May It Last

I write about the same things because I struggle with the same things. One of those lately has been the idea of creating and living and the purpose behind it. The concept that what we do and what we make should be because it’s what we want and not because it’s what’s expected or ingrained in us from upbringing.

There’s no value in my Christian faith, for instance, being my faith if I haven’t thought critically about it and pushed myself and asked questions and had concerns and thought deeply. The intent behind it shouldn’t be that my mom and dad made me go to church every Sunday and Wednesday, rather it should be from my own mind and my own heart and my own soul that I want to walk with Jesus and act accordingly.

But outside of religion, this is something that I wonder about and find myself struggling with constantly.

I love things like granddad hats and talking about my weird theology and wearing sandals with pants and my love for Wendell Berry certainly not because it’s cool or “in” or what will make people like me, but because it is something that I love and find joy in so much that I want to share it. Almost like I would not be me, without these things. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I find in our culture that it’s much more popular to be “in” and wear the right clothes and say the right things OR be “out” and do the opposite, leaving no room for this middle ground of just…feeling….and doing. Creating, because, it’s a weight on you that you can’t shake. Not because you want the likes on Instagram or claps after your soliloquy. But because without my work, my thoughts, my feelings, who am I? Compared to this idea of being a mosaic of what the world wants me to look and act like.

I love the Avett Brothers more than just about anything in this world. They mean more to me than I’m able to put into words, and that may sound foolish and hyperbolic, but it’s true.

For the past five summers I’ve been away from home for a significant amount of time and their melodies and lines have always been within me carrying me through the difficult days. Seth and Scott’s songwriting connects with me on a level that only scripture can surpass. I could write a book on this, but I’ll just stop there for the sake of brevity. Last night when I went to see the documentary that Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio directed, on the history of the Brothers and their recent album, I wasn’t expecting any insight on my whole purpose and creation fascination/dilemma.

But as the film winded down so beautifully it climaxed with a scene of the band recording their song “No Hard Feelings.” The tune, written by Seth Avett, is one of the most beautiful, introspective songs they have ever released, and and after the song is over, tears well up in Seth’s eyes. The folks around him applaud, hug him, and tell him ‘good job.’ But his brother Scott sits quietly, with a haze of bewilderment over him.

Outside the studio Scott explains what’s bugging him so much to Seth. It’s that Seth cracked open his heart, dug deep into his soul, and wrote something that mattered to him. It was a product of divorce, loneliness, confusion, and pain, and this wonderful diamond emerged from the dirt. And as Seth cries, finishing the song, singing “I have no enemies,” he is welcomed with applause and hugs. Scott’s not upset about the hugs and kisses, but upset with the fact that we have become so jaded and sterile to our thoughts and feelings on the outside that when we do let others in, they applaud. They say ‘bravo’ and pat us on the back for being real. Why isn’t it like that in the first place? Why don’t people understand that every song, every line that we write is because it is weighing on us. Not to sell records or pay the bills. This is what we have to do. If we weren’t doing this, we would be finding a way to do it.

It struck me. Sometimes, especially in college, you get so deep in the homework and reading that you forget why you’re doing it. You forget that it’s for more than a grade and there’s a deeper purpose behind it. It’s the same with post-college life, too, I know. The 9-5 and the commute and the kids and the chores pile up and it’s probably really easy to forget about who you are and what is weighing on you so hard that you just can’t shake it. It’s easy to begin to identify yourself with what the world says about you — your roles, your relationships, your collections — instead of your heart and passions. It would be a different world, sure enough, if instead of asking people about their hobbies we asked them about what makes them lie awake at night in awe and wonder or pain and sorrow.

Coincidentally, the best advice I have heard on how to live this out comes from the Avett’s themselves: Decide what to be and go be it.

And may it last.

Advertisements

Loving Our Global Brother and Sister

An excerpt from “As Yourself” Chapter II.

Lately I’ve been struggling with the competition between my desires to unplug and focus on the world around me with my desire to completely focus in to help fight the injustice and issues plaguing our society.

