Frenetic Pace

I’m writing this at the end of a long weekend, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the U.S. We’ve returned from a dinner marking the first Sunday of Advent. It was the first social event that I’ve gone out for since Thanksgiving day.

I’ve worked really hard to avoid busyness (yes, I know that’s only sort-of a word) since I finished grad school. Were I to go back through my posts from that time in my life, I’m sure that I complained about it way too often (if you were reading then and find yourself in vigorous agreement, I beg your forgiveness for putting up with that). I always thought that my time would be better spent writing than going back out after I was in for the evening. I felt that the hectic social calendars of many of my friends were a sort of sound and fury signifying nothing.

For the last few weeks, though, my evenings and weekends were filled. Having friends over for dinner, with all of the associated hustle and bustle involved, activities at our faith community, getting ready for Thanksgiving…all of these things made me feel alive in a way, as though I was getting to experience something that I normally avoided with such determination that the avoidance had become a habit of sorts.

Which was actually exactly what I had been doing.

Yet, in the midst of all of that, one evening I was getting our youngest ready for bed and was digging in her closet for pajamas, when I saw a backpack hanging there. Not just any backpack, mind you. This was what Karen and I affectionately referred to as “the essentials bag.” I remembered the Saturday afternoon in Raleigh when Karen and I picked it out.

You see, with both girls, we had one of these bags. It’s a specially outfitted backpack for outings with a baby. It’s neatly compartmentalized to carry changing gear, bottles, changes of clothes, etc. All of the essentials of which you will find yourself in need during any given excursion. The bag we had for our oldest fell apart from use, and we purchased a new one for the second baby years later. In retrospect, this was really more for me than for Karen. Somehow, having the requisite equipment helped me feel that I might be able to do the job of parenting, a job for which I have always found myself lacking in aptitude.

I remember each detail about that period in our oldest’s life. I remember the feeding and diaper routines, the morning rituals, the favorite toys. I remember as she progressed through the levels of her Pack N’ Play until she was too big for it altogether, when we had to buy her “big girl bed.” I remember reading the bed-time stories, checking out favorite books from the library over and over again until we eventually purchased copies because they were so beloved.

I don’t remember these details about our youngest. They’ve gone by so quickly. I was too busy to notice.

I’ll never be able to get that back.

So, as alive as this busy season has made me feel, or as thrilling as it was to be self-employed and successful in a new vocation, I need to find some sort of balance.

Then it occurs to me, however, that there are different types of busyness.

Because, as Karen and I were discussing the night that I write this about how much cooking and fun has been had over the last few days, I have felt it to be a slowing down. I found a rhythm outside of checking emails and consulting calendars. Cleaning up from holiday cooking, taking out the recycling…there’s something healing in the simplicity of these activities. Something relaxing. Something holy. Somehow, with all of those activities, the time multiplied, and I was still able to give piggy-back rides through the living room, read bed-time stories, and make breakfast.

Somehow.

And, as the weekend draws to a close, I approach the screen again with wariness.

Observing the Change of Seasons

Fall Leaves in New EnglandThere’s something comforting about the change of seasons. As we progress from one stage of the year to another, there’s a innate sense that this part of our journey, a few steps that we’ve measured in linear time, is coming to a close. There’s a feeling of completeness. I imagine that God designed it this way for a reason.

Summer vacations are a wonderful respite from the insane pace that marks our professional lives, but removing the air conditioning units from the windows is sort of a seasonal rite of passage in New England. Homes are rarely built with central air here because it’s only needed for about six weeks out of the year, so window units go in at the end of spring and come out at the end of the summer.

As we arrive at the end of fall, I clean the grill for the season as the evenings become too cool to cook out. By the end of October I’ve cleared our deck and stored the outside furniture away from the inches of snow that will eventually cover where it once sat. I also did this in when we lived in the South, although I often wondered if there was any point. In the South, everything is continuous, climate controlled. The months blend together, lose their variety. A blandness is pervasive as weeks and months and seasons pass seamlessly into one another with little noticeable difference. In New England, even during the dreaded winters that sometimes seem to last forever and threaten to extinguish the lives of those of us crazy enough to live here, there is a sense that things are as they should be. Air conditioners and deck furniture have given way to snow-blowers. Each season has it’s tool.

