Strength and Honor

A colleague asked what  I was doing over the Memorial Day weekend,and  I replied, “Remembering Andrew.” It wasn’t the cookout/pool/barbecue answer she expected but what could I say?

I always think of him as a laughing boy. I remember his giggles as he played with the family dog, a white fluff-ball named Nicky, in honor of his having been a Christmas present. When his parents had other families over for dinner or a cookout, I remember the way Andrew was kind to the younger children, including them in his play, being the perfect host. I remember New Year’s eve of his senior year of high school. His parents had a few folks over to celebrate and wound up calling Andrew for instructions on how to operate their new surround sound. “Dad,” Andrew said, “I’m not going to be around here forever to help you with this. You’ve got to learn to do it on your own.”

What he meant, of course, was that he would all too soon be leaving for basic training. He’d joined the Marines. Like a lot of boys his age, he had no idea of what he wanted to do with his life. Unlike many of them, he didn’t want to waste time and money in college while he tried to find out. He both wanted and needed to refine himself and find himself against the hardest challenge imaginable. He became a Marine.

His first time back to church after basic all the girls (and a few of the older women) swooned over him in his dress blues. The first time back in church after his first tour he shared a brief and deeply thoughtful reflection on his experience and we gave him a standing ovation born both of pride and relief. He’d had a belly full of taking life. When he got back for good he was thinking of becoming an EMT or firefighter.

The last time I saw Andrew he was standing in his kitchen. He showed me a huge Marine tattoo covering one shoulder. He generally rolled his eyes at what he called, “the oo-rah stuff,”  but he told me he’d gotten the tattoo so that in years to come, he could prove that he was a Marine.

Everyone knows that now. Every one will know that forever. His name is inscribed on a monument at Camp Lejeune. Andrew was killed by an IED in Iraq on October 20, 2005.

He is forever 21.

As a child I used to look through my parents’ high school yearbooks and was always struck by the list of names on a page, known collectively as the boys who didn’t come home. Andrew’s story is unique and yet it is also a story shared by hundreds of thousands of families who will forever have a hole in their midst… and by a world cheated of so many gifts that young men and women could have offered.

Remember this day in whatever way you will but if you can, spare a moment to say  a prayer for those who have fallen and those who remain.



A Worthless Walk

As I ran around the track this morning  I was joined by a class of kids from the high school up the hill. At least, that’s what  I assumed they were. They shuffled and strolled around the track while their teacher stood silently at one end, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were ducking behind the tennis courts to take a short cut.  I am normally so supportive of anyone moving in any way, but I have to tell you: the day the doctor first let me walk around that track after five months of being non-weightbearing,  I walked faster than most of those kids.

Maybe because it was nearly the end of May but the teacher seemed to be checked out. There were no shouts of encouragement, no words of prodding. Just silent waiting. It was all I could not to revert to coach mode and start yelling at them myself.

As I watched them endure the torture of a lap or two around the track, I felt very sad. I felt sad for a group of kids who were so oblivious to such a fine morning and who were so disconnected from their bodies. But mainly I felt sad because they didn’t have anyone to push them to do better. They didn’t have it on the track. I wondered if they had it anywhere.  I knew what my own  running coaches and mentors meant to me. Three and a half years ago I could barely shuffle around the track. Last Saturday I ran ten miles. Between there and here I had people who pushed me to keep going, to take one more step, to do the things that my mind was convinced was impossible.

The late Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser was found of using the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Our chief want in life is someone who shall make us do what we can.” We all need people in our lives who will push us. If we have been open to growing as we grow up, we internalize those people. Eventually we are able to find inside our own selves that voice, that push, that word of encouragement.

Recently  I saw a tweet from the “life is good” folks: “You can give up, give in or give it all you’ve got.” We all need that part of ourselves that’s able to say, “Come on – give it all you’ve got.”

I was sad because those kids wasted their walk this morning. And I was sad because I didn’t know how many of them would also waste their walk through this life, shining less brightly than they might have done, doing less than they could have done, being less than they were created to be.

What about you?

Throwing Away the Keys

I threw away my keys yesterday.

I’m not talking about the time where I threw away a bag of garbage and heard the unsettling clink of my office keys also hitting the dumpster. (Luckily they landed on top of a bag of trash and  I was able to rescue them with a coat hanger.)

No, I’m talking about clearly and with forethought throwing a set of keys into the

2701 Ashburton Lane

trash. The thing is, I don’t know what they were keys to. I wasn’t missing keys. I have reason to believe that they belonged to the house at 2701 Ashburton Lane, my childhood home. If you go there now, you’ll need no keys for there’s only a school ball field there now. After being sold, the house was moved away. I feel certain they also changed the locks. So why was it so hard to throw those keys away?

