While shopping for something else entirely, I discovered a pair of white K-Swiss sneakers with red stripes for only $27.00 at a local department store. When I arrived home, I proudly laced them up, sauntered up to my teenage daughter, and thrust my foot into her line of sight.
“Check out my new kicks!” I said.
She shrugged indifferently and without looking up, said, “That’s sweet, dad. They’re cute.”
My consternation was genuine. “Cute? That’s it? These are totally sick!”
“First of all, nobody says ‘sick’ anymore dad. That’s so 2016.”
Her casual insult demanded a serious rejoinder: “Fine. Then they’re gnarly,” I said.
“And K-Swiss is like, I don’t know, the Fred Meyer’s of shoe brands,” she said. “Nobody gets excited about them.”
“I’ll have you know these are iconic,” I said. “Once upon a time—never mind how long ago—they were the symbol of wealth, style, and sophistication, having a certain je ne sais. . .”
She wasn’t listening and I was suddenly sliding down the rabbit hole of memory, standing in the corner of the cafeteria with other prepubescent males like myself while the paragon of privilege, Randy, sat at a table with his covey of pretty girls. That practiced indifference. That five o’clock shadow. Those K-Swiss shoes…
My daughter shook her head pitiably.
“You don’t get it,” I said to her. “These shoes are totally rad.”
That’s the best explanation of their je ne sais quoi that I could muster. Finding them, well, unexplainable, I staggered beneath the sudden realization that fashion had moved along without me. That I was time’s discarded debris washed ashore while the tides of change rolled inevitably along. When did that happen?
I contemplated the wisdom of returning my unremarkable shoes to reclaim my precious twenty-seven bucks (plus tax) but my memory kept careening back to that cafeteria where Randy slouched in his glory like an Olympian god while the rest of us mere mortals mangled our bologna sandwiches and reluctantly waited for English class.
There I stood, flat-footed in the kitchen, standing in the awful realization that what I thought was an autonomous decision made free of any influence was just another attempt at being like somebody; in this case, like Randy.
I kept the shoes. My ego demanded it and, despite my daughter’s withering remarks, I still thought they were cool.
I drove past my old middle school on Wednesday. It was deemed uninhabitable a decade ago. The edifice crumbles year by year and I am surprised to find my memories crumbling with it. The faces of my friends are fading, but the things I liked back then—scratch ’n sniff stickers, Atari, Star Wars, Superman, Dire Straits—still follow me around to this day. The people I hung around with thought they were cool so, inevitably, I found them cool too.
My best friend’s dad—a manly man if ever I met one—loved what he called “real music” which meant Dire Straits. And then there was our local high school’s wrestling matches. We were perennial champs, so when the high school gym went dark, the electronic crescendo of “Money For Nothing” rose into the darkness. We stood to our feet as the drum rhythm ratcheted up and when Mark Knopfler’s solo guitar busted loose, the wrestling team streamed into the spotlight while blood rushed to my head. If that weren’t enough, my bus driver would play Starship’s “We Built This City” and Dire Strait’s “Money For Nothing” every day on the way to school. Why do I like Dire Straits? Because the people I loved liked Dire Straits. And, yes, I loved my bus driver. He made me feel like I was actually fun to drive to school, like life was good when I was around—like I was cool.
I wasn’t—certainly not as cool as my bus driver—but I wanted to be.
And when I decided to “be like Mike,” I did so with the rest of the world. Michael Jordan dazzled us. We all fell under his trance, but it wasn’t until a catchy advertisement put the words in our mouths that we realized, “Hey, we do want to be like Mike.” What was once just an embryonic notion was now a fully formed mental picture. I’m not saying that our generation didn’t actually want to be like Michael Jordan. We did. But what came first? Our longing? Or the song?
“Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
If I could be like Mike.”
It wasn’t just the basketball skills; Mike was an entire persona. It was the way he carried himself, the way he made everything look effortless, the way he stuck out his tongue while gliding through the air. That’s why we bought his jersey, his clothes, and (perhaps most importantly) his shoes. It had to be the shoes. Anything to be like Mike. That was the dream.
I think that dream died for me in 9th grade when I served as the obligatory last man on the bench for our school’s c-squad. In my one opportunity to play in a real game, I had no idea which hoop we were shooting at. Who pays attention to these trivialities anyways when they’re at the end of the bench on a permanent basis? The other team had a full court press on. I made a move, grooved like Mike, broke my defender’s ankles, caught the ball behind the three point line, let it fly. Fade away. Three pointer. Swish…in the wrong hoop. I watched the scoreboard add three points to the wrong ledger.
Dream gone. Poof!
A virus is contagious, yes, but beauty and creativity and hope are contagious too. And you should perform contact tracing with this good infection just like you should with COVID-19.Ben Palpant
These days, I’m forty-five years old and earth-bound. I get nervous if I don’t have the terra firma solidly underfoot. Sure, deep down I still wish I could dunk, but I’ve become a pencil-pushing poet instead. How did that happen? Well, I began to be inspired by other people. And this would be a little embarrassing to my high school self, but I wanted to be like those people whose souls I had encountered in books. Gasp! I wanted to be like those writers who had helped craft my soul, who had enriched my existence. Thinkers like Thomas Howard, artists like Makoto Fujimura, singers like Michael Card, storytellers like John Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck, poets like Anne Porter and Li-Young Lee and Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. I wanted to be a wordsmith, a craftsman, an artisan like them. I wanted to nourish souls like them and cultivate culture like them even with so much incendiary polarization around me. These were the people I found cool. I wanted to move like them, groove like them. By God, I wanted to see like them.
