God has honored me by entrusting to my care a small knot of young men – my young lions – who see me as a spiritual father of sorts. Together, we are enjoying deep community and mutual life-exchange unlike anything I’ve ever known. They may think I’m there for them. But I think they’re more there for me.
As a new young man joins the group, I give him a topic to put his words to, with the promise to post it to my blog. I’ve done this three times and what you have here now is a fourth. Paul’s topic was “hope that overcomes”. He accepted the challenge graciously and immediately, like his nature, went to work. A few days in, Paul texted me and asked about my expectation.
What you’ll read here is real, tinged with frustration and baked with the raw sensations of a man who has been at odds and war with his topic.
I wouldn’t have it any other way because I have a joyful expectation as to how the story will end. Thank God for Paul’s refreshing frankness. No religionized tripe here.
I “hope” you enjoy.
The Hope Story
Funny how a person can be built from such a small collection of things. My entire identity fit in a black plastic box. My tools, the conduits of my creativity, make up my life. But now they lay spread across the rough shop floor. Each tool a purpose, and story, the list of their possibilities read like a spec sheet. Circular saw: used for cutting plywood and 2x4s, also possible to cut masonry, metal, mainly cuts straight lines, but also can cut wide radius curves. Jig saw: good for cutting curves, but only on thin plywood. Somewhere in the bottom of the box is the cloth bag for the jig saw, with 3 replacement blades in it, one broken blade not a problem, two broken blades, I need to start finding a source for replacement.
Each tool brings back stories, the time I used my angle grinder to shave metal burrs off the end of a gnarly piece of metal. Hammer: if used with a keen eye and a light touch, can be used to level a surface. Each tool is simple, but each one with infinite options and complexity.
Scattered across the shop are pieces of wood, some cut, waiting to meet others. Fresh cut 2x4s sits together in a neat stack, waiting to be used. The plywood in two stacks lean against the concrete walls of the work shop. One of 3/8 in ply another of ¾ in. It took a lot of arguing to get that stack of ¾ in plywood. We already had a large stack of 3/8in, and Gentry didn’t want to spend the cash for ¾ in plywood. It took many “discussions” to convince him they were necessary,
At the moment I pace through the shop, trying to finish the ramps before the completion. A check list fills my mind, a list of steps. Could Reece assemble this before the next part was ready? I check the clock, and try to discern the time needed to complete each task.
I was clear, we couldn’t meet our goal. The ramps would not be ready for the competition. The only question is if they would be put together enough to work temporarily. I was short on materials, time and energy. This wave, the latest mess from the week, struck hard. The mild stress, quickened into anxiety.
The mission started quite calm, but the second day of the trip, Henry, one of the instructors at the La Carpio ministry, insisted that I leave my hostel and stay with his family. I understood his compassion and willingness to give, and being informed by our translator that it would be bad form to refuse such a request, I was compelled to say yes. But the house sat in a quiet suburb, far away from San Jose. So instead of the freedom to get out and explore, the quiet home became a monotonous prison. Each day I entered, and because it was a gift, I was compelled to enjoy my discomfort.
Henry’s family lived poor, waiting on donations for support. The ministry requested that Henry serve full time, living primarily off the support he raised. A tough life, it seemed working for God, meant working poor.
Every day, like clockwork, we returned to the house at 6pm. Henry remained awake, studying for college classes, working hard to maximize his resources. Once when I left a room with a light on, Henry scolded me for wasting electricity, and while he had WiFi at his house, it was turned off most of the time to help conserve energy. With the exception of a novel I brought with me, the evenings proved monotonous.
The attempts to connect with the other people at the ministry did not go well either, trying to talk with our host/translator, was like talking to a brick wall. I tried to open a conversation, “ Where did you learn English? I inquired. “In school working on my bachelors and masters in linguistics.” He answered with minimalist elaboration. “Do you read much?” I queried. “Yes,” he said with a perk of attention, and rattled off a list of his favorite titles.
Many of which I should have read in school, but either missed or skipped completely. I picked out a title from his list, one that I had a basic knowledge of, I asked his perception of that book. He answered again politely but to the point, with little elaboration. But while his conversations with me are short, he talked at lengths with others.
