Celebration

In just over a month, my friend Josh is getting married. He’s a favorite person of mine – thoughtful and deliberate, curious, intelligent, full of life, and always up for an adventure… So we met up at a state park in central Wisconsin – a bunch of guys who were drawn together for one reason – to celebrate Josh, his friendship, his upcoming wedding, and take some time to have an adventure.

The entire week before I was overwhelmed and feeling swamped with papers and projects that were due – my perfectionism loves to rear its ugly head at times like these – and nothing was quite good enough until I absolutely had to turn it in. (It’s worse when it’s stuff I really care about, which is pretty much all my classes… sigh…) But, I promised myself, if I could get through the week, this camping trip/adventure/celebration would be my reward. Of course, a couple days before, Josh emailed us all and in passing mentioned it was going to be in the low 30’s and raining. But hey, who ever let a little cold and rain stop a bachelor party from being celebrated?

Dan and I pulled into the campsite a little after noon on Saturday, to find most of the rest of the guys already there, huddled in a semi-circle, rain jackets on and hoods pulled high. Gray. Foggy. Drizzling. Humid. Everything was damp in minutes. Windy. And cold. It felt cold.

A quick round of introductions, handshakes and smiles and a few bearhugs, and we were off. Originally, the plan was to go climbing, but the rain made the rocks a little treacherous in places – and no matter what anyone tells you, moss does not turn sticky when it gets wet… Kinda the opposite, actually. So we left the climbing gear in the cars, and instead we just hiked around the lake – through the woods and up the bluff, stopping to play whenever we felt the urge. Some trees just scream out to be climbed (especially when they are growing out of the side of a cliff 200 feet above the valley floor.) And sometimes we just stopped and stared off the cliff edge as the rain fell and the cloids boiled and swirled around us, and we fell silent at the strange beauty… And sometimes, we laughed and told stories and pretended we were hiking through the forests of Lorien, and orcs were about to come streaming over the hill… And sometimes we stopped to skip rocks in the lake and see who could throw them the farthest and who could balance for the longest time on the railroad tracks without falling off… But the whole time was sweet, and full of laughter and that deep sense of joy – of all being right with the world. And the whole time, the rain fell. Sometimes sprinkling. Sometimes drizzling. But always falling.

We got back to the campsite around dusk, and the rain stopped. It’s always easier to set up camp when it’s not raining. It’s also usually easier to set up camp when the ground’s not churned into a muddy froth. But you can’t have everything. Me and a couple other guys set up tents while Dan built the fire, and Josh and Zach and Terry got the venison stew heating up on the camp stove, and we gathered around the fire. Of course, it being December, by 5:00 it was pitch black – by 6:00 it felt like midnight…

The rest of the night was just a bunch of guys around a campfire – telling stories, laughing, eating food, cooking things in the fire… When you put it into words, it loses some of the magic that was there: the smell of wood-smoke, the crackling of the fire, the chill of December air, the glimmering stars peeking through the clouds, the taste of warm stew heating you up from the inside, the pitter-patter of rain falling through the bare branches onto the bed of leaves in the forest around us, sizzling in the fire, slowly drenching through our multiple layers of clothing… And it’s even more than that. You lose some of the magic of a few men who have taken a night to sleep outside in the mud and rain because we love our friend, and want to celebrate him. You lose the magic of hearing Josh talk about the woman he can’t wait to spend the rest of his life with, and laughing about the predicaments he has gotten himself into (and out of again.) You lose the magic of a bunch of strangers gathering and becoming brothers because they are all friends with Josh. There’s so much you miss out on. But that’s ok – ’cause after all, it was just a bunch of us huddled around the campfire, kicking at the darkness, telling stories of hope, and love, and joy, and life. It was life-giving – and just what I needed. I hope it was what Josh needed…

By this point, it was raining pretty hard, so we decided to call it a night. Dan and I went and threw sleeping bags and pads into the tent, only to discover that due to a combination of inferior tent (probably mostly this, if you ask me) and shoddy tent pitching (maybe more of this, if you ask Dan), the tarp that was supposed to keep the bottom of the tent dry had instead captured the water, turning our tent into a miniature indoor swimming pool. Spare clothes were soaked. Sleeping bags were dampened. Sleeping pads were drifting along, crewed by tiny woodland creatures on fantastic journeys of discovery. Thankfully, Dan had an extra tarp that we spread inside the tent in the vain hope that it would prove water-proof enough to let us make it through the night. And it did a pretty good job keeping what was not already soaked mostly dry. Except for our sleeping bags… You know, the things that are supposed to keep you warm when the temp drops below freezing… The synthetic material acted like a sponge, and slowly throughout the night the water wicked its way up the sleeping bags until by morning the bottom third of the bags were sopping wet. Let’s just say it was a long, cold night with not much sleep – and sleep, when it came, was fleeting. Every few minutes I’d wake and hear the rain beating down on the rain-fly, dripping into puddles that surrounded our tent, or rushing in rivulets down the hillside into the lake.