Still do, actually, but they’ve become more than mentors to me after all these years—they’ve become something like peers. I feel a certain level of arrogance just writing that word, but I’ve been learning from them, imitating them, cultivating culture like them long enough to feel a kinship. In my own way, I’m continuing their work, shouldering the same yoke.
Let’s trace how I got here. How did I discover these cultural influencers, learn to love them, practice imitating them, and finally end up feeling a communal kinship with them? I got here by way of the good infection. A virus is contagious, yes, and we’ve had more than enough talk about that bad contagion these days. But beauty and creativity and hope are contagious too. And you should perform contact tracing with this good infection just like you should with COVID-19.
I came to admire Thomas Howard and Mako Fujimura because my friend Charlie Dowers introduced them to me. I cherish Michael Card as a modern psalmist because the girl I fell in love with in high school and ultimately married listened almost exclusively to his music. I love Anne Porter because my friend Andrew Peterson said, “Read this! Isn’t this just how it is?” I love Mary Oliver because my nineteen year old daughter said, “Dad, I found a poet who makes me want to write poetry!” Sure enough. And I love Steinbeck because my father used to crank through his medical school work so that he could slip away on Sundays to read him. So it goes. The folks I love have introduced me to the folks they love. That’s one of the multiplying powers of community.
My loves are proof that community is the fertile soil of our heart’s desires. We end up liking what our friends like. That’s why the righteous choose their friends wisely (Proverbs 12:26). They know that if you walk with the wise, you’ll become wise (Proverbs 13:20), but if you frolic with fools, you’ll become one (I Corinthians 15:33). We need good community so that we can get infected by the best things.
What began so many years ago with a friend’s recounting his visit to Mako’s gallery in New York City culminated in a recent visit to Gonzaga University’s Jundt Art Museum—just a few miles from my home—where Makoto Fujimura’s work was on display. Fujimura combines traditional Japanese techniques and materials—pulverized minerals and pigments—to create multi-layered (often over a hundred layers) non-representational paintings that invite us into a somatic engagement. Mako has said that if you want to understand his work, you must sit in front of one painting for at least ten minutes. So I did. I sat in front of his “Silence – Mysterion.” It’s a 33 foot monumental work of art. “Mysterion” is the Greek word Paul uses in Ephesians 6:9 to describe the “mystery of the Gospel.” As David Brooks put it in his New York Times article, after ten minutes “What had seemed like a plain blue field now looked like a galaxy of color.” He was right. At the moment of revelation, I teared up.
I owe Mako a debt of gratitude for that moment, but I also owe my friend Charlie a debt of gratitude for nudging me toward Mako’s art and Mako’s thoughts on creativity and culture. I’ve been introduced to Fujimura by way of the good infection, but I’ve come to admire him on his own merits. He is a counter-cultural craftsman whose slow-brewed creative efforts have made an indelible mark on the way I see just about everything. Would I have appreciated Fujimura’s work if a friend hadn’t introduced me to it? Maybe. Would I have discovered Mako on my own? Maybe. But the friendship certainly encouraged that exposure and accelerated my admiration. Despite my rather staunch (and ignorant) loyalty to representational art, I gave Fujimura’s non-representational art a chance because my friend loved it.
That’s how community works and, dare I say, that’s what community is for. A community collectively guards certain ideals and steers each other toward those ideals. The members of a community inform and form each other’s desires, correct and calibrate each other, validate and vindicate each other’s work. They remind each other, “This here is what we’re about, not that over there. Let’s keep going further up and further in!” Churches, schools, and families all function this way and they do so intentionally or accidentally. For good or for ill. That’s why the selection of our chosen communities is so important. That’s why the Rabbit Room is so important.
Awhile back, I sent a manuscript to Andrew Peterson on a whim because I respected his poetic craftsmanship and I resonated with his outlook on faith and the arts. At the time, I didn’t know about his connection to the Rabbit Room or Rabbit Room Press or Hutchmoot. Truth-be-told, I’m not sure that I had even heard of these before (Embarrassing, I know. Yes, I was living under a rock). He graciously gave me feedback in classic Andrew fashion and then he said, “Oh, by the way, there’s a whole community of like-minded people you might enjoy.” Sure enough, I do.
So this is a love letter to the Rabbit Room and to all those communities where the love of God and love for the arts converge. Where God’s Word nourishes creativity. Where craftsmanship, artisanship, and slow-brewed art meet a love for people and the world in which God placed us. Here’s to Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Here’s to a shared vision of the transformative nature of relationship and art. Here’s to planting trees where polemics and cultural warfare have left only ash. Here’s to things that endure, to timeless work that transcends mere fashion.
I’m still wearing those K-Swiss shoes, by the way. I wore them to a coffee shop a few months ago. The twenty-something barista stopped in her tracks. She looked down at them, looked up at me, and said, “Dude, you’re totally rocking the retro. I need a pair of those!”
I said, “Sorry, limited edition. The department store had only two pair.”
She said, “Well, they’re totally bodacious.”
And they are. But these days, I’d trade bodacious for beauty in a heartbeat. Sorry Randy, you can keep your practiced indifference and your fashionable apparel. And that goes for you, too, Mike. I’ve found something better. I’ve found other people to be like.
Featured image: “Silence – Mysterion” by Makoto Fujimura
Ben Palpant is a memoirist, poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer. He is the author of several books, including A Small Cup of Light, Sojourner Songs, and The Stranger. He writers under the inspiration of five star-lit children and one dog named Chesterton. He and his wife live in the Pacific Northwest.