There was another American staying at Henry’s house. He professed to be a Christian, but when he talked about his plans after Costa Rica, smiled and said “Me and my girlfriend got an apartment on the beach. We’re staying there for a month when I get back.” He oozed arrogance and confidence, completely aware of his value, his full ride college athletic scholarship served as a witness to his self worth. Though I tried to create an authentic conversation, couldn’t connect with him.
So alone I stood in the shop, surrounded by guys, trying to complete a project, working to achieve a goal, fulfill a mission, get the job done, achieve my purpose. Time ticked by. My heart, living in my tools, lay scattered across the work shop. I mentally kept track of them, trying to not to lose the little pieces I had left.
Quickly we knocked out the last of the tasks, John resurfaced the old ramps. Nathan assembled the last launch ramp, and distracted, Johnny skated with the gathering crowd of neighborhood kids.
It looked like we may meet the deadline. Everything was falling into place but one, the metal transitions at the base of each ramp. The long strips of metal that smoothed the transition between the wooden ramps and concrete skate pad were delivered in a 4×8 sheet of steel, not long thin strips like I specified. Each strip had to be cut individually, 32 linear ft of steel in total. Even with my little experience with metal, I could tell this was an extremely time consuming task. After I saw the enormous piece of steel, I immediately got Gentry started making the cuts. Two days later, and one hour before the competition, we still had 3 ft of metal to cut. With it becoming obvious all the transitional strips were not going to be ready, we convened a quick group meeting, and decided to use some scrap plywood as a temporary transition.
The plywood worked. Crisis adverted. We continued on. At 1:30pm, 30min passed the planned start time; we rolled out the last of the ramps, and started the competition.
Johnny took charge of the 75 kids who crowded the pad. He divided up the group by ability. John, Rick and Reece joined in, keeping things organized and showing off different tricks. Nathan walked around, documenting the event with photos.
The skating commenced, and I was done. I don’t know how to skate. Quietly I wander up to the porch overlooking the skate pad and sit down.
We completed the mission. The hard work and stress were done. The ramps and boxes were complete; we had succeeded! We won! But it didn’t feel like victory, it felt like I was wrung out.I felt used. I was there to work, and the work was done, life moved on. Once again I faded into the background.
I have felt this feeling before, and took provision for its arrival.
I find it hard to understand my own value. Proud people inflate their egos and call it confidence. Creating an illusion of experience and wisdom. I try not to deceive myself, I see my faults honestly. And while I’m great at covering them up, every once and a while I let people in, show them my character, gently reaching out, exposing myself, listening like one listens for an echo.
People usually don’t understand me, I guess I can understand. When I express my dreams, people don’t ask me to return to reality. My humor misses more than it hits. My adventures are usually considered lunacy.
Rejection. The pain cuts a familiar pain. I’m easy to generalize. The nicknames stick. The obvious: hulk, big gun, thunder thighs, and the bad ones stick harder: special, Idiot.
Why am I pariah, why am I ignored while others accepted? A new group and a new town, the same verdict. Similar to the one I received from God a long time ago: not worth it.
I seal myself off from emotion. Pain comes up but I barricade myself in with heavy walls, my armor is impenetrable. I let no emotion in and none out. I do not normally keep up this guard, but I can put it up at the slightest offense, I try to remain open with people, in the hope that one day, someone will see the value. Maybe someone will understand, maybe one day I’ll fit in.
But that was not this day, and at the sign of pain, I raise the walls, and locked myself in. If they can’t touch me, they can’t hurt me.
For some reason on this trip, I allowed strangers in a little longer than normal, and now with the feeling of emptiness, I start closing the gates.
The competition came and went, the winners received there prizes. We packed up and headed back to the local church. My mind ached to be let out, a part of me wanted to weep or to rage. To shout and scream, “HERE I AM, WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? DO YOU NOT SEE ME?”My mind knew this was inside me that my heart needed help. My heart for its part felt nothing.The doors were closed and walls raised, choosing not to feel, than experience the emotions around me.
