The Love of We

weI have not written a single non-work-related word for nearly two months.

Not for lack of interest or inspiration, mind you.

In fact, I have fought the urge to write a poem that has been swimming lazy laps around my brain for a couple of weeks. It is highly critical of God and the current Oval Office Occupant, and I didn’t want to offend those friends who believe in either or both, all whom I otherwise admire and respect.

I have struggled to stay above the strife (or at least not add to it) as the entire world deals with the fallout – physical, emotional, spiritual, financial – of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, it’s been a difficult time, concrete-hard, for me as for many.

I felt like the undersized, but quick-cutting football team running back who has finally broken through the line, zigging this way, zagging that way, hips twisting, knees high, legs pumping, evading linebackers twice my size.

The goal line was in sight. The winning touchdown and all the attendant glory only yards away, nothing ahead of me but screaming fans.

Then, wham!

I was blindsided and tackled by an unseen cornerback. No touchdown. No winning score. No glory. Only pain, turf and stars.

As I lay on the ground, the officials kept their yellow flags in their pockets as every defensive player on the field and, it seemed, a few from the sidelines piled on.

I struggled with sleep-stealing financial concerns for my two daughters and their families; not seeing our granddaughter for more than six weeks; my own blues from lack of socialization with friends and family; the murky, bottomless depths of uncertainty about and concern for the future.

Then it got worse.

Every jaw-droppingly stupid utterance from Donald Trump, a man with a narcissistic need to be in the spotlight. Blammo!

Every one of his gob-smacking, forehead-slapping denials of a comment despite video proof of their utterance. Pow!

Every ridiculous bit of his “cheerleading” to try to ignore and deflect and minimize the seriousness of the situation. Smash to the kisser!

Each of his childish fights picked with other leaders who dare to cross his constantly shifting, arbitrary political line in the sand. Gut punch!

Each of his attempts to blame everyone else, anyone else, for seventy days of misdirection, lies, obfuscation and political gamesmanship, while thousands died from a mystery virus. Another shot to the ribs.

(By the way, how many shades of cynical or paranoid does one have to be to suggest, much less think, that this pandemic is a political scheme or hoax?)

And worst of all, his calls to “Liberate” states, prompting people to take part in armed protests of his own administration’s health directives intended to keep people from dying. Proving yet again that he was most concerned with how he looked to his rabid cult — and even then, only when the stock market started to tumble. Because those are his only real priorities: money, and image. Especially his money, and his image.

Each one felt like another cleated foot on my throat. Another body jumping on my back, pinning me to the ground.

I was so anxious, so overwhelmed, so conflicted, that I literally could not catch my breath under the crushing weight of fear, confusion, frustration, anger and lack of human decency.

Then, I read a recent issue of Time magazine.

The special subject, “Finding Hope,” featured article after story after essay from writers, doctors, elected officials, religious leaders and social and cultural icons, each promoting a simple, essential premise:

We cannot recover from this pandemic alone.

We must work together as individuals, families, communities, professions, governments, faith systems, public and private sectors.

We must believe that we will return to “normal” – whatever that will look like – only when we share responsibility for each other, rather than thinking only about our singular interest.

Yes, it will be hard.

Yes, it will be painful

Yes, many will suffer financially, emotionally, psychically, spiritually.

And yes, many will die. Maybe, with any luck, not as many as various models and experts have predicted. But more than any rational person would dare call acceptable if any one of the suffering or dead belonged to them.

Interestingly, not one writer took or demanded credit for any idea, development, or policy (much less petulantly whined about not getting enough praise.) Not. One.

For the record, I do not hold Trump responsible for the pandemic. That’s silly. However, I do hold him responsible for his own actions, the same as I’d do with any adult or child.

His self-centered, “I! I! I! Me! Me! Me!” behavior is stultifying. It is such a shallow, pathetic, transparent cry for legitimacy in a world in which even he knows he doesn’t belong, that one might pity him under normal circumstances.

But nothing is normal these days, and his behavior affects the rest of us.

Trump’s callous, callow, even cruel example followed only too gladly by his minions has made a tremendously difficult situation exponentially worse.

Simply put, Trump has pitted the One against the Many.

Listen, I don’t pretend to be above self-interest. I want what’s best for me and mine the same as anyone else.

But the Time magazine issue reminded me there’s more than just “Me” to consider.

If “I” is my only focus, my only concern, my only priority, then others suffer.

“I” fuels fear. Anger. Greed. Hatred.

The power of “I” is its ability to divide. And in the darkness of that division to build walls between “Me” and “Them,”  defined in any way that helps me keep whatever I think is mine. Race, religion, gender, wealth. Even health.

“We,” on the other hand, calls us to give. Love. Sacrifice. Even suffer.

The power of “We” is the life-sustaining energy that comes from combining whatever little bit I have with someone else’s, so that what we create together is not only more, but also better and stronger.

“We” in its purest essence cares most about Unity. “We” knows that Unity can be hard, but that hardness smooths the rough edges of division. That hardness is often its own best reward.

Of course, it goes without saying that everyone can follow who they want to follow and believe what they want to believe. As Americans, that is our right – even if we are wrong.

What does need to be said though, is that we as humans must be about more than our rights. We must be about our responsibilities, too. Rights are individualistic. Responsibilities are communal.

I am as scared, angry, frustrated, nervous, confused and concerned as anyone else with a functioning head and heart.

Still, right now, in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime worldwide crisis, I choose to believe in “We.” I must. It is the only way I will see clearer, sleep better, breathe easier.

The strength of “We.”

The dream of “We.”

The love of “We.”

Hmm…I guess I didn’t need to write that poem after all.

 

The Four Greatest Words, Ever

Tom booksigning 022820

We love our son-in-law, Jake. Really, we do.

