Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Home Is Where

Aden’s mama has become a celebrity. She went to New York City last week to promote her business on the "Elevator Pitch" segment of an MSNBC business show. Folks all over the place had the DVR’s set for 7:30 in the morning on Sunday and a few of us early risers actually saw the piece through bleary eyes as it aired.

She did well. And, if I had $500,000 to invest, Urban Pirates would get it.

But this isn’t about Urban Pirates or venture capital or even the fact that Aden’s mama got to meet Howard Dean and sneaked a peak into the Saturday Night Live studio to see her teenage heartthrob Jon Bon Jovi. It is, like all good stories, about clear vision and absolute truth.

A week or so before the trip to the big city, Aden and his mama were out walking in the snow. It was just the two of them and his mama confided to Aden that she was a little nervous about the whole thing.

"Why?" he asked, those huge brown eyes opened wide like a camera aperture letting in all possible light.

"Because," she told him, "I don’t want to mess up."

And because she is his mama and she knows that, at seven, his heart is still pure and his thoughts are still true, she asked, "What will I do if I mess up?"

Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, "You just come home."

Of course.

We mess up all the time. We make wrong choices. We say things we don’t mean. We get lazy and don’t live up to our potential. We assume, we presume, we pretend.

And when it’s all over, there’s only one thing to do: We go home.

I don’t remember when I first memorized the famous line from Robert Frost’s "The Death of the Hired Man," but I do know that it resonated in me like my own heart beat. "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Home is the place where, after you’ve messed up, they still let you in the door without a word of explanation. Home is the place where, after you’ve made the wrong choice and taken years to figure it out and haven’t a clue as to how to make it up to the ones you hurt or even how to say you’re sorry, they meet you on the porch with tears of relief in their eyes. Home is the place where, after you’ve said words that were never true, words that were born of hurt and anger and frustration and can never ever ever be taken back, they come out into the yard, onto the road to pull you in for a feast of fatted calf.

We are all prodigals. Our riotous living may be nothing more than failing to pay attention, but at some point every one of us has left home without a backward glance, secure in – but oblivious to – the reality of home. And every one of us has found him or herself standing on a street corner in some far country – empty, wrung out, used up – when, suddenly, in a moment of clear vision and absolute truth the solution appears like a billboard in Times Square: Home.

It’s nearly Christmas, the season in which Christians celebrate the arrival into a less-than-perfect world of One who was himself, in a way, a prodigal. He left his home, emptied himself, used himself up for the good of the other prodigals and, after experiencing the suffering of separation, returned home.

It’s the same story. Over and over again. And Aden already understands it. Not bad for a seven-year-old.

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Amen and amen.

Copyright 2009

Monday, December 07, 2009


I was done with court and heading back to the office on a two-lane county road that curves through fields and planted-pine forests, through places that used to be towns and at least one that still is, if only barely. I drove slowly enough to read the signs on the small white churches and nearly slowly enough to count the monster hay bales dotting one side of the road. I felt my shoulders relax and my breath slow.

I passed a pasture, the color of highly-creamed coffee, where a horse stood like a statue staring into the sun. I passed one cotton field foaming with white puffs on skinny brown stalks and then another one, picked over, the stalks looking skinnier in their nakedness. I felt the corners of my mouth ease up into a smile.

Bucolic. Pastoral. Freeze frames of countryside. I’d seen it all before.

But today was different. There was something about the light. Bright, nearly blinding, laser beams from, they tell us, 93 million light years away, it fell at an angle so sharp that the elements in the landscape – wire fences, naked trees, horses – looked like objects in a View-Master, starkly three-dimensional. The blue in the sky was so faded I’d have sworn I could see straight through to the face of God. I was enthralled.

Could this be December? The month whose only redeeming quality was the placement within its days of Christmas? The month that announces cold, wet weather and chills me to the bone with the mere thought of wearing socks to bed, a pointless, but nevertheless irresistible effort at staying warm?

By mid-afternoon it was gone. The luminous, illuminating light was hidden by clouds dense and gray. The view outside my office window was flat like the street facade in the old television westerns and the edges of everything I could see, people and sidewalks and brick corners of buildings, were smudged as though drawn by pencil and unsuccessfully erased.

The rain started within a couple of hours, the clouds wrung out like dirty dish rags, and by the next morning the dirt roads were deep trenches of slick clay. The sky was one endless flannel blanket.

I was, I admit, more than just a bit irritated. I’d been fooled. Made a fool.

That awe-inspiring morning, when the sun spotlighted every tree as though it were the only tree, had been nothing but a tease. That hadn’t been the real December. This – the rain and muck and cold – was the real December.

It’s important to know what is real. To be able to distinguish diamond from cubic zirconium, sincerity from flattery, truth from lies. I know that. And like anyone who came of age in the Watergate era I’ve developed a pretty healthy skepticism when it comes to politicians in particular and authority figures in general.

What I’ve never been able to shake, however, is that hopefulness (Some people would call it naivete.) that always anticipates a 9th-inning rally when the lead-off batter draws a walk, that always expects the lost wallet to be returned with the money and the credit cards still inside, that always assumes people will do what they say. So, of course, I saw the first day of December bright and balmy and got seduced into believing I deserved 31 days just like that one.

When, I asked myself, gripping the steering wheel and feeling the tires slip violently back and forth through the mud, will I ever learn?

Funny thing: A few hours later, about 12 actually, I stood on the front porch and watched the clouds suddenly take off running, chased by something I couldn’t see, and as they ran they left in their wake an unobstructed view of a full moon. Another light. A different kind, but just as enthralling.

When will I ever learn?

Copyright 2009