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

 

Book Break: Manalive

“Madness does not come by breaking out, but by giving in; by settling down in some dirty, little, self-repeating circle of ideas; by being tamed.” – G.K. Chesterton

I’ve quit believing in coincidence. When seemingly random events culminate in a meaningful way, providence is my line now. Such was the case when I was searching the Great River Regional Library website for an audiobook to accompany me to and from Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend. I searched for several titles by name, and several topics by keyword, to little avail. Then I stumbled across an audio version of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, narrated by athiest-turned-Catholic and Theater of the Word founder and actor Kevin O’Brien.

I didn’t know what the story was about. That it was Chesterton told me it should be good — but as I’ve said before, Chesterton can be too clever by half at times, and I’d never tried his fiction before. I put in a request for this book and for Mark Twain’s biography of St. Joan of Arc, and Manalive arrived first.

I hesitate to say too much. It is the story of an apparent madman or idiot who invades a British boarding house and turns the humdrum lives of the inhabitants upside down. Ultimately, he is accused of insanity, theft, polygamy, and murder  but how can a man as wicked as that make others feel so alive for the first time in years?

On the other hand, why would such a joyful simpleton  a holy fool  carry a revolver among his holiday luggage and playthings? Our protagonist has a mission, which sounds ominous and, indeed, mad: “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him – only to bring him to life.”

Like Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, which I reread over Holy Week, the book portrays a man who had dedicated himself to a worldview that the world has little use for and who pursues it at whatever cost. As a result, he makes us think about our own worldview and priorities. Manalive is chock full of great Chesterton quotes and paradoxes and memorable characters made moreso by O’Brien’s theatrical reading, voicing each of the characters as clearly as if he were several people himself.
By way of criticism: The work does wax poetic at times – particularly the introductory chapter – and at all times Chesterton’s presence is felt in the thoughts, wit, and turn of phrase of the characters. I would also be remiss in not pointing out Chesterton’s use of racial and ethnic stereotypes and language, particularly in drawing the character of  Moses Gould. In the context of this story, it was unsettling, but it struck me more as a product of his time than of strong personal animus. As to his actual views of minorities, I need to read more.
By way of endorsement: I listened to it start to finish on the way to Michigan, again on the way home from Michigan, and yet again on the trip back from Florida with Rose and Trev. It has climbed to the upper heights of my list of favorite stories — and if you want a fictitious explanation for why I’m leaving a good job at the church for a nebulous next step involving writing, this is it. I could not have stumbled across a better novel to bolster and encourage me in this time of transition.
That, friends, is providence.

A Father’s Joy

 One of the highlights of a relatively laid-back (for once) weekend was heading into the Cities for the 10 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Jodi, Trevor, Lily and I did this because the University of Mary contingent (including Brendan) from the March for Life in Washington D.C. was planning to attend Sunday Mass there at that time, as well.

We arrived moments before the buses rolled up. We stood on the sidewalk and peered through the tinted glass, trying to glimpse the woolly-headed college man we knew to be our own. Instead we saw his STMA classmate, Anna, who grinned and waved joyfully at us — and who got a bear-hug from Lily when she got off her bus. We waited for several minutes then, scanning the lines of students emerging from the buses, until at last a bearded, lumberjack-looking fellow in red-and-black plaid emerged and came our way.

Lily didn’t see him at first; when she did, she ran to him, and I don’t think it was my imagination that her voice caught in her throat as he swept her up. Several of his college colleagues smiled at the hairy young man and his little princess — and I did, too.

It was good to see him, even briefly: good to see him safe and sound, to see his patchy beard grown long enough to cover the bald spots, to see his hair growing still more Robert-Plantish, to see the sense of peace and comfort he has surrounded by his friends. The center sections of the Cathedral had been reserved for UMary, much to the surprise of the regular Sunday Mass goers, and it was good to see so many Minnesota families and friends turn out to greet the pilgrims and pray with them. It was good to see hundreds of college-age men and women enter a Catholic church in quiet reverence, kneel and pray, and receive the Holy Eucharist together.