There’s part of me that hates getting constant notifications of what is wrong in the world. Some days it feels like that’s all I see when I scroll through my phone. Four dead in an attack, health care bill fails, Trump said something crazy. That can get really depressing, and sometimes I find myself in this daze of gloom because I can’t believe what’s happening around me. I feel so saturated by negativity that it’s hard to remain uplifting to those near me. It makes me want to throw my phone in a lake and lay in the grass. Just so I can forget about it all for a moment.

But then there’s the other side of me that wants to share every New Yorker article I read. I wake up in the morning reading the bad news but instead feel this inward pull to go and fix it. I see those notifications and I wonder what my role is in helping. I call it my Don Quixote complex — my mission to civilize. It’s when I feel like I can change the world, I can fix the system, I can affect the way others think and act.

I’ve felt this battle lately because of politics, but I’ve felt it for even longer when it comes to our role as neighbors to those who live thousands of miles away. It’s really easy for me to get caught up in what’s going on locally and even nationally and completely forget about those suffering elsewhere. And it’s even easier to do this in the day and age of Trump. There are so many things to get angry about that I use up all my anger on things around me and forget about the things plaguing the world as a whole.

It’s kind of the reverse of what I was talking about earlier. I can often get in this mindset of an almost hyper-local identity where I’m so focused on what’s happening around me that I forget there is more to this world than the ground I’m standing on.  

My favorite writer is Wendell Berry. He writes fiction, poetry, and essays, and is as an agrarian as much as he is a writer. Berry himself is very reserved and old-fashioned. He refuses to be videod and still uses a typewriter. When he was young Berry spent time in some of the world’s biggest cities from New York to Paris to Rome, but eventually resigned from his day-job and made home on a 125-acre farm in Henry County, Kentucky. He’s a critic of the industrialization in agriculture because it removes, in many ways, the human connection to the land. Later on when we talk about the earth as a neighbor, we will talk about Berry at a great extent. But what interests me about Berry in this context, his his assertion that he belongs to his place as much as he belongs to himself…

 

 

The Stories We’ll Tell

The most amazing part of the scene on Franklin Street last night wasn’t any fire or tree-climbing hooligan. It wasn’t a camera or a stolen street sign. Nor the sweat dripping from the 55,00 feral bodies littering the streets.

Instead it was the thousands of stories playing out in front of my teary eyes.

There were sons on dad’s necks, with hands raised toward the sky in elation. There were couples kissing. There were sighs of relief. There were grandparents in jerseys. There were grown men brought to their knees. There were tears of joy — and tears for our beloved Marcus and Brice.

Each one, with a different story to tell.

Of course, all of them were elated, but to each of us it means something different. There were no two people on that crowded street that felt the same thing.

For many, it was about redemption and the difference a year makes. For others, it was about seeing that big grin on Theo’s face. For some, it was crying as Roy Williams cut down the nets.

For me, I will remember this team as a bunch of guys who were fun to be around. Sure, I will remember the pain I felt walking into the locker room after the loss last year, but now it will be filled in with the beauty of the confetti falling on their faces.

For Kennedy, Isaiah, and Nate, it was the storybook ending.

It wasn’t a flawless journey and maybe they would do things differently if they had it to do over again, but their journey ended at the pinnacle of their sport. Kennedy cleaned the glass, Isaiah turned it on when we needed him most, and Nate was a calm, steady hand in the backcourt.

For the rest of their days they will say they finished their careers in Chapel Hill as champions.

For Justin, Joel, and Theo, it was their team.

You can make the case that this class will go down as one of the most decorated ever, if they all choose to come back, especially. Justin, a record-breaker, an all-american, a quiet assassin. Joel, the hardest worker I know, a put-the-team-on-my-back type of player, a terror to defend. Theo, a class clown, an incredible passer, a heart and soul of the team.

For the rest of their days they will say they fell, fought back, and found glory.

For the youngsters, Luke, Tony, Seventh, and Brandon, it was their pleasure.

To assist the guys who had been here before, to hit daggers to save the season, to provide crucial minutes off the bench. They learned what it meant to be a Tar Heel. To fight and to rally and to redeem the very depths of a city.