As I’ve cleaned out family homes and even moved my self, I’ve found numerous sets of keys, most of which I have no idea as to where they belong. Even so, it’s still hard to throw them out. I always have a nagging feeling that one day I’m going to come up against that door where those keys fit and I’m going to need them. Throwing keys out seems a bit reckless to me, a little bit of living on the edge. (I know that as living on the edge goes, it’s not much. Bear with me.)

I see my clients struggling with much the same thing. Most of the time it’s not actual keys but rather old beliefs. Someone along the way told them, by word or deed, that this was a key to life. This was what was true about the world. This was what was true about their place in the world. This is what was true about God’s place in the world. They’ve held onto those keys for a long time.

The only problem is that they don’t open any doors for them any more. In fact, sometimes they get in the way of opening doors. My clients have no place for those keys in their lives. Still, it’s hard to let them go. They worked once. Or someone they loved very much gave the keys to the client. Or someone they felt like they should have loved passed along those keys.

One of our tasks as adults is individuation. That’s a fancy psychological term for claiming our own lives. We have to look at what others have taught us about life and faith and even who we are and  see if it really rings true in light of what we know about life and faith and our place in the world. Does it open doors for us or does it keep the doors closed? Letting go of those keys doesn’t mean betraying that person or loving them any less. It’s just an indication that as we grow and grow up, sometimes we bring with us the things we learned. And sometimes it’s time to let them go.

Unfettered childhood (Listening to a life)

I suppose he had every right to think of his childhood as deprived. My grandfather was hard hit by the depression and the family never seemed to get back on their financial footing. They moved around a lot. For a while they lived with his mom’s mother.

Joe and Harmon

And yet, every time I think of my father’s childhood, I think of the richness of it. There were always stacks of newsprint at the house for drawing. He and his brother Harmon made papier-mache football helmets that they baked to a hard finish in the oven. When they loved playing Monopoly at a friend’s house, they knew they had no money for such trivial things. and so they made their own. The two brothers carefully measured out and painted the board. They melted on the stove scraps of lead they’d scavenged and poured it into sand molds to make the game pieces. (Whose mother doesn’t let her children play with hot lead?)

There was no money for entertainment but my grandmother packed up the kids and drove them to a local college for their free summer classical music concerts. And, of course, there were always books. As my aunt observed, “They read about boys having adventures. Then they went out to have their own adventures.”

One day my father happened upon Harmon building a boat in the basement out of an old bookcase.  After the slightly less than seaworthy craft  named Jeep was built, Harmon suggested that they tie it to the top of the car in order to get it to the James River. When my father replied that he didn’t think their mom would let them do that, Harmon replied, “Let’s assume she would have said yes if we had asked her, and go ahead and do it.” (Sailing the Jeep down the James became one of our legendary family stories.)

I feel that at this point I should insert the disclaimer: Do not try this at home.

Except that I think that the spirit of it is what we all need. (Second disclaimer: I am not advocating that your children sail their homemade boat down a major river.)

Joe and Harmon had an unfettered childhood. Their mother insisted on using correct English grammar, but she let them explore. Create. Use their imaginations. As a result, they grew up thinking that they could do anything. And they did.

I’m not talking about the sense of entitlement that we see far too often, children thinking that they should have anything or that everything should be done for them. This is the opposite: a sense of empowerment.

Joe and Harmon got to use their imagination a lot a boys. Some of it was encouraged, like always having paper handy. And some of it was necessity, like making their own Monopoly set. As a result, they grew into a natural belief that if they wanted to do something, they’d figure out a way to do it.

When my father started sailing seriously, he learned celestial navigation. He designed much of the furniture he built. My uncle dropped out of high school but then went on to earn a PhD and spend much of his career as a university professor. They believed they could find a way to do it. And they did.

Children need unfettered play. (Once again, a disclaimer. I am not advocating sailing down the James River by themselves in a boat that is barely afloat.)

Children need an opportunity to create, to imagine, to make up their own games and their own worlds. Children need to gain a sense of mastery by  facing a challenge and then overcoming it. The thing is, children will do this if allowed. Ever see a two-year old at Christmas having much more fun with the box rather than the toy that came inside?

As adults, sometimes we need to help and encourage them in figuring things out (What do you think we could do here?) And sometimes we just need to get out of the way. Give them blocks. Or boxes. Or a stack of paper. Or a yard to explore. And let them play.

One of the saddest comments I can remember reading came from a preschool teacher who said they children in her class had no idea of what to do when they were turned out onto the playground and given free playtime. They’d never been allowed just to play. Some adult always organized the game for them. They didn’t know how to turn the jungle gym into a pirate ship.

I wish every child such a childhood that creates adults who think they can do anything. And do.