The Sins of My Father

Forgiveness is Freedom

Like many sons, I worshiped my father.

He was strong and kind, slow to anger and generous with what he earned. He supported me. He supported my whole family. Then one day, when I was in my early thirties, a horrible revelation kicked the supports away and I fell into the dust.

That was the day I called my step-mother on Easter, to wish her a happy holiday. I called her from work, because I could get a free long-distance line. I was more than half-way through my 20-years in the Air Force then and stationed in Germany. My dad lived with me. I had taken him in because he had fallen apart emotionally and physically after he and my step-mother divorced five years before.

After half-a-decade, I still didn’t know why their marriage failed. They had been together for twenty years and it seemed like a pretty good relationship. And for reasons unknown, both parents refused to reveal what broke them apart.

Whenever I called, my step-mom found it difficult to talk with me. Apparently, I reminded her of my father and many terrible, but secret, memories. This time, after a few minutes, she had broken down in tears and asked me not to call anymore. She just couldn’t take it. I was devastated. My biological mother had left my father and I when I was nineteen- months-old, and here, my step-mom, the only mother I had ever known, was abandoning me as well.

“Roy, I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.” I could barely understand her as she sobbed, nor could I understand why we couldn’t still be mother and son.

“I don’t think you should contact your step-brother or sister, either, Roy. They are coping with problems of their own, and you’ll just complicate things.”

“You know you’ll be leaving me with no family.” My voice started to break.

“I have to go,” she said.

I didn’t want to make a scene in the workcenter or hurt my mother’s feelings anymore than necessary, so I said, “Okay, mom. Goodbye.” But before I hung up the phone, she said, “Wait…I need to tell you something.”

There was a long minute of dead silence on the line. I was about to ask if she was still there when she finally spoke.

“The reason I divorced your father was because he sexually abused your step-sister and one of your step-brothers from the time they were nine until they were sixteen. I wouldn’t tell you this, except that you’re dating that woman with two kids,” she said.

Early in our call, I had told her I was in a long-term relationship with a woman who had two children.

Don’t let those little boys be alone with him.” And she hung up.

It took awhile for that to soak in.

The image I held of my father shattered like a favorite mirror into a million shards. That mirror was one I looked into often and saw myself, one that reflected all the ways I was like my dad: the line of our jaw,  the gentleness of our eyes, the kind sternness that bubbled up from our hearts. Those mirrored images broke into sharp pieces of betrayal that sliced through my love and especially my trust.

Now what was reflected in the mirror? I found some of my identity there. Could I do that now? Was I like my father in ways I hadn’t looked very deeply at? According to my grandmother, my grandfather had been a child abuser. She’d caught him in the back of his auto repair garage with a little girl who had her panties around her ankles. I was afraid of just how deep our similarities might be.

I can’t say I was angry right away. Emotionally, I was lost and didn’t know what to feel. Pouring myself a cup of coffee, I stepped outside for a smoke in the break area, but couldn’t sit still, so I walked around the satellite compound where I worked,  thinking and looking up at the stars. Their light seemed cold there in the black vacuum of space. That’s how the inside of my chest felt, cold and utterly empty.

I felt alone, too. My mother had just pushed me aside, unable to stand the pain I caused by association. She’d cut me off from my siblings, as well. I didn’t have a biological mother that I knew, and now I find out I didn’t really know my dad either. Was he going away, too?

I walked for hours, smoking cigarette after cigarette until Hal, one of my co-workers, came out and said they needed me back inside.

“You alright?” He asked.

I put my hand on his shoulder, “No. But let’s not talk about it. Okay?” He shrugged it off and we went inside.

The rest of my shift went by quickly, and soon I was driving home to face my dad. A prospect I was not looking forward to.

My dad wan’t home when I arrived. So, I had a little while to mull over what I might say and how he might react. What was I going to do? We were living in Germany. I couldn’t easily distance myself from him, but that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do anyway. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Confusion and disbelief clouded my thinking.

I was angry, especially about how my father’s perversion had injured my family and driven them from me. What kind of hell had my sister and brother been through as children? And now as adults? What amount of guilt weighed my mother down after she found out what had happened? What fits of painful self-condemnation wracked her after discovering she hadn’t protected her children?

Even though these and a dozen other mixed-up thoughts pounded me, I still couldn’t have brought myself to just throw him out into the cold. Knowledge of his sinful perversion cut through my love, but now I can see that those bonds were too tough, too deep to be severed quickly.

When my dad came in, we exchanged our usual greetings. He stood in the living room doorway, swaying a little. He’d been over at a local pub, the Snell Imbiss, drinking with a few of his German friends. I sat at my word processor, where I had been writing a letter.

“I called mom today,” I said, letting that sink in.

“Yeah? What’d that bitch have to say?” He sat down, pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

The revulsion in his voice and the emphasis on the name, “bitch” made me wince inwardly. “Who are you to call anyone a bitch?” I thought.

