The Wings of History

No offense to Sir Winston Churchill, but history isn’t just written by the victors. The fact of the matter is we all have our histories. You, me – everyone around us carries with them at all times the accumulation of their lived days. Some of those days are memorable for some reason – the excitement of undefiled joy, the depths of immense pain – but even the unremarkable days build up what we call our life.

Often, we are uncomfortable when people want to walk us back, take us through their history. My family is experiencing something of that tension right now; my wife is currently leading the research into some of her family history, and we’re finding that no person is fully good or bad. The same is true of history. There’s always something of both to be found if we’re willing to look fairly.

I read this the other day, and it gave me the courage to continue thinking about my own past and the things I often remember but don’t explore for fear of upsetting someone. These are the words of Frederick Buechner, from his book Telling Secrets:

I am inclined to believe that God’s chief purpose in giving us memory is to enable us to go back in time so that if we didn’t play those roles right the first time round, we can still have another go at it now. We cannot undo our old mistakes or their consequences any more than we can erase old wounds that we have both suffered and inflicted, but through the power that memory gives us of thinking, feeling, imagining our way back through time we can at long last finally finish with the past in the sense of removing its power to hurt us and other people and to stunt our growth as human beings.

The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.

I know now, as an adult, that the people who surround me are themselves highly complex and equally as possessed of memories and experiences similar to mine. I know now, as an adult, that things which happened to me as a child were also happening to the people with whom I interacted. Indeed, none of us have histories that are solo performances. The other people entwined in our memories have their own versions of the same events.

What gives me a sense of peace is Buechner’s assertion that “instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.” My past – your past – does not have to be a weight.

It can be wings, if you’re willing.

I write so much about what happens in my life – what has happened in my life – as a way of making sense, of interpreting the movements of history so I can be a better man, better husband, better father; but also so I can leave the world a better place. Even as I go back, I find the familiar villains from my childhood weren’t necessarily villains at all, at least, not in the classic sense; rarely are people wholly evil, even if that’s what I remember. In fact, I find myself more and more frequently wondering just how many people have slotted me as their villain; because there have been times in my life where that title would fit like a tailored suit.

I’m learning that with history, as with so many other things in life, there has to be a sense of grace for the people around you. All I can hope is that as I learn to extend grace, others will extend it to me.

Imagine what a difference that might make.

Independence Everyday


This made me laugh.

Today is the Fourth of July, the annual day when America stops to celebrate itself. And we’ve much to celebrate – one of the youngest and yet most influential nations on the planet, we are pretty much the geopolitical equivalent of the Millennials: we came into the game early, believed we belonged, proved ourselves despite some mistakes, and now we’re sitting in the catbird seat wondering, “What next?”

It’s been a rollicking ride, to say the least. I’m no historian, but we’ve undergone quite the transformation. Once a backwater repository for people who didn’t want to be picked on anymore, we’re now the Ritz-Carlton of refugees. For nearly three centuries we’ve been the rewrite of Shangri-La; our national anthem might as well be New York, New York  because if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And yet we find ourselves at a crossroads. Things have changed. We still believe certain things are true about our country, but we are also increasingly aware that the nation we live in isn’t built entirely on sunshine and big brass ones.

If America were a shiny Jeep Liberty (cause, really – what else would we be?), then we’d have to admit there’s a good bit of dirt on the undercarriage. The same is true of almost any nation.

But we feel it more than most, I think. Our mythology has always been that we were the nation that wasn’t a carbon-copy of the despotic and tyrannical days of yore; we were the nation that gave rise to the voice of the people, the nation that proved that power was not best when concentrated in the hands of a few. We stop and celebrate our independence every July 4th, we sing the song for the people, by the people, of the people, but the reality is that we have drifted far, far away from that narrative.

And it bugs us.

Some folks break out the tea bags and stockpile the ammo, waiting for the day that history repeats itself. Others push for reforms that will never come. Some just embrace it as the manifest destiny of all nations – that at some point the safety and security of all we’ve become is paramount over the rights and liberties that made us what we are. Others adopt that most modern American of attitudes: “Dude, as long as I still get wifi, who cares?”

