Backlit by dawn, the park dew-dropped
diamonds, geese browse the unspent
bounty before the outbound flight,
a walker bundled in a blanket texts
hello and good-bye while crows mock,
and a yogi on her final downward dog
bows to a rising sun as willows sleep.
Sway, weep, sigh as seasons pass you by
(oh, the liminal unsubstantiality of it all!)
taking leave in a sun-kissed mist.
Skirting her shore, her firs and a forest
green shawl drapes the island down to
red arbutus shins, the shoals her toes
dip in the squall-kissed sea. In the deep
crevice of her soul, a cove swarms with
minnows like memories through tangles of
kelp and weeds shifting with time. Starfish
cling still to stones like hope in the roil.
With each wave falling down her face
she exhales, casting off detritus gathered
from seasons of storms, then swills another
healing cordial from the inexorable swell.
I heard it again at my daughter’s graduation: “You can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do. The sky is the limit.” Our culture’s superhero mantra is echoed at ceremonies across the country, chanted so often we seldom ask if it’s really true. Does a wise man know his limits, or does a brave man deny them? The above assertion would assume the latter.
I understand the sentiment. We want our kids to excel, to be brave, to flourish in their gifts and talents, all good. But the assertion is both unrealistic and dangerous. Perhaps it’s also one of our culture’s most basic falsehoods.
The truth is, only the fortunate few actually reach their most desired ultimate goals in life, usually with the help of a few miracles. And those who claim they have “achieved it all” quickly find out it doesn’t satisfy. Or they find themselves with far more problems than they had in the beginning.
A common problem with the “sky is the limit” creed is the stress and anxiety this belief instills, especially in children. They may easily feel their best is never good enough. They mark themselves on their mental report card and compare themselves to others and then wonder if they are really “the best they can be” since they’re not “the best in class.”
We assume the competition is “good for them.” It’s the way we grew up, after all. But do we really want them to be as messed up as we are? I wonder sometimes if the expectation we put on our children reflects how little we ourselves think we’ve achieved and is an attempt to save ourselves.
One big beef I have with our culture’s “limitless potential” ideal is its arrogance. Our world is finite. Our lives have obvious limits. A pandemic, recurring economic crises, the climate crisis, each of these should have taught us by now that our most noble goals can suddenly go up in flames or be washed out by a flood. Economic, social, mental, or physical limitations daily fly in the face of “you can be and do whatever you want.”
A child will eventually face the reality that they may never reach a certain ideal or goal. She won’t make the soccer team and will never be a professional because she’s not good enough. He will never get that girl because she’s just not into him. She continually gets low scores in school and does not have the academic chops to go to Stanford. A serious sickness may mean he will never run the Boston Marathon. Dad may lose his job and have to sell the house, and now you’re moving to a small apartment in a less privileged part of town.
At these moments, even to a child, “you can do anything you want” sounds as futile as watching a dog chasing crows and imagining one day he’ll catch one. But as difficult as it may sound, limitations are good for the soul. They teach us humility and reverence for things we have no control over. Our limitations remind us of our shared humanity and connect us to one another.
And what about kids who don’t know who they are or “who they want to be”? That was me right into early adulthood. I didn’t have a good idea of who I wanted to be, and I felt lost. My self-esteem deteriorated, and I was plagued with anxiety. I’m eclectic to this day. I like many things equally. But this does not mesh with a culture that values specialization and career driven individuals.
Consider this model. Rather than focusing our kids’ eyes on future goals and “the sky is the limit,” how about simply affirming and enjoying them for how God’s made them? Have we taken this first step? Have we let them know how proud we are of them regardless of their “achievements,” and how much we like them for who they are today and not for what they might become one day?
A more lasting basis for success and happiness includes values such as meaningful relationships, beauty, justice, truth, love, faith, and loyalty. Even a pandemic can’t take those from us. With this focus kids can live with not knowing what they want to be. They don’t have to keep chasing crows because they know they can succeed all their lives regardless of circumstances. They can better manage disappointments, failure, and limitations.
In my daughter’s final report before graduating her academic marks were so-so, but the report included this comment: “She is a positive force in our learning community, and kind. She consistently models patience, understanding, and compassion.” These qualities were not on her “sky is the limit, be whatever you want to be” list, but it was all I needed to hear.
Graduation addresses don’t normally. stick with me, but there is one from a friend of mine that does. He challenged graduates to think about what they know. He told them that, amid all they've learned or hope to learn, the most important thing they will ever know is that they are beloved, loved by another, loved by God. Does anything else really matter?
