Monthly Archives: July 2011

Mother Land: For Jonathan

Today I would like to share a poem that I wrote for a friend. He’s actually my best friend. I met him during my freshman year of college. We lived together for three years, and we have been friends for nearly a decade. He and I grew up together; we became friends during the time in which we began to put childish things behind us.

Shortly he will be moving back home to Texas. This is a blessing, because he will soon be joined by the woman who is to be his wife. Even though this is a good thing, I am sad because it is a milestone; it is one of those things that represents another thing that is much more significant. It means letting go. It means continuing to grow up, which is something I had wished was over.

It also means there will be joy. Joy for my friend who will soon, as a poet once wrote, “taste the stronger side of love.” Joy for the children that will come. Joy for the fortification of a family. Joy for the first blessing, and all that will come hereafter.

Jonathan, even though I am sad that your are moving so far away, I cannot tell you how proud of you I am; it would be impossible to write here. I cannot tell you how happy I am for you, for the coming of new things. I pray that your home will be filled with overwhelming, fierce Joy. I love you and your fiance. You have been like a brother to me; you have been a brother to me.

***

Mother Land

For Jonathan

When you return to the place that nursed your youth,
the land that will cradle your children
in the palm of her hand,

do not forget where we were taken in and
adopted as brothers.

Do not forget the front porch in Missouri,
remember every single cigarette and every drop of whiskey;
recall the words we shared in her house.

Do not forget her that nourished us until,
one day, we woke as men.

Michael Hylton, 2011, St. Louis, Missouri

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Little Conversations

A couple of days ago, I was getting my daughter ready to leave the house. This is a routine I’ve gotten pretty good at. First, I let her choose an outfit from one or two options. Then, I let her get herself out of her pajamas, and I change her diaper. She puts on her outfit, and then I fix her hair, and I have to say that, for a dad, I can style her hair up quite nicely. Finally come shoes and socks. Throughout this whole process we sing songs and play whatever games come to mind. She makes preparing for the day just as bright as the morning sunshine.

My daughter is at a really cool age in her life; she is beginning to be able to have little conversations with us. I think it is really interesting to hear what she has to say, especially in the mornings when I get her dressed and ready. She’ll talk to me about what she wants to do that day, or friends she wants to see. She asks about her little brother, where he is, what he’s doing. She tells me about her toys, and she will frequently jump topic, just enough to keep it interesting. My favorite thing is when she holds my face between her two tiny hands, pulls me in close, and tells me she wants to give me a kiss. If you have never seen a man turn into a pile of worthless goo, watch one kiss his daughter. Anyway, my point is this: she rarely has trouble anymore telling me exactly what’s on her mind. If she knows the words, she tells me. If she doesn’t know the words, she improvises until I understand.

On this particular day, however, she did something I’ve never seen before. We had just finished a lively round of the “ABCs” song. She had on her clothes, a pretty purple, green, and white dress from my sister, and white sandals. Her hair was up in a ponytail and her teeth were brushed. She was about to walk out of her bedroom to go find her brother when she just stopped.

She looked down and sagged, like someone had just let the air out of her. I asked her if she was okay, and she only pouted and sat down on the floor, never taking her eyes off of the ground. I walked over to her and asked if she wanted to go find Brother, and she simply shook her head slowly from side to side. I asked her if she wanted breakfast, or Mama, or the dogs, and I even got so concerned as to offer an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. To all of these she merely indicated “no.” She just looked…sad.

I went over and sat on the floor beside her. Without hesitation she slid up into my lap, wrapped her arms around my neck, and buried her face into my shoulder. I embraced her and rested my chin on the side of her neck. I began to rock her back and forth. I could feel her sadness ebbing and flowing in and out of me as she inhaled and exhaled softly. With each breath, however, I could feel it leaving her. After about three minutes of sitting in silence, she pulled away, said “thanks,” and walked out the door.

Those are my hands.

From time to time I am given a little glimpse of how God loves us. This is not to be confused with “why,” because His reasons are inexplicable. No, here I refer to His modus operandi, His actual methods and procedures.

