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.

Vacation Bible Old School

ImageLast night I came pretty dang close to time traveling. All that was missing was either the Doctor and the TARDIS, or Doc Brown and his DeLorean. It was so surreal, I had to write about it.

See, I took my kids to Vacation Bible School at my grandmother’s church, Rosebud Baptist, over on Knight Circle. It’s a great church of a couple hundred people, led by their inexhaustible pastor, Dr. Lloyd Stancil. My grandmother has called it home for the last twelve years, and while we’ve visited with her from time to time, last night was the first occasion my kids have had to really get involved. This week, Rosebud is hosting Kingdom Chronicles VBS nightly from 6:30-9:00, all visitors welcome. And if last night is any indication, it’s going to be awesome.

My kids loved it. The theme is knights and dragons, and the message is being able to stand strong against the evil things in the world. One of the men in the church built a styrofoam castle slap in the middle of the church’s Fellowship Hall, an elaborate piece of construction that not only has detailed brick walls and parapets, but an inner court big enough for fifty kids to sit down and learn a lesson. There are other great details all over the place, too, including a woman dressed in full Medieval period costume.

But what my kids came home talking about was the fact that the games were led by Pastor Lloyd, and included throwing water balloons at him. That was all they wanted to talk about: the pastor was willing to get messy like the rest of the kids.

What I came away with was a strong sense of nostalgia, of going back to my own childhood, when I attended church in a little red-brick building, and laughed my way through VBS on lovely summer nights. Listening to my kids giggle and scream with delight, I could taste the Kool-Aid from my long ago years; hear the soft voice of Miss Essie as she delivered her Chalk Talk bible stories; feel the stickiness of the glue as we tried to get our popsicle stick birdhouses put together.

Last night I sat on the front porch of Rosebud Baptist Church and felt like the veil between this world and the next had dropped. Suddenly, I was surrounded by ghosts who had made my childhood special; I was immersed in memories that made me glad my children were getting just a taste of what I knew.

See, my kids have never known a small church. Ella’s only seven, Jon’s four, and they’ve only ever gone to church with over 400 people. The VBS’s they’ve been too usually run around 200 kids, with 70-plus workers. And while they’ve always loved VBS, they’ve never had the kind of intimacy they experienced last night. As Ella said, “I liked the fact that the groups were small. It made it fun.”

There’s something about moments like last night that defy description. The weather was perfect, the kids were laughing, the adults were happy and relaxed. My grandmother was all smiles because her great-grandkids were running around her church, loving every minute, and for just a moment she got to go back in time a little bit too.

The only thing missing was Pop, my grandfather, who passed away in 2011 after a long illness. He loved Rosebud Church, and they loved him. Several people referenced him last night when they spoke to me, telling me just how beloved he was among those folks, how much he would’ve loved watching the kids and VBS. It was a bittersweet note, but one full of truth. Pop would’ve loved every minute, maybe even joined Pastor Lloyd in some water balloon mischief.

But later, as I sat on the porch listening, remembering, feeling transported to another place, I felt something else. That Pop was with me, near me, watching and laughing with the rest of the kids. I felt it so strongly, I almost reached out for his hand. It wasn’t there, of course, but such was the power of last night, when the past and present collided in a way that made connection between the two palpable.

It was a magical evening.

Hopefully, I can recapture it tonight. Ella and Jon have already gotten dressed for VBS and have been asking me when it’ll be time to go. I know MawMaw is looking forward to it as well. Heck, I’m looking forward to a little Vacation Bible Old School myself.

If you’ve got nothing going on, why don’t you join us?

Happy Birthday to Mom

ImageToday is my mother’s birthday. I won’t tell you how old she is, but if you take my age and add 20, you’ll have an idea. We celebrated last Saturday by taking her out for lunch at a local restaurant, and she enjoyed eating with her two boys, two daughters-in-law, and four grandkids. It was a nice afternoon.

