Nothing Safe

This past weekend was Albertville Friendly City Days, our little town’s version of an annual summer festival, featuring  a softball tournament, a pedal-power tractor pull, the Miss Albertville competition, live music, carnival rides and games, fireworks, clowns, and more. The highlight for our family each year is the parade — one of the biggest and best in Wright County, with more than 100 entries including several marching bands. The past few years we’ve enjoyed the spectacle from a beautiful old home on Main Street, right next to the announcer and judges booth, so everyone is looking and performing their best, and candy is tossed by the handful. This year we enjoyed the additional treat of Trevor’s debut as a percussionist in the STMA Middle School Marching Band, playing quads (technically quints, I suppose, since his drum harness has a tiny fifth tom, not just four).

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Trevor and bandmates marching

Earlier we had been discussing what we love and don’t love about Friendly City Days. Lily was strongly urging that we walk down to the carnival and at least check out the rides; Jodi and I weren’t anxious to do so. A friend agreed with us: Traveling carnival rides especially made her nervous, she said — so much so that she has been known to pay her children not to go, still spending less for peace of mind than she would have for ride tickets. She even shared a story about a girl who was scalped when her hair got caught during a ride on a classic old Tilt-a-Whirl.

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Jodi and Lily sliding

Although we rode the Ferris wheel, the carousel, and the giant Fun Slide last year, by and large, we agree. Anything that’s moves and spins and is not bolted down is just asking for someone to get hurt. Or throw up. Or both.

On the other hand…

What is it about a Tilt-a-Whirl, anyway? I used to love that ride: the unsteady motion of the platform, the off-kilter slide into your friends as your car tilted and spun sideways, first one way, then the other. Yeah, sometimes people puked (I never did), but that was part of the excitement — the sense that anything could happen, at any moment. You felt alive.

Dead people don’t barf.

I think I’ve discovered that ride was so appealing — and why I don’t care to do it anymore. Think about it: what else do we experience that is tilted, spinning, unstable, and potentially dangerous; that sends us careening into the people closest to us; that makes us laugh, cry,  and hurl?

We don’t need some old carnival clunker. We spend all day, every day, on a massive, unhinged Tilt-a-World. As a kid, the simulating is stimulating. As adults, it’s too real, like when you’re watching The Office and can’t laugh because you actually lived through that particular episode.

And it’s not safe. This world is broken, grimy and off-balance, hurtling through the cosmos, and run by grubbing scoundrels, leering ne’er-do-wells and lazing doofuses. We’ll never make it out alive — and yet, here we are: leaning, laughing, spinning…

So let go. Whatever you’re clinging to can’t keep you safe anyway. Let’s throw our hands up and enjoy this ride — together!

Featured photo at the top of the post: Abandoned Tilt-A-Whirl By Derrick Mealiffe from Toronto, Canada (Wet n Wild) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

A New Mission

By now it’s pretty well gotten around that I’ll be leaving the role of faith formation director at the end of June. A number of you have said, “I can’t wait to hear what you’ll be doing next,” to which I reply, “Me, too!”  On the other hand, we have taken great leaps forward in the past three years, and I have never felt unappreciated or under-compensated working for the parish. It’s good work—it’s just not my work.

 I’ve made a discovery this past year: I have an evangelist’s heart.

I am competent at many things, and even skilled at some of them. I can be an administrator, a catechist, a communicator, an administrative assistant, and a laborer. I can do all sorts of things when needed. But I have an evangelist’s heart.

And, thanks be to God, I can write. I’ve known this for some time, and every staff or personal retreat I’ve been on for the past decade or more has resulted in me saying to my bride, “Whatever happens from here forward, I need to write.” I’ve been told the same thing countless times, by family and friends, acquaintances and total strangers. I’ve never made a successful go of writing on my own, however—I think primarily because, until now, I’ve tried to do it on my own. I’ve never really asked what God wanted me to write and waited for an answer.

I have always been the least rational and most emotional of all my male friends. I blunder through the world heart-first, find beauty in strange places, share too much, talk too much, and cry more than my bride. It’s embarrassing. I’m not good at casual friendships: most of the time I either go deep, or I can’t link a name to a face.  Any given week I love humanity and hate it, sometimes at the same time.