My relationship with my daughter is often like looking into a microcosmic mirror. I get sudden and strong emotions. I have been prone to them all my life (just ask my mother…), and when I was younger I frequently struggled with how to cope with them.

The other day when my daughter experienced such an intense and brief wave of sadness, I knew exactly what to do; she is the flesh of my flesh and spirit of my spirit. I just embraced her and felt sad with her until the moment passed. In the same way, Our Father knows exactly what we need, when we need it, and why. We are His children. Why would a father withhold any good thing from his son or daughter?

When I have a deep need, some inexplicable longing that rises from the darkest ribbon of my spirit, why would I turn to anyone but my Father?


What Harry Potter has Meant to Me: On Being Alive

Today I present my final essay on the Harry Potter series and what it has meant to me over the years. I have built many memories around these books and their corresponding films. I am sad that now, with the release and well-deserved success of the final film, the world of Hogwarts has finally come to an end. As all great books do, though, they will continue to grow precious to me. I will read them again over the years, and I will receive new lessons and ideas each time I immerse myself in them. I cannot wait for the day I will read them to my children.

Without further hesitation, I give you part 3 of 3 of What Harry Potter has Meant to Me: On Being Alive

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Part 3 of 3

I think that this may be the most important thing I gleaned from reading the Harry Potter series and making the stories a part of my life for nearly a decade. I came into the books at a time in my life when things were in transition. When I began reading them, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the most recently published installment. I was out of high school, I was preparing to leave for college, and I was dealing with all of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual conflicts that come along with that phase in life. As the books continued to be published, they each seemed to coincide with a phase I happened to be going through at the time. In a way, they helped me cope with complex and potentially devastating periods of my life. And, in the end, they helped teach me how to live, how to be alive.

Throughout the series, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are faced with extraordinary obstacles. Harry is orphaned as a young child, Hermione is the classic perfectionist and deals with a great deal of self-inflicted stress (as in The Prisoner of Azkaban), and Ron is born into a family that, at the outset of the series, must cope with poverty and the societal alienation that comes along with such. As the series progresses, they allow their struggles to become a part of their identities, and they learn to grow because of them. Then, when a great evil comes against them, and they are unexpectedly thrust into a war upon which the outcome of all humanity rests, they rise to they rise to the challenge and deal with it each day, week, month, and year as it unfolds. The conflicts with which they each wrestled as children prepared them for building and defending their world as adults. Struggle was no new thing to them, and they knew they would deal with each event as it arose, as they always had.

For years they fought for what they believed to be true, for the values which the generation before them had instilled within them. The most critical period of their lives, the time when they were transitioning into adulthood, was dedicated to a struggle to ensure a better future for those currently living and for those yet to be born. It was no ordinary generational or cultural struggle, either; their years were marked by true darkness, danger, and evil, all of which were represented by the fearsome presence of Lord Voldemort. They witnessed as their friends and families died and the world seemed to be turning in against them. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were so committed to the battle against Voldemort that they were each willing to put themselves into life-threatening situations for the cause. By the resolution of the story, this was who they were: they were the Order of the Phoenix, the resistance against Voldemort, and the individuals who battled the forces of darkness to protect light, freedom, and innocence in the world.

Despite these things, however, they still lived their lives. They still found time for games, to decide what they might want to do for careers after school, and spent time with family and friends. They still found time to fall in love. Even though they dealt with exceptionally dangerous and ominous times, they recognized that they were still alive. I think it is no accident that Rowling refers to Harry as “the boy who lived,” and not “the boy who survived,” because he didn’t merely survive as an infant something that should have killed him. He grew up. He went to school. He made friends. He had a first kiss, and then he fell in love. He made choices, developed ideals and values, and fought for that in which he believed. He lived; he didn’t wait for the war with Voldemort to be over before he experienced his life. Even after facing death and engaging in the great battle of his generation, he went on. He fulfilled his first purpose, and then he found a new one in his family.