At the debrief that evening, we discussed the day’s events, after a general positive consensus, Carlos, talked of an exercised the group was going to do at the final debrief, Friday night. Each member of the group, for two minutes, would say things they appreciated about another member. Carlos decided, because I would not be there when the rest of the group did this exercise, they would all go around and say positive things about me.
For 10 min the group went around saying what they liked about me. The sentiments were sincere and genuine. Rick and John expressed their appreciation for coming on the trip. Johnny Collier, even though we didn’t have much time together, said he enjoyed working with me, each expressed encouragement and appreciation for myself, my personality and character.
My armor worked flawlessly. I felt nothing. The love from the group struck my hard shell and fell away, I couldn’t let any in. My mind screamed at my heart to open up, to try again to get real with these people, but I just sat there, still as a corpse, the encouragement hit and bounced off. They gave, I didn’t accept.
I kept up the walls, I couldn’t let anyone in. I couldn’t risk dealing with the emotions. Two days and I would be back in the states. “Hold it together for two days, that’s all” I told myself. Finally, the debrief ended. After a quick closing prayer, we headed back to our respective houses, back to another solitary night.
With the heaviness of the evening, I tried to be upbeat and I got myself into a humorist mood. I started telling jokes, quick with a laugh and a smile.
On this night instead of taking the bus back to the house, one of the members of the church offered to drive us in his car, a small Toyota. With much effort and humor, we squeezed 5 guys into the small economy 2 door Toyota. The comedy was a great reprieve from the heaviness of the day, all of us cramped in the interior of the car, sharing a common hilarious misery. For a brief second, I hit a moment of perspective, the type ones lives are made from, 5 big guys flying through a town, inside a tiny Toyota.
I decided to I needed to remember this moment. I had to remember it. So for a moment I let down my guard. I absorbed everything: the atmosphere, the chuckling from the guys, and the cool breeze from the cracked widows. The musty interior, the dim street lights passing overhead in a steady tempo. All of that moment filled my mind, the lunacy, the humor, the peace.
All of a sudden I realized I made a mistake. The emotions of the week charged my lowered defenses. Quickly I tried to put my guard back up, keep it all locked out. But I failed. It came in a flood, the frustration, the disappointment, the insecurity.
I tried to deal with it logically, reason it out, but I couldn’t. Exiting the Toyota we flagged a bus to take us back to our neighborhood, I looked like a normal functioning person, but inside I was an animal raging.
The emotional debt I took out in the beginning of the week, called all at once, the idea of continuing was over. I quickly put on my ear buds, my hands were shaking from anger, the familiar question Why?Why? Why? pulsed through my mind, I turned on my music, and battles my rage with rhythm. I went to the list of music, the familiar beats, I keep on my phone, hard fast music. I turn up the music until the screen says “maximum”. My heart beat races in my chest.
The music makes my ears ache, from the quietness of my seat, I raged. I was done. Here in a place, I traveled to find God, to meet with him, but it turned into another dead end. I was wounded. On the seat sat a man, inside raged a monster. When we arrived at the house I ate a quick snack and went to bed. The day was done. I wanted no more. I couldn’t pray, but I mumbled a quick prayer anyways, and then dived into bed.
The adrenalin in my veins slowly began to fade, as sweet sleep slowly numbed the pain. A dreamless sleep slowly creeps over me. The day slowly dies, like the final judgment of a sentence. It confirms the life I live. Gone was the hope of the day, I moved forward and in the walk towards the end of my life. Status: no hope, another day gone, only 19,345 days left to endure.
Why do some get rejected and other accepted. Why do some succeed as easily as I fail? People say I was created for something. It seems I was created to be damned. Why, when I reach for God, am I rejected? Why, in trying to walk with God, do I end up wounding myself more? Why? Why? Why?
The quiet morning greets me when I wake. The cool humid air drifts in from the open window. The violent anger disappear with the dawn, only its friend, quiet despair, stays with me.
