What is this lump in my throat?

A few weeks ago, a friend laid an unfinished poem called “Holding the Baby” at my feet and asked me to finish it. In the finishing of it, I rediscovered a little bit of awe and wonder about this big, sacred mystery we’re all living in. I hope what we created brings you a little awe and wonder, too. Here it is…

meaning

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For weeks, our dog has pawed at the thawed out patchy yard. A mommy rabbit dug her birthing home under our fire pit. The bunnies couldn’t survive the tireless winter as it beat beyond the spring doorframe. We would bring Betsy in from the cold and make her drop one of the litter at our feet. Is it a mystery that she didn’t eat them? Is it foolish to believe that she was holding the babies as a mother of all creatures?

I hold babies too. All day long. Monday to Friday. 7:15 until the parents get off the commuter train and enter home life again. The infants speak with cries and drooling spittle. Their beginning words translate my heart into a life more understandable. They’re toothless and tongue-tied; they’re the hums and babbles of the generations going forward.

What is this lump in my throat?

Make me drop the poem at your foot.

Carry me. Listen to me.

This lump is time and cosmos.

This lump is the truth of the whole thing, gathered in my throat, leaving me speechless.

Holding the babies, they are me and I am them. My bones longer now, skin less supple, teeth come and gone and come again now yellowing, hair graying, held now in the arms of aging, still vulnerable, perhaps now more than ever.

Holding the babies, I hold myself, my once upon a time self, and my one day will be gone self. In the beginning, drooling spittle, our body so new we do not know we have lips; in the end, drooling spittle, our body so used we have lost control of our familiar lips.

Holding the babies, I hold innocence, hearts without wound. In their innocence, I recall my own innocence. I remember who I was purely, who I am vaguely, who I one day will be again hopefully. In their innocence, I bear witness to the good news, the promise of how beautiful it all really is, in the beginning, in the end.

This lump is time and cosmos.

This lump is the truth of the whole thing, gathered in my throat, leaving me speechless.

And the truth holds me gently, like a baby, dropping me eventually at the feet of Eternity, the wintertime of life giving way to the springtime of being.

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Listening for Invisible Blessings

Tuesday morning.

I awake with loud ringing in my right ear. I stick my finger in it. Wiggle it. Blow my nose. No such luck. The ringing grows louder. I turn to Google and search “sudden onset of tinnitus in one ear.” Google says tumors and blood clots and, hopefully, ear wax. I resolve to never search a symptom on Google ever again. The best recommendation: ambient sound, avoid silence at all costs.

I go to my hushed therapy office for a full day of work.

It’s torture.

blessings

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By the end of the day, I’m jumping out of my skin. I’m starting to get anxious. I will be traveling to Virginia on Saturday for a speaking engagement, and I can’t imagine doing so with this ringing. Of course, people live their whole lives with tinnitus, but silence has always been my best coping method—the idea of living with this forever almost undoes me. It is always a little terrifying when a lifelong coping strategy quits working.

I go to sleep, hoping for magic overnight.

Wednesday morning.

No magic. After a restless night, I rise to the ringing even louder in my ear. I call my chiropractor, and he takes good care of me, but afterward, the ringing continues unabated. I can sense something dark lurking at the edges of my hope. For the rest of the day, I do my best to ignore it.

Thursday morning.

I awake and the ringing is louder than ever. Remembering the ear wax thing, I call my doctor and set up an appointment for Friday afternoon. Then, I try to concentrate on producing my podcast. Around noon, with the mercury pushing seventy for the first time all year, I finally give up. I put air in the tires of my bike and go for my first outdoor ride in six months.

Nature has been stubborn here. Though it has been spring for more than a month, there is no green to be seen. I ride through brown, barren forests. With no foliage yet to obscure it, the death and decay on the forest floor is laid bare. Toppled trees. Lightning scorched stumps. Rotting leaves and branches. A month from now, on this very same ride, I will be unable to see any of it—it will all be obscured by the resurrection of springtime, the dense blessing of new growth. The death and decay will still be there, but it will be hidden within the beauty.

I ride through the barren forest and, suddenly, I realize I can’t hear the ringing.

The rush of air past my ears is is obscuring it.

The brokenness of my hearing, hidden within the beauty of the wind.

The dark thing at the edges of my hope retreats a little.

Usually, I insist on believing that blessing is found in the absence of brokenness. But I’m reminded once again, blessing is not the absence of brokenness; it is beauty amidst the brokenness. Beauty is the blessing that helps us bear the burden of our brokenness. Beauty is given to us, in seasons, so we may pay attention to it for a little while, rather than the brokenness, rather than the death and decay.

I get home and do the dishes. I realize the running of water obscures the ringing even better than the wind, and I live in a town with a river running through it, and in the middle of the town is a dam. I imagine spending the remainder of my years—my march toward death and decay—with a broken ringing in my ears, and I picture myself going down to the river daily, to let the sound of the dam replace the ringing in my head.

Beauty amidst the brokenness.

Brokenness lost in beauty.

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How to Feel True Thanksgiving in Just 45 Seconds

The pain stabbed me awake.

