Martin Luther Was More than Just a Craft Brewer

*This is the original version of the piece I wrote for RELEVANT about Martin Luther. I’m not a tremendous fan of lists, unless they’re for groceries or favorites. So, this is how I wrote it, and I would like you all to read it. Give it time, and I think you might enjoy it.* 

Although I was raised in a traditional, organ-centric Lutheran Church in the Midwest, if you were to ask me a few years ago if I knew much about the German monk whose name still marks the denomination of my youth, I can’t say I would have been bursting with insight. Most of what I knew about the man came not from my church, but from a few units in a public school World History class, which typically offered little else than a brief and scathing critique of the medieval Catholic Church, and a casual mention of the German man who nailed some new rules to a door. And while these explanations of what transpired in Europe in the 1500’s may be loosely accurate, they, like any brief historical explanation, overlook the complexity of those events, and of the people who inspired them. From our perspective as Christians from a splintered, multi-cultural global Church, it’s hard to believe that something of such vast significance transpired on such a grassroots level. And as a result of this perspective, the people who sparked the changes cease to be people at all; they become names and nothing else. For a long time Martin Luther was, to me, just the bald guy in my history book who did a good thing a very long time ago. If Martin Luther were, say, the guy who invented the shoelace, rather than the man whose conviction and zeal sparked a religious and cultural revolution that rocked all of Europe from a hazy stupor, and in turn, changed the face our current society, I would be content for him to remain a bald head in a text book.

But Luther lived long before the dawn of the shoelace. And with even just a little bit of research about Martin Luther the man, and not merely the name, we learn that he was a man of great complexity. He was both zealous and uncertain. He was faithful and yet self-loathing; contemplative but combative. Luther’s life was one of stark contrast, full of both engrossing darkness and brilliant light. And for that reason, Luther remains a bit of a mystery. But if we look a little closer at the reformer’s life in its proper context, the mystery begins to make a little more sense, and in turn, his words and the events surrounding the Reformation take on a greater significance than any textbook could convey.

Martin Luther was born to parents of peasant decent in 1483 in the small agricultural town of Eiselben, Germany, which was then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Considering his father Hans’s relative success as a miner and smelter, little Martin was sent to Magdeburg, Germany to begin his schooling as a lawyer at the ripe age of 14, thus beginning a tumultuous journey through academia. Luther begrudgingly endured the tedium of a traditional European education, earning a Master’s degree by the age of 19. On the surface, things were going swimmingly. He entered Law school at the same university in 1505, but the dissatisfaction that marked his early years as a student only intensified. Later, Luther would remark that school was for him a literal hell on earth. To study something as subjective and, as he called it, “uncertain” as Law and Ethics was frivolous. The academy’s obsession with Reason as an end unto itself was also useless. What Martin craved were answers to his deepest existential longings, and academic life was merely toil.

Considering Luther’s disdain for academics, it’s no surprise that the defining moment in his faith as a young man came not through diligent study, but in a moment of natural catastrophe; a moment so intense and sudden that he had no choice but to call it Divine Intervention. One stormy night in July, while Martin was returning on horseback to, where else, the University, a lightning bolt struck mere feet away from him. Fearing for his life, Luther cried out, “Help! Saint Anna (the patron Saint of carpenters), I will become a monk!” Within two weeks of that fateful, eerily Damascus-like event, Luther dropped out of law school, sold his books, and entered an Augustinian Monastery. From that day forward, he vowed to live a life of solitude. The story seems a fitting allegory for Luther’s life and faith: in the midst of tremendous darkness, God’s light shines less like a long, mellow glow, and more like a violent burst of electricity.

But as you probably guessed, Luther’s commitment to monastic life did not mean happily ever after. The regiment of fasting, pilgrimages, and penance only seemed to widen the gap between him and God. Years later, he declared: “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would certainly have done so.” Despite his seeming obedience, guilt still plagued his consciousness, and with that guilt came the uncertainty of his own salvation. The term spiritual depression comes to mind, or perhaps, the dark night of the soul. Luther called it anfechtungen: the afflictions. If affliction were a prerequisite for Grace, Luther would have been swimming in it. But his commitment to Scripture, and to the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism, revealed to him precisely what his sense of unworthiness had begun provoke—that salvation comes through faith, not works.

To us, it’s obvious. But how many times have you sat up at night and wondered if you were enough? Luther’s life was a constant battle of feeling like he never was. And it was in that tumultuous anfechtungen, in that dark affliction, where Grace finally made sense.

By 1508, Luther was ordained as a priest, and had been summoned to the University of Wittenberg to teach theology, and yet, his struggles with depression and doubt lingered on. He continued on the path of proper penance, but as a Professor, he began to set himself apart with his adamant teaching of justification by faith alone, despite the fact that it was indeed a central tenant of Roman Catholic doctrine.

