A year

This story starts, not in the year itself, but in those preceding that conspired its form: to understand the confluence you must also embrace the tributaries of life. Bind the tails, I have been telling myself, and see how other lives have stretched out to your own and brought you to this moment in this place with these people. Bind the tales, I tell myself, and see how one life is made up of many.

The foundation of this story is the past that has been mostly lost. There was an alcoholic man who left his family just before the Great Depression, a young girl who watched all of her family’s belongings sold on their front lawn, somewhere a boy found a love for planes and a young woman found her love for him. The foundation of my story is this love, these two sets of people, their commitment, and their families that became my own.

The story moves to Dallas, Texas, where the Quin family and the Rogers family grew, saved, and travelled on airlines that have since been bought, lost and replaced. There was a great war, America increased, there were riots and protests, Curtis Rogers was killed in the jungles of Vietnam, Mrs. Quin died of cancer in a hospital in Dallas, and, as their families felt the shock of loss, two high school students chose, at the last minute, to go to Baylor instead of UT. Jane Quin and Rick Rogers met during those years at Baylor, but it was later when they both moved to Dallas after college and even later still that they did finally fall in love. And, like their parents before them, committed their lives to each other and an unknown future in an unknown place.

This story finds its roots in Rochester, New York, in the early 1980s. A boy named Daniel Fisher loved the Allen family and he walked to their house to see his best friend, Johnathan, and Cindy, the mom who loved him as her own. After a few years, the Allens left Rochester, but they never forgot the city where they spent their first years together as a family. Time passed, Daniel and Johnathan grew, the Iron Curtain fell, Clinton served two terms, Cindy got a new teaching job in Tyler, TX, and down the road a boy named Michael was born to a doctor and a retired nurse who had recently moved to the neighborhood from Dallas.

The story begins to take shape in the kitchen of my house in Tyler where I prayed with my mom to accept the love and forgiveness of a God I had been told could hear my voice. My story moves to the woods behind my house where I imagined an empire in the trees and to the floor of my bedroom where I prayed for a new life and a better future. And so I grew, learned to read, swim, bike and run, travelled, fell in and out of love, lost and made friends, and, at some point between then and now, became a person.

Lives began to converge when my oldest brother Curtis finished elementary and moved to a private school on the other side of town. Following precedent, we all moved to this new school and as I moved through the next ten years, Cindy made a reputation for herself teaching American history and leading others. She also began to advise the high school student government to which I was later elected and devoted. Then, as I looked to finally move away, Cindy told me about a young man from Rochester named Dan who was about to graduate from a university in Richmond. If I was interested, I could meet him and hear his story.

I did apply to the university and, when accepted, flew up with my dad make a decision. Dan, then in his early twenties, met us for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Carytown and told us about life at school, a professor named Rick Mayes, and the neighborhood of Church Hill where he and others were planning to start a high school. The next day, Dan introduced me to Jason Barnes (who now lives with Caitlin on 26th), Benjamin Telsey (with whom I travelled to Peru to study with Dr. Mayes), Sarah Burd (who now lives on Chimborazo Blvd.), and Michael Kolbe (who moved in with Adam Hake with whom I lived during our first year of college across the hall from Rashad Lowry who now lives on 23rd and with whom I currently work). I did not understand at the time how significant this move to Richmond would become.

In my first semester, I rode with Alli Barton every Thursday morning to tutor (her future husband) Dan’s math students at Church Hill Academy (where I also taught for the past year) and spent the afternoon each week at Captain Buzzies Beanery, my first love in this beautiful, lonely city. Three years past, I did not transfer as I claimed I would, Gordon Meador (who lives on Oakwood and with whom I taught) told me about Shane Claiborne, I attended Urbana and the CCDA conference, and found myself hopelessly drawn to a Christian faith that challenged paradigms and transformed lives. A man named Adam Burgess decided to work at CHAT and later walked with me through Chimborazo Park as I decided to commit to the summer internship. Already connecting the dots, I told him that I had been headed in this direction even before I started school.

I spent that amazing summer working at CHAT, but when I returned for my fourth and final year at Richmond, I left that summer behind. I interviewed at the Deloitte offices in Arlington, fell in love with New Orleans (again), (re)started dating Nina, considered a year abroad, and began to feel trapped by this city that had given me so much. I watched as my friends left for China, DC, New York, and Atlanta; whether they were going home or abroad, they were going somewhere else and I felt, again, like I was stuck. But God, in his sovereignty, desired that I would continue my commitment to this one place and these people he had given me for this time. He was drawing me to Richmond years before I even knew where it was on the map and had not yet finished teaching me what I had come to learn.