Near midnight, on an ordinary Sunday evening, I awoke to the feeling of someone inserting a very sharp knife under the toenail on my left big toe. The sensation lasted ten seconds, then subsided. Forty-five seconds later it happened again: ten seconds of exquisite agony. Then, forty-five seconds of ordinary living, followed once again by the knife. It went that way all night long.

Every forty-five sleepless seconds, the knife.

Thanksgiving gratitude

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The merciless cycle continued with almost no relief for three days and two more nights. I’m feeling better now—the right diagnosis and some good treatment and my sciatic nerve has finally cried mercy, for now—but the whole thing showed me something about how to cultivate true thanksgiving, as we head into this Thanksgiving holiday.

It has to do with the ordinary threaded throughout the pain.

What I mean is, during the daytime, when I was distracted by all the demands of daily life, I only paid attention to my toe when the knife arrived, so it felt like I was being stabbed all day long. But at night, there was nothing to do but pay attention the whole time, so I got to fully experience the forty-five second gaps between the pain, as well. And this is what I discovered:

I’m deeply, deeply grateful for forty-five ordinary seconds.

We tend to think of gratitude as something that happens when pain is vanquished, when hardship and disappointment and loss are eradicated from the landscape of our lives. We tend to think of gratitude as an experience that arises naturally when the risk and fear and diagnosis and disease and grief are behind us, rather than on us or in front of us. We tend to think of gratitude as an extraordinary feeling that corresponds with extraordinary blessings and exceedingly good fortunes and a cookie that crumbles in all the right ways.

But the truth is, gratitude can happen in forty-five terribly ordinary seconds.

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The Only Thing Better Than Being Remembered

The waves will wash us away.

I’m walking along the beach on the West coast of the United States when I see it, carved into the rock: “S+H 4 Ever.” There is a heart carved around it, and a date: 9/2014. At first, my heart is warmed—it must have been hard to carve, a labor of love. But then, very quickly, my heart is chilled. Three years ago, “forever” was carved deeply into a rock, and three short years later, the crashing water is already eroding and erasing the letters. In those fading letters, I saw myself. I saw all of us.

The waves of time will wash us all away.

purpose meaning

At some level, each of us is aware of this. So, we strive for immortality, by carving our initials into this life—we try to make our mark on the world. We try to make a difference. We long to be remembered. We hope to leave a legacy. We fight to outlast ourselves. But the truth is, aside from the occasional address in a field at Gettysburg, or a speech on the mall in Washington, most of us will not be remembered for very long.

Someone once said, “Every man dies two deaths. The first is when he takes his last breath. The second is the last time someone says his name.”

Our time here is short and, for most of us, the waves of time will eventually wash away even the memory of our existence, no matter how deeply we carve our initials into the bedrock of our lives.

Like I said, the heart-warming inscription only chilled me.

Two days later, though, I’m back in the heartland of America, and I’m sitting beside another body of water—a river—on a colorful, brittle autumn day. The season around me is yet another reminder of how everything and everyone is always dying and passing on. As I sit beside the river, the image of the waves slamming into the shore continues to haunt me. But then something happens.

As I watch the world around me, I see that it’s dancing.

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What to Do When the News Is All Bad

I’m standing in the dark, but I can hear the daylight.

In my neck of the woods, as autumn becomes more frail, cicadas mark the daytime—around midday, they awake and begin their daily song. Then, around sundown, they are supposed to recede, and the crickets preside over the darkness, humming until daybreak. And yet, sometimes, they overlap.

I’m standing in the dark, but I can hear the daylight.

If I listen closely, threaded throughout the din of crickets, I can hear the rebellious hum of cicadas refusing to go gently into the night. And here’s the thing: if you listen closely, a bunch of insects can teach you about how darkness and light really work:

Always, darkness and light overlap.

mindfulness

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There is, it seems, darkness everywhere right now. Charlottesville and hate, hurricanes and devastation. Earthquakes in Mexico, a massacre in Vegas, wildfires in California. The darkness of political and racial division everywhere, even on a gridiron. Data breaches and the dark web and the unfathomable darkness it harbors. Terror and trafficking and more terror.

If you read the headlines, it is easy to believe darkness reigns.

But the truth is, the news is called the news not because it is common, but because it is rare. If my kids came to me and told me they had big news and I asked what it was and they told me they’d just gone to the bathroom, I’d tell them that’s not news. News is the exception to the rule. So, when the news industry reports on the darkness, they are flooding you with outliers. That’s their job.

The truth is, there’s not enough server space in all the world to contain the very, very common light in all the world. The good news is so common, there’s not enough channels on television to contain it all. In fact, the good news is so ordinary, it’s not news at all. It’s just life. And it’s happening right here, right now, all the time, in the midst of the very sensational darkness.

Always, darkness and light overlap.

