Hopeless Romantic?

I’m not sure just what it is, but every single time my kids have a school program, I’m trying to hold back tears.

EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. 

Fall. Winter. Spring. It doesn’t even matter what time of year it is, I’m like a basket case in my seat as I watch my kids do things that surprise and amaze me, that make me smile and cry all at the same time 

It’s not like these programs are tear-inducing programs. No hint of Hallmark here, but somehow or another, they still find ways of hitting me right in the chest.

Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that during every single program, at least once, I am wishing that my mom and dad were there. But I think it goes way beyond that. I think it stems from the fact that there is pride (not the bad kind) that wells up within me as I see my kids doing things that make them stand out. How can a mom or dad NOT be proud of their kids when they’re doing what kids should be doing? 

I’ll be honest, it’s an emotional time of year for me anyway. All it takes is one song to throw me back about 30 years. I’m transported to my childhood home with smells and sights and sounds that have been eternally etched on my brain. I can picture everything. Christmas tree. Pajamas. Presents. Green rug. Hi-Fi circa 1975 or thereabouts. Evie singing “Come On, Ring Those Bells” from that Hi-Fi stereo, complete with the cracks and pops that only vinyl can offer.

But like I said, I well up any time of year. These kids always blow me away. I guess it’s yet one more picture of grace that I see in my everyday life. I realize just what I have that I don’t deserve. I realize how far short I fall from being who I really wish that I was, and yet my kids still manage to keep plugging along without the help of therapists…..at least for now.

As I sat there on the hard bench of the cafeteria bench watching my middle child perform in his holiday play, I was just blown away. The kid can act. The kid can memorize. The kid can work a room. The kid can make a joke. While my eyes welled up, so did my pride as I thought, “What have I done to deserve this?”

It’s a time of year when you really see the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots”….at least if you really look around. As much as I keep wanting, it’s a time of year that I am reminded just how blessed that I am 

Here we are, two weeks from Christmas, and I’m blubbering at the sight of an inflatable Rudolph in the neighborhood…..it might just be a LOOOOONNNNNGGGGG 2 weeks!

Deep down inside, I’m a hopeless romantic, but I guess I hide it well. Maybe it’s self-preservation and self-defense, but regardless, there’s way more emotion down deep than most people who just get a casual glance at me would really expect or imagine. I’m fine with that.

There are a lot of things to hope for during this time of year, but my biggest hope is that I can be half the man that my children and wife deserve. I am a blessed man, blessed beyond measure.

Now, let me go find a good Christmas movie to continue with my blubbering!!!

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Grab A Hand

father-son-holding-handsI’ve been volunteering at my kids’ school as often as I can. My mom did such an incredible job of this when my brother and I were kids that she modeled it well. I consider myself fortunate that I have the flexibility to volunteer and I know that the window of opportunity for this is much more limited than most of us really consider.

Last year, my oldest son signed up for running club at the school. It’s an after school program that encourages fitness but also rewards kids for pushing themselves. The gym teacher who runs it gave out little colored running shoe keychains to mark accomplishments that the students had made in their own progress.

My oldest is fairly cerebral and would much rather read a good book or play a video game than throw a ball. He’s found some activities that he likes and we’ve done our best to encourage them. So, when he expressed his interest in this, I jumped at the opportunity to encourage him by not only signing him up, but by volunteering myself to be a part of it.

Over the years, I’ve watched those who have gone before me in their parenting styles and skills. I’ve done my best to glean good practices from them that I have seen and mark those other practices that have not proved to be quite as effective. One of the practices that I’ve seen work so well for parents of multiple children is “dating” their children. This just involves taking them out one on one to do special and fun things together.

The things that I’ve chosen to do with my kids haven’t been grandiose or extravagant. Sometimes it’s just a trip to Home Depot or Goodwill. Involving them in the most common tasks can easily help them to feel important and involved. Activities like this running club have proven to be super beneficial for my relationship with my son as well.