“She told me why you two divorced.”

He froze a little in his chair, then took a deep drag and flicked his ashes.

“What did she tell you?”

“She told me you sexually abused my step-sister and step-brother from the time they were nine until they were sixteen.”

“What do you think of that?”

His cold matter-of-factness shocked me. At the same time, I was glad he didn’t deny anything. I had feared my confrontation with him might turn into a shouting match of denials and recriminations. Instead, he sat there quietly smoking in the shadows across the room. I could see his hand shake as he rolled the glowing red tip of his cigarette along the edge of his ashtray, betraying the fact that he was afraid, either of losing me or having to go back stateside to uncertain circumstances.

“I certainly don’t think it was right, dad. How could you do that? What the fuck were you thinking?” I was growing upset.

“Well, you need to hear my side of it, Roy. Your step-sister had a role to play…”

“Don’t give me that shit! My brother and sister were kids. You were a grown-up! He was ten and she was fucking nine-goddamn-years-old, dad!”

We sat there in silence. I couldn’t believe he was trying to make excuses. I felt ready to explode. He’d poisoned everything I knew about my family. It was gone.

Even though I was furious, what strangely coursed through my mind right then was how I needed to forgive. It was Easter. I am a Christian, and I deeply believe in the teachings of Jesus and the commandments of God. And all evening as I walked around the compound, I had been asking myself, “Even now, does God expect me to honor my Father? Even now, in the face of such an abomination, does Jesus want me to forgive? I’m an only child. My biological mother was who knew where. To shun my father made me an orphan to all intent and purposes. Is that what I wanted?”

My dad hadn’t moved or said a word. He just sat there smoking. I’m sure he was more than a little drunk. He and his buddies at the Imbiss put away a lot of beer a few nights a week.

Above my desk I had tacked a Calvin and Hobbes comic that I had cut from the Stars and Stripes Newspaper. It was one where Calvin’s Dad has just arrived home, and a sheepish Calvin is standing in the yard with a sign that says, “Hate the sin. Love the sinner.” Above the Dad’s head is a thought bubble with the words, “Uh, oh.”

“Yeah. Uh, oh’s an understatement.” I thought.

I’d hung it there because it was funny and it was something I truly believed in.

I pulled it off the wall, took a deep breath, and walked over to my dad and handed him the comic.

“Why’re you giving me this?” He asked. “What’s it got to do with anything”

“Dad, listen. It doesn’t matter where truth comes from. I believe what that comic says and I have to forgive you what you’ve done: for you, for me, for God. No matter how you’ve betrayed me, I can’t hate you. You’re my father.  But no matter what, this is  going to take some time to resolve.”

He held the comic for a moment, then handed it back. He avoided looking me in the eyes and didn’t have anything to say.

I said goodnight, and went to my bedroom, where I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate. Eventually, I fell asleep.

My dad and I didn’t talk much for days after that evening. But eventually, the air began to thaw, and we slowly returned to a semblance of regular day to day life.

I had to tell my girlfriend at the time about what I’d found out, for her children’s sake. She supported me and empathized, but she was wary of my dad, and it wasn’t long before we parted ways. And no matter how amicable our parting was, it left me just as alone.

Two years after the fateful call, we returned to the States, and he lived with me for three more, until I met my future wife and married her.  During that time, our relationship was cool and distant. He lived on the upper floor of the place I rented, and I lived on the bottom. We didn’t do much together. The love for him that once flowed from me with unrestricted freedom was dammed forever.

Forgiveness is a struggle, like love can be a struggle. There are days when I think of my father and only feel pity and hope he’s alright. I worry about his health and whether he has confessed his sins to God and received forgiveness. Other days, I wrestle with anger or wish he would just die and it’d be over. I can only hope that, when I stand before God and Jesus, my forgiveness was complete, but I’ll never be sure that it is.

I don’t regret my attempt to forgive, though. I shudder to imagine the damage that could have been done to both our hearts and souls by holding my anger and hatred of his sin close.

Now, I’ve been married for twenty years and have two beautiful, gifted children. I hold their love so much more dear as a result of my family’s betrayals. I have spent time in the desert, and as a result have been better able to enjoy the Easter of my soul, as it rises from the dust.

Taking the Lift

Do your work weeks resemble downhill runs on a giant slalom?

Mine did. Thankfully, Monday’s usually started out a little slow. (At worst, they felt like a ski jump — zip-aieee!) Wednesday’s picked up the pace, and I dodged flimsy obstacles disguised as meetings. By Friday I’d be screaming downhill praying not to crash before my deadline and the weekend.

I didn’t feel in control. Every day from morning until bedtime, habits, routines, and obligations, life’s equivalent of gravity, had me in their grip and yanked me downhill until I hit terminal velocity.