Two hundred and thirty seven years after we told the British Empire to step off, we’re still trying to figure out what it means to be American.

And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe the most daring of political experiments should never come to a tidy conclusion, where certain ideas and beliefs become ruts that trap us. Maybe it’s right that we continue wrestling with the soul of our nation in order not to fall into the trap of other former powers who lost their souls and then lost themselves. Maybe our greatest gift to ourselves is the permanence of uncertainty, that we rise and fall on our ability as a nation to never settle on a “right way”.

It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, if our stability as a nation rested on our instability as a culture?

I’m not a fan of everything that’s changed about our country. I look back on previous generations and lament the loss of certain of their characteristics in this day and age. But I’m also quite pleased that we now have a country where you can’t own another person legally, you can’t get away with abuse in private, and you can’t claim superiority to another person simply because you were born into privilege. Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of who we used to be, but you know what? A bunch of it needed to be lost.

That’s what makes us America – we’re constantly examining who we are in order to become who we want to be.

There will always be people who deny this, of course. They’ll insist that what makes us great is what made us great in the past, those values and behaviors that gave rise to power and prestige on the world stage. But if you look at the thread weaving our history together, if you look at the central characteristic of the American story, you see that it’s always been our propensity for change that’s made us great. We are a nation built on thrown off ideals.

Our independence is what defines us, for better or worse. Usually for the better.

So today as Americans, wherever you may be, celebrate the country that gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself. Celebrate the nation that believes at its core to be human is to change. Light a firework or fifty in honor of our independence, not just from Britain, but from the shackles of history; not just 237 years ago, but everyday.

Happy Fourth of July, America. Hope it’s a good one.

Falling Down

I fell through the ceiling in my hallway tonight. I was carrying a stupidly heavy box of books from my packed up office (a box that was so I heavy I actually thought to myself: I should probably just leave these downstairs), and since my attic doesn’t have decking (but does have a high number of obstacles to easy walking) I missed one of the joists and my left foot came crashing through the ceiling below.

It’s a good thing my butt already has a crack in it – as it is, I almost gave myself a second one. Luckily, nothing sensitive got injured, and all I ended up with was a three foot square hole in my ceiling and a baseball sized contusion on the right side of my butt (which was helpfully treated by my sitting on an ice pack for 20 of the most awkward and least attractive minutes of my life).

For someone who just quit his job and has a limited income right now, this was not a welcome experience. Doubly so since I also have the handy man skills of a six month old.

So now I’m sitting here, staring at the massive hole in my ceiling, and all I can think of is Michael Caine. Specifically, this clip:

I love that clip for a thousand different reasons, not the least of which is Michael Caine’s accent. The man just sounds cool. But I also love it for the truth it contains: we fall down so we can learn to rise. Life has its way of asking us to go backward in order to go forward; we’re not fond of that fact, but it’s true all the same.

I had coffee with a friend tonight (well, now that I think about it, I had coffee; he never drank a thing) and we talked about life and the changes that it holds. For me, the changes with my job and career track; for him, the adjustments to fatherhood and how his writing/creative life has been put on hold for the moment. As we often do, we reminisced about life in high school and college, and we each were able to identify a specific point, or a specific thing, that – if we could do it all again – was the one thing we’d do differently. We talked about that for a second, and then my friend said something like this:

“But you know, by not taking that path, we’ve become the men we are today. So in some ways, not making those choices taught us to make them when they counted.”

We fall down, so we can learn to pick ourselves back up.

I know plenty of people who’ve fallen down lately (and for some, it’s more accurate to say they’ve been shoved down cruelly or kicked to the ground). There are people who are simply looking for enough hope to make it through the end of the week, or the day, or their particular shift at work. They wonder if things will ever be in their favor; if they’ll ever reach that point where life feels like it’s moving forward more often than it feels like it’s going back. The dream is still out there, but they’re tired of it being beyond reach.

All I can say is that falling down isn’t the worst thing in the world. Going backward isn’t always bad. It’s staying there that’s the issue.

