The Song that Saved Christmas (for Me)

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“Seriously, someone needs to write some new Christmas songs,” my daughter said. We were in the car moving from one faceless box store to another, as you do this time of year, with the radio on. “I’m only fourteen and I’m already sick of all these.”

Immediately my mind started crafting an explanation, pulling apart the cultural and historical shifts over the past five decades that have brought us to the point where almost all familiar Christmas songs are at least sixty years old. I wondered why the war and post-war cultures were such fertile Christmas classic grounds, and why our earth today seems so parched. Is it as simple as a shift in the way media is created and distributed? Or are there fundamental differences in attitude now? Or are we less creative? Or maybe it’s because — wait — she doesn’t care about any of this. I need to say something that won’t bore the bejeez out of her, for once. Something cool, but not too cool, not like I’m trying to sound cool. Something I hear her say a lot.

“Same,” I said.

She seemed satisfied with that. The fewer words from me, the better.

Brenda Lee’s voice rocked around the Christmas tree and filled the resolute silence between us. I reached up and turned it off. We both needed a break from people telling us to be merry in upbeat, rhyming, major chords.

In the quiet I scanned the mental database for newer classics, looking for one she hasn’t heard before. “Merry Christmas, War is Over,” “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time,” “Fairytale of New York.” No, she’s heard those a million times, mainly because of me.

Wait!! Waaaiiiiit!!! I’ve got it!!!

I pulled over and excitedly picked up my phone. Twenty seconds later, Robert Earl Keen was drawling, “Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk…at our Christmas party…” while concert-goers crooned along in the background.

What do you call that thing that teenage girls do, where they frown slightly and tuck their chin back in a recoil of disgust, like they smell something bad? “What is this?” Julia said, doing that thing.

“It’s called Merry Christmas from the Family,” I said, “1994 I think. It’s by Robert Earl Keen. It’s funny!!”

She didn’t agree. She turned and stared out the window. Dad-fail.

I kept it running though, cause I hadn’t heard it yet this year and I knew it would make me smile. “Little sister brought her new boyfriend. He waaaas a Mexicaaaaan,” I belted along loudly, laughing. “We didn’t know what to think of him til he sang Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidaaaaaaaad.” By now I didn’t care what Julia thought, I was all caught up in the song. When you have a teenage girl, there’s a moment in every interaction when you realize you don’t actually care that you disgust her. That’s where the true freedom is.

Brother Ken brought his kids with him
The three from his first wife Lynn
And the two identical twins from his second wife Mary Nell
Of course he brought his new wife Kay
Who talks all about AA
Chain smoking while the stereo plays Noel, Noel
The First Noel

By now she was completely tuned out, texting her boyfriend. “Save me!!,” probably.

Carve the Turkey
Turn the ball game on
Mix margaritas when the eggnog’s gone
Send somebody to the Quickpak Store
We need some ice and an extension cord
A can of bean dip and some Diet Rites
A box of tampons, some Marlboro Lights
Hallelujah everybody say “Cheese”
Merry Christmas from the family

If you haven’t heard it, it’s basically an extended musical Christmas card from a cartoonishly rednecky clan, sung in a raspy drunken Texas twang.

Fred and Rita drove from Harlingen
I can’t remember how I’m kin to them
But when they tried to plug their motor home in
They blew our Christmas lights

I could see it. I sang with a loud smile and looked over at Julia. Nothing. Whatever. Her loss.

Cousin David knew just what went wrong
So we all waited out on our front lawn
He threw a breaker and the lights came on
And we sang Silent Night, Oh Silent Night, Oh Holy Night

And right then it happened. Suddenly, unexpectedly. I choked up. Way up. Like, major tears. My throat caught and I stopped singing. I had no choice but to stop. Robert Earl and his drunken crowd kept on, but I was done.

Straight from laughter to tears. I never saw it coming. It was something about that last line, something about this cobbled mess of a family standing together outside, watching the broken lights finally come back on, then spontaneously starting Silent Night. Something about that.

Julia looked over to see if I was okay. It’s been a hard year for all of us, her especially. This was the year her parents split up, they year we all started scrambling to figure out what to do next. The year we stopped being a perfect family and started being a broken one. A family that some people pull closer to and others pull away from. So far from perfect, so far from ideal, so far from ‘normal.’

I re-started the song. I had to hear it again, to listen from a completely new angle this time. I immediately realized that the song’s redneck silliness is only skin-deep, that you can quickly get beneath it if you want to. And when you do, it stops being clownish and starts being beautiful. Truly, profoundly beautiful.

I think that’s because it’s the only Christmas song I know of that talks about loving what is instead of pining for what we wish was. All the other songs I can think of are odes to scenes that are just out of reach, by a little or by a lot. They entice our imaginations toward snow and sleighs and sustainable happy feelings. Or they point believers to a savior who has come and will someday set things right, but who hasn’t yet. Or they are simply children’s stories about snowmen and reindeer.

But this one, this song is about right here, right now. It’s about the real mess of Christmas. It’s about alcoholic relatives and broken/blended families and menstruation and cigarette addiction and cans of fake snow. Before you push it away with laughter, take a moment to look closer at that checklist. There’s nothing on there that hasn’t been part of your Christmas before.

This is a song about what really is, not about what you wish was.

And right in the middle of the tampons and the Salem lights there is that moment. The moment on the front lawn. You might miss it, as I always did before now, if you’re too busy laughing. It’s small and quiet, but it’s there.

And I’m now convinced that that moment, the one on the lawn, holds the key to Christmas happiness. Not engineering joy through beautifully decked halls, perfectly chosen gifts, well behaved family, or elegant meals. Those things are nothing. They are truly nothing. You will not remember any of those things a month from now.

What is something, what you will remember, is that moment when true beauty decides to visit your messed up family. It’s always fleeting, and it’s never something you can engineer or even predict. If it happens, if you are that lucky, it just happens.

The best you can do is allow space for it and deeply appreciate it when it comes.

There is no happiness to be found in what you wish you had. None. There is only happiness in what and who you already have, right here and now, and only if you choose to see it.

My life is pretty messy right now. This is going to be a messy Christmas, without a doubt. There’s no hope for perfection in any form this year. It’s all about making the best with what I have, for myself and for the people I love. And longing for some far-away, perfect scene only makes things worse.

So forgive me if I change the station when Perry Como or Bing Crosby come on the radio (I’ve never really known what the hell those guys are talking about anyway). This year I need something a little closer to home, something that reminds me that real Christmas happiness is still possible in the middle of what seems a little messy.