The musty streets and sulfuric traffic meet me on the commute to La Carpio. My last day in Costa Rica, this day would be a quick one. A fast cleaning of the workshop,the finishing of the ramps left over from the day before, and then pack up to leave. The team worked with bitter-sweet motivation, more than once abandoning their tasks to skate with a few of neighborhood kids. Gentry finishes cutting the last of the metal, the ramps are completed.
I go through the motions cleaning up the shop. Half way through, I come across some loose pieces of paper, on them several sketches. Earlier in the week some of the kids gave there input on what they wanted built for the park. Armed with a few loose pieces of scrap paper, and a stray pen, they sketched out their wish list. Most of the ideas match our own: a kicker, a fun box, and a launch ramp. But one item which kept coming up in their sketches was a set of steps. In the chaos of the week when the discussion of ramps came up it always found its self in a tug of war between the budget, time and value. In the end the steps were forgotten.
Then and there, I decided to build the steps
I gathered the tools and tossed a sheet of plywood on a worktable. The movements are a familiar dance: measure my length, mark with the pencil, extended line with a straight edge, cut with the skill-saw. Saw-dust flies from the spinning blade, ricocheting across the shop. The odor of fresh cut lumber fills my nose.
The cycle repeats itself,with intervals to calculate lengths and heights.
The stairs take shape quickly. They are an easy build, any teenage with some lumber and access to his dads shop could knock them out in an afternoon.
The work occupies my mind, relaxing it with the hypnotic repetition. One of the guys stopped by and asked the obvious “You’re building some stairs?” I answered back with and simple and solitary “yep.”
How could I explain what I was feeling, that part of me had to create. For some reason it was necessary to build without being bothered. A little freedom to do something by myself, without having to justify my actions in terms of cost, time or impact. The stairs were me, they flowed out of my hands. Hands scared from sharp tools, rough from abuse. I could do the work, I had the ability, and so I did. some people breathe, I build.
A short time later, Reece and I carry the steps out to the concrete pad. A dozen neighborhood kids skated on a few of the small ramps, the small crowd not warranting the complete collection of ramps. As we set up the stairs, the kids gather around excitedly. Reece and I placed the steps at the end of a ramp, so the kids could ride up the ramp, and jump the steps.
Suddenly a line formed in front of the ramp. The kids ran towards the ramp, and at the last moment jump on their skateboards, carrying as much speed as they could up the ramp. As the skaters approached the top step, they ollie their boards, jumping over the set of stairs, and attempt to land on the concrete pad below. I watched as the young boys go again and again: run, jump, land. Going nuts, like a child with new toy.
Later while talking to Johnny Collier, he told me stairs are a popular obstacle for skate boarders. It builds confidence and they translate well into urban environments.
I went back to the workshop and finished cleaning up. I put my life back in the black plastic tool box. Sweep up the sawdust and pile up the scraps of wood. Finished I go back out and watched the kids skate. The boys were still skating hard on the steps, pushing the stairs to the max. The skateboards rumbled across the top, go silent in flight, then chirp on touchdown.
The kids cheer each other, glowing with a happiness I haven’t felt for years.
For a moment a tiny, an emotion touches my soul, like a quiet chime in a large empty room. The stairs stood. I created something good. The critics said nothing. The kids used my work to. Skating harder, faster, using it to its fullest. For a dim second there is hope.
It took a couple of weeks to get over Costa Rica. My therapist told me it wasn’t my fault. Sometimes other people have different plans or ideas on how relationships and projects will go, and not fitting into them perfectly is no fault of my own.
We also discussed limits, and how to limit how much influence you give someone in your life. I was tempted to try to forget the whole thing, shove it down deep inside and let it rot away, but I decide not to. A wave of Facebook friend request came in. Kids from the skate park, and other people I met in Costa Rica wanting to maintain contact. I didn’t want to accept them. I wanted to disappear, to fade from the picture. But in the end, I ended up accepting most of them, with only a couple exceptions.
So where to from here? There are people I know of down in Costa Rica. I may visit them one day. The dull silence is still there, and for most days my barricades hold up. But Hope, like a rare word, unknown until discovered in the dictionary, by the presence of its definition alone, is known to exist.
Hope exists. My heart is broke and my soul destroyed. One day though, I may find it.