He’s a wonderful young man. Hard working, diligent, level-headed, thoughtful, bright, caring. A terrific father to our granddaughter, and great husband to our daughter, Emma.

But Jake doesn’t talk much. At least not to us.

To be fair, when he does talk, he has a sharp, bright, cutting wit that often leaves us laughing hysterically into our mashed potatoes around the dinner table, surprised to hear him utter such comments.

So, it was nothing less than an electric shock when my cellphone rang around 6 p.m. on March 23, 2018.

“Hello?” I answered.

“It’s me. We’re here,” Jake said plainly.

“What? Where?”

“At the hospital. Emma’s having the baby.”

“When?”

“Now.”

Background: Our oldest daughter had called earlier that day to report on the status of her routine doctor’s visit and pregnancy. She was alright at first, but her normally strong demeanor quickly dissolved into puddles of sobs.

It seemed the baby, if carried to term (about another ten days or so) would likely top the scales at ten pounds. Jake is about six feet tall. Emma is barely four feet, nine inches. The immensity of it all – especially the prospect of birthing a basketball – simply overwhelmed our girl.

After sharing the same news and crying again to her mom (my wife), she went home for the afternoon.

Then, her water broke while Jake and she watched television. As many parents learn, babies have an irritating tendency to come when they darned well feel like it.

They rushed to the hospital and his phone call, paradoxically both small and huge, soon followed.

Jake urged us to stay home and come to the hospital the next day. Emma probably wouldn’t have the baby before 8 p.m. when visiting hours ended, he warned. We followed his sage guidance.

For about three minutes.

We dove into the car and rushed to the hospital, elated to just sit there and wait. We chatted with other families, situated as close physically, spiritually and emotionally to the birth as hospital rules and locked doors would allow.

Then, Jake emerged from the maternity ward.

Dressed in blue scrubs, looking understandably frazzled and exhausted, he changed our lives for the second time in three years.

Riley Jean Williams had arrived, all eight pounds, ten ounces healthy and raring to join the world. Oh, and Emma was fine too (although the birth had been rough on her.)

We hugged and congratulated our son-in-law. We were as proud of him and grateful for his calm demeanor as the day he married Emma. He proffered a few precious details then disappeared behind the electronic doors to be with his wife.

We met and held our grandbaby the next morning, as soon as security and respect for a new mom’s need for rest and privacy allowed. The earth…well, if it didn’t exactly turn backwards, it certainly wobbled a bit for my wife and me.

We, who ourselves had started our life together only twenty-seven short years ago, a young couple desperately in love, trying to figure out the world together, scared but a little more confident holding each other’s hands, suddenly were grandparents!

And we couldn’t have been happier, prouder or more excited for a future we were already planning only hours into Riley’s new life.

Did you know babies are magicians? It’s true.

They can change sorrow into laughter. Frowns into smiles. Blustery days into kite-filled skies.

They turn lifelong, slightly paranoid grumps into giggling optimists overflowing with sparkling faith for a suddenly brighter world.

They can twist time into priceless pretzels of amazement as minutes turn to hours turn to days turn to years faster than seems possible.

One second, Riley was laying in our arms able only to eat and sleep. The next, she was chasing and yelling at me to fly her around the house, or presenting the television remote to Nana, demanding to watch “Trolls” for the fourth time that day.

Most of all, they can fill a room heavy with gray, tired routine with the glittering air of adventure.

Unconcerned about what comes next, every turn, step, sight, sound and smell is a new journey, a quest, an escapade.

An innocent ignorance of anything that might impede, endanger or limit makes it a smidge easier to look past the uncertainties and qualms darkening the Real World’s corners.

Most astonishingly, their joy becomes our joy. Every discovery through their eyes re-opens our own to the grace and mystery around us. Truly amazing.

All children – but especially grandchildren – are revelations of humanity and holiness at their purest intersection.

A book I am reading about the Gospel of John described Jesus’ impact on those who met Him this way: “Life calls to life. Love calls to love.”

I’d respectfully say that, when it comes to grandchildren, “New life calls to new life. New love calls to new love.”

Speaking of Life, the real thing recently broke in.

I am writing this over the first weekend of the governor’s two-week (so far) “stay at home” order to help fight the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic.

And I hate it.

To be clear, I am sincerely concerned for everyone’s physical and financial health as people (including our daughters and their families) try to figure out how to survive.

As I’ve said many times over the last three years, the economy is indeed better. But it’s not better for everyone, and not better in the same way for everyone. So, two (or four, or who knows how many) weeks without a paycheck will devastate a lot of people who aren’t part of the one percent.

However, we haven’t seen Riley in two weeks.

We missed one weekend of “Nana and Papa” duty because I had a slight touch of the flu. Then, our daughter decided to not let us see Riley until the pandemic clears. She also postponed Riley’s second birthday party, scheduled for early April.

Of course, she is right. And, like her mom, wise beyond her years.

Riley won’t know or care about missing a party now, and she will be safer for not being around a bunch of people who’d undoubtedly spend an afternoon smothering her with kisses.

Still, it breaks our hearts to give up our time with her.

Yet, thanks to our little spitfire who loves “Trolls” and “Sing”, Mike the Mouse and Poppy and Elmo and Daniel Tiger, cooking and napping with Nana and reading and playing with Papa, and petting any dog within arm’s reach, I cannot be entirely sad.

Riley Jean Williams may miss out on a few birthday gifts this year – if only temporarily. But those who love her still got the best gift of all.

And she turns two on March 23, 2020.

The Holy Rolling Barnstorming Tour of 2020

church

I’ve been going to church recently.

Not just to any church, but rather to every church.