The other day, after the club had finished and we were all walking back from the field to the gym, my son walked alongside me and grasped my hand. At that moment, I felt like the child as I glanced around to see whether or not anyone else was looking. I wasn’t embarrassed to hold my son’s hand, but I was surprised that it didn’t seem like something that was even on his radar. We walked back to the gym, hand in hand, talking about the day and his run. As we walked, I took a mental snapshot, capturing that moment in my brain because I knew that moments like that were fleeting and I wouldn’t have them forever.

I was so thankful for that moment. I was thankful that I had established a relationship with my son where he felt comfortable, even in 4th grade, grabbing his dad’s hand with his peers all around him. I was thankful that the affection that I’ve tried so hard to pour out on him was coming back to me. Not that I poured it out to get it back, but the return was an added benefit. I was thankful that it gave me a glimpse of the future relationship between my son and I, when we move from being father and son to being friends.

It was only the grabbing of a hand, but it meant a lot to me. These are the moments that legacy is made of, how we are remembered and how we remember. They happen when we least expect it and they certainly can’t be contrived or created. I’m hoping for many more, but I won’t try too hard to make them happen, I’ll just seize the opportunities, make myself available, and hope that they continue to come towards me.

At the end of Lonely Street

IMG_2199My family and I toured Graceland the other day. It was kind of funny going from the Biltmore Estate and the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s not to say that Graceland wasn’t impressive, but it was just……different. Biltmore was home to a tycoon while Graceland was home to a king, but we all know that money can’t buy you love, or happiness, or all of the things in life that seem to matter more than possessions.

Walking through the halls and rooms of Graceland, I was mixed with both a sense of awe as well as a profound sadness deep inside. It felt almost like hallowed ground, and I hesitate to even use the term “hallowed” but there’s no other word that I can find to describe it. It was almost as if you could feel Elvis in the air, hear his voice ringing through the walls.

The tour didn’t include the upstairs, where Elvis is supposed to have breathed his last breath. We walked through the first floor of the house, into his dad’s office, into the trophy building, and to the racquetball building. His accolades, accomplishments, and acquisitions were on full display for everyone to see. In some ways, I felt as if I was going over a friend’s house and having him show me all of his treasures and awards, bashfully boasting, but not with an arrogance so much as in an effort to be accepted, to be loved, to prove something to me.

As I meandered through these buildings, taking in all the features, seeing Elvis’ achievements, awards, outfits, and more, I started to think about the fact that he died at 42, a year younger than me. There is no mention in the house of his broken relationship with Priscilla. There is no mention in the house of how he died and what he had gotten into by the time of his death. No, this was a place of homage to a king and one of the reasons why it’s good to be king is that people might only remember the good things that you did.

IMG_2102At the end of the house tour, you find yourself in the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are all buried. Standing there a day after the five year anniversary of my mother’s death, I thought that I was going to start bawling like a baby. But why? It’s not like I knew him, but like I said, I was overcome with a deep sadness as I thought about him, his achievements, what he had become, and what he might have been had he lived on. As I saw my children walking through the garden ahead of me, I choked back the emotions that were desperately trying to rise up within my throat.

I stood over his grave, thinking about this man whose end had come too soon. I thought about what he had accomplished in his short 42 years and I wondered what he thought and what he felt in those last hours of his life.

After walking through the house and garden, we walked through the Lisa Marie, his custom airplane. We walked past his cars, his motor toys, and a few of his motorcycles. I’m not sure that you could call it “excess” but he liked things that were nice and he wasn’t afraid to pay for them. He had the money, after all, and looking at it all, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was trying to find something else with all this stuff, if he was trying to find the very thing that no amount of money could ever buy.

He had acquired a lot of stuff, had racked up lots of awards, he even had been quietly philanthropic with his money, giving to charities here and there without the usual self-trumpeting of most celebrities. He was the king of rock and roll, the man who had started it all with his swinging pelvis. His legacy was there before me, I had walked past it and I could hear it in the air, almost feel it.

