’s become a part of who we are. More to the point, it’s become a part of who I am. 

I don’t know when it happens, or if a switch is flipped after so many infomercials, but somewhere in the in between we learn to market ourselves. We pitch our value to new people we’d like to be friends with. We market ourselves to prospective mates based on whatever criteria we think they have, then reel them in. We itemize our list of accomplishments for employers with hopes of nailing the interview and landing the dream job. And none of these things is intrinsically bad. The problem is that in every scenario exists the potential for some serious false advertising. 

It’s like this: if the thought of having kids causes you to have a panic attack, launching into your best Mr. Mom impersonation on the first date is – at a minimum – insincere. You’re the chamois towel that can absorb a five gallon bucket of water. If you’re running for elected office and you weren’t offered a full scholarship to West Point, claiming that you were is going to backfire. You’re the vacuum cleaner that can pick up a bowling ball. Or the knife that can cut through Coke cans and still peel tomatoes. It all seems wonderful at first, but it just doesn’t hold up. 

Full disclosure: I’ve done this. Not these specific examples, necessarily, but I have been the chamois towel, the vacuum, and the knife. I have purposefully tried to appear better than I am. I want to seem confident, competent, and in control. Often I am none of these things. Frequently I am none of these things simultaneously. And eventually this becomes evident to everyone involved. Whatever shine was there to begin with fades and what’s left is the me that I was afraid couldn’t cut it or didn’t believe was good enough. What I’ve been learning, however, is that there’s more to be gained by owning who I am right from the start – and really owning it, not with false modesty but with gut-wrenching honesty – than in building a persona or playing a dangerous game of fake it ’til you make it. Making it never happens like that. That’s the truly bad news. 

Here’s the sort-of bad news: not everyone is cool with this kind of full disclosure. It makes people uncomfortable. Hell, it makes me uncomfortable. But I’m discovering that in the awkwardness of owning my own brokeness there’s a peace that I’m not familiar with. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect. It’s actually better than advertised. 

If You Don’t Expect Too Much

It was the Gin Blossoms, and they were right. If you don’t expect too much from me, they sang, you might not be let down. That’s how I feel about this website. There’s a chance that in a years time I’ll post a long, drawn-out apology for everything I’ve written and try earnestly to explain that I don’t believe any of that stuff anymore. Then I’ll re-direct the address to Netflix and tell you that your time is better spent binge-watching the first six seasons of The League. Or I won’t do that at all. Maybe it will actually turn into a little rag-tag outpost for refilling our collectively empty tanks. The kind of place where we can pull in on fumes, or push our broken down souls into, for the chance to admit out loud that, once in a while, everything goes to shit at the same time. That’s what I hope, at least. And I have a hunch that I’m not alone. The feelings say otherwise, because we’ve been bought and sold for so long that we’ve convinced ourselves that no one else is dealing with what we are. So we smile, play whatever socially-constructed game we’re a part of, and think things will get better on their own. Spoiler alert: they don’t, and they aren’t going to. These wooden nickels don’t have any value. They’re worthless.

So let’s give this a go. I don’t know what will happen. Nothing right now. But if you read something that gets stuck in your throat – that sweet spot halfway between heart and mind – maybe we can talk about it. And by talking about it maybe we can be encouraged. And if so, there’s at least a chance that we can encourage someone else. Someone who has a wallet full of splintery coins and an empty heart. Wildly idealistic? Without question. There’s really only one way to know for sure.