For the rest of their days they will say they learned, executed, and performed when it mattered.

For Roy, it was his life.

It may sound extreme, but you could see it in his eyes. After the Georgia Tech loss to open ACC play. After the big time wins against Louisville and FSU in conference play. After the trials and tribulations of a season. This team, this chance at a title, this journey of redemption — this meant the world to him. To get this group of men, the most fun he’s ever had, on a ladder, in Phoenix, with a pair of scissors in hand.

For the rest of his days he will say he coached a team who believed in him.

Who knows how many people flooded to the streets after the final buzzer. Who knows what was really in the minds of the players and coaches on the floor. Who knows when we’ll be here again.

What I do know, though, is that we all have one hell of a story to tell for the rest of our days.

And once more, a banner to raise.

-da

-88-

After my grandfather passed away, I started writing about him. I started to recall some of my finest memories of him — his smile and laugh, his working in the garden, his dinner table stories. It was my way of trying to suffocate the pain I was feeling. I would try to extinguish the midnight tears with the memory of him sitting at the head of the table doing math on a napkin at dinner.

My grandma has enjoyed me writing about him with one stipulation. She wanted me to write my memories and feelings about her before she was gone from this temporal world. I’m not sure that she wants the confirmation that she did a good job in raising me, because I tell her that quite often. But it’s certainly nice to hear people say nice things about you, isn’t it?

But for some reason I’ve had a really difficult time putting her into words. She means more to me than most anyone, yet I’ve had a strange inability to express exactly how she has impacted me. And that’s not a bad thing, in any light. Sometimes when people have such a profound impact on you it’s hard to pinpoint where to begin. I could tell you she is the most strong-willed woman I’ve ever met, and that would be true, and good. Or I could tell you that she is brutally honest and yet filled with an ocean of grace. And maybe I could tell you she is a rock of faith and more eager than anyone to be reunited with her Lord in Heaven.

I can also tell you I’m not ready for her to go.

OK, so, my favorite memory?

She picked me up twice a week to get allergy shots when I was a boy. There was always a Hershey Kiss awaiting me in the seat, and that was far from the best part of our trip. There was Tic-Tac-Toe in the waiting room, when she always let me win a few. And a trip to the drug store next door where she let me get a bottled Coke and PayDay bar.

She spoiled me rotten with her love.

Then after the car ride home, we would swing in the backyard, and she would make me a plate of eggs. As far as I’m concerned, no one has made a better egg on this earth. She has the grandmother’s sixth sense to know when I want some — at this point, I don’t even have to ask.

And I’ll never forget your face the first time I recited the 23rd Psalm to you. It was like you won the lottery.

Well, those are memories, and there are plenty of them, and certainly I could go on for quite awhile about what I remember.

But instead, grandma, I want to tell you how I will remember you. Because, today, you remember our times together, just like I do. So instead, maybe it’s best to tell you what has stuck with me the most over almost 21 years.

I treasure your love for the Braves. Even though you don’t like my favorite player, Chipper Jones, because he cheated on his wife and you don’t stand for that.

I learned from your love to read. I think you passed that straight to me. To me, you will always be the woman curled up in your recliner — warm pack on your shoulders — reading a novel.

I am inspired by your love to garden. I will always remember our sleeves rolled up canning fresh green beans.

I smile at the very whisper of your laugh. Infectious, growing, deep, and warm like a blanket.

I delight in the Lord because of your teachings. Not a day has gone by when we are together that you haven’t shown me how deep the Father’s love is for us.

I appreciate your beginnings. The ninth of ten children, the little girl, the humble start.

I cry at the thought of your pain. When granddaddy died, you were rock-solid, but aching underneath as your partner departed.

I feel empowered by your strength. How you never faltered. How you gripped my shoulders as we hugged. How you ended each meeting with an “I Love You” growing in pitch, with each word.

I find great joy in making you proud. I have gotten the chance to do some incredible things in incredible places over the past couple of years, and not once — I promise — when I walk out of a stadium or saw my name in some newspaper did I not think of you and granddaddy.