By the next morning, Dan and I were both curled up into balls in the top half of our sleeping bags, trying to keep toes from drifting into the icy depths of wet sleeping bag. And to finally give up all pretence of trying to sleep, and peel the damp wet sleeping bag off your legs and step out of the tent into a dry down coat felt heavenly. It had stopped raining at some point near dawn, and even though the sensation of not having freezing water drop down the back of your neck feels really good (especially after a day of it drip, drip, dripping), I found myself missing the rain.

All day as we hiked through the woods, leapt from rock to rock, swung from branches and sat in silence and awe, I was aware of the rain, and it was God’s love song. All evening as we sat around the fire, and the rain fell on my shoulders and then evaporated into a swirl of steam from the heat of the campfire, I was conscious of the rain falling, and it was God’s whisper. All night as I lay on the cold ground, and heard the rain pounding on the rain-fly, and felt the drips sneak through the sides and soak into my bag, I thought about the rain, and wonder threatened to overwhelm my heart with beauty. All day, all evening, all night, I was thinking of this:

 

“Water is always an invitation to imersion [for me], an immersion with a quality of totality, since it would accept all of me, as I am…
No rain falls that I do not at once hear in the sound of the falling water an invitation to come to the wedding. It is rare that I do not answer. A walk in an evening rain in any setting is to walk in the midst of God’s loving attention to his earth, and, like a baptism, is no simple washing, but a communication of life. When you hurry in out of the rain, I hurry out into it, for it is a sign that all is well, that God loves, that good is to follow. If suffering a doubt, I find myself looking to rain as a good omen. And in rain, I always hear singing, wordless chant rising and falling.
When rain turns to ice and snow I declare a holiday. I could as easily resist as stay at a desk with a parade going by in the street below. I cannot hide the delight that then possesses my heart. Only God could have surprised rain with such a change of dress as ice and snow…
Most people love rain, water. Snow charms all young hearts. Only when you get older and bones begin to feel dampness, when snow becomes a traffic problem and a burden in the driveway, when wet means dirt – then the poetry takes flight and God’s love play is not noted.
But I am still a child and have no desire to take on the ways of death. I shall continue to heed water’s invitation, the call of the rain. We are in love and lovers are a little mad.”

~ Matthew Kelty, Flute Solo,
Reflections of a Trappist Hermit, pp. 117-19

 

We broke down camp, loaded up the cars, and drove into town for breakfast and coffee (and dry warmth) at a local greasy-spoon diner – a great end to a time that was just too short. And in spite of my complaints about the cold, and the rain, and how my tent turned into a boat, I’m thankful it was raining. It fits Josh and DJ – who they are, and who they will be. And my prayer for them – my hope for us – is that they continue to take the time to go out and sit in the rain… to notice the poetry of God’s love play, to hear the call of the rain, the call to be in love, and just a little bit mad.

Alive

So I’m waiting in the restaurant area of a Flying J trucker’s stop.  The buzzing noise from the harsh fluorescent lighting competes with the sickly sweet ballads of love songs playing on the radio, the floor alternates sticky patches of spilled soda, brown slushy ice, and yellow “Slippery When Wet” signs to mark the areas that have been freshly mopped, while the smells of stale donuts, slowly roasting hot dogs, and burning french fries wrestle for dominance in my nostrils.  This is not the most beautiful place I have sat, yet the presence of God is here.

There is a beauty in colors and murals painted on the wall, the lyrics to the sappy love songs contain glimpses of transcendence, and the veil of the mundane that shields the faces of the cashiers working behind the register slips, showing glimpses of their true nature as the beloved daughters and sons of the King who created them in his image and loves them.  Beauty and glory are around, and gratitude and awe pour from my every pore.

I am so thankful for life – to be alive – to move, breathe, taste cool water on my lips, feel the soft warmth from my jacket, marvel at the chemical processes and electrical impulses that move my fingers on the keyboard, and seeing each and every moment as the precious gift that it is.  I am so thankful that words just don’t seem enough.