Hallelujah, everybody say “Cheese”
Merry Christmas from the Family*

 

*such as it is

Good For The Soul

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(Note: I’m writing a book about woodworking and life, a collection of old stories from this blog and new ones that you haven’t read yet because I haven’t written them yet. What follows is probably going to be my introduction chapter. Thanks for reading it, and for reading all that other stuff. I’ll keep you posted on progress.)

I didn’t know who she was, the woman in the corner. Old and bent with sharp, deep-set eyes, a darkish complexion, and long, wiry black hair. In her lavender sweatpants and oversized Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt, she looked something like a carnival gypsy who had taken a sick day.

Workers scrambled back and forth, Windexing glass, touching up paint, polishing doorknobs. Outside three men set up tables under a white canvas tent. In two days, the First Lady and Vice President of the United States would come here, to this almost-finished house, for a fundraising dinner. The whole scene vibrated like a kicked anthill.

But the old woman stood out of the way, just watching.

We were there to deliver a dining table. I was 28, four years into the woodworking apprenticeship I had landed in a desperate attempt to avoid using my seminary degree. Michael, my mentor, had trusted me to design and build a dining table for these new clients, all on my own, without his help. He was nudging me out of the nest. I guess he thought I was ready.

While the blanket-wrapped 16-foot-long table waited in the truck, Michael and I stood looking around the greatroom, taking it all in. It was a sophisticated and unfriendly building, the sort of place that clearly has no patience for your nonsense. The colors were cold, steely grays and blues. The materials were modern and sharp — concrete, glass, metal. The only reminder of nature was a limestone wall at one end, which was poorly lit and seemed forgotten.

I didn’t belong here. This house spoke a design language I didn’t understand, extended the sort of welcome meant for someone other than me. And worse, I feared, for something other than the honey-colored pine-wood table I’d brought. I’d come to a catered black-tie reception carrying a covered dish.

Michael was wrong, I thought. I’m not ready. Not for this.

I should have felt thrilled instead of terrified, proud instead of intimidated, confident rather than inadequate. But I’ve never been good at telling myself how to feel. I just wanted to run away. Who was I, a young ex-minister with no real training in design, to attempt sophisticated architectural furniture for wealthy power brokers and politicians? What if they hated it? Or what if we dropped it carrying it in? Or what if it’s not as well made as I think it is? What if, two evenings from now, Mrs. Clinton leans against it while telling a funny story and it collapses and she falls and hits her head and dies? Would it be my fault? What are the rules? Would I have to shave my head (I had hair back then) and flee to Mexico? Whatever the going rate was for bribing the Federales to hide me from the CIA, I didn’t have it.

We made our way around the room asking workers if Catherine, the owner, was around. We needed to know which way to bring the table in and where to put it. Nobody had seen her today. We’d have to figure it out ourselves.

The old gypsy watched, expressionless, as we exited for the truck.

Minutes later we returned with the new table, carefully rounding a steel-trimmed doorway. Suddenly, before Michael’s end had even cleared the turn, the old woman jumped to attention and moved straight toward us. She made to the side of the table, grabbing it firmly with both hands as if to help. Her bright smile quickly melted away the dark gypsy energy I had wrongly assigned her.

“So you’re the furniture makers!” she said happily, scooting along sideways.

“That’s us,” Michael panted. It had been a long trip through the dark labyrinthine house. “And you are…?”

“I’m Elaine, Catherine’s mother,” she said. “She told me you were bringing the table today and so I came to see it. I’ve been here for hours, waiting.”

“Hours?”

“Hours, yes.” She said, shuffling slowly along. “I saw you in here a few minutes ago but I didn’t realize who you were or I would have said hello. And maybe you said who you were but my hearing is not so good, ever since I had a bad piece of fish in the Solomon Islands in 1977, where I was on vacation with my husband, God rest his soul.”

Michael nodded to me to indicate that we were now at about the right spot in the room. We set the table down gently and stood back.

Elaine, however, continued clutching it with great purpose. “One night I was lying there in our hut and everything just went quiet all of a sudden. I called my doctor the next morning and the very first question he asked was had I had any fish. And I said yes I had, and he said what kind, and I said…”

“Does this look about right?” I interrupted, indicating the placement. “Do you think this is about where the table goes?”

“What? I don’t know, how would I know?” she shrugged. “I never know what she’s thinking, she never asks my opinion about anything. I mean look at this place.” She released a hand from the table and waved it around the room. “All rock and steel and glass and cement. Not a piece of wood anywhere! I keep telling her it’s not good, that a house needs wood, but she doesn’t listen. They don’t listen. I’m just an old lady.” Michael snuck a smile at me as her hand again found the table top.

“But this,” she said, lovingly stroking the longleaf pine top as one would a young mare, “ahhh yes. This is wood. Woooood.”

“Do you like it?” Michael asked.

“She loves it.” Catherine appeared in the doorway. “Trust me, she loves it. It’s all she’s been talking about for weeks now.”

The daughter swept in carrying a leather clad checkbook in one hand and a gathering of red flowers in the other. She was a beautiful woman, at this moment both perfectly poised and doggedly frazzled. “What do you think about these, mother? For the tables outside?” Elaine shrugged at the flowers. Catherine looked at Michael. “She always says I never ask her opinion so I’m asking her opinion, and for once she doesn’t have one. Make a note of the date everyone,” she mock-announced to no one, “it might not happen again for a very long time!”

Her mother dismissed her with a tired wave.

“How much do I still owe you?” Catherine asked. Michael handed her the invoice. She set it on the table, along with the flowers, and stooped over to scratch numbers onto a check. “Thank you so much,” she smiled, ripping the paper out and handing it to him. She smiled, picked up the flowers and started to move away.

“Mrs. Martin!” I blurted nervously, stopping her just before she reached the door. I wanted to know. “Do you like it?”

“The table?” she said, perhaps not entirely sure who I was. “Absolutely! It looks just great, and I can’t wait to get the chairs around it. Did I show you all a picture? Very cool, all metal with black leather cushions. They arrive tomorrow. I hope, anyway!” She laughed and knocked twice on the table, and hurried out to the courtyard. I could see her through the window, gesturing changes to the men arranging the tables.

A small hand suddenly grabbed mine. I turned and looked down — very far down — to meet Elaine’s bright eyes. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “Absolutely beautiful. The clean lines, the shape of the feet, the way you arranged the boards, the perfect finish, the deep colors of the wood. Longleaf pine, is it?” I nodded yes. “I knew it. I asked my daughter before you got here what kind of wood it was and she couldn’t remember.” She gave me a Can you believe that? look before considering the table again. She breathed in deeply. “Ahhh, it’s just gorgeous.”