Lily stayed as close as she could to Brendan — closer even than Jodi. Olivia and her brother Kyle came, too, and sat with us — and after Mass (after a massive group photo at the Cathedral rector’s request) we stood and visited a long while, soaking up what time we could with the young man so like and so different from our eldest son.

When they left to get on the buses, we went downstairs in the Cathedral to show Lily and Trevor, among other things, the massive Lego model of the building. Then we went out to lunch (far more affordable with just two children). While finishing at Chipotle, we got a text from Gabe that the bus from St. Michael and St. Albert was nearly back from D.C., as well, so we hustled home. Jodi dropped Trevor and I off so she would have room in the car for the teens and their stuff, then she and Lily headed to the church. A few minutes later she arrived with Gabe and Emma, joyful and tired, ready for home-cooking and a bed. For a moment it felt like years since we had seen them — and there they were, suddenly, as though they’d never left. I hadn’t noticed feeling partial until the moment I felt whole again. After we visited a bit, I lay down for a nap — and I took a father’s joy in just hearing their voices and noises of their passing as I drifted off to sleep. They were home and the world was centered once again.

Time Flies: A Thorp Family Update

The most recent photo of us all, with my folks and
sister’s family thrown in for good measure.

I’ve remarked more times than I can count in the past year: “My age doesn’t bother me; it’s the fact that Brendan is heading to college.” It’s my kids’ ages that get to me — not the the additional salt in my pepper, the aches and pains, the fact that I’m often tired and can rarely sleep.

This past year has flown, and with a grad party and a trip to Poland for World Youth Day, the summer promises to be even faster. So I thought I’d offer you all an update on our family before we blink and the leaves fall again.

Prom-goers: Brendan and Olivia

Brendan, as you may have heard, is headed to UMary in the fall. He will graduate early in June in the top 10 in his class, with a varsity letter in wrestling and local scholarships from Knights of Columbus Council 4174 (of which he is one of the newest members), the American Legion, and the Hanover Athletic Association. He loves Ultimate Frisbee (actually all four of our teens/tweens do), dabbles in swing-dancing, and is still happily dating Olivia. (Last night’s consisted of Adoration and ice cream.) He is still working at the hardware store, and just starting a second job with a local electrical contractor for the summer. He loves his bass and his music (Foo Fighters is his current favorite band), and yesterday, he bought an acoustic guitar for song writing and kicks. And he has a pipe, which he smokes on occasion.

Swing-dancers: Gabe and Kate

Gabe is now the tallest in our family, by perhaps a quarter inch. He is working on getting his driver’s license this summer, helping our friend’s taxidermy business, and preparing for his junior year of high school. He was confirmed this month, was just inducted into the National Honor Society like his older brother (NHS at our high school does a great deal in service to the school and community), and will be one of the leaders of the high-school pro-life group in the fall. He played soccer but didn’t wrestle this year, and is on the fence about next year — too many other interests, including reading and writing, teaching himself piano, learning Quenya (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish language), and swing-dancing. In this last activity, he works hard and excels — especially when paired with his friend and fellow Lord of the Rings geek Kate. They aren’t dating, just dancing and discerning together.

Emma and two of her flute-playing besties

Emma is easily the tallest female in the house and explored the high-school for the first time yesterday as an incoming freshman. She played volleyball in the fall and is running track this spring — plus playing flute in the band and woodwind ensemble and singing in the middle-school choir. The music, at least, will continue in high school. Emma has followed her brothers to help with the church’s Core Team and is also an avid swing-dancer (which means boys); Gabe’s dance-partner is one of Rosebud’s mentors in becoming a young woman of virtue. Emma dabbles in piano, too; reads voraciously, and bakes like our family is twice the size (and it will be, unless we share her goodies). She is hoping to start baby-sitting soon and wants a new dog almost as much as her dad.

Trevor rocking

Trevor will be our sole middle-schooler next year, and plans to work out this summer in hopes of wrestling on the school team in seventh grade. He is a rhythmically gift version of the boy his father was: a creative thinker and storyteller, easily distracted, heart-on-his-sleeve…but coordinated enough to rock a drum kit (or the kitchen table, a couch cushion, his thighs…), to play basic piano music with relative ease, and to dance to almost any song when the mood strikes him. Also an avid reader and a good student, but with a style all his own: whereas Gabe has a hat collection and wears them on occasion, Trevor wears a brown fedora each day to school. He shows signs of a mechanical knack (another difference from his father) and still loves Legos.

