Archive for June, 2022

The following is an excerpted draft from a memoir in process. Copyright 2022 by L. Scott Ekstrom. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1:  I Prob’ly Think This Song is About Me

“I know exactly what you meant . . . the American Dream.  You find something that you love, and then you twist it, and you torture it, try and find a way to make money at it.  You spend a lifetime doing that.  At the end, you can’t find a trace of what you started out lovin’.  What did you start out lovin’?”                          

  –Steven Rogers, Hope Floats

When I was fourteen I had dreams.  I saw myself, in the imaginary future of projected ego, having a voice, living with purpose, making a difference for God.  Propelled by a sense of calling, I wasn’t sure how my goals—for creative success or ministerial achievement—would manifest themselves, whether I became a performer or preacher or some kind of someone.  I just believed that talents and strengths endowed from birth could all be redeemed:  Grace, unbound by time, would somehow move backwards, using anything that was to achieve what will be—God glorified by every little thing.

And that’s true.  But I have not always been.  So when it turned out that I wasn’t a genius, let alone a prodigy, and life was hard and I got fat, and spent a couple decades failing to be great or even faithful; and against any intention, and completely out of alignment with all my dreams, I had to come back home, lean on family and get a job sweating the small stuff—all the above helped confirm what I’d long suspected:  God help me, the only vocational pursuits that ever energized me were Creating things out of my own imagination and Talking about ideas that interest me. 

I had tried to do the former by becoming an actor, the latter by being a teacher; but neither attempt was a very good match.  For acting is less a showcase of your own truth as it is a physical expression of the character’s; teaching is not so much about expressing one’s insights as it is helping students discover their own. And what I discovered as a student of life is that leaving your youth behind requires letting go of the expectation that you will be extraordinary—at least anytime soon.  Once you’re over your early thirties, your earliest fans—your Sunday school teacher and first director and favorite instructor—are pretty much over you; so you can be, too.  Your job now, in the middle ages, is just to do your job, which, as it turns out, is rarely that of Philosopher King Consultant.       

     But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A dozen years ago, when I came back to my hometown in Western New York, because Manhattan was too much and L.A. was not enough, because the risk of leaving one for the other did not pay off, and I did not produce the means to shape my own life; and all that was left was the form of family, the habit of home, the salt to lick on the base of the earth—God was there, nonetheless, as a steady Friend in the dark.  There was revival, I had reported, in my heart of darkness, even amidst the literal desert of sunny, bloody SoCal.

But then, once back in the lusher landscape of rolling hills and sparkling lakes, with that particular work of grace apparently complete, my soul life evaporated to nothing but thirst in the dark.  As the pressure of unmet responsibilities met with tales of others’ crises of faith, my own was barely felt.  God was not seen.  Terra firma devolved into purgatory.  Depression, they whispered.  And why the hell not?  They didn’t even know that I had the thoughts, the terrible ideations they ask you about in doctor appointment surveys, about hurting myself or someone else.  But with those almost-feelings never fully formed, the worst of my wonderings turned out to be fleeting; and, I think, never just chemical.  Situations were bleak, despair was reasonable.  So, when prospects picked up with a job that became more, which would lead to a position that saved my résumé, it followed that the pain was ameliorated. 

But before that, in the breathless nights, through the falling and falling, not knowing how to know, or where to grab and why, because life held no meaning and there were no answers—even then, Jesus Christ was never a swear.  By His providence, through the muscle memory of my inner aorta, I cried out to Him still, not just for work and courage and money and joy, but that He might be my rest.  And He prayed for me, I know, through the sifting—We waited for each other.  Until His breath returned through answers to prayer and health improved; and the Word to hear again and again.  I was okay.

But healing doesn’t always mean healed.  And so it was, as night terrors dissipated, they gave way to day tremors.  The spiritual earthquake had been good for me, I reported:  the culmination, in California, of risks unrewarded and plans with no pay off, had granted a sense of helplessness, which, in the calculus of Grace, is absolute essential.  But, in this plane, where the formulas play out amidst the vectors of spirit and flesh, profound humility and profane humiliation can mix the metaphor to toxic results.

Driving West, that September, as a barely young man, it had felt like nothing to cross the country alone, find housing with strangers, and take direction from A.D.’s about where to cross between what cameras.  But by New Year’s, after all that had come to nothing, I found myself, back East, with nerves so shot I had to practice my words to even order an omelet:  it would take five years of meeting family each Sunday before I could enter the diner without it spinning.  Every human interaction was a battle, a chance to be exposed for the loser I was.  But finding confidence in work was, by far, the hardest arena to conquer. 

The first gig was at the fancy grocery, handing out samples for the local coffee roaster.  I knew the guy, had been gifted new clothes and liked the product, as did everyone else.  So that part was easy.  But entering the back, in the unfriendly turf, where I felt in the way of the other workers, while brewing the joe, which I’d just learned to make, and worrying I might miscount the scoops or lose my mind and pour the water down the wrong hole—while all that sounds ridiculous now—it’s also the definition of a comedic situation:  it is not funny at the time, at least when it’s happening to you. 

The irony got extra dark when a cousin walked by (I have thirty of them, so they’re always lurking around somewhere) and, when he saw me, back in town, shilling holiday spice and cinnamon hazelnut, he deadpanned, “So, I guess you have no idea what you’re doing either.”  True.  I didn’t.  I often don’t.  But taking in those words, combined with my own worse thoughts, it was hard not to marvel at the workers around me, who seemed to have it all figured out.  Across from my sample station was the seasonal area, where I could observe, over several shifts, exactly how the display people worked their magic:  through a lot of really hard work.  Energetic endeavor that shamed my own paucity of ambition.  Not that this was always the case.  I studied hard in college, got through grad school and was thought of, sometimes, in my last job in the City, as having a tenacity for problem-solving.  And that was in a town of workaholics.  Though, even there, there were sometimes signs of acedia:  on a break from jury duty in a high-rise courthouse, looking across the street and down into an office, I noticed that everyone there seemed to be on a break, putzing around their suites, dodging spreadsheets like jail cells and phone calls of doom.  A scene from a sitcom also helped, as TV often does, to explain human behavior.  A young slacker dreads the pressure of promotion until his girlfriend lets him in on a secret:  his worry isn’t just about the work.  He’s afraid of failure, like everyone else.  Because—didn’t he know?—We’re all just faking it.  I didn’t know. 