Don’t get me wrong; life wasn’t all bad. Actually, the thing is, a part of me kinda liked it.

It was fun to zip headlong through the week. It made me feel important and wanted. When I met my deadlines, got the kids to all their activities, and still had time for Game of Thrones, it made me feel like an Olympian — masterful.

The problem (you see it coming, right?) is that it didn’t go that way often enough. More times than not, I’d end up scrambling after a new deadline, weaving through traffic yelling at my stressed-out kids and the jerk who just cut me off, and wondering, “What am I doing?”

Unlike the Olympics, my downhill lifestyle didn’t end after three runs and ninety seconds of nerve-wracking excitement. It kept going. And even though it’s exciting, I noticed that the days blurred together as much as scenery going by at ninety miles an hour. Life is short enough, and no matter how thrilling, to lose so much of it to speed proved untenable.

Taking the Lift

I needed to change my life to match the way winter athletes preserve their performance. Once a skier speeds across the finish line in her magnificent spray of snow, there’s a built-in break. She has to ride the lift back up.

While taking the lift, review the last run from a new, higher perspective

Downtime is built into the process. While taking the lift, a skier relaxes and takes in the scenery around him. He reviews the track and his last run from a new, higher perspective. He takes the time to rest, reflect, and plan, which is what everyone, not just an athlete, needs in order to perform at their best week after week. What my ragged nerves needed was an opportunity for retreating a little from life’s frenetic pace.

Mindfulness

So, for my “Taking the Lift” I looked into meditation or mindfulness, which is more than just resting. It’s a conscious, nonjudgmental focus on one’s body and surroundings. The practice has grown over the past few years as it has gained scientific backing and become more mainstream. It’s a simple meditation method that can be associated with a spiritual practice, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s no need for a mantra or indoctrination into a religion. All it takes is a little time and some patience.

You really don’t even have to give up the excitement and thrill of working hard or only work half-days. To have a beneficial effect, even a brief, 10-minute daily practice can result in better thinking and anxiety control (Moore, Gruber, Derose, & Malinowski, 2012.) There is one caveat: to reap maximum benefits of mindfulness, it truly needs to be a practice, meaning that it must occur regularly and often. So, it’s not a once a week kind of thing. It’s daily.

Journaling

But what if sitting in dark rooms and simply being aware of your breathing sounds boring because you feed on activity? Perhaps keeping a journal is more your style. Journaling is less touchy-feely method for “taking the lift,” and allows those who enjoy structured, strategic processes to direct their focus on accomplishments, gratitude, and reflect more deeply on what they’re committed to doing better.

Don’t think that this is just another article about being a better worker. Like mindfulness, keeping a journal provides more benefit to practitioners than improved productivity. Personal writing is yet another way to recover from and cope with anxiety and stress. It is another way to “take the lift,” restore your body and mind, plus preserve your physical health.

Everyone knows that athletes need to train their bodies, but what about their emotional side? Annie Hart, an Olympic cross-country skier, uses journaling to work through the mental aspect of high-pressure racing. In an interview for FasterSkier.com, an on-line magazine, she talked about having “a really hard time shaking off bad races, and ended up carrying negative feelings from one weekend to the next. And I can tell you that there is no amount of physical training that can surmount that.”

The magic of daily journaling works for everyone: introverts, extroverts, athletes, or writers. Whenever the gravity of your days has been hurtling you downhill so fast that you feel out of control, take a few minutes to write about what’s bothering you. Shake out your feelings onto the safe privacy of the page and explore some possibilities for improving your life.

Shake out your feelings onto the safe privacy of the page

However you decide to integrate “taking the lift” into your daily life, whatever method: mindfulness, journaling or something else, it won’t always be easy. No matter what it is you choose, there will be days when you will not want to do it. Days when you’ll be tired, angry, or perhaps in pain. That’s when you fall back on habit and ritual — it’ll get you through the crashes, injuries, or defeats that are sure to come.

Crashes, injuries, or defeats are sure to come

Make your start by identifying with your practices. In the same way you identify with being someone who’s on time for work, or being someone who values family. In your mind, become the kind or person who meditates. Be someone who journals. By identifying yourself with your practice, it will grow to become part of who you are, not something separate. This way, you’re not reliant on anything so fickle as willpower. Just be yourself.

Not everyone can be an Olympic athlete, but all us, even the most sedate desk-jockey, can be under difficult pressures and technological advances have turned many of us in the modern working world into downhill racers. Rather than continually speeding through life, be like those admirable men and women in Pyeong Chang and remember to Take the Lift after each run: relax, reflect, and rejuvenate.

 

Baright Library Poetry Reading

Here are the seven poems that I read for the Ralston, Baright Library Reading. I hope everyone enjoys them. They were a joy to write and a pleasure to read.

Resting on black haunches in the shadows

Weeds

Grew taller when I was a boy

beneath the humid heart of Texas.