This isn’t as radical as it might sound. After all, I was raised in (and remain a big fan of) the Catholic church. I attended Lewis University, a private Catholic school run by nuns, priests and De La Sallian Christian brothers.

And I (and my young family) converted to Lutheranism in 1997 when a still-wet-behind-the-ears, second-career pastor came knocking on our door as part of his and his wife’s plan to start a mission church in Plainfield, which was then experiencing its “Oh, My God!” growth period.

(I kid you not: the pastor came to our house three times before we attended our first service at the new church — insert your own Biblical symbolism here. Being a good Catholic, I initially pushed back, hard, against him and Lutheranism. But we soon became lifelong, close friends.)

Plus, studying how a first century movement around an itinerant Hebrew preacher became a worldwide religious/political/social/governmental system has long been a hobby of mine.

But truth be told, my wife Kellie had a personal falling out when that little mission church started the inevitable shrinkage and was eventually gobbled up by a larger church. (The bigger church “loved our energetic worship style” but loved the land we owned even more.)

No surprise. Kellie, after all was not raised in any church. Her connection to church of any kind was tenuous at best, based more on social and family rather than spiritual considerations. And in the interests of a strong marriage, I stopped going when she stopped going.

However, I have long maintained my churchly inclinations.

So, when Kellie’s work schedule changed early this winter to include Sundays, I decided to return to church. I figured, what else was I doing besides waiting at home alone for the mediocrity that was the Bears this season?

But if I was going to return to church, I didn’t want to just return to what I already knew. What fun would that be? If this church door was open again, I wanted to really see everything on the other side.

Since starting my personal church barnstorming tour I’ve visited churches of nearly every Christian denomination, size and worship style: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran (both Missouri Synod and ELCA), Congregationalist, Unitarian, a couple of non-denominational, and both predominantly white and predominantly African American.

I haven’t worshipped at a mosque yet as part of this adventure, though I did twice a few years ago. Nor have I gone to a Jewish synagogue. But who knows? It’s only March.

To be clear: As I’ve explained to numerous sincere-but-somewhat-overly-enthusiastic-greeters and pastors, I am very firm and comfortable in my Christian faith and my Lutheran religion.

I am not looking for anything but the experience of trying on some new shoes – or sandals, as the case may be.

Observing first-hand what I (and sadly, so many) have only heard about from a distance.

Dipping my theological toes into a different pool.

Running some new spiritual chords over my rusty vocal cords. I’ve mostly been able to muscle through the unfamiliar rhythms and lyrics. However, I sincerely apologize to anyone sitting close by those several times when I failed. (If she’d been there, my wife would’ve told you singing is not my strong suit.)

So, that begs the obvious, good and fair question:

If I’m not interested in changing teams, so to speak, then why go to the trouble of visiting different camps?

Not to mention going to any church at all given the myriad criticisms dogging organized religion of all stripes, most especially the many serious crimes committed by religious authorities and leaders against the weakest, most vulnerable among us.

The simplest (yet,paradoxically, the most complex) answer is, I believe in a higher power that somehow creates and organizes (if not directly choreographs) our lives.

You can call that power God.

I don’t really much care what you call it, or by what name.

Nor do I care what path you take to find it, what book you find it in, or how you understand its power in your life.

Frankly, I agree with the theologians who criticize us puny humans who try to slap any kind of a label on God, or speak for Him/Her/It, or mangle His/Her/Its spiritual role for political power and wealth in our all-too-mortal world. How dare we?

The point isn’t where or how we talk to God. The point is where and how God talks to us. That’s the beauty and mystery and grace of spiritual faith of every kind.

One of the pastors said, “You can talk to (God) anywhere.”

That is true. However, I believe you can talk to God best, gathered together with others who are also trying to talk to God.

It’s like the difference between singing alone in the shower and singing as part of a 200-person choir. Both may produce a beautiful sound, but the former only brings down a little more water. The latter brings down the roof.

Honestly, I don’t know what God is any more than the next person. I don’t know what God looks like. I don’t know what name God goes by, what language God speaks, or even – God forbid — what athletic teams God prefers.

But sussing out those mysteries has been a lifelong passion. (Except for the athletic team part. That’s just silliness of the worst sort.)

How better to do that than to explore all the options with others who are likewise looking? Who knows what I’ll find or learn? The fun is in the search.

So, the Holy Rolling Barnstorming Tour of 2020 continues. Look for me at a church near you.

I’ll be the guy near the front, singing (and probably tripping over a word or two) loudly and joyfully – if slightly off key.

 

 

 

 

Unwrapping Family

assorted gift boxes on red surface
Photo by Giftpundits.com on Pexels.com

It’s about 1:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2019.

I note the date because Christmas Eve has always been one of my favorite times of the entire year since childhood.

Especially early afternoon on Christmas Eve, when my brother Tim and I would see our Grandma and Grandpa Hawks – our biological father’s parents.

I never met nor even saw my biological father until an aunt shared a picture of him and my mom at their wedding at my maternal grandmother’s 80th birthday party.

The only father I ever knew and loved was Tony Hernandez. He gave Tim and me a new last name, family and future through adoption after marrying my mom following her divorce. What could I possibly want from my biological? Nothing.

Yet, every Christmas Eve, we saw his parents. Our grandparents, Al and Betty Hawks.

Their son (Tim’s and my biological father) wasn’t much to speak of, hence the divorce. (Trust me when I assure you that “not much to speak of” would win me the Understatement of the Year award.)

Yet they were as good and kind and decent and loving as any grandparents ever.

They’d stop by, spend a few hours with us, even bring gifts for our baby brother, Paul – my adoptive dad’s son with my mom. They loved my mom, still considered her their daughter-in-law, and adored my adoptive dad (no surprise, everybody did.)