Sure, he lives on, some may say, in his music, in this mansion, and in the hearts of all of his fans. But I wish that I could have jumped in a time machine and traveled back 50 years or so. I wish I could have hung out with him in the Jungle Room, picked up his guitar and jammed with him a little. In much the same way that Elton John sang about Marilyn Monroe, I think I could say the same thing about Elvis, I would have loved to have just had a conversation with him, to hear his heart a little bit.

I’m sure he was a fun guy, he liked to party, but I would have loved to have been there when the party was over, when his friends left, when there was quiet in Graceland, and when he was alone with himself. I wonder what thoughts he thought, I wonder what dreams he dreamed, I wonder whether he had any regrets running through his mind. I wonder who he really was when the lights were off, the cameras were gone, and he didn’t feel like he had to perform.

The day that we pulled out of Graceland, my son and I walked out to the entrance of the RV Park where we stayed and took the picture above. At the end of Lonely Street is the Heartbreak Hotel. Even if you turned off all the Elvis music playing around you, I think you might hear him faintly singing in the air.

It was good to pay homage to the King, a little sad, but he’s left a legacy, despite his flaws. And as we pulled out of Lonely Street towards our next destination, it was fitting that Elvis was playing in the car!

Gaming Together

When I was a kid, we just didn’t have a whole lot of money to enjoy some of the amenities that a lot of my friends had. Personal computers weren’t what they are today. Texas Instruments. Apple. Radio Shack. All of these companies produced computers but they cost a small fortune (for my family) and didn’t offer near the variety that computers and gaming systems offer today.

TI-994A.png

After being pestered by my brother and I for years, my parents finally broke down and scrounged together enough money for us to have a Texas Instruments TI-99-4A. I’m not sure how much my parents paid for it, but I’m sure they made some sacrifices to afford it.

The graphics were horrible, it was slow as molasses in January, you needed to connect it to the TV, and it probably froze frequently. But it was ours, we loved it, and we realized it was a privilege to have it and to play it. We never spent a whole lot of time playing on it, not the way that my kids and other kids today spend hours at a time on one game.

One of my most vivid and cherished memories of my childhood was game night at the Gibson house. As a pastor, my dad would often have to work in the evening. He would have counseling appointments, prayer meeting, more counseling appointments, and an assortment of other commitments that would take him out of the house frequently between Sunday night and Thursday night. The most memorable question to my dad was, “Dad, do you have to go out tonight?” A reply of, “No” to that question was always followed by an inner celebration of sorts for me. I’m pretty sure that among the next questions to escape my mouth was, “Can we play a game?”

Funny, the only game I really remember playing with my dad was Bible Tic Tac Toe. Needless to say, he pretty much won all the time. As he got older (and so did I) I think he migrated to an assortment of other games, most likely due to my mom’s influence. Still, when it came to games, my mom was the expert.

Yahtzee. Uno. Scrabble. Dutch Blitz. The list probably goes on and on, but those were the games that I remembered. In fact, I’m pretty sure that my mom got her love of games from her mother because I can remember playing Scrabble with my mom and grandma for hours. My grandma was a Scrabble fiend, I think she kicked my tail hundreds of time. Her reputation for Scrabble was such that I even remember my brother mentioning her love of the game at her memorial service after she died.

After my parents died, my brother and I went through their stuff and divided it between us. There wasn’t a whole lot of things that had significant monetary value, most of the items had more sentimental value than anything else. Among those belongings were my parents’ games. Having kids of my own, I wanted to have the chance to play some of the very games that I had enjoyed with my parents with my own kids.

It will be three years next month since my dad died and five years in July since my mom died. My kids are getting older, the two oldest being among the best readers in their classes. So, having endured hours and hours of video game playing by my two oldest, I thought that the time had finally come to dig out my parents’ Scrabble game.

I asked my wife where we had stored it and she told me. I’m not sure what was going through her head when I asked her, probably something like, “You can’t be serious!” It seemed a risky proposition to attempt this game with a seven year old, a nine year old, and a four year old (the four year old would be on someone else’s team), but we did it anyway.