I woke at my usual time and sat up. Something was wrong. I blinked, covered each eye to check the other. I’d lost sight in my left eye. A black veil had been drawn, leaving only a small halo of light at the periphery, like the sun setting in the fog.
After a minute of panic, my rational side took over to try and make sense of it. From what I knew, cataracts impede night vision and cause halos but slowly over time. Macular degeneration also is not this sudden. Maybe it’s not macular but miraculous degeneration, I joked to ease my anxiety. Like Saul on the road to Damascus and God with a plan in his pocket, I imagined traveling and turning the world upside down, starting a snakes-can’t-hurt-me cult, and setting off a gender war about what women are allowed to do just because somebody misunderstood something I wrote.
I made my way to the kitchen and reached for a water glass, knocking it over. My depth perception was off. Of course. I sat and did a Google search of my condition, leaning in with my right eye to read. Jumping off the screen were the words “retinal detachment.” That seemed to check all the boxes. Then I read, “Solutions: Seek care immediately. Surgery…” I didn’t read the rest.
I had Diane drop me off at ER, and within minutes they confirmed my suspicions of a retinal detachment. Surgery was scheduled in two days. While I waited, I studied up on the procedure—“vitrectomy.” It didn’t look pretty. Probes inserted through the sclera? Remove vitreous jelly? Inject gas bubble? Lasers? All under “local anesthetic.” Oh, that's comforting, thanks. You mean I won't be totally out for this? Not a fan of sticking sharp objects into my eye. It goes against everything we’re taught.
The doctor couldn’t guarantee surgery would be 100% effective. Do they ever? So what if it didn’t work? One of my greatest pleasures in life is exploring creation in all its details and diversity. And how would my reading and writing be affected? My little brother was born blind in one eye and has lived a full, happy life. I might have to talk to him. And people have lived completely blind and developed their other senses in amazing ways to be their “eyes.” So there's hope?
I studied the literature and diagrams of the human eye until a tranquil awe settled on me over the spectacular array of moving parts working together to allow for sight. The entrance of light through the lens, through the vitreous gel, to the intricate network of specialized cells and rods that make up the retina and receive images (all upside down, mind you) down the optic nerve to the brain, where the images are all turned upright. It was stunning how this complex tiny organ had held together at all over the years!
If there was ever evidence where the theory of original design flies in the face of evolution, the eyes have it. No way in my mine could this marvelously designed organ simply be a product of chance even given millions of years. There had to be a master intelligence, a God, who had designed and created it.
Being wheeled into surgery on a gurney, I asked the attendant if she was ever struck by the design of the eye like I was. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she said wheeling me briskly into the operating room and leaving me there. I was just one in a long line of others having eye surgery that day. I was greeted by bright lights and several gowned and masked aliens. I saw a set of the promised sharp objects on a tray and what looked like night vision goggles. I didn’t see the laser gun anywhere.
Twenty minutes of eye-poking and many painful laser beams later, I was done and was whisked back out. I listened vaguely to perfunctory post-op instructions, like how to sleep and how to take the eye drops they prescribed.
It would take a few weeks before I could find out how much of my eyesight would return. The pain left after a couple of days, the gas bubble the doctor had injected into my eye disappeared after a week, and the fog began to lift. After three weeks, objects appeared clearer but a little distorted, wavy, like a funhouse mirror at the carnival.
Walking back home from my two-week checkup, I felt grateful. My sight was improving a lttle. I no longer saw people like trees walking. I noticed in a way I hadn't before the uniqueness of each person passing by. One person walked with short staccato steps, another with long out-toed strides with his lips in a permanent pucker. Some swung their arms, some walked stiffly, some were alone, others in pairs, talking animatedly about things they’d seen in the store. And all the eyes, they were beautiful, varying in color from dark to green to light blue, mostly dark, and in shapes from narrow to large, from deep-set to bug-eyed.
I’ve obviously had eyes on my mind. I thought about how the word itself, “eye,” resembled eyes—each “e” was an eye, complete with an eyelid, resting on either side of the nose, the “y.”
There’s a literary technique called “defamiliarization,” where a writer makes ordinary things seem different, causing the reader to see things in a new, fresh way, as if seeing them for what they truly are, which is why it is said that writers help us see. I think that’s what my retinal detachment did for me—helped me see the world anew.
Today, three weeks after my eye surgery, while I wait to see how my eyesight will evolve, I feel a bit like I'm seeing the world for the first time, like a child. Jesus said the eye is the “lamp of the body” and “if our eyes are healthy, our whole body will be full of light.” I want to perceive the world as it truly is and for my body to be full of light. But maybe I first needed to become blind.