Typical Lily

Lily completed her year of Catholic co-op preschool yesterday. She is colorful, funny, opinionated, and creative, with an ever-expanding vocabulary and a precocious sense of humor for a four-year-old, included puns and word-play and physical comedy along with the typical (non-sensical and never-ending) knock-knock jokes. She, too, likes to dance and to watch her swing-dancing elders, and she makes her siblings friends her own whenever she has the chance. She, too, has sprouted in the past year — she is a head taller than her plastic barn playset she so enjoyed last summer — and although she rarely eats a lot at a sitting, she would eat constantly if allowed. And she loves superheroes, especially Batman and the Justice Leaque.

Jodi and I are well — and abundantly blessed, in the midst of such breakneck activity. My bride often says it feels like only a short while ago that Brendan got on the bus for kindergarten the first time, and so it seems to be as well. We will have been married 20 years this August, and for my part, I am as happy as I have ever been.

That said, I had to be reminded of something not long ago, with the help of a priest friend: as Christians, spouses, parents, we have a serious call in this world, which requires a serious, heartfelt response — but none of that means that God doesn’t desire our happiness or enjoyment of this life. He came that His joy may be ours — shame on us if that joy does not pervade all that we do, and all that we are. It can seem terribly romantic to think ourselves unworthy of the blessings in our lives — the soft warmth of the one who lies next to us in the wee hours before waking, or the noise of a full and laughing house — and to strive and sacrifice to show our appreciation and earn our worth. But in truth, we are worthy — intrinsically — as God’s beloved children. So while I must not take my beautiful bride and these five awesome children for granted, I can love them best if I realize that my worth, and each of theirs, comes from our creation in His image and in resting in his embrace.

We are so blessed. As sinners, we don’t deserve it…but what else should we expect from such a God as this?

Last summer…where does the time go?

A God-Size Space

This morning’s thought comes courtesy of St. John of the Cross via Deacon Ralph Poyo, whom our parish staff had the pleasure of following on retreat yesterday, and who never actually mentioned St. John of the Cross by name.

Jesus tells us throughout the Scriptures that we must leave everything behind to follow him. Certain of these passages seem particularly harsh: “Let the dead bury the dead;” “No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks to what is left behind is worthy of the kingdom of God.” I have struggled with these passages over the years, but in the wee hours this morning, lying in the dark, I had a brief moment of clarity.

Dcn. Ralph reminded us that choosing to be a disciple of Christ (in particular, Christ crucified, since Jesus himself tells us that in order to be a disciple we must pick up our cross and follow) is a black-or-white, all-or-nothing choice. He asked us to imagine, on one hand, Jesus suffering on the cross, and on the other hand, a table filled with all these little icons of the people, places, and things of this passing world that matter to us: our spouse, children, family, and friends; our pets, possessions, and pastimes; our worries, anxieties, and sins.

Of the two, we are called to choose Christ—you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—but it’s hard to embrace the cross and even harder to carry it any distance. So we are tempted to walk to the foot of the cross and break a chunk off from it, to shape that piece of the cross into another little icon representing our Christianity, and to place it on the table with the rest, our tiny God, lost in a sea of idols.

St. John of the Cross writes of the tremendous longing God has for union with us (and vice versa). He wants to live within us, but before He can enter fully, He needs a God-size space. And since our God is infinite and eternal—the source of being for everything—the only space big enough is complete emptiness. Nothing else fits where God fills.

I have thought about this before in terms of the little pieces of the world we cling to or the tiny sins we allow to continue because “they aren’t so bad.” But early this morning, it occurred to me that even clinging to the good things of this world—my wife and children, my vocation as a husband and father, my job, and the parish that I love—can push God out.

This does not mean I must give these things up, only that I let them go to make space for God. If I can empty myself completely and seek Him alone, He who is the source of all good things will fill me, and like Job, I will regain what seemed lost, and more!

God is indivisible, the ultimate All, and we cannot claim just a piece of Him—“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 6:33).