We each engage in conflict on a daily basis. We each pass through hard times, a dark night of the soul. I have experienced periods in my life that I thought would consume me, times when I thought I didn’t care if the sun never rose again. There have been, and still are, things I wished to achieve in life that I thought weren’t possible or would never come. Time passes, and these things come and go. It would be easy for me to think that I am still working toward my “life,” that I am somehow still lacking something, or that certain events have yet to come to pass before I can relax and enjoy what I have. Harry Potter has helped me see that this would be no good way to live. Struggle never ceases, and it will always be present. But so will blessings. Voldemort will always be lurking somewhere out there on the edge of a shadow. My generation may yet have to face its great enemy.

What am I going to do?

I am going to live.


What Harry Potter has Meant to Me: On Coping with Mortality

Part 2 of 3

When I was fourteen months old, I was diagnosed with type I diabetes.  I have been insulin-dependent all my life.  The thing about diabetes is that it isn’t a disease that simply prevents one from indulging in sweets. It can cause a plethora of other conditions, putting diabetics in danger of everything from blindness and nerve damage to bone loss and heart disease. Typically, the life-expectancy of a young child diagnosed with diabetes is about twenty-five years shorter than average. This may have improved some over the years with medical advancements and technology, but still, diabetes makes life precarious at times.

Needless to say, I have spent some time dealing with mortality. I used to wonder if I would be married or have kids before I died.  Today, I often think about whether or not I will be around long enough to see my children graduate from high school or college, get married, or start their careers.  I frequently question if I will ever hold my grandchildren.

As one may expect, these thoughts, and the trails down which they lead, have the ability to take me to a very dark place. In my earlier twenties, this happened quite often, and I spent many days being depressed because I felt I had been dealt a poor hand by God. And, I feared death.

This is where Harry Potter comes in.  More so in the final three books than the others, death, immortality, and the afterlife become major motifs.  Sirius Black died unexpectedly, leaving his friends and family to cope with grief in the aftermath.  Dumbledore, the greatest wizard in his universe, was killed right in front of Harry, who thought the professor would always be there. Voldemort’s ultimate and consuming goal was to live forever, so much so that he twisted his soul into something fragmented and warped. It would seem that the wizards, despite all their wondrous talents and abilities, felt the same way about death as we do here in the real world.

Note: the rest of this essay contains plot-spoilers concerning the final book/ movie, so you may want to wait until after you finish the series to read today’s post.

 

The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is where I learned something about coping with morality.  One significant recurring theme was that humans have struggled throughout the ages attempting to overcome death. Alas, according to Dumbledore, “human efforts to evade or overcome death are always doomed to disappointment” (The Tales of the Beedle Bard 94).  This is a hard lesson to learn, perhaps, but the implications of avoiding its message are worse.

Tom Marvolo Riddle feared death above all things.  He was exceptionally talented, and exceptionally bitter.  He turned his talents toward  “evading” death, even to the extent of giving himself the persona of the Dark Lord Voldemort, or “He Who Must Not be Named.” He desired that his very name strike the same fear in the hearts of mankind as that which the Angel of Death struck in his.  He even went so far to avoid death that he committed an unthinkable form of sorcery: murdering innocents and using the abominable magic which resulted from that act to shatter his soul and contain the fragments in tangible items, thus the horcruxes.  As a result, Voldemort was cursed to live a half-life, the most tragic side-effect of which was the inability to experience love or human connection in any way.

In the end, though, nothing in this world lasts forever, and the horcruxes were eliminated one by one. At the climax, Voldemort still succumbed to death. For all of his fighting, for all of his evil, for all of his desperation, the angel of death still came for him.

Here is the moral of the story: what Dumbledore said is true, and no one in this life escapes death.  The only thing we can free ourselves from is the fear of death, or a preoccupation with death. Voldemort feared death so much so that he became enslaved to it, and in the end it prevented him from living a life. In The Tales of the Beedle Bard, the final brother was simply unafraid of death, and when he died “he greeted death like an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life” (93). Harry, in the end, overcame his fear of death and went to face it.  As a result, Lord Voldemort’s soul was ultimately destroyed, and Harry was given one more opportunity to live.  It wasn’t mastering death that allowed Harry to be victorious that morning, but it was Harry’s mastering the fear of death.

Through the Harry Potter series, I learned that when I accept death as an inevitability and cease fearing it, then I am no longer enslaved to it; I am truly free to live.