Grandma Hawks died when I was in my early teens. I still saw my Grandpa Hawks a couple times when I was in high school and played in a jazz band at his church.

Those memories sparkle in my mind now, like a crystal ornament catching and bending and recasting the light from a nearby bulb.

Some might find this twisting of branches on the Christmas family tree odd. Strange. Maybe even wrong, somehow.

To which I’d say, “Then you don’t understand what ‘Family’ really is.”

My understanding of, and appreciation for “family” — immediate, extended, genetic, generic, by blood or just background — didn’t end with Grandma and Grandpa Hawks, either.

After they left each Christmas Eve, my brothers and I would take a nap in the early evening (of course, as kids knowing what was coming, we didn’t really sleep so much as just lay still for a few hours.)

Then, around 10 p.m. we’d head to Grandma and Grandpa Hernandez’s house, overflowing with wonderfully exotic smells and sounds and tastes!

And GIFTS!

In this new family that looked nothing like Tim and me, we now had more relatives than I could begin to count. Gifts for everyone there and even not there rose halfway up the Christmas tree that scraped the family room ceiling.

Of course, we couldn’t open anything until Santa came. And he wouldn’t come until after we got back from midnight mass. But that didn’t stop the kids from indiscreetly eyeballing every item, trying to find those with our names.

Around 1:30 a.m., after THE LONGEST CHURCH SERVICE EVER, salivating with  anticipation, one of our aunts would insist that we sing Christmas songs until Santa came. Oh. My. God…didn’t they know that we were on the verge of insanity with all those packages sitting there mocking us?

Finally, a knock at the door brought a roomful of childhood screeching to a whisper.

Santa entered and handed out the first few packages before retreating from what quickly became mass hysteria. Mysteries hidden in colorful boxes and bags were mysteries no more. Ribbons and paper and bows filled the air like so many Christmas kites. The older kids delivered (or just tossed) gifts to the adults lining the room.

We’d go home about 4 a.m. “Sleep” a few more hours. Wake to open gifts at our own house. Then head to my maternal grandparents’ farmhouse in Herscher, Illinois.

There, we’d spend the rest of Christmas Day re-enacting the Battle of the Christmas Eve Bulge with most of my mom’s seven brothers and sisters, their spouses and kids, friends and assorted older relatives we saw only on the holidays.

In college, when my then-girlfriend Kellie and I started dating and later after we married, I would attend celebrations at her house on Christmas Eve.

Their home was like an issue of Martha Stewart magazine magically come alive. The family room lit only by the Christmas tree, golden shimmers filled the air.  Sometimes, snow graced the scene outside the bay window in their family room as if on cue. It was, literally, breathtaking.

Eventually our two girls came along, and every detail of those parties became about them – especially the hours my father-in-law and I spent on the floor assembling a million toys.

We haven’t seen my in-laws on Christmas for a few years because of a mutual estrangement, but those memories are still precious.

Instead, the last few years we’ve enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner and drinks with several of our closest friends. Dear people who have lived our lives, suffering together and shepherding each other through some major challenges. Building the unbreakable bonds of what can only be called “family.”

Now, our girls are adults.

They have adult lives. Other family commitments and work obligations limit our time together. We don’t begrudge them. Rather we make the most of every opportunity.

They still spend part of Christmas Eve with their grandparents.

Then Christmas morning, we enjoy a blowout homemade breakfast with them and their significant others, Kellie’s wonderful aunt – and now our granddaughter, Riley.

This year, Riley is 21 months old. Just big enough to understand that, of the 90 or so brightly colored, ribbon-festooned, shining, sparkling packages under that Christmas tree, 80 of them are for her.

At two years old, that’s all she needs to know.

Later, she will hear these memories and hopefully learn what I learned long ago. What has sustained and strengthened me through the many Christmas Eves since childhood.

All gifts are wrapped in grace, no matter what the packaging looks like.

Some are bigger, or brighter, or more meaningful. Some will fit just right. Some will be too big or small.  Some will be thoughtfully planned and given. Some came from the corner drugstore at the last minute.

Some will make perfect sense. Some will have her wondering what in the world the giver could have been thinking. Some will bring joy and gratitude. Some might cause a twinge of unintended pain.

And the greatest gift of all is family.

 

 

The Great Pumpkin Adventure

riley's pumpkin

Dear Riley,

We are now several days past your second Halloween, and you turned 19 months old about three weeks ago. Strangely, these seemingly disconnected factoids mean it’s time to teach you an important truth:

Your Nana Kellie is nuts – but in a good way.

To explain:

Last year you were too little at six months old to really do much on Halloween other than crawl around and be cute – at which you excelled.

This year though, you’re walking, climbing on everything, babbling up a storm and adventurously trying every new thing that comes your way.

Nana – possessing all the powers bestowed on Nana’s – knew all this would happen. So, she planted two pumpkin vines last spring, special just for you.

Those two vines grew and grew and grew. They escaped their bed to entwine and twist and tangle themselves around nearby flowers. They snuck through the fence into the neighbor’s yard. They climbed the chicken wire keeping critters out of the adjoining vegetable bed.

Soon, they produced about a dozen big, beautiful yellow blossoms. Each promised a magnificent pumpkin. About four made that mysterious transformation.

Only one survived. (Pumpkins are very touchy…)

No matter.

Every Saturday when you’d visit, we’d visit the pumpkin (after ringing all the wind chimes and playing with the hose and running through the sprinkler and chasing your ball around the yard and blowing a soap factory’s-worth of bubbles.)

We watched it expand from a pale yellow gourd into a green ball.

Through June, July, August, September we’d check its progress and you would pat-pat-pat it as if to say, “You’re doing good, Mr. Pumpkin.”

Finally, in October, what started as a gentle flower had become a basketball-sized fiery orange pumpkin, perched precariously on the very edge of the vegetable bed’s box frame.