But, despite my naivete, after a winter of subbing (minus the mojo I’d brought to the classroom a decade before), I was recommended for a job by family friends who didn’t really know me, and somehow faked my way through the interview, boasting that, at 36, I had the perfect balance of youth and experience, energy and wisdom.  The interviewer must have bought it, for the next week I started working at the bookstore.

There remained enough of the English major in me to remember and recommend books; previous experience with people of influence helped me play it cool while managing signings; teaching had taught me how to train others.  I loved it all.  Or, as much as anyone might like any job, I liked most of it.  I complained, of course, which is part of the fun, or at least the Seinfeldian base of my own workplace schtick.  But, as I shifted shelves, ran the register and pushed books for hours at a time—though older customers may have thought me an energetic young man—I was actually becoming a more mature man, unearthing new wells of industry, untapped in youth.  Seeing the college newsboys leaning against the counter as they waited for customers, intimating I was taking all this a little too seriously, I remembered being 19 myself, doing yardwork outside Dad’s office, struggling to keep up with the forty-something gardener.  Now I knew this surprising grace of middle life:  a tremendous drive to do.  Perhaps as some primal penance for misspent youth, or a burgeoning awareness of mortality—but an urge, nonetheless, so strong that, even in the waning of time left to live, there can be the temptation for overwork—to the damage of body and mind and relationships.

But it was good for me, back in the bookstore, to work hard (harder than people imagine retail to require).  I was, no doubt, motivated by praise from the boss and other customers, impressed as they were by my department’s ability to divine obscure tomes from the narrowest of clues.  “You know—the one in the Review about the guy who invented the thing.”  The motivation wasn’t all natural, though; the stream of ambition not always a given.  Like the day I felt bone-tired with a fatigue that is more than physical, an ennui that makes you wonder how you’ll make it to the end without curling up on a yoga mat in the corner of the storage room—until I recalled a conversation from my job at the mission a year before, where a training was going late, I was getting frustrated, and so joked to one of the missionaries, “I don’t know whether to have another cup of coffee or a fit of rage.”  I guess I was a punk.  Unflapped, she calmly suggested, “Or you could depend upon the Holy Spirit.” To which I might have thought, Oh, that’s right, I’m a Christian; that’s what we do.  Instead, I walked away, because I resented her reaction, thought she didn’t get me.  And in mental retaliation I imagined a sitcom about church folks who say stuff like that, after which the one knowing everyman among the masses turns to the camera and casually snarks, “Don’t you just hate Christians?”  A year later, I realized I misunderstood the missionary, who was smart and funny and down-to-earth, who had simply learned that to get through a really hard day, or any day, really, our only hope is to depend upon the Holy Spirit, Who, at just the right time, had brought her words back to mind.  Alone among the Mysteries, I leaned upon the Holy Spirit, and silently prayed for the energy that only God can give.  And He gave it.

Now, I surmise, friends who think I tend to over-spiritualize things might simply say, “So, you got a job and kept it.  Finally.”  Because that’s what being a grown-up is all about:  doing a lot of stuff you don’t like for people who’ll never appreciate it.  Or, to be a little less cynical . . . Those are the steps you have to take to get where you want to go.  But the question remained, Where did I want to go?

A year after coming back, having gained enough continuity to rise above the fray for long enough to hope—more direction came, as I prayerfully contemplated how I’d long parsed my calling into two possible roads.  (Robert freakin’ Frost).  The bifurcation posed had always been, Should I be a minister or become an actor?  Not that anyone was offering me either.  These were not practical, actual paths before me.  And I am not actually a practical person.  But dreams matter, at least to drama kings, because they represent hope, and a moving toward something.  Because even if we never get there, the goal informs the journey. 

Or, to put it a bit less Oprah-on-a-TJ-Maxx-mug:  I felt called, in one clarifying quiet time, to be a writer.  (Of spiritual memoir, mostly.)  Not out of nowhere, not just from a voice on high; but in the recognition of heart’s desire, and talents and temperament assessed, and then, in the long slow practice of learning a craft—I realized that I loved to write more than I’d ever enjoyed acting, at least as an adult.  Thoughts crystalized on the computer screen better than they did through extemporaneous speech.  Which, among other things, must mean I’m not a prophet, and maybe not a preacher.  And that was a relief—to think that artistic and pastoral impulse might unite to flow in and through me, onto the page, to the good of others and the honor of God.  I did not surmise I’d gained a freelance career.  I’ve met enough authors to know that most of them still need a day job.  For the money, yes, but, also, for the real-life experience to have something to write about, lest we devolve into babbling out another meta-narrative, curved in on itself and endlessly obsessing over writing about writing; until it all seems too much, and somehow not enough. 

I am neither materialist nor mystic.  I believe that in a good world designed by a perfect Artist, where only we flipped the script, substance and style need not contradict.  On earth as it is in heaven, the ideal is also real.  And so it was, down here in Plato’s cave, after years of planning, months of toil, and weeks of blog posts, I eventually hammered out a first little book to point to and say:  Self-published, juvenile work this may be; too old to write it though I may be, nevertheless:  I have found my voice.  This is me.  Everything else is a pose.

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