Posted in Life

Mortality (In Memory of Samuel Velazquez 1932-2015)

We are mortal creatures. We know this. But we don’t understand it. Eternity is in our hearts. That we will one day cease to exist, is incomprehensible to us.

My grandfather died this week. I got the call this morning, and I am out of town, so I don’t even have a picture to show you.

I didn’t know him very well. By the time I came around, mental illness had claimed much of his vigor, and what schizophrenia didn’t take, strained relationships did. I only understood him through the lens of a hundred stories of days gone by, and vague memories of childhood holidays.

He loved to make beans and rice with carnitas (a Mexican beef dish). He was of Mexican heritage. His parents were Mexican immigrants, (legal, mind you) but he was born in the United States in the 1930’s, and raised and educated in the throes of the American golden age. He carried two cultures in his veins, and switched seamlessly between them.

With perfect Spanish intonation, he would call me, “mija,” a Spanish contraction for “Mi hija”—my daughter, and then talk to me about C.S. Lewis in flawless, native, English. He was the first person I ever met that could do that.

As far as religion, I couldn’t really say. He was raised Christian, I know. And if there is anything I know in life, anything at all, it’s that religious upbringing runs deep and dies hard. But, my childhood memories of him reveal little to this effect. From time to time, he might briefly mention such things. But nothing near the level I was getting at home.

He prided himself on education. He had come from humble beginnings, the son of a Pentecostal preacher. Then as a divorced, single father of three, he put himself through school, all the way through his Master’s, and then went on to a university career.

He had two younger brothers, and it was said bad blood existed between them. But, my grandfather, they respected.

“You made something of yourself,” they would solemnly nod.

As a father, he ran his family a tight ship. He had built himself, and he wanted nothing but excellence from them, despite themselves.  It was this sort of determined approach to life that built America. So, why wouldn’t it work in his household?

It was all in good training, then, that he would do things like hold university dinner parties in his home, and insist that his children not only attend, but participate in discussion with university professors. This was also why he would demand his family in dress code to an evening out to do dinner. His children saw it as pretentious. And I’m sure that was part of it. But I understand it. I appreciate it.  (I am prone to the pretentious myself, more than I will admit).

But in his day, he had had everything to prove in life, and worked hard to prove it. Now, he had created an easier life for his posterity, and wanted them to be poised for success and luxury.

I fell into his good graces early in life. First by being, “The first grandchild.” He was big on these sorts of things. Second, with my elementary school honor roll report cards. His face would beam with pride, when my mom would show him my report cards.

“Mija,” he would say. “Look at this. You are so smart.”

Later, when I announced that I had earned my high school letterman jacket, he paid the supplier’s hefty price tag. I wore that jacket through three high school winters, and I still have it tucked away in a box.

One of my last memories of him was a summer when I was in college. I was home for a brief interlude. He had just gotten out of the hospital, and as a family, we all went to visit him. He was shocked to see his doorstep full. And with all the gregariousness of his Latin heritage, he welcomed us into his tiny apartment. He refused to use his walker, and seemed embarrassed at our dad’s insistence. I think he didn’t want us kids to see him that way.

We flipped through old photo albums. There he was. A young, handsome Hispanic man, with jet black hair carefully combed-over. He wore a smart tweed suit, and thick-rimmed black glasses and in his swarthy hands was a hard plastic briefcase. I nodded and stared at the picture over and over. THIS is who he really was inside. Not this frail, stammering silver-headed man.

He began to tell stories of the different photographs. People we had never met, times where we had never lived. They were vivid in his mind. But, to me, they were as distant as the orange shag carpet and patterned linoleum in the photos. As I listened to his stories, it wasn’t the content that struck me.

It was the realization that he had an entire lifetime of memories, ideas, experiences that I knew nothing about. I wondered what he thought about life, and love and all the mysteries in between. I wondered what he thought about theology and philosophy and the great secrets of the world. I wondered who HE really was. But, it was late, and the room was full, and there wasn’t really the time and place for all of that.

I only saw him one more time, at a cousin’s wedding. His health had improved and he was doing well. He was in a wheelchair, but jovial and well-dressed.

