“How many slams in an old screen door? Depends how loud you shut it. How many slices in a bread? Depends how thin you cut it. How much good inside a day? Depends how good you live ’em. How much love inside a friend? Depends how much you give ’em.” ― Shel Silverstein
The big freeze in February seemed to kill off the whole back garden. I sit out there in the evenings. The birds are making their last run. What’s left of the squirrel population seem to be heading off to their cubby holes – stopping in their tracks to give me a hard stare.
I began these vigils in complete despair. I had planted a whole new batch of plants all throughout the newly landscaped little back garden. Then a month later came the killer freeze. As I would sit there and look at all the dead plants and think about the wasted dollars, it would be such a discouraging experience.
“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” ― E.B. White
But as the weeks went by, the miracle of life began to show itself all around me. Green slowly appeared. Those bare and cut back branches, barren roots, black soil, all began to take on a new vibrancy. My own spirit started to hope. There were a few specimens I had all but given up on. Even some of these began to come to life again. Just give it some time I whispered to myself each time I looked and saw a different garden.
I thought again and again, what a necessary motto this was for so much more in my life. Just give it some time. There’s always such a hurry all around and deep inside. So much dissatisfaction all over the place. But, it’s not done until it’s done.
Just give it some time. What’s meant to be will come back, one day, bit by bit, never all at once. Just like relationships, second chances, and unplanned transitions. Wait just a little longer, one more evening. I sat and watched the baseball game with thousands of others and it seemed the lock-down was miles away. Just give it some time, all the time it takes.
Sitting out in the garden has now become a wondrous experience, looking at all that has emerged from the soil of hopeless despair to the burning sun of tomorrows yet to be. It’s gonna be really hot as each day passes. Are you sure you want to start sprouting in this heat? But it is a very different time in garden now than it was at first.
Maybe whatever that’s heavy on your heart or mind these days just needs you to stop for a little bit, put it down, step back and just give it some time. Like sliding that cake back into the oven for a few more minutes. Instead of fretting about your feeling of powerlessness or stewing about mistakes, try to just give it some time. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, people and situations need distance, space and days to go by before what will be, will be.
Now, as I sit in the evenings I’m planning where to dig the new holes and introduce the new additions to what’s already on the move. What a completely different feeling. Just give it some time.
“You have to imagine a waiting that is not impatient because it is timeless.”
― R.S. Thomas
I went to an Astro’s game on Memorial Day. As I looked around me and took in the crowd, all the fans and so many young boys in caps with their gloves, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of normalcy. It seemed like life as it should be. The past year of was a stomach turning shoot down the rapids at Stinky Falls in New Braunfels (where I spent my summer Saturdays).
I grew up each summer on a river. We camped out, fished, and swam up and down the wild shores every year. It was an adventure, I didn’t realize at the time, I was building into my memory. I just thought it was how every kid was supposed to “do” summer. So many of my summers in the Texas Hill Country were on a river. It gets hot in the summer! Not just the Llano, but the Comal, Guadalupe and Frio rivers are in my soul. I also swallowed a lot of water from each river every time I was pulled under their rapids.
For me, when I think, dream and write about living, a river is the picture I paint. Those of you who read, know that this is a very common practice. If you take a minute to reflect, you’ll see that your life has had dangerous rapids, mysterious turns, predictable stillness, muddy banks and deep calms.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” ― Norman Maclean
While we watch the enormous social changes talked about on our screens every other day – global pandemics, economic shifts, wars and rumors of wars, racial conflicts, new levels of political correctness going right and wrong… remember that the river of living keeps on moving – through every single landscape.
Everyone has had weddings, funerals, graduations, surgeries, dates, doctor visits and a few planned trips. Our nieces, nephews, cousins and children keep growing up and moving on into their next chapter. All happening despite whatever current catastrophe or historic event is or is not upon us. It’s always been that way.
Living life rolls on, despite the larger than life crisis that might be looming over the next horizon. Most people have had to figure out ways to keep living, to keep floating, as the river pushes us onward. All of us know people who have struggled to keep their heads above the water. But the water keeps moving onward, pushing and pulling everything toward something else.
When you sweep down the river rapids, hold your arms and legs up. The inner tube is blazing hot on the top from the sun. the sound of the water gets louder by the second. Keep an eye out on others ahead of you. Maybe you can quickly figure out someone else’s mistakes and make an adjustment or two in a microsecond. But, in a few minutes, it’s going to be all over and you’ll be shot out into calmer waters, sitting safely atop your tube or gasping for breath from under the current.
I was telling friends the other day about how our neighborhood experienced the 500 year flood in 2017. All of us rushing through the roaring rapids. It’s now a memory and adventure, like so many others through time, to share around the campfire. At the time it consumed us. Now it’s an adventure story about navigating dangerous rapids. Here we are, on a different part of the river, trying to stay afloat in different ways.