As I write this, dusk is falling earlier, and the trees surround us with shades of gold and red. Leaves are painting designs on the pavement, and the nights (and now days, as well) are crisp. Pumpkins adorn stoops. It is time for apple crisp and cider.

And, despite the senselessness, and occasionally the tragedy, of the world around us, seeing this somehow means that all is well.

 

Sharing Perspectives

Picture of a seagull at the ocean.Karen and the girls were recently out of town for a week. When these sorts of trips occur, because I’m an introvert, I look very forward to the uninterrupted quiet time in the evenings. Usually, it’s quite the utopia for about the first two days, after which I find myself missing the controlled chaos that accompanies having children.

While she didn’t show the signs early, our youngest has turned out to be another Daddy’s girl. She can barely control her excitement as she rushes to greet me if I’ve been gone for even an hour. This is actually nice timing, because our oldest has entered a phase where she’s stand-offish about that sort of thing, so at least there’s balance. On this last trip, our youngest would wake from her afternoon nap every day, find Karen’s phone and bring it to her, insisting that she wanted to talk to Daddy. As Karen was quite busy with the purpose of the trip, she would start the FaceTime call and let our youngest carry the phone around for a bit to talk to me.

Two things struck me about these conversations. The first was that her end of the discussions consisted entirely of “Hi, Daddy” with various inflections for 30 minutes. The second was that, as she toddled around other people in the room, under tables and around chairs and other obstacles that I would otherwise not even notice, occasionally holding the phone so that the camera pointed forward, I had the opportunity to see the world from her perspective. She was sharing her point of view with me, without even realizing the extent to which she was doing so. She was allowing me to engage in her world even as she tried to engage in mine. She hugged the phone at the end of one of these conversations, the closest that she could get that day to her daddy across the miles of distance between us.


Last week was our family vacation for the summer. One afternoon we were walking along a rocky coastline in New Hampshire, and Karen took our oldest to look for shells. I sat with our youngest, now in the developmental stage in which her words are just beginning to form, and she grasped two of my fingers in her small hand as we watched the waves break on the rocks for a few moments. She took in the majestic scene before her with wide eyes, soaking in every detail. “Birdie,” she pointed out as the seagulls flew overhead.

“That’s the ocean!” she finally exclaimed, missing the occasional consonant.

There was no distance between us in the moment, and we were sharing the same experience, the same perspective, as it occurred, the first such moment that I can recall.

We did a lot of fun and relaxing things that week, but in that moment, my daughter and I were not sharing our worlds with each other. We were inhabiting the same one, together. That moment was priceless beyond words.

The Nature of a Reluctant Hero

Nature of a Reluctant Hero. Image used under Creative Commons.A few years ago (has it really been that long?), I spent a lot of time putting thoughts together here on the nature of a hero. Those conclusions still spring to mind for me occasionally, and, given some recent events in my life coinciding with just finishing a Green Lantern novel that I picked up on vacation last summer, it came to the forefront again.

The novel isn’t the best I’ve read, but O’Neil does, by the end, give us a compelling (though somewhat non-canonical) telling of Kyle Rayner’s beginnings as Green Lantern. The story begins slowly, but the author is giving us a very important point by the end.

In the DC Universe (pre-New 52), Kyle Rayner was the second Green Lantern on earth. He is given the power ring by the last surviving Guardian after the original Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, goes crazy and retires when he is unable to save his home city from destruction. The Guardians have vanished, and Rayner, a struggling graphic artist with little drive or ambition for anything in particular finds himself, without explanation or instruction, in possession of what is arguably the greatest source of power on the planet. Rayner now wears the mantle of one of the most formidable heroes in the DC Universe.

You can see where this gets interesting.

And, while it moves slowly in places, O’Neil does well at extensively relating Rayner’s internal dialogue as he struggles to first understand his power, and then to decide if he actually wants anything to do with it. The short answer is that he does not. Whatever aspirations he might have held, none of them included placing others’ good before his own, rushing into danger in order to protect others. This just isn’t him, not a position in which he has ever envisioned himself. Yet, now he is confronted with something bigger than himself, something outside of himself.