“How are you doing, Mija?” he stared at me over the rim of his glasses as we sat around a reception table.

It wasn’t a passing question. His deep brown eyes probed into me. I hadn’t seen him in several years. But, there was something oddly familiar about it. He was part of me. And so I answered him with my latest feats in life and he tried to follow, but ended up in laughter.

“I’m glad you’re doing well,” he patted my leg.

“You look well yourself,” I said, with my formal-friendly smile.

We took bites of cake and then someone changed the conversation. That was the last time I talked to him.

This morning, when I got the call that he had passed of a heart attack, I was shocked. I knew his health had been failing him for a while. And yet, I never did find out who he was.

So, I have been thinking about my own life, and how vivid and real it is to me. And, yet, one day I will be gone. And all the stories, memories, things that hold tightly to me, will similarly cease to exist. My only hope is to leave a legacy. But Solomon writes that even this is meaningless, “For who know whether the person to carry it on will be wise man or a fool?”

Life is brief. A chasing in the wind…Love the ones that are here. For one day they will not be.

Posted in Life

Mountain Climbing

I went mountain climbing today. Well, sort of. This week I am staying at a place in the mountains. It’s a YWAM base, which, is sort of a Bible school. They train missionaries here and send them all over the world. The place is laid out something like a retreat center, with cabins and dormitories. I guess it’s how colleges are supposed to look. (Mine was anomaly, inspiring jokes about the Jetson’s).

IMG_20151028_152234But I think they are supposed to look something like this—tree lined trails running behind the main buildings, with rows of adorable white 1-2 bedroom houses, all in white clapboard. Bikes, running shoes, and barbeque grills spill off the tiny porches and into the street. An occasional vehicle creeps by…maintenance trucks, or decade secondhand cars, none of whom even use the accelerator in consideration of the foot traffic.

The entire self-contained campus is privately nestled in the mountains. But, today with a few hours to kill, I decided to use the hiking trails. I’ve never been good at hiking. In fact, hiking terrifies me. I once hiked through the Grand Canyon.

It’s a good statement to make and gives you street cred among outdoor enthusiasts. But, really, I hiked about twenty feet in, and held onto the wall the entire time, squealing at regular intervals, rigid with terror that I would slip on some donkey poop and go plummeting into the world’s largest hole and the certain death that it offered. (If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you will know that this is a very reasonable and rational fear). I finally told everyone that I refused to go any further and I was going back up. (A feat in itself). I hiked back up, careful of the donkey poop, and then watched everyone else descend from the safety of the rim. For years hence, I have told people that I hiked in the Grand Canyon.

IMG_20151028_142629So, today I decided to go hiking up Mount Mystery. Pensive moods make me brave. That and alcohol. Since I had no alcohol, I had to rely on the bravery of my poetic curiosity. So, I kept climbing, and climbing. I hadn’t thought to bring tennis shoes, so all I had was my rubber flip flops. I get climbing over the grass, and the boulders through the narrow trails. And then I turned, and I looked below, and it was beautiful. The serenity of nature and the buildings rising against the timeless mountains. Humanity’s attempt to subdue the earth, and the earth majestic and sovereign in its own.

There’s something wild and adventurous about nature that brings out the power in us all. We were made to subdue the earth. It’s part of what makes us uniquely human. We were not meant to live in harmony with it. We were meant to tame it.

I had almost reached the top of the mountain. And I sat on a boulder and tried to think of something poetic and wistful, and deep….and I had nothing.

My determined and poetic spirit pushed me to go further, and conquer the rest of the mountain. But, then I started to worry about mountain lions and snakes and such and that I had made this hike on a lark, so no one actually knew where I was. So, if I tripped and fell down the mountain and broke my ankle and couldn’t get back down, it would be a very long time before anyone thought to look up there for me. Damn practical thoughts. Maybe if I’d had some Tequila I would have made it to the top…

So, I climbed back down, ever so carefully (in my flip-fops). I reached the bottom of the mountain and civilization and still wondered if I had any poetic or philosophical gain out of my brief trip. Nothing. I just crossed something off my bucket list that had never been on it. And that’s the story of my mountain climbing that day.