Adventure crouched in the dappled

shade cast by broad green leaves,

where I sought monsters through sultry heat.

I knew them by their chipped green

scales or rust-orange armor as they

rested on black haunches in the shadows,

waiting to feed on heroes like me.

Red augers, rising brontosaurus

necks lifted above the jungle weeds,

felt the terrible slice of my cypress

sword and thrust of sugar cane lance.

Across the accursed land, treasure

after treasure and dozens of thankful

damsels were freed from taloned

clutches—just in the nick of time.

In the fields and lots no one tends,

creatures still lurk in the shade of

velvet leaf, bindweed, and fleabane.

Squint your eyes just so and you

will see chrome grimaces and grills

of forgotten menace, waiting for heroes like you.

 

Gingilos dreams of white foam on shallow blue seas.

Musing Over Stone: Mt Gingilos, Crete

Lost time rains on my spirit

and beads on its white feathers,

then I wake to find dew on my bed.

A watery sky arches above me

and mountainous silhouettes

strain for what nobody knows.

I rise from my nylon nest,

half-asleep on unsteady feet,

shivering in the mountain’s shadow.

A fleece shirt buffers the chill,

but nothing need warm my spirit,

ready for its climb in the sun.

 

Gray expanses fall at my waiting feet,

great eyelids sealed over ages of sleep,

their lashes of grass touching the seam

of talus and earth. I imagine, beneath

the blocky grit, Gingilos dreams

of white foam on shallow blue seas.

When my fingers brush the layered dust

on that vital first hold, time seeps

through my skin, slow as the glacier

that groaned past this place

ten thousand years before I awoke.

The eons enter my restless blood

and grind my bones to dust.

 

Cosmic clocks have only moments

of time for me, so I edge upward,

across the face, shifting my weight,

focusing hold to hold. I rise—

a mist of fog—leaving hardly

a trace to remember, soon to evaporate

in the first rays of morning sun.

A thousand feet higher, my heart dizzies

at the vista. Each vertical step

has drawn back the horizon. From here

I glimpse the truth: I am a dust mote,

with an ego large as the star that birthed it.

 

Pausing on a ledge wide as my foot,

I dip my hands into a bag of chalk

belted to my waist. Wisps of white powder

drift away on the wind, disappear

into inner space, part of something

larger—different somehow.

Like me—yesterday.

A thousand feet further on,

at the peak, I breathe cool air,

smell the pines’ tang on the wind,

but their sharpness quickly dulls;

taut senses fall slack off the edge.

The risk—skin in the game—keeps

every tenuous hour precious,

and my spirit above the ground.

The bright rope, running untangled and free, reminds us our fate is tied to one another.

Rope

drapes around my feet,

like an old, faithful dog.

It ties us to this vertical stage

we dance upon as we perform

our rising, brutal ballet for

no one but ourselves.

We push and pull our way

upward in turns, minds

focused and taut, hearts

soothed within the harmony

of rock, line, and movement.

We and the rope knot our fists

against gravity’s strong current,

as each man ascends alone:

lost in the stone’s sharp grit,

the impulsive voice of the wind,

and the silent distance below.

The bright rope, running

untangled and free, reminds us

our fate is tied to one another.

Rope binds us like blood:

woven with faith, unfrayed by fear,

made brave by love.

Under the scornful weight of her near defeated will, she pushes on in hope.

Sisyphus

She envelops the chair across

the desk from me, glancing

up with eyes a little wide

and a wrinkled, hopeful brow.

 

She’s sat in places like this

a hundred times. The pattern,

like a millstone, has worn

a groove in her life;

she no longer sees an escape.

 

Her fight against foraging

in aisles laden with chips

and freezers of custard

regenerates unchanged

as Cosmo mocks her

through the checkout.

 

Still, under the scornful weight

of her near defeated will,

from far behind every

short, gasping breath,

She pushes on in hope.

 

She begs for freedom’s taste,

to walk swift, with grace,

down any street, path, or aisle,

to turn her head and maybe–

see an admiring face.

 

I proffer my open hand,

choosing to be caught

in her endless task

that’s likely too large

for either of us to push aside.

It is my curse to try.

Take this precious moment—it belongs to you.

Take This Moment

Stand beside rippling water
running shallow over glacial sand.
Feel your blood fall into steady
rhythms to match the low whisper
of water moving through the reeds.

Breathe deep, expand your caged body
into fall skies etched with cirrus;
expand beyond the branches
of ash and cottonwood that stretch
sleeping buds into the distant blue.

Fall into the slow march of this world
where time slides by and nothing cares
where it’s from, nor where it goes:
grasses go dormant; water turns to ice;
rocks grind to loess, and bones turn to stone.

Drink this tiny sip of God’s eternity,
feel how it whets your thirsty soul,
set your roots under the mud
and feed from the layers of the land.
Take this precious moment—it belongs to you.