See, we haven’t really celebrated my mom’s birthday in years. Her birthday is May 30; my first daughter, Ruthanne, was stillborn on May 31, 2004. We were in the hospital on my mom’s birthday that year, struggling to comprehend what was happening. I’ve written about Ruthanne before, but I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged that her birthday sort of stole the thunder from my mom. If she had lived, it would’ve been a dual celebration. But since she didn’t, it kind of killed our desire to do much of anything around this time of year.

Not that my mom minded too much; if there’s one thing she doesn’t really like, it’s being the center of attention. It’s kind of funny – both my brother and I ended up being people who don’t mind being on stage, performing or speaking, and our being wired that way sort of pulled mom along into the spotlight. She would deflect it, of course, but people would seek her out to commend her on raising two “fine boys” and she would have to spend a few minutes being the focus of conversation.

Sometimes people ask her what her secret is; usually, she tells them to just trust God and let the kids be themselves. From my vantage point, that’s a true enough statement, but there were other things that helped shape my brother and I, things that aren’t intuitive to some parents. She let us be ourselves, but she also drew us firm boundary lines. She surrounded us with good friends and tried to make even the bad ones welcome. Our home was never closed off to the other kids in the neighborhood – everyone within five miles knew the Brooks household was always open, and the fridge was usually full.

In fact, some of my friends liked my parents better than me. I didn’t mind; their respect for my parents kept them from inviting me to do some truly stupid things. They knew my parents wouldn’t approve and they didn’t want to break their hearts by inviting me along. As a kid, that was kind of annoying; but as an adult, it’s touching in a way. 

Touching too is the fact that I have sort of grown up with my parents. They got married young, and had me when they were barely into their twenties. They never tried to be my friend, but they never treated me as if I weren’t a friend. Like I said, I knew where the boundaries were, and as long as I stayed within them, things were fine. My parents allowed me to follow my passion for reading and drawing; they encouraged me to write; they let me play baseball and basketball and become an Eagle Scout. And while they were together in philosophy, they often weren’t together in presence. My dad traveled a lot, which meant it was mom and her boys against the world.

It probably also means that we were closer than other kids and their mothers. I learned sarcasm from my mom (who learned it from her dad). I learned how to be gracious in the face of struggle and how to be authentic with the people you love. I saw firsthand that parenting could be overwhelming, but I never knew just how deeply some of our troubles were. I was thirty-five before I learned that some years my Christmas presents came from garage sales. To borrow a phrase from my grandparents’ generation, I never knew we were poor.

I also never knew the absence of laughter. If you could say one thing about my mother, it’s that laughter runs through her veins as surely as blood. You can’t spend more than five minutes with my mom before someone is laughing hysterically. Occasionally the jokes are even clean. Growing up that way made humor my default language – I always knew the power of humor, it’s ability to infect people and become a conduit for ideas. Even now when I speak, I try to use humor as much as possible to help get my point across. And if my mom is in the audience, I know exactly where the loudest laughs will come from.

Case in point: my senior year of high school, I was cast as the male lead in the musical, “The Boyfriend.” In the third act, my character had to make a grand entrance at a costume ball dressed as Pierrot from the Comedia dell’Arte – essentially, I came onstage dressed in a satin clown costume that included a tiny satin dunce cap with black poofy balls affixed to the side. As soon as I made my entrance, a hoot arose from the audience, a single, uncontrolled guffaw at my appearance that reverberated through the otherwise silent hall.

It was my mom.

In her defense, I did look ridiculous (a fellow student suggested that I looked very much like a contraceptive device). And it seems wholly appropriate that of all the people in the audience who could’ve laughed at me, it was my mother that did. After all, we’d been laughing together our whole lives. We still are.

So happy birthday, mom, even though you’ll hate that I wrote about you, even though you’ll think that some of these stories are embarrassing or not worth telling. Whether you like it or not, these stories are worth telling, because they show how much you’ve influenced me, and Ryan, and our wives and children. They’re worth telling because they help us understand and appreciate you all the more, something that a good mother is due.

I love you, mom. Hope you have a great day.

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.