Last Memories, First Impressions

My friend Omar taught me the power of last memories—and the necessity of choosing a good one.

Omar and I had fought many a battle together while serving in campus ministry in Arkansas. Both of us were leaving a mountain of frustrations behind us on the way to our new states.

But Omar told me that he was not going to let his last memory of Arkansas be one

Fishing at Grandma's--one of the "best of" memories we will take northward with us.

Fishing at Grandma’s–one of the “best of” memories we will take northward with us.

of futility or insult. Instead, he chose a dinner that several campus ministers had together, one that both closed out a training event and remembered one of our late colleagues.

“We laughed and talked and really cared about each other,” Omar said. “It was the closest thing to real community that I experienced in Arkansas. And that’s what I want to remember.”

This week, as I pack my boxes, I’m sifting through mental images, both memories and expectations. I’m thinking through the life I’m leaving behind and the life I’m getting ready to enter.

And I’m making choices. I don’t want my last memory of Arkansas or my first impressions of South Dakota to be colored by hurt feelings or stress. I don’t want either boundary of this transition to be handed to me simply because of chronological sequencing.

I want to decide the emotional landscape of those boundaries. I want to leave with the best of what I’ve been given. I want to arrive there with the most hopeful of hopes.

This strikes me as the same kind of maturity I encourage in my students when a healthy dating relationship ends. Celebrate what was good, I tell them. Let go of what was not, or it will drag you down and make you bitter. Choose what you will take with you from that relationship, and look forward to what’s ahead.

Easier said than done, now that I’m on the receiving end of this bit of wisdom. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and so far I’m failing a lot. But this work must be done nonetheless.

And so I’m trying on last memories of Arkansas State, football games and worship services and cookouts and people who feel genuine loss at our moving—people for whom we feel the same sense of loss. I don’t have the one single defining memory yet, and I may never have it. Perhaps it will be a collage.

The same may be true of my new home in Mitchell. I’ve already been greeted by people who genuinely welcome our arrival, I’ve met a few students and gotten messages from a few more. But what will it be like to actually drive into town? What will it feel like to come home after dropping off the moving truck? What will be the mental picture that endures?

I don’t know that answer yet. But I know that, before anything out of this flow of chaos begins to solidify as part of my story, I will be sifting through it for the memories and impressions I want to keep. The rest can wash downstream, and I will watch it go, knowing I am better off with only that which I’ve chosen to keep.

 

Catch

Call it living a dream, even if it’s only in my head.

My Father’s Day present was a trip to the ballpark to see the Memphis Redbirds play, like we’ve done a dozen times every summer for the past several years. We know the team and the stadium inside and out, and have watched games from virtually every perspective.

Zachary and I play a Father's Day game of catch on the field at Autozone Park.

Zachary and I play a Father’s Day game of catch on the field at Autozone Park.

This time, however, we got to see it all from a different angle. After the game, the Redbirds welcomed families to come onto the outfield grass to play catch. My two boys and I claimed some grass in left-center field and threw the ball around.

Jonathan, the younger, made it about twenty minutes before deciding to call it a day. Zachary and I, baseball junkies that we are, stayed on the field. As the crowd thinned, I positioned him by the outfield wall and threw pop flies, as though he was Oscar Taveras going after a long fly ball. Ten minutes later, he wiped sweat from his forehead and rubbed his shoulder.

“I think I’m done, Daddy. “

“Oh,” I said. “Can we stay a little longer?”

“My arm’s getting sore.”

“I know, but how often have we gotten to play catch on a real professional field?”

“I guess so.”

We looked around. Fourteen thousand seats, now empty, but only an imagination away from being filled with fans. A glorious field peppered with other fathers and their sons, throwing baseballs to one another through all the dreams between them. Spectacular plays and errors. Home runs and strikeouts. Cheers and boos.

I reached out to put my arm on Zachary’s shoulder, but I missed low. He is taller than I remembered. I reached my hand up. He squirmed away.

“Ready?” he said.

But he didn’t back away toward the exit. Instead he ran past me, turned and tossed the ball my way.

We went back to playing catch, and kept at it until last call from the stadium personnel. If we weren’t the last ones to leave the field, we were close to it.

By that time, I had stopped my daydreaming too, at least for awhile. I may still envision alternate lifetimes in which I patrol center field for the St. Louis Cardinals. I may picture my son doing the same. If I do, I will certainly not think of the pain of the losses. I’ll imagine his success, even though I know that at his age he understands more than most. The game itself is his reward. It’s a privilege just to play.

For the moment, that truth was, if only barely, within my grasp. It was enough just to play catch, a game with no winner or loser, nor with any substantial purpose. We didn’t need cheering crowds or menacing opponents. We had grass and sunshine, the pop of baseball into leather, the pleasure of feeling the seams of the ball against our fingers. Releasing it to flight. Watching it go. Trusting it would return.

Annual Conference Bingo Plus!

As long as we’re going to Annual Conference, we might as well have some fun with it! So I’ve developed a few AC games to add a little bit of humor to those sessions. The link below includes several games and instructions, including five separate bingo sheets, in case one isn’t working for you. I’ll have some printed copies at AC for those who would like them, and a backpack full of prizes.

