Category Archives: reflection

Becoming Who You Are

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It came to me the other day, not exactly in a flash, somewhat tentatively, a flicker at first: most, if not all of my heroes were passive, not passive in the usual sense of disinterested and unengaged.

No, they were all very much engaged and present but not preoccupied by followers.

Maybe that is a better word: present. Each of them accepted their own souls. They lived into their names. They found themselves, as the saying goes and lived into that gift.

James Baldwin, Nelson Mandela, Jesus, Jean Michel Basquiat, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, John Coltrane, Gandhi, Thomas Merton to name a few. They wrote books, painted on walls or canvases, changed their minds, sat in prison, or on a bus, played an instrument, walked peacefully, prayed or submitted to a cruel death.

Curiously, by doing these “passive” things, by being present to themselves, they shifted the world.

chris woodhull

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Library Card

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“A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.”
Henry Ward Beecher

I place my selections on the high formica countertop then fumble for my library card. I pull out a tattered and peeling faded orange card. The edges are frayed. The number is barely readable. The librarian attempts to flatten the card then scan…flatten…smooth…try to scan again…it goes on this way for a few moments. When she finally gives up out of frustration, she types in the long code of numbers which is so linked to my very body and soul. After this somewhat lengthy process, she inquires if she might give me a new library card? No! Absolutely not. Mine has character. And when I pull it out it announces that I, Paris Woodhull, am head-over-heels infatuated with the Lawson McGhee library in Knoxville, Tennessee. Of course I don’t say this, but I politely decline the offer.

I remember quite clearly the day I got my first library card. In order to check books out, I had to be able to write my own name. So I walked into the downtown cement castle of books, asked for a card and signed my name in a wobbly script. With books piled high in my arms, I walked out of the library feeling like I was now a “big girl.”

The library is the epitome of love and community. It’s where sharing begins. The library demonstrates that by sharing, things multiply.

I love the faces that I see when I enter the library, all the librarians I’ve known since the beginning, all the readers, even the homeless who rest from their struggles. I love being surrounded by readers. It gives me a sense of warmth and hope.

Sounds. Words. The smell of books and old carpeting. I love to check out a book and find the cover worn or ripped…perhaps several dog-eared pages or underlined fragments. Someone before me spent time with that same book. Carried it back to their home. Perhaps they made a cup of tea. Maybe Apricot, their cat, came and snuggled on their belly as they cracked open the book that I’m now grasping. Those impressions on the book show thought and make me feel that somewhere in the world there are still people who enjoy the library as much as I do.

I think the library is the most romantic place to be. It’s real. It’s solid. And it will never leave my side.

paris

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All Ears

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Prayer is a mysterious and murky business. That much is clear. It’s one of those things we do without thinking. A little like breathing. Or pacing. Or riding streets.  Even people who don’t believe in prayer kind of pray.

It’s probably the go-to-church praying that gets some people wound up. All menu, no food. I don’t know.

As the writer Frederick Buechner likes to say regarding church attendance:  “If it doesn’t ruin my day it was a good experience.”

They say AA is where atheists go to pray. It’s true, I’ve been there. Not that everybody who attends AA is an atheist. It just gets real basic in those meetings. Not at all like church. You’re expected to be honest and speak candidly because your life depends upon it. Kind of at the level of what writer Anne Lamott talks about in her new book: Help,Thanks,Wow: TheThree Essential Prayers.

I think God likes atheists reaching out to him. Probably prefers it.  Who wants to meet up with people who already think they know all about you, know you better than you know yourself?  That’s like dating your mother. Pretty obnoxious stuff.  Meet him on your own terms I say, like you-don’t-even-exist terms.

“Hey, I know you don’t exist but what’s happening? How you doing?”

All ears.

christopher

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Me and My Dad

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My father and I have not always been close. Growing up, he was my father, that was it. He patted me on the head on his way out the door to work and let me sit on his knee when he got home but as far as connecting in a deeper way that didn’t happen till much later in my life. Like almost every American family my father was almost always the one carrying the weight of “bringing home the bacon.” Unfortunately this meant that having time to get to know me was scant. I never knew what I was missing out until life hit me with a ton of bricks; my parents divorced.

Never did I dream that this dreadful event would bring anything good with it. But, I lucked out. My junior year my dad took over the responsibility of carting me to and from work and school.

As we began to talk in the car we also began spending time outside of the car in coffee shops and our favorite place; Just Ripe. We pinterested together, we talked through the divorce, we shared music…basically everything you would do with your best friend but never with your father.