Posted in Writing

Almost, Exactly, Right Where I Want to Be

“I am a writer.” I remember the first time I introduced myself with that tagline. Someone asked me what I did for a living, and it just popped out of my mouth. It was a shock even to my own ears. For the first time, I wasn’t a journalism graduate trying to make it as a writer. I wasn’t working as a [fill in the blank with an entry level job] while I wrote on the side. My answer wasn’t qualified with a “Well, right now I’m…” I searched my brain for that caveat. Was this really true? Or was it one of those things you say to sound impressive, like the exaggerated accomplishments on your resume?

No, I realized, as images of my daily grind passed before my eyes. It was true. I had become what I had only dreamed of becoming. People actually pay me to write. Decent money. Well, decent is relative. But, enough that it wouldn’t be worth my time to work in the last entry level job I held. Lately, I have found that to separate myself from the hobbyist, I had to start adding the word, “professional” to my answer.

“I’m a professional writer.” The first time that rolled off my tongue, I wanted to cry. It had finally happened. It was a long journey to become a writer. And that road, played like a memory montage in a movie…

….The years of beating your brains to push out articles for literally for pennies a day, telling yourself it’s all for the portfolio….Giving those $2 articles for the web content company all the research and integrity of a $100 magazine article…Having a website buy an article from you, through an online writing service, and then posting it and assigning it a fake name to mask the fact they bought the content, instead of producing it in-house…Going on so many ‘normal’ job interviews that you know are wrong for you, that your interview suit gives out from wear….Trying (unsuccessfully) to convince hiring managers that you are indeed an outgoing, fun-loving, social receptionist-type, when you are clearly an introverted, thinker, type…Watching the years roll by and knowing that your years as the “pretty young thing behind the front desk,” have probably come and gone, and you still haven’t “become” anything…Jumping up at a moment’s notice to take that temp job answering phones for the day because the receptionist called in sick…The judgment of college-bound seniors when you are their co-workers and clearly past your prime for that job….Running into high school classmates that are now business owners, and you are their—cashier….All of this, because you are trying to make it as a writer. And you trudge on, keeping that dream before you….

And suddenly, I looked around, and it had happened. It wasn’t an exaggeration. It wasn’t pretense. It was true. For the first time, I was no longer a floundering no one that couldn’t seem to find footing after college. Not only had I become something, I had become exactly what I wanted.

Now, I wouldn’t say I’ve arrived yet. My life isn’t the dream. I still have much further to go. But there is an all-encompassing peace I have found. Assurance. Confidence. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I am comfortable with who I am. And I am almost, exactly, right where I want to be.

Posted in Life, Writing

Poetry Reflection: Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake

The woods are lovely dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep

_______

This is one of the most famous pieces in all of American literature, so I will revere Frost’s words by keeping mine brief. Tonight I am sitting here, my mind is numb from the day’s toil. It’s a good kind of numb, the kind of numb where you know that you have given it everything you’ve got today. “The sleep of a laborer is sweet,” Solomon wrote.

But, I am thinking about my journey as a writer. I started this journey somewhere around ten year years ago, and have had stops and starts, and frustrating detours. I have yelled, and prayed and cursed, all while toiling on. Writing, working, and pushing forward, success just the faintest light—glittering in the distance like a flickering candle. I press on.

This last year has been an amazing one toward this journey. I have reached milestones I had begun to think were only starry-eyed delusions of grandeur. And, though, I still have yet to arrive. If it were easy, the Facebook cliché taunts, everyone would do it.

Shut up, Facebook. What do you know of toil? What do you know of tired? What do you know of discouragement, and wiping your brow to start again, and again, and again? What do you know of beating your head against so many walls, you bleed, and yet you press on with your sweat, blood and tears, rolling into your eyes? What do you know of dogged determination, in the face of exhaustion and monotony? What do you know of success?

Frost’s other most famous piece, was The Road Not Taken, where he ends the piece, by saying, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, ages and ages hence. I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Literature scholars for decades have analyzed those lines. What does he mean? Was it a sigh of relief, or a sigh of regret? Ah, yes. Isn’t that one of life’s deeper questions… If I choose the path of most resistance, will it be worth it? Or will I regret it in the end? So, the piece ends as nebulously as life would have it.