And for those of you not in the Arkansas Annual Conference, please feel free to adapt these as needed to your local setting.

Here’s to a good time being had by all!

2014 Annual Conference Bingo Plus

Appropriated Humor

“If I may have your attention for just a few moments, my ex-husband, my new boyfriend, and their divorce attorney will demonstrate the safety features on this flight.”

That’s how Southwest Flight attendant Marty Cobb began her stand-up comedy/flight instruction presentation to a plane crammed with weary commuters. In barely three minutes, she turned the drudgery of budget air travel into a genuinely funny experience. Her efforts won her a round of applause, and likely would have netted her a standing ovation, had the passengers not been secured with their “seatbelts pulled snug across your lap, the way my grandma wears her support bra.”

The routine also earned her more than just a little fame. In April, while I was busy flying to job interviews on decidedly boring Delta flights, Cobb’s video was gathering more than two million hits on YouTube. She even did the talk show circuit, including her personal favorite, Ellen.

But don’t get too caught up in the stardom or even humor itself, wonderful though it is. Realize for a moment what Marty Cobb is doing. She isn’t just making people laugh. She’s doing her job. She’s getting the passengers on her side before they can get cranky and demanding. She’s making the safety procedures that many fliers have heard a hundred dreary times come alive. She has created an emotional imprint tied to the procedures. If an emergency occurs, people are more likely to remember what to do.

Turns out that a lot of Southwest flight attendants have routines similar to this one, whether in comedy or song or rap. The company complies with TSA standards and tests their employees for competence. But they also allow them the freedom to both enjoy their work and bring others into that circle of fun.

Why don’t more of us do this? Why don’t we incorporate humor as a way of making our message stick? Why can’t we laugh at ourselves and the occasional absurdity of our jobs, and why can’t our employers let us poke fun at them if it accomplishes our organizational goal?

I don’t have a good answer for that, except that maybe we take ourselves too seriously. Or, better said, that we spend too much time on ourselves, period.

I can see where I’ve fallen into this in recent months, perhaps not without reason. When you’re fighting to keep your head above water, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.

But often the “anything else” turns out to be the most important thing. It’s only by learning to look around that we find things that surprise us or inspire us or make us laugh.

A writing instructor once told me that a good writer doesn’t hand an idea to the reader. Rather, he or she grabs the reader by the wrist and says, “Come on! You gotta see this for yourself.” Marty Cobb did this for her passengers, and in turn for millions of social media users. She made us laugh, and in so doing reminded us to pay attention.

Humor taken to heart just might save our lives.

Liquor Boxes

The best advice I’ve gotten about moving so far? Get boxes from the liquor store.

That’s not to say I bought the liquor inside them. I didn’t, although more than one friend has inquired about such while helping me pack. I simply went by the spirits store nearest our house, asked for boxes, and came out with a truckload of cardboard cases that once held whiskey, tequila, wine, vodka, and a rum with the dubious moniker The Kraken.

Why do these boxes work so well? In part because liquor is expensive. The packaging companies don’t want their product or profits to spill from broken bottles. So they pack them in sturdy, well-made boxes. On top of that, the boxes are small, presumably to minimize losses in the unfortunate instance of a dropped case. Movers can pack plenty in them without worry that they will be too heavy or cumbersome, as appliance boxes tend to be.

Not only are liquor boxes useful, they are a great practical joke. Although

The Kraken...sounds fishy to me. But it's a great box for packing.

The Kraken…sounds fishy to me. But it’s a great box for packing.

there would be nothing at all funny about someone consuming 30 boxes worth of hard liquor, it is funny to watch people—particularly in the Bible Belt, where I currently live—step out of the unloading line for hushed conversations about why the preacher would be moving that much alcohol into the parsonage.

At it’s core, however, my affinity for using liquor boxes is utilitarian. They worked to accomplish the purpose of their original design. They work just as well when re-purposed.

But they can’t accomplish both at once.

I thought about this as I packed my office last week. Had those boxes been full, they would have been no use to me, no matter what they contained. I have things—books and Cardinals’ paraphernalia, mostly—that are important enough for me to haul a thousand miles north to my next appointment. I only have so many boxes, and each one has only so much space. Anything already in my boxes would waste space at best and thwart my prioritizing at worst.

It’s also true on a metaphorical level.

Like any pastor anywhere, I have accumulated a hodgepodge of emotional memories in my time at Arkansas State University. Baptisms. Weddings. Sacred conversations. Moments of victory. Frustrations. Broken promises. Falsehoods and failures.

If I only have so much space, which of those will I prioritize?

The answer seems obvious enough: accentuate the positive! But the actual packing tells me that turning the obvious into practice is easier said than done. No matter. Jesus went out of his way to make sure his followers knew that “easy” was never a criteria for faithful actions. I know what I have to do.

And I want to do it. I want to carry with me the best of what I’ve been part of in ministry in Arkansas, and to jettison the rest. So I’m mentally piling up the bad memories—few in number, but strong in emotional pull—and throwing them into the dumpster. The good memories are going with me, in boxes repurposed for a better spirit.