Saint Patrick’s Day 2017

Saint Patrick’s Day morning brushed the sky an hour ago with a red caress, dimming to a gentle rose, then to a waning, creamy yellow. That too faded, leaving only gray stratus stealing overhead from the west. Snow and rain are in the forecast for today, March 17, 2017. Somewhere up there, up above the clouds, the sun is shining, but I cannot see it.

Today Lisa is leaving. Her Ford Explorer is already packed. In a while, her oldest daughter, son-in-law, and their toddler will arrive to load her larger belongings into a trailer and accompany her, along with her beloved cat, Siam, back to Missouri.

It is good. It is God. My prayers of more than eight years for Lisa are being answered—not in a way I had anticipated, but in the way that is best. For Lisa will once again, at long last, be with her four children, and now with her grandbabies as well. A mother whose heart was broken is being reunited with those she loves most, now grown, who ten years ago were ripped away from her in the most unjust and painful circumstances. For all of them, the long journey apart is about to end. It is time for the restoration of hearts—above all, of Lisa’s heart. No one except Lisa herself knows better than I the importance of this season of new beginnings. For I have seen, I have seen with my eyes and with my own heart, the great love and the terrible, deep longing Lisa has borne within her every day for her three daughters and her son—for Sophia, Olivia, Shannan, and Jeffrey. Now at last they will be together again. It is wonderful, and beautiful, and so very, very right.

But it comes at a great cost. This apartment, infused with Lisa’s presence, will be empty without her. Most of whatever she leaves behind will serve only as memories. Even her glasses that remain in the cupboard—stout, solid glasses whose functionality I appreciate as a man—will have her name on them in my heart. Our relationship has been so odd, so utterly out of the norm in today’s time and culture. It has never been the stuff of a romance novel. But it is most certainly a great love story that the Lord has written on the pages of our lives.

This is enough for now. Lisa is finishing with packing her vehicle, and her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson will be arriving soon.

* * *

Facebook post, about 1:30 p.m.

She is gone. My dear Lisa. My heart goes with her. I stood by the roadside at the end of the parking lot and watched her white Ford Explorer head down the road behind her daughter and son-in-law's car, turn right, and disappear, bound for her long journey to Missouri to be with her children and grandchildren. It is very painful, but it is also wonderful, and good, and so very much the Lord's heart and the answer to prayer. The restoration of a mother with her children, and the healing of hearts, is worth the price of loss and tears. God bless you, Lisa, my dear one, and Shannan, Olivia, Jeffrey, and Sophia. Your mama is on her way home at last.

So it is that my eight-year journey with Lisa comes to an end. I sit now in my usual spot in the couch in the living room, from which vantage point nothing seems to have changed. Across the room from me, my work station looks the same, and to the right, the dining room table is in its usual place. Outside the sliding door, the bird traffic remains constant at the feeder, and from the kitchen comes the familiar hum of the refrigerator.

But at the end of the hall, the door to Lisa’s room is open and the room is empty.

Lisa is probably somewhere near Chicago by now. The same stratus deck that coats the sky overhead with a uniform pale gray also covers eastern Illinois. But not far to its west, according to the satellite, Lisa will break out swiftly into the sunlight and enjoy clear skies for the rest of her trip to her new home. Here it will remain cloudy and cold. Oddly, though, a while ago a single roll of thunder rumbled gently over Hastings. I liked that, and Lisa would have too.

It is strange that I can grieve and yet feel such peace. It is the Lord’s peace. He is with me here, as surely as he is with Lisa, and I sense his care for me. I am brokenhearted but not broken, for there is a wholeness and grace that comes from knowing I have fulfilled his will, a blessing that comes from dying that life may spring forth. It is what Jesus did for us; it is what Lisa did for her children; it is what I have done for her; it is what all of us who love him must do, in whatever ways he has uniquely ordained for each of us, if we are ever to love powerfully and redemptively. It is part of the fellowship of his suffering, and it is a great, great honor. To love another person as Jesus loves them, however imperfect a job we make of it, is worth everything—because that person is worth everything to Jesus. Everything. That is how he sees them, and he has a way of causing us to see them that same way.

Lisa, pearl of great price.

I will reorganize this apartment, now mine entirely to do with as I will. I will move things into Lisa’s room, and I will transfer the clutter out of the side room into the large walk-in closet, and my life will go on. Last I knew, the world didn’t stop revolving at 1:30 this afternoon. Seems like it should have, at least for a couple of seconds—that would have been appropriate—but when I check my email, I see that I’m still getting the usual idiot spam advertising “Toe nail fungus removal . . . by tonight!” (exactly what I’ve been craving; how do they read my mind?) and “Mark Cuban Q&A on the habits that made him so rich” (like I care a rodent’s rectum).

Yes, I will move on, for that is how this kind of thing is done. For now, though, I will let things be. What’s the hurry? There is no hurry, none at all. I will finish writing this piece and publish it in my blog, and then I will go get something to eat, for I am famished. I will think of Lisa, so dear to my heart, and of her children, so dear to hers, and I will pray for her and for them. Later this evening I will head over to my close friend Ed’s house and watch Fringe episodes on DVD. (Thank you, Lord, for good friends who know me and love me). And finally, I will return home, and hopefully sleep well, and this momentous Saint Patrick’s Day will end very different from when it dawned.  