The result was much more enjoyable than either of us would have expected. The Scrabble board was utilized much more expansively than either of us would have imagined. Other than the fussings of my four year old (which are fairly typical in anything these days), I think that we all had fun.

family Scrabble

My heart was warm!

Since my kids have been able, we’ve played games with them. Chutes and Ladders. Candyland. Headbandz. Yahtzee. Pie Face! Now we can add Scrabble to that list. And I’ve successfully begun to pass on a family tradition.

It’s funny, it was almost as if I had gone back in time as I played the exact game that I had played for years and years with my mom and grandma. I could almost hear them laughing, taunting, encouraging, and laughing some more. I even found some decades old scraps of paper with scores of played games between me and my grandma. I’m pretty sure she always won.

Yes, my kids still love their gaming system. Yes, they’ll still spend hours on end playing in front of the TV, but I’m really encouraged to know that it’s possible and even enjoyable to take a break from those gaming systems and pull out an old-fashioned game to sit around the kitchen table and laugh together.

After all, the family that games together, stays together, right?

 

Christmas Eve

Christmas with Steve and Jon-1No matter what’s going on in my world, it seems like the moment the calendar turns to December 24th, I become a child again. For as long as I can remember, this has been the case.

There’s something magical that seems to happen for me on Christmas Eve. Memories of Christmases gone by flood my memory, the sounds, the smells, the sights, they all come rushing back into my head. I can hear a song, see a picture, smell a smell, and I’m automatically transported back to my kitchen growing up.

I remember the records my mom would play as she baked and baked her Christmas cookies in the kitchen. She never had the greatest singing voice and she knew it, but there were certain songs that just inspired her to sing like no one was listening. When I hear those songs today, I can almost hear her behind me, singing along.

I think back to the presents that I gave my parents growing up and I can only now fully appreciate just how gracious they were. Clay creations made in school art class. Hamburger patty makers purchased at the local thrift store. Ties for my dad to add to his eternal collection, and despite what they may have thought when they unwrapped those presents, the outward expression that they conveyed to me was that they loved it, regardless of whether or not they were ever going to use it or not.

On Christmas Eve, once we were home from church, my mom would make mulled apple cider on the stove. She would stop by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home from church because that was a Christmas Eve staple for us, munchkins and cider. As my brother and I got older, we either invited others into our little tradition, or we abandoned it to go be part of other traditions.

As I lay in my bed waiting for the time to be right, I could hear my mom and dad bustling around, wrapping presents, talking as they wrapped, and then they would bring all the presents under the tree. I’m not sure just how much sleep I would get when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. Once everyone else was asleep, I would sneak out of my room quietly and go see what wonders were waiting for me underneath the tree.

The tree….

In our large upstairs living room, we had one of the smallest trees ever. I’m not sure just how my parents came up with their tradition, but this little tree, while not quite as bad as Charlie Brown’s, was a wonder to behold. We never had a live tree in our house, I had too many allergies and Mom never wanted to think about having to clean one up, but here in this large room with cathedral ceilings was a three foot tree that sat atop my mom’s cedar chest. While others who came into our house may have looked at it quizzically, it was what I knew, what I had grown up with and it only seemed normal and like home to me.

Once I arrived to see what was waiting under the tree, I would begin to organize the presents according to recipient. I wanted to make sure that we were poised for maximum efficiency once the morning came. There would be no need for sorting and stopping once we got going, I made sure of that. I wanted to make sure that nothing was missed and that I would be able to tear into those presents without delay.

When I was satisfied that everything was well organized, I would return to my room. I didn’t really try to listen for Santa, I never really believed in him. In fact, when I was four years old, I told everyone in my pre-school class that he didn’t exist. I don’t think the teachers were very happy with me. Four years old and I had already begun my journey of being a contrarian, funny how that works.