She gestured for Michael and I to come closer, as if she were about to tell us a great secret. “What you two do is a good thing. A good thing! Do you know that? Do you know the good you do?”

“We enjoy it,” I said, tasting the pathetic blandness in my words as they passed over my tongue.

“That’s good, I’m glad you do.” she said with a hint of dismiss. “But you need to know that it’s important. It’s a noble calling. Because…,” she touched a crooked finger to the center of my chest, lowered her voice, and all at once the sharp-eyed gypsy returned. “Because wood is good for the soul.”

A warm chill spilled down my arms and back. I felt exposed, somehow. The old woman squared herself to the table with slow, dramatic intention. She reached out and patted it gently with both palms. A priest consecrating a new altar. “Wood is good for the soul!!

I thought she was crazy. Wood is good for the soul? What does that even mean?

For two decades now these words have been circling in my head, refusing to land. I’ve never really figured out what they mean. Maybe that’s why I still remember her so well, because I’m still trying. Or maybe it’s just because I want her to be right, I want to believe that what I’ve dedicated my life to is bigger than it seems. That working with wood is actually a spiritual calling.

After twenty years spent making wood furniture every day, I’m still not sure I could convincingly draw a straight line from the wood shop to the deepest places of my soul.

But what I can say without hesitation is this: Working with wood has healed me. Many times I’ve carried a shattered spirit into the shop and left, hours later, somehow put back together. Exactly how this works is a mystery to me, I just know that it usually does.

Creativity is always therapeutic, of course. But it’s more than just that. It’s specifically about wood. Wood, if you’re able to listen, will teach you about yourself. It will tell you a story. Made of growth rings, wood is a story. A frozen-in-time accounting of decades spent rooted in a single place. A time-lapse photograph of a summer when it rained more than usual, a diseased spring, a great winter fire, and many unremarkable years. It’s all there, in those lines.

By the time it reaches my shop, a piece of wood contains a wealth of wisdom. I believe that. It has lived many years, suffered and survived, struggled and thrived. It’s given birth to tiny leaves only to let them go, grown young branches only to see them snap off and fall. It has learned to bend against violent gusts so as not to break. Wood is made of stories. That’s all wood is, really. A gathering of stories, told from the inside out.

And story, my father taught me, is where the real wisdom is kept. The wisdom that actually helps. Detached ideas and disembodied philosophies are fine for a circle grad students sharing an evening bottle of red. But when you’re broken, really broken and confused, it’s a well-timed, well-told story that puts you back together. Someone has been where you are, felt what you feel. This is what they did, and this is how it turned out. You’re not alone. You’re not the first to go through this.

When I was nineteen I nearly died. I had a very rare sort of tumor growing in my chest, next to my heart. It was as big as a grapefruit, and the doctors didn’t even know what it was. Nobody could tell me what was going to happen, or whether or not it was even malignant. Friends from my parents’ church visited my hospital room in a steady stream with encouragements about how good these doctors are and how strong God’s healing power is. It was all very kind, but none of it helped.

Then one night a man I barely knew, a man named Bob I think, came in and sat down. “When I was your age,” Bob said, “I had a huge tumor in my chest. They didn’t know what it was. I nearly died. They took it out, it never grew back, and I was fine. I came to tell you that.” I looked at him, probably sixty years old and seemingly very healthy. He smiled, patted my hand, and left. Something deep inside of me let out a long breath. Bob was fine. I will be fine. The next morning, rolling down the hallway toward surgery, I closed my eyes and pictured Bob’s smiling, healthy face. It was all I needed.

Working with wood is like listening to Bob. It gives me wisdom I can actually use. Unlike Bob’s story, though, wood shop stories offer their wisdom as metaphor. Like all the great fables and parables. I have to do a little work to consider how a bullet embedded deep inside a board of mesquite, healed over years ago and hidden but still in there, is like the time in fifth grade where the prettiest girl in the class called me fat. Or how planning a frame-and-panel door to allow just the right space for the panel to move with the changes in humidity (so it won’t buckle if it swells too big or gap if it shrinks too small) is like navigating space in a relationship, trying to figure out what is too much and what is not enough.

I doubt I’m the only woodworker who considers these sorts of things. In woodworking there is, after all, plenty of time to think. Which may be why all the woodworkers I’ve ever known are gentle, generous people. This work teaches us, heals us, grounds us, humbles us.

This book, then, is a love letter to woodworking on behalf of all woodworkers. An extended Thank You note for all the ways it has made us who we are, for all the tools it has given us to move through the non-shop portions of our lives. My hope is simply to gather a collection of woodshop wisdom-stories, parables to prove the old lady right. That wood really is, as it turns out, good for the soul.

But it’s not only, or even primarily, a book for woodworkers (as if the world needs another woodworking book). It’s more an invitation to you, the non-woodworker, to visit the inner-sanctums of our shops and share their soul healing power. It’s a monastery with an open door, calling the weary traveler to come inside, quiet yourself for a time, be still, and let the wood do the work.

The Wisdom of Waiting

I knew better, but I went ahead and did it anyway. Yesterday I tried to glue together wood parts that were swollen and too big to fit into each other any more. And it didn’t go well.

Did you know that wood swells when the air gets humid? I did, but I acted like I didn’t. Because I didn’t want to wait another day. I just wanted to get this dining table done so I could deliver it and move on to the next piece.

Early last week, when I made the all the parts and their perfectly-fitted joints, the humidity was averaging about 40%. It was cold so I had the doors closed and the wood stove churning, which means that in my shop it was more like 25%. Then it warmed up Thursday and I threw open the doors to enjoy it. I mistakenly left them open overnight and all day Friday, when the humidity spiked to 100%.

So yesterday I arrived to find that none of the things that used to fit into the other things did anymore. The tenons (male) wouldn’t go into their mortises (female), the panels wouldn’t slide into their slots.

Which left three choices:

1. I could modify all the parts, sand them down so they would fit. But then, once the humidity dropped again, they’d un-swell and be loose. Not good.

2. Or I could close the doors and turn on the dehumidifier and wait a day or two and come back. Wait? What else you got?

3. Or I could just go ahead and glue it all up, use a combination of hard rubber mallets and heavy steel clamps to force it all together.

You already know what I did. I went straight to that mental place where arrogance and impatience intersect, and there I found my decision. I gathered the clamps, glue, and mallets. I stood up tall and drew a deep breath, felt a calm strength move through my bones, took a table leg in one strong hand a bottle of glue in the other, and completely screwed everything up. The leg, the panel, the crosspieces, the rest of my day, my happiness. All of it, ruined.