But when I share from the heart, when I speak or write about things I care about—faith, marriage, family—it moves people. When I talk about my own journey from part-time Catholic kid to an Ivy-educated agnostic with a porn problem to a faithful husband and father, it touches people. And I want to do that.

What’s more: God wants me to do that. (I finally asked.) No more pretending these gifts are weaknesses or wishing He made me differently. I am what He made me, and I’m only as free as I am obedient to His will.

It’s exciting: I feel like an apostle being called by Jesus to follow. And it’s terrifying: I don’t like reaching out to new people, because loving those people involves time, effort, and usually pain. Plus I can’t see my way forward. Peter and Andrew, James, and John dropped their nets and left their boats behind. Matthew left his post, his money, his whole former life. I have a primary vocation as husband and father. I can see no way to do what God is asking of me in my free time, and no simple way to make a living. I can’t see a logical next step.

So for the first time in my life, I find no solution other than utter abandon, to give everything to the Lord and let Him sort it out.

Dive in. Heart-first.

The Still, Small Voice of God

There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire—but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound.  When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. –1 Kings 19:11-13


It is Tuesday afternoon, and I am writing from home. This column should have been done and in already. It is not, because even a job working for the church is not as important as some things.

Around 9 p.m. last night my youngest son threw up, and my bride informed me she didn’t feel well either.  Between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. or so, my son was sick probably two dozen times. Jodi did not get as sick, but was as sleepless as Trevor—and I tried to stay clear so that hopefully I could handle little Lily in the morning and keep her from catching whatever this was.

I rose and prayed with Jodi at 5:30. She felt a bit better, and Trevor was sleeping, at last.  At around 6, Emma was sick the first time, and by 8, Lily was complaining that she didn’t feel well either. I was getting ready for work—Day 2 with our new faith formation coordinator, Andrea Zachman—but had the sinking feeling that it was only a matter of time before it hit me, and that my colleagues might rather I stayed home. I was torn—I felt fine, but so had Trevor and Emma before it hit, and I had plenty of work to do. Lily seemed fine, but if she were on the verge, I didn’t want her spreading it to her friends and their families. Jodi was torn, too—she didn’t feel great, but had a mountain of work waiting for her and didn’t feel she could afford to miss a day.

And as fate would have it, we had a blanket of fresh snow on the walk, cars, and roads.

Ultimately we compromised: we both went to work briefly to take care of a few things and bring some additional work home to do around our other duties. We were out of several basic food items in our house, so I fought the blowing snow to stock up on a few things—and now here I sit, writing furiously.

We are all called by God—do you hear Him? I often imagine the God of the prophets speaking to them in a deep, thundering voice, but that’s not what we hear in first Kings, above. Elijah recognizes the Lord in “a light, silent sound”—other translations say “a sound of sheer silence” or “a still, small voice.” God whispers, as it were, drawing us close with his words, into an intimate conversation with Him.

Unfortunately, the noise of the world too often drowns Him out. We hear the voices of our colleagues and bosses ringing in our ears; the ringing of the phone and ping of emails, IMs, and texts…the traffic report…the weather…and nothing of the still, small voice of God.

Excuse me a minute: my other high-schooler, Gabe, just called—he’s sick and can’t drive himself home. Jodi and I need to go get him and the Suburban.

We are all called to a first and universal vocation of holiness. Most of us are called to live out that first vocation in terms of a second vocation to marriage and family life—we sanctify ourselves, our spouses, and our children by imaging God Who is Love. Everything else we do and are come in below that. We are created from Love, and Love is our purpose and end. That’s all. That’s enough.

Because that’s everything.

Season’s Greetings from the Thorp Gang, 2016 Edition!

Clockwise from bottom: Bren (19), Gabe (16), Emma (14), Trev (12), and Lily (5) 
Our annual Christmas letter is online now for your enjoyment! A Christmas card is on its way for friends and family, but to save ink and paper, our letter will appear here. Please feel free to print and pass it on. 

Past letters, Christmas poems, elf letters, and more are available here. Merry Christmas to all!

Long Goodbye

It’s a strange sensation, like a high-tensile wire stretched six hours west to a bluff above Bismarck and the Missouri River, a steady thrum, more felt than heard, reminding me that a part of me is there. Not gone, but definitely not here, and I can’t know from one moment to the next what he’s about. We are six hours distant, so I know less about his day-to-day — but I am more keenly aware of him than I have been in years. His absence is a presence, palpable, in our home.