Even now, when I stop to think about Christmas Eve, a smile spreads across my face. Mom and Dad are gone and there is still an ache in my insides because of that, but to know all of those Christmas Eves that we shared together just warms my heart.

My family has started our own Christmas Eve traditions. I think they may be a hybrid of a Griswold Christmas Eve and Ralphie’s Christmas Eve from “A Christmas Story,” at least, I’d like to think so. Thankfully, my wife and I don’t subject our kids to pink bunny suits but it has become a Christmas Eve tradition for the kids to all open a new pair of pajamas. No mulled cider and munchkins, just Chinese food after we get home from church.

Today is Christmas Eve, and the moment that I woke up, I felt the excitement building in me. The excitement that I once had to open all of my presents under the tree has now been replaced with an excitement to see my own kids open their presents. I’ll go through this day with that same excitement, anticipating what the next 24 hours will bring. While we’ll see most of our family next week, we will get to spend Christmas Day as I spent many Christmases growing up, driving to my aunt and uncle’s house and seeing some of my cousins.

Things are different, but I don’t think the magic and wonder that I once felt towards Christmas Eve has been diminished. While I can’t wait for our Christmas Eve service tonight, the highlight for me will be at the end of the service when we turn out the lights, light the candles (although they’ll be flashlights since we can’t have open flames in the school where we meet), and begin to softly sing “Silent Night” to end our time together. That will be the crowning moment of the day, celebrating the very thing that we celebrate on Christmas: the birth of Jesus.

I’m excited!

Merry Christmas!

The Force Awakens

force awakensIt’s hard to fully tell just what the Star Wars franchise meant to me growing up. For most, if not all, of my elementary school years, it was a huge part of my childhood. The first movie came out when I was 4 years old, the second when I was 7, and the third when I was 10. I had a Star Wars lunchbox, one of those metal kinds that come with the plastic thermos. I had the plastic guns and even tried on my mom’s knee high boots so that I could look like Han Solo (she wasn’t thrilled about that one). Star Wars was a mainstay to my generation and when we found out that episodes I, II, and III would finally become a reality, we began to dream about all the possibilities.

Needless to say, that didn’t go as expected. While you might agree that Episode III was a worthy effort, there are hardly arguments when criticism is heaped at the first two (if not all three). A generation who had become cynical based on what they were experiencing just found one more reason to maintain that same cynicism. The possibilities that seemed endless had actually ended with a less than stellar result.

Meanwhile, book after book was published about the characters to whom we were introduced in the original series. No one ever wanted to read about Jar Jar, but they could read about Luke, Han, and Leia until the cows come home. Stories were written and it seemed that every fan of Star Wars would be doomed to be left with the bad taste in their mouths after hearing that dumb Gungan speak his backwards form of English. At least Yoda’s backwards speak has an endearing quality to it, Jar Jar’s is just plain annoying.

Enter Disney.

In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm, the company behind Star Wars, for $4 billion. Some of the greatest loved characters of all time were now being combined together through ownership and many wondered what that might mean for Star Wars.

Well, if Star Wars was second nature to me as a child, it’s hard to describe just what Disney was at the same time. I grew up going to Disney World. I still have the 8MM films that I can play on my projector of our jaunts to Disney World when I was barely the age of my youngest child. While Star Wars was a mainstay in my life as a child, Disney seemed to be a permanent fixture as well, not only to my generation, but to my parents’ generation as well. It had an intergenerational connectivity and quality about it that was rarely seen by others. But we had been burned by Star Wars before and the thought of the House of the Mouse taking over at the helm of Star Wars seemed a bit worrisome.

At first, the connections were subtle. You go to Disney World and you see the hybrid of some of your favorite characters from both Disney and Star Wars. A little kitschy, but not a deal breaker, after all, Lucasfilm began the animated series “The Clone Wars” before Disney had made the deal. Then came the rumors…..rumors of another trilogy.

