“Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.”
– Anne Lamott
My wife and I are raising our children only about 30 miles from where I grew up. As I write from my desk overlooking the street, there’s an epic game of hide-and-seek taking place outside a neighbor’s townhome. I catch glimpses of my two boys, darting and dashing, laughing with abandon. Wasn’t it just yesterday they were in diapers playing peekaboo on my lap? Now the slanting afternoon light shines a halo on their heads, as I remember being a teenager escaping into the dark night.
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Looking back, my elementary school years seem like a long recess: climbing blooming dogwoods in spring; leaping into piles of copper leaves in fall; chasing fireflies in summer; building snowmen in winter; and always sports, changing seasons from football to basketball to baseball and back.
My best friend lived down the street. He’d knock on the front door and I would race him down the steps, two-by-two, and into the green grass to throw the football. Or we’d grab our bikes, so he could teach me to ride with no hands, balancing with arms stretched to the sides like an airplane.
“Me and you,” he’d say, “we’re outside boys.”
My father was the pastor and, while he supported my outdoor activities, we were in church on Sunday mornings. The sanctuary had a brick floor and only one window high on the far wall, which I never paid much attention to as a boy seated next to Mom toward the front. When I was in high school, all the youth sat in back left pew — the Amen Corner, my preacher father christened it. And his darn sermon took forever, as I sat, staring at the branches waving free in the wind, still hungover from the night before.
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Some upperclassmen with five o’clock shadows could pass for 21, at least at certain seedy establishments. But my friend and I got our beer by asking men standing on downtown street corners to buy it for us. We called this game “Hey Mister.”
I found myself tromping through dark alleys that reeked of urine, nervously passing a ten-dollar bill to a man who, I assumed, had recently pissed on the grungy graffiti scrawled across the dumpsters. We told him he could “keep the change,” trying to make the illegal activity enticing. More than a few misters took off with all of our money, which meant that I would curse heavily in order to mask my sense of relief. If we got the six pack, my friend and I would chug as fast as we could, grimacing against the taste, and stumble off to find something to do.
Perhaps there would be a party at some kid’s house whose parents were out of town. The music would summon us inside from the outer dark. On the periphery of the dancing, I might glimpse another boy stumbling with a girl towards a couch in the shadows.
Years later in seminary, I’d read Teresa of Avila’s image for the soul as an interior castle, a palace formed of a single diamond. She envisioned the process of prayer as entering seven deeper levels toward the Trinity, who dwells in the principle chamber inside of all of us. But I discovered that, the deeper inside the party you journeyed, the harder the drugs you found. The first time I ever saw a line of cocaine was on the back of a toilet in a half bathroom.
My friend and I would often leave on foot. We would sprint through neighborhoods on numbed legs, shoes pounding the pavement, lungs burning. I hid everything from my parents. My saving grace was that I was an outside boy.
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This other dude was a huge presence, literally, at over six feet and 200 pounds and, metaphorically, as the life of the party. The personality that fills up a room.
But I’d quite forgotten about him until earlier this morning. Old high school photos started showing on my Facebook feed. So, I Googled him. His obituary began by listing how he had loved hunting and fishing, anything to do with being outdoors. The obituary ended with a plea for support for those on the inside of our heroin epidemic.
A few more clicks on my screen revealed his public record. He was adding felonies for larceny to his criminal record around the time my wife and I were building our family. He and I hail from the same hometown; we were at the same parties. He was an outside boy. He became trapped inside his addiction.
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Why do teenagers turn to drugs and alcohol? A search engine could give you a list of reasons.
I read somewhere that most of us, particularly in the South, confuse Christianity with politeness, as if discipleship was all about manners. (I think it was Frederick Buechner who wrote something to this effect.) I know that many of the kids who drank and drugged with me also went to church. If Christianity is about doing the “right” thing, then it stands to reason that what counts is who is watching, which leads to compartmentalizing behaviors. Inside versus outside. God becomes just another adult to please, or worse yet, to fool.
As a preacher’s son, my rebellion against religion was explicitly tied to challenging my father. Now that I am also a pastor, he and I talk shop. Now that I am clean and sober, we do analyze those adolescent days. My recipe for (almost) disaster started with a heaping, steaming, double-dose of anxiety — how I looked on the outside and who I was deep down inside. Add a dash of curiosity, a dollop of boredom and bake at 16 years old with hormones raging. It’s important to my ongoing recovery that I take responsibility for my actions. But my father believes that he, and to a certain extent the larger Christian culture, turned a blind eye to our parties, unwilling to face the truth. This calls to mind someone else’s piercing look.
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Granddad smoked a pipe after supper. Writing about him even now summons the whisper of a struck match and the faint smell of smoke. He and I did share cookie salads — two Oreos and a Chips Ahoy. I never knew him to drink anything but milk or water. Dad says his father-in-law enjoyed the occasional scotch, but the brain tumor took Granddad before I’d had my first drink.
As a boy, I learned that he did not abide foul language. I dropped one – and only one – four-letter word during a game of pool in his basement. Granddad reached across the table to put down his cue stick right in front of where I stood. And stared at me. Mom reports that he used to hand her a dictionary to look up 10 words which she could have used instead. But that one look was enough for me.
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I am writing before a window in our bedroom that overlooks my boys playing outside. My desk is of smooth wood the color of a worn penny, its dark grains visible underneath the scratches which appear as hieroglyphics or Chinese characters. There’s enough table space for my laptop, an open book and a selfie with my wife, which was taken against a backdrop of snowy pine trees. There’s an old wooden bowl that was part of Granddad’s shaving kit. And the other picture is of him and me.