It’s in 1517 where the story starts to sound familiar, where Luther’s life begins to ring a bell. Church officials began to venture out into the Empire to sell indulgences, or paid tickets to ensure a quicker exit from Purgatory, for the purpose of building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It’s easy to picture Luther standing in the pulpit, preaching Grace to his faithful, pre-Protestant flock, when a crotchety Church official starts selling get-out-of-purgatory-free cards to the confused sheep in the back pews, and Luther drives them out like Jesus drove out the money-changers. And then I picture Luther creeping through the night to the chapel, his infamous 95 theses in hand and a Glorious Revolution on his mind. And then he nails the theses to the door, his hammer thundering through the night. Trumpets and drums resound.

But in reality, Luther approached his efforts with tremendous fear and trembling. In fact, before nailing the 95 theses to the chapel door, he sent a letter to his Church’s bishop with his argument, only to be quietly dismissed. And the door that he nailed the Theses to was more like a bulletin board, where academics and Church leaders posted papers and announcements, so to nail a theologically-based thesis to the door was hardly an act of menacing defiance. Luther’s training as a biblical scholar led him to dispute what, to him, were interpretive flaws of traditional Church doctrine.

To be sure, Luther acted out of fierce conviction, and that’s especially apparent in the zeal of his writing and preaching. But most historians agree that Luther was hardly marching towards Rome with a torch. And when we consider his tendency to doubt the merit of his actions, it comes as no surprise that he approached his acts of defiance with trepidation. Nevertheless, what Luther intended to spark conversation and debate, enflamed a tremendous controversy, thanks in large part to the recent advent of the printing press. As the 95 theses spread throughout the Empire, Luther’s fame began to grow, but so did his infamy. Pope Leo X employed a team of papal theologians to debunk his arguments. Later, appearing before a religious assembly called The Diet of Worms, they urged him to recant his writings, upon threat of excommunication. Luther would not, and is believed to have said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” He was excommunicated and deemed a notorious heretic, which gave any person permission to kill him without punishment.

While returning to Wittenberg, Luther was taken by a group of men disguised as armed highwaymen, who, by order of Frederick III, escorted the reformer to Wartburg Castle, so he could hide in safety. He stayed in the castle for nearly a year, and wrote incessantly. He translated the Bible from Greek into German, pumped out doctrinal and polemical writings. From the confines of what he called “my Patmos” he wrote what had been his most zealous works to date, stressing grace by faith alone. It was while hiding at Wartburg Castle that Luther penned the infamous lines: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”  And while this quote is just one among many others that demonstrate his theological zeal, the context from which it was born is an apt metaphor for Luther’s turbulent journey. At this point, Luther was essentially Public Enemy Number 1, and he knew it.

But what he knew of the Gospel, based on what he’d seen in Scripture, gave him no choice. Until the day he died, Luther wrestled with the thought that he was in the wrong. The violence that his words inspired, which eventually reached a Crusade-like crescendo across Europe, were to him, a tragedy he could not forgive himself for. The wounds that his own words had made would become his greatest anfechtungen, even if the fruit they’d grown was greater. But those words—Sin boldy, but believe and rejoice in Christ—would become his creed. Even if he could never forgive himself, he knew that God surely would.

Boldness was never much of a choice for Martin Luther. Conviction was all he knew, and for that reason, we know his name today. But when we get to know the man, we see that it was a complex boldness; a pendulum swinging from certainty to discontent, from light to darkness, and back again.

To Begin with Gratitude

I’ll start by saying that I realize that this may already reek of smug. There is a fuzzy line between true gratitude and faux-modesty, and most of us, including myself, often have feet in both camps. But the scrutiny of one’s personal motivation comes with the territory of public speech. You can take what you will from what I say; that’s the risk I take when I ask you to listen to my babbling.

Enough pitter-patter. I’m writing this because I’ve been given an opportunity that I feel wholly unworthy of, and I’d like to capitalize on the knee-buckling humility and shock of it all before I manage to contrive it into some bogus sense of entitlement. As some of you know, I studied abroad in Orvieto, Italy in the spring of 2012. It was a culturally immersive, creatively rigorous semester, with a focus on the intersection of art, words, and faith. It changed my life in more ways than I can count. I formed meaningful, unique friendships and got to study under incredible, inspiring people. I gained a confidence in my creative abilities, if only because I was given the opportunity to fail over and over again for 4 straight months. I saw some of the world’s greatest, most timeless art and got to talk and write about it afterwards. I learned the subtle power of participating in a worship service in an entirely different language. But those are the obvious things.

And now, I’m going back. Just when I thought I’d finally closed the door and moved on from all that nostalgia for espresso and cobblestones and ancient frescoes on ancient walls, I was asked to come back as a Teacher’s Assistant, and it all comes swirling back. Cue the Fiats and Carbs!