I am who I am today because of the way you have cared for me.

I will love you for the rest of my days. I will tell my children and their children and their children, if I’m lucky, how much my grandma loved them and how one day, we will all sit at the Lord’s Table together, hand-in-hand.

And I bet you there will be scrambled eggs waiting.

But until then, grandma, we have  more memories to make.

-David Ray

‘What Is It To You?’

A story, from the Gospel of John, for our New Year:

One of my favorite chapters in the Gospels is actually the last one of them all. John 21. For some reason the mystery and beauty of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples has always stuck out to me. What would he do now that he’s back? Would he slap Peter for being a coward? Would he flip over the tables in the Temple, again? Would he yell at Pilate?

Of course not. He would make a little fire on the beach and wait for his friends to return from fishing. Duh.

You probably know the story. When breakfast was over and Jesus and Peter were staring at their empty plates, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times, in fact. A reminder of what his denial a few days before. And each time Peter said he loved him, and Jesus replied, OK then, “feed my sheep,” “feed my lambs,” and “tend my sheep.”

It’s beautiful. And to me, it’s a grand image to start the New Year with. The past, the denial, the death, it’s gone. It is forgotten and forgiven. Instead, Jesus gives a simple command: “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus says, hey, do my work. Do good work. Take care of yourself, but take care of your neighbor. He says feed my people. Clothe them. Tell them the Good News. You denied me, but that isn’t what is important. What’s important is the work that sits ahead of you to do.

What comes next in John 21 is often forgotten and overlooked. Heck, if I was preaching a sermon on this chapter, I, too, might try to forget this happens.

You see, the King of Kings came back to Peter and helped him catch fish and prepared a fire for him. Then, he redeemed him. He pulled him back into the fold. But the next thing Peter says is: “What about him?” pointing to the disciple John.

After one of the most beautiful moments in the history of humanity occurs, Peter can’t help but wonder about the guy sitting next to him. He wants to know what Jesus thinks about the other guys. Will they be forgiven? Will they die or will they be taken with you? What’s the deal?

Jesus looks back and says simply, “What is it to you? Follow me.”

How often we look around us to see how he/she is doing. We want to know what’s going on with everyone else’s grades and followers on Instagram and internships and you name it. We have to see how we stack up. And if Peter does it after an encounter with Jesus, you know we all do it.

But Jesus’ reply is the command I hope I can stick with and remember in the fresh start of 2017:

“What is it to you? Follow me.”

It’s the idea that the it in “what is it to you?” isn’t just the guy sitting next to you — it’s everything that keeps you from being with Him.

What is worrying about the future, what is worrying about who has been to Sunday School the most, what is worrying about being accepted, when you should simply trust and follow?

What is it to you? Follow me.

 

Truth and Action

Often it takes moments of backbreaking pain or breathtaking ecstasy to bring us to realizations. Often in the mundane, in the day-to-day, in the nine-to-five, nothing changes. Often it takes victory laps, sunsets, or concession speeches, for us to wake up to the world around us.

At the mountaintops of life, the moments of confetti and kissing in the kitchen, you find this to be a pretty good world, after all. It all worked out, just like they said it would. And in the canyons and valleys, the moments of cold pillows and empty seats, you find this to be a pretty cruel world, after all. It never worked out, just like they said it wouldn’t.

This week, a lot of us have found ourselves at one of these two points. Elation for some, desolation, for others. And although it took me a few days to come to grips with what has happened and put my fingers to these keys, I have found some solace.

From E.B. White, this:

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

This is a quote that resonated with me when I was in the mountains in Maine, a few summers ago. I underlined it like crazy, drew arrows, the whole nine yards. It just made sense. There are only so many hours in the day, and there are so many places I want to see and so many things I want to do. Is it possible to save the world and savor it? Is it bad to want to do both?

I would say this is innate for us, to try to find a happy medium.

But I can tell you now more than ever, it should be easy to plan our days. We should arise in the morning with the desire to save the world.

