My new office is in the heart of Seaver College on the Pepperdine University campus, and after close to a decade in a law school setting it is interesting to be around undergraduate students on a daily basis. This has led me down memory lane.
I earned my undergraduate degree a full quarter century ago at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. My specific bachelor’s degree was in secondary education, but I took more history classes than any other subject, and my favorite was an upper-division course titled “History of the American Indian” with Dr. Elliott West. I never carried on a personal conversation with Dr. West but have often declared him as my favorite professor of all time. As proof, I recall showing up to class one day to discover a sign on the door informing us that class had been canceled — and feeling disappointment. Even then I realized that any professor who was good enough to cause a college student to be disappointed when class was canceled was something special.
Dr. West was a brilliant scholar who knew his stuff, but he was also an engaging and entertaining lecturer who kept us on the edge of our seats eager to hear what he had to say. One of his unique approaches was to flat out lie. That’s right, lie. Dr. West would intersperse his lectures with outlandish statements that sometimes took us a second to realize were outlandish statements, which had the beautiful effect of keeping our slippery attention.
He told us that he had formerly used that technique with freshmen but abandoned it after one occasion when he was explaining how President Lincoln used to wander around Washington wearing a negligee when a freshman finally raised his hand at the back of the room. Relieved, Dr. West called on the student who then asked, “How do you spell negligee?”
Given today’s never-ending avalanche of information via social media and news outlets more interested in viewers than objectivity, it makes my brain hurt to wonder how many lies we believe each day without batting an eye.
Critical thinking is an endangered species. I may not have time to verify everything I hear in this Information Age, but I can sure commit to not believing everything. I learned that in college.
Our 2008 move from Mississippi to Malibu sounds like a seismic culture shift, but moving from affluent, artsy, coastal Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to affluent, artsy, coastal Malibu was not as mind-blowing as you’d think. Okay, it was mind-blowing, just not as mind-blowing as you’d think.
One of the major differences is simply topographical. Ocean Springs sits on the super flat Mississippi Gulf Coast. Malibu officially sits at sea level, too, but that is only half the picture since the vast ocean spectacularly combines with equally stunning mountains. The views we are privileged to enjoy on the Pepperdine campus are ridiculous, and quite often we awaken to see that we are actually above the clouds. It is like a flight with adequate leg room and spacious bathroom facilities.
Recently, on such a morning, I drove from Sunshine Mountain down into the murky clouds for a beachside run along Malibu Road. It is one of my favorite runs because it is nearby, flat, quiet, and scenic, but it isn’t quite as scenic on mornings when the clouds decide to take a nap on the surface of the planet. Despite the cloud cover, I took off with eyes wide open since I have developed a habit of memorializing each morning run with a photograph. It was a challenge. The crashing waves were pretty great in the fog, but not so much for my increasingly outdated iPhone camera, and the horizon was simply nowhere to be seen.
And then I noticed the flowers. The reds and purples, the yellows and lavenders, all nestled in a setting of green and white, almost shy and hiding in the morning fog.
Life lessons exploded from the haze like the colorful flowers. For starters, when life descends into a fog, remember to look for the beauty that is ever present. But also, when life floats in the sunshine above the gray clouds, remember to go to the trouble of joining the world struggling through the smothering gloom. It would be tragic to miss out on the stunning grace that can be found in the obscurity.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged beauty, clouds, flowers, fog, grace, gulf coast, life, malibu, mississippi, ocean springs, pepperdine
Prince died one year ago today. His death was a terrible blow to the music world, and it was also a terrible blow to my wife, who is the biggest Prince fan that I know. I never doubted that she loved me more than Prince, but then again, the three of us never were in the same room.
Regardless of your personal thoughts, Prince was undeniably an amazing performer and a musical genius. In the days following his death, I stumbled across a video produced by the NFL that featured his unforgettable Super Bowl halftime performance at Dolphin Stadium in 2007. Football is tough enough in a rainstorm, but I can only imagine holding a twelve-minute worldwide concert in the driving rain. Come to think of it, I couldn’t play a guitar in high heels under perfect weather conditions.