Nina accepted her calling back to Church Hill far more readily than I did as I continued to resent all that I had come to love. Once Richmond started to feel like home, I wanted to get away. I eventually applied for the yearlong internship, but in this move toward that life there was also an emotional move away as I reconnected with family and friends in Texas. When I did commit, I had no reservation in my heart that I was making a decision to accept the life I had been given and God’s plan for my future.

With that behind me, a new year gradually began to take shape. Friends, family, and my home church in Tyler committed to fund my salary, Gina Maio and I discussed what classes I might teach, Chris Whiting told me about life in the Lighthouse, and I carried on exploring my hometown learning how to read and write. Before I started this year, I thought it would be much like the twenty-three preceding years I had already lived. I thought my life would be similar to the life I had come to love in Richmond, but with the addition of work at CHAT and the academy. I did not yet realize that, in ways both simple and profound, life gradually becomes work and work isn’t all that bad.

I drove to Virginia at the end of August, moved into the Lighthouse where I was joined by Daniel, Matt, Steven, and my own brother Will. Nina lived down the road and we drank coffee on our first morning together in Richmond with no idea what we were about to experience. We simply started the day as we would start hundreds more. The days were long and the weeks were fast. The heat of summer cooled, leaves turned brown, Jamel T. Cobb was killed and mourned, Khalil Clark was born and celebrated, Nina and I somehow became teachers and bus drivers and tutoring coordinators, mentors, and, eventually, neighbors in this home away from home.

Winter came, however reluctantly, ice on the bus windows had to be scraped, and on Wednesday, January 19, 2o12, I went home from work with a virus that emptied my stomach and stole my day. I slept for 36 hours, my coworkers covered my classes, and when I woke up on Thursday, I started to write. In a Google doc titled “personal reflection,” I wrote and wrote and wrote: 2,608 words I wrote about feeling like a failure, about wishing I were home with my family, and about the desire to finally learn how to do hard work. The next day, the reflection doubled as my teaching style transformed and my perspective grew. This reflection (now over 45,000 words and counting) signaled a bit of a mid-year awakening within me as I found perspective and began to value my thoughts enough to write them down until they gradually started to make sense.

The calendar progressed as Epiphany became Lent, coffee became hot tea, and work stretched into more work. February and March dragged on (as we were told they would) and we looked forward to spring break, to the weekend, to the end of each school day, the end of tutoring and the idea of something called rest. There were worksheets, of course, and videos and tests, quizzes, projects, NWEA, arguments, unuttered rage, tears, laughter, conversations about another life, and dreams of “para-para-paradise.” I wept as five students walked across the graduation stage and in my brokenness I began to find more love for their stories and their future selves.

Summer, like life, has not been what I expected. What I thought would be easy, has been hard, and what I thought would be hard, has been easy. There are new faces in the Mix, new events and partnerships, and a renewed commitment to the program. It has been a blessing to let God redeem this year, take on my burdens, and gradually continue to transform my life as well as theirs.

I do not know how it is that I find myself, two weeks until the end of a year, already boxing its contents and sharing its thoughts. It has been a good year and, as promised, life has been abundant. It will also become something new as my life moves on and others move as well. I have faith that, in ways I can’t predict, this year will become a foundation for the next and the rest to come as each begins and ends. The future will always be unknown, but I am happy because I can already see God’s faithfulness in the lives (many not mentioned) that he has connected to form this one single year. I am confident that he will continue to bring us together and apart as we move to the next.

A year, I have found, is a made up of all those preceding and those yet to come. Only time can move one into the next, reflection allows it to be perceived as it happens, and healing allows it to be processed and integrated when it is done. You’re not always ready for the next year (or even the next week), but still it comes and then it goes. And every once in a long while you are given a chance to grasp the magnitude of its significance. This is the genealogy of a year.

Note: for the past month I’ve been reading through an essay by Walter Benjamin that has motivated me to learn how to tell stories. “A Year” is my second attempt. Thanks to Bonnie Swift for writing about the essay and to Will Rogers for printing it and leaving it for me to read in the loo.

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2 responses to “A year

  1. Beautiful and inspiring. Thank you for sharing, Michael.

  2. Thanks for reading it! I was a little amazed myself as I watched my life unfold … ready to dive back in 🙂

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