Then, the Saturday before Halloween, just before the rain started falling that would drown the rest of the weekend, I cut the pumpkin off its umbilical cord-like vine and brought it in the house.

That’s when Nana took over.

We agreed that you’re a tad young for us to carve the pumpkin (although, I can’t wait to see what you do with all the seeds and guts next year!)

Pumpkin 2 Instead she brought out her box of paints and several brushes, small, medium and large. She stripped you down to your birthday suit, covered you in a towel, and let you have at it.

Strangely, it took a while for you to understand what to do. So, Nana showed you how to turn that plain orange orb into something fantastic.

She put the brushes in your hands and laid them in the paint and demonstrated how to slather the paint on the pumpkin however your sweet, imaginative 19-month-old heart desired. Once you understood that you had free reign you were off to the races.

And when the brushes somehow limited your toddler genius, Nana showed you how to use your hands to complete your first Halloween masterpiece.

This was the “Nana is nuts” part.

When Nana asked me if I wanted to help you paint or to take pictures, I gladly and quickly grabbed the camera. Papa is adventurous in many ways. I’ll climb anything, run anywhere, do just about any silly thing you can imagine.

But I don’t like messes. They make me very anxious. Just ask your mother or Aunt Livie about them eating S’mores on our camping trips…

And you, my love, were a mess.  pumpkin 3

Your Nana Kellie, on the other hand – or two hands, which looked like five-fingered rainbows – has no problem getting dirty in the name of good, clean fun. You’ll learn this more when you’re old enough to join her in the kitchen. (I am already nervous about cleaning up after you make your first batch of cookies together…)

By the time you two were done that pumpkin would have made Jackson Pollock proud (if he’d taught 19-month-old babies how to paint.)

And none of it would have happened without your Nana.

See, here’s the thing:

Everybody is different. Everybody has special skills and interests, likes and dislikes. Things that make them happy (like messy finger painting) and things that make them not-so-happy (like messy finger painting.)

The greatest gift of Life is the blessing of being with other people. The chance to share your unique ideas and talents and experiences. Learn a little bit about something you never knew. Discuss and debate what’s important to someone else so you can decide what’s important to you.

That only happens when you accept and celebrate the notion that other people are different than you.

See, the world is not now, never has been and never will be simply black or white. It is a paint palette with many colors. You may not like all of them. You may never use some. But you’ll be a better artist for knowing that they exist.

Maybe, when you’re older and starting to make your own choices about relationships and values, you’ll look back at the pictures of this pumpkin.

Maybe you’ll remember you and Nana chattering away as paint splattered on the rug,  the table, your booster seat, you, her, even the poor dog. Oh, and some got on the pumpkin, too.

(Meanwhile, Papa stood as far away as the camera would allow, cracking up when you started chair dancing to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”)

And you’ll know that this magical moment happened because two different people shared their spirits and love with you.

May it always be so.

The Best Advice I Ever Got

30 years

About this time 27 years ago, I was in a bad place.

On a late summer day in 1992, I came home from my job as a reporter for a suburban daily newspaper.

A job that filled my lifelong dream to be a professional writer. That met my insatiable curiosity and (somewhat cocky) need to be an information authority. That could lead to one day working for the Chicago Tribune and, maybe, writing books.

A job that put me above most of my college peers who’d started their careers at smaller dailies or weekly newspapers as is often the case for many new grads of nearly all smaller universities or those without “Columbia School of Journalism” in their titles.

A job I’d done so well that, in only my second year I was assigned to cover the second phase of a massive and infamous child murder trial. My work on that two-year-long story led my boss to call me his “Golden Boy” and to give me the city beat, the most prestigious in the newsroom. At 24 years old.

A job which defined what and who I was. Or, at very least, what and who my abundant ego imagined I was. As it does for many (most?) men, in a way that many (most?) women cannot understand.

And about an hour earlier, I’d been fired.

Not without cause, I admit. I screwed up. I made three errors in print, violating my boss’s “Three Mistake” rule.

That the errors involved several local major mucky mucks magnified their weight. Still, to be fair, I’d have been fired even if the offended parties had been much less important. My boss was at least consistent in that way.

In any case, I was spiritually decimated.

In a matter of a few ill-fated weeks, I’d apparently lost all the journalistic skills I’d honed. I’d forfeited any latitude all my achievements had bought.  A mistake was a mistake was a mistake. Errors were black eyes for the newspaper and could not be tolerated.

I’d lost my personal equilibrium. My confidence. My identity.

Worse, I was only three years married. Like many young couples we struggled and scraped, squeezing every penny, doing whatever magic we could to multiply them like Jesus’s fishes and loaves.

How could I face my wife? What would she think of me now that I had failed at the one thing at which I’d supposedly excelled? The foundation of my whole being?

Now, with the benefit of 27 years of hindsight, I know I didn’t need to worry.

My wife Kellie cushioned my crashing ego, consoling me as I sobbed angry, accusatory and fearful tears into her shoulder.

Then she (rhetorically) slapped me, hard.

She held both my hands and said, simply, “Take the weekend, feel sorry for yourself, then on Monday, go get a job.”

It was the best advice of my life.

It set me on a right path, forcing me to learn how to take the bad with the good, even (especially) when the Bad seems absolutely, unquestionably, impossibly insurmountable.

Life is filled with just such mountainous bumps. Yet each can be chopped down to size with candor, courage and a lot of hard work. Just put aside your ego and address the reality of the present rather than the myth of the past or the fantasy of the future.

In other words, get over yourself, get busy and get on with it.

It was a hard life lesson learned the hard way.

The kind of advice that exposed raw anxieties. Necessary, yes, and painful. But less stinging coming from someone who loved me enough to love me honestly.

