When Books Get Tiring

No, I'm not above posting a cute cat picture as a way to draw traffic.

I’m a reader. Love to read. Love to read so much that I currently have a stack of books on my office floor that is approximately 5 feet in height. Love to read so much that almost all of the wall space in my office is filled with bookshelves, and those bookshelves are crammed full of books–on the shelves, on top of the shelves, books on top of other books. So please know that what I’m about to write comes from a place of deep love.

I’m bored with books.

Not all books, mind you, just the ones I’ve been reading lately. Admittedly, my scope has been narrow–as a youth pastor, I’ve been reading a lot of Christian books lately in an effort to improve myself as a pastor. I’ve read or re-read everything from Desiring God to Crazy Love to Mad Church Disease to Transformational Churches to Influencing Like Jesus, and I have to say:


Now, this is a generalization. One of the things that I love about books is that each one, no matter how boring, has the capacity to surprise you with a sudden turn-of-phrase, or a burst of insight, or a brilliantly delivered line. The books I mentioned above are no exception; each have their moments. But as a whole, the Christian stuff that I’ve been reading (most of which calls the reader earnestly to live a full, vibrant life for God) is flat. Dull. Lifeless.

I can’t put my finger on it, but if I had to offer a thought as to why these books bore, I would have to say it’s due to the fact that too many of us Christians are concerned with how to live life than with actually going out and living it, and the books we read reflect that. It’s the Age of Insecurity–are you a good enough person? Do you know enough? Do you love enough? Do you give enough? If so, how do you manage it? If not, what keeps you from living your best life now? (©Joel Osteen) In the end, you’d think that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are paranoia, depression, repression, fear, conceit, and self-loathing.

I mean, by comparison, Woody Allen’s neuroses are small.

Of course, no one is forcing me to read these books. There’s not a gun to my head. But lots of people are buying these books and using them for guidance on how to live life better. People are obviously dissatisfied with the direction/trajectory of their lives, and they’re seeking answers. This is good. That they’re seeking them from books that make you want to end your life rather than finish reading them is a problem.

Let me be clear. I have no problem with people writing books. I want to write books. I want to publish books. I think books are a vital contribution to the world, and one of the best gifts given to humanity. I think that the authors of the books I mentioned are deserving of credit for what they’ve written because their books have helped many people.

But we have reached a place where the words written on the page do not suffice for the ache, the lack, in a person’s daily life. There’s only so much we can learn by proxy; at some point we must get out and live life. And in living life, share it with other people. There’s a crackling to that kind of living; an energy and a pulse that can’t be found anywhere else, not even in the world’s best prose.

Perhaps the issue isn’t with the books as much as it is with the reader, and in this case that’s me. Maybe it’s my time to get out and live a fuller life, do a better job of becoming the person I want to be instead of reading about how to become that person. The tools are at my avail; I don’t need anything more than what I already have. I just have to make myself do it. I have to choose to live.

And by living, here’s hoping I bring life back to the pages I hold so dear.

What the Picture Contains: Family Photos and the Essence of the Soul

Last Thursday night, long after the family had gathered and shared a meal, long after the lights in all of the neighboring houses had gone out, my grandmother and her children sat down to discuss the future. My grandfather’s funeral. His burial. His estate. Well into the early hours of Friday they discussed the things we’ve all been avoiding, and came to the hard but necessary decisions.

Each family member will have his or her own role, but when I spoke with my father about mine, he told me it was simple: deliver Pop’s eulogy and make the video memorial for Pop’s funeral service. I’d already taken my grandmother’s photo albums, in the hopes of scanning in some pictures for a book I’m working on, so adding in photos from other family members isn’t such a big deal. And, if you’ve ever seen the cheesy way some funeral homes do those memorial videos, I’d much rather save the money and do it myself.

But that being said, it’s not easy to consolidate a lifetime. How do you take over 85 years of a person’s life and turn it into a meaningful 15-20 minutes?

Harder still, how do you consolidate that same 85-plus years as seen and experienced through different sets of eyes? It’s not like one photographer followed my grandfather around all of his days; everyone close to Pop has some sort of picture of him, and each of those pictures represents a moment in time that that person saw something unique to him or her. In that regard, every time I come across a new photo from a different source, I’m staggered by the reality that Pop’s life – and my own – is lived through one lens but viewed through multiple, so that our lives don’t belong merely to us, but to everyone we love.

In essence, our essence is born up in the hearts of those around us. We are fragmented people.