If we fall down, we must get up.

That’s the path of reward – that’s the life worth living. Even gaping ceiling holes can be patched and made good as new. But sometimes, we have to live through those moments to believe that.

When Anything Was Possible

photo (21)This morning, because he was climbing the walls, I put my son in my car and took him for a drive. We ran an errand for work first, then headed down Highway 78, eastbound. We passed through Loganville, Between, Monroe…and as the mile markers swept by, Jon asked me where we were going.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’m going to take you to where I went to college.”

“You’re gonna take me to your college?” he repeated.

“Yeah. The University of Georgia.”

“The Yoo-be-nursery of…how do you say it?”

I smiled. “The University of Georgia.”

“Oh. You’re gonna take me there?” he asked, looking at me in the rearview mirror.


“Okay. Can we get ice cream?”

The great thing about my alma mater is that it’s less than an hour’s drive, yet feels like going to another planet. As we turned onto Milledge Avenue, Jon immediately started asking questions. “Why are there so many houses? Why do people have couches in the yard? Why do they have bulldogs on everything?” It was non-stop.

I turned into the Butts-Mehre Building parking lot, thinking that I’d take him to the sports museum inside and show him the glory, glory of old Georgia. We walked in and in quick order took pictures with the 1980 National Championship trophy, Herschel Walker’s Heisman Trophy, and a very nice lady who knew where the restrooms were (that was Jon’s idea). But all of that lasted less than a minute; suddenly, Jon wanted to know where the scientists were.

“I want to see the scientists, like me.” (Special thanks to my brother- and sister-in-law Terrell and Julie White for sending Jon a Big Bag of Science Experiments for his birthday. My kitchen floors will never be the same.)

So we left the Butts-Mehre, went down by Foley Field (Jon had zero interest in the baseball diamond), turned by Stegeman Coliseum (he wasn’t interested in that either) and zipped over towards the Biology, Chemistry and Food Sciences buildings. He begged me to find a place to park so he could “see the scientists make stuff up”, but I couldn’t find a spot, and wasn’t sure we could get into some of the labs anyway.

“That’s sad,” said Jon. “Don’t people want to see scientists?”

I’ve yet to tell him what Bear Bryant said on that issue: “80,000 people never showed up to watch a chemistry test.”

We turned left on East Campus Avenue and drove behind Sanford Stadium. I turned left again on Baldwin Street and showed him Park Hall. “That’s where daddy spent most of his last two years of college.”

“That looks boring,” he replied.

We turned right onto Milledge once more, and then made a right onto Broad Street. I parked downtown near the Arches and we took a stroll across North Campus. We looked at squirrels, trees, the Chapel Bell, the Law Library Atrium, and the inside of the main library. I walked him back down to Sanford Stadium and made the mistake of telling him that’s where all the dead Ugas are buried. After that, he wanted to talk about nothing else.

It was a nice trip, despite the fact that the campus looks almost nothing like I remember it. Fifteen years after I left, the university has become what former president Charles Knapp had dreamed: a top-flight center of education. I marveled at how young the students are compared to when I was in school; how many of them still think they’re invincible enough to smoke; how many of them seem far more determined than I was when I roamed the same grounds.

As we walked back to the car, I took Jon to Park Hall, where the English and Classics departments are headquartered. I snapped a picture in front of my old haunt, and recalled when a professor stopped me on the front steps and told me that, with a bit of revision, some of my pieces would be press-ready. And then the professor offered to send them to his friend at The New Yorker – and could almost guarantee they’d see print.

I stood there and watched that memory play out one more time: I shook his hand and told him thank you, but no. I wasn’t prepared to face rejection. He asked me to reconsider; told me that of all the students in my “Writing for Publication” class, I was the only one to demonstrate real potential.

I told him no a second time. Then I walked away.

It’s been fifteen years, and I still remember that. In college, so the saying goes, anything is possible. You’re not who you were, not yet who you’ll be. You’re a bundle of potential and passion and purposeless energy. You’re waiting to be aimed somewhere and to see how far you’ll go.