“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.” ― Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island, among others)
I’m looking at old photos now. All those summers spent on those rivers. Sacred memories sealed into my everyday living like handprints in wet concrete. I can’t forget those rides through the rapids or the long peaceful floats. They are all one long river flowing through the living of life. In the end, what always matters is the time spent floating, mile after mile down the longer river. That’s what living is, really. Every passage of time, relationship we build, weddings, graduations, hospital visits, shared meals, road trips, they all matter. All compose the perpetual float. I hope you like opera, this one never seems to end.
I watched a news story this morning. Someone interviewed a historian about parallel’s between now and the last pandemic, the 1918 Influenza Outbreak. Once it subsided we experienced the Roaring ’20’s. The news story was about the possibility that we might be leaping into a boom time, with bobbed hairdo’s even!
No one mentioned the Great Depression.
Typically, after the ride down the rapids, few remember the first quarter mile of riverbank scenery. Too much excitement and relief shared among the floaters and boaters. The truth is, there’s always been a longer story to see, more living to swim in whether we notice or not. The wise on the river are able to pay attention and not get distracted by the siren song of past adventures or barely escaped dangers. There will surely be another bend, more noisy waters and care to be taken in the navigation of living.
Being swept down the rapids, that happen now and then, aren’t the river. The young and inexperienced tend to look only at the fast waters. All the froth and fun distracts from the long view. As Robert Frost wrote, there are miles to go. The river is more than all the turbulence, rising floods, drought dried mud and deeply dark pools under the pecan trees. Sometimes, you have to go a few more miles before you’ll know for certain.
“I was born upon thy bank, river, My blood flows in thy stream, And thou meanderest forever At the bottom of my dream.” ― Henry David Thoreau
As I lay my head back on my hot inner tube and feel the cool water run past my body, I know that all of this is life. As the sun starts to set, the frogs in the mud start their songs, a chorus sung for thousands and thousands of years. It’s more difficult to hear and now see that water rolling past as the darkness falls. Maybe a moon will rise up over the hill? Maybe I’ll get better at looking, noticing what’s always been all around me.
A feather’s not a bird The rain is not the sea A stone is not a mountain But a river runs through me – Roseanne Cash
“At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.”― George Orwell
I told my dentist the other day that I was in my declining years. These days, each time I visit someone in the healthcare profession it’s bad news. Something big needs to be shifted, repaired, pulled-up, re-examined again and again or prescribed. I’m not sure if I’m going to make it to the end all in one piece. When I was younger, I just don’t remember all this excessive misery associated with keeping on. I think about it each time I bend over to pick up something off the floor in the kitchen. How long has that been such a pain to do?
My mental faculties are also starting to leak out of my ears as I sleep. If I don’t do it right now, I’m sure to forget a few minutes from now. I’m now more conscious of being unconscious. Does that make any sense?
“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.” ― Mark Twain
Actually I was reading last night and it helped me realize that much of what I’m experiencing might be related to being locked up like a hostage for a year – and having to completely change how I work and live. The other dramatic emotional and cognitive catastrophe that I haven’t had the space to process is my own grief over the loss of my spouse. She passed away to heaven in the Fall before the Spring pandemic hit.
“I wanted to get the tears out of the way so I could act sensibly.” ― Joan Didion
Surely that’s part of what’s going on with me, the lethargy, the cognitive fugue, the confusion and even the disassociation from reality (what does that look like these days?). What about everyone else? Seems like each time I turn on the news our civilization is experiencing some sort of existential crises.
My own life is so often real only in the ways that I perceive it to be.
The current world around me, family dynamics, relationships that are changing, work and interests – all that’s happening in this swirling context that is life – is actually real to me only as far as I perceive it to be. I’m defining situations all the time. I hope to be accurate but so often my moods, fears and knowledge are turning my vision in different directions – sometimes away from the truth. Often what I want isn’t the truth but confirmation, comfort, or control. It’s the same for the whole world. A world with a cell phone stuck in their face.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” ― William Blake
Why do many in our society feel so much disconnection and confusion?
I’m certain that the pandemic and lock-down has been at the root of much of our social feelings of calamity. But I also believe that there’s more to it than that. Something deeper. The way that individuals and groups perceive their situations – the worldview they use to define their reality – helps to explain why members of a society can function most of the time and, some times, can’t seem to get even the simplest goals accomplished.
I was working online recently with colleagues from other universities. We were examining extensive research a graduate student had completed on the college experience of students who are in the minority. The research was conducted using surveys of students from across the country. As we talked about a number of variables, all I could imagine was the vast difference in the ways that todays students might define some of these terms. Were we really getting accurate feedback on the research topic we intended to measure? Or were we seeing a wide range of different perceptions. I was afraid we were ending up with eighteen different versions of “when was the War of 1812?”
Theses days, I sit and listen to the “talking heads” on the television and I shake my head at all the confusion about basic definitions. I realize that some time this is deliberate, but mostly I suspect that people are just being ignorant. All the talk that’s swirling around in our information drowned society and much of it only generates confusion, not clarity.
