“What’s/Whose Your…?” Thoughtless Questions & Thoughtful Answers

ocean waters“What’s your biggest fear?” I was asked recently. The question has stayed in the halls of my mind. It was not the first time I was asked this question or had heard it or read it. It’s like the elusive, “Who is your hero?” question. Or the, “What is your biggest regret?” question. I do have PEZ answers; those answers that stand at the ready when they are necessary supplements for pushing past an inevitable crash from the depleting pressure I can feel when expected to sustain and to effectively participate in socially engaging & polite dialogue. But real answers do not immediately come to my mind. And if they did, the kind of answer that truly meet every qualification of the words that build the questions, would I share them?
These questions are of the sort that are deeply anchored far beneath our life’s surface waters. To mine for the answers to these questions would require a thoughtful and honest appraisal of self. It would require reflection, discovery, and exploration that would take a person somewhere beyond the comfortable reach of the primary senses, beyond easily accessible “within reach” memories, beyond what others have told us about ourselves (and that we pick-and-choose to believe), and into the massive dark and nearly alien waters of self-awareness.
As I approach birthdays, I can feel the weight of the questions waiting. I think others feel them, too. Otherwise, why ask the questions? There are times that we cloak our desire to know more about ourselves by posing questions that express a desire to know others. Maybe their answers will help us to form our own answers. Then again, maybe we ask the questions as an avoidance of some type. Or maybe we rush to be the first to pose the question because that’s the easier and more dominating role within social interaction.
I believe that I have come to know this: There is an inner self with which we either daily brutally fight or that we daily heavily disguise…or both. I guess that’s another question to add to the list. ‪#‎birthday‬ ‪#‎melancholy‬ ‪#‎nostalgia‬

Mama’s Story

3385_4783739844795_1899185606_nToday my Mama turns 59 years old. In another 22 days, I will turn 40.

I was probably 14 years old when I calculated the years between my mother’s birthday and my own. The realization that there were only 19 years between her birthday and my birthday intrigued me. So, being a rather fundamental Baptist kid at that time in my life, I decided to calculate the amount of time between my parents’ wedding anniversary and my birthday.
Let’s see…November ’74 and May ’75…
[counting on my hand]: December-1, January-2, February-3, March-4, April-5, May-6…6 months? No, not 6 months.
How could I have been born just 6 months after my parents were married?

During a visit to my grandparent’s home, I recalled the troubling mathematical path. So I asked an aunt, “Was I a premature baby?”
Looking back on the memory, I realize how clever her initial response to me was.
My aunt responds, “Why do you ask?”
“Well, there’s only 6 months between my parents’ anniversary and my birthday. There should be 9 months. So that’s why I’m curious if I was a premature baby.”
“Yes. Yes, you were.”

Fascinating. How had I missed this piece of my life’s story? Why had I not seen the pictures of life-sustaining tubes and incubators? This was good stuff. I was born after only 6-months in the womb. That’s church testimony stuff right there!

One evening, after coming inside from finishing the daily list of chores that my mother always had for my brother, sister, and me to complete, standing in the kitchen, I asked my mother,
“Mama? Why haven’t you ever told me that I was a premature baby?”
My mother, back turned to me as she stood at the stove in her simple and practical floral-print house coat, responded without hesitation, “You were not a premature baby. I was pregnant with you before I married your daddy.”

You know those scenes in movies when an actor experiences something that causes the entire environment to suddenly telescope into a blur of bright light? When the camera angle suddenly and abruptly rushes towards the face and expression of the actor all while a sound like oxygen being noisily and quickly sucked from the room occurs? That’s how I replay this memory in my mind. In that moment, I experienced a crisis of sorts and I was given new sight.
I wonder if the transformational experience I felt in that moment was similar to the one that Adam and Eve experienced when their lips parted and their teeth broke the flesh of the forbidden fruit taken from the Tree of Knowledge? It kind of makes sense that it would. After all, this knowledge I had just received brought an awareness to my 14-year old existence that I had not possessed prior to that day. And it was a formative awareness that my mother was a human, not some automated and perfect presence in my life. My mother had a story; one that preceded and transcends the story that I felt I already knew.

There was no more discussion of the matter after my mother gave me her answer. She continued, uninterrupted, preparing our family’s meal, as she did nearly every night of the week and I continued to stand there surveying her. With new eyes. With new questions. With new awareness.

Autobiography: an account of a person’s life written by that person.
Mom: the person most likely to write an autobiography and never mention herself.

If I had to know my mom’s story only by what she said about herself, I would know very little of my mom’s story. She doesn’t talk much about herself. She talks…goodness does she talk. But it’s never talk about how she wishes to be perceived. It’s never talk about circumstances that she hopes will help her gain that excusing sympathy from a listener that we feel relinquishes us from all personal responsibility. It’s never talk rooted in self-love or in self-loathing. Instead, it’s talk that is an outflow of a life shared with others, of experiences, of lessons learned, and sometimes of people who have scored a place on her, “I want to drag them into the woods and bury them” list.