Because when enough force is applied to a piece of wood — say, the force of a steel clamp that’s being torqued by a desperate, weeping man who by now is screaming, “Please, please just go together!! I’m begging you!!!” — that piece of wood can actually break. Shatter, in fact. It doesn’t matter if it’s a piece he’s spent several days carefully crafting and sanding to perfection. Wood doesn’t care. Just like everything, wood has limits.

As does my intelligence, apparently.

So I broke it, because I forced it. Hours later, after several attempts to salvage the broken pieces and my shattered mood, I gave up and just left.

I returned this morning and considered the damaged parts. Which ones could be saved, which would be complete re-dos. I shook my head in defeat, then walked across the shop to the next group of parts waiting to be assembled. I picked them up, tried them out, and they slid together perfectly. Of course they did. The humidity in the shop had been back down around 30% for a day now. I glued them together, easily, in about twenty minutes.

The annoying thing about virtues, like patience for example, is that their voices are so much quieter than the voices of stupidity. Patience puts a gentle hand on my shoulder and whispers calmly, “Just wait, Mark. Give it time, things will get better, conditions will improve.” Then stupidity grabs my arm and spins me around and screams in my face, “Go! Just do it! Now!!!” It’s spitting as it yells, it’s eyes are wide and full of fear. Veins are popping out of its trembling, red neck. I have to do what it says.

In my 45 years I’ve obeyed the screeching voice of stupidity way more than I want to admit. I’ve crammed parts together that weren’t ready to fit, I’ve forced conversations that weren’t ready to happen, I’ve pushed people who weren’t ready to move. Usually because I was just tired of waiting, and because I didn’t really respect the things and the people I was forcing.

And, maybe most of all, because I didn’t have faith that God would soon make conditions better, but only according to her own timing.

I hope that the older I get, the more I will learn to wait. To wait for a hole in traffic before I pull onto the highway. To wait for the enchiladas to finish cooking all the way, even though the kids are whining and hungry. To wait until my head has cleared and my heart has calmed before attempting that tricky conversation. To give a friend the time and space to adjust to new realities rather than forcing decisions.

To wait until the humidity drops before gluing those parts together.

Because I can’t control the humidity, or the traffic, or the rate at which enchiladas cook, or the shifts in the heart of someone I love.

Patience is not an exercise in virtuosity, not really. I don’t think it’s as lofty as all that. I think the ability to wait is just smart, it’s an acknowledgement of the truth that I really only have control over a small drop of water in the great river of life. That if I force my way into the flow before it’s my turn, I can do some pretty big damage.

That if I truly want things to turn out for the best, if it’s not just about me and my ego, I might need to just….wait.

I’m Not Who I Used To Be

I read an interview with The Edge years ago where he said that before every U2 tour he has to go to a record store (ask your parents) and buy all their albums (ask your hipster uncle) so he can sit down and re-learn the chords to all their songs.

At the time it felt like a tiny bit of quaint, self-deprecating fiction. But now I think it’s probably true. Because next week I’ll be visiting a piece of furniture I made seventeen years ago, so I can figure out how it was made, so I can make it again.

A lovely couple in Austin saw some very old pictures on my website and called to order exactly. that. bed.

Which is great!

I think.

It’s a strange feeling for an artist when someone connects with a thing you created years ago. It’s incredible of course, of course, whenever anyone wants to own anything you just dreamed up in your little brain, no matter when that was. You never stop loving your children. And let’s be honest, you never stop needing the work.

But to live as an artist is also to grow, to change, to improve. To get so bored with the old ways that you have no choice but to find new ones, just to keep your heart beating. In that sense, boredom is a gift from God (a mantra I repeat to my kids with regularity). It’s a divine signal that your heart and your brain are now ready for what’s next. To take your next step.

But walking leaves footprints. Blessed, cursed footprints.

Blessed because your footprints — the things you made long ago — are how people have come to know and love you. There is no other way to get and enjoy momentum as an artist than to nurture a body of work.

But cursed because people often get focused on a footprint that you left behind years ago. They still see you in it, they want you to be there, they believe you are there, even though you know you are actually many steps past it.

Maybe, then, there are two important mistakes to avoid as an artist, and as a human.

The first is to squelch the voice that prods you to change and grow and improve and explore new things, simply because those around you don’t want you to. They want you to stay the same, for reasons that have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. They fell in love with a version of you from years ago. And even though you know that ‘you’ doesn’t really exist any more, you can’t bear to tell them that. So you pretend you are still the ‘you’ they first loved. And you just make yourself stand still.

The other mistake is the opposite, to disown the old you completely. To throw off your past like ballast so you can move forward unfettered. To feel so embarrassed by or bored with what you’ve done that you turn on it entirely. To move forward and never look back.

The first mistake comes from a tragic self-disrespect. It is the nature of all living things to grow constantly, to change with the seasons and the years, to become stronger and more beautiful, to reach taller and higher. That’s just seventh grade biology class. It’s unnatural to decide to stop growing for fear of what others might think. For fear that they will only always love the smaller, less developed you. To restrict a thing that is meant to grow leads to sick, misshapen results. Google ‘Chinese foot binding’ if you have any doubt.

The second mistake shows zero appreciation for the best gift you’ll ever receive as an artist, or as a person — love, admiration, and respect from other people. To throw away your history is to show disdain for those moments when other people first wanted to know you, those little doors where they entered into your life and your work. To toss off your past is to toss off your people. Which is the opposite of love. So what if you’ve ‘moved on’ to new things? There are still people who love the old things you did, and for that you should be infinitely grateful.

And this is what I will tell myself next week, just before I knock on the door of the house where that bed still sits. I’ll visit it like an old friend, I’ll explore it thoroughly. I’ll remember to love it. And to love the old me, the guy who built it, along with this new couple who wants me to play the old hits again.

But I’ll also love seeing how much I’ve grown and changed since then, how much better I am at this now than I was seventeen years ago. And I’ll let this feeling wash over me and soak way in so that I’ll never want to stop moving and getting better.

So maybe this balance is one of the many keys to a happy life. Love your people enough to play the old songs, but love yourself enough to keep writing new ones.

Can We Please Stop Telling Each Other To ‘Let It Go’?

Years ago I had a friend who always told me to let it go. I’d be spewing my bitter-worried-twenty-something-angsty-over-thinking all over him and then, after long enough, he’d hold up a hand and say, ‘Mark, you’ve got to just let it go, man. Let it go!

That always ended the conversation immediately. Because I knew intellectually he was right, I probably did need to let it go somehow. But more than that, I knew this was his signal that he was tired and wanted to talk about something else. Which I get, and I don’t fault him for. Because I was sort of a mess sometimes. Let it go was at least his attempt to be more constructive than Dude, shut the hell up already!, which no doubt is what he really wanted to say.