But really, this is an opportunity that is entirely different from my first trip abroad as a student, and, thankfully, it’s not about indulging old nostalgia and delaying the necessity of closing doors and moving on. Of course, it’s an opportunity to give back, to share my unique perspective as a person a couple years removed from a program that, at the time, felt a lot like a beautiful dream. It’s a chance to share what I’ve learned about coming back to the states and wondering what it was all about, and to help students as they navigate some very unfamiliar turf. But what I’m most grateful about is that it’s a chance to learn again, but in a new light. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the two years since leaving that place and stepping into the dark, scary world of life after college, is that I know very, very little. Two years ago, I stepped into that medieval city sure of very little, and yet I carried with me a regretful weight of self-importance. Now, I’m sure of even less, and hopefully that weight is a bit lighter. But I’m still in the process of unloading it, brick by brick.

And so that’s why titled this post “To Begin with Gratitude.” Because, in going back to Orvieto, I’m hoping that thankfulness can be my creed. Again, I hope his doesn’t sound like lip-service, because if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about creativity and faith and friendship, is that without true humility, true on-your-knees vulnerability, true wide-eyed awe at the vast beauty and complexity of this world, it’s, well, nothing. Art without honesty is propaganda. Faith without vulnerability is ego worship. Friendship without depth is networking.

On top of the opportunity to engage with the students and the community as a TA, I’ll also be given significant time to do my own work. More knee-buckling gratitude to heap on the pile.  I’m hoping to devote a good portion of that time to short fiction and poetry, but there’s always room for something in between. So, consider this little prelude my promise that I’ll keep you all in the loop. I’ve never been a huge fan of your typical “My Adventures in so and so exotic locale” so I’ll keep the selfies of myself eating Gelato to a minimum. And by minimum I mean none at all—I promise. You can count on Binding North to be a regular, diverse reflection on faith, art, stories, and how they happen to collide in this little city on a hill called Orvieto.

Thanks again to all of you. Thanks again to whoever decided to make words a thing, because I just can’t get enough of them.

What I Learned From Yeezus

“Kendrick Lamar could tap dance for sixty minutes and throw up on stage and I’d still be happy,” I said, half-kidding to my friend Matt, as we awaited entry into the Kanye West show at the Staples Center. It was the fifth show on his already-controversial Yeezus tour, and Kendrick Lamar was set to open. In my mind, Kendrick, the up-and-comer out of Compton, CA, was worthy of the stadium unto himself. “Kanye, on the other hand, needs to show me something.” I wasn’t kidding about that part.

Call it lame, call it lofty, call it ridiculous, but I didn’t fork over a half of last week’s paycheck to simply be entertained by Kanye West. I didn’t come to hear him perform all my favorite songs from his old albums so I could pump my fists and scream the lyrics with 15,000 others (though I probably did do that more than I expected to,) and I didn’t come because I’m his world’s biggest fan. I came because if I’m being completely honest, Kanye perplexes me more than any other musician I’ve ever listened to. I came because College Dropout may or may not have been the first piece of art that made me think, feel, and groove all at once, and ten years later, for better or for worse, I still feel like he deserves some of my attention. And of course, on top of all that, I came because Kendrick Lamar was opening. And if you love hip-hop, with all its cycles and trends, all its history, its East Coast—West Coast back and forth, its rising stars who turn into seasoned legends, the significance of this combination is self-explanatory. But if you’re unfamiliar with the genre, imagine Mumford and Sons opening for U2, or a young Bruce Springsteen opening for Bob Dylan. These are, admittedly, hyperbolic analogies, because Kanye West is obviously not Bob Dylan. But this is Hip-Hop we’re talking about, so you get the picture. I came because the tour itself is of great musical and cultural significance. Here is Kanye: the reigning prince of Ego Hip-Hop, the polarizing, VMA-hijacking creative chameleon; and here is Kendrick Lamar: the new kid, the home-grown street poet. He’s a lot like Kanye was 10 years ago: a promising voice in the genre’s turn towards something a bit more thoughtful, socially conscious, and self-aware.

I know what you’re thinking: Are we talking about the same Kanye West? I hear you, and I agree. I, like many other fans of good-old fashioned, groove-out MC-ing—the kind that Kanye was doing on his first 3 albums—was for a long time the opposite of a fan of his “new wave” shift towards insanity. A year ago, I would have been the first in line to call him a sellout, an egomaniac, and perhaps even a godless, self-worshipping whacko. To this day, my knee-jerk reaction to almost everything he says in a public forum is to write him off as just that. But in stepping into the Staples Center to see his show, I was giving him a chance to prove me wrong. One thing that he’s been rightfully outspoken about, however, is the media and our entire culture’s twisted idea of “Celebrity.” So, this was a chance to see Kanye in his element. No talk shows, tweets, or tabloids. Just one man and a microphone. Right?