My son claims that I first mentioned the prospect of another Star Wars trilogy to him around 2010 or so (he claimed that he had been waiting half of his life for “The Force Awakens “ to become a reality and he was born in 2006). In early 2013, rumors that J.J. Abrams (of TVs “Alias” and “Lost” fame) would be directing the first in the new trilogy were confirmed, and the Star Wars universe went a little crazy. What had been dreamed of would become a reality.

Nearly three years later, “The Force Awakens” broke box office records by bringing in a record $238 million on opening weekend. Just two weeks prior to its December 18th release date, I took my oldest son, the one who had been waiting half of his life for this event, to buy tickets at the theater.

Standing there at the theater with my nine year old son, holding tickets to a first run Star Wars film seemed a bit surreal to me. Was this really happening? If it was, would it (could it) live up to the hype? Could millions of fans really be satisfied by the outcome of this? Should it even be attempted?

In 2009, J.J. Abrams had successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise, overhauling the cast and characters to bring them to a new generation. In geekdom, how would he fare at taking over another beloved franchise, not for a reboot but for a continuation?

When December 18th finally came, when I finally brought my boys to the theater, I wasn’t sure who was more excited. These kids got out of school early for this, not too early, and it was the last day before Christmas break, but early nonetheless. There was excitement in our house all week long. Even our beloved Tinsel Trooper (our own geek version of the Elf on the Shelf) had gotten in on the action. We were excited, there was no doubt about it.

I can’t remember the last movie that I saw in the theater where there was as much clapping throughout as there was in “The Force Awakens.” The familiar “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…..” appeared on the screen and the theater erupted in applause. Familiar characters appeared on the screen and the theater erupted in applause. Even X-wings and Tie Fighters got in on the action, not garnering nearly as much applause as the Millenium Falcon, but still it was applause.

We all say glued to that screen for the just over two hours that the movie ran, and as the final moments of the movie played, as I felt the action slowing to a stop, something inside me welled up. I realized that I was experiencing this with my boys. MY boys. I was sitting in theater, watching Star Wars with my two sons, and we were all seeing it for the first time. My eyes began to well up a little themselves and I put my arms around my boys as we walked towards the exit.

My oldest, always displaying the typical birth order characteristics of an oldest, announced his sheer approval of the film. He was satisfied. My youngest son, also fitting into all of the stereotypes of a middle child, cautiously opined over the film, expressing his approval, but not too much, just enough to still be safe should anyone else have anything not so positive to say about it.

We walked into the night towards our car and I still was processing what had happened both on and off the screen. It was a powerful moment for me, not one that will easily be matched or forgotten, that moment when I experienced this movie with my sons. I couldn’t help but think about my older brother and me walking out of the theater with my mom who had taken us to see the original trilogy’s second two films. The picture in my head made me smile while at the same time caused me to hug my boys just a little bit closer.

“The Force Awakens” was more than a film to me, it was an experience that held so much nostalgia. It’s almost unfair to tack so much weight onto something, but somehow it managed to hold that weight. My boys are still talking about it and I’m feeling the need to see it again with my wife just so that my middle child doesn’t explode at the prospect of keeping everything secret for any length of time. My four year old, she’s still got a little time before she gets there, but once Mommy sees it, for these boys, I think all will be right with the world…….and I just can’t wait!

Slowing Down

2015-07-24 09.39.48I am in constant need of reminders, be they subtle or not, to slow down and enjoy life and its little moments. I have heard the phrase on many occasions that we are human “beings” rather than human “doings” and every time that I hear it, it jolts me awake to the point of realizing that things are passing me by and I’m missing them. I need to be reminded that there is only one day like today, it will never happen again, I will never be able to relive it or recapture it, I will never be able to come back and pretend that I’m Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” replaying a day endlessly until I finally get the desired outcome.

Recently, I was on vacation with my family. We didn’t go anywhere exotic, unless you consider Connecticut exotic. We took nearly two weeks to spend time with our family. Over the course of those nearly two weeks, my wife and I attended both a wedding and a funeral, two life events that are almost certain to jolt you awake from any slumber of complacency that you might have been enjoying.

