What I Found in Los Angeles

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Anything could happen here, I think to myself as I drive into Los Angeles, down from those rugged hills. The sun sinks into the Pacific behind the motionless outlines of palm trees and the solid, flat black of square houses filled with people who are remembering and forgetting. They try to keep out the wildness, hiding behind gates and shrubs, lining perimeters with chain-link, pulling down heavy gates over storefronts facing out on to uneven sidewalks.

But the wildness cannot be contained.

Anything could happen here.

As I speed south on Route 5 and see signs for Fullerton, Anaheim, and Santa Ana, I experience the magnetism of Los Angeles, this sense that by morning I could either be starring in a film, searching for something important hidden in a storage unit, or overdosing on Skid Row. I look up under the long shadows cast by the lights that line the highway, I look up under the overpass, deep into that netherworld, and I see a disintegrating backpack, a few plastic trash bags, and I realize someone is living there. People are making homes even under the very roads we drive on.

Anything could happen here.

I could find my fortune, hidden among the rubble of the lost and withering things, or I could find my destruction. For some reason the latter feels much more likely.

There’s something about Los Angeles that makes me feel alive, that reminds me of the myriad directions this life could go. I think again about the people I saw through the windows of the houses sprawling all over the mountain. I think again about the person I didn’t see, hidden under the overpass. I think about all of these people, how they are forgetting and remembering, and while I’m thinking all of these things, the palm trees melt into the sky, now dark.

* * * * *

I sit in a shoebox-sized motel room and I can’t sleep for whatever reasons (they are legion), and it feels the same at 2am as it does at 5am. The walls are thin and I can hear others coming and going, doors slamming, latches clicking into place. Then the air conditioning unit roars to life and there is nothing else, just a humming, a rattling that reaches deep inside my mind and puts me to sleep.

I dream about the stories I heard earlier that night when I sat with women from Iran, the stories of so many lives, so much searching. The stories of finding and losing, of running and coming home, of wanting to live and being desperate to die. The stories that leaked from the eyes of those women were like tears, or liquid joy.

For just a moment, clarity. All of my own desires for fame, for being known, for money and talent and all the other things that will make me feel good…all those desires bow and move to the side. They part like a resistant body of water. I see clearly (for the first time?) that this thing I do, this telling of stories, is all that I have.

I have nothing but stories.

The knowledge of this is both a relief and a burden.

* * * * *

We are ruled by the narratives we chase. We see the narrative of the famous and the wealthy and we see happiness there, and fulfillment, and we wish that could be our story. We see the narrative of the powerful and we want that story, too, because we’ve felt so insignificant, so weak and used up, and we want to be the person at the other end of the abuse. Do we want to be the abuser? I don’t know but, dear God, anything but the abused, anything but that again.

We want to live the story of the family that hasn’t had to battle cancer, the story of the family with healthy children, the story of the single person who finds someone and lives happily-ever-after. We want the smooth story, the easy path. We reach out and grasp at so many other narratives, anything but our own, and we hold them close and they leach into our skin like ink, like a burn.

But then, in the midst of all that longing and striving and ceaseless desire to be “other,” that man with the voice I cannot forget says, Pick up your cross and follow me.

I stare long and hard at my cross. It seems rather rough and unpleasant. Not like all those other crosses that other people are asked to carry.

He says, Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed.

And the death I’m asked to die seems so much more deadly than the death my friends are dying.

He says, No greater love has any man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.

* * * * *

In the morning I take a shower and then I get dressed and brush my teeth while reading things online about Philip Seymour Hoffman. I decide the room feels too small in which to spend another entire day, so I walk down the street to a bagel shop, planning on working there for a little while.

I sit down and get out the laptop and stare at the screen and everyone in there is very friendly. The shop is busy. The employees smile and work quickly. I wonder where all of these people will go after ordering their Western Omelette on a Bagel and their Hummus on a Bagel. I wonder what narrative they will pursue out into the traffic-filled streets of southern California, the streets that run long and straight under tall palm trees, the streets the hit the mountains and then turn in on themselves. I wonder what stories these people are chasing.

And I realize the stories I’m trying to write are too shy to come out in a place like that. They want to drip slowly out of my veins, to well up slowly, ruby-red, but in all of that speed, all of that commotion, they withdraw, fish darting into the shadows. I finish the breakfast I bought, and I realize I’ve lost the art of sitting. I go to cafes and I get out my laptop or stare at my phone, but I never just sit anymore. I never just look around.