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Of course, Kendrick’s 45-minute set was nothing less than perfect by all the standards of a Hip-Hop purist. After the first two electrifying songs, Kendrick paused to declare, “Damn, it’s good to be home!” and of course, the place exploded. It was his homecoming, and we were all invited to the celebration. He rapped every word with the vehemence and passion of a man who had finally arrived. That’s what I’ll remember most about Kendrick’s performance: it was an entirely mutual experience. He straddled perfectly that middle ground you hope for in a traditional hip-hop performance. It was equal parts entertainment and art; both an endorphin-thumping crowd pleaser and a rapper’s carefully articulated personal expression.

And then there was Kanye. Well, first there were the 12 androgenous, faceless, robe-clad figures that walked slowly onto the giant stage like the apparitional spirits of back up dancers. And then there was the Scriptural excerpt that appeared on the 60-foot LED screen above the stage; something about Rising.

And then there was Kanye. In a bedazzled, featureless mask. I knew that his performance of Yeezus would be weird, but I really had no idea just how weird it would be. And so, for the first half of the Rock Opera-esque performance, as Kanye exceeded his outlandishness one song after another, I almost gave up. He charged around the stage, writhed on the ground, stood on top of a 40-foot prop mountain, and screamed “WE RUN THIS SHIT” literally 20 times, always clad in his faceless mask, and I almost decided, once and for all, that this crazy man was just too high on himself, too deluded by fame and the sense of power that comes with selling out the Staples Center, to create anything worth listening to anymore. Almost.

Finally, during a slower segment, where Kanye lay on the mountain singing in that melodramatic auto-tune voice that he seems to love so much, my mind caught up with all the stimuli I was taking in. I reminded myself who I was watching: Kanye West, the King of Contradiction and Obliterated Expectations. All this absurdity and melodrama, I realized, was part of the larger story that Kanye was trying to tell.  The narrative arc of the Yeezus Opera (about 90 minutes long, and over half the duration of his entire performance) was simple, universal. It was the hero’s journey from Pride, to Fall, to Redemption. It’s a tried and true formula for effective emotional stories, and in my opinion, one that artists often half-heartedly exploit because of its universality. I acknowledge the strong possibility that as Kanye lay there on that prop-mountain, auto-tune-wailing “If you love me so much, why’d you let me go?” with a text pulled directly from one of David’s Psalms projected above him, he could have been doing this. He could have been exploiting a universal paradigm of Spiritual growth and devotion to God to make a cool show, to be controversial, and in the end, to finally inflate his own ego beyond hot-air balloon proportions. But I don’t think that’s true, and here’s why.

As Kanye moved into the Redemption movement of the performance, I was overwhelmed by the sense that I was witnessing something incredible, something deeply intimate despite all its (occasional) tackiness and grandiosity. All that pride in the first Rising movement, all that writhing on the ground and screaming from behind a mask in front of women in nude-suits, was not just Kanye being crazy for the sake of pleasing the crowd. It was Kanye expressing the full extent of his true ego, his true pride, in order for the ensuing Fall and Redemption movements to be true as well.

If Kanye’s earnest (albeit terrifying) embodiment of his own massive pride in the first movement weren’t authentic, then the Fall movement would have fallen flat. And if the Fall segment hadn’t been so startlingly intimate, so legitimately sad, then I might have laughed out loud when, at the height of the Rising movement, a man fitting every physical characteristic of Jesus Christ appeared from between the parting prop-mountain, a single-spot light beaming on his white robe. I might have walked out and started writing something that declared Kanye West the most narcissistic, blaspheming loon on this side of the Milky Way galaxy.

But I was speechless. I couldn’t move. As the Jesus figure walked slowly towards Kanye at the end of the stage, still wearing a black, featureless mask, I couldn’t look away. And then, when they met face to face and Kanye took off his mask and kneeled before him—well—all I can say is that whatever I was feeling, it was real. And whatever was happening up there on that stage, even if you call it absurd, narcissistic, confusing, or contradictory, you have to say that was real, too. And in the end, isn’t this what we want from our artists; that they give us their true selves? I think one of the biggest lies that we believe is that only good people are capable of creating beautiful, honest things: things that inspire us and point to something greater than ourselves. Kanye reminded me that even the most seemingly corrupted, fame-deluded entertainer is capable creating a pure piece of reverent art.

After Kanye’s encounter with the Jesus character, which completed the Yeezus, Rock Opera segment of the show, Kanye broke into, what else, Jesus Walks. Goosebumps ensued. Considering all that had just occurred on stage, with all its stunning intimacy and honesty, the song took on a new weight. The place was bursting, and I like to think it wasn’t just because of the song’s popularity. It was because Kanye had given everyone in that room, if they had chosen to actually listen and watch with half as much attention as he perpetually demands, reason to believe that he meant these words.  When he reached the lines “To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the strippers: Jesus walks with them,” I screamed them aloud with a vigor that I haven’t felt in far too long.