Now, we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on September 16th.

And I thank Kellie for this and countless other examples of her pragmatic wisdom and guidance. This, perhaps more than anything short of our children has been her greatest gift to me.

Her ability to understand and sympathize, then find a way forward has steadied our rudder amid more Life storms than I can even recount.

I have witnessed these razor-sharp, hammer-blunt skills used coldly and effectively with nearly everyone in her life – our kids, other adults, even her employees.

Ironically, many of her staff, most of whom are barely out of their teens see her as “Momma Kellie” when she listens kindly to their complaints about this problem or that. They sometimes forget that they’re in the adult world now. They never realize that “Momma Bear” isn’t far behind when their young adult angst crosses the line into inappropriate nonsense.

I often say, with tongue firmly in cheek that I am very nearly perfect. So, Kellie’s approach to life is often frustrating in the moment.

Yet, with the grace of time and love, that moment usually passes, and I come to understand and (usually) even admit the rightness of her position.

I am not perfect.

Kellie is not perfect.

Heck, we are not perfect.

But we are perfect for each other.

We balance each other after all these years.

Kellie is that person who waits patiently in line at the Wal-Mart behind the guy with three shopping carts full of stuff in the 20 items or less aisle. I am the one who screams obscenities at the local coffee shop because I had to wait 10 minutes for my drink.

Together, we have suffered professional upheavals, financial hardship, health issues, parenting challenges and personal hurdles that would have killed many a lesser partnership.

In those times we cried together. Held the other close. Offered each other the support that can come only from the other half of one’s true soul.

We struggled through. We survived. We succeeded.

And then, when the clouds broke, we celebrated. Often with family and dear friends. But always, first and foremost, with each other. The kind of celebration that can come only with the other half of one’s true soul.

For any partnership to work right and well, the tears must be taken together with the laughter. That is the secret – if there is such a thing — to staying together 30 days much less 30 years.

Now we look comfortably toward Tomorrow, whatever it may bring.

Retirement? Soon, we hope, but probably not soon enough.

Travel? That’s our dream. Wherever our hearts take us, in a small camper, for weeks at a time.

Grandkids? As many as our kids will give us, whether two-footed or four. Every one of them will get whatever they want from Nana and Papa.

The point is, whatever the future holds for us, we will be holding each other.

Picking each other up.

Sharing a quiet Sunday morning cup of coffee.

Screaming with laughter.

Inspired by — and grateful for — what we know, and what we cannot yet imagine.

Together.

*************************************************************************************

I wrote this poem for our wedding and share it now to mark our 30th anniversary. It is even more true today than it was all those years ago.

BETROTHAL

She is magnificent gift,

Serene, secure, intelligent, beautiful.  Like the beach, always there

to soothe the passion of the waves frenzied by storm after life’s storm.

Caress them, quietly absorb their unguided anger, unknowing fury.

And by taking, she gives.

Little by little, grain by grain.

Together

They pulse with life, discernible in their individuality.

Thankfully,

Always, always perfectly whole, becoming a part of each other, their

best elements combined, but never, never repressed.

Together

They prove the genius of compromise, the brilliance of compassion, the

rightness of forgiving.

Together

They leave no question, for those who still do, that God, and His love are real.

 

A Great Day for Art, Attitude, and Olivia

birthday  I wrote this for our youngest daughter Olivia on her golden birthday in 2006. She was a remarkable child, and is an equally-remarkable young woman today at 24 years old. 

This is available in my first book, “Chocolate Cows and Purple Cheese and other tales from the homefront.”

Happy birthday, Livie.

September 11 will always and forever be a happy day for me.

That sounds strange to most people, understandably, given the sad events now inextricably associated with the date.

But I don’t say it to shock or awe. Rather the day will be – is — special because it is our youngest daughter’s birthday – and more so this year because it is her golden birthday.

Ever since the attack, Olivia has had to endure the mostly-innocent, yet still-pointed questions and comments about her birthday that only kids can pose — along the lines that the day is somehow cursed, as is she, by extension.

But as we’ve told her, she came along six years before the tragic events that now identify September 11. So it has always been a special day –and for much happier reasons – for us.

Olivia was our planned child.

My wife insists that our eldest daughter, Emma, was an accident, the result of her forgetting to take her birth control during a very busy time in our young marriage. I figured my wife just figured it was time and didn’t bother to tell me. I no longer debate the point. Knowing when to give up an argument is the better part of valor in marriage.

Either way, the clock was now ticking, pun intended.

We believed that siblings born closer together (eventually) develop tighter bonds. So we decided to have our second child as soon as possible.

Circumstances dictated a planned C-section delivery. So we were able to literally schedule Olivia’s birth – in the hospital by 6 a.m., have the baby by 8 a.m., dad back at the office by 1 p.m. at the latest.

Olivia has been a child of just such precision ever since.

She is very literal, making it frustrating sometimes to do anything that requires the suspension of disbelief or the application of metaphor or symbolism.

Watching movies or television programs, listening to certain songs, etc. can become a chore as we have to explain that the actors are not the characters, or that the singer may not have really done all the things that the lyrics suggest.

And she loves math, which can be particularly and especially vexing for a writer-father whose life is dominated by the other side of his brain.

Still, Olivia is one of the most creative people I’ve met.

She has started more unique businesses than any five Donald Trumps – painting and selling rocks, making and selling origami animals, decorating and selling wooden plant stakes, creating and selling homemade salad dressing, cleaning cars for a fee. (The “selling” is key – like all entrepreneurs, this kid likes the smell of money…)

Likewise Olivia loves art. She has taken up painting and drawing of every kind – water colors, tempura, chalk, pencils, ceramic snowmen and fish and holiday ornaments with her great aunt.