What Harry Potter has Meant to Me: On Growing Up

With the release of the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, I am beginning the process of getting closure of the last decade of my life. I came into the books the year after I graduated from high school, just after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had been published and the first film had been released to DVD. I was working at a home theater store at the time. We were having a slow day, and one of the salesmen decided to show the movie in one of our demo rooms. I was on break, and I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about. I watched the part where Harry was in the forbidden forest and witnessed Quirrell/ Voldemort feeding on the blood of a unicorn. Turns out, that was just creepy enough to catch my attention. I rented the movie on the way home from work and watched it that evening. I read all four available books over the following two weeks, and Harry Potter, strangely enough, became a very important figure in my life.

I am wrestling with many mixed and conflicting feelings now that the entire series has come to fruition. I am very happy for Ms. Rowling on her overwhelming success. I am sad that it’s finally over. I am looking forward to reading through the entire series again sometime in the future.

What I have to offer this week is not a book or film review. That would not be necessary, as many more talented and observant individuals have certainly already put their hands to that work. No, I have decided to pay tribute to this significant cultural phenomenon in the following way: I will post three times this week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In each of these posts I will attempt to concisely convey what the Harry Potter series has meant to me over the years. Today’s topic is what the books spoke to me on the subject of growing up. Wednesday’s topic will concern coping with mortality, and Friday’s subject will be being alive. They are my way of processing through and gaining closure on the amazing, dark, and powerful world that has embraced, encouraged, and excited me for the last ten years.

I realize how important these stories have been not just to me, but also to millions of people around the world. I offer up these thoughts respectfully and humbly. Today’s post is longer than the next two days’ will be due to the introduction. Please enjoy, and join in the discussion.

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Part 1 of 3

One motif that is visited heavily in the Harry Potter series is the idea that the world is built by those who participate. The books also reveal the truth that there comes a time when we may no longer rely on or hold a previous generation responsible for our circumstances; we all reach an age when we must actively build the present and the future for ourselves.

Harry, Hermione, and Ron all engaged directly in whatever was occurring in their world. In the first few books of the series, this resulted in the children getting involved in comparatively light-hearted, even comical, mischief. As the series developed, however, the events that unfolded become progressively less whimsical; darkness and danger rolled in and surrounded all the characters in the story. As it turned out, the “easier” conflicts they had as children lead them to the true battles of adulthood. Nonetheless, the three main protagonists played decisive rolls in the development of the world around them. I think that there is a lot to learn from this.

One major lesson I took from reading the series is that we are all impacted by all of the big and the small events occurring in the world around us, and we all have a responsibility to participate in them once we are aware of this impact. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the primary characters are told that they may not join the Order of the Phoenix because of their ages. This was met with indignation by the younger heroes, especially Harry. They recognized that however things turned out in the war against Voldemort, they would inherit that world. They wanted to play an active role in shaping the future they would inherit. It was valuable to them, and was therefore worth taking a stand and fighting for it. To me, this is one of the first signs that one is “growing up:” a person recognizes that life is happening, history is being written every day, and he or she wants to make an impact on the future that will one day become the present. It is worth taking a stand, even to the dismay or consternation of older generations, which leads me to my next point.

For a time our parents knew what was best for us. They spent their younger days preparing the world for us, and, for a while, we were only responsible to live in the security of the circumstances our parents built. The truth of the matter was, though, that they would not be around forever, and the time came when we had to begin shaping our own days. I found that this was frequently met with resistance by my parents’ generation, as they wished to protect me from the dangers and harsh realities of the world for as long as possible. Then, as in the final two books of the Harry Potter series, it became apparent to the older generation that our generation needed a chance, too, that one day we would have our own children for whom to build a future. When Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of the students at Hogwarts joined in the war in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it stood without question that they were allowed to fight. After all, it was their last year in school, and they were about to go out into the world as adults. If Voldemort was victorious, it would have been dark for them, too. A time comes when children must accept from their predecessors the yoke of adulthood, when the mantle of responsibility must be transferred from parent to child, for good or for ill. It came for the characters in Harry Potter, it came for me, and it will one day come for my children.