I walk the dog around 7 am. Typically I use this as thinking time, also prayer time, though who’s to say it isn’t all prayer time since God hears everything anyway—my thoughts and mumblings as well as my petitions—the good, bad, and in between. It’s all a good reason to have a dog. I let Bernie off leash so we can each be undistracted in our thoughts, which means I’ve probably missed picking up one or two of his do dos.
As I pass over the cracks in the sidewalk, I tick off the things I have to do for the day and what I can put off so I can do what I’d like to do instead. I think about the kids and how they’re feeling, how they’re doing in school, whether I’m giving them enough of my time, whether they should get off their iPads and read more. I think about a person I’ve been avoiding making amends with. I pray Diane’s knee holds up for another day of work at the Cancer Agency. I worry about the financial sustainability of my family and about the sustainability of the planet, detecting the sepia glow in the sky brought on by smoke from another forest fire. I pray for responsible human behavior, my own included.
It’s usually quiet with few others out and about this early. Then I hear Bernie barking furiously at the base of a tree, looking up with his front paws on the trunk.
A squirrel has scurried about sixty feet up into the seventh heaven into the interlacing branches. It whisks along the network of highways from tree to tree, chasing another traveler of his clan along the way. Then a third one picks up the game, a fascinating convoy. They could nearly circle the entire park on their leafy thoroughfare.
Until this moment, I’ve been walking with my head down, gazing in thought at the pavement and have missed what was going on in another world high above me. I carry on, trying to take in what else is happening way up there. I see bird pairs, large nests, a balloon snagged in the labyrinth of a thousand bridges and interchanges. What a contrast to the world below with its carefully bordered parcels of land, evenly clipped lawns, and straight pathways. The complexity and randomness above are astonishingly beautiful!
This seemingly insignificant change in the orientation of vision changes everything. Looking down at the pavement, I’m focused anxiously on the issues I have to tend to. Looking up, I’m lost in a world that eases my mind. My perspective suddenly broadens. The things I’m concerned about haven’t gone away, but they’ve lost the weight of their urgency and importance. They feel more manageable.
Seeing a couple of crows in the higher branches, I think of what Jesus says about worry and trust. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Through the trees and beyond, I catch a glimpse of the mountains to the north. Snow is still on the peaks—vibrant, fresh, clean, like grace itself. I think immediately of how the Psalms poet says, “I lift my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from? From the Maker of heaven and earth.”
I thank Bernie for getting my attention. I’ll be lifting my eyes more often on my dog walks. The prayer I need might be right up there in the trees.
She tip-toes over the park, pauses, her nose
to the earth for some scent of the ancestral path
that runs far below along underground currents.
She heard traces of it whispered among the pack.
Her mind races to imagine a draw, a willowed creek.
The ancient path, like the old stories, lies beneath
the park’s short-cropped lawn. She traverses its length,
spread as habitat for mothers with strollers, swings,
baseball and cricket, canine cousins on leashes.
Coyote sniffs the air, seeking heaven’s aid,
her breath a vapor in the chill autumn dusk.
She saunters forward, holding in the sinew
of her agile limbs the memory of past hunters--
mice scurrying scared in the brush, a deer
taken down by the pack, so deft, the carcass left
half-eaten, spent salmon easy prey in the shallows,
rabbits crying in a thicket, pups at mothers’ teats.
She feels the ancestral stories of woodsmen too,
axes chewing, felling trees to be shaped into dens
for the two-legged intruders, or the logs dragged
by horses to the bay and on to other lands.
The stories are fading—an ancient path,
a willowed creek drained and tilled--
their telling quelled by the interment.
Tales of new hunters today replace old,
and Coyote has only dreams running cold
like still water far beneath her feet.
When I was young, art and literature were treated, for the most part, as extraneous fluff, an escape, entertainment for girls resting in their armchairs or for boys allergic to doing something useful, like cleaning the cow shed. Unless literature asserted a reformed Christian worldview, it had limited usefulness. You could find redemption where your hands met a pitchfork. Hands in a book, unless it was the Bible or Heidelberg Catechism, was idle dreaming.
The odds were stacked against me developing any kind love for art and literature.
To compound the matter, as a kid, I didn’t come by reading naturally. I was never a book worm or voracious reader like some kids. I was a slow reader and fell behind quickly. Later I learned my condition was not so uncommon and had a name. I believe I had dyslexia or, as the name implies, “a reading disability,” though I was never diagnosed. At the time, people called it “dumb,” which is dumb to say. I struggled, I cried, and I complained to my mom that I “just couldn’t get it” while the other kids were speeding ahead.