Then like a water bug flitting across the pond of art, she jumped to origami. Our home looked like a paper factory hit by a bomb. Then this past spring, after watching the Patrick Swayze vehicle “Ghost,” she fell in love with clay, and took a park district pottery course.

Like most parents my wife and I have often marveled at the differences in our kids’ personalities. And like most parents, we’re often baffled. We raise them the same, we love them the same, we feed them the same, etc.

Yet they turn out so different.

Perhaps the reason (at least partly) lies in their own relationship. Being second-born often creates challenges that first-borns don’t understand.

And it probably didn’t help that our eldest, upon meeting her baby sister for the first time, identified her with the only living thing she’d met that was smaller than her – a dog.

As she saw her mom holding the baby, our first-born said, “Can I pet it?” Not “her,” but “it.”

Like all second children Olivia has worked ever since to carve her niche in our family in her own way. Whereas her sister’s presence is known by default of being first, Olivia has had to stake her claim in life through sheer confidence.

She is, if only in her own mind, right as rain, in every decision she makes, no matter how far off the beaten path. Attitudinally, she can be 10 pounds of attitude in a five pound bag. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Other times, it’s enough to drive a saint to sin.

But that can-do attitude, that confidence, that charisma, that vim and vinegar, has already brought her a long way. And, I suspect, it will carry her through life in ways that those who doubt themselves can only envy.

So on her special day, we wish Olivia a happy birthday. You are very special to us, and for more than just the date of your birth.

Thinking of You

inconsiderate

Dear Riley,

In a few days you’ll be 17 months old.

In such a short time you have taught everyone in your orbit some very important lessons: the relief found in the bottom of a full bottle, the rejuvenating power of a long nap and the soul-lifting joy of a wet, slobbery raspberry kiss on the belly.

Now it’s time for me as your Papa to share two equally vital truisms:

Lesson #1: I am not a grumpy old man, no matter what your Nana, mother, aunt or anyone else claims. I certainly have my moments of impatience, intolerance and general frustration, however, at heart I truly believe in the inherent goodness of most people.

And Lesson #2: many of the people you will meet in life are inconsiderate and thoughtless about the world around them. This disappoints me terribly and sometimes makes me very grumpy indeed.

Thankfully, you’re too young yet to know about this aggravation, much less deal with it. But, sure as the sun rises you will, at some point run face-first into someone else’s lack of concern for your own well-being.

It will sting. How can it not? After all, you are (and I trust you will continue to be) a kind-hearted soul. Thankfully, you have not yet suffered the irritation of those who flit myopically like so many gnats, around and in and out of your eyes and nose and ears.

With little regard for anything else, they selfishly follow only their own path, fulfilling only their own needs, the impact of their actions on you only a fleeting thought in hindsight if at all.

This sounds so bad, I know. It breaks my heart because it’s so disappointing every time it happens. And it happens a lot.

From something as seemingly innocuous as the person who plays their music at 11:30 at night when people are trying to sleep, to those who litter, dirtying up our common shared spaces, when garbage cans are only a few feet away.

And then there are the more serious infractions: the violations of your trust, loyalty, heart and spirit – but we’ll wait until you’re in your teens to discuss those.

No, Papa is not a grumpy old man. I just want people to be aware of those around them and to understand, respect and appreciate that we all exist together. That we all have value. That all our lives are significant and meaningful.

I make a concerted effort to think about how my actions will affect the people around me. Family, friends, coworkers, even strangers. I remember, and seriously consider that everyone in my life may and can and will be touched somehow by what I think, say and do.

I am not perfect. Not by a long shot. Heck, I couldn’t see perfection from where I stand even with the Hubble telescope.

Still, is it so much to ask people to just be considerate?

Of course, it is impossible to always think about the ripples every little thing you do and say will cause in someone else’s pond.

Sometimes one simply must act in one’s own best interests.

This is especially true for anyone who has been oppressed and repressed in our society which has made (and continues to make) oppression and repression a national sport. That means women, people of color, immigrants, etc.

Everyone deserves the chance for equality, and sometimes equality demands and requires a self-focused (not to mention self-righteous) fight.

Yet even in that regard, fighting for your individual rights can and often does help others slogging through the same mud.

Like so much in life, this can be confusing. We live in a world of grays. Anyone who says everything is either “black or white” just doesn’t want to do the work necessary to consider other perspectives.

Which is really the point.

I wrote another story about the need for “empathy” – the ability to understand other people’s feelings. But before you can understand them you must first acknowledge that they exist and deserve your understanding.

If you do that my sweet girl, if you consider and care about how your life intersects with and impacts others, the world will be a better place for you being in it.

And your Papa will have one less thing to be grumpy about.

 

 

 

 

 

A House Is Not a Home

house  Well, I guess it’s official. She’s never moving back home now…

That’s a little bit of inside humor between my wife Kellie and me. She used to mock me mercilessly when I whined about our daughters moving out. I always joked that we couldn’t take down their beds because, you know, they might still move back at some point.

(Yet Kellie and I will mark 30 years of marriage in September despite my sense of humor…and people say there’s no such thing as miracles…)

See, our youngest daughter, Olivia moved out two years ago into a tiny apartment with her very significant other, Tyler and their puppy Joker, a goofy, exuberant, affectionate pittie mix.

Then, they bought their first house together a couple months ago.

The first move was very hard on my psyche. However, the second move was much easier.

As I’ve written before, I had a bumpy “Dad Transition” as both of our daughters turned the corner toward Young Adulthood.

Strangely, I wasn’t as affected when Emma moved in with Jake, her husband-to-be, — maybe because Olivia still lived at home.

But when they were both gone? That was like a ball-peen hammer to the back of the head.

Now though, not so much, thanks to the comforting balm of Time.