“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” ― Mark Twain
“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” ― Robertson Davies
Maybe the best moral to my current story is that perception isn’t always accurate. It’s distracted by our physical and mental situations. Perception is often subconsciously used as a tool to manipulate others. So, here are the lessons I need to be learning as I sometimes feel like I’m falling apart and living in a society that might also be coming to pieces:
Don’t personalize everything – people (including me) are shaped by their context much more than anyone realizes.
It’s actually very liberating to listen to where others are coming from and to put words, comments and ideas into a larger framework. No one is an original. We are products of our family, our times, and early experiences. So much of why I do what I do is because of the roads I’ve been on and the people who still live in all of my cabinets.
Don’t ignore the wooden plank in your eye, while you criticize the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eyelashes (Jesus) – Matthew 7:4
Pay more attention to your conversations – how much time are you talking and how much are you listening?
We all start talking for many reasons. Not everyone is good at hearing themselves. This piece of advice takes concentration and practice. I’m still working on this one – mostly failing. I have to pay attention before social encounters or I’ll go into autopilot (and talk, and talk, and talk!).
Even a fool who keeps quiet is considered wise, for when he keeps his mouth shut, he appears clever. – Proverbs 17:28
Ask people genuine questions about themselves and their ideas – demonstrate real interest in others by going past the surface.
When you ask questions and listen for answers, it keeps you from talking too much (see #2). It helps you demonstrate your real self. When you ask questions you get the chance to go deeper, find out more about context (see #1), and practice listening. I was sharing with a friend the other day and I wanted to know some details about his life so I could frame his experience. But I told him, right from the start, that I wanted to focus more on his feelings than on the facts. I am typically never that conscious during conversations. Let’s all hope I get better at it.
We should stop looking out for our own interests and instead focus on the people living and breathing around us. – 1 Corinthians 10:24
Once I got my second vaccination I began to feel as if I (and civilization) was moving forward, inching toward an end to all of this turmoil, fear and uncertainty. Going to all those doctor appointments helps me to feel as if I’m a little more in control of my decline. Our medical care is so incredible these days. The fact we can immunize half the population so quickly is also unbelievable, isn’t it? As we venture into our post-pandemic lives, there are so many bits of advice floating around out there. Most is about lessons we should have learned.
“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” ― Wallace Stevens
When those feelings of falling apart surface, that’s the time to find ways to fall together
What I want to do is slow down and think more deliberately about my perceptions, about my situation, other people and myself. What about you?
“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.” ― C.S. Lewis
“It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.” ― Paulo Coelho
Too often, the end of something can seem like the end of everything.
This is final exams week for me. More importantly, for a lot of students. I don’t get to graduate and move on to the next chapter. I keep starting all over again every Fall semester. But for me, what’s making me so happy, is the end of this year-long “hostage crisis”. It has kept the college experience so bound up and all that determination shackled. We will go back to more normal on June1.
“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” ― Tom Stoppard
There are many endings that I have experienced over the past several years. Most have been heartbreaking. The truth is, like a graduation, every ending that any of us experiences always holds within it the promise of some sort of beginning. These come in all shapes and sizes, filled with expectation, fears and plenty of unknown.
When I graduated from college, marriage was right around the corner. It seemed as if I jumped off one speeding train and was on another just like that. I wish I’d had someone to help me figure out where I was going. Maybe I was too young and full of myself to have listened. My students are headed off into the dark mystery of the world of work, graduate school, moving away, searching for new relationships and many with just a big look on their faces – maybe it’snot sure how to explain what they are so uncertain about.
Isn’t there something you can do?
There may be people in your life who are peering around the corner, looking at their own future with a little anxiety. What a great opportunity for you to add some reassurance, some stories about your own shaky knees way back then, and maybe a word of two of personal affirmation. Steer clear of those generic words of wisdom that always fall flat. Make it meaningful.
“This day will never come again and anyone who fails to eat and drink and taste and smell it will never have it offered to him again in all eternity. The sun will never shine as it does today…But you must play your part and sing a song, one of your best. ” ― Hermann Hesse
Physical contact has been so limited this past year. It makes us now want to reach out to others with more intention, to be extra conscious with our words and actions.
It’s not just another high school graduation, is it?
There are people missing from this one. But you aren’t. Find a way to make your presence count, even with just a kind word to that someone out of your ordinary.
Even that mysterious lady I bumped into out the courtyard today, who didn’t really fit in but seemed to need a hello.
Of course, because it’s the end of the semester, that means almost everyone moves onward to the next step. But it also means there’s typically someone who has failed. I can tell stories about that experience too, can’t you? Failures can teach us so much, or they trap us in our past. Every experience is a chance to learn more about who we are and what the world around us is really like.
“Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” ― Aldous Huxley
What did your failure teach you?
Be honest with yourself so you can be honest with people who need you. My problem has always been that I let yesterdays failures have too much power over my todays. They need to get resolved and then buried. Resolutions don’t always produce solutions. Don’t treat your failures like buried treasures to be hunted the rest of your life, but like the weather. Something to think about every now and then, but never expect to feel on your upturned face again.