The experts have further broken down dyslexia into several kinds. One term I discovered is “information-processing speed challenges.” In the words of Charlie Brown, “That’s it!” The phrase is descriptive, and the word “challenges” is appropriately non-judgmental and sympathetic, politically correct.
I was a slow reader then and still am, though now I believe my reading pace has as much to do with taking time to ruminate over the words, sentences, or plot structure as to do with dyslexia.
And so, because reading was a struggle, I never enjoyed it much as a kid. My mom tried to feed me some of her favorite titles (about girls stuck on farms) with worn bindings, which only worsened my interested. Then someone pushed a Hardy Boys book under my nose, an adventure. There seemed to be hundreds of Hardy Boys books. I’d finish reading one while my brother was on his third or fourth, but I was starting to enjoy reading.
At some point, maybe in junior high, I remember coming upon a book called My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. (I notice a new edition of it has come out recently.) I liked the cover and the sound of the title, and once into it, I found the story resonated with a dream I had of living on my own in the wild, like Davey Crocket. I was so immersed in the story that I lost sense of time and place, and I thought I’d figured out something -- “Pick books that feel like you, and maybe you can become a better reader.”
A few years later, I read the first ever adult novel that grabbed my imagination--The Grapes of Wrath. I can still feel what I felt reading it for the first time. I was Tom Joad in the Dust Bowl, squatting in the fields, holding the dry Oklahoma soil in my hand and watching it sift through his fingers. I felt the heat, the dust in my eyes and hair, heard the murmur of the engine of the truck that took the Joads to Calif
Without realizing it, I had surrendered myself to Steinbeck's world. I'd let myself become vulnerable to the power of well-chosen words and the power of a story those words could create, how stories, even imagined ones, could transport me. And I liked the effect reading his novel had on me. I felt like a more empathetic and compassionate person, and for some reason I felt more confident.
Contrary to opinions of my Calvinist subculture, I found my imagination wasn't a suspect stranger to be held at a distance. It was a well to be tap for all it was worth. I learned that good literature was not simply a distraction or an escape. A good book could open up a person 's world and make his life more meaningful. Even “non-religious” books could touch the spirit of a person and help him realize God’s image in himself.
A February dawn seldom breaks pastel
over a sun-soaked horizon, more often creeps grey
like a duvet over bare limbs, eaves, and dormant beds.
February dawns do not take time to smile languidly
on sentimental wishes plucked from flower petals,
or found in a four-leaf clover or on a bed of hay.
February argues against sensible minds awaiting
a fresh start with bright spring greens,
warm light, and tennis courts long laid fallow,
and simply demands that we listen.
So I listen and walk before the city takes shape,
a chill rain tapping a syncopated beat on my parka,
and I am brought back suddenly
on a winter duck hunt with Don, shotguns
cradled in folded arms against the drizzle,
me hoping I won’t have to put a finger
to a metal trigger and shoot.
Then I hear his voice when a varied thrush trills
across the park, piercing the drum of rain--
his low dozy chirping, his sudden rush of laughter
at something said, an old joke, a memory lost,
then a burst of surprise at some beautiful thing
a sensible person would never notice.
A low trill from a thrush, a gust of wind,
tree limbs waver. I lift my face, awash.
In the rain pellets I hear his halting voice
the days before he slipped away, affirming
February’s argument—love is eternal.
I’ve often thought of February as the drabbest, most uninteresting month of the year. We’ve all finally come down off the high of Christmas and New Years events, which we only vaguely remember, like floating through a farmers’ market. The booze is put away, mostly. So here's February, one month with no big holidays. What to do?
It’s still plenty dark out, too. And there’s the rain, more accurately the wet stuff coming down that can't decide if it’s snow or rain, mocking this season lolling between light and darkness, life and death. Oh, and don’t forget seasonal affective disorder, if you haven’t noticed it in my tone.
Do I sound sorry for myself? It gets worse. Other than the Super Bowl, February is deadsville for sports fans. Most everyone’s NFL team is in hibernation. The hockey all-star break lasts forever, and the Canucks have already mailed it in, so there’s that. Baseball isn't here yet, nor March Madness. This is Sports Dead Zone.
My wife, who loves Sports Dead Zone, thinks February is God’s gift to women, and that he put Valentine’s Day in the middle of it, when there’s no sports, so women have more chance of getting men to pay attention. I have to admit, she might be right. Maybe we need the discipline of February to compel us to remove ourselves from the distractions and simply hibernate with those we love.