There’s 3-year-old me sitting in his lap. Granddad wears a homemade, tricorn hat that was folded from shiny red construction paper. He relaxes in a collared shirt with the top button undone, his dark blue tie loosened. My right hand has a fistful of that tie, as if to pull his attention toward me, and I brandish a plastic white spoon in my other hand. The left corner of his mouth is slightly upturned. There’s an unmistakable brightness in his eyes behind his thick-framed glasses. And I can still hear what he always said: “Whoa now.”
Before he died, he told Mom that he would not have his grandsons see him like this. He exclaimed: “Damn this cancer!” I couldn’t believe he had cursed. I couldn’t believe he was gone.
Time is only frozen in pictures. To live is to suffer loss, to love is to ache. Still, I wonder, would that little boy grow up to be such a rebellious teenager if that same grandfather had continued to steady him with a certain look? What if his hand, which slid gently on the back of my neck when I hugged his knees, hadn’t been taken away?
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After years of ministry, I have witnessed what Granddad called this: the chapped lips touched by the wet pink sponge, the changing of bed sheets by efficient hands and a clucking tongue, the labored breathing known as a death rattle and the eyes of the one in the bed, which hold the pain until finally glazing over, staring blankly at some corner of the ceiling. This may be teary, boring, smelly and long. This can also be a daughter’s hands over her ears as her father once again screams, “I can’t keep the damn door shut!” But this can be beautiful: a granddaughter falling asleep on her granddad’s shoulder, holding his hand as he breathes and then does not. I wonder how differently my adolescence might have been if I had been given even a small part of Granddad’s this. I wonder and wonder.
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Granddad stood in front of his bathroom mirror with his razor, each stroke mowing cleanly through the shaving cream on his strong jaw. I slipped my feet into his enormous bedroom slippers, crossing and uncrossing my toes, my eyes darting from his reflection in the mirror to the bright morning visible through the bedroom window. Our baseball gloves were screaming for us to hustle out into the yard. We were always the Atlanta Braves because that was Granddad’s team. He had followed them from his boyhood when they played in Boston, his hometown. Still shaving, Granddad wore his idea of a smile as he diligently worked the foamy lather in his wooden bowl with a horsehair brush. Finally, finally, he’d pat his face dry with a towel and issue the words I’d longed to hear: “Ready to go outside?”
After hours of playing catch, I had to hustle to match his long stride, as he circled the perimeter of his lawn. He would toss fallen sticks back into the woods. Having endured this chore, I would pull him by the hand beneath the trees, and we would hike to the bottom of the hill where his property ended at a creek. We pretended to fish, poking leaves drifting in the water with sticks. His arm would be wrapped around my waist, so I could get close to the edge and lean over the water. I never wanted to go back inside.
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From my writing desk, I continue to watch my boys play outside. My wife and I are raising our children about 30 miles from where I grew up playing Hey Mister. Recently, I prayed with a father whose boy had started smoking marijuana. His son is in the fifth grade.
My sons love their granddad. He indulges them with sugar and even sweeter attention. He takes them to parks and playgrounds and, most recently, on a city bus touring the sky-scraping towers. And as they lurched forward, the youngest asked, “Will you keep me safe?”
My wife and I would protect our children. We would maintain their innocence a little while longer, prolonging the days of chalk, those smiley faces and rainbows on the sidewalk and airy afternoons of hide-and-seek when everyone who is lost is always found. But we can’t always keep them safe. We pray for help, help from people in our families and faith communities, people of character – as my father says – whose insides match their outsides. That’s a good line from Dad. One day, he might give a grandson a hard look at the right time.
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The Gospel of Luke reports that the holy mother and father lost track of their boy and raced back to Jerusalem only to find him in the temple, waxing philosophically: “Why were you looking for me?”
That little son-of-a-gun! Just who did he think he was?
Any parent would know why Mary and Joseph were looking for him with “great anxiety” (Luke 2:48). These two words are actually one Greek verb: odunaomai, which defines a specific kind of pain associated with powerlessness and helplessness. The same Greek root describes the agony of a certain rich man in Hades (Luke 16:24). According to the Bible, how does it feel to lose a child? Like hell.
I am a pastor now, and I know parents who have lost children. We worship in a sanctuary called Chapel in the Pines. Large windows afford views of surrounding evergreens — a timbered choir, Wendell Berry would say. There’s a shimmering glint of heaven’s light in the treetops.
Overhead in the sanctuary are wooden beams emanating like sun rays from the center. Wooden pegs hold these rafters in place. But what you cannot see are the slips of paper, folded into the holes before the pegs were inserted. These are the handwritten prayers of charter members, people whose visions and hopes are always above our heads, prayers without ceasing. As I sit with grieving parents, I am often silent, for I don’t pretend to know either the reasons why or the depths of their hell. But I sense that others are speaking for us. That’s why, the older I get and the less I know what to say, the more I quote Anne Lamott’s dictum: “Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.” Whether we are inside the sanctuary or outside among the singing trees, O Lord, hear our prayers.
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I see that my boys are heading home. In a moment, they’ll climb the steps of our front porch and burst inside like bottle rockets. Turning from my desk, I will give them my full attention when they joyfully explode into my bedroom. My two lightnings in a bottle. I will hold them for as long as they will let me.
But first, I pick up Granddad’s shaving bowl from my desk. Across the road, there is a slender pine leaning in the wind. As exacting and precise as he was with his razor, I wish to write about how this tree suddenly calls Granddad to mind — the way he, too, was tall and skinny, yet sturdy and agile. How I can see the wiggle in the corner of his mouth as he sets his briefcase down in the carport. He frees his hand just as I crash into his leg in the hugging style of little boys. His hand is as gentle as breeze on the back of my neck. And he says what he always says: “Whoa now.”
ANDREW TAYLOR-TROUTMAN is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church, a congregation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and has a certificate in narrative healthcare. He and his wife, Ginny, have three children.