At least, that’s the way some people were. I wasn’t. I’m 37 now, and am just finally reaching my “anything is possible” phase. It took me this long to realize the things about myself that are good and worthy and deserving of people’s attention. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate to take that professor’s hand and say, “Let’s sit down and make those revisions now. Why wait?” I would whole-heartedly accept his offer and be so excited about even the possibility that I might get read, much less published.

But I am that person today because I wasn’t that person then. I am a husband and father and writer today because I couldn’t see myself as any of that then.

Sometimes, we take the path we think we’re supposed to take because we have a hard time imagining ourselves take any other path. We choose what we know because we’re afraid of what we don’t. And sometimes, we discover that we end up where we started; we come back to the path we turned away, prepared to take it and see what happens.

That’s what I felt today, standing on a campus that isn’t the same as it was fifteen years ago. But then again, neither was the man standing there. Today, with my son in tow, I went back in time and realized I hadn’t missed my moment; I’d just been preparing for it.

Carpe diem, right?

Anything is possible. Even today.

The Massacre of Innocence

I honestly wanted to write about the Grinch today. Seriously. I got to thinking about the term “grinch” and what it’s come to mean, so I started looking up the etymology of the word, which lead to a whole bunch of searching and, somehow, me ending up at Matthew 2:13-18, commonly referred to as the Massacre of Innocents.

If you don’t know the passage, it’s pretty straightforward: after Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that King Herod would try and take the life of the Christ-child. The angel told Joseph to take Mary and the baby and escape to Egypt. So they did.

Herod, enraged by the fact that the Magi never told him where the new King of the Jews was, ordered his soldiers to kill every boy child under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem. And his soldiers carried out his order.

The major historical works of the time (mainly Josephus) don’t mention the slaughter of babies in Bethlehem, leading some critics to doubt whether the event actually happened. But the reality is that Bethlehem was a small town in Herod’s province, and the likelihood of there being more than 20 babies within the specified age range is very slim.

In other words, history probably doesn’t mention it because it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Herod’s other efforts towards infanticide are well documented, including him having his own son killed. As one person said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” So it’s not exactly like the Gospel writer is suggesting something out of Herod’s character or historical resume. The incident in Matthew is quite in keeping with Herod’s particular evil.

It just wasn’t that big of a local story. So no one covered it.

Think about that. Today, that would never happen. We’re so hardwired towards bad news of any sort that things bordering on effluvia take control of our media cycles and Twitter feeds. If someone, somewhere, commits an act of atrocity, we know about it within an hour.

Sometimes within a minute.

And yet, were it not for the meticulous writing of Matthew, these children of Bethlehem, these few, unnamed babies, would have ended up on the floor of history, forgotten. Instead, they become a sad part of our story of redemption. Indeed, one of the most haunting of all Christmas carols is the Coventry Carol, a 16th century song that imagines the words of the mothers in Bethlehem on the night that Herod’s men struck.

That is a haunting refrain, a lullaby to a generation wiped from memory by the greed and paranoia of one man. And it is entirely fitting as a vital part of Christmas: to remind us that the world we inhabit was and is a dark place, filled with dark hearts, and that our hope–our joy–is found in the birth of the Light who dispels Darkness. We rightly turn our eyes towards Bethlehem’s manger, hungering for a look at the Savior, and Matthew makes sure to bring us back to the reality of our own sin.

Matthew shares with us the massacre of innocents to show us the mercy required to save us. God, vulnerable in human flesh, giving himself to us to be beaten and mocked, tortured and destroyed. God, entering into our world on our terms–soft and pink and exposed. We celebrate this, but do we really think about it? Do we really stop and consider that baby in the manger and what his life, his very appearance in our world, really means?

The Massacre, as is it were, of Innocence himself?

I pray that today you’ll take a few minutes to consider all of the Scripture surrounding the birth of Jesus (Matthew and Luke), and look at the story not just through rose-colored lenses, but as it really was: the entrance of Light into a very, very dark place.

Then, may that light shine brighter for your searching.