I am wearing an old hardware-store t-shirt he left behind.

I haven’t felt this sort of connection to my eldest son since he first came home with us — the heaviest ten pounds I ever lifted — and I realized he was ours to shape and raise to manhood. Then the connection was direct, bare skin on bare skin, almost frighteningly close: his little chest expanding and contracting, the soft spot where his skull had yet to form pulsing, his every need and discomfort so close to the surface we could almost feel it. Now it’s this invisible strand from one eggish Thorpian occiput to another. He’s always at the back of my mind.

I wonder if he feels it, too?

* * * * *

At different points this past summer, it felt like such a blessing that the University of Mary started late. We planned an August send-off, since Brendan didn’t want a grad party and had lots of time to plan and few conflicting parties to contend with. As we watched more and more friends drop their teens off at college, we thought it was helping to prepare ourselves for this weekend. Perhaps it did. But the past three weeks or so began to feel like a very long goodbye. Brendan left his job at the hardware store at the end of July, and his electrician’s job a few weeks back. His band, Pabulum, played their Final Jam. (They insist they are done as a group, which would be a pity.) All of his friends expect Olivia (who is a senior this year) left for college, and he started packing his things, some for Bismarck, some for storage.

The week before last he took a solo road trip to Michigan to spend some down time with my folks. As God’s providence would have it, a high-school friend of mine has a son who was transferring to St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul this fall; he and Bren were best friends in preschool, and Will and his stuff needed a ride to Minnesota. They came back together, two peas in a pod, and Will dropped right into our family. When we took him to the seminary a day or so later, it was actually a little emotional — call it practice or anticipation, we were beginning to feel the ties to Brendan being stretched.

Last Monday, Jodi and I took Brendan out to supper and to get sheets, supplies, and decor for his dorm. We had such a good time eating his favorite food (Mexican, this time at El Bamba), listening to his current favorite band (Icelandic blues-rock outfit Kaleo — Bren, his friends and I are going to see them in October); making him pick out dishes, sheets, and towels when he couldn’t care less. It was a great evening.

And then this weekend. Originally only Trevor wanted to make the trek to UMary, until Gabe realized he could potentially get 12 hours of driving toward his license. Once he decided to go, Emma jumped aboard, realizing that otherwise she would be left to babysit Lily alone. So all seven of us went — the largest single-family contingent I saw on campus.  Jodi and I took Friday off, and we left early in the afternoon so Bren could connected with his NDSU friends in Fargo and catch our local high school’s football game against Moorhead. He spent the night on campus; the rest of us in a hotel. Seeing his friends joyful and comfortable on campus, was reassuring; arriving at UMary itself was doubly so: simple, joyful, peacful.

Bismarck’s Big Boy Drive-In — unique in my experience,
with menu items you don’t see anyplace else. Google it!

We met his roommate, Ethan, a nursing student and Vikings fan from western Minnesota, and Ethan’s parents — they seem like a wonderful family — and heard from UMary president Monsignor James Shea, who told the students with clear affection and blunt honesty that their lives were not their own, but a gift for others, and unless they find a way to spend themselves in love, they will have wasted their time here. He told us parents, as well, to step away and allow our children to stumble and fall that they may learn to stand on their own.

He strikes me as a good man, and I couldn’t be happier to entrust Brendan’s young mind and character to him these next few years.

One other speaker shared an Erma Bombeck quote, comparing raising children to flying a kite: letting out more and more string until ultimately the tether breaks and the kite soars away on its own. It’s not a bad metaphor, but I see things differently. This connection between us is stretched thin, but not to breaking; it is keen, sensitive, and strong, and though it can be tangled, wound about the world, stretched to invisibility and nigh untraceable, it cannot be broken.

I told him as much, in a letter I left in one of his boxes. No matter how far away he goes, I am here waiting for his return. Because he is mine, and I love him.

When we finally decided, after dinner on campus, that it was time to head home, Bren walked with us to the Suburban. He hugged each of us (Mom and Lily more than once) and told us he loved us. He told the older kids to keep doing their thing: Emma, to keep baking; Trevor, to keep drumming; Gabe, to keep being himself and making people laugh. Lily’s last words to him from inside the Suburban: “Love you, Brendan! Don’t do anything bad out here!”

We’ve done the best we could. I think he’ll be alright.