same park, same path, different heart

The day was not more or less beautiful. The park was not more or less packed.

The children played soccer under the same sun’s evening glow, the same moving mass of strangers ran in circles around the same lake, the same warmth burst out from the tips of trees and into the same cool, autumn air.

Everything about my run was the same, except that it was different.

I rounded the curve last night on the East side when it starts to slope down and I realized a smile had stretched across my face. It was a facial expression that defines stupid grin and it was amplified by my oogly eyes marveling at the sky. For the entire steady slope, I grinned and oogled the sky.

I smiled at all the strangers who had made me feel uneasy and emotional a few days before, but I thought my delight might be entertaining (if they create stories in their minds about strangers like I do). I befriended one lady, in a runner’s world kind of way. She was about my height with a similar stride and a purple headband. We ran comfortably side by side and I imagined her story until she sped on ahead around the south curve (confirming my prediction after seeing her serious running tight/skirt combo and determined arm swing).

Everything was the same, but my heart was different.

I was not afraid.

I felt like Kevin from Home Alone when he opens the front door to his empty home and yells to the Christmas darkness, “Hey! I’m not afraid anymore! Do you hear me? I’m not afraid anymore!”

To get empty of fear is liberating, but only if I am getting filled up with something else. Otherwise I’m just yelling at darkness and hoping my endorphins will keep pumping boldness into my blood. The emptiness has to be displaced – the fear has to be replaced by something strong enough to shove it beyond the bounds of influence.

Christ got empty. He emptied Himself so that we could be emptied of emptiness – emptied of that vacancy we feel when fear screams out from our insides.

My salvation has pushed emptiness out and fear with it. Hope has displaced strife and faith has removed worry. I am not afraid anymore because I believe the fullness of Christ is pushing against and spilling beyond my boundaries.

I am not afraid of missing out. I am not afraid of being a stranger. I am not afraid of hugging this city when it doesn’t hug me back. I am not afraid of being unknown. I am not afraid.

I am not afraid because Christ emptied my fear when He got empty.

I shall not want

It happened yesterday in Prospect Park – when I was rounding the bend down the slope, right after I stopped to take a picture of the lake. The Saturday children’s soccer games were in the middle of playful competition on the fields, various groups clustered around pastel balloons for birthday parties, and there was a small gathering who had followed hand-painted wooden signs down a slight slope to celebrate a wedding.

The colors were turning, but soft like a whisper. The sun was making warm paths of light to reach the turning leaves on the opposite side of the lake.

I got emotional.

I suppose that isn’t surprising, given my emotional history and over-dramatization of most events, at least for story’s sake. But it did surprise me and I had to close my eyes for a few paces to collect myself.

Have you ever stretched out your fingers into rays of sunlight? All the mystery of those rays reaching us, dancing on our fingertips, evading our capture – it normally makes me marvel. How is it that the light that warms our faces comes from a gigantic spherical furnace? How is it that it gets as far as earth and remains at the perfect distance to sustain life? How is it?

Normally, rays of light and soccer games and birthday parties and wedding celebrations make me marvel, but yesterday they made me emotional. I guess because I couldn’t hold the light or be in the soccer game or sit with the ladies in lawn chairs or wave a flag at the wedding.

I felt very small and very disconnected – like knowing and being known here is too distant a thing to reach.

The faces I met – on bikes and in strollers and in road weary running shoes – I did not know, not a single one. Commotion is not hard to come by in this city and with it the potential that I am missing out on something beautiful. Festivals, neighborhood parties, service events, art openings – commotion and opportunity and all this potential for beautiful make me acutely aware when I am outside and unattached.

This is not my city, yet. And it took me a while to shake the feelings last night or to do more than resolve the feelings away. Sometimes it is good to feel what you feel – to step into it fully and make peace with the way it got tangled inside.

This morning, I have different eyes to see the shortness in my chest for what it was: fear.

Today I’ll reach out and let the same sun dance on my fingertips, but I will choose to marvel because I have a God who keeps His promises. I know a God who is my Savior and who has promised to provide and protect and preserve these bones.

I shall not want.

Midwestern nod meets East Coast furrowed brow

Somewhere in a less concrete castle, there were crowds of football fans gathering for tailgates yesterday in the early hours of the morning. In between the rivalries, at least in my midwestern state, there is a commonplace camaraderie that seems to make less sense in the East.

The explanation of this camaraderie looks like a few examples of common gestures you’ll see if you ever take a tour of the state where Field of Dreams was filmed. My dad is a genius when it comes to this cultural dance. He’s got creases all over his face to prove it. Name the location – gas station, mechanic shop, football game – it doesn’t matter, if you let your gaze wander to meet his eye, you’ll probably hear him say, “Hi, there” or “How we doing tonight?”

It’s not necessarily an invitation to a conversation as much as it is a declaration to neighborhood. Because in Iowa, everyone is your neighbor – I guess that can be figurative and literal. The state stretches out across corn fields (true to stereotype) and everyone kind of bands together in the ‘middle of nowhere.’ I grew up watching my dad extend this simple kindness to everyone he met and it never seemed strange. If he needed to call someone on the phone after he came in from chores at night, it would go something like this: “Hi, there. This is Dick Nichols, how we doing tonight? …… Oh, okay well good. Is Randy around at all?”

I don’t know who taught him this dance, but I think a lot of people in Iowa know it and dance it well. On the highway or the gravel road, it looks like the two finger wave – whether you know the person driving the other car or not. Everyone is going somewhere and the two finger wave is a kind way to support them on their journey. On the streets or the grocery store or at the library, it might just be a friendly smile and a nod of the head – a simple affirmation that meets a person exactly where they are.

Of course, no one from Iowa thinks about these things. They probably don’t even know there is a dance of camaraderie that outsiders might think strange. It’s just the way life is. Quite honestly, if Iowans knew I was philosophizing their mannerisms and speaking meaning into their customs, they would say, “You think too much.”

And I probably do.

But, when you move from the ‘middle of nowhere’ to a city like New York or Denver or Austin or any city, really… you realize the customs and traditions and nuances of your childhood are not universal. I don’t know what Iowans mean when they say, “Hello” or when they give a friendly nod, but I do know that people here don’t do that.

I know that when I make eye contact, people sometimes seem startled. I know that when I smile or nod or say, “Hi, there” people appear confused. I know that the city has a different dance.

Iowa doesn’t have it all figured out. They have their own set of issues, to be fair. But, as I shrug into Brooklyn like a sweater (it’s already becoming one of my favorites), there are some things about being an Iowan that I don’t want to lose and the midwestern nod is one of them.