And for that reason, I’m writing this to say that I think it’s time that we start listening closer. Whether we’re talking about Kanye West or the obnoxious guy in your Political Science class, dig deeper. Writing people off is the easiest thing in the world to do. Giving them a chance to be truly heard—that’s tough.

Why We’re Digging

There are moments in our lives when the immeasurable distances between people, between cultures and continents, between generations, seem to shrink to a single point of contact, and we can intimately feel what once was far away. Occasionally, this startling closeness comes in times of joy. I remember watching a broadcast of an entire Italian village celebrating their country’s World Cup victory in the street, and feeling a sense of camaraderie and connection to their joy, because it reminded me of similar experiences I’d had in the States. It’s a momentary sense of kinship; a short, electrifying burst of empathetic happiness.

But there are also times when this sudden closing of gaps feels less like a short burst of energy, and more like a slow, incessant rumble of sadness, grief. A tangible hurt for something very far away.

Before embarking on the third and final leg of my 2,000-mile journey across the country, I opened an email from a friend. My eyes jumped to the words “Saddened by the loss of Seamus Heaney today,” and then just as quickly looked away. I was in the passenger seat, and without any explanation to my driving partner, I sat in silence for the first four hours of the trip, my eyes blank as the gorgeous Colorado landscape passed outside my window.  It was clear to him that my mind was somewhere else.  Instead of seeing the pine-clad Rockies shift into red rock canyons as we headed South and West, I saw green farmland turn to rugged Irish coastline, as if headed North to Belfast. And instead of hearing Lupe Fiasco rhyme about his home on Chicago’s Westside over the car’s speakers, I heard Seamus Heaney—one of the world’s greatest poets, Ireland’s Poet Laureate, and a Nobel Prize winner— going on about his boyhood home in County Derry. It may have been the vibration of the motor, but I think it was that thrum of sadness coming close.  

I can’t blame you if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Poetry books don’t often make the New York Times Bestseller list, and most American public schools sputter out little more than a three-week unit on Robert Frost and, if you’re lucky, William Wordsworth. Most people I know with a love for poetry acquired it through some serendipitous combination of a random, jaw-dropping encounter and formal, intensive study. In order to truly and fully love poetry, I think one must be both blown away by its mystery, and studiously involved in deciphering its technicality.

My jaw-unhinging moment came during my Sophomore year of college while lounging in my dorm room, when an upperclassmen, English major-friend read Heaney’s “Digging” aloud. See: (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177017) , or  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yO_12-e5FTY

The first stanza struck me like an arrow from a bow, and its been lodged between my ribs ever since. “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests: snug as a gun.The poem is the first in his debut collection called Death of a Naturalist, released in 1966. A country boy from Northern Ireland, this is the young and unknown Seamus stepping into the Irish poetic conversation with a bold a declaration of his arrival.

Here I am. Listen close, he seems to say. And then he goes on, painting a vivid image of his rural upbringing with the luscious sensory imagery that would become his trademark. He welcomes us to see what he saw as a boy: his father and grandfather, day in and day out, “going down and down/ for the good. Digging.” This is where I come from, he could be saying. Where the good men dig. The reverence with which Heaney speaks of his ancestors and their humble vocation, and of the land where he was born and bred, is the thread that binds the poet’s entire canon. You can take the poet from the land, but you can’t take the land from the poet. But then he acknowledges, without shame, precisely what he doesn’t have: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”

And then he shifts to tell us, without a trace of fear, what he does have. The final stanza reads, “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it.” This is all I have, but I can make the most of it. If it’s a thread of reverence that binds his work, it’s this spark of boldness—this certainty of purpose, this fearlessness—that sets the words on fire. It’s what keep them burning in my mind.

As the Poet Laureate of Ireland, Heaney inherited the role of the political and social commentator amidst the “The Troubles” in the 70’s and early 80’s, but nonetheless remained rooted in his vocation as an artist first; as a voice of beauty and music, rather than one of conflict or polarity. In North, his most politically-minded collection, he affirms his presence once and for all.

“Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis,
in the long foray
but no cascade of light
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.”

He reminds himself of his true purpose, despite the encroaching darkness. Expect those blips of light in darkness, but not an everlasting daylight. At least not in this life; not yet.

 But Seamus isn’t just asserting his own purpose; he’s reminding everyone to be true to their call, to what they know is good and beautiful. As the anointed poet of a country where turmoil and suffering are written in the soil of its history, he knew this all too well. And yet he affirmed the light until his dying breath.

And this is why his death feels close. This is why writing this feels like writing about a family member, rather than a man born on a different continent, into a vastly different culture, with vastly different conflicts.  Because in digging deep into the rocky soil of an afflicted Ireland, he uprooted universal truths. Because he knew that his only way to dig was with his pen, and he did so until his dying breath. And just as he learned from his father, and from his father’s father, so we can learn from Seamus. Dig with what you have.