When I do simply look around, I feel embarrassed, as if others might think I’m looking at them. As if the other people in the café will look at me and wonder what kind of a strange creature that is, just sitting, just looking, just thinking.

I walk back out into the cool morning, passing under palm trees, their shadows fading as the sun moves back behind the low-hanging clouds.

I go back into my room, the small room that is starting to stretch with me, the room where the stories are. And again I pick up my cross. And again I fall to the ground. And again I lay down my life. The words emerge and begin to drip like sap on the first warm day.

This is my story.

A Naked Confession: I Have a Problem With Lady Liquor (A Guest Post By Seth Haines)

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Today’s guest post is brought to you by Seth Haines. I first came across Seth’s blog while following the story of his son Titus. Seth is a true gentleman, a deep writer, and the kind of Christian I hope to be someday. After reading this guest post by him, head over to his blog and check out some of his other poignant writing.

Welcome to a naked moment.

Today, I reckon it’s time to let you in on a little secret, and I won’t talk much about it again for a while. I hope you’re okay with that. We’ll call this a hit-and-run confession. I reckon I should tell you to “listen up,” or “pay attention,” but since this is a place of semi-permanence, I’ll just come on out with it.

I have a problem with lady liquor.

I reckon I could spin the whole story for you; I could tell you the moment when my drinking went from something resembling social to something resembling moronic. I could tell you about a sick child, or the pressures at work, or the burnout of living a typical American life, or the plaguing doubt that nags, that makes me feel like the finest of Christian frauds. The precise excuse for my over-indulging ways, though, isn’t really the point—not for this particular piece, anyway. The point is this—I’m not so much different than some of you.

Am I?

Do you know this pain? Perhaps you’ve been stung by loss of the runaway father, the dead mother.  Maybe you’ve felt abused by the church, or otherwise accused by it. Maybe the Christian clique had at you. Perhaps you’re friends turned tail. Maybe you’ve been singled out for your sinner’s ways. Maybe you’ve been abused, raped, or murdered in some small way (there are a million ways to die alive, you see).

In any event, I don’t suppose I’m special among you. I reckon there are more than a handful here that sing the hymns of the risen Christ on Sunday morning and drink, or eat, or spend, or puke, or sex, or systematically theologize their way into the icy numb during the rest of the week. It’s such a convenient escape from dealing with the underlying pain, such an awful comfort. Isn’t it?

I had a therapist once ask me why I ran to the bottle. He asked what I heard in the quiet moments. I told him that I heard the accusers, the accusations from all the perceived injustices. They were in the cave of the soul, he said. I know he is right.

Sit for a moment in the silence. Listen. Do you hear them, too? Are the accusers in the cave of your soul? Do you deal with their voices, or do you avoid them? Do you confess it to your husband, your wife, your friend, your therapist? Or instead, do you shrink deeper into your most favored coping mechanisms?

Don’t make a deal. Nothing to see here. No eyes on me.

Shrink violet, shrink.

Perhaps this post is all too much for you. After all, don’t we all feel alone in our out-of-placedness? Yes, maybe some of you were quite comfortable in it, and then, along comes this stranger here at Mr. Smucker’s place, and he’s confessing the same things I’ve felt for years.  I’m here to tell you, you can hide behind your vices, pretend that I don’t see, but my vision is x-ray. I see through the drinking, the affair, the over-systematized theologies. I know that the thing, the addiction, is not really the thing at all. I know the addiction is a just a coverup, a ruse to hide the pain. And if you strip those ruses away, what comes screaming to the surface?

That’s right. The pain.

Ask yourself, in moments of clarity, of stone-cold sobriety, do you ask whether Jesus is a figment of your imagination, whether God is real? Do you have fond dreams of dying–not suicide–but of dying? Do you see the prospect of death as release?  Do you lust after money and power so much, that you poor yourself down and skinny yourself up to try and assuage that guilt? Do you have so much money and power that it scares you, that you wonder whether you are the rich man who’ll sooner be screwed than enter the eye of the needle? Perhaps you love your spouse, perhaps you don’t, but do you know whether God loves you? Do you know whether he likes you? Do you wonder whether God will ever speak again, and whether he ever spoke in the first place? Do you wonder whether it’s just your noggin talking to you? Do you hear your accusers casting aspersions, telling you that you’re unloved, unworthy, a thing to be discarded?

I know that the pain makes you ask these questions. How do I know this? Because you are my brothers and sisters. Because I’ve heard these accusations. I’ve lived with them, and by-God, I’ll live with them again unless a better way finds me.

See, the truth is, you can see through me, too. Your vision is x-ray if you let it be.