Still, his let it go always embarrassed me, like finding out I’ve had spinach on my front tooth for the last two hours. It made me feel I’d left my crazy hanging out there too long and someone finally saw it and judged it to be too much.

In other words, it never helped me to actually let it go. It only made me stuff it.

Twenty years later I’m way better at actually letting things go. My gushing flow of anxiety has weakened to a trickle, and sometimes it even dries up completely. I don’t have people telling me to let things go any more, because really, they don’t have to.

And then along comes this song. Urgh. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s the memory of the embarrassment I always felt at the phrase. But I really dislike this song and the advice it gives. I don’t think it’s helpful. I think it seems helpful, because yes, indeed, most of us need to become better at letting things go.

But that doesn’t happen by hearing someone tell you to do it. Telling someone to let it go when they are sharing a very real negative emotion usually just creates shame for the fact that they can’t, even if you’re genuinely trying to help.

I think there’s really only one way actually to get better at letting go of the stuff that tortures you. Of the anxiety and the bitterness, the paralyzing fears that won’t let you sleep, the thoughts that circle around in your head like planes trying in vain to land.

And that’s to actually lose something. Or someone. Nothing helps us grow in the very-necessary skill of healthy detachment like suffering an actual loss. When you suddenly have to live without something you never thought you could live without, you figure it out. You learn to let it go, the hard way. The really, really, effing, effing hard way.

And when it happens again, and then again and again, you get better at it. It’s like a muscle. You work it and tear down the fibers, and it grows back bigger. And it all hurts like hell while it’s happening. But then it’s stronger.

I’m way better at letting go now than I used to be, I’m way less anxious. I don’t grasp much any more, I don’t attempt to control. And it’s not because people have kept telling me to let it go. And it’s not because I chose to release things from some admirable zen-like meditative stance.

It’s simply because some people and things have just disappeared, and it’s hurt like the worst kind of hell. And then, each time, months or years later, I wake up one day and realize that I’m still here. That some sort of normal life, even maybe happiness, is still possible.

I’m learning, through losing, that I can survive loss.

My letting-go-muscle is getting stronger and stronger with every heartbreak, and I think I feel it working its way back into the relationships I still have. I think I’m less fearful, less clingy. The people and things I love most no longer have my claw marks all over them.

I think that’s how letting go works. It’s not something you can just instruct someone to do. Telling a mentally suffering friend to let it go is like telling an obese friend to go run a marathon. They can’t do it, not just yet. And you’re only making them feel way, way worse by saying it.

Better, by far, to listen and be patient. And maybe look for just the right the chance to help them see that this current crisis, whatever it is, is strengthening them for the next. Run alongside them and gently remind them that their struggle has meaning, that it’s not for nothing (was it Victor Frankl who said that people can endure almost anything as long as it has meaning?). That one day it will feel easier to let things go because they are working that muscle so hard, so admirably right now.

We get better at letting go, you and me, just by living life and learning the lessons our heart wants to teach us. Instead of trying to force them, what if we simply recognize and celebrate them together when they happen?

And for freak’s sake, let’s stop it with that song already.

Filling The Cracks

I have a woodworker friend who refuses to work with mesquite. ‘Firewood,’ he calls it. ‘Makes excellent steaks, horrible furniture.’ He has a point.

But as I stood in the lumberyard two days ago with my new clients, helping them choose which slab of wood would make the headboard for their new bed, I was hoping they’d pick the cracked and battered mesquite over the smooth, perfect walnut.

I’m not sure why. I must have a strange draw to broken wood. It probably relates to my affection for broken humans. I’m pulled to people who have lived real lives, who are fragile and cracked but still holding together somehow. They make me feel more at ease, less worried about my own flaws. They teach me about survival, about real beauty, about God’s grace. And they usually have space for me in their hearts, what with all the gaping holes those cracks have created.

Perfection in people, and in wood, can be pretty uninviting.

As I’m driving back home with the crumbly nine-foot-long slab standing between the seats in my minivan, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake not steering them toward the walnut. I wonder why I’ve just created so much more work for myself.

Because it’s going to have to be filled. Those yawning cracks can’t stay like that, not if it’s going to be my kind of furniture. I don’t do rustic, I do refined.

The industry-standard way of refining mesquite is with a two-part, clear epoxy. You mix the stuff up and pour it into the cracks and wait a day. It hardens like glass and you sand it flat. And it looks like just that, like you’ve filled it with glass. Which is…okay, I guess. I’ve done it many times, and it’s never looked wrong.

And it’s probably what I’d do with this piece if I hadn’t recently become haunted by the idea of kintsukuroi. 

Japanese for ‘golden repair,’ kintsukuroi is the centuries-old art of fixing shattered ceramics using resin that’s been mixed with gold dust. The idea is to highlight the repair, not hide it. To celebrate the mend, and even the break itself, as a thing of beauty instead of a reason for shame.

The image of kintsukuroi won’t leave me alone. Without a word it tells a whole story, speaks a profound truth. Like that Migrant Mother photo from the dust bowl, or a still, secluded pond on a quiet morning, or that crescendo in that piece of music you love so much. It holds infinity in a single moment.

Kintsukuroi reminds me that in the real world, things break. Bowls, hearts, dreams. Hopes for how our lives will turn out. It makes me think of my friends who died way too soon and all the shattered hearts they left behind, of the marriages and friendships that seem to crack into pieces almost daily, of the once-sharp minds that lose their grip because of time and stress and disease.

And it makes me more aware of my own broken heart.

Kintsukuroi doesn’t stop there, though. It also tells me that a heart can be put back together, that it can be done with delicate care and careful respect. That a new and unexpected arrangement of the same old pieces is possible. That a repaired life in which the cracks are beautifully displayed draws the eye and stirs the heart far more than one that’s never been broken.

But most importantly right now, as I contemplate this stress-shattered board of mesquite, kintsukuroi reminds me that I have a choice to make. I can try to hide the cracks by filling them with a color that’s close to the rest of the wood, hoping they’ll disappear. Or I can fill them with the epoxy, the way I’ve always done it, which is easy and gets me by so I can move on.

Or, says kintsukuroi, I can celebrate them. Highlight them. Draw the eye straight at them. I can fill those cracks with something unexpected and beautiful. Maybe stone or metal or another kind of wood. Something bright and exotic, like figured maple. I can invite people into the story of a mesquite tree. The stress and trauma of life in the hills of central Texas, the droughts and floods and scorching temperatures. The winds and the bugs. The will to survive, to live, to become beautiful anyway.

I can choose a golden repair.