Let your endings turn into a beginning of something true, something taking you forward. Turn loose of mistakes and burdens, bury them for good. Learn your lessons and keep your nose pointed forward. Find someone in your life who will tell you the truth and stick it out with you. Forgive, not just your friends, your enemies, but yourself. This sounds too much like a greeting card. Secretly, I wish I could write song lyrics.
“Great is the art of beginning, but even greater is the art of ending.” ― Henry Wadsworth
I had dinner with a friend from college. He’s just retired. How is that possible?
Each year where I work we meet with a representative from our financial services company that manages everyone’s retirement accounts. This year I had a literal nightmare before the morning of my zoom meeting. It’s getting closer. I think I’m looking forward to that day. But thinking about it also fills me with dread.
What’s really happening is change. This evening as a cold front was moving into the region and rain was arriving, I could smell the change. During these days, I feel as if I am smelling change.
“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” ― Andy Warhol
My problem is that too often I freeze up and can’t make myself leap into action as I know I should. There are too many little acts that must be done to get to the next step. I am a big picture personality. These incremental tasks can paralyze me. After a time I do get the courage and steam up and get it all done (all those plants put into the ground I bought last week).
My wife was the heavy lifter. I never had to do much because she was always getting all the hard stuff done while I was dancing around singing, writing, painting and making speeches. She held down the fort and made me possible. These days I’m trying to figure out how to be a dreamer and a doer all at the same time. Not always successfully!
“A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in–what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.” ― Victor Hugo
My friend sat across from me tonight and shared wonderful dreams about the next chapter. There are great adventures ahead. I think I must have dreamed too much early in my adult life. I didn’t work hard enough. There’s not much room left now to dream, I don’t have any left. Mostly what I think about are projects to get completed. They might sound like work to someone else. To me, I guess they are my unfinished dreams??
“Hold fast to dreams, For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird, That cannot fly.”
― Langston Hughes
I need my wife’s spirit, to help me get all the seeds planted so that my dreams (projects) can take root. Once this hostage crises we’ve all suffered through is finished, maybe then I can start nailing down my next chapter of a life.
There’s a phenomenon that happens to all of us when we experience attitudes, thoughts or behaviors that come into conflict with each other. For example, understanding research that smoking causes cancer, yet continuing to smoke. We call this phenomenon cognitive dissonance. What people then try to do is to find ways to relieve the feeling of stress and anxiety this dissonance produces. There are a number of ways people go about finding relief.
We all know that these days most of us are living in situations more disconnected from normal life. Social interactions have been minimized for health concerns. Even when we are around others, it’s usually at a distance and hidden behind a mask. As Americans we like to think of ourselves as independent individuals, full to the brim with self-reliance. Those can be healthy values, when applied to accomplishing a given task, but they aren’t very helpful when it comes to keeping us healthy humans. People must be in consistent interaction with other people to be and remain healthy.
There are people I know who can’t figure out why they are a little anxious right now. Me too. They don’t report feelings of loneliness or separation. Most talk about a “just fine” adjustment to a quarantined existence this past year. My theory is that they might be experiencing a little cognitive dissonance about some conflicting attitudes/ideas; (1) being more isolated from others is just fine, and (2) it’s not healthy to live life disconnected like this. I believe deep in our inner being, humans know that they were made to be social. No one was born a hermit.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone…” – Genesis 2:18
To relieve some of this stress you can (1) admit this isolation isn’t normal and isn’t a choice you’d make again, (2) keep reminding yourself that this situation is going to end soon, and/or (3) slowly start to change your isolated habits (don’t let convenience win, online meetings really aren’t going to be better).
The end of the semester is drawing near
But this year, it’s more than that. For me and countless others, it represents the end of this strange year of separation. This year of trying to make things work despite all of our precautions. A year of distance with safe hand clamped over our mouths. As the days pass (when you age, the days race faster) I am longing to finding my next chapter. What are you looking for, right over the horizon?
I took my love, I took it down I climbed a mountain and I turned around And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills ‘Til the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky What is love? Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you But time makes you bolder Even children get older And I’m getting older too
Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you But time makes you bolder Even children get older And I’m getting older too Oh! I’m getting older too
Oh-oh, take my love, take it down Oh-oh, climb a mountain and you turn around And if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills Well, the landslide bring it down And if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills Well, the landslide bring it down Oh-ohh, the landslide bring it down
“Those with less curiosity or ambition just mumble that God works in mysterious ways. I intend to catch him in the act.” ― Damien Echols
There really are a number of urgent matters that ought to be worried about. I’m getting older every second. More visits to doctors and strange groans herald the decline and fall of what once was. Friends are retiring, like birds fleeing from the cage. My own future seems so uncertain, less predicted as it’s supposed to be with all this planning and saving. Just looking at my growing list of big projects is making me awfully tired, deep inside.
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” ― Robert Frost
I have a big skylight in the kitchen. It’s like a drum when it rains or the squirrels scratch on it in the summer mornings to drink the condensation. It rained hard the other evening echoing against the walls of my little house. There are all kinds noises in my house. I think someone is prowling around in there with me. He’s not being as quiet as he should. Of course, there are other truths. As I move from room to room, faces look at me from all the photos, from all the years, from all the memories. I am living in a haunted house. Not all ghosts bring dread or fear.
