One persistent fear that I carry into midlife is that I will always be a kid brother. I would like to not be a kid brother anymore. I don’t mean this literally: I have four older siblings, I mean them no harm, and even beyond all of our lifetimes, we forever will be siblings, at the very least on a dusty and yellowed copy of our family tree stored away in someone’s attic. In that sense I am and will always be a kid brother (and a big brother too: I have two younger sisters). But I often bring before God in prayer a desire—and I hope also an openness or willingness—to be, or to become, someone more than that identity, the identity of kid brother, an identity with which I have identified since the dawning of my self-awareness. I want to be someone more.
The New Yorker magazine is famous for its cartoons, and as you may know, they tend to run in themes—dog and cat cartoons, lawyer cartoons, and my favorite: psychoanalyst and therapist cartoons. (My profession is very easy to make fun of.) One of my favorite therapist cartoons has no caption. It is just a simple image. A married couple is walking through a door, and their cheering wedding guests are still throwing confetti over them. The couple is exultant, thrilled, overjoyed. Today is their wedding day! But the door they walk through is the door of a stuffy therapist’s office, with the bald and bearded therapist waiting in a chair by an empty couch, pen poised at his lips, notepad resting on his crossed legs.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Often enough, in conversational English, you’ll hear someone talking as if they have multiple personalities. “Part of me wants to get the day started and clean the house,” your friend will say, “but part of me wants to relax and sleep in.” When people feel conflicted about an important decision, the little “people” inside them seem to be arguing about it. “Part of me really wants to tell her off, but the sensible dad inside me would never allow me to do that.”
A friend of mine who was raised by a highly responsible parent has even named a part of herself by her mother’s name, and we talk about that dimension of her personality as if it were a distinct person inside her. And now that I’ve returned to seminary and been stimulated and challenged by immense life changes, changes that have prompted a lot of self-reflection, I’ve gone so far as to assign names to a couple of my own inner “people.” Simply naming them has shed some light on my own character and identity.
“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” --Ezekiel 34:16a
Lindy West is a fat woman.
She would want me to say it that way. She’s not “large,” or “heavy,” or “a woman of size.” She says we should use the word ‘fat,’ because that is how she is seen in our weight-conscious culture; that is how she is judged; that is the reason why she is both visible in a way that upsets people, and invisible because fat people are erased from view, overlooked, disregarded.
A few months ago I felt a strong desire to talk to my mother. This is not a problem, really, except that my mother has been dead for twenty years. So I talked to my therapist about it, and he led me through an empty-chair exercise.
This was not a séance, but it had some of the trappings of one. The therapist stood up, opened the office door, and beckoned my mother into the office. Once she was seated in the empty chair and the therapist had welcomed her into the room, he invited me to speak to her.
Andrew and I visited Los Angeles several years ago, in the late winter. One afternoon we found our way to Hollywood Boulevard, and walked past the Kodak Theatre. It was Oscar season, and though we enjoyed no brushes with fame, it was fun to see all the equipment set out for the big night. In my memory there were rolls of red carpet, but I might have embellished them into the scene. I do know there were rows and rows of folded bleachers, and a cluster of chain-link fences, and barricades like the ones they use to close highway exits. I imagined the street filling with people on the bright Sunday afternoon in late February, and the hundreds of workers it would take to corral and control the mobs. By the time the stars stepped out of their limousines, all the fences and barriers would be in place, along with security personnel, and there would be no way that you or I could get close, no way for us to touch the illuminati. They would be safe, enclosed in a pleasant land of exclusive glamour.
Have you ever lost a friend?
I’ve lost a few.
I don’t mean the kind of loss we suffer when someone dies, though I know most of us (myself included) have lost plenty of friends that way. And I don’t mean the kind of loss that happens when people just drift apart, or go their separate ways for all the ordinary reasons. I mean this: the loss of a friendship … for cause. The loss that happens when it becomes clear to one of you that the friendship simply needs to end.
A few days ago a friend asked me to imagine what God is like, and he encouraged me to set aside my usual ideas. Don’t think about God as Father, Son, Spirit. Stay out of the Sistine Chapel. If I alone could describe God, what would God be like?
The other day I was asked two big questions, questions that might defy easy answers, and I found to my surprise that I had my answers at the ready. The first question was, “What is your greatest fear?” And the second question was, “What is your greatest joy?”
She has helped her servant Israel, in remembrance of her mercy.
Twenty years ago this summer, when my mother was dying, my father started organizing all the papers she kept in remembrance of her children, cards and notes and certificates and report cards, letters and school pictures, a vast collection of memorabilia. In the box labeled “Stephen,” I found a card that her mother, my grandmother, had sent her a few days after my birth.
“My grief is this: the right hand of the Most High has lost its power.” —Psalm 77:10
Human beings are so beautiful.
The gentle slope and sudden, jutting angle of a shoulder. The gleam of a smiling brown eye. The sound of laughter and the sound of song, the might of muscle and the warmth of a parent’s lap. The power and the glory and the majesty of a reconciling hug, a hug that says “It’s going to be okay, we are friends again, I am sorry and I love you.” Her thick braid of silver hair, and the delicate stamp of crow’s feet around his eyes. The elusive art of dancing: whenever dance is captured and released inside the body of a human being, the whole earth grows young again.
A couple of weeks ago, Andrew and I took a train from the village of Hogsmeade to King’s Cross station in London, disembarking close to the entrance to Diagon Alley, which is a little shopping area that’s not so easy for most people to find. The train is called the Hogwarts Express, named for a boarding school it serves twice a year.
I find it hard to like homeless people.
I find them disturbing, scary. I am put off by them. Sometimes I even resent them: I like to shop at the grocery store across the street from here, a store filled with warmth and light and food I can afford; but practically every time I go, I have to walk past a homeless person asking for a handout.
I find this frustrating. I wish it weren’t so. I wish the store had the ability to shoo the panhandlers away. But it’s a city sidewalk; they can’t do that. I want to believe that I don’t want them to do that, because, I reason, kind and ethical people don’t want them to do that. Kind and ethical people want to help the panhandlers, somehow. But I know my feelings in that situation aren’t kind and ethical.
I know this about myself.
Some time ago I was visiting a close relative and his family in Minnesota, and I witnessed a little conversation that intrigued me. His daughter, about six years old I believe, turned to him and said this:
“Daddy, I hate you. You’re the parent I hate.”
Naturally, I was riveted. I couldn’t wait to find out what he would say in response to this. And here is what he said:
“I know, honey. I know. And bedtime is still 7:30.”
A little while ago I enjoyed a rare encounter with an elusive creature. Sometimes I wake up around 4:00 a.m., and I can tell I won’t be able to get back to sleep, so I just get up and go for a long, dark, quiet walk around the crown of Queen Anne. This was one of those nights. I had just crossed the large ravine on the northeast side of the hill, and I heard a rustling directly behind me. Then I saw—and in my memory I felt it, too—a large presence soaring around my right side, turning in front of me, and flying over my left shoulder.
A little while ago a friend of mine said something to me that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s one of those things someone says that to them seems obvious and uncontroversial, but it brings me up short. I just can’t shake it. Here’s what he said:
“You don’t take your dirty laundry to church.”
What does he mean by dirty laundry?