—–

The police officer who stopped on the side of the road and asked me what happened, shook his head, and told me I should buy a lottery ticket, because today was my lucky day.  Two hours ago, I was driving from Grand Rapids back to Rockford – my car full of practically every possession I own on this earth as I completed the move from Philadelphia back to Northern Illinois (for those of you whom this portion of the story catches you by surprise, just roll with it – I’ll explain more about that transition next time).

As I came around the corner on the highway going about 70 miles an hour, my phone rang – my eyes darted to see who it was, and when I glanced back up I saw the car ahead of me slam on the brakes.  I’m not sure what they were trying to avoid – I never saw it in any case.  I was able to swerve and miss hitting them, but as I cleared their car my tires hit a patch of ice and the car started fishtailing.  I was controlling the slide when the ice stopped, and my tires all of a sudden had traction again.  Unfortunately, they were no long pointing down the west bound lanes, but were at about a 45 degree angle to the road.  This managed to propel me across the lane of traffic to my left into the snow covered median, where I and my car were suddenly airborne and spinning.

I’m still not sure how many times we flipped as we bounced over the median: it could have only been once, or it could have been up to three or four.  Regardless, I managed to roll my way across the median, landed the car right-side up, then slid across three lanes of oncoming (eastbound) traffic before lightly coming to a stop on the guardrail at the far side of the highway.

I got out, shaken but otherwise completely unhurt, pulled my car completely onto the shoulder (it still runs, even though it is completely missing the back windshield – lost somewhere in the flipping and bouncing), and was greeted by an off-duty police officer who called it in.  Within a few minutes, I had three officers there who all expressed amazement  that I was unscathed (from the aforementioned “lottery ticket” comment to another officer exclaiming that my car should be in a Honda commercial for protecting me that well and coming out of it still running.)

The rest of the story is strangely anticlimactic – tow trucks, figuring out the logistics of getting the car looked at and deciding if it’s drivable, Abby driving down from Grand Rapids (over an hour) to pick me up, along with her mom (which made me tear up with gratitude when I heard it), to sitting in truck stop writing this.  My family is currently in Korea (except for Jon, who hasn’t picked up his phone yet), and the adrenaline is wearing off.  And above all, I needed to get it down and process my gratitude once more.  As he drove away, the police officer called me over and said, “Seriously, if I were you, I would buy a lottery ticket.  You are one lucky man.  I’m surprised that you’re still alive.  I’ve seen people MUCH worse off from much less serious accidents.  Count your blessings.”

So this is my attempt to stop and express my thanks.  Thanks to God for protection.  I am ok.  Thanks to people for picking up and driving 90 minutes each way to be with me.  Thanks, thanks, and more thanks.  Gratitude overflows.  Grace abounds.  And if you’re reading this, you too are alive.

Know I’m thankful for each of you – the family, the friends, those whose lives have touched mine and who have been touched by me.  So humbled.  And so, so, so thankful.

 

———-

 

A Post-Script – So I am under the impression that my car (Eustace) has been trying to kill me.  On Monday night, en route from Philadelphia to Upland, I spun out on a slushy, snow-covered highway in Ohio going 50 and did at least one full rotation (it might have been two – I’m a little hazy and all I really remember is spinning) before stopping on the side of the road, facing the direction I was originally headed.  A few days later, after clearing off almost an inch of ice frozen to the car, I was driving from Indiana up to Michigan when the last of the ice melted.  My hood flew open as I pulled onto the highway from a rest stop, cracking the windshield, bending the hood in a few places, and generally scaring me half to death.  I was able to pull off the highway, bend the hood back down, and keep driving the rest of the way.  And then today, this happened.  Seriously Eustace, what is your problem with me, and why is it that you’ve decided I should no longer be among the living?  I think I may preemptively get rid of you in order to avoid any further attempts on my life…

A Post-Post-Script – I hesitate to admit this on a public forum such as the internet, but I will confess to you that as I walked, watched, and waited by the side of the road for the tow-truck to come, the song that kept running through my head was Amy Grant’s “Angels watching over me…”  Check it out.  It is amazing.

Sayonara old friend

My sophomore year of college, my dad bought me a guitar for Christmas.  It was a Seagull, one of the cheapest handmade guitars we could find.  I loved it.  Over the years, I took it with me everywhere.  I took it back to school with me, and started messing around with it.  When I went to Jerusalem to spend a semester studying abroad, my guitar came along with me, and we enjoyed playing for worship times and up on the roof of JUC.  When I went to Nepal later on that year to participate in a Servant Team with Word Made Flesh, I brought my guitar.  I strapped it to my back as I rode my bike through the traffic of Kathmandu on my way to Shanti Bhivan and the Missionaries of Charity, played with a hat pulled down low over my eyes when I had a nasty migraine headache, and was offered a gig playing Spanish music at the brand new Mexican restaurant that had just opened in Thamel.  It traveled with me to Kolkata later that year, and then back to the US with me as well.  Upon my graduation, I moved out to Breckenridge, CO and lived out there working with dear friends for a year.  The guitar was there as well.  And when it came time for me to leave and move to Brazil, she journeyed with me once more.