Old Gods

shuffle into the cobbled piazza

dressed in loose brown tweed

and slouching hats that hide

eyes dark with loss.

They sink onto wrought iron

benches below the silent campanile

and toss crumbs of stale grace

from paper sacks to adoring flocks,

pink-footed believers who never

seem sated as they preen and mill

about their gods’ leather soled feet

heads cocked, eyeing for more.

Selfie

Shuffle through the streets,

careful not to trip and fail,

a splash in Trevi fountain.

Look up, “Oh! A cute kitty!

Cup the phone in your palm

hold it at arm’s length,

compose your personal emoji:

cock your head a touch,

drop a shoulder, tuck your chin

whisper “prune” or smile.

“Look at me!”

Click and whirr the shot

Bring the phone back,

cup it with your body.

Chimp your masterpiece:

face in focus, no bombs,

the kitty looks pretty too.

The world returns to periphery.

“Where was I?” Facebook,

Flikr, Snapchat, Twitter.

“Someone liked my post!”

Writing boldly Toward the Stars

It’s a long, dark road

As I drive along the dirt road home, thoughts settle over me like a high cloud cover. Right now, those thoughts center on how to reach more people with my writing. It’s a New Year, so my mind, like many other peoples’, has turned toward improvement. I’ve been putting in the time, but for years now, whenever I post, all I hear are crickets.

I don’t always post enough, and that’s one of my resolutions–to write more blogs and poems. Nevertheless, I’ve ridden this creative road for a long time, and I feel like a kid who’s driving his parents crazy with questions like,  “Where are we going?” and “When are we gonna get there?” The problem is, I’m the kid, plus the driver, and I don’t have any answers.

With each passing year, it seems to grow less possible to penetrate the time-consuming barriers of school sports, televised entertainment, and social media. Even friends and family report back to me that they can’t spare the five-minutes it would take to read a blog post. They’re caught up in a whirlwind of activity gluttony, filling the belly of their day with so much to do that a wafer thin five minutes would cause it to explode.

Maybe, I’m just whining, but sometimes I think when people say they don’t have time to read my blog, it’s the equivalent of those times when a woman would tell me, “I can’t go out with you. You’re too good a friend.” Yeah. Uh Huh. Sure.

Maybe I’m talking to the wrong audience or not speaking the cultural dialect. Perhaps I’m missing something crucial about where to set up my soap box. Or maybe I’m just not good enough of a writer to hold anyone’s interest. That one scares me the most.

In response to those fears, I have signed up for a four-week course on blogging, plus a couple of short video courses on writing non-fiction and memoir. So, rather than just sitting on my hands and wishing for solutions, I am making attempts toward learning more and gaining some experience. However, what I still fear is that it’s not a skill issue, but more of being one tiny voice in a sea of voices. I sometime’s feel like  a low-magnitude star over the bright lights of a city. Even if the residents look up, they aren’t going to see me.

Boldly going–Nowhere

Above me as I drive, a break in the clouds appears and a few stars shine through. Here in the country, they are bright and clear. An achy feeling, like the pang that rises to meet the lonesome sound of a train whistle, stabs me. Any time I see the stars so clear that I feel like I could touch them, that same ache expands in my chest. I’ve always wanted to be like the crew of the Starship Enterprise and “boldly go where no one has gone before.” So far, no luck. I haven’t gone anywhere.

Even though I’ve been sending emails, hitting the social media, and posting more, my blog and poetry remain in dry dock, where I sIave for hours making repairs and modifications. Hoping I can get out among the stars. I haven’t made it yet, but the ache to write is still strong enough, or to be totally honest, my need for being read keeps me behind the keyboard.

Keeping on

The break in the clouds still lies overhead, and I keep an eye on the stars framed there. While random, they stir stronger emotions than any painting or teenage ballad. The stars and writing call me like  sirens. I can’t stop. And while I may be only destined to  keep going in order to be crushed on the rocks–it doesn’t matter. I’ll keep dreaming of when my personal USS Enterprise of creativity will settle on the teeming public shores and be welcomed at last.

So, I’ll keep boldly going–until I reach the stars or I run out of warp drive, whichever comes first.

Christmas in Your Heart

Only If Christmas lives in your heart, will you find it underneath your tree.

Long ago, and probably still does in some places, the first sign of Christmas emerged from the Church’s liturgical year and from behind the pulpit. Priests and pastors prepared their expectant flocks for the nativity by marking time in advent, an opportunity to contemplate the great gift of Jesus the Savior, the state of one’s worthiness, and the hope for his second coming.

During this time, the gifts, feasting, and family gatherings were physical symbols of a spiritual reality.  The entire holiday centered on and observed the birth of Jesus, God’s gift for humankind’s salvation. We feasted on God’s providence, shared those gifts, and gathered in solidarity and strength against coming winter.