“When you’re young, you always feel that life hasn’t yet begun—that “life” is always scheduled to begin next week, next month, next year, after the holidays—whenever. But then suddenly you’re old and the scheduled life didn’t arrive. You find yourself asking, ‘Well then, exactly what was it I was having—that interlude—the scrambly madness—all that time I had before?” ― Douglas Coupland
Showing people photos and video clips off my phone has become a terribly bothersome habit. I keep kicking myself and promising to stop. Everyone has their own pics of children and silly animals. Of course, mine are the most incredible. I hope I am getting better about not dominating conversations at social gathers (as few and far between as they’ve been during this time). No one else is ever as interested in your life as you are. They aren’t supposed to be.
All of these images are a contagion for me. Like a beneficial virus. Each time I see a face or figure dancing across the screen I just smile or laugh. It’s like enjoying another course in a life-long feast.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”― T.S. Eliot
My wife was the coffee drinker in the family. But these days I have been making a morning trip a few times a week. It’s been going on for a few years now and the personnel turnover really hasn’t been happening at my store. That means they’ve got my order down (aging turns one into a creature of habit). I usually show up in my funny professor costume, so I stick out and am easy to remember. While the coffee store staff aren’t wearing name tags, they get my first name for my order. So, as time as gone by, I’m called by name when I walk in.
What if I’m going to the coffee store just to hear my name and experience that familiarity? I usually don’t have to say my order. I don’t drink the whole cup, it’s gone cold. Why am I doing this a couple times each week?
In addition to routines (so many have gone out the window this past year), humans need regular social contact – even with strangers. It’s the regular part of it that matters. Trivial banter with the cashier, smiling at the guy bagging groceries, waving at the neighbor whose name you can’t remember – it’s all important because it keeps us connected each day to who we are. We’re people just like all the rest.
And did you know, God sends people, just like you, across the path every day, to remind how fragile and simple reaching out can be.
Perception is a topic that I sometimes teach students to think about.
Ours is often shaped by internal cognitive biases. We usually “see” what we expect, and miss what we aren’t looking for.
We unconsciously interpret non-verbal cues from others to figure out feelings and how we should respond. Mostly this is unconscious and happens in seconds. We now have a whole generation of young people raised on cell phones who have had very little practice with non-verbal communication.
You’ve heard of first impressions, right? Most of us make judgments about the entire person based on just a few quick impressions. Typically, people are very confident about the perceptions they come up with after a single first impression.
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ― W.B. Yeats
I think God is doing things around us and in our lives all the time. I don’t think God is a good luck charm or is in the business of empowering us to live out our own hopes and dreams. He’s not an American televangelist. But God is working out his plan all the time. His love for us surrounds in so many ways through the hands of so many others. He wants everyone to be a part of his life.
My haunted house of memories is filled with God’s presence. The smiles and greeting at the coffee store each week remind me that God is near and uses any circumstance and routine. All my dear friends and relatives that endure a visit or meal with me keep my head up above the water and are God’s way of showing that he’s interested in my life. He keeps sending people into my life to patiently and faithfully remain. So many, sticking it out with me. They also remind me to do the same with others along my own path.
“If you have never known the power of God’s love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it – I mean really asked, expecting an answer.” ― Frederick Buechner
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father There is no shadow of turning with Thee Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness Morning by morning new mercies I see All I have needed Thy hand hath provided Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me
“He’s just a boy, pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be king” ― Maurice Sendak
Make believe that one day things will all be back the way they should be…
Make believe that this strange dance isn’t a joke someone’s playing on you…
Make believe what you see isn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth…
“The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don’t want paradise, you are not human; and if you are not human, you don’t have a soul.” ― Sir Thomas More
It’s a small back garden behind my house in the cul-de-sac. My wife had it planned out and landscaped years ago. She “wheeled and dealed” it into existence. When we moved to Houston I did not take the advice of my father-in-law, who had lived here when he was a young father. He urged us to have a sprinkler system installed. Although I had lived in Texas my whole life, I had no idea about the hellish apocalyptic climate in Houston. The years and circumstances took their toll on our landscape and this fall I started the process of making things right.
I had a sprinkler system put in and the overgrown back garden hacked down and replanted. Then the St. Valentine’s Day massacre swept down from the north and killed all that tropical beauty in one blast. Bag upon bag of dead plants and two tons of leaves were hauled out of the yard Saturday. Finally! I was fearing a neighborhood eviction letter. Mine was getting close to haunted house stage. Now, many of the reminders of that terrible week have been removed. Time to start over again.
This is something I can do while I feel so powerless in so much else of life. As hard as it’s becoming, I’m going to make this belief in my old garden real again.
“Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.” ― Winston S. Churchill
I did get my first round of vaccination last week. The process was a little like being in a dystopian end of the world film. Herded through a large facility (Houston Community College) now being used for new mass purposes due to a global tragedy like an alien invasion or Godzilla. I and everyone else was lined up at various stations to be sanitized, identified, tagged, inoculated and then observed for side effects.