It’s not always quitting jobs and packing bags, though, it’s driving across town when your grandson has a flat tire and sitting with that man at church who has dialysis twice a week. It’s acting. It’s living out love does.  It’s not trying to fix people and what they think or do, and just being with them.

From 1 John, this:

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

A chapter that I often turn back to in times of doubt and confusion, 1 John 3, has never felt more apt. There are plenty of things we can get bogged down with in life. Many of them good things to worry and think about, like who our president will be and work and play and beauty. These things happen.

But here in 1 John, we get a beautiful reminder. A reminder that we ought to get more often. Jesus painted love on the cross and told us to be love and hope and a bastion of peace for our neighbors.

How can we not do that in return for Him? How can we not try every single day to arise as the moon rests its head and be better. And do better. And speak truth. And love. And never forget why we get to arise, in the first place.

Because we are called to love, like he loved us.

 

The Night of the Unspeakable

There is a climax to every story. There is rising action and a resolution, but it is the climax that keeps you from putting the book down.

For some, this is a moment of great joy. It is cutting down nets and donning rings of silver.

For others, this is a moment of immense pain. It is one less banner in the rafters and a bullet hole sent straight through the heart of destiny.

For the North Carolina men’s basketball community, the night of April 4th, 2016, is a climax they will never forget, no matter how hard they try.

They will remember the hope of a Tar Heel five-point lead at halftime, the despair as Villanova ran away in the second-half and the elation following the Marcus Paige 3-pointer.

It was an evening that everyone in Tar Heel nation had marked on the calendar since the first tip of the basketball in November. It was an evening where legends roamed the hardwood. It was an evening where the boys in Carolina Blue could become immortal.

It was the night of the unspeakable.

***

Jeff Jones sat on the front steps of the University United Methodist Church minutes after Michael Jordan and the UNC basketball team won the 1982 NCAA Championship.

He rushed to Franklin Street, but as blue paint was flung and claustrophobia sunk in, he found himself watching the thousands of students from the elevated church steps.

“I remember being in the middle of the crowd,” Jones said. “The feeling of euphoria was pretty awesome.”

Jones was a freshman at UNC, then, and had been a Tar Heel fanatic since his childhood. Thirty-four years after that March evening when he sat on the church steps, he can still tell you every detail about the day Jordan shook his hand. It was an English 42 recitation, Film Criticism, in a tiny room in Hamilton Hall. Jordan walked in, sat beside him, turned and smiled, “Hi, I’m Michael.”

He remembers the minute details of Carolina basketball. A Walter Davis bandaged hand after the 1977 ACC Championship. A James Worthy missed free throw in 1982. A sleepless night after a season-ending loss to Georgia in 1983. The pain, the joy, they are all still fresh in his mind.

Jones, 53 years old, now, remembers watching the 2016 game from his home just as easily as when he cheered the Tar Heels on from Carmichael Arena.

“I kept thinking this is it — it’s over with,” Jones said, recounting the moment when Villanova held a six-point lead with less than two minutes to play.

But then Marcus Paige hit “The Shot” to tie the game. Falling to the floor, on one foot, almost posing for the camera, the fate of the season hung in the air, in the shape of an orange sphere.

“I’ve seen so many of those Carolina games where we made amazing comebacks,” Jones said. “But that’s one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen.”

***

Pat James sat center court, three rows back, with his fingers glued to his keyboard when Villanova inbounded the ball with 4.7 seconds left.

After Paige’s shot, he rested for a moment, taking it all in, but then looked right back at his screen.

“When Marcus hit the shot, first it’s kind of hard not to take in the spectacle of it,” James said. “I don’t think anyone could predict what happened next.”

As the sports editor of the Daily Tar Heel and a senior at UNC, the intersection of work and fandom was never more evident. He had two tweets prepared for the DTH’s sports account: one, if the Tar Heels lost, the other if the game went to overtime.

“As soon as Ryan Arcidiacono passed the ball to (Villanova forward Kris) Jenkins, I was already editing the losing tweet,” James said. “I knew it was going in.”

Swish.