My dad became my friend. My confidant. I remember and still receive little messages throughout my day from my dad that just say simple little things like “I love you” or his favorite “(you)” which he says means that he’s giving me a text hug.

There is not a thing in the world that I cannot tell him. We have formed a unique relationship that I will always hold close to my heart. He is my love. He is my challenger.

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever find a boyfriend because in order for me to have any interest in them I find myself rating them in comparison with my father…Do they like jazz? If so, who?  If they say “John Coltrane” It’s an automatic red flag because its like a politician saying the bible is their favorite book. Really?  Have you not ever heard of Gerald Clayton, Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding?  Please!  Jazz is about now, not yesterday.

So there.  I know what you’re thinking.  Daddy’s girl!  Sure, why not.  But just as much daughter’s dad!

paris

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A Fragment

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Less is more, enough is plenty, slowing down to catch up. As in holding hands. Feeling a little hungry, a little cold. Sitting on a park bench for an afternoon. Not taking the last bite. Not running away. Staying put. Standing still. Noticing your own breath. Listening instead of talking. Giving away the book you’re holding. Offering the door. Calling someone by name. Asking for help. Letting someone go first.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said it first, less is more. He wasn’t the first. The idea has many cousins. He only pointed out what we all might know if we opened the small envelope within us that’s marked personal.

Living lightly. A jar half full has room. Changing your mind. Opening up. Letting go. Going quietly. Lingering. Asking before you touch. Rest. Laughing. Leaving things alone. Only getting angry once in your life about something that really matters.

There is probably more I could say.

chris woodhull

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Perfectly Imperfect

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“Imperfection is beauty. Madness is genius. Its better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” Marilyn MonroeWhether rumpled sheets or a nicked banister, life is filled with imperfections…or “flaws.” With all sorts of odds and ends we strive for perfection.

How ironic. Because in reality, we are imperfect creatures.

The word “Imperfection” or even “flaw” both have a negative connotation. We think “bad”, “inadequate”, “not quite”. Not that we should necessarily strive to be imperfect, we should strive to be ourselves, disregarding the level of perfection we attain. Imperfections are bound to come…they can make you or break you.

Imperfections are what make us one of a kind. Exclusive. Unique.

I have always been more drawn to beauty that has a flaw. There is something that makes my heart settle in when something exquisite includes a dent or scratch. I’m not sure why. My guess is that imperfection is relatable. So much of what people think to be beautiful is an illusion. We use makeup, wit, forced charm, and a myriad of other tools attempting to be perfect human beings so that everybody will look up at us and say “wow!…just wow.” If anyone ever did reach “perfection” nobody would “oo and ah”…they would feel inferior and simply continue the cycle of feeling inadequate.

“I always find beauty in things that are odd and imperfect – they are much more interesting.” Marc Jacobs

Mistakes add interest. They add a point of view. Facets. Individuality. Ever seen someone with an interesting nose? Or a intriguing birthmark? That is what makes them themselves. It brands them as original.

Think of a child drawing. Instead of shoveling through a box of crayons they simply pick the first one that catches their eye. The child wraps the entirety of their dimpled palm around the waxy piece of color and moves their arm around the page with a jabbing motion. They feel. They don’t plan, they execute, they do. As a child grows up they begin to think before doing. Character and intrigue is lost. I wonder what the world would be like if everyone could remain a child creativily? I know that if we could hold on to our child selves we would have a world that was chock full of artists and creative thinkers.

But instead, we judge, we analyze and in the end become insecure and build forts around the areas of ourselves that make us…well us.  And why do we do this? I have no answer. There is no rational reason.

We need to begin to embrace our differences and let them define us as one-of-a-kind human beings. After all, why would you want to be like everyone else?  What a bore that would be.