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Why We’re Lonelier Than Ever (and What to Do About It)

In Chicago, at the peak of the eclipse, you could still see about 13% of the sun. That is, I think, about how much remains of our communal life, as well. This is what I mean by that, this is the damage it is doing to us, and this is what we can do about it…

lonely

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As the eclipse began to wane, I looked to my side and saw one other person on the hillside next to me. She too was lowering her gaze and removing her eclipse glasses. Our eyes met. We smiled at the same time. No words. Just a smile. I can’t be sure what her smile meant, but I know what my smile was saying:

In this space and time, we were enjoying the same experience.

We were two people paying attention to this one thing.

We shared this.

As I walked off the hillside, I wondered why her small smile had moved me more than the vast crescent smile of the sun shining around the moon. I think it was a feeling of connectedness—a sense of unity that transcends familiarity; a sense of belonging that can happen even amongst strangers who are sharing experiences in community.

But our communal life is going extinct.

And it is making us lonelier than ever.

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The Real Reason Back-to-School Makes Us So Emotional

back-to-school

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The summer is fading—and the sun is rising—as I drive my son to his summer job.

At thirteen-years-old, Aidan has spent his summer riding a bus into the cornfields, along with other teenagers, walking row after row of corn, and pulling the tassel from each stalk, so the rows can pollinate each other. As we cross a river, he looks to the west, where the night is slowly giving way to day. He says it’s beautiful how you can see the layers of night disappearing in the sky. We talk about how, even farther west, there are people still sleeping in the dark, unaware of the passage of time.

This image haunts me.

It haunts me long after Aidan boards the bus, long after the sun climbs into the sky. Because that’s how most of us live—myself included—asleep in the dark, unaware of the passage of time. Or running to and fro under a midday sun that hangs so high and steady in the sky you can almost convince yourself it isn’t moving. Hurry is its own kind of sleepwalking. The noisy bustle obscures the ticking of the clock.

The passage of time is only unmasked in the boundary lands.

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What Anxiety Steals from Us (and How to Steal It Back)

mindfulness

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My pockets are empty, and it’s disconcerting.

We’re at a church picnic in a local city park. The sun is shining and it conspires with summer foliage and a gentle breeze to dapple the grass in dancing light and shadow. The children do their dance, bouncing and playing amongst it all. But thunderstorms are predicted and I’ve left my iPhone at home and I have no way to check on the ever-shifting summer forecast.

I mindlessly reach for it several times. I touch only lint.

Finally, during a lull in conversation, I ask someone with a phone if it is going to rain. And then she does something that undoes me. She doesn’t reach for her phone. Instead, she looks toward the sunny skies in the west, looks back at me with a smile, and says, “Not for the next thirty minutes.”

Not for the next thirty minutes.

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Warning: This Post Could Be Hazardous to Your Paralysis

mindfulness

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I’ve been trying to wean myself off my iPhone. Again.

Nothing drastic this time. Just a slow detox. Turning off my mail app. Deleting games. Deleting news apps. Deleting social media apps. Turning off text notifications. Turning off all notifications. I just don’t have the willpower to resist the dopamine rush that a smart phone gives you every time you use it, so I’ve neutered the thing. I’ve made it as unpleasurable as possible.

And it must be working.

Because a couple of days ago, I found myself standing at the gas pump—waiting, waiting, waiting—and I realized I wasn’t holding my phone. I hadn’t even thought to dismount it from the dashboard. So, I hadn’t mindlessly filled myself with data while I filled my tank with gas. I hadn’t compulsively checked messages or news, and I’d gone a few minutes without the craving for entertainment.

And yet.

It wasn’t pleasant.

Instead of swiping, I found myself thinking. For instance, I thought about someone important who was waiting for a reply from me about something important, and I felt my anxiety about being honest in that reply. Then, I thought about another complicated situation I’d gotten myself into, and how difficult it was going to be to face it with integrity. And so on and so on. In other words, I thought all the thoughts I’d been avoiding thinking.

We prefer our digital life because real life isn’t nearly as easy to swipe away.

When we’re on our phones, if we don’t like something we see, we can change the settings or close the app or mute the friend or block the caller, or just wait a few seconds for the algorithm to realize we don’t like it and never show it to us again. But in real life, problems don’t go away. They wait for us. So, while they wait, we scroll.

A tech detox can be dangerous, because it plunges us back into the complexities of real life.

And yet.

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What I Will Miss When They Are Gone

gratitude

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They sent me home to get the music.

On a Friday afternoon in June, we were celebrating the 90th birthday of my wife’s grandfather. He remains a healthy and vibrant man, a gift to all who have known him. As he eases into his tenth decade, he quietly laments that this may be his last year of gardening. His party was a true celebration of life.

Yet, the celebration was missing something. Music.

So, I was sent home to pick up my portable speaker. A thirty-minute round trip to ponder this man who cared for his granddaughter—the woman I love so much—at a time in her childhood when no other man was around to do so. I’m a words guy, and I like to memorialize such moments with a toast. Thirty-minutes to ponder what I wanted to say about my kids’ great-grandfather.

And I blanked.

I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to say about him. It was disconcerting. For a moment, I even began to question the sincerity of my affection for him. But then I got still. And I simply listened. Then, eventually, this voice of grace:

You don’t want to toast him; you want to hug him.

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