It’s been decided for me—I’m moving from a place of addiction to freedom. How you ask? I’m not running from the pain anymore. Instead, I’m sitting in it, I’m asking how it feels, and whether it’s true. The process hurts, there is no doubt, and I know I’m not finished just yet. The voices in my soul-cave are myriad, and the guano in here is hip deep. But if I sit with the accusers long enough, if I ponder the lost father, or mother, or the haunting injustices, if I still my soul, if I pray that simple prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” something magical happens.

Magic?

Yes.

I hear the echo of something still and small. It tells me that no matter the pain, no matter the doubt, no matter the addiction, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

This is my naked confession.

Please take a moment and check out Seth’s blog.

How Our First Book Signing Went on Saturday

photo-20You never really know how a book signing will go, especially when you’re a writer hovering somewhere around my level of fame and fortune. In other words, no fame and very little fortune. I’ve had book signings or talks at local libraries where a nice crowd showed up, and I’ve had book signings where in the span of an hour one solitary person meanders up to the table and you soon find out that they’re not even interested in your book. They’re simply looking for the restroom.

So it was with some trepidation that I loaded up Maile and the kids into the minivan and drove from one end of the county to the other on Saturday. Our destination? The official launch of our new book, Refuse To Drown, to be held at our local independent bookstore, Aaron’s Books.

It takes a fair bit of time to get four children to put on their shoes and coats and get out to the van and get their seat belts on and please stop punching your brother, Sam, and please stop playing in the snow in those shoes, Abra, because now look at your tights, they’re soaking wet. And no I didn’t bring the charger for your iPod. Then we made the hour-ish drive north, through the country, through Lancaster City, and then back into the country again. The roads were lined with old snow, stained from a week of traffic. The sun was bright.

I had a good feeling from the moment we walked up to the store because there was a woman standing outside explaining the book to some folks who were passing by. I pretended not to know anything about it and walked quietly past her. Inside, I met the owner’s of the bookstore, Todd and Sam, and they were so kind and gave us access to the backroom to put our mound of coats and then we set my kids loose in the children’s section.

My co-writer, Tim Kreider, was there, along with his wife, Lynn. We’ve become good friends after so many long hours together, so many stories, so many words. I was anxious for him, that his story would be well-received, that people would pick up on his generous heart and sincere desire to help others.

I shouldn’t have worried. By the time I finished saying hello to Tim and Lynn and putting our coats in the back room and getting the kids (and Maile) settled, there were already six or seven people waiting for a book. So Tim and I sat down at a small table and Todd from Aaron’s Books introduced us and then we started signing. And we didn’t stop signing, not for two hours. The people just kept coming, some with sincere looks of admiration on their faces for what Tim was trying to do, some with tears in their eyes, hoping to gain any small piece of wisdom about how to approach life with their own troubled child.

One couple in particular still sticks in my mind, the way they clutched the book like a talisman. They shook our hands and held on a little longer than is usual, and the wife cried a little while she explained the situation with their daughter, and the husband cleared his throat and looked away, and I thought to myself that all they want is a normal life. All they want is a happy child. But we don’t always get what we want, and sometimes life sucks, and then what?

There were group hugs when Tim welcomed old friends, and there were sincere handshakes, emotional thank yous, promises to stay in touch. Mostly I was honored to be there, to mark this occasion with Tim, this official release of his story. I’m always amazed at the power of these stories we tell. I’m always amazed at the healing they can bring, if we’ll let them.

Over 100 people came through the line in a few short hours.

Later that night we went back to Tim and Lynn’s and were soon joined by 40 or 50 of their friends, eating food and laughing and mostly just celebrating how far Tim has come, celebrating the launch of this book, celebrating life and this often untapped power to overcome even the most dire of circumstances. A few people bought more books, some purchasing their third or fourth copies in order to give them away to friends they think might benefit from them.

I learned a few things on Saturday while coasting along on this high that resulted from a wonderful book signing. The first is that it is so important to celebrate things, to come together with friends and to hold each other up and to say, “Look at what we’ve been able to do together. This is important. I appreciate you.”

The other thing I learned is how wonderful it is when someone takes time out of their life to join you in these kinds of celebrations. I will never forget the friends who came from far and wide to visit us at the book signing, to buy a book, and to say, “Well done. Congratulations. We’re proud of you.” So to those of you who came, to those familiar faces who stood at the end of a long line, thank you.

Life wasn’t mean to be lived alone. Who are you encouraging?

 If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of Refuse To Drown, you can check it out HERE.