According to the Associated Press, Seamus sent a text message to his wife Marie a few minutes before his final breath, which said in his beloved Latin, “Noli timere.” Translation: Don’t be afraid.

Call Me the Breeze

Is there any idea more romanticized, more universally longed for in cubicles and subway cars, more frequently dreamed of in dusty sepia tones, than the idea of the open road? Picture that one-lane highway stretching towards a pink horizon in a red rock desert. Throw a steel guitar riff over that daydream of the Rocky Mountains rolling by outside your window. Hand out the window, riding up and down on the wind. You know what I mean.

The idea of jamming one’s entire life into the back of rumbling SUV and blasting out into the vast expanse of the American Highway system is enough to make any Average Joe feel like Cool Hand Luke. But wait, wasn’t Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman’s character in “Cool Hand Luke) in prison? Well, yes, he was. But, nonetheless, that man was free.

 The open road promises freedom, especially if we’re packing up and leaving, pressing on to something new. This is what Jack Kerouac was talking about when he referred to “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.” And what could seem more true? We dream of open spaces. We dream of immensity, room to ramble and sow new seeds. We dream of doors that open up to everything.

I’m writing this because this afternoon, I’m doing exactly this. My car is stuffed to the gills and my old bedroom is a vacant lot, save a couple soda stains on the carpet and baseball trophies on the dresser. I’m making that 2,000 mile trek across the continental divide, through the Rockies and the Mojave Desert, all the way to Pacific. Manifest destiny, circa 2013.

Reading those last two sentences, you probably had one of two reactions: 1.) You got chills, wished that you could be doing the same, and got a little bit jealous. Or, 2.) You rolled your eyes and said, “Well aren’t you cool, Mr. Supertramp. Get over yourself.”

Both reactions are valid. And to be quite honest, I have to admit that I probably would have said the latter. In the short course of my life, I’ve romanticized this type of trip a million times, and done it twice. Out to California and back again, all on the open road.

And twice is enough to know it’s hard to see things in that sepia tone when it’s dark and you’ve been driving for 16 hours. Twice is enough to know that after the first three hours of screaming along to, “Call me the Breeze,” by Lynard Skynard on repeat, you get tired of singing. Twice is enough to know that stepping into an open door means closing one on the way out. There’s a moment on the open road when the dreamy stupor of the unknown begins to dwindle, and you think of who you’ve left behind.

Twice is enough to know that freedom isn’t physical.

But as I sit here today, two hours from my departure, I still feel that twitch. My vision begins to tint. There’s a soundtrack in my head, and there are lots of steel guitars and gravelly voices. Call me the breeze, I keep blowin’ down the road, I start to mumble. And what good would come to stifle these ideas? Driving through the Rockies is exhilarating, the diversity of the Western American landscape is incredible, and new horizons are beautiful things. But so are walls, cubicles, and kitchen tables; so are nine-to-five’s and barbecues.

So, as I hit that stretch of open highway today, I won’t stop “dreaming in the immensity of it.” But I do so with trepidation. I do so knowing that the open road isn’t beautiful because it’s photogenic. It’s not that it’s the truest form of freedom. The open road is beautiful precisely because it leads to something new, and because it still leads back to something old.

Joy in the Jumper

I’ve told you before that I’m looking for something in the ordinary, and that when I find it, I’ll tell you about it. I’ve told you that it’s the purpose of this blog: to point out the power in the little things. The flashes of brilliance amidst the thrum of the everyday. Those small things done with great love, as Mother Theresa said. Seeing the sacred in the profane, and on and on. I know you’ve heard it before, and I’d being lying if I said I didn’t profess the concept because it’s oh so poetic, so simple. Just speaking the words makes the air around them seem special. Perhaps if we tell ourselves that it’s true, we’ll believe it.

But today, I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve got to tell you that it sometimes feels impossible to practice what I preach. Even though I’ll tell you with every inch of honesty that I believe that we can see God’s beauty in the grind of the everyday, in the grains of dirt under our fingernails, I’m a slave to the idea that He will grant me grandeur. I’ll go to great lengths to defend the dignity of those doing small things with great humility, but if I’m the one grinding, I refuse to the see the beauty in the grains.

But this isn’t the place to tell you about my groveling. I’d bore you very quickly if I hopped on that train. Let’s just say that since graduating from college, I’ve become keenly aware of my bent toward delusions of grandeur, and we’ll just leave it at that. There. Context.