Everyone I know is broken, somehow. It happens when you get to be forty five. Not many perfectly intact people around any more. Not many bowls or trees make it to forty five without cracking either. Time has a cruel and beautiful agenda to break everything into smaller and smaller bits, to grind it all into reusable pieces. Even souls, I suppose.

We don’t get to choose not to be broken. But we do get to choose how to deal with the cracks. We can try to hide them, from others and from ourselves. We can fill them with the same old stuff we’ve always used, just to get by (addictions of all sorts come to mind).

Or we can do something different. Unexpected. Try some sort of golden repair. Let our cracks make us more beautiful, not more ashamed. Fill them with new and unexpected materials, things that require effort and care and might even cost us something. Like giving our time to other broken people, or creating something beautiful, or simply choosing to emit love and light and healing to the people around us instead of pain and fear and hopelessness.

We can choose to be broken, or we can choose to be beautifully broken.

Kintsukuroi.

 

I Don’t Always Get What I Want. Thank God.

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. (Oscar Wilde)

We were in the car on the way to the airport when my phone chimed with a new email. “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this,” she wrote, “but it looks like the Glasgow School of Art library burned down last night.” Barb, who was waiting in London to host us for the next several days, had attached the BBC article.

My throat clinched like a frightened fist when I saw the picture, allowing only a painful “BWHAA??” to escape from my suddenly-blood-drained lips. “NO!!!!” I shouted into the air, and to the others in the car, who were now wondering who had just died. “The library…in Glasgow…it burned down!!!”

They knew what I meant. Along with Barb and anyone else I’d talked to about our upcoming tour of the UK, they knew that Charles Mackintosh’s masterpiece was at the very top of my to-visit list. That when I started designing furniture over twenty years ago I became obsessed with the work of the Scottish Art Nouveau architect, that I’d pore over photos of his interiors — the library in particular — hoping that some of his magic would rub off on me. That even though my design language has since evolved into my own, still, the shapes that made up this tiny little library in Scotland were where it all started.

And now I’d finally get to see it.

The library opened in 1909. It stood for 105 years. I was six days away from visiting it, from touching it with my own hands, when fire destroyed it.

I’m becoming someone who believes in coincidence. Or wait, I guess I mean I’m becoming someone who doesn’t believe in coincidence. Which is to say that when amazingly-timed things happen, I’m learning not to dishonor them by calling them coincidence. I’m learning, instead, to look for the meaning. Because (call me nutty if you want to but) I think that’s how God communicates with me these days. Coincidence-that’s-not-really-just-coincidence is how She gets my attention.

So when I was finally done banging my head against the dashboard mumbling no no no, I wondered what this was about.

 

Five days later I stepped off the train in Glasgow, still wondering. We had a medium-sized layover before our next train. This was supposed to be my chance to visit the library, which was four blocks away. I’d researched ahead, months ago, and learned it was closed to visitors this week. Students studying for finals. But I’d had a plan to sweet-talk whoever was at the door, a speech prepared to beg entry.

None of which mattered now of course.

“You could still go over there, look at where it used to be,” Stephanie said, trying to be supportive.

“Ya, I know. Maybe. Probably not.” I thought about the two hours we had to kill, about how pathetic it would feel to spend them gazing, from behind yellow tape, at a pile of smoking rubbish that had been my Mecca only a week ago.

But I did want to go outside, at least. See something. “I’m going to take a walk, anyone want to go with me?” Julia, always looking for a chance to get away from her little brother, jumped up.

We set toward the large open door at the end of Queen Street Station seeking clean air and sunshine. Both of which we soon found in ridiculous and rare (for Glasgow) abundance.

This…

George Square, it’s called. Just outside the train station. I’d never heard of it before, never taken the time to learn anything about Glasgow except the route from train to library. But suddenly, surprisingly, it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. Some combination of the moment in time, the bright green grass, the first sunshine we’d seen all week, the locals lazying their Friday afternoons away, the time-patinaed architecture and pigeon-patinaed statues, the bright splashes of color anticipating the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the seagull crowning Sir Walter Scott’s head, the unexpectedness of it all — all of it just…worked.

A sudden rush of bliss came over me, a gushy realization that I was in the middle of a beautiful old city in Scotland, that the sun was finally out and shining on me and my lovely daughter, that everything was just as it should be.

After a time we sat on the soft grass and chilled, and that’s when another realization came: Had that library not burned down I’d be there right now, inside a stuffy old building that probably smelled bad, looking at things I’d already seen a thousand times in pictures. The surprises would have been minimal. Not that it wouldn’t have been meaningful, but I’d have spent this layover there, I’d have missed…this. All this. The airy blue sky, the relaxing Glaswegians (that’s what they’re called), the conversation with Julia about the sights around us and our favorite things from the past week and places we want to see in years to come.

I’d have completely missed one of my happiest moments of the trip.

An hour later I settled into my seat on the train to Oban, thinking. I won’t say I’m glad I didn’t get to see that library; it still feels like a pretty big disappointment. And I was happy to read a few days ago that the British government has pledged funds to rebuild it just as it was, so maybe someday.

But I’m not sure I could be happier with the way those two hours turned out.

Which makes me think about other disappointments in my life, other times I haven’t gotten exactly what I wanted. Other instances when that thing I had to have just wasn’t available. What if, whenever that happens, something even more beautiful is waiting? What if the universe, in all its wisdom, holds that thing back from me because it simply wants to give me something better? If only I have the eyes to see it?

Forgiveness is a Dish Best Served Cold : Thoughts About the Kerrigan/Harding Documentary

I don’t care what the tweeterverse says, the Nancy and Tonya story is still interesting 20 years later. In fact it’s more interesting than ever, precisely because it’s been two decades since the ‘WHY?!’ heard ’round the world. Two decades of two women trying to live normally in a country as familiar with their names and faces as it is with any ex-president’s.

As intriguing as the drama of 1994 was, none of the players had as strong or as interesting an impact as the character who took over as soon as the ice had settled in Lillehammer: Time.

Time seems to have been a prison guard for Tonya Harding, holding her under house arrest. Her eyes and voice show us a woman who has now spent half her life semi-bitter and semi-secluded, fighting to convince herself that she is not who the world thinks she is. But it only takes about three seconds of empathetic thinking to forgive her for any defensive tone she happens to put off. After all, imagine being Tonya Harding at the grocery store, Tonya Harding calling a plumber, Tonya Harding setting up a play date. Never allowed to forget that you are that Tonya Harding. Imagine the dark looks of recognition from strangers, and the despair of wondering if they will ever stop. Imagine knowing that they won’t.