A local hermit was wandering about. He was impossible to miss. It was very windy outside. A cold front had blown through that night. This guy must have been seven feet tall, in his later 70’s, wearing shorts and flip-flops. What really set him apart was the long tree branch he had fashioned into a staff and kept accidently whacking people with as he stumbled from station to station. He wasn’t used to social distancing – or was so used to it, that having people six feet apart was too close. He seemed to be in a hurry and had forgotten his cap. I stopped worrying about side-effects and just stayed out of the way.
I told a colleague today that getting on the vaccination train helped me feel that life was moving ahead in the right direction. For a year we were all just stuck in time. This has helped me take one step toward making a stronger belief in that future right around the corner.
“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” ― Alain de Botton
My grandson was riding on his little bike this week. His dad was right behind keeping him upright and pushing. The big lesson was to see if this three-year-old could learn how to peddle while keeping his balance. That’s a lot to do all at once, I thought, as I watched him with his giant smile gleaming so bright. He was mostly afraid of tipping over. Aren’t we all? His mom urged him onward by yelling, “keep your feet on the pedals, daddy won’t let you fall.” Isn’t that what everyone needs to hear, all the time?
So much of my belief making is aimed at the fairy tale of life balance. Don’t you think that right now, a lot of people are living on a tight rope? Feels like riding in a car with the wheels out of alignment. For now, I put on a good song and dream (Learning to Fly).
And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. – Jesus (Matthew 28:20)
A couple of times each week I visit my local coffee store. I tell my students that when I was in college I don’t think we drank coffee and we certainly never would have gone to store to buy it in four thousand different iterations. During the pandemic, you can’t fix your own cup of coffee at the store. I’ve taken to ordering a version that’s already fixed for me. You also have to tell them your name when you place an order. For some reason I’ve been using my real name. Usually I make one up in this type of situation. “Bob” is my go-to, easy to spell, easy to pronounce.
The crew working at my local store have been there long enough to remember my order now. It feels good to walk in and have someone call me by name and know what I want – even to have it ready at times before I’ve finished at the register. I can’t really explain why this feels good. It’s a feeling of community experienced in a fast-food environment. I’ll take what I can get.
Almost every time I walk out I ask aloud (but to myself) where my wife is – she was the family coffee drinker and would think it odd that I was there by myself. I pay homage to her memory with tears, still. For just a minute or two each time, I make believe that life is as it used to be.
“There are memories that time does not erase… Forever does not make loss forgettable, only bearable.” ― Cassandra Clare
Home is a different place, missing it’s normal routines. My family has moved away. Daily interactions are separated to be safe. My life as a teacher is less effective and artificial in so many ways. My students seem far away and so am I. Teaching my peers at church every week isn’t right yet either. There is a great deal of make believing, as we all put on the drama of life, yet knowing that we have miles to go.
What keeps me from drifting out to sea are all my friends who are faithful to hear the nudge of the Spirit – I get a text at just the right time, a lunch/dinner will encourage, mundane phone calls will remind me of what really matters and colleagues at work take the time to laugh and push through.
All these souls are a constant reminder of God’s faithful presence – a way to step back and look again at the vast Texas sky. Those two nights with no electricity sure were cold sleeping, but they are passing away in my rear view mirror quickly. That’s how God’s presence works as well. He reminds us that he’s always been as near as my shadow – even as these problems and pains keep passing by.
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” ― Haruki Murakami,
This year of pandemic and fear hasn’t put reality on hold – it is our reality. It is our chance to live out what we believe. I always get the chance to either believe what I’m living or live what I believe. Each and every day is a new “once upon a time.”
Today, as shoes are tied, lunches are packed and coffee is poured, beliefs are made real by our everyday practices. Who do we love, how have we invested our lives and what will we do with each moment. We make believe with every step we take. Sometimes awake, mostly in a dream.
Who you are moment to moment is just a story. ― Chuck Palahniuk
“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.” ― Herophilus
My vaccination categories arrived. I got myself on several lists. On Friday night an email arrived notifying me that I could go to my local parking lot and get in line for the first step toward immunity. This was going to be one of the two dose immunizations. I thought I’d better not look a gift horse in the mouth and jumped to it.
I got up Saturday, prepared myself for a long wait with the “herd” and drove out to the giant parking lot. There were hundreds and hundreds all lined up, coming from every direction. Everyone (almost) was minding their manners, taking turns and waiting patiently as we inched and inched along around and around our special events center.
“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.” ― Paulo Coelho
Hours later I got to what looked like a check-in area. I had been sent a QR code the night before to use. I needed a picture ID and this code on my phone. The poor guy with his reams of paper looked and looked. He consulted others. Asked me to drive over there. Took my phone to double check. Came back and said, “you are not on the list, you will have to leave.” Hmm. Like a good citizen I asked where the exit was and drove away.