As we spent time at my in-law’s house, I realized that the daily routine that my kids had adopted at our house in Virginia had easily been adopted in Connecticut. They woke up and ran downstairs to sit in front of the television, ingesting all that Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel had to offer them. If there was no intervention, they could have easily stayed put like that for the entire day, allowing their brains to be numbed and melted by whatever meaningless drivel and fare that was being spewed out from the flat screen television.

At one point, I can’t remember which of us, my wife or I, had gotten fed up and turned the television off. The kids who are smart, creative, and funny, somehow forgot that there was a world outside of television. They had forgotten to use their imagination to find a world outside of one that was created for them. They had forgotten what it was to discover, to learn new things, to try new things, and it was most likely a result of me forgetting the very same thing.

The TV went dark and they began to complain about there being nothing to do.

It’s a dilemma that every parent who loves and cares for their children eventually faces. This parenting thing isn’t for the weak of heart, but for the courageous, the brave, and, sometimes, the stupid. In those moments as parents face those dilemmas, they need to think fast on their feet, generating new ideas and plans at the drop of a hat as they do their best to fend off the impending boredom that is sure to face their children (tongue planted firmly in cheek).

The sun was shining outside and there was a whole stack of paper in the printer, so, I thought, it seemed the perfect time to build paper airplanes. After all, their father was a paper airplane champion, to the point that I had been banned from the last day of my 7th grade Spanish class in our third floor classroom after having been involved with what my 7th grade math teacher had deemed “the beginning of World War III.” On the second to last day of school, I joined a few of my friends to fire paper airplanes out the third floor window of the classroom when the teacher’s back was turned.

I imagine that as my math teacher, as he stood three stories below, may just have heard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in his head as he watched the onslaught of paper airplanes descending upon the courtyard in which he stood. Needless to say, my friends and I, although expert airplane builders and flyers, were not welcomed back to our Spanish class for that last day but instead were forced to walk the school grounds picking up trash to pay for our transgressions.

But I digress….

As I recounted this story in my own mind, I grabbed some paper and began to fold and fold and fold some more. I helped my older two children as they followed suit, showing them the intricate folds that were required to construct our very own flying machine. The excitement was palpable as the folding came to completion and we ran into the driveway to test out these flying machines that we had made.

For the next hour or more, we stood in the driveway watching these airplanes zoom and swirl, spin and plummet. We laughed, we ooohhhh-ed and aahhhh-ed at the flight paths of these airplanes that had been created by our own hands.

We grabbed more paper and made more, altering the design here and there to see the difference that it made in the flight of our planes.

In those moments, those simple and innocent moments, we were all experiencing pure joy. It didn’t require electricity, it didn’t require a controller or joystick, it just took some paper, some time, and a little patience and imagination.

I was reminded once again that I can prepare and plan all I want to create an experience for my children that I consider to be awesome, but some of the best and most memorable moments and experiences are the ones that just happen, the ones that spontaneously emerge from “boredom” or from a fast from television.

I wondered to myself how I could rediscover this same joy and simplicity in all of the things that I do. In disconnecting, I found myself more connected. In being “bored,” we all found ourselves completely swept away in the excitement of the moment.

I think I’m going to have to find a copy of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” and try this again. Maybe a little background music will add to the excitement of the moment. Either way, I know that I’ll be capturing a moment, a moment that I’ll never be able to find again.

Where’s My Heart?

Sunset adds a warm glow to the mountains surrounding Asheville, North CarolinaAs I drove down the interstate and crested the hill, I saw a sight that I had seen for nearly four years. Just behind the skyline of this small mountain city lies the backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains. Even though I had seen this sight for nearly four years, I was amazed how it just never seems to grow old.

