Monthly Archives: December 2015

Indomitable Freedom

post1Christmas added several items to my sports movie collection, and the first new flick into the DVD player was The Hurricane, a 1999 movie featuring Denzel Washington as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer and convict whose triple murder conviction was set aside after decades in prison due to the love and dedication of others. It was Rocky meets Shawshank Redemption meets To Kill a Mockingbird, which is quite the inspirational combination.

The most memorable scene occurs just prior to Carter’s exoneration when he and his young friend, Lesra, have a brief conversation through prison bars. Carter utters the most famous line in the movie: “Hate put me in prison; love’s gonna bust me out.” His young friend brazenly-yet-facetiously responds, “Just in case love doesn’t; I’m gonna bust you out of here.” Carter erupts in laughter, and then, tenderly, reaches through the prison bars to wipe tears from his young friend’s face, and says, softly, “You already have.”

Yes.

This entire blog is predicated on the idea that humanity can be liberated from any circumstance that aims to imprison us—that in our hearts, we can rise above anything. I believe that in the depths of my soul. Argue with me all you want.

But even those who buy the premise may want to argue with me on how we rise above our circumstances, but as we square off, know that my contention is that it is love that busts us out.

Hate imprisons. Love liberates.

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• Click HERE to see Bob Dylan in 1975 singing his protest song, “The Hurricane,” while Carter sat in prison (and remained there for another decade).

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Remembering that It Happened Once

By Wendell Berry

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 94 (1998).

Let There Be Light

You live in a prescientific world and notice the amount of sunlight decrease each day, which for you means less time to find food. You wonder if the sun will soon completely vanish and life will end for you in one long cold night. But it doesn’t. Suddenly, miraculously, the day grows longer. The gods have answered your prayers, and there is cause for celebration!

Which is why late December is the holiday season a zillion years later.

Today is the Winter Solstice in Los Angeles (8:49pm PST to be exact), that “shortest day of the year” that signals this darkness/daylight transition and explains why December 25 or so has historically been filled with celebration.

If you are interested, Christians began to co-opt the party about seventeen centuries ago to celebrate Jesus’s unknown birthday and the many pagan traditions that Christians carried into the holiday such as trees, reindeer, gift-giving, and mistletoe led subsequent Christian groups (including Puritans in the American colonies) to unsuccessful attempts to take the Christmas out of Christmas.¹ Those attempts aside, still today, ‘tis the season to be jolly.

Call me a pagan, but for the moment I’m skipping over the religious overtones and arguments to say that I love the astronomical metaphor at this time of year. The darkness has now reached its zenith, and light is about to take the reins.²

I of all people do not want to sound pessimistic, but I have sensed a growing darkness in both rhetoric and reality in this world of ours. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to identify with those prescientific worriers in thinking that death, destruction, and division just might win and leave us alone in a long cold night. But here is my pledge: I promise to keep watch for more light, and when I see it, to shout the news and unleash the party.³

Let there be light.

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¹ My faith tradition used to be somewhat in that crowd, taking the ironic position of being Christians who were okay with celebrating the non-religious parts of Christmas but not the religious parts since December 25 was surely not Jesus’s birthday, i.e., we were the rare Christians attempting to take the Christ out of Christmas. Maybe it was the irony, but I don’t hear that much from our tribe anymore.

² Ha, unintended-yet-sneaky Santa metaphor!

³ And I will warn you now: When I shout the news, the religious reference will be unavoidable: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1: 5 (New International).

Recurring Fluctuation

Rhythm: (noun) [ri-thəm] 3a: movement, fluctuation, or variation marked by the regular recurrence or natural flow of related elements.¹

You say routine, and I hear same. That’s boring. You say rhythm, and I hear flow. That’s magic. Routine is my middle name (or possibly Andrew), but I want to live with rhythm.

The end of the calendar year brings a holiday break to most people, and it arrived yesterday with much rejoicing for the students in my world. I like the rhythm of the academic calendar, the dependable circuit of fresh beginnings building toward grand crescendos and coveted breaks. Nothing lasts long enough for monotony to set in, but the variety is familiar. It is rhythm, that lovely idea with the oxymoronic definition of recurring fluctuation.

Our particular culture may be rhythm-impaired.