The video is worth eight minutes of your life, but since all Prince fans have probably seen it and the rest of you probably won’t take the bait, I will share the best part. With the storm bearing down on Miami and threatening to ruin the show, a producer said to Prince, “I want you to know it’s raining…Are you okay?” Prince calmly responded, “Can you make it rain harder?”
When I have work to do in this life and adversity rears its ugly head, that’s the attitude I would like to be strong enough to adopt. Make it more challenging. It won’t stop me.
It was just a truck.
I was pumping gas at the Shell station next to the lively Pacific Coast Highway last Friday when I just happened to see a white pickup truck pass by sporting a black bed cover. It was nothing special, but it produced a memory from over a quarter century ago.
At the time I was in college a good five-hour drive away from home, and my meager possessions did not all fit in a regular truck cabin. A bed cover just made sense given the space challenge and the unpredictable Arkansas weather. We couldn’t afford anything fancy, so my dad bought some wood and some black, weather-resistant astroturf, made careful measurements and some posts to fit the corners, and before long my truck bed was in the dry.
It was just a passing truck, but it reminded me.
I loved that old truck: A maroon, stepside, 1989 GMC Sierra 1500 with a short wheelbase and a big ol’ 350 engine that made it fun to pass cars and tractors and chicken-hauling trailers on those long drives across the Arkansas hills. It wasn’t my first vehicle, but it was the first one that I was proud to call my own, and although it was out of my family’s price range, I’m pretty sure my dad wanted me to have it. He sacrificed a lot for me.
I know it was just a truck, but it was where I first kissed Jody and later (but not much) where I asked her to marry me. When we decided to buy our first house, we sold that truck to afford the down payment, not long before that sweet dad of mine died.
It was just a passing truck, I guess, but it caused me to remember another truck that represents home and the love that shapes your life, so it made me smile.
Today is my wife’s birthday, and the specific number is none of your business (or, apparently, mine!). Jody’s parents both worked as tax preparers back in 19-whenever when she made her grand entrance on April 14—talk about demanding attention from the very start! She deserves a lot of attention. Jody is, hands down, the most impressive person that I know.
I could list a thousand beautiful words that describe my wife, but let’s try a story instead.
Less than two years after we married, Jody was hired as a full-time houseparent at Children’s Homes, Inc., and I got to tag along for the ride. Imagine the situation: a young married couple in their mid-twenties living with and “parenting” teenagers from a wide variety of challenging backgrounds. Not sure who was more crazy–us or the people who hired us. One evening early in our three years there, we were walking with several of the teenage girls at dusk when Jody and one of the girls got into it, and a battle of two very strong wills was on. Given the body language of the two, my fear was that the battle would soon move beyond wills, and I should mention that the other combatant was about a foot taller and appeared to be twice as strong. But there Jody stood in the growing darkness, eye-to-navel, looking up at the girl she was responsible for and yet somehow communicating that she would take her out in a second if anyone flinched. None of us flinched. There was never a question who would win.
Our daughters never really stood a chance with a mother like Jody who loves with such courage and ferocity. She will stand up to anyone, anytime, anywhere for what is right, and particularly for (and if necessary, to) someone that she loves. She is strength and beauty and goodness all wrapped up in one amazing person.
I can’t even imagine how many people are better because Jody decided to care for them. I just know that I am at the top of the list.
Some days it feels like my wife and I should move to Nairobi to be with the children we met there who live on the hard streets. On others I consider Delhi where I learned that young girls are vulnerable to sex traffickers. On still others I remember the poor Brazilians we saw living in the favelas of Rio. But today, I live in California.
And then some days I drive down L.A.’s “skid row” and wonder how I can live in Malibu instead of with those in absolute squalor just a few miles away. And then I open my eyes to Malibu and see homeless and un/under-employed friends looking for work at the Malibu Community Labor Exchange.
The needs are simply everywhere.
How does one live in this old world? I have worked for several causes, from at-risk children to poverty housing to disaster relief to homelessness to day laborers…
And then I see those heart-wrenching images of Syrian children on television. And then churches in Egypt are bombed while celebrating Palm Sunday.
