I walk out onto the porch with Poppy and Leo on a Sunday afternoon, the kind that convinces us spring still exists and is, in fact, not that far off. There are tiny mounds of snow in the shadowy places of the world, but the sky is blue and people walk by on James Street wearing light jackets–not the heavy, winter coats I’ve seen going past for the last three or four months.
“Let’s say where the cars are going,” 4-year-old Leo says, his voice also bearing hints of the coming season. I think I know what he means. I wait for the next car to approach. It is an old, gray Honda.
“That car’s going to the place where we get hair cuts,” he says. Another car approaches. “That car’s going to the movies.”
As each car passes, Leo makes up an imaginary destination. The library. Penny’s Ice Cream shop. The mall.
“Maybe we should give Poppy a turn,” I say, and he agrees. We have to wait a bit, but when the next car comes by, we both turn our eyes towards her with expectation.
“That car’s going to a house,” she says in her raspy, high-pitched, 2-year-old voice, grinning a Cheshire grin and looking at us with questions in her eyes, wondering if she did it right.
“Mimi’s house?” I ask. She nods.
“Nice one, Poppy,” I say, and we stand there, getting colder as the afternoon passes. Maile comes out, stands there in her coat, still wearing her house slippers. And the cars go by.
* * * * *
Sunday night, three in the morning, and a small hand pats my blankets. A small voice whispers, “Dad, I’m scared.”
“Of what?” I ask, not sure what time it is, not sure what planet I’m on.
“I’m just scared.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I whisper, my voice hoarse. I cough.
“I’m scared,” Leo insists. I sigh.
“Want to sleep with me on the floor?” I ask. I know if I bring him into bed, none of us will get any sleep. He nods in the dark. I grab a few pillows, a few blankets, and we make a bed on the floor.
I fall asleep, his tiny hand on my shoulder.
* * * * *
A few days later I am working at Prince Street Cafe when Maile comes in with the kids. Leo is very pleased to see me sitting at one of the high tables, and he climbs up, perches there, staring at my computer.
“Are you working?”
“Yes, I am.”
He looks at the large glass windows. “Those windows look like you could put your hand through them, like a waterfall,” he observes. And he is right. The glass is clean. The day is clear.
I lean towards him.
“I like when you come to visit me,” I say.
About six months ago, I read Charlotte’s Web to Leo for the first time. We read one chapter every night, and he fell in love with Charlotte immediately. When we got to the last page of the chapter when Charlotte dies, he demanded that I stop reading.
“Leo, we have to finish the chapter,” I said. “We’re almost there.”
He kept protesting. It was unlike him. I couldn’t tell if he was entirely serious or not, so I finished the chapter. As soon as I read the last sentence–“No one was with her when she died”–he burst into tears.
But, in the last few months, he has recovered, and he asked if we could read it again. As someone who appreciates good literature, loves Charlotte’s Web, and isn’t always completely enthralled with his bedtime stories, I readily agreed.
We’re about halfway through, and last night we reached the chapter where Mrs. Arable, Fern’s mother, becomes so concerned with Fern’s behavior that she goes to visit the doctor. They end up talking about the mysterious appearance of the messages in Charlotte’s web.
“…Still, I don’t understand how those words got into the web. I don’t understand it, and I don’t like what I can’t understand.”
“None of us do,” said Dr. Dorian, sighing. “I’m a doctor. Doctors are supposed to understand everything. But I don’t understand everything, and I don’t intend to let it worry me.”
Mrs. Arable fidgeted. “Fern says the animals talk to each other. Dr. Dorian, do you believe animals talk?”
“I never heard one say anything,” he replied. “But that proves nothing. It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention. Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her. Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more. People are incessant talkers–I can give you my word on that.”
What a beautiful way to view the world. What are you having trouble understanding right now? Would talking less allow you to hear what’s really being said?
I went down into the basement this week to return something, a wrench or a hammer or some other tool that’s been floating around the upstairs like a loitering teenager. I navigated the rickety basement stairs and walked into the part of the basement we’ve managed to fix up into something that resembles a living room. That’s when I saw it.