Then the frustration set in. I had followed all the directions. I patiently waited in line, I met the criteria, why wasn’t I on the list? I ran a few errands on the way home. Once I stopped and parked, I figured out who to contact to express my frustrations. I decided it wasn’t the governor. I filled out the online contact “form” and resigned myself to having done all I could.
“Some third person decides your fate: this is the whole essence of bureaucracy.” ― Kollontai Alexandra
These magnificent bureaucracies of ours accomplish so much. Can you imagine what it’s like to identify, notify and then actually vaccinate thousands of citizens in a city, county and state? Our modern technology has made this possible – organization and people management unimagined in all of history. We could probably get a pyramid built next week.
This wasn’t really what I was thinking as I thought more about my wasted morning and decided to pick up a couple items at the store. How come on a Saturday there are no shopping carts at Target? And why does the Target lady standing there not seem very concerned? And why is the guy retrieving carts in the parking lot on his cell phone? Maybe building a pyramid is wishful thinking.
Of course, at the store those few items I wanted to get seem out of stock too often. I can’t figure this out. There are hundreds of cans of tuna and boxes and boxes of corn flakes. Why do I want what can’t be kept on the shelves at my store?
“Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.” ― Eric Hoffer
I felt my phone in my pocket giving off consistent vibration. Someone was calling. Well, don’t answer it in the store, was my first thought. I pulled it out and looked. It was a number from the county seat. Hmm. I walked down an empty aisle and answered. Before me were rows and rows of canned chili. What’s happened to our society that has caused us to eat chili out of a can? I listened to a woman from the county health office who was responding to my “complaint” sent less than an hour ago.
Someone from the media had posted registration information for vaccination in my county. A terrible mistake. This caused thousands of ineligible people to sign in and show up. It royally messed up the entire system. They only had 800 doses to give out! This official who called me back was very apologetic and offered to get me back in that day through the employee entrance. I told her I didn’t need it right now, no emergency. She set me up for an appointment later in the week. I told her I was very thankful for her hard work as she apologized again. It wasn’t her fault or the county health departments’ but it was great to have her helping put out the hundreds of fires that must have been set.
“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” ― Edward Everett Hale
What’s making you crazy with fear or frustration these days?
I stopped thinking about all those cans of chili. I’ll check back another day and locate those items I can’t find at the store. No big deal. I’m really not that worked up about getting my vaccination. It will happen. But there in the canned goods aisle as I felt thankfulness for someone working the phones in Fort Bend County I opened up my spiritual eyes and took another look.
Another reminder. They probably happen all day long and I’m too busy or full of cares to notice. God is always saying to his children, stop that worrying. Walk through your life with an unexpected calmness. If your bus is late, talk to that stranger next to you some more. Frustration doesn’t have to be the go-to response to every roadblock in your way. If life today seems to fall apart unexpectedly, imagine something new out of the pieces.
Think of all that “we” could have gotten accomplished in that long wait in the car this morning.
“So do not worry about tomorrow. Let tomorrow worry about itself. Living faithfully is a large enough task for today.” – Jesus (Matthew 6:34)
As I began to thaw out at the end of The Big Chill of ’21, I started thinking about the fact that this was one more hurdle that seems to be keeping me from getting on with my life. There is a next chapter awaiting me. Lines I need to start writing in the story that will go on.
“Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real?” ― Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
I don’t think the hurdles in my way are really all that personal. My wife passed away to heaven after a four year battle with stage 4 breast cancer. It ultimately traveled to her brain. That’s what finally stopped her. People deal with struggle and loss every single day. This happened in the Fall – in the Spring, the COVID-19 virus arrived.
At Spring Break ’20, college students across the country were sent home and learning was converted to a remote model. That took a lot of fancy footwork on the part of instructors and students, all the while trying to learn difficult subjects. Undergraduate students struggle with online learning, period. We continue to work hard to try and figure out the best ways to make this work for everyone involved. It’s now a year later.
I spent the summer doing a lot of baby-sitting. My daughter was doing much of her work remotely from home. That’s tough with a two-year old on the loose. I was able to spend much more time with them, keeping him busy. Little did I know then how precious those days would become. They told me in July that careers were forcing a move to Dallas at the end of that Summer.
Losing part of your support system can be a monumental obstacle that slows down the move forward. It will be done – but at a different speed. Without people near, it’s hard to always know for certain which direction is the right one. Loved ones give us reinforcement and feedback, most of the time without even realizing it.
“Give feedforward not feedback.” ― Chris Dyer
Once this Fall of 2020 arrived, college life was following a full pandemic script. Everyone was learning their lines as best they could. It was still reasonably new territory for students, faculty and administrators alike. The delivery of instruction was still being reinvented, learning from mistakes and fixing as we plunged forward. Helping students figure out all the pitfalls was a significant priority.
Spring arrived and we kept learning what works better and what doesn’t. The Christmas break had been spent making major adjustments to courses and getting new ones ready. And then the fifth week came and with it a brutal winter storm. We closed up shop for the whole week. Who would have thought the most advanced civilization in the history of the world couldn’t turn their heaters on when it got cold outside?