Now, I’m not exactly sure what you do when you’re unsatisfied with your circumstances, but what I do is really quite simple: I go outside and charge as hard and fast on my janky single-speed as humanly possible, with the hope that the swell of endorphins and aesthetic stimuli slipping through my peripherals will eventually create some rapturous crescendo of contentment. As if the remedy to every existential ailment is a healthy dose of adrenaline and pretty trees. And even though I usually come back from these spontaneous and montage-worthy rides feeling just as confused as when I started, there have been enough clarity inducing ones to keep me on the saddle with my expectations high.

But when I went for a ride in the early evening this past week, I didn’t reach the contentment crescendo. I rode for about 10 miles as the sun crept towards the horizon, trying with every poetic bone in my body to love the golden light spreading over everything, to love the breeze, the gentle sway in the trees. I was trying to listen.

But all I heard was a voice saying I should be doing something else. The voice that says that grown men without jobs shouldn’t go on bike rides at sunset. Among the many nay-saying voices I’ve learned to silence, this is one that showed up for the first time this summer, when the purpose that was academia concluded, and my next one seemed intent on staying hidden. It’s a voice that preys on unmet expectations and points at them, saying, This is not what you imagined. Unemployed and at home, riding your bike to pass the time. Waiting.

 It’s a voice that’s rooted in reality, but only survives because it feeds on fear.

And I’ve dealt with it long enough to know it’s false, so I told it to shut up and kept on riding into my neighborhood. I slowed my pace to enjoy the day’s last light, studying the houses along the street I’d gone down a million times. It was about that time when most people were inside with their families around the kitchen table, after most fathers returned from their long commutes from the city.

For a while I was the only one outside, pedaling slowly down the middle of the road. And while it wasn’t surprising to hear the bounce of a basketball on a concrete driveway as I rode along, it was a bit strange to see who was shooting around as I got closer. He had clearly just returned from work; a dad, still in a pressed, blue dress shirt, shiny black loafers on his feet. Not that abnormal, really.

But as I got closer, I realized that he wasn’t just shooting around. He was balling. By himself. In dress clothes at sunset. All by his lonesome.

I slowed my pace to study him.

He brought the ball to what would have been the top of the key, lowered his shoulder. He gave a pump fake left, one slow dribble right, then crossed over, hard.  Allen Iverson in business slacks, head-faking no one but his own shadow. As I got closer I could hear his breathing: quick, frenetic bursts of wind as he shook his shoulders.

I brought my bike to a complete stop.

He jab-stepped towards the hoop like he was going to drive, then went between the legs and pulled up. He leapt as his momentum pushed him slightly backward, fading away. He stretched upwards, poised to shoot, and released.

I knew that he sunk it before it even left his hand. It was the only way. The net swiffed as the ball sunk through it, and he fist-pumped hard like Jordan when he beat the Cavs, his triumphant YEAH! echoing off the garage doors.

I was stock-still in the middle of the street, mesmerized. I’m sure my jaw was gaping. I watched him drain three more shots from a decent range, each one preceded by its own unique choreography of crossovers and pivots against a phantom squad. And after every shot he sunk, the fist pump. Glory.

He was in another world. No suburbs. No highways. No guy on a bike watching him from afar. One where time does not exist; just the trinitarian space between man, ball, and hoop.

I was too mesmerized in that moment to articulate anything resembling a cohesive thought, and this is the first time I’ve really tried to work out what exactly was so amazing about it.

And I’ve decided that it was amazing because he was exactly where I couldn’t seem to go. He was lost. He was draped in the very uniform that signified his social responsibility, his status as an accomplished father, husband, businessman, American; and yet, he was playing like his life depended on it.

He was utterly immersed in the job at hand: Fake left—Cross Over—Drive—Pull up—Shoot the J—Dance.

Today, I hear a different voice. It accompanies the image of that man out there shooting, and it says something like this: If only we could learn to get lost in it, we might learn that there’s joy in the job at hand.

 

 

Crouching Eric, Hidden Heisman

Considering the literary nature of my last post and my piece about reading fiction that preceded it, this topic may seem like a harsh contrast. In today’s oft-compartmentalized culture, books and sports rarely intersect. Sure, there are books about sports, but the entities in themselves seem to occupy two separate spheres. Literature is for nerds and sports are for jocks, right? But as someone who spent the majority of his childhood engrossed in a world of pick-up games, high school football training camps, and the incessant glow of the behemoth bug zapper that is ESPN, I’ve been, perhaps unconsciously, trying to reconcile my new love for literature with my first love of sports and the demigods who play them. And while I’ve never found any justification for the sort of obsession that turns great athletes into idols and grown men into their kneeling peons, I have concluded that my love for these games comes from the same impulse that keeps me coming back to Steinbeck, McCarthy, and Duncan. It’s because they’re stories. But before I spiral into a discourse about underdogs and juggernauts, Cinderella’s and Jackie Robinson’s, I want to tell you about a strange encounter that brought all these thoughts to a flesh and bones revelation.