paris

The Scent of Water

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I hesitate to bring this up.  I can already hear the heavy machinery of resistance engaging, doors locking, computers powering down and windows shuttering.  And to be honest, I’m reluctant to say it.  And yet what I am about to say isn’t my main point.  But it is something that I want to mention, admit even.  Not for the reason you might expect.  Let me get on with it.
I love scripture.  You know, the bible.
Most every day I return to it and without fail or so it seems I gain something new.  It is stubborn.  It can’t be eaten whole as some things can.  It is subversive and strange.  It challenges me, not as a polemic but as a kind of provocation, rousing me from sleep.  It can also be boring without a scent of interest.I am not trying to get you to open the bible, become religious, just regular at something.
Mostly I want to point out that there are things available in our lives worth returning to daily. Things that at first seem unspectacular, unnoticeable, common, to traditional, not that interesting, kind of old fashioned.And yet these wellsprings are often the sources that provide us wisdom. For me, among other things, it has been scripture.  Not the meaning of it or the theology of it but the actual presence and encounter with it.  This happens by meeting it every day.Who knows maybe it doesn’t have to be scripture.  Perhaps the same thing would happen if I kept returning to the writings of John O’Donohue.  Who is to say.I’ve had people report a similar experience by returning to a painting or painter or reading poetry, touching the keys of a piano or enjoying a friendship. A word that comes to my mind that I think describes this phenomenon and it may seem out of place here, I’m not sure, but the word is marriage. Marriage.  Perhaps all the word really means is that you find life and light in the someplace everyday.  When we commit ourselves to something long term it slowly gives back.Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus (1996) is one of my favorite movies.  It follows several African American men on a very long cross-country bus trip to the Million Man March. On the bus are an eclectic set of characters including a laid off aircraft worker, a former Gang Banger, a Hollywood actor, a cop who is of mixed racial background, and a White bus driver, all make the trek discussing issues surrounding the march, manhood, religion, politics, and race.  The most interesting character is Jeremiah a tall older man played by Ossie Davis.  Having lost his job, struggling with alcoholism and then losing his family, he is hoping to find renewal at this historic event.  But he dies on the day of the event, just outside of Washington DC.  He suffered a heart attack.  The rest of the brothers miss the event as well by choice because they want to be near Jeremiah in his final moments.

That evening a letter is discovered and read that Jeremiah had written for the occasion of the Million Man March.  It is read on the bus in the dark shadows of the now abandoned Lincoln Memorial. The letter is an appeal to live a life of meaning and purpose and hope and also to understand that even though things may seem dead and futile, life is near, revived by a wisp.  Jeremiah quotes from the book of Job.

“At least there is hope for a tree:
  if it is cut down, it will sprout again,
  and its new shoots will not fail.  Its roots may grow old in the ground
 and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud
 and put forth shoots like a plant.”

Everybody, or so it seems, realizes that they already had what they needed on the bus, back home, between themselves, in each other.  It just took some time together for days to notice.

Like noticing the scent of water, does it even have a scent?  It begins to if you give it time.

christopher
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I Believe in Good

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I believe in good. I grew up in a good Christian home…as perhaps the majority of American families have, at least the ones that I was around. If I’ve been taught something over and over again by my parents it would be to question everything. Question even things you know to be true. Questioning opens the doors for your beliefs to become stronger.  Questions lead to good.

I am not Christian. I feel learning your beliefs should be somewhat like science: keep looking, keep testing. To me practicing Christianity has always felt like playing house, a part in a play. It only feels real for a while.

About a year ago I finally stepped back and thought…Why do I believe God exists? Have I ever experienced God? I haven’t. Though I can hear my father’s responses rolling around in my head…”God is in the way your paint brush hits the canvas, he’s that feeling you get when you create the perfect outfit, he’s the intense wave of inspiration you feel after being on Pinterest for an hour, he’s more here than we are, that’s the problem…” Yes Daddy. I hear you. But who’s to say that’s not something else?

I’m not an atheist though because as best I can tell atheists believe only in things that they can prove, verify with sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing. I have to admit I’ve experienced moments where I feel something intangible, something ineffable but who’s to say it was god? I’m not ready to name it.  It could very well be some other higher up being or maybe it’s just my soul singing.

Believing in God for me is like believing in Santa Claus; it’s true right up till the moment you realize it’s not…nice in theory but at the end of the day it’s merely a tradition to get us through the day, something to get excited about. It’s a holiday from reality. Maybe one day I will decide I do believe. But, until I experience a feeling of knowing I don’t believe.

I don’t want to lose myself to something that is not true and doesn’t allow me to be me. Christianity has turned into an enterprise just like most things in our world. It stamps out people that all look the same inside and out. One thing I will never compromise on and will always protect is my originality, my me-ness, what I mean as good. In my way of thinking, being good is being real, being me.

The world is growing boring with everyone wanting to be the same. The more people who resist this trend and choose to be different, to be themselves, who choose the good, the better and stronger our world will become.

For that reason I believe in good.

paris

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Go Monk!