Think about it: a photograph isn’t just a generic memory – it’s encoded with the photographer’s mind, so that when the photographer looks at the picture, he or she can say, “This is what was going on at the time…”

Our lives are much the same way – when our relatives or friends look at us, they see something different from what we see. Thus, who we are is not merely what we think in our own heads, but also how other people see us.

It’s fascinating to think about, as I look through hundreds of old photographs and see my grandfather, or my aunt, or my late uncle. They exist one way in the picture, a separate way in their own consciousness, and yet another way in my mind. I’m not deep enough or skilled enough to really dig into the philosophy here, but there’s such beauty in realizing that we are trusted with part of what makes another person themselves. When you think about it, no one can claim to be an island, because the very circumstances of birth dictate that there is at least one other person on this planet who holds a piece of you. And if no one is an island, what could that do to our social values, or political process?

These are the things you think about when you spend hours scanning in and labeling specific seconds of a person’s life. The thoughts come unbidden, and ramble around like old-school tramps looking for a comfortable freight car headed west. I’ve seen so many different versions of my grandfather, each one distinct, many unfamiliar, and I don’t know whether to rejoice over discovering these things or cry because I’ve missed out on so much.

But of all the pictures I’ve scanned in today, only one really resonates with me. I knew I’d come across it sooner or later, and have been preparing myself for it’s appearance. Once I flipped it over, I felt my stomach sink. I apologize, but the image is startling and might be disturbing to some. If so I ask for your forgiveness.

My dad's older brother, Terry. He was killed three months after I was born.

I first saw the photo when I was seven or eight years old, and it made my heart seize. I thought it was my father, and for a split-second it felt like an alternate universe. I ran screaming to MawMaw’s side with it and asked her to explain.

“It’s your daddy’s brother, uncle Terry. It’s from when he died.”

I can’t remember if I’d known about Terry or not, and I guess it’s not really relevant. There, in black and white (the photo I saw was from a newspaper obituary) was a face so eerily familiar that it filled me with anxiety until I saw my dad that night. Once I was able to hug him, to put my hands on his face and know that he was all right, I was able to let the image fade from my mind.

But like all children, I had a curiosity that couldn’t be satisfied. MawMaw kept Terry’s picture tucked into the frame of her guest bedroom mirror, and when the family was over, or when I was spending time at her house, I would sneak into the guest bedroom and just stare at that picture. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to read the actual obituary (it was fairly standard), and even longer still to pick the picture up again and really study it. But the more often I stole away to look at it, the more it made me think about mortality and death and specifically just what I would do without my father.

In all those years, however, it never made me ask what it was like for my cousin to grow up without her dad. Today, I look at that photo and, while my initial reaction is still to freak out over the visual similarities between Terry and my dad (and now apparently, myself; Jonathan looked at this, turned to me and said, “Daddy?”), my main thoughts turn to my cousin, Chasity.

I look at this photo and think, I wish I could’ve known my uncle.

Chasity might look at it and think, I wish I could’ve known my dad.

I’m blessed that my father is still with me, that I see him every Sunday, that I can call and talk to him whenever I want, or solicit his advice when I need guidance. Chasity was blessed with a step-father who has been good to her, but it just tears me up to sit here today and actually realize just how empty and confusing it must be to never know your dad. To have to construct him out of other people’s memories.

Which brings me back to what I was saying at the beginning: Chasity knows what she knows about her dad because he lived on in the hearts and memories of other people. She knows something about him because she can sit and stare at a photograph taken when he was younger and discern things about him from what that captured moment reveals. She can see the kindness in his eyes, or the legendary sense of humor in his smile, or (in one of my other favorite photos) the way he kicked back against his father’s car, tilted up a bottle of Coke, and drank every last drop to his own satisfaction. She can, in some ways, interact with him, and get to know him a little more.

And all because someone pointed a camera at him in that moment and said, “That’s so Terry.”

All because someone loved him and carried him forward in their heart and photo album.

One day, my children will look back through all the photos I’ve scanned (and will soon scan) and they’ll be able to construct the people of their lineage out of what pictures I’ve assembled. Jonathan won’t be able to remember Pop Harold; what Ella will remember is no certain thing. So I am grateful that I will be able to introduce them to their grandfathers (both of my Pops), as well as the other people they may not have known, through pictures.

It’s funny, but once upon a time, some people were afraid to have their picture taken, believing that the photographed image would capture the subject’s soul. The first time I ever heard that, I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world.