It is painful to grow up. The most difficult and terrifying thing about becoming an adult is realizing that we are utterly, unequivocally, and irrevocably responsible for the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It seemed like only yesterday that I was eighteen, living in my mother’s house, eating my mother’s food, and being incredibly concerned about myself and what happened to me. Today, I am married, I live in my own house, I have a career, and I am the father of two wonderful children, and their well-being is my utmost concern. It would be easy to think that all of these circumstances just happened upon me, that I arrived into them by accident. If I look back with an analytical eye, though, I can see that I decided to move to Missouri for college. When I met my wife, I decided to actively pursue her and to propose to her. I chose teaching as my profession, I opted to go to grad school right out of college, and all of these things enabled Kara and I to begin having children when we did. I could go on and on, but the point of it is this: I took ownership of my life and my future. There was a point when I had to leave my parent’s protection and go into the fray for myself. In many ways, the Harry Potter books helped me in coping with this transition.

Now, I am building a world for my daughter and my son to inherit, and that is worth fighting for.


Hi-Res. Summer

In not wanting to waste my summers, I have taken on a number of summer resolutions. There are a few that have to do with breaking bad habits, and others have to do with starting good ones. What follows are my thoughts, rationale, and current state regarding a some of these.

Work Out Every Day – I started this one because I noticed my body going through a bit of a transition. For one, I am getting older; I am not old, but I am getting older. From the time I was eighteen years old, I have weighed exactly 165 pounds. For almost a decade my weight never shifted even an ounce. Over just the last year I gained twenty pounds, and by February I weighed 185 pounds. I attribute this to a few factors: first, I am rapidly approaching thirty, and my metabolism is slowing down. Second, I had a very hectic couple of years while I earned my master’s degree, welcomed my first child, earned little money (no salary…graduate stipend only), completed my first year of teaching, got laid off, found another job, moved to a new city, started teaching at a new school, stayed broke for a while, etc, etc… I think that stress eating, and stress itself, was contributing most significantly to my weight gain. Finally, I am a type I diabetic, and I began a new insulin therapy in the spring of last year. I was warned that weight gain was a side effect, but my doctor told me that I gained too much weight to attribute it to insulin alone. She also told my that my cholesterol was going up, but I could prevent going on meds just by exercising.

I would love to confess that I wised up right away and began exercising regularly, but I did not. I put it off and put it off. Finally, when Atticus was born and I began to realize how much my children would need me and how much Clara already emulates what she sees me do, I decided it was time to put my ass in gear. Once Atticus came home from the hospital and got settled in to the family, and I began my summer school schedule and knew what to expect each day, I began going to the gym regularly.

My apartment complex has a nice gym with newish equipment. Lately, because I finish teaching and am home by 1:00 in the afternoon, I get to work out before anyone else is there. This is fantastic, as I was pretty self-conscious about it when I first started.

I can say that since I began I have only missed days when I absolutely could do nothing about it. Otherwise, I go to the gym every afternoon, and I am typically in there for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. I’m working with weights, doing cardio, and upping the ante (just a little) each week. This has been going on for about four weeks now.

So far, I can already tell that the exercise is kicking in. I haven’t weighed myself yet, but I would guess that I have already lost about ten pounds. I am stronger, and I have more energy and endurance. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that I’m sleeping a lot better at night, and I feel more rested when I wake up. I don’t think I will be able to shed the last ten pounds, or that I’d even want to, but I do want to tone up some of the stress-fat I’ve put on.

I hope that I will be able to keep it up once the school year gets back into swing. I will have to get used to exercising in the evenings when the gym is crowded. Hopefully the energy I’ve gained will stick around, so exhaustion won’t be a factor. I think that I’ve been at it long enough now, though, that it’s become a habit bordering on addiction. Perhaps that will be enough to keep going once my schedule changes.

Read and Write Every Day – I started this when I finished graduate school. I sang the usual grad-student liturgy:

“I can’t wait to finish school / so that I can read and write what I want.”

I noticed quickly that once I was out of school I actually began spending a significant amount of time in front of the television. I told myself I deserved it. After all, I had worked so hard, and needed a break. I think some of this had to do with the aforementioned stress, too.