Imagine the entire world knowing about a stupid decision you made twenty years ago and never. letting. you. live. it. down. ever. wherever. you. go. always.

For Nancy Kerrigan, Time has been a great re-arranger. It has moved the furniture of her life around so much that she barely remembers what the room was like 20 years ago. She seems unable to connect with the sense of violation she felt. The years have changed her awkward, twisted, closed-off smile into something open and relaxed, even talkative. She’s now effusive about her family life, focused on what’s in front of her while shrugging off what’s behind.

When the subject of Tonya comes up, Nancy responds like a woman who was never hurt to begin with. Time has so graciously reconditioned her heart that she now speaks almost lovingly of her. She gets happy watching old tapes of Tonya skating, expressing cheerful envy at her athleticism. She extends an empathetic word, wondering out loud how hard it must be for Tonya to live her entire life on the defensive. She’s kind and humble and — unless my bullshit detector needs new batteries — overwhelmingly sincere, about all of it. (Watch her interview by clicking here if you want.)

So how, I ask all you twitter-yawners, is this not interesting?

I’ll tell you how. It’s not interesting because we’ve all allowed ‘interesting’ to become anything that quickly stimulates our little adrenaline-pleasure brain-switches. Revenge is interesting. Hatred is interesting. Quick flashes of emotion are interesting. Rushes to judgment are interesting. Unspoken tension on a twisted face is interesting.

But the long-game of slow healing and recovery, of wisdom gained and perspective gotten? Snore. What else is on?

Anyway.

I’m really sad for Tonya Harding, and I think someone needs to find a way to let her out of her prison. I’m pretty sure she’s served her Time already. I think —  I hope — that it won’t be long now.

And I’m amazed and inspired by Nancy Kerrigan, or more accurately by the miracle Time has worked in her life. Hearing genuine forgiveness from the voice of an attack victim is never not miraculous.

I need examples like this, stories about the healing power of just hanging in there, waiting, letting things settle, giving it Time, being patient with my own heart. I need to believe that the day will come when those few names on my black list no longer have any power over my emotions, no longer make me clench my teeth and shake my seething head. That the day will come when I can actually cheer them on. Imagine.

I wish there were way, way more stories of years-later-forgiveness being told in our world, and far fewer about instantaneous hatred. We really do need them.

Because for every insult we experience, for all the anger we taste, for the revenge we fantasize about, Time extends a patient hand to show us a different and better way out.

45 Things I’ve Learned in 45 Years

1. Happiness that comes from the outside only lasts a little while.

2. The more I have, the more I fear losing what I have.

3. Don’t overcook scrambled eggs.

4. All the lyrics to all the songs in The Sound of Music. And I’m finally okay admitting that to the world.

5. Everything decays.

6. Naps are a gift from God.

7. I am no smarter than my parents.

8. I am no smarter than my kids.

9. Pain usually makes me better or worse but rarely leaves me unchanged.

10. The best thing in life is a really good conversation.

11. People are prettier when they smile and stand up straight.

12. What I eat affects my feelings more than just about anything.

13. Getting past my upbringing is only half of my journey toward maturity; coming back to it on friendly terms is the other.

14. It’s hard emotionally to lose your hair.

15. There are always new things to learn.

16. Writing brings my crazy thoughts together and marches them in a straight line.

17. Eating french fries in the car makes my car smell like french fries for four days.

18. Multitasking makes me feel crazy in the head.

19. Most people who have hurt me didn’t do it on purpose.

20. Dogs have hilarious ears.

21. Nothing is as big a deal as I thought it was when I was 25.

22. Life is always a little painful, a little scary, and a little unsatisfying.

23. I will never be a professional athlete or musician or astronaut. Sorry, eleven-year-old me.

24. No matter how much I try to change myself I usually end up back where I was pretty much, but a little wiser for trying.

25. I don’t have to follow my feelings.

26. When I hurt people it’s usually because I’m feeling unhappy myself.

27. I get more respect because I’m tall.

28. Junk food is less tempting the older I get.

29. I often get to choose how I feel.

30. I always get to choose how I respond.

31. Death scares me less the closer I get to it.

32. New experiences make me uncomfortable at first, then happy in the end.

33. I’m at my best when I’m honest with myself about my deepest motivations.

34. I don’t like the Grateful Dead, Eddie Vedder, or Prince. But I’ve learned not to say these things out loud, because people come unfastened when I do.

35. Whenever I’m feeling bad, the thing I think is making me feel bad is usually not the thing that’s really making me feel bad.

36. Shopping makes me more tired than anything in the world.

37. Before people lie to you, they usually lie to themselves first.

38. There is no sound on earth happier than my ten year old boy giggling, especially when I caused it.

39. Radical liberals and radical conservatives are basically the same type of people.

40. When I feel insulted I become a horrible listener.

41. As a white male living in 21st century America, I need to think long and hard before I complain about anything in my life, ever.

42. When I make a habit of being critical, I see the world as critical of me. When I make a habit of lying, I think everyone’s lying to me. When I feel incompetent, everyone around me seems incompetent too. But when I manage to be encouraging, optimistic, giving, and loving, suddenly the world looks that way too. It’s weird, and it sounds trite, but it’s so true. I create my own reality.

43. My kids often forget the things I wish they’d remember, and remember the things I wish they’d forget.

44. Every close friendship gets difficult once in a while. But it’s so worth it.

45. Getting old is way, way better than I was led to believe.

 

7 Ways I’m Better Off Without Religious Certainty

I revisit The Missing Piece regularly, ever since a friend gave me the little book two decades ago.

I think I see myself in the story. The little almost-circle thumping slowly along, looking for his missing piece. Singing his song, talking to worms, trying out pieces that almost fit but don’t quite.

Then hallelujah!, he finds it. He takes it in and is now a perfect circle. He’s no longer missing a piece.

Only now he rolls faster. Way faster. Too fast. Zooms past the worms and flowers. He no longer has a hole to make him lopsided and slow him down. And also the new piece stuffs his mouth so full that he can’t sing his song any more, the one about how he’s looking for his missing piece.

So he makes a decision.

He lets his missing piece go and rolls away, thumping slowly along again, singing.

That little piece has equalled different things for me over the years. But the truth of the story has always been the same: The hole in your heart, maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it’s there for a reason. Maybe missing a piece somehow makes you a better person.

Recently I set a piece down and walked away from it. It was a big, important piece.

I had spent most of my life looking for it. Then I found it, snapped it into place, and got rolling. But in time I realized that I didn’t like the person I had become. I had gone from feeling completed to feeling closed-off. No holes or imbalances to slow me down, no hungers to force me open.