Now, I think it might be one of the most beautiful.

A Collage of Awful Pictures of Myself

Life has sort of taken a serious turn the last few days, and my mind honestly needs a break. So, in a spirit of levity, I’ve come up with a fool-proof way of inducing fits of hysterical giggling, at least from other people.

I’ve been going through family photos, and stumbled across something so hideous as to be comically priceless. Ordinarily, there’s no way in Hades I would post something like this, as I am the butt of the joke. But right now I figure it’s better to be the clown than not to laugh at all.

Therefore, I present to you a collage of some of the worst pictures a human being has ever taken. Comments are welcomed.

Behold...humiliation for your laughing pleasure.

Hello Kitty: The Last Day of Childhood

The Destructor has been chosen...this freaking anime cat will take away my daughter's chldhood tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow morning, I will wake up earlier than usual. I will most likely have to rouse my daughter from her bed and usher her into the kitchen, where we’ll begin our normal morning routine. Only it won’t be normal anymore. There will be changes.

She won’t have the option of starting her day with her usual televised friends. She won’t be able to lay about in her nightclothes, playing with her dolls or ponies, until her mother or I insist on her getting dressed. Chances are she won’t even have time to bug her little brother. Ella will get dressed, get fed, put her hair into a bow, and together we’ll walk up the street to her bus stop.

Tomorrow, my daughter, bedecked in Hello Kitty, will say goodbye to the only life she’s known.

Over a single night, all that my family has known will change. And it will be a significant shift, one that will not correct, one that will not return to us except in brief stints known as winter, spring and summer break.

I was doing okay with that reality for the past few days, but much like the evening before major surgery, or your wedding, or any other life-altering day, I’m starting to feel a little less confident and a little more wistful. Almost panicked, even.

Do all people experience these kinds of shifts in the same way? Is it the singular feature of parenthood to feel more acutely those changes in your child’s life that signify maturation? I looked at the faces of other parents this morning at church and couldn’t detect any anxiety on their parts. But I could feel my heart beating wildly with each minute slipping by. I watched Ella play with her friends after the luncheon at our church and all I could think about was that at this same time next year she would be a completely different Ella. She wouldn’t be a precocious pre-K girl anymore; she would be something other, something undefined, something unpredictable.

Something foreign.

Of course that’s only true if I neglect to undergo this metamorphosis with her, and there is a real part of me that wants to scream, “No, this can’t be happening!” I feel as if somehow some giant, faceless force is attempting to wrench my little girl from my hands and take her somewhere I cannot go.

But the truth is, if I do not follow her on this new path, it will not be because I was forbidden; it will be because I chose to stay behind, cradling the past as fiercely as I once held her. This scares me because I can see the temptation of it and feel the pull towards that choice, but I know if I pull back and hold onto my memories of Ella’s early childhood as the basis for how I see and interact with her, I will lose her twice. Once, because she will move on and grow up and become herself as she is meant to be. Twice, because my memories will fade and, having made no new ones, I will be left with a dissolving image even more foreign and frightening than I could imagine.

So I will wake up tomorrow and get her out of bed. I will hold her longer than I normally would because I know that it will be the last time I can pull her into my embrace with the guarantee that nothing will happen to her unless I let it. I will crave that sense of protection that has safeguarded us both, even while we both knew it was a facade. I will let her go, my heart ripping to pieces and rebuilding itself only to rip into pieces again, and I will fix her a Pop Tart. Or a bowl of Cocoa Krispies. Or a bag of Frosted Flakes. Or maybe even a stack of pancakes, though I doubt that because she’s not really been into pancakes recently (just one more sign of the advancing of time). I will hurry her through her breakfast because, for the first time in her life, she will have a schedule that she must keep, a schedule that is enforced by a new entity that is greater than mom and dad and must be obeyed. She will have to dress and get medicine and brush her teeth and check her backpack and put on her shoes and clean her room and trek the Green Mile to the bus stop where her life, her young and frail life, will be forever changed by the opening of those big yellow doors and her first steps onto the Cheese Wagon.

In short, tomorrow morning I release my second-born, first-surviving child into the maws of the masochistic rat race that consumes us all with the same ferocity, while simultaneously losing my own divine illusion of control.

Two innocences for the price of one.