This past Saturday, my extended family and I took part in an event called “The Big10 10K and 5K.” Almost all my cousins, aunts and uncles made the journey from Omaha, Nebraska to support their football-adoring Alma Mater, The University of Nebraska, in a good ole’ fashioned footrace along the lakeshore south of Soldier Field. And while I waywardly opted to spend my college time in Southern California, nearly 2,000 miles from the cornhusker state, the aforementioned sports-obsessed kid once believed that Lincoln would one day be his college home, too. I tend to think that boyhood sports-worship reaches its zenith sometime around the age of 12, which, in my life, happened to be the era when the Cornhuskers were making a run for the NCAA National Championship, led by their fleet-footed, Omaha-born-and-bred Heisman Trophy winning Quarterback, Eric Crouch. Needless to say, Crouch was my guy. I watched him take it 102 yards to the house against Missouri (http://tiny.cc/db9z0w) , and promptly ran myself ragged in my backyard trying to imitate him. I still wear his jersey on occasion, albeit a tad ironically.

But this is where the story of the hometown boy who won the Heisman gets a little predictable, a little sad. After that triumphant year, Crouch went on to do, well, nothing. He was picked up by the St. Louis Rams late in the draft, but retired shortly thereafter because they wouldn’t let him play Quarterback, and because he couldn’t hack it at any other position. He was too small. Couldn’t throw. He wasn’t fit for the bruising life of an NFL QB, and according to reports, too proud to take a minor role. So he hung up his cleats and, in the fashion of 90 percent of Will Ferrell’s characters, faded into obscurity. Rumors surfaced that he was managing a Lady Footlocker. To Husker fans, he was a quitter.  In a state where hard-nosedness is as much a staple in its people’s DNA as a love of avocadoes is in Californians’, his was not a legacy worth celebrating.

Now, these claims very well could be Grade-A Sports Reporter Boloney, but nonetheless, Eric Crouch faded from view. And up until this past Saturday, that obscurity that Eric faded into was enough to keep any idea of him, or of the tremendous admiration that I had for him as a kid, out of my mind completely. But that all changed at the post-race tailgate party/Big10 fun-fest when, while polishing off my second free Bratwurst, I saw him.  There he was—the Eric Crouch—in the same jersey that was still hanging in my closet, meandering by the football target-throwing competition. The race was, after all, a giant promotional event for the Big10 network and the upcoming football season, and apparently, he was there as one of a few former players working for the network for some meet-and-greet. In an instant, I was my 12 year-old self again, weaving through the crowd to get a closer look at my old Husker hero. I found a comfortable spot to observe him in the football toss; about three feet away. And like any creepy fanboy, I watched him for a while. I watched him stretch out his arm before stepping into to throw a couple balls at an inflatable target. I watched him narrowly miss the target on his first 3 throws, and then on his final attempt, I watched the hopeful anticipation spread across his face when he released the ball, and the following look of triumph, his arms thrust in the air like he’d once again beaten Oklahoma in the conference championship with his Golden Arm, when the toss rattled through the bull’s-eye. And after standing there for a while, just watching this guy who was once my hero, who was now tossing footballs at a press event, I realized that I was wrestling with two different stories. The first story was about the hero and the kids like me who’d worshipped him, which terminated as soon as his career ended, and the second was what everyone said about him in the years that followed: the story of the quitter, the has-been living out past triumphs, desperate to have the glory back.

I could easily write this off as a comical coincidence, as the day I met an old hero and made fun of him behind his back. But as my dad and I waited in line for our turn to take a couple tosses, he decided to talk to Eric. They talked about growing up in Omaha, the proximity of their homes to a popular pizza place, and the school that Eric’s kids were now going to. They talked about his new job with the Big10 network, where he would try his hand at sports casting. I stood next to them, gawking in disbelief. The stories were meeting before my eyes, and their validity was obliterating with every commonplace topic that they conversed about. Here was a man who I’d only seen on TV, who I’d imitated in my backyard, and whose successes and failures had been scrutinized and packaged by reporters for my viewing pleasure, talking with my own father about highways in Omaha.

Eric Crouch’s story was suddenly much larger, much more complex, than any bottled sports cliché that ESPN might have led me to believe. It was somehow weaving its way into mine and into my father’s. It was a story about a man who’d shined bright, flickered out, then kept going, kept living. It was familiar, close enough for me to touch, yet too different for me to fully grasp.

And this is what I mean when I say that sports are just as much about stories as books. Not because they adhere to some simple narrative formula, as some 10-minute pre-game slots might suggest, but because they have a way of serendipitously revealing something to us about ourselves. Because, despite the fact that a camera lens has a way of imparting its subjects—the athletes—with a sort of disconnected immortality, their stories carry on outside of the game.

Because sports allow a unique glimpse into the mystery of our existence, one that is characterized not just by the moments of athletic brilliance on the field, but by the players who walk away from it and keep on living.