I realized around the spring time of this year that I had yet to write much. I had read a few books, but only incidentally; I had not deliberately read anything on my list. I then realized that if I didn’t start immediately, I never would. Around the same time a friend of mine spoke to me about starting a blog, and I thought that it might be the perfect way to start a new habit. The nice thing about writing more is that it makes me want to read more, too. So, I got started right away. [Poor Scribbler] is the result.

This one has actually been more difficult to stick to than my exercise resolution. I don’t know why. I have been writing a few times a week, but usually just before I have to update the blog. I have been reading, too, but I have been less diligent in it than in my writing. I have read a lot of other blogs, and I have been keeping up with the news, and I have been doing a lot of research on managing a successful blog, so I guess, technically, I have been reading. I still have only completed one of the books on my summer reading list, and all the rest are in some phase of being read.

Well, summer is winding down rapidly. I hope that as I think more about this it will motivate me to pick up my books. Maybe I need to devote less time to reading online and more time to sitting on the couch or the deck with a beer and a book.

Always Do What I Must Before I Do What I Want – This resolution was developed more out of necessity than anything else. I am a tremendous time-waster, if I don’t check myself. It is such a deep part of my character that I actually, at times, used to get offended and irritated (irrationally and unjustifiably so, I know…) by the super type-A überefficient sorts of people. However, when I began teaching, and especially since I’ve become a father of two, I have had to make some adjustments.

Really, this resolution helps serve the purpose of accomplishing all of my other resolutions. Typically, when I make a successful change to my behavior it is because I have treated that new thing as a non-negotiable. When I fail to keep my resolutions it is because I never fully committed to them to begin with. Once I have bought-in, so to speak, I usually am quite successful with adopting change. What I lack in discipline in sticking to routines or habits I make up for by establishing strong priorities in how I spend my time. Sure, every now and again I slip up or give up, but as my life grows more full I believe that this final resolution is going to a key to not merely surviving, but thriving.


***

Ultimately, revising my behavior and lifestyle boils down to a couple of things. First, I want to glorify God with my life. Second, I have a really cool family, and I want to honor them and be around them as long as I can.

I am caught up in a period, though, in which life is speeding by, and I feel that I am coming up with less and less time to do the things I want. This mentality can lead to starting new (and old) bad habits, or dropping good ones. Why is it that way? There are still many things I want to be able to add to the list, like working regularly on my book, saving more money or paying off debt at a higher rate, visiting my family at least once a year, or taking my kids somewhere fun every weekend.

Perhaps a miracle is in order, one of the same breed as the fish and the loaves, but applied to time management.

This frequently seems to be my final thought, at least in variations, but, oh, how I long for Eternity…


An Early Memory

Today’s poem is concerning a memory from a long time ago. I think it might even be my earliest clear memory. I don’t remember how old I was, only that I couldn’t have been older than four or five.

Enjoy, and feel free to comment.

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An Early Memory

I do not recall if it was in Memphis or Gillette, but
I remember the house,
the reddish-colored carpet in the living room and
the uneven stone-built fireplace,
the picture window,
the view of the lawn.

I remember watching Dad
chase a pair of rabbits in circles around the car port,
an Easter gift for my sister and me,
how they repeatedly dove and hid beneath the car
just avoiding capture.

It was the house where my sister and I,
out of boredom and lack of supervision,
built a tower of tables in her room, and
later that afternoon she received stitches on the bridge of her nose
just between her eyes.

The thing I remember most clearly, though, is
a bitter winter night when my blood sugar was running particularly high;
I couldn’t sleep because it made me ill.

I rested in your lap, on the floor in front of the fireplace,
the darkness held at bay beyond the panes of the picture window
because of a fire I do not remember you building.

But I do remember the heat from
the flame, your arms, and the song you sang to me;
I laid back, watching the fire, cherishing time alone with you.

Now, when I am kept from sleep by the anxieties of parenthood,
I hear your lullaby drift from within the darkest part of me;

my eyes are still stung by
the warmth from the hearth of your embrace.

Michael Hylton, St. Louis, 2011