I can hear her singing now, a random yelp to herself and her friends “the Stuffies” that means nothing more to me than the very essence of her purity of soul. I hear it, and I tear up at the thought that some bruiser of a fifth grader may make fun of her tomorrow in the hallway. I hear it and I fill with rage at the very notion that someday some clumsy oaf will make an advance against her will and quite possibly she might feel helpless to resist.

Some people see the first day of Kindergarten as a bittersweet memory that signifies their child is growing up and will soon embark on new adventures.

I see the first day of Kindergarten as quite possibly the first steps to Hell. Or at the very least my own descent into madness.

It’s so bizarre, really, just how much of how I see the world is revealed through Ella’s venturing out into it. How contrary my internal thoughts are to the way I’ve presented the world to her. I’ve raised her to believe in herself, to believe in the powers of goodness and honesty, to trust her own innate creativity and intelligence and to resist the corrosion of conformity for as long as she can.

And all the while, I’ve harbored this festering hatred for the world I’ve painted with such caring detail. In essence, I’ve either lied to my child or to myself, and perhaps both; I’ve spent too long, it seems, dancing between two worlds instead of just inhabiting one.

Tomorrow, then, is my day of reckoning.

Will I choose to follow my daughter into her new world and do my best to reinforce those values and beliefs that I have instilled in her in order to help her become the very best person she can? Or will I hide, like a coward, in a hell of my own making, succumbing to the worst of all possible fates: being a wretched little man, afraid of the world and its unpredictability, who loses his beloved daughter because of his own weakness?

For better or worse, I must choose. As much for Ella’s sake as my own. And the choice will make my world radically different, for the good or the bad.

Who knew a day filled with excitement and potential and squeaky new Hello Kitty accessories could be so metaphysical?

For Her Own Good…I Hope

Tomorrow Ella will have an elective adenoidectomy. I may have to watch "Toddlers and Tiaras" to rebuild my parenting self-esteem.

Tomorrow morning, my daughter Ella will undergo a relatively simple surgical procedure to have her adenoids taken out. Apparently, they are just this side of Congress in terms of causing problems for people like my daughter. The doctor says the procedure will take only a few minutes at the most, will leave a relatively short recovery time, and should make my daughter’s quality of life increase about 200%.

But they all say that, don’t they?

I’ve heard from many people that the surgery is nothing.

“I was out and about that same afternoon with my kid. She wanted to eat at McDonald’s.”

“Oh, we were shopping for shoes less than an hour after surgery. It was nothing.”

“Dude, seven minutes after we were out of recovery, my kid felt so great she started singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and was signed to a recording contract by an A&R guy who just happened to be at the doctor’s to have his inner ear checked. Best day our lives. Plus, her album drops on October 15th. We’ve got Snoop-Dog!”

OK – that last one might be an exaggeration. But still, the general consensus is Why freak out, dude? Your kid will be fine.

In my head, I know this. The surgery is so simple the doctors can do it in their sleep. The recovery is so easy, I’ll enjoy eating all of the leftover Jell-O. I know this because I’ve read the literature, heard the experts, and heard it again from friends and family.

But in my heart?

I’m freaking out. Part of it comes from our past. We’re the 1-percenters you always hear about but never really think anything of. You know, when the doc is giving you the boilerplate spiel about how “only 1% of all patients suffer from any kind of severe setbacks…” or “less than 1% of people who have anesthesia swell up like fugu and see purple spots.” If you’ve ever heard a doctor give you the legal CYB, you know what I’m talking about.

Well, that’s us. If anyone is going to sprout goat horns and trot across the surgical center because of some minute adverse reaction to anesthesia, it’ll be my kid. If one surgery in a thousand has some grave operator error, where the doc somehow accidentally cauterizes the patient’s sinuses shut, it’ll be us. That’s just the way it’s been in our history, medically speaking.

So you can see why I’m a little on edge.

In the end, we’ll get up, drink a buttload of coffee and drive out to Scottish Rite tomorrow, and everything will go fine. Ella will have no problems with the intubation, there’ll be no adverse effects from the anesthesia, she’ll have no bleeding or other abnormal response to the surgery, and I’ll move on to my next nervous breakdown, schedule for the same day she starts kindergarten.

But tonight, I’m sitting here, my heart pounding in my chest, worried that I’ve chosen something I think is for her own good but can’t guarantee. I’m hoping against hope that this brings relief instead of trauma, healing instead of hurting, and a better future instead of one that seems shrouded in clouds right now. It’s a battle of faith: will I or will I not trust God with the life of my daughter?

It’s gonna be a long night.