It was an old printer paper box, it’s bottom cut out, somehow fastened to the stone wall–a homemade basketball net that Sam and Cade had made. I had heard them earlier that day, shouting and laughing and talking trash to each other. Protests of “foul” and “what a shot” and “nooooo!”
And it was strange, seeing it there, because it put me in a time machine, back to when I was 11 or 12 and playing basketball in my basement bedroom with a tennis ball and a plastic, one-gallon ice cream container, the bottom cut out. It was that cheap ice cream, but I didn’t know any better back then. I loved it.
30 years later, another hoop. Time is a circle.
* * * * *
Our oldest daughter went to Florida for a week with my parents to visit her cousins and her aunts and uncle and great-grandmother. Her leaving sparked an unexpected bout of emotion, as Maile and I navigated what our life will look like in not too many years. These children of ours, who we’ve fed and watered and clothed and nudged along life’s path, are not all that far from jumping out of the nest. Visions of baby birds plummeting through the air, spreading their shaky wings, gathering air under them, and coasting to a hopefully safe landing on a faraway beach come to mind.
With Lucy gone, there was one fewer place to set at the dining room table each night. One less opinion on various things. One less voice up late with Cade and me, after the younger kids are in bed. Even though it was only one less person, it felt like we were missing more than that. It felt like we were missing a vital part, one we couldn’t go on for much longer without.
I thought of my friends who recently lost children, some to accidents, some to cancer, some to suicide. I don’t know how to even imagine making my way along that kind of path. I guess that space would never be filled.
I waited up on the night my parents were driving back with her from Florida. I suppose I could have gone to bed and woke up when they called to let me know they were on our street, but to be honest, I couldn’t sleep. She was on her way home. I couldn’t wait to see her. When they got here, just after midnight, I walked out onto James Street in my socks, out into the freezing cold weather, and I hugged her and helped her carry her things.
We are all here again, under one roof. For now. The days keep passing. In another minute, or another thirty years, one of my kids will walk down into the basement of their own home and find a tentative basketball net stuck to a wall. This is how time passes. This is how one day melts into the next.
It was Sam’s second wrestling match of the tournament. He had won his first after three hard-fought periods, but the second match, it was a tough one. The other kid took him down quick and nearly had him pinned for the entire first period. The second period was more of the same—the other kid on top of Sam while Sam struggling to keep his shoulder blades off the mat, twisting and turning and writhing and fighting. For an entire minute, the other kid nearly had him pinned, but Sam kept resisting.
Then, the third period, and nothing really changed. Besides an escape, Sam didn’t get any more points, and the other kid nearly had him pinned. Again. For the duration of three periods, he was on his back, the match on the line.
But at one point, while he was in the middle of fighting, he looked over at me where I sat at the edge of the mat. I was shouting his name, cheering him on.
We made eye contact. It was actually kind of eerie, because he was in this huge struggle, giving it all he could, and it was all happening in this massive gymnasium with two other matches taking place and hundreds of people shouting and whistles being blown and kids cheering on their teammates and mothers wringing their hands and cheering, and in the middle of all of that chaos, our eyes met. His little 9-year-old face stared over at me, in the middle of that fight, and our eyes locked.
And what I saw in his eyes, well, I can still see it.
* * * * *
For the last ten years, I’ve made a living as a writer. Mostly co-writing books, helping people tell their stories and share their messages. Business people want to pass on their miraculous journey to their kids or folks want to share how they overcame. And it’s an amazing way to live a life. The creativity, the depth, the searching for stories, the listening—it’s incredibly rewarding. Now, I even get to write my own books, which is like blessing on top of blessing. A gift after you thought all the gifts had been opened.
But it’s also a roller coaster way to live a life. Some years, we have plenty. Other years can be a little lean. And those lean years, they can really test you. They can make you feel like you’re in the middle of a wrestling match, always on your back, always struggling to get out from under a serious weight.