The American notion of work is hard to identify. From one angle it looks all workaholic with a capitalism-infused insatiable desire for more and a technological revolution that never really allows us to go home or on vacation, but from another it looks a little like laziness expecting two full days off a week and only eight hours of work the other days carefully divided by breaks and lunch hours and creative approaches to what counts as being on the clock (not to mention vacations, sick days, and other assorted flavors of leave).

So which is it? Do we work like crazy fifty weeks of the year and then take two weeks to run like crazy on vacation and never really rest? Or, do we never really get around to work?

Can it be both? I answer both because I think we lack rhythm.

The planner in me says that rhythm demands excellent time management skills, and it does, but the rhythmic life demands the creative side of the brain, too. Do not settle for a bland, routinized life. Do not settle for a rudderless, pinball life either.

Seek a life with beautiful recurring fluctuation, and then—and only then—go with the flow.

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¹ Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

Choose a Place

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The world is apparently falling apart, but don’t give up on it. This thought occurred to me last Saturday over a wonderful meal.

The best meal in Malibu last Saturday was served at the Malibu Community Labor Exchange Holiday Party. I know from firsthand eating. The buffet included tamales, ham, turkey, chicken, enchiladas, sweet potatoes, corn casserole, salads, muffins, and on and on and on. It was like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners made sweet love one to another and out popped Heaven.

This is the fifth consecutive year that my wife led the party preparations—and she is awesome—but many people prepared, cooked, cleaned, gave, and otherwise pitched in to pull it off, which reminds me of the Labor Exchange itself.

Though not in the travel guides, the Labor Exchange is one cool place. It was created by the Malibu community over two decades ago as a safe and organized (and free) place to hire day laborers. It is a place where everyone is welcome, which attracts men and women from all over the world with impressive skills, interesting life stories, and colorful personalities. Oscar Mondragon is the legendary Center Director and one of my personal heroes. Oscar worked closely with Cesar Chavez prior to joining the Labor Exchange in 1993, and for twenty-two years, six days a week, he has served countless individuals by enforcing community standards, sharing wisdom, and simply caring for all who show up.

Author, Shane Claiborne, once was asked by several enamored college students to identify the greatest cause of their time. Claiborne told them not to choose a cause but to choose people and that the causes will choose themselves. I like that so much I have repeated it a hundred times, although it isn’t exactly how I discovered the Labor Exchange. There have been several “causes” in my life such as children’s issues and housing/homelessness, but instead of choosing a cause or people, I have typically been drawn toward what was happening in my backyard—“local justice” as my friend, Jeff, calls it.

Enter the Labor Exchange. It wasn’t the plight of day laborers that initially drew us in; instead, some folks were taking sack lunches each month and we just joined the crew. Before long, however, through getting to know Oscar and meeting the fascinating workers, we became part of the family.

What I like most about the Labor Exchange is that it is a place. There are lots of terrific causes in this world that deserve attention, but there are far too few places to go in a community where everyone is welcome regardless of, well, anything. See if you can find one where you live, and if you do, don’t be a stranger.

I guess that’s my humble modification to Claiborne’s good advice: Choose a place outside of your particular box, meet the people there, and the causes will choose themselves.

Your Very Best

It is final exam season at Pepperdine University School of Law, and you can cut the tension with a knife (except we are a weapons-free campus, so I suggest doing your best with a spork). I am almost embarrassed to admit that I kind of like the feeling of stress in the air because it reminds me of the fluttery feelings associated with the big game or big performance, but there is a particular weirdness to law school final exam stress brought on by a forced curve, a brilliant set of students, and a solitary grade for an entire course. Admittedly, that kind of stress feels more like an unexpected phone call from your doctor than a piano recital.

As a law student, I discovered that worrying about finals was not particularly helpful, although I sure gave it a good try. The better approach consists of a good strategy, discipline, and the many hours that follow.

My law school days came later than most and happened to coincide with my youngest daughter’s matriculation to middle school. It was nice to go school shopping for pencils together. I remember a day when my daughter received an uncharacteristic poor grade on a school assignment, and in my best attempt at being “dad,” I asked if she had truly done her best. When she said that she had, I told her not to worry about it: that her very best was all anyone could expect, and that’s all she has to give anyway. I was proud of my good advice—and then went back to sulking about my prospects of doing poorly in law school.