For me, my mom’s story is a reel of personal vivid memories, mysteriously preserved in the mind’s eye of a son and rich with insight anytime I revisit them or they revisit me.

One day, I plan to share a narrative of Mama’s story. I will craft it from the memories she indelibly left within me. I will preserve it with carefully selected words that will still fall short of capturing who she is. And I will ensure that it is passed along in an attempt to achieve the impossible:  to share a story, poorly reflected through words, that is told best through action.

Happy birthday, Mama. As you prepare for your big backpacking trip on the Uwharrie Trail, I hope that you enjoy respite, refreshment, and happiness. And I want you to know, as you trek out, that your life, though composed of challenges, sacrifices, hurts, pains, and self-denial, tells a story of humanity that is largely drowned out by those shouting their own stories that they want the world to hear, but that serves as a beacon and a raft that quietly leads and carries those fortunate enough to share life with you.

Your son,

Another birthday…Another day?

Yesterday was my 35th birthday.  I love birthdays.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love the fact that they represent another year of my life has been completed.  But I relish the opportunity that a birthday provides for reflection, remembrance, and review.

I decided to take a hike with my 3 year old son, Liam, on my birthday.  I didn’t want it to be a quick excursion.  I wanted it to be long, significant, rejuvenating and taxing.  I had a lot to think about.  So I loaded the backpack into the trunk of the car, strapped Liam in, and headed for Clark’s Creek Greenway.

After a quick stop for some provisions (diet Sun-drop and gum for me, sweet tarts for Liam), I parked the car, put Liam in the backpack, and started a 12-mile hike down memory lane.

I love this particular hike.  There are so many  different landscapes to see along this greenway and there are quite a few smells, as well.  The various animals, flowering trees, the creek, the marsh, the fields, the gravel paths, even the large wooden bridges all trigger memories linked to specific sights and smells.  Since I was wanting to remember and to reflect, this environment was necessary and supportive.

As with any hike or run, there comes a point that the spring in my step begins to get a little sprung.  The exhilaration of the first few miles turns to thoughts of, “You know the further you go from this point, you still have that many MORE miles to complete when you decide to turn back.”  My mind begins to play tug-of-war with my body as they fight to see who will determine the next step; forward or back?

My hike down memory lane was nearing that same point.  I had been walking for nearly 3 hours and thinking about my last 35 years.  My back was a little sore.  My feet were barking.  And the tug-of-war game was getting harder to maintain.  The memories I had of my childhood and adolescence were changing to memories and thoughts of a more difficult nature.

While navigating bikers and runners, Liam’s requests for candy, and wondering if I would finish this walk in time to get Ellis from the school bus, I was trying to figure everything out.  Like many people, I want to know the plan.  I want to feel as if I can answer with confidence and clarity, “Where do you see yourself in 20 years?”  Questions like, “How did I get here?”, “What decisions were made that determined this direction?”, “How do I know I’m doing the right things?”, were all rattling in my mind as I remembered my life.  (These are all the typical questions you ask when on a hike, right?)

Did I mention that I had my phone with me, too?  It is rarely far from my side (a fact to which my wife will attest with great annoyance) and it keeps me tethered to the greater community of which I am a part and that I love to serve.  I was using it to track my speed and distance and as I was reviewing my progress, I noticed several notifications in my inbox from my Facebook account.  I knew that they were the typical and expected “Happy birthday” sentiments that we all love to give and receive.  Since I needed  a break from all the remembering and questioning, I decided to check out “the wall”.

As I was reading through the postings and smiling, I came across a particular post that put me back on my hike down memory lane.  It was a post from Mary, a lady that once served in a choir I directed a few years ago.  In her post, she shared with me that her son and I shared the same birthday.  She shared with me that she had lost her son 11 years ago.  She shared with me that my life had impacted her life.  She instructed me to take time out from the busyness of my life to “be still” and to listen to God’s voice.

Mary had done something significant.  She had taken time out of her day of remembering, to share with me during mine.  She effectively guided that day’s journey to its final leg.  She reminded me of something critical to our faith; to be still in Him.

I walked in silence.  Allowing the memories and thoughts to be still.

Within a few moments, I heard a song.

Time measured out my days.  Life carried me along.  In my soul I yearned to follow God but knew I’d never be so strong.  I looked hard at this world to learn how heaven could be gained.  Just to end where I began, where human effort is all in vain.

Were it not for grace, I could tell you where I’d be.  Walking down some pointless road to nowhere with my salvation up to me.  I know how that would go.  All the battles I would face.  Forever running, but losing the race…were it not for grace.

Our birthdays are not just another day.  They provide us with an opportunity to look back, to be deeply and honestly aware of our present, and to ponder the path ahead.  Our birthday marks the beginning of our progression from our mother’s womb towards His destination.

On my 35th birthday, I determined to rest upon Proverbs 16:9.  In his heart, a man plans his course.  But the LORD determines his steps.