Quite literally bigger in this story. When the rest of the Justice League vanishes, he is the only one left save reality from destruction. As the story progresses, Rayner makes numerous choices to move beyond himself, to act sacrificially to save others, others who aren’t always even human. He doesn’t begin a hero, but becomes heroic in how he handles the responsibility that is thrust on him.

The author’s moment of brilliance, I think, in this novel comes just before Rayner embarks into the final epic conflict, when he tells the Guardian who gave him the ring:

“I’m a hero because you gave me something heroic to do.”

When I’ve talked before about the nature of a hero, I’ve frequently arrived at the conclusion that there is a decision point in many of these stories. Given a set of circumstances, how a character handles a choice determines whether or not that character becomes a hero or becomes a villain. When Rayner is confronted with a huge responsibility, he doesn’t run away, but chooses to embrace it, despite the fact that he does so clumsily and against his own instincts.

This is one of the most accessible aspects of the nature of a hero because it is something that we all face at some point. While we will likely experience this in a small way, we will be confronted with a responsibility that we didn’t choose and that we don’t want. Our reaction speaks to our choice to become either a hero or a villain in our own story. The reaction is never easy, the choice never without repercussions. It is always, however, necessary.

The inspiration to make the heroic choice is why these characters give us so much.

Image attribution: JD Hancock under Creative Commons.

Data-Driven Mystery

There’s a phrase…I’m certain that you’ve heard it…that says something to the effect that magic is simply science that we don’t yet understand. The underlying premise of this statement is that we can explain everything if we try hard enough, if we think logically enough. This is a premise that leaves no room for the unknown, that makes failure to understand something wrong, perhaps even difficult to forgive.

I’ve been really drawn to the fact that Marvel’s on-screen adventures, both large and small, have began to explore paranormal characters of late, largely because these characters are in such stark (pun only slightly intended) contrast to the technology-driven and scientifically altered characters that have dominated the broader audience’s exposure to these heroes to date. Part of the reason for my affinity toward these paranormal adventurers is that they are a metaphor for something beyond the physical, a deeper part of our existence that is outside of what we can measure, touch and feel, something so far removed from my profession.

As Lewis told us, the physical part of our world is only a part of the whole, and so much less real in so many ways than the spiritual.

When I was young (read: I’m totally still this way), I used to love post-apocalyptic stories in which science and magic co-existed in the world that had emerged from the ruins (think the world of Thundarr the Barbarian, as an off-the-cuff example), because they symbolize the truth that the physical and the spiritual work together, complement one another. Without either, humanity doesn’t work. To abandon one, or to minimize one in favor of the other, is to set the stage for us to be less than intended. As much as I love my toys, I’m reaching the conclusion that technology ultimately leaves us empty, because it focuses exclusively on the realm of the physical. Technology is our own finite creation. We’ve built it, we can know everything about it. Technology leaves us in the role of God, but pre-supposes that we are gods over a tiny kingdom that appears to us so much larger than it actually is.

Working in technology is creative, don’t get me wrong…as creative as any of my other pursuits. I get to write code that builds some really cool things. Technology, however, takes a poor view of mystery, because mystery implies something that we do not understand. Software can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be released with things that we don’t understand, so not understanding is weakness. If mystery remains in a project, then it is removed and replaced with a different approach that does not contain mystery. Technology is physical, and not only can it be quantified and measured, but must be. The spiritual cannot be. It must leave room for mystery.

Mystery, in technology, cannot be permitted to exist. Interestingly, we view technology as an extension of our lives, lives in which we thus have a perceived need to measure and quantify everything. We don’t want to permit mystery anywhere else, then, either.

Yet mystery is beautiful, because it helps us to understand the limits of our own lives. The fact that our control is illusion, that we are not, in fact, gods.

Because when we understand that, we begin to recognize that there is something so much bigger than us, something beyond our physical world, something that we cannot measure. What we don’t know is as beautiful as what we know, because what we don’t know leaves room for belief.

And belief leaves room for faith.

And faith leaves room for us all to be so much more compassionate, understanding, and…human…than we currently seem to be. I’m sure we can find data support that.