Over time, as you surely know, the world grew more capitalist in nature, and those symbols became something businesses took advantage of. Our sincere spirituality and love for friends and family gave them opportunities for instilling in us a very profitable guilt.

Today, the early signs of what is called “the holiday season” begin as business men and women open the advertising floodgates from every media outlet and their stores prepare lavish displays of tinsel, lights and cottony snow. Their goal is to entice buyers to spend their earnings by making them aware of how little money they need to fulfill their dreams and how much more they’d spend elsewhere.

I cringe a little when someone asks me, “How was your Christmas?” I know they mean well, but they’re not asking me about my holiday in a spiritual sense. For many people, maybe most, Christmas is only gifts, family gatherings, and feasting. None of those are wrong. But without the underpinnings of the Christ story, they are fleeting pleasures that miss the permanence that underlays the season.

Without that permanence, there’s often a post-Christmas let down, poignantly expressed by best-selling author, Jeff Goins, as a kind of lament.  He writes, The (post-Christmas) mixed emotions collide and cloud our vision. Was it the best day of the year, or the worst? Did we find the true spirit of Christmas and recapture child-like wonder? Or did we lose another piece of our innocence to the cynicism of adulthood?” Even if you aren’t a Christian, the actions taken during Christmas depend on something deeper in order to not suffer from a cheapening futility.

There is no greater gift than to lay down one’s life for those you love.

But Christmas doesn’t have to suffer from the cheapening merchandising of the holiday. It can be revitalized by restoring the symbols and transforming our intent.

I have a suggestion. Instead of cringing, taking the easy way out and avoiding the truth, what about donating to a charity? Then you can tell people, “My holiday was good. I donated my time/my talent/my money, to Amnesty international/Women’s Shelters of America, Etc.” Wouldn’t that be better, turning yourself into a beacon of light instead of being disingenuous?

Our small efforts may seem futile in the face of searing family memories and worldly realities, but the world has always had dark places in it. And every life been touched by loss. Those realities, as Jesus said, will be with us always. We have to press on.

I’m not suggesting that these common tragedies are unworthy of deep feelings. I suggest grieving in the light instead of the shadows. Honor your lost and do something in their name, work with them side by side once more.

As far as the hard realities, shine your light of charity and love into what crannies you can reach, but don’t blacken your holiday with what’s beyond your control–leave that to a greater omniscience than your own.

The experience of every holiday is personal rather than societal. Even though I am inundated with ads and other influences, they flow over me like water because I see them for what they are. You see them truly, too. Let them pass unheeded. The experiences I share with my family have nothing to do with that falseness. I purchase gifts with a sincere eye for each person’s needs and hopes. We decorate our home to celebrate the joy of gratefulness we feel. After all, every holiday begins and ends in your own heart.

Take This Moment

Fall into the slow march of this world where time slides by and nothing knows where it’s from, nor where it goes.

Take This Moment

Stand beside rippling water
running shallow over glacial sand.
Feel your blood fall into steady
rhythms to match the low whisper
of water moving through the reeds.

Breathe deep, expand your caged body
into fall skies etched with cirrus;
expand beyond the branches
of ash and cottonwood that stretch
sleeping buds into the distant blue.

Fall into the slow march of this world
where time slides by and nothing cares
where it’s from, nor where it goes:
grasses go dormant; water turns to ice;
rocks grind to loess, and bones turn to stone.

Drink this tiny sip of God’s eternity,
feel how it whets your thirsty soul,
set your roots under the mud
and feed from the layers of the land.
Take this precious moment—it belongs to you.

 

Excellence: The Razor’s Edge

Balancing Excellence with Burn-Out is hard

I’m pretty sure it has to do with the type of reading I do, but I’ve noticed the internet is currently flooded with articles about how to achieve excellence: in sports, at productivity, design, even relaxation. Rebel Power Yoga, anyone? (Really) Everyone is all about improvement, and at the top of the heap is where everyone wants to be. That’s where you gain money, recognition, friends, all of those things our culture teaches us to want. Nirvana’s on the peak. Climb up and discover your validation for the hours, the very-life, you traded for it. On one level, I have no problem with this. I’m kind of a perfectionist. It takes real, conscious effort for me to turn away from striving to be excellent, but I do. Why? because I’ve found that turning away, at least on occasion, is healthy.

Excellence is a classic example of “the razor’s edge.” It’s a precarious walk, and while it’s good to excel at what you do, and to be rewarded is fulfilling on many levels, monetarily, emotionally, and even spiritually, there is a darker side to it.

The Dangers of Excellence

There’s an enormous time and energy commitment to excellence.  Superior performance doesn’t just happen; being the best takes crushing effort and sacrifice. I remember striving to maintain a 4.0 GPA and preserve my scholarship in college. My wife and I were newly married, and over the years of my undergraduate teaching program, we had two children. Most of the time, all she saw of me for two semesters a year was the top of my head as it hovered over textbooks and in front of our computer screen. I absorbed tons of information and, besides Pedagogy and Lit Analysis, I learned that if you burn the midnight oil consistently–you end up in the dark.