When Maile and I Woke Up to an Empty House

It’s been a cold week in Lancaster County. There have been a lot of snow days. You can tell by the look in the eyes of mothers wandering the grocery store aisles, the crazed searching, as if they expect to find, hidden behind the boxes of Cheerios or perhaps tucked away amongst the Campbell’s soup cans, small portions of summer, or all-expenses-paid trips to Cancun.

When I was a kid, my favorite part about snow days was stumbling back in out of the cold and finding steaming mugs of Swiss Miss hot chocolate on the table with those little white sugary things they called marshmallows – we all knew they weren’t quite marshmallows. They were more like tiny bits of sweetened, edible cardboard. When they started making packs with “20% More Marshmallows,” well, it didn’t get much better than that.

Unless it was Grandma Smucker’s hot chocolate. She made it with real milk and Hershey’s chocolate syrup, back when we knew nothing about human trafficking, back when we had no idea (and, quite frankly, didn’t even think to ask) about Hershey’s methods of doing business, where they got their cocoa beans, how they treated the workers who harvested their profits. Back then it was simply Hershey’s, and it was simply delicious.

Grandma Smucker, the queen of hot chocolate, died about sixteen months ago. All eight of her children, along with their husbands and wives, and their thirty-some children, and a dozen or more great-granchildren, spent that last week with her, watching her fade and singing “When We All Get To Heaven” and “What Heaven Means to Me.”

A country where no twilight shadows deepen
Unending day where night will never be
A city where no storms will ever gather
This is just what heaven means to me

* * * * *

Last week Maile, the four kids, and I drove to Missouri. Whenever we told people we were driving to Missouri, they looked at us as though we had said we were driving to Antarctica.

“You’re driving to Missouri? How far is that?”

Turns out it’s about 1051 miles, but the miles going out are shorter than the miles coming home. I’m not sure how that works, but it’s true. While we were out there we met with a publishing house about a potential book project, and we also got to catch up with some family and friends.

One of the couples we saw are old friends from here in Lancaster. They have a beautiful little nine month old who reminds me of our oldest son when he was that age, all smiles and quiet sitting in his high chair, watching. It’s hard to believe ten long years have come and gone since our son was that old. Time is a funny thing, and the last thing you should do if you want it to move slower is to try and grab on to it.

* * * * *

On Monday morning Maile and I woke up to an empty house. From under the warm covers I could hear large slabs of frozen snow sliding off the roof and crashing on to the ground. The kids all spent the night at my parents’ house, and it was nice having an evening with just my wife.

I went downstairs and stoked the fire in the wood stove, then came up to the main level and opened all the blinds. Bright snow light glared through the glass. I made myself some breakfast and started working. The house was very quiet.

At one point in the morning, Maile said, “It’s hard to believe that someday all of our kids will be out in the wide world.” Cade, on his own, making breakfast? Lucy, driving to work? Abra, making a list of things to pick up at the grocery? Sam, little Sam, paying bills? It’s very hard indeed, believing that, but on a morning like that one I could feel it, the peace and the sadness, the freedom and the sense of missing things.

It’s a good stage we’re in, this busy, loud, kids-sleeping-on-the-bedroom-floor-almost-every-night stage. Someday it will pass, and the new stage will be good, too. I guess it all just reminded me to love this snow-covered, freezing cold day for what it is, and not to reach for the future too often.

The First Time I Met Someone Who Had “Lost Their Mind”

7879731330Mostly, I was anxious because I was ten years old and I had never met someone who had “lost their mind.” Would I be safe? Would he kill us right there in Gap Diner? Would he, at random points in the conversation, fall to the floor, seize up, or foam at the mouth? I had no idea what to expect, and I would rather have stayed at home, but I didn’t have school that day and for some reason my mom was busy doing something else so I went with my dad (he was the assistant pastor at the church we attended) to have lunch with one of the parishioners who had recently been released from a mental hospital.

Today, I’m posting over at A Deeper Story. You can read the rest HERE.

Searching For Signs Of Life (or, a visit to the midwife)

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We walk through the dreary, rainy day and into the small clinic. The last time Maile was here, they couldn’t find a heartbeat. The time before that, a little over a year ago, we found out the pregnancy wasn’t viable. Such a small place, that clinic, lost in the farmers’ fields. Such an ordinary place.

The midwife leads us from a virtually silent waiting room, down a short hall, and then into the examination room. I squeeze into a chair in the corner, beside the sink and across from a small, clear plastic model of a woman’s reproductive organs. It’s rather fascinating, all those tubes and passageways. I try not to stare at it though, because then the midwife might think I’m weird.