When I studied Frost in college, the professor had actually attended a live Robert Frost lecture toward the end of the poet’s life. As he tells it, sometime during the lecture, a student in the audience asked Frost about this great literature conundrum.

After speaking his mind to the bravado of the fresh-faced twenty year old to approach him with this timeless question on the human condition, Frost is said to have smiled, ear to ear, and given the audience a heaping thumbs up.

The audience roared with standing applause. Frost is said to have meant, that his years struggling, and toiling as a writer, giving up financial security, in the end, were all worth it.

Now we put that on placards, Facebook memes and random Jesus junk.

I say all of this to bring around to the Snowy Woods piece. The last two lines are one of my favorite lines in literature. The whole last stanza, really.

I think of Robert Frost, standing on that University of Texas stage, wrinkled with age, experience and wisdom. And, then I think of the younger man he must have been when he wrote Snowy Woods. This is what it takes to get from here to there.

Oh, how I would love to stop in the snowy woods. Watch Netflix, and cast off all my cares. How easy it would be to choose mediocrity. Be normal, average, and have what one is supposed to have for my age. Oh, how those woods would be lovely, dark and deep.

But, I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. Miles to go before I sleep.

So, I press on. While my eyelids grow heavy, and only the yellow lamplight illuminates the deepening night. I press on, on the chance, that one day, my face will beam with pride, as I tell this with a sigh…I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. 

(So much for keeping my words brief).

Posted in God

Jesus Wore Flip-Flops: Thoughts on the Casual Church

I have spent my whole life in church. Yet, I could count on one hand the number of hymns I know, and I don’t really understand the phrase, “Sunday Best.” Well, I get what it’s supposed to mean, but in my experience, it just means wear your cuter jeans and switch your flip flops out for high heels. Now, in some way that’s a matter of preference, as I do tend to be a low-maintenance dresser. But, you get my point. Church isn’t something you have to dress up for.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, as a matter of change in style. Right now, I am staying on a church campus, along with a handful of other folks. This isn’t the first time. Having spent years in full-time ministry, I have stayed in many churches. I know churches. I GET them. But the other day, I had something of an emergency, and had to cross the parking lot to go get someone out of a service in progress. I didn’t even think twice that I walked into a church meeting dressed exactly as I was–flip-flops, tank top, and sweatpants.

Granted, I wasn’t attending the service, but no one batted an eye at my dress code. And the reason I had no problem with it, wasn’t a lack of reverence. I grew up this way. You could say I’m something of a church rat. The sort of people that have spent so much time in church, it’s as comfortable and homey as their own living room.

I grew up believing God was approachable, friendly, and jovial. God wanted more than anything, to see us enjoy ourselves. He wanted us to feel welcomed in his home. I did. As such, I see no problem with being relaxed in a church. Totally relaxed. Church for me, is a comfort zone. I have been to churches all over the country, and this is the way things typically go.

I thought every church was this way, until one time a few years ago. I was with a group performing in a church that was a bit more formal than others. It wasn’t a formal denomination, but the building was beautiful. This doesn’t typically mean anything as far as behavior, so other than treating the building and furnishings with a little more care, I didn’t think anything of it.

So, as I was “working” the event, I scurried about, the church rat that I am, doing this, finding that, tracking down this person…Then in the middle of the service, I needed to squeak, squeak, scurry into the sanctuary. Suddenly, I was stopped by large, rocks of security guards. They stood blocking the doorway, in three piece suits, staring into lobby, like sentries on duty. They didn’t say a word. They just reverently blocked my way. I was confused.

I tried to ask them why I couldn’t go in, and they stared wordlessly ahead. I looked past them at the stage, and noticed someone was speaking on stage. Then I figured out their protocol. No one could come in when someone was speaking.  I stood in the lobby a little shamed, but still confused. In all my years, I had never encountered that sort of formality. Reverence. Had I been raised wrong? Was my idea of God’s house as a comfortable, relaxed place in fact, irreverent? As I pondered this, the speaker finished, and during the polite applause, the sentries silently stepped aside allowing me through. I stayed in one place the rest of the night.