All of these twists and turns in the road have kept me busy. Notice I am using the word “busy.” I keep learning and try to help others stay ahead of the tidal waves. When I think about it all (and I’m not really doing that enough), what’s got me frustrated is not knowing how to start working on my next chapter – because there seems to be something new on fire to put out every time I turn around.
After each tumultuous event arrives and we all figure out a way to ride it out – something else seems to be arriving on the next flight. I don’t want to admit that this is my new normal.
“So it’s true, when all is said and done, grief is the price we pay for love.” ― E.A. Bucchianeri
I also wonder if I’ve spent enough time resting in a normal flow of life so that I could grieve. Then I think about the bigger picture and how people have always had to deal with death and disaster, mostly without the luxury of time to process it all. When the barbarians invade, there’s no time to see a counselor.
Is this just impatience? Fear always scratching at my door about so many uncertainties, especially when I start doing the math and counting the number of arrows left in my quiver. I’m starting to fall apart. Will I really be able to make it into this next chapter, whatever that’s going to look like?
“And I realized that there’s a big difference between deciding to leave and knowing where to go.” ― Robyn Schneider
To be perfectly honest, God has been carrying me along, it’s been clear to me, during all of this year (and even way back, as I reflect). It makes me think about my worries and how unfounded they really are. Maybe I need to think bigger about all of this?
I started to think about all of these obstacles to my moving forward a few weeks before the great freeze last week. As Texas thaws out from the great Valentine’s Day Ice Storm, I’m also experiencing some clearing in the weather between my ears. Right now, halfway through the writing of this post, I have changed my view and my frustration.
What if waiting for life to get back to normal isn’t realistic?
What’s normal supposed to be?
What if today is all that’s for certain?
Teach us how short our lives really are so that we may be wise. – Psalm 90:12
So, instead of focusing my attention (and frustration) on waiting for all of these obstacles to go away so I can start to figure out how I’m going to live my new normal life – the real life I should be trying to live is the one that’s right here in front of me. There is no tomorrow. There is just today. Sorry to sound like a hippie. But I can honestly report, I am missing out on too much here and now because I’m waiting for an imaginary bus to arrive.
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” ― Henry David Thoreau
I’m going to start turning the pages right now, instead of waiting. I’m going to invent my routines so that they lead me through the current semester. The main objective is to be as people focused as I can. The one thing I am more acutely aware of is that there is much more uncertainty, pain and struggle. I need to do what I can to help – just today, with who is in my path, as little or as much.
“In magic – and in life – there is only the present moment, the now. You can’t measure time the way you measure the distance between two points. ‘Time’ doesn’t pass. We human beings have enormous difficulty in focusing on the present; we’re always thinking about what we did, about how we could have done it better, about the consequences of our actions, and about why we didn’t act as we should have. Or else we think about the future, about what we’re going to do tomorrow, what precautions we should take, what dangers await us around the next corner, how to avoid what we don’t want and how to get what we have always dreamed of.” ― Paulo Coelho
“When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure.” ― Alice Hoffman
As I sit here to put these thoughts together, Texas is experiencing an epic arctic blast. Down here in Houston there’s snow, sleet, and temperatures in the single digits. The entire state is experiencing rolling power outages. Here in Houston, we sort of know how to manage when a hurricane hits, but this is a completely different animal. Sheer panic and chaos.
While all this disaster is happening, I remain connected to people through internet and cell service. All across the city and state we are keeping each other up to speed on our conditions, offering a warm bed, status reports on power outages and sharing photos of current conditions. These social connections keep the fires lit in our lives and remind us that the darkness of night will always have lights to show us a path home.
“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?” ― A. A. Milne
This makes me think about people who remain in the cold, metaphorically speaking, because they lack those essential connections to others. I recently spoke with a dear friend about a family argument that kept members from speaking for decades. People grow older and lose their family and friends. Moving away for all sorts of reasons can cause disruptions in friendship networks, people lose touch. Daily habits like TV, work at home, and computer time steal our time.
Mostly, the mindless busyness of our daily lives is what prevents most of us from doing the little acts of maintenance that are necessary to keep our people connections alive. We don’t make the time to send a note, make a call or follow up. Others in your life need the warmth of your unexpected presence.
“Time is the longest distance between two places.” ―Tennessee Williams
Last week, a friend passed away with all the suddenness of a bolt of lightening. He was so many things, but he was surely a friend to hundreds. He worked at it every single day. As we remembered, people laughed at the shared experience of having him call and sing happy birthday. He would stop and leave post-it notes on your front door to encourage. Your story was important to him, he remembered. While he was home from work sick, not knowing it was his last day on earth, he sat in bed ordering meals for homeless people.
I’d like to work harder at trying to be a friend to others, trying to warm up the coldness in someone’s life, maybe chase away the loneliness for another day.
Apparently, the meteorologists are predicting that it will be in the 70’s next week down here in Houston. Welcome to Texas weather. But I think that there are people all around who will remain in the cold because there’s no one near enough to care.
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” ― Henri Nouwen
(Always difficult for males who want to fix things)