The paper on the examination table crinkles loudly as Maile climbs on and then lays back. She hikes her shirt up so that it rests on top of her slightly round, ripening stomach.

“This is going to feel a little cold,” the midwife says, placing a heartbeat sensor loaded with gel on to her white skin.

Immediately the silence around us is replaced by a whirring, a rushing, a storm heard from inside the deepest parts of a ship. But it’s not constant, like television static. No, this rushing is alive and moving. It’s the inside of Maile, the sounds of her body magnified, sent rushing through wires and electrical equipment, then pushed through a speaker so that those of us outside can eavesdrop.

But that long whooshing noise interrupted by the occasional cosmic crackle is not the sound we are listening for.

Then we hear a slow, ponderous gulping noise. It seems odd and out of place, that steady rhythm emerging from the random, white noise.

But that’s not the sound we’re listening for either.

“That’s your heart beat,” the midwife says quietly, quickly, so that we will not mistake it for anything more. “Baby’s should be right around here somewhere.”

She slides the sensor back and forth slowly, and Maile’s heartbeat fades in and out of the whooshing noise. For just a moment I think about my struggle with silence, the way it batters me and soothes me. I think about the silence I encountered in Istanbul, and how it changed me. I think about the dying man I met there, the man who has since passed on, and I think about the silence of writing his story.

Silence is a thing that frightens many of us, because complete silence is death, and we have been taught to resist death, to fight it, or let it terrify us. But I’ve learned there is something behind the silence, something worth more than all the noise in the world. My true self waits there on the other side of silence. God waits there as well, emerging from that lack of noise like a whisper, or a heart beat.

Then we hear it. A sound not unlike Maile’s heartbeat, but smaller and faster and more urgent, like a tiny voice crying out, “Listen to me! Hear me! I am!”

As quick as it came into being, it was gone.

“Baby’s a mover,” the midwife says, smiling. “He or she is pretty quick to get out of the way when she feels the pressure from this.”

We wait, and we hear it again. Tears can be like a thin film on your eyes, a cataract.

* * * * *

Later, I go out to the waiting room while they take Maile’s blood. Sorry. Not a fan of that. For some reason I can watch a baby come lurching into the world, bloody and messy and all tangled in on itself, but I’d rather not watch a skinny vampire needle suck the life out of someone.

The lady at the front desk asks me to write down directions to our house from their other location in case of an emergency, but I have never been to their other location before so I stop and think about all those back roads, the winding ways from here to there. The unlikely paths we take. An Amish man, also waiting in the room, speaks up.

“Did I hear you say you’re from Holtwood?” he asks in that Amish accent, the one that sounds like English words are fighting with German words and the English ones are emerging victorious, but only just.

“Yeah,” I say. He goes on to explain the easiest way from the other clinic to where I live, or at least the general vicinity. I could take it from there.

“Thanks,” I say. “You from down there?”

“Well, I grew up in Nine Points, sort of down Holtwood way, but now I live over in Kinzers.”

“I grew up in Kinzers,” I say. “Across from the paint store, just down from the high school. Umry who used to own the paint shop? His wife is my mom’s cousin.”

“Is that right?” he asks. “My brother-in-law is Umry’s cousin. Sure is loud up this end of the county, at least compared to Nine Points.”

Now, Kinzers has a population of about 2,000 people, spread out over rolling fields and forests. It’s a large area. I had to smile when he said Kinzers is loud. But now that I live in the “southern end,” I know what he is talking about. Kinzers has its fair share of small businesses, and they draw large delivery trucks down their skinny roads. It’s downright silent in our neck of the woods – no one but farmers and writers and other such sedentary folk.

“Sure is quiet in Holtwood,” I say to the Amish man just as Maile emerges from the back of the clinic. “Nice to meet you.”

“Yeah, nice to meet you,” he says, and he sounds surprised that he means it.

We walk out into the mist and I hold Maile’s hand for a moment. I imagine that I can feel her pulse in her hand, maybe two pulses, the deep reverberations of life going on, going on, going on. There’s something about the presence of a heartbeat that can sometimes make you think this life will never end. It seems like such an irresistible force.

But I’ve heard it, the silence, the absence of the heartbeat. I’ve traveled through that space, not unscathed, not unchanged, but I’ve traveled through it. We drive out on to the road and the sound of the tires on the wet asphalt is very much like the sounds we had heard inside of Maile in those moments when the midwife searched for signs of life. And I think that’s what we’re doing, all of us, most of the time.

Searching for signs of life.