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I love monks.  They wear strange clothes, are predisposed to long stretches of silence and don’t seem bothered by people who stare.  They are clearly on to something altogether different.

My first conversation with a monk was the summer before I entered middle school.  Not yet a middle schooler myself my parents decided to send me off to a summer camp in Florida with the same rowdy boys whose fist like ways would greet me in the fall.  Here at the camp I seemed to be invading their space; it was terrifying.  So I wandered around toward the edges of the camp and it was there I found my first monk.   He was on loan to the camp from someplace in Canada.

It was his face I noticed first, not his worn black cassock cinched at the waist by a cord of some sort but his face.  It was open, gracious.  He turned toward me and smiled.

“Hello.”  And then he went back to scraping the hull of a row boat.

I sat on a bench next to him and studied the lake. He scraped and scraped and blew periodically, running his hand along the smoothed surface.

“My name is Brother John.”

I introduced myself and we talked and this went on all summer long.  He wanted to know my story, books I liked, music I listened to.  I had never meet an adult who wondered what I was thinking about.  All summer long, as much as I could, I made my way down to the lake.  He asked me these big generous questions that opened me up and made me feel good inside.  At the end of the camp I discovered from another counselor that he had nominated me for some kind of award.  Best Camper or something like that.  He believed in me.  It was strange.  I was about as prominent as a leaf on a tree.  He noticed me; I loved him for that.

That experience touched something solid within me.  Like the warm knock of finding a stud in a wall, something structural.  Something permanent.  That small but important moment drifted off bobbing in the sea like a bottled promise, swallowed by all the days to come, lost forever.  But not really.  I can remember the feeling of being with Brother John and there have been other Monks along the way, like Thelonius Monk, people of grace and exquisite strangeness and openness who helped me find my way and the memories of those encounters continue to guide me.

I am grateful.  If being a monk means finding what’s real, growing deeply, becoming thoroughly yourself and luxuriating in the beauty of the world and enjoying a big whopping friendship with creativity then sign me up, I want to be a monk.  I’m all in.  Go monk!

christopher woodhull

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Does the Thought Really Count?

Does the thought really count?

Every year, around the time when eggnog slides its way into the refrigerator section at Kroger there hangs this huge black cloud. We have to detail a list of every gift we must purchase. We have to go dust off our puffy coats and slip on comfortable shoes and head out to wait in long lines, push and shove to get the best deals and in the end to get all our Christmas shopping completed. And then once we finish our list with just a few people left…you know those people that you don’t have a clue what to get them and so we hastily snag a few gift cards…”I saw them listen to music once…I’ll get them an iTunes gift card.” That is the extent of our thought. Slowly big box merchandisers and us, begging like little slobbery puppy dogs, have created a gift giving process that is about as enjoyable as eating your crazy aunts fruitcake.

There is no longer any thoughtfulness or delight in our process of gift-giving.

Gift giving should be loving and romantic. It should be a mere taste test of the generosity and care we extend in the rest of the year. The act of giving is rich, real and robust. Providing delightful things to another human being is a way of considering and noticing what delights them. It teaches us how to be human.

But instead, we give out of obligation, even guilt at times. And with our ever-widening need to attain more “friends”, the quality of our gifts become cheap and tawdry. Our culture stains expectations on us about the code of giving. “If someone gives to you, you must give something back to them.” Giving has morphed into a speedy transaction. It’s like telling someone you love them just because you want to hear it back. Even if we say we don’t, we create lists in our heads of who gave us the best presents and who gave you some dinky little potholder that they made.

Really?

Growing up I always heard my mom say that the best gifts are the handmade ones. “No they aren’t mom!” I would chant, “the best gifts are the ones that spin, twirl, turn on and off, can make you fly…” Now that I’ve grown a bit I’ve noticed the truth in what she was saying. Handmade gifts really are the best gifts. And you know why? Because the giver had to think of what to make you, go buy the supplies and think about you as they made that dinky little potholder. What’s the main ingredient? Heart!

Gifts do not surprise anymore. All presents have become the same junk just in different colors.

When gift-giving becomes mandatory it loses all its beauty.

So with all this being said we would like to encourage you to keep these three points circling in your head as you complete your shopping.

A real gift…

  1. Notices the person
  2. Tickles their fancy
  3. Delights their heart

Bonus thought: fresh flowers are better than plastic ones.   Merry merry!

“You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.”

― Amy Wilson-Carmichael

paris & christopher

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