The needs are everywhere, and they are overwhelming.
My personal belief system leads to public policy opinions that seems to place me at odds with all presidents, not to mention most of my friends, but it also leads me to devote (some but far) less energy to public policy discussions and more to being with the sufferers. Knowing names. Sharing hugs. Sharing tears.
But there are so many.
So here is my plan:
I will not let such overwhelming need harden my heart so that I give up on caring. I refuse the temptation to apathy.
I will not allow the impossibility of being everywhere at once immobilize me so that I give up on trying. I refuse the temptation to quit.
And I will encourage others to make similar commitments. I refuse the temptation to think that it is all up to me.
May the privileged few share with the underprivileged masses. Everywhere. Together. Today.
Syrian Refugee Children (via the International Rescue Committee)
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged action, california, delhi, favelas, injustice, labor exchange, los angeles, love, malibu, nairobi, privilege, rio, share, skid row, syria
“I, who have no sisters or brothers, look with some degree of innocent envy on those who may be said to be born to friends.” — James Boswell
I grew up in a house with two older sisters. Well, that’s partly true. Given our age differences, I guess I grew up about halfway in a house with two older sisters. They flew the coop before I hit the grand old age of eleven.
Both were so good to me. I remember sitting on Sandy’s lap and reading my first little book, which totally freaked her out because no one had taught me to read. (“Mom!!! Al read a book!!!”). I remember riding in Jacki’s yellow Volkswagen Beetle and getting to shift gears on our way to the nursing home to visit Miss Martha and Miss Jessie. The words “sibling rivalry” meant and mean nothing to me from personal experience. All I have ever known are sisters who love me. As Boswell jealously observed, I was born to friends.
Sandy and most of her family came to visit this week, and it has been great fun to have them here. It almost surprised me to notice how much I looked forward to their visit. It is always great to have people we love come visit, but there must be something extra special about those words brother and sister, at least in our case.
Our parents have been gone for years now, leaving the three of us at the top of separate family trees with both sisters now at the grandmother stage. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what happened with time, but I think a quote attributed to Clara Ortega says it best: “To the outside world, we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.”
That’s it: We live outside the touch of time. We don’t spend much time together anymore, and as special as it is when we do, time does nothing to or for the relationship. Our relationship is inviolate.
The classic Christian hymn, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, contains the line, Drop Thy still dews of quietness / Till all our strivings cease. That last part just sounds terrible. You see, I’m a striver. Striving’s my thing. I like accomplishment. Give me a problem to solve, yours or mine, and I will strive all day and night to solve it. One of my latest projects is striving to learn how to take a break from striving, which it turns out is just as complicated as it sounds.
Last week Pepperdine hosted theologian, Miroslav Volf, who in his final lecture extolled the Jewish practice of Sabbath as a weekly event where one stops striving. I have long agreed with that concept but am just terrible at it. Since my new preaching gig sees Sunday as work day, I approach Friday-Saturday as weekend and Friday in particular as a personal sabbath. Well, that’s the idea at least. It hasn’t gone well so far.
For starters, I don’t want to stop striving for a day. I prefer catching up on unfinished striving and go a little bonkers ignoring things that need attention when I actually have time set aside to do them! But even when I try, presumably non-striving activities morph into things to accomplish. A nature walk becomes the quest of the perfect picture or story. A novel becomes a mission that needs to be completed in a certain time frame. A sport becomes a personal competition.
I am more than a little nutty. How exactly do I not strive? I could say that I will work on it, but that is exactly the problem.
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that 19th century poem-turned-hymn that imagined the cessation of strivings. Ironically, he hated the very idea of singing in church and wrote the poem to promote silent meditation in contrast to musical worship, but his poem became a tool of the thing he despised. Life is funny. He was also an abolitionist, who in his lifetime saw the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing the practice of slavery in the United States. So he was a striver, too!
Well, obviously striving and Sabbath are teammates, not opponents.
Breaks are important for any endeavor, which obviously includes life itself. This may not come naturally to me, but the secret just may be when it no longer feels like something to accomplish. Stopping is the opposite of accomplishment. It is a gift.