I charged at perfection, but like the hallucination it is, excellence stepped easily to the side until I lay bloody and gasping in the dirt.

My ultimate dark was the metaphorical one of clinical depression, and it stayed with me for years afterward, and even now, it haunts my mind like some kind of backstage ghost. Long days of little sleep, no play, and pressure to perform killed every happiness in my life like a matador slays a bull. I had kept my head down and charged at perfection, but like the hallucination it is, excellence stepped easily to the side until I lay bloody and gasping in the dirt.

A Pearl of Great Price

While striving for excellence doesn’t always end  with having to take a happy pill for the rest of your life, there are always costs. In the Christian Bible there’s a parable about a merchant who finds a “pearl of great price” and sells all he owns in order to buy it. If you fail to maintain a broader perspective in your pursuits, excellence will demand you trade everything else in life to achieve it. Is that what you want and do you know what you’re really striving for?

You do need to examine and discern the reality of what you’re pursuing. When you’re standing at that pinnacle, what will be the scene  and will you be happy there? For example, as a personal trainer, I know how to ensure someone can attain the fashionable physical peak–washboard abs. But when someone says they want them, I make a point to ensure they are aware of the work and the payoff, and each person’s genetic and lifestyle differences are going to make the level of effort unique to them.

Excellence can be a Pearl of Great Price

The Hyped Possibility

Part of the current misunderstanding about excellence arises from famous entrepreneurs who have turned to writing about their success, and they have all kinds of prescriptions for success: lists, morning routines, meditations. And these impresarios will tell you, “I’ve interviewed dozens of billionaires, and they all have this one secret in common!” Or “Do this morning routine for twenty minutes in the morning and your life will change.” Uh…huh.

All of them will tell you there’s time, but there really may not be as much as they claim. Often writers say, “Well, if you take eight hours away for sleeping and eight hours away for work, that still leaves you eight hours.” However, once you calculate in necessities of living like, commute time, shopping time, cooking time, religious/spiritual obligations, time to be fully present with your spouse or other committed relationship, school meetings and sporting events, etc, all “extra” time evaporates.

What’s an Achiever to Do?

The call to action? Be excellent at fewer pursuits. Don’t try to be mother of the year and champion chief-executive at the same time. That’s a recipe for years of therapy. Another step to take? Tune into what you want for yourself more and tune out all the “should chatter” from T.V. , magazines, blogs, and news feeds. Those voices do not know you or your unique situation. And sometimes, there’s a level of natural ability involved that is either there or not. Sorry, but it’s true; we’re all different and that sometimes means people are just better at something than we are.

Pursuing excellence is good. But examine closely what you want for yourself. Seek out your deepest reasons for wanting to reach beyond good enough. Remember those who are close and intimate to you. They will be on for the ride. Make sure they want to go. Lastly, and most important–love the process of your pursuit as much as the end product. That way, even the daily work will be something that will make you happy.

Keeping Your Natural Rhythm

I am newborn and slip into the scenery and the silence

Entering the Rhythm

Everyone has a natural rhythm. In my seasonal cycle, mountains rise in me like rivers rise in the spring. When the snow melts off the streets and the trees open their first buds, dreams of walking  through deep valleys and struggling up steep, mountainous slopes flood my sleep, washing away the winter’s months of stillness.  It’s difficult waiting for early summer. I squirm like a kid waiting for Christmas. I make lists of maps and look for places to walk away from empty talk, garish skylines of aluminum, and streets lined with black staves of wire instead of trees.

But, no matter how anxious I am to dive into the first national park I see, when I do go, there’s always a waiting period before I can settle into the trail’s rhythm.  On those initial miles, I feel out of sync with nature, and it’s not until I’m two or three days deep into a long-awaited hike that my body will break through the surface tension holding me captive. My muscles and nerves relax and suddenly, I’m no longer drowning in questions or choices that don’t really belong to me.  From that point, I am newborn and can rise into the scenery and the silence, while the sun’s warmth on my skin laps away the last vestiges of civilization.

Technology and Syncopation

As I slip into every day’s simple cycle, I am reminded of how in the past, for tens of millennia, when the sun went down—the world fell into a darkness we could not see into. What was out there, silent, watching, hungry, was a mystery that no one dared delve into. The night was for taking shelter and sleeping until the sun returned and lit our way again.

We have undone this rhythm with lights on everything. Don’t get me wrong or label me a Luddite; I enjoy having lights to read by, music to listen to, and television to watch, but the fact remains that we have thrown off our natural rhythm, and that exacts a price.