I had forgotten this incident until a couple of days ago, when I was sitting in another church service. The low meandering worship was like a soft lullaby and I wanted it to quiet and soothe my soul. I sat cross legged in a chair and kicked off my high heels and silently listened. It was then that I was struck by how casual and comfortable I had become here. And, was that wrong? Should we encourage people to be more reverent in church?

But, then I think about why we are so relaxed. We are so relaxed because we want people to come. Come as they are. Come with their shorts, and their flip-flops. Come with their live-in boyfriends, and their same-sex marriages and their drug problems and obscene music. Just come. That’s all we ask. We can help you with the rest. All we ask if that you come.

And, if you’ve looked around at America’s pews lately, even that tends to be hard enough. So, how in the world, can we ask them to “respect the house of God,” when they don’t even believe that there is a God? They just came for the free pizza. Not only that, they don’t even respect their own houses?

So, by cultivating a casual, comfortable atmosphere among the incumbent church rats, we set the bar that “coming” is all we ask. I think that’s how Jesus would have done it. After all, He wore flip-flops.

 

Posted in Writing

Fiction: Novel Opening Scene

For those of you that have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I post pieces of my novel every once in a while. The biggest feedback I have on it, is that it starts too slow. The whole first chapter was backstory. So, I am reworking it so that it delves quicker into the action. Right now, this is the new opening scene. In response to the overwhelming popularity of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, some minor changes have been name.

The character in Fifty Shades is a billionaire named Christian Grey who is dating a literature student (undergrad). He is a well respected and feared man, and most who know him call him Mr. Grey. My character is a millionaire named Ethan Grey who is dating a literature student (graduate). He works as a teacher, and so he is frequently called Mr. Grey. Go figure. I seriously did all of that without knowing it. 

The title, Divine Romance of Ethan Grey, was supposed to be a play on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, and there was a whole subtheme about Ethan trading his soul for youth. But, thanks to E.L. James, the name Grey is now synonymous with chick-lit BDSM porn. And the character of Ethan Grey, again an Oscar Wilde throwback, has been tentatively renamed to Ethan Parker. I think once those changes have been made, I can keep the literature student thing. 

Anyway, you need no plot introduction to enjoy this scene, as this is the new first page. 

______

Chapter 1: The Artist’s Road

It wasn’t how either of them had planned to spend the summer of 2013. In fact, if they had had much choice in the matter, it would have been the last thing they chose. But here they were. The rural landscape of Middle America whizzed by the windows of the fifteen passenger van. Cattle farms…a dilapidated shack hosting rusting vehicles manufactured during the Clinton administration…a billboard advertising a gun supercenter six exits ahead…
Ethan Parker popped his back in the captain’s chair. Alli Montclair shifted in the co-pilot seat. A heavy silence buzzed between them. She flitted her eyes across the dashboard, and then caught his gaze. She looked away.

There was no use asking why. She shook her head. He would never really answer anyway. Her Kindle dimmed and beeped on low battery. She zoned back in on the screen. She read the same paragraph three times and had no idea what it said. In stolen glances, she studied him at the wheel.

Skinny jeans, with an untucked white dress shirt now riding up his waist, revealed the tiniest glance at the black and silver studded belt underneath. A tribal tattoo peeked out from under his right sleeve, while dark Aviators hid his intense blue eyes and silver bars poked out of his earlobes. His tediously disheveled platinum hair subtly protested its work-friendly length and the sterling rings on his long slender fingers intermittently clicked against the wheel. He drove with two fingers–cruise control with his feet in black leather boots casually slouching under the steering column. She gulped as her spine tingled. THIS was why. He caught her staring. He smirked.

“Wha?” he muttered, with one eyebrow arching over the rim of his sunglasses. “Kerouac can’t hold your attention?”

His smile made her heart jump. But she made no comment. She simply raised her eyebrows and with a smirk of her own stared into her Kindle. Why did he always do this to her? She sensed him watching her with amusement and a soft heat rose in her cheeks.

She coolly plugged it into the charger docked into the console, ignoring his ever-increasing smirk.

“We’ve been tweeted,” the single statement from the backseat broke the spell. Chris Ackerman, the band’s nineteen year old drummer. Ethan cleared his throat and Alli sat up straighter.