Thankfully, two seconds later, it occurred to me that I should heed my own advice: Give it my very best, and be satisfied. For the most part, I did, and I was.

Fear is the enemy of life, and fear of failure is troublesome because popular definitions of success are such that so much is out of our control. But what if success and failure were based on doing your very best with what you have been given?

I’m spreading that word in a law school, on social media, and in my own little brain: Reach for the stars. Take what you get. Learn from it. Reach for the stars again.

Joy to the World

My family traditionally opened presents on Christmas Eve, so the Twelve Days of Christmas confused me. Heck, we barely did one. But I never found leaping lords and diverse birdlife, i.e., laying geese, swimming swans, turtle doves, calling birds, partridges housed in pear trees, and hens of French origin all that appealing in the first place.

But I get it now. No, not the lords and birds. I get the Twelve Days of Christmas because I counted and my calendar contains at least twelve holiday-themed events before we even make it to family on Christmas Day.

This observation comes with zero complaints, but it does feel a little disjointed with all the violence and fears and anger and arguments in the world right now—especially since the most recent tragedy occurred at a holiday party. Peace on Earth seems a little, well, laughable, if it wasn’t so sad.

The feeling is familiar. When Hurricane Katrina devastated our community in 2005, it seemed a little odd to have a holiday party that year, too. (We may have worn ugly sweaters, but mostly because that’s what arrived on the relief truck!) But I concluded then that we needed to celebrate even more. After all, given my particular faith tradition, the story of the season revolved around a family with nowhere to sleep.

Maybe that works this year, too. (There was after all a violent infanticide in the Christmas story.) I’m not thinking that “Peace on Earth” is such a terrific phrase right now, at least not if we expect signs of that coming true anytime soon. But, any celebration that talks about Hope seems timely. And anything at all that produces a measure of Joy sounds pretty good, too. As many songs and gifts and love and light as we can muster is a pretty fantastic idea when it’s dark outside.

If it takes twelve-plus days and parties to make a little dent in the darkness, then bring on the egg nog!

Exquisite

[Note: I used to write a lot until, well, law school.  But, one year ago tonight, at the end of a long day, a moment happened in the law school that unleashed an intense desire to write about that particular moment.  That impromptu essay opened the door in my heart that with time became “Starting to Look Up.”  So, in honor of that moment, here is my essay from one year ago.]

The word exquisite doesn’t come to my mind very often.

It has been a long day, at the end of a long week. Our students are in final exams, and I feel about that weary, too. I made it to work around half past seven this morning and walked out around half past nine this evening. That isn’t normal, but it isn’t abnormal. Another long day.

But there were some great moments. I served on an important panel judging a Christmas cookie contest for our staff: public service at its most delicious. And tonight, I attended a swearing-in ceremony for our graduates who passed the bar exam. There may not be a happier occasion, and the celebratory hugs and high fives from such special people made my heart happy.

So it was a good, solid, long day.

But it came time to go home. I closed down my office, grabbed my work bags, and headed toward the exit with a weariness that comes with a fourteen-hour work day.

There was music as I walked toward the door.

The law school received a piano as a gift last year, and we have several talented pianists in our community who put it to good use, so this was not surprising. I noticed three first-year students standing on the second floor near the law school entrance, weary from a never-ending battle to learn the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, still at school at half past nine on a Friday evening. They were listening to the music that filled the three-story building emanating from the back corner of the first floor.

I joined their group to listen, too.

I am embarrassed not to know piano tunes. This one was lively and reminded me of a Scott Joplin sort of song. But I don’t know. I do know that the young pianist was into it, and soon, we were too.

Two other law students came out of the library, pulled to the railing by the music.

And we just listened. We all stood quietly, mesmerized, weary, but captivated, and listening.

It was really just a moment. The impromptu performance couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of minutes, but there was a moment somewhere therein, somewhere before the song’s rousing conclusion and the surprising ovation from the six-person audience up in the balcony. It may not have made an impression on anyone else, but it is now well after ten o’clock, and although I am still tired, I had to write about this moment because I don’t want to forget it.

It was exquisite.

Some moments are worth the trouble of life. And the one tonight, when the intense and elegant music of an artist captivated a group of stranded travelers on a Friday evening, qualifies in my book.