My missing piece was religious certainty. A sense of surety that I know all about God. That my set of God-beliefs are the correct ones. I once had that confidence, but a few years ago I decided to let it go and roll away.

Which means that now I know a whole lot less about God. Almost nothing.

And I like it. A lot.

I was thinking today about the reasons why, and without much effort I came up with seven of them:

1. I no longer carry the burden to defend God or to convince anyone of anything. 

Part of what you sign up for with the Christian faith is the responsibility to protect it from foreign invaders. In my youth I memorized scriptures that said we should always be ready to explain and defend the things we believe. The whole world was a mission field.

This always felt like a huge burden to me. I’m introverted, and even at my surest I had doubts. Yet I was supposed to defend the faith and convince others to believe? Why does the almighty God need me as protector anyway?

But when I traded in my closed view of God for one that was wide open, one made up of far more questions than answers, suddenly I realized that it was never really God I was being asked to defend. It was my particular group’s beliefs about God. 

2. I appreciate the gifts of this life far more, now that I’m not so focused on the next. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after I die. I’ve been taught various things by people who think they know, but of course nobody does. In the end it all comes down to faith, and perhaps even more so to hope (two things that I don’t discount in the least).

When I decided to embrace my uncertainty about these things, to allow mysteries to be mysteries, my happiness-center-of-gravity shifted from the blessings of Someday to the blessings of Now. I don’t know if blessings await me when I die, but I do know that I’ve got lots of good things right here that have gone tragically unnoticed and sadly under-appreciated.

I can’t see what’s coming next, but I can definitely see what’s here right now. And this life is not nearly as miserable as I once believed it to be.

In fact, it’s pretty awesome.

3. I no longer get upset when I hear about what other people believe. 

I was taught that the stakes of faith-facts are enormous. That if a person believed the wrong things s/he was in danger of eternal punishment. No wonder Christians sometimes get so worked up.

One of the reasons I stepped away from religion was that this no longer made sense to me. Loving-God would not bet it all on whether or not we believe exactly the right ideas and then turn and make those ideas extremely difficult to navigate and agree upon. Loving-God would not hide salvation-truth like an Easter egg and then stand back while we scurry desperately around looking for it.

No. If there’s an afterlife (I don’t know), and if there’s a judgment (I’m very uncertain of this), it can’t be about having the right ideas. Not for Loving-God. It must be about something else.

Perhaps love.

So tell me whatever whacky theory you’ve got about Loving-God, whatever construction helps you get something like a grip on the infinite mystery of it all. I bet there’s some truth in it somewhere, and I bet it’s no more or less whacky than mine.

4. My morals are becoming my own.

I grew up learning about sin. That any action or thought that goes against God’s wishes, as stated in scripture, is a sin. Sometimes you will understand why a sin is wrong, sometimes you won’t. It doesn’t matter, if God says don’t then you don’t.

I wasn’t sure what would happen to my sense of right and wrong once I stopped believing in the system. Without very clear directions and a fear of punishment behind them, isn’t it reasonable to assume I might spin off my moral axis?

That hasn’t happened. Instead, in the absence of unquestionable truths to guide me from above, I’ve found the mental space to explore ethics on their own terms. To make my own choices and pay attention to their natural consequences. To think about the results of my actions on the lives of the people around me, and in the deepest parts of myself.

And after a few years of this I think I’ve figured something out. Most (definitely not all) of the behavioral rules I was taught from the Bible actually hold up on their own, even without calling them sin. They just make sense. People do lots of damage when they steal, murder, lie, cheat, hoard wealth, ignore the needy, use and abuse people sexually and otherwise. I don’t need to hear this from religion to know these rules are right, and I don’t need to fear external punishment to want to follow them.

I feel free now to sort these things out from my own experience and still-incomplete wisdom. I feel okay to insist that a rule make sense on its own merits, and to reject the ones that don’t. “Because the Bible says so” isn’t enough for me any more.

And when I feel the reasons for a rule deep down, I’m way more likely to follow it gladly. To do what’s right out of joy rather than obligation.

5. I have a much larger sense of mystery now.

I think a big part of happiness is mystery. Essential to bliss is a feeling that reality is infinitely larger than the capacity of my wee little brain. That no matter how long I live there will always be new things to discover, new experiences to amaze.

I think this because I’ve seen a tight relationship between having all the answers and being unhappy. I can tell you from my experience serving a church, the gripy-est people by far are also the ones who no longer have any questions or doubts. They closed their minds and hearts long ago, believing Truth to be small and easily knowable. They are among the saddest people you are likely ever to meet.

Life can feel big and scary. And the thought of death is terrifying. So early on we scramble to find answers to the eternal questions, words to fill in the gaping blanks. And there is no shortage of belief-systems out there eager to help us do that. I think that by the time we’re, say, 30, most of us have filled in those holes with something we were taught or something we found on our own. After then we rarely revisit them.

But for lots of reasons, here I am again. I’ve let go of my certainty, I’ve erased many of the answers I’d written into those blanks. I’m open now, and reality is huge.

But this time, instead of feeling scared, I’m thrilled.

6. I’m now open to Truth wherever I find it.

Or wherever it finds me.

I think God has given us heart-strings that vibrate with deep, resonant music whenever they encounter Truth. The source doesn’t really matter, God can use anyone or anything.

I sometimes used to mute those strings if I didn’t think the message was coming from the right place, or the right person. Afraid that the idea might not fit well with my belief system, that someone was trying to lead me astray.

One of the benefits to setting aside my certainty has been the ability to hear God speak to me from many different angles, without worry or suspicion. To trust my heart to recognize Truth when I hear it.

Truth is all around, as it turns out.

7. My God got way bigger. 

You know that thing where the astronauts look back at the earth from the moon and realize just how small it really is? That’s something like what I’m experiencing the further I get away from religion. I now see that the being who was put to me as God was so, so very limited. And that many of the things I was taught — theologies and interpretations — seem now to have been less about experiencing the divine and more about drawing lines around God. Attempts to contain the uncontainable, to control the uncontrollable.

When I was five Mrs. Norris taught us that God is everywhere. Up in heaven, all around, even inside of us. I remember the moment. We were in Sunday school, toes in the sandbox, and she said it. I looked around the room, trying to see God in the air. I squinted, thinking that might help. I patted all over my chest and head, hoping somehow to feel God inside. I stretched my little brain as big as it would go, trying to wrap it around this idea. But it didn’t work. I couldn’t make it big enough. How can God be everywhere?

I still don’t understand it, but I believe it. Because it keeps proving true to me.

Mrs. Norris was right about God. And I now see that that moment was the peak of my spiritual education. That was God at God’s very biggest.