Rooftops

Playing alone or leading worship in our apartment soon led to taking it to the streets, singing and playing with our friends who lived there.  It would be passed around, and kids who didn’t know how to play would strum madly on it pretending it was a percussion instrument.  When I moved into the favelas, I found a new favorite spot to play – up on the roof, overlooking the city lights of Rio.  I took it with me to the beach, the forest, several islands, and all around the state of Rio.  On trips to Bolivia and Peru for staff retreats, the guitar was a travelling companion.  In keeping with the idea that the things I own aren’t really MINE, but I am merely a steward of them, I tried to take care of it, but also let it be used – and it was.  Over the course of the years, it suffered some dings and scratches.  I dropped it once on a bus and the wood split along the grain on the top, but I was able to patch it with some super glue (is there anything super glue can’t do?) and it still sounded fine.

Jamming

Then last year when I left Brazil I brought it home to the US with me.  I should have known better.  Last Saturday morning I was in the living room, still a little groggy and not quite fully woken up.  I stood to go into the kitchen and managed to trip on the power cord to my laptop.  This quickly woke me up as I jumped and spun to avoid pulling the laptop off the couch and bringing it smashing down to the floor.  Unfortunately, as I jumped and spun, I happened to put my right foot through the body of my guitar which was propped up against one of the living room chairs.  It was a tragic, sad, “oh no what just happened” kind of moment…  And I don’t think she can be fixed.

But I am thankful – for 11 years of music, of sharing, of laughter, of joy.  So I’m now in the market for another guitar.  Hopefully the next one will bring as much life to me and others as this one.  And hopefully I won’t destroy it by using my impressive ninja skills.

For a photo retrospective of her through the years, check out the memorial slide show by clicking on the picture below:

Oops

I’ll miss you…

A horrible error

So we got home on Sunday evening from our mountain adventure… Pretty tired out, but refreshed emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. We rented this house way back in the middle of no-where – felt like I was back in Peru on the road up to Shillia at times, except instead of having our old 4×4 lemon-yellow Toyota pickup truck, we were in itty-bitty-city cars, not meant to drive through mud, dirt roads, giant ruts, huge rocks, and dodging dogs, cows and horses…

The house we stayed at had all kinds of fun toys – ping-pong table, pool table, sauna (the old fashioned, wood-burning kind), fireplace, volley-ball court, soccer field, and even its own little man-made pond (maybe 4 feet deep at its deepest point) with a tiny island out in the middle of it. On the little island was a picnic table, with a small, rickety foot-bridge leading out to it. Within the first half hour we were there, Rich and I started exploring – looking at the game room, checking out the area, etc., and we ended up on the island. Right next to the island (maybe four feet away) was a large sand-bar looking thing. As we were exploring, why not jump out onto this little sandbar?

Bad idea.

It was a little bit chilly (being at about 4000 feet, a bit rainy, and the sun getting ready to go down) so I was wearing jeans and tennis shoes. The jumping part went fine – it was the landing that got a little bit messy. Unbeknownst to me, the aforementioned sand-bar was more of a “quicksand-bar”, with the unfortunate result that when my left foot landed on/in the sand, instead of supporting my weight and allowing for a smooth, graceful landing, my foot sunk almost a foot deep, and stopped moving. This resulted in all my forward momentum stopping, and being translated into a fast downward momentum. Thankfully, the quicksand/mud broke my fall. The next thing I knew, I was lying face first on the edge of the sandbar, my entire front covered in mud and sand, cold and wet and a little bit shocked. “This wasn’t supposed to happen quite like this…”

Rich, watching from the island, was laughing so hard he almost fell into the water… I was laughing so hard that I could barely stand up (only to begin sinking again). And then, as the laughter died down, I realized I was stuck. I tried stepping closer to the edge to jump back onto the island, but the edge of the sand bar started caving in, sucking me back under. Rich tried to help by throwing me a small plank. We realized that I could make a bridge, but it would quickly break. So, I tried placing it on the edge of the sandbar to spread my weight out while I prepared for a jump. Still, no dice. The sand was just too crumbly and quick-sand-y.