Sure, I still get a bit misty-eyed thinking of our daughters as babies, toddlers, adolescents and (believe it or not) even teens. I truly loved watching them grow and helping to shape their lives in whatever little ways I could.

However, now I see different things through my misty eyes:

  • A still-small house that suddenly has enough room again for Kellie, our two small dogs and me;
  • The office I secretly coveted for 20 years, carved from Olivia’s old bedroom, filled with my collection of hundreds of books;
  • Emma’s old room transformed into the crafting nook Kellie likewise dreamed of, overflowing with examples of her talent and creativity;
  • The freedom (and slightly improved finances) to enjoy dinner out more often, accept more invitations for long weekends away with friends and even take impromptu vacations.

Those things are all good. Yet, they pale – I mean, absolutely disappear into the wispy vapor of nothingness – compared to the things that are truly important:

  • A wonderful husband for Emma (and son-in-law for us), now three years into a strong marriage;
  • A charming, talented life-partner for Olivia (and, we think, a future son-in-law for us);
  • And the most beautiful and very-nearly-perfect granddaughter ever, in Riley Jean.

Sure, I miss my girls. But joyous pride more than compensates for melancholy memories.

That’s where Olivia’s and Tyler’s new house comes in.

Home ownership means many things, not least of which is the financial, legal and contractual responsibility that comes with property ownership. The work (and the money) to buy; the work (and the money) to maintain; the work (and the money) to improve. The work. And the money.

Olivia’s and Tyler’s new digs are quaint and cozy – code for “on the small side.” Trust me, Kellie and I have lived “on the small side” for 23 years, so I know of whence I speak.

It’s about 40 feet from the Fox River in Montgomery. A beautiful park and walking path beckon from across the river. Both are wonderful amenities to current owners and enticing selling points to future buyers.

(They’re also the cause for significant Dad anxiety every time it rains and the river rises, but hey, that’s why God – or Satan — invented insurance…)

It’s a bit of a fixer upper. More so, I think than they realized, but that’s what family and friends are for. (Tyler’s parents, and Kellie and I donated some “Parent Equity,” helping them move, paint, fix some things, etc. )

Yet, they couldn’t be happier, and for good reason.

Buying a house together means so much more than just co-signing a mortgage.

It’s a solid symbol of something as ethereal as “Love.”

What better picture of a hopeful future, what more positive affirmation of long-term commitment is there for a young couple than investing in their first house?

Likewise, it is a small but meaningful proof of our own achievement as parents.

Their house says that we, Olivia’s and Tyler’s parents (and Emma’s and Jake’s, too) raised kids with good heads on their shoulders and big hearts in their chests. Young people willing to work today, and dream of a tomorrow, together.

Yet, simply buying a house is not the end-all, be-all.

As a young newspaper reporter, I learned that words that seem synonymous often aren’t.

For example, a “house” is not a “home.”

A “house” is a collection of building materials assembled to create a shelter.

A “home” is what one makes of a house.

Turning a house into a home is a lifetime project.

Kellie and I bought a tiny house after seven years in apartments, a young couple with a toddler, an infant and a small dog.

We scraped and scrapped. Borrowed and begged. Worked even harder when needed and reluctantly accepted help when our bills outpaced our pride.

In the process we made it a home.

We filled it with love and laughter. Made it a place of comfort and security. Created a sanctuary for their injured/confused/angry spirits.

None of it was easy. All of it was worth the struggle.

We created a place defined not so much by four walls as by two hearts.

A place where our children now feel welcome to return as adults and know that they will be supported and cherished when they do.

Now our nest is completely empty save the two dogs. We look forward to new adventures with our family in our home.

And we hope and pray that our daughters and their families find the same joy in theirs.

 

 

Close Enough

49758-Jesus-crucifixion-1200x627-thinkstock.1200w.tnSo, what’s so “good” about Good Friday?

It’s one of the most common, confusing, frustrating and foundational questions in Christianity.

After all, this is the day when the man called Jesus died as an enemy of the Roman state. A common criminal. A political agitator and potential adversary. 

Though not unexpected — Jesus himself predicted his coming death — his crucifixion was nonetheless terrifying and heartbreaking to his followers.

More than that, it was embarrassing.

After all, some of them had invested years of their lives in this man. They knew him as a powerful leader. A brilliant, if somewhat radical teacher. Possibly, a king and savior, even. They’d seen him leading a world-changing political, religious and social movement (perhaps with one or two of them maybe sitting at his side and wielding some of his authority.)

Yet, now, they could only see his brutalized body hanging from a bloody cross. 

What had happened? What had gone wrong?

History tells one story.

Faith tells another. 

Faith shows us that the movement did indeed happen. And the world did change.

For out of Jesus’ horrible death came eternal life.

A mere moment in time redefined Time itself.

And the angry screams of hatred became the soothing whispers of love.

We just have to be brave enough to listen, closely, with both ears and hearts. 

And hear.

Happy Easter.

CLOSE ENOUGH

Yes, Lord, I hear you

calling me to the foot of your cross

I love you, I want to carry your burden

but I see your pain–

The salty tears in your eyes

The rancid smell of your dying

The sticky blood knotting thorns and hair

The slivers buried deep in your palms

The shame of your broken nakedness

–And I am a sparrow in a storm

Yes, my child, I know your fear

It bows my back and stills my spirit

Yet, where else but at the foot of my cross

Can you be close enough–

To feel the soulless metal that stole my life

To see the gnarled wood through my wounds

 to kneel in the dirt,

moist with my sweat and tears and blood

–To know, truly, finally what I did for you?

Where else, but here, at the heel of my suffering

Are you close enough for me to touch and hold you,

And whisper, so softly that only your heart will hear,

“I love you.”