For mostly economic reasons, we have imposed our will on nature’s rhythm, the beat of which has formed us since the beginning of time. This technological syncopation has entered our minds and seriously thrown us off. As an Air Force member, I worked shift work for nearly twenty years, and I remember reading research from the late Seventies that showed the ill effects working night and day had on physical and mental health. Today’s research continues to reinforce those earlier studies.

Paying Modernity’s Price

In 2016, Medical News Today, an international publication for health news, published the results of a meta-analysis that showed shift work posed an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and a second study indicated that shift work impaired brain functions like: memory, cognitive speed, and overall brain power. Apparently, we cannot throw off the rhythms that have formed us without threatening our health.

Depression is higher among shift workers

 

Carla V. Finkielstein, an associate professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech, said that ” television, computers and longer hours of social activity also contribute to what is referred to as “social jet lag,” as well as many new diseases and disorders that are more prominent in Western societies.” Depression is higher among shift workers. Plus, many of these disorders occur in those who work longer hours than usual. Even too much overtime throws one’s system into a tailspin.

Natural Healing

And what can set our mental health back on an even flight path? The outdoors. Being surrounded by nature has been shown again and again to reduce people’s stress, increase their cognitive ability and creativity, and strengthen their ability to focus their attention. Putting aside time to be outside in a pleasant environment shifts our attention away from ourselves and away from negative emotions. Even something as simple as a walk in your local park has been shown to increase your attention, calm stress, and lower your blood pressure.

Remember when I said it took two or three days for me to slip into the rhythm of the trail? Meet David Strayer. He is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who specializes in attention, and he talks about something he calls the “three-day effect.” Strayer demonstrated  it with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. “The three-day effect,” Strayer says, “is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough.”

So there’s scientific proof for what the early environmentalist, John Muir intuited. He said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ” But however beneficial to my health, I will always venture into the wild not because science says I should, but rather how it makes me feel connected to something larger and so very alive.  Entering the rhythm of the natural world resonates within us as humans. Nature restores our spirits, heals our bodies, and soothes  our weary souls.

 

Sisyphus

 

Sisyphus

She envelops the chair across

the desk from me, glancing

up with eyes a little wide

and a wrinkled, hopeful brow.

 

She’s sat in places like this

a hundred times. The pattern,

like a millstone, has worn

a groove in her life;

she no longer sees an escape.

 

Her fight against foraging

in aisles laden with chips

and freezers of custard

regenerates unchanged

as Cosmo mocks her

through the checkout.

 

Still, under the scornful weight

of her near defeated will,

from far behind every

short, gasping breath,

She pushes on in hope.

 

She begs for freedom’s taste,

to walk swift, with grace,

down any street, path, or aisle,

to turn her head and maybe–

see an admiring face.

 

I proffer my open hand,

choosing to be caught

in her endless task

that’s likely too large

for either of us to push aside.

It is my curse to try.

Talk is Cheap

For a long time now, today’s multifaceted media has been howling like a guy wire in a gale of hot air. Technology has provided platforms for every angry citizen, so they can emulate Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh and point out what has riled them to everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against getting angry. It’s normal for people to get mad, protest, and vent. However, when that is all people do or believe that is all they need to do, there’s a problem.

There was a time when I used to hear the people around me say, “Talk is cheap,” but I don’t hear that so much anymore. When people lived in an era of three television channels, no internet, and no computer on their phone, their world view was smaller and more immediate. They couldn’t spend time or place much emphasis on sounding their “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” They were more focused on action in their immediate sphere of influence. As far as they were concerned, most everything else wasn’t even their business. And they were right to a degree.

The American public does need to turn its attention to the business of our closest trees instead of the entire forest. Seeing our own dying trees in a worldwide wilderness is hard. Nevertheless, that is what we must do. If we want to restore value to our talk, we must take visible action. Martin Luther King Jr. was an eloquent and powerful speaker, but his words would have had little value had he not lent his abilities to local organizations that were putting people on the ground at marches, in food pantries, and classrooms. Those actions were the wellspring of hope—not just the words.

Putting people on the ground at marches, in food pantries, and classrooms. Those actions are the true wellsprings of hope—not words.

I’m glad that today’s society has the ability to broaden its awareness with technology, but awareness cannot bridge the need for immediacy in activism.  One can make donations from afar, but that in itself will never fill the need for bodies to do the work. Plus, a physical presence has greater value to any movement because it arises from deep commitment and courage to be a hands on part of change. Inhabitants of cyberspace and the twitterverse must remember that communication never changes anything by itself, angry or otherwise, and when the target is distant, this is even more true. Without some kind of reasoned execution of action behind it, talk just grows irritating.

Even though there are corruptions eating at the world that warrant public fury, take a break from the cheap talk of all caps tweets and Facebook posts. Instead of your keyboards, turn to your community service organizations and local governments. Move toward local achievements rather than depending on easy words that are not likely to incite distant action in others.