“I hit send, I stood up, they celebrate, and I’m watching it all happen as I’m packing my bag,” he said. “I wanted to get out as quick as I could, but I also didn’t care to watch it, as well, from a fan stand point.”

James was the first one out of the media section, hurtling toward the locker room. He pre-wrote part of his story, but after that ending, a blank canvas awaited him as he walked in a room of heartbroken men.

“I had to go over and shake (UNC sports information director Steve) Kirschner’s hand to tell him thank you,” James said, “And in that corner on the left side is Hubert Davis with his hands in his face and there’s Roy [Williams] shaking his head.”

As a senior, covering the last basketball game of his career as the sports editor, the gravity of the moment began to sink in. Sure, he would cover a few baseball games, and yes, he would edit plenty more stories — but this was it. This was what the whole year had built up to. Now he must write.

And how can you do that, in a moment like this? How is it possible to put the emotions, the memories, the power of that game, into words?

“All day, you’re thinking about it,” James said. “Eventually you’re going to have to put your fingers on the keyboard and pound this thing out.”

“While hopefully I’ll get to cover some big stuff down the road, what could possibly get bigger than this?”

***

Marcus Paige sat in the back of the locker room, Gatorade towel draped around his sweating neck, with dozens of microphones in his face.

The point guard had surely spent many nights dreaming about that moment. The moment where he could hit a shot, acrobatic and beautiful, that would give his team a chance to win at the most crucial moment of the game, with his back firmly against the wall.

And he did.

Yet, here he sits, with tears in his eyes.

“That was supposed to be our moment,” Paige said. “I’m going to see it, and it’s going to hurt every time.”

He would never make another 3-pointer, as a Tar Heel. He would never run down the court calling a play, as a Tar Heel. He would never sprint out of the tunnel to a roaring crowd in the Dean Smith Center wearing no. 5, as a Tar Heel.

“It’s hard,” Paige said, “because at some point tonight I have to take this jersey off, and I never get to put it back on.”

For four years, Paige worked every day for the chance to sit in that locker room and take questions from reporters. It’s what motivated him. The awards were great, the kind words were fine, the regular season wins were important. But a national championship — that’s what kept Paige up at night.

He couldn’t help but look back at his time in Carolina Blue. The wins and the losses and the laughs and the tears. His jersey would be in the rafters in the Smith Center with dozens of others, but was that enough?

“You had to get to this level to be considered and to be remembered,” Paige said.

“There’s not a whole lot of guys that have done better than us if you think about it. It’s hard to say now because we were so close to being at the top of the mountain.”

Look down, Marcus. Look how far you climbed.

***

Julianne Strickland sat in the back of a black Nissan Sentra somewhere on a highway in Texas at 3:00 a.m., when someone finally brought it up.

What was it? Maybe it was Paige’s shot. Maybe it was the wrong shade of blue confetti pouring over them as the buzzer sounded. Maybe it was the aching feet from standing in the April, Texas heat. Until that moment, there was silence. Yes, a passing comment about getting gas or stopping to use the restroom, but not a word about the game.

Strickland dared the silence, “I thought we had it won.”

The sophomore and four other friends made the 21-hour trek to Houston to see the Final Four and National Championship games. They took turns driving, slept at a friend’s house at Rice University, and were the first people in line at 8:00 a.m. for the national championship.

“When I bought my tickets I had no clue how I was going to get there or where I would stay,” Strickland said, “But I just trusted that everything would work out.”

Back in the car, her head leaned against the rear window, with a Brice Johnson jersey on, the memories rushed back. From the second row of NRG Stadium, she witnessed one of the greatest endings in the history of the illustrious game of basketball.

“It went from one of the greatest moment of our lives to the worst,” she said.

But there’s no regret for Strickland. She would do it all over again in a heartbeat. What is a five-page paper, what is a good night’s sleep, what is a hundred bucks, to memories made?

“It’s like loving family members — no matter how many times you get upset or disappointed with them, they’re still your family,” Strickland said. “Yeah, my heart felt like it was ripped in two, but I can’t stop loving this team.”

“I will always cheer for those players because they make it feel like I’m part of their family.”

-da