By this point, the rest of the group had gathered – some offered helpful advice (like pointing out where the water was shallowest, and that it didn’t look like there were too many snakes in the high reeds) while other helped by throwing fruit at me to motivate me to get off the sandbar quicker. I was finally able to get off by taking off my shoes, and running and jumping into a marshy area where the water only came up to my ankles…

And thus began the retreat…

Cravings gone wrong

So this evening after dinner, I had a craving for my world-famous coffee-cake. It’s really, really good – I’ve been making variations of it since I was about 10. It was our special camping treat – I’d make one the night before we left, and then we’d sit around the campfire, drinking hot chocolate and apple cider and eating coffee-cake.

My oven has issues – its high temperature is about 200 degrees – so instead of it taking half an hour to bake, it took almost 1 1/2 hours before said cake was almost finished baking. I stuck a match (I’m out of toothpicks) into the edge, and it came out clean. I pulled the cake out a little more, turned around to get a clean match, then twitched and jumped as I heard the glass of the baking pan screech against the metal of the oven rack.

I turned around in time to see my coffee-cake slip out of the oven, bounce off the open oven door, slowly flip over, and land upside down on my kitchen floor (grinding the butter/brown sugar and cinnamon topping into the tile.) At the same time, the glass baking pan cracked. Actually, it shattered. Maybe exploded is a better word. All over the kitchen. Hot glass.

The kitchen is now clean. I ate one piece from the middle that didn’t have any little bits of broken glass in it. It just seemed like such a waste of all my time and energy to not eat ANY of it… The rest I had to throw away… (I’m learning. Last time I was eating food and the glass contained shattered, I just brushed it off [maybe I blew on it too] and finished eating my lunch.)

In other news, we still haven’t gone on our trip to the zoo. The weather just isn’t cooperating. Maybe next week – after Carnaval… yes, this weekend is Carnaval. Not sure if it’ll be fun exactly, but at least it should be interesting – and loud. Very, very loud…

The Gravity Swing

My dad has this device in his basement called a “gravity swing.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with this, it is a metal contraption designed to help those with bad backs get relief by hanging upside down for a while and uncompressing their spinal cord. It is also great fun for the kids of those with bad backs. I loved playing with it when I was in high school and college. (My friend Paul’s dad had one that involved two hooks you strapped to your feet. You then jumped up and grabbed a pull-up bar, pulled your feet up, hooked the hooks onto the bar, then let go of the bar with your hands, until you were hanging completely upside down. Paul loved to play with it until his older brother caught him hanging upside down one day and realized that “hanging Paul” would make a great punching bag. Paul never played with the hooks again.)

My dad’s thing-a-ma-jig is a little more complex, and a lot more fun. You step onto the footrest, standing almost straight up, and strap your feet in. If you’ve done it correctly, your center of gravity is almost perfectly balanced – all you have to do is raise your arms, your center of gravity changes, and the swiveling bed rotates backwards leaving you hanging upside down. When you lower your arms, your center of gravity does as well and you gracefully swing back up into an upright position. You can work a rhythm of raising and lowering your arms, swinging almost all the way upside down, back upright again…

However, all the above is contingent upon doing it correctly. There is a lever which lets you set it for your height. A few nights ago, I got in the gravity swing, and I didn’t adjust the lever. I layed down, strapped my feet in, raised my arms, and found myself hanging upside down. So far, so good…

I raised my arms, but instead of flipping back upright, I simply hung there. I tried again. Nothing. I could see this was going to be a problem.

I’m not a complete idiot though – even though I do manage to get myself into jams like this, I can usually get out of them as well. And that night was one of those nights. After swinging and rocking and gathering up momentum, I was able to mostly right myself, grasp the bookshelf, and claw my way back up to an upright position. I didn’t have to humiliate myself by calling for my dad to come and rescue me, and then explain to everyone how I got stuck. Instead, I get to do it here, online, for you…

Just be careful when you play on the gravity swings. I’m serious…

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

Today I was sitting outside at a restaurant. I was listening to the person who was speaking to me. I really was… but sometimes you just get a little distracted. As I was listening, my eye caught the little plastic ketchup packets, and I picked them up and started playing with them.

My elbows were on the table, hands crossed under my chin as I massaged the ketchup packets. “What will happen,” I wondered to myself, “if I squeeze these really hard? They’ll probably explode… But, what if I can squeeze it really hard, but not quite hard enough to make them pop… Let’s try it…”

So I did. As we looked over the spray of ketchup lightly dusting the table, Laura’s arm, and the floor behind her (not to mention coming dangerously close to the gentleman behind her), she looked at me like I was an idiot, and just asked “Why?” And my only response was, “It seemed like a good idea at the time…” sigh…