Hibernating can be a good thing in a number of ways. Taxes are still a ways off. We can catch our breath and rest from the rush, maybe even read a book in a couple sittings rather than trying to finish it over twelve months. (Did I say “book”?)
At the risk of getting a little mushy, hibernating is a time to look inward and examine ourselves, see what’s making us tick. What gives us meaning and joy? Is that my wife grabbing me and forcing me to look her in the eye? What? You want to massage my toes while we watch The Only Murders in the Building? Okay.
You’ve probably heard about the eighty-year study that’s been getting a lot of press. The question the researchers have asked over the years is, What makes people happy? The answer varies, but the researchers have found a profound consensus around one answer – the quality of our relationships. They found the happiest people are those who have healthy relationships with family, friends, and acquaintances. They also found that it’s never too late in life to “become happy.” That’s encouraging.
The researchers further challenge us to take this test. Call or text someone you haven’t connected with recently and ask them for just eight minutes of their time just to talk. Those that have done the test say the chat has made them feel lighter, happier.
When I did my theological studies, one constant theme that came through in almost every class was that faith is not merely something we think about and put down in our favorite propositions or doctrines. Faith is relational, or it’s nothing at all. I fall back on that constantly. Not only is faith in God a person-to-person relationship, but that also means my faith in my family and friends, my commitment to them, is a reflection of the quality of my relationships with them. February has reminded me that I want all of that.
Our car has been broken into three or four times over a few months, and I’ve noticed a pattern. It appears to be the same person each time. No windows are broken, no damage done, the gas gage is unchanged, but whoever it is leaves the same mess—the glove compartment splayed open with its contents spilled over the passenger seat and floor. And because we never leave anything valuable in the car, nothing is stolen, except for one thing. A pack of gum is missing from the door pocket.
My question of how he (or she) gets in the car is overshadowed by my curiosity. Why continue going through the risk of getting caught just for a pack of gum?
The first time one of these break-ins happened I was miffed, feeling a bit violated, but thankful we hadn’t lost anything. When it happened again—again the glove compartment spewing its contents, gum gone—I noticed a tire pressure gauge, not ours, left on the seat.
My curiosity gave way to my imagination. Being a writer, and having occasionally imagined myself to be a forensic investigator, I began creating a profile of this mystery thief. I presumed it was a guy rather than a girl, just a hunch. Probably a biker by the tire gauge he left, young, nightcrawler type, risk-taker, marginalized, unemployed, homeless, few social connections. A down and out teen?
After the tire gauge, other items started appearing. One time I found a hand cleanser, which made me think he was being covid safe, but it didn’t look used. Next a pair of cheap sunglasses were left on the dash. Another time the tire gauge was gone but returned several months later.
Most surprising of all, I started to feel a curious empathy for this kid. I thought, Yeah, this could have easily been me at his age if circumstances in my life had gone a different way. I shared my thoughts with Diane, but she thought I was being too sentimental about it, and the image of “the kind thief” I’d conjured, she thought, was going a bit too far. Maybe she was right, and I was developing a sort of “car-thief Stockholm syndrome.”
But I still thought about him and wondered. Why did he leave the items in the car? Was he just forgetful? Mentally ill? Was it a way of saying, “Forgive me but I can’t help myself”? Were these things a kind of payment to placate us, or simply a way of saying “thank you for your trouble.”
Months went by without another visit, and I thought maybe he’d grown up, changed, or moved, and we wouldn’t "see him" anymore. I was surprised by a sense of loss I felt.
But this Christmas he came back again. This time, after ransacking the glove compartment and finding nothing of value again, he left a CD without a label.
I pop it into the car’s CD player, expecting a clue of some kind, a message perhaps, to give us some insight to who he really was and why he kept coming back. The CD is a compilation of Christmas carols. They’re mostly secular oldies, sentimental renditions of “White Christmas,” “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and so on, cajoling us to be happy without saying why we should be, other than because Santa Clause is coming and because our soggy “weather is so delightful.” Then, near the end of the CD I notice one of my favorites, a real Christmas carol—“Oh, Holy Night.”
The carol talks about a hurting world below a starry night sky of promise, a world long in travail and waiting for Jesus’ birth. One line jumps out—“A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!” and it hits me beneath my ribcage. I can’t help muttering “thank you,” and I send up a prayer for the break-in kid, whom I’ve never met but feel like I know. I pray when his long night is over, he’ll see a glorious morn and he’ll have found the promised Christmas he’s been looking for.