Remembering Ted Carino

Ted CarinoWhen I was thirteen years old, my fellow eighth-grade band member Steve Afendoulis asked me to join a band he was forming. I had been playing the alto saxophone a year, and in that time, thanks to an arcane formula for success called "practicing consistently," I had ascended to the rank of first chair. Now here was an opportunity to take the music to the next level, and it held the added enticement of lifting me up the social ladder from "weird kid" to "cool kid." With visions of rock star glory in my head, I accepted Steve's invitation. I knew it wouldn't be long before Eric Clapton would be giving me a call. There would be tours, concerts at the Fillmore East . . . Steve's band turned out not to be exactly a horn version of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Its name was the Formal Aires, and "Purple Haze" was not in our library. "In the Mood" was, and so was "One O'Clock Jump," and "String of Pearls," and "Mood Indigo," and lots of other corny old tunes written by corny, passe composers like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Strayhorn, Cole Porter, Carlos Jobim, and Miles Davis. Well, maybe not Miles. Good-bye, Fillmore East. Visions of beautiful hippie girls falling at my feet dissolved into inebriated granddads twirling their sport coats lasciviously on country club dance floors as my band mates and I honked out "The Stripper." It was not what I had pictured. Yet I liked it. And as weeks of practice turned into months, and the months paid off in prestigious gigs, and the band's library grew along with our sound and our reputation, I came to love it. The Formal Aires was my introduction to big band jazz, the American songbook, and supercool, genius composers like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Strayhorn, Cole Porter, and Carlos Jobim. Miles Davis was still a little ways down the pike, but regardless, here was a musical foundation on which to build a huge part of my life. It was God's grace delivered to me on a silver platter, though I was too callow at the time to realize what a remarkable gift I was being given. That's the nature of grace: the value and the force of it often don't become apparent to us until long after the fact. All I knew was, I sure was having fun. Steve's dad, Gus, managed the band. Gus was wonderful! He doted on us kids, loved our music, and supported us any way he could. As the owner of a tuxedo shop, he saw to it that we were all properly attired for our ongoing calendar of gigs at topnotch country clubs throughout Kent County and elsewhere in Michigan. And Gus did something else as well, something critical to the success of our fledgling seventeen-piece ensemble: he got Ted Carino to provide musical directorship. Every week, when we gathered for rehearsal in the Afendoulis basement, there was Ted. An alto saxophonist steeped in the big band tradition, he helped us interpret those stiff black hieroglyphs on our charts into the language of swing, where eighth notes become loose and greasy and feelingful. Ted raised our appreciation for dynamics. Ted drilled us till the awkward parts fit together into a tight musical gestalt. The concept of "sectionals"—breaking up into sax, trumpet, trombone, and rhythm sections to practice a tune separately—first came to me from Ted Carino. So too did the impact the right mouthpiece could have on my playing. I had been using the stock mouthpiece that came with my Conn 6M alto. It never occurred to me that there might be other possibilities. Then one night Ted pulled me aside. "Try this," he said, handing me a little box. In it was a new Brilhart Ebolin mouthpiece. It looked cool with the white bite plate. I put it on my horn and was surprised at how much louder it sounded and how much freer it blew. It was authoritative. "You need something like this for playing lead," Ted told me. Who knew? Certainly not me or my folks. But Ted did, and he spent his cash to give me a mouthpiece that kicked my sound and my playing up a notch to where they needed to be for a section leader. I played with the Formal Aires through my high school years, up to the time when the band disbanded and its members scattered to pursue college, careers, marriage, and raising familes. A few of them remained in music, one of them being me. As for Ted, I eventually lost track of him. He retired from Lear and moved to Florida, where he remained musically active; you can read about that and lots more in his writeup at the top of this post. I clipped it from the Grand Rapids Press obituaries section in 2012, and having recently rediscovered it, I got to thinking about Theodore Carino and who he was to me. Ted was a generous man with his time, talent, and knowledge. He invested himself freely and wholeheartedly in a bunch of young players way back when, and today I think there's not a one of us who wouldn't remember him with gratitude—given a little prompting, of course. It has, after all, been a few years. But a good person's impact has staying power, and it can perpetuate itself over time. Ted was one of a few special, key encouragers who made me think, "I can do this. I can play this crazy instrument. And I love doing so." I hope there'll be a few younger souls who, in different ways, can look back forty years from now and say something similar about me—not necessarily about music (though that would be great), but about how I encouraged them to become who they are and affirm the talents God gave them as good and worthy of cultivation. That, even more than the music, would be a great legacy for Ted Carino to have passed on through one young teen to generations still to come.    

Five Incredible Words

In John 16:33, just hours before his crucifixion, Jesus tells his bewildered apostles, "In this world, you will have tribulation. But take courage, for I have overcome the world." As I consider the kinds of tribulations this world swarms with, like a petri dish full of deadly bacteria, I find those few words of Jesus, "I have overcome the world," utterly mind blowing. They are either one of the most arrogant and self-deceived statements ever made, or they are the declaration that a miracle of cosmic proportions has occurred: that a way has been made through everything this present world could ever throw at Jesus—and at us who belong to him. For 1 John tells us that in him, we share in his victory: "Everyone who is born of God overcomes the world (1 John 5:4)." That victory cost Jesus his all, so we can expect that we too will have to fight for it. But it is guaranteed to those who persevere. So much to say on this topic, and I don't wish to minimize the reality of the struggle in a way that turns a stunning promise into glib, pie-in-the-sky theology. It is no pie in the sky; the promise is as real as every tear you've ever cried and every spear that has pierced your heart, and far more powerful, and lasting. There is wholeness beyond the pain; there is glory beyond the battle; there is redemption—yes, and transformation—beyond the tribulation. Be of good courage—for all that the world is, and all that is in the world, he has overcome. And so, therefore, shall you and I.