During those years, it can feel like we’re on the edge of being pinned. And sometimes giving up seems not only like a good option–it seems sensible, even necessary. Why keep fighting when the outcome feels inevitable?
* * * * *
The seconds were ticking down. It felt like there was no way Sam could win—the point total was too much to overcome. But he still wasn’t giving up. That crazy kid. I think about the quote by the woman who wrote the book Unbroken when she was speaking about the real-life main character: “What made him an impossible boy also made him an unbreakable man.”
When we made eye contact, I expected to see fear in his eyes, or desperation. Or maybe disappointment. A lot of kids cry at these tournaments, when they lose, and I wouldn’t have faulted him, if emotion took over. There is a particular feeling to being bested in front of large crowds in a one-on-one battle. It isn’t pleasant.
Yet I didn’t see any of those things in Sam’s eyes–not fear or desperation or disappointment or sadness or embarrassment or shame. None of that. It was remarkable. He was looking at me with nothing apart from fierce determination. In the middle of that match-long struggle, he locked eyes with me, and what I saw there was someone who was calm. And aware. And he was not going to give up, no matter what. No matter how dire the situation. No matter how far behind. Because the match wasn’t over, and as long as the match wasn’t over, he wasn’t going to get pinned. He had made up his mind.
It was a remarkable moment. He is remarkable.
The whistle blew. He lost. But not really.
It’s amazing, what your kids can teach you.
* * * * *
Did you know I wrote two award-winning young adult novels? You can check out the first one HERE.
And below is a picture of Sammy from a few years ago. You can follow all of us over at my Instagram account.
Another weekend, another wrestling tournament for our 9-year-old. He loves every minute of it, every take-down, every bruise, every pin. And I love to watch him wrestle.
Before the tournament began, the huge gymnasium was swarming with kids and coaches and parents and referees. Kids practiced on the mats and ran in circles and laughed out loud. Coaches tried to bring order, to get the wrestlers ready for their matches. The organizers made last second preparations. And for a moment, I lost track of Sam.
But I picked him out quickly. He was looking around with some of his clothes in his hand, obviously looking for me so that he could get rid of all that extra stuff and get down to the fun of warming up and tackling his friends.
“Over here!” I shouted, and even though my voice was nearly drowned out by the voices of hundreds of other kids and adults, and even though I didn’t use his name, he somehow recognized that it was me calling for him. He turned. He saw me. And he came running.
* * * * *
In that moment, when I shouted “Over here!” and he turned towards me, I thought how interesting it was that he actually recognized my voice in the middle of all that chaos, all those competing voices, everyone trying to communicate something to someone else. But the more I thought about it, the less strange it became.
After all, he hears my voice every day. Without realizing it, he knows the inflection of my voice, its tone. He could probably tell you what kind of a mood I’m in, just by the sound of me.
Do you see the question this is leading to?
What voice do you recognize and respond to?
Do you hear the siren song of more money always more money and turn, follow it wherever it leads?
Do you follow the voice of desire, experience, feeling, adventure?
Are you drawn to the voice of things? Shiny, new wonderful things?
Are you obsessed with the voice of Fox News or CNN or CNBC, being discipled by their “information,” their way of seeing the world, and then living out their calling and mission?
If you’re a Christian, do you even recognize the voice of Jesus? How? When do you make time to listen, to grow accustomed to his tone, his inflection, his pace of speaking?
* * * * *
I’ve been thinking a lot about how the voices I listen to, the voices I listen for, shape the way I live and the choices I make. In my writing life, am I more dedicated to following the voices that promise fame and success than anything else? Or am I willing to continue on, steadfast on the path set before me, no matter where it leads, following the voice that says, “Keep going,” “Keep trying,” “Keep writing”?
The truth is, every single one of us allows voices into our lives on a consistent basis that will shape the direction we go.
What voices are you listening to? What voices do you quickly respond to? What voices shape the direction of your life?
* * * * *
By the way, if you get a chance, check out this wonderful review of my book Once We Were Strangers over at Christianity Today.