Even though it’s been nearly eight years that I have been gone from Asheville, North Carolina, there is still a connection there that’s kind of hard to explain. I have been back to Asheville a few times in those eight years, but this time, for some reason, felt different. Maybe it was that I was traveling alone. Maybe it was that a lot had happened in those eight years that I had been gone, both in me and in my life, and I hadn’t really processed it all. It just felt different this time around.

As I thought about it, I formulated a theory in my head about it. I am a passionate and emotional person and I have a hard time hiding my body language when I feel strongly about something. I think that there is a tendency for people like me to throw themselves into things deeply. When passionate and emotional people get involved in projects, build relationships with people, and spend time in places, they can have a tendency to connect themselves to those things emotionally. But there will come a time when that person moves on; maybe the project ends, maybe the relationship ends by death or some other means, maybe they move from that place, however it happens, there will be an end to projects, to people, and to places.

When that end comes, it will feel like a loss, a death of sorts. Projects end and there is a bit of a letdown. I feel this every Sunday that I preach a sermon. I’ve worked for hours on a sermon and when I go home at the end of that Sunday, there is a bit of a letdown because it’s been preached and now that time, that moment, is over. Relationships end, we lose people, that is part of life. We move, our world continues to grow smaller and smaller as we have become so transient. That transience can, however, still create a bond with places for us, maybe even more so because of the tendency to move on to other places as frequently as we see.

When those transitions happen, those people can leave a piece of themselves behind with the projects, the people, and the places. It’s not a matter of the duration of the connection between them and the project, the people, or the places, it’s more a matter of how much heart, effort, energy, and passion was put into it. No matter the duration when this happens, be it 6 years, 6 months, or even 6 days, there will still be a connection there, a connection that will always evoke some kind of strong emotion every time they think about those things or are reminded of those things.

That’s what I felt as I crested the hill and I saw the Asheville skyline. I felt as if there was something in me that would burst, and to tell you the truth, I was a little surprised at just how strong of an emotional response that I had to that sight and to being back in this place where I had spent nearly four years of my life.

Now, it would be prudent to tell you that there were a lot of things that probably made my connection to Asheville stronger. When we moved there, my wife and I had not even celebrated our three year anniversary yet. I had left a career in which I had been working for nearly a decade and had gone into full-time vocational ministry as a pastor. We were living a twelve hour car ride from our families, which for us felt like we were clear on the other side of the world at times, especially when struggles came. All of those things contributed to my connection with Asheville and ultimately set me up for the very response that I experienced when I drove into town.

When my wife and I moved to Asheville in the Spring of 2004, the only family that we had there was the family that we inherited through our church. That family and the bonds between us and them grew stronger as we experienced difficulties during our time there. That’s kind of a natural process in relationships, when relationships are put under pressure and stress they respond in one of two ways: they either break or they grow stronger. We felt like many of the relationships that were forged during this time grew stronger. Were there some that broke? Absolutely, regardless of the strength of the people involved in a relationship, that relationship just might not be able to sustain the pressure caused and created my difficulties.

So, there I was, overcome by emotion as I drove through the city and over the next 24-30 hours I would see some of those very people who had made this city such an important place to me. Each in their own way had made an impact on me. Each in their own way had made me feel like I had a connection to this place. Spending time with them all was something old and new all at the same time, reliving the moments that we had with one another and yet forging ahead and making something new, something different.

I ran a decent length trail run with a friend and spent a lot of time with him talking through what had happened all those years ago. It was incredibly therapeutic, I think for both of us. I had coffee with another friend and caught up with his life, stopped by another friend’s office to catch up with him, had dinner with some other friends, and stopped by the church that I called home for nearly four years, seeing some very special people there as well.

At the end of my brief time there, I began to realize that a piece of my heart was still there. It was left behind when I left and I don’t think that I fully understood that until that moment.

Life passes us by quickly and is full of moments that we will either shirk and waste or embrace and remember. As much pain might be involved in embracing places, people, and projects, I can’t think of any other way for me to do it. As Tennyson wrote, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Out there in the mountains of western North Carolina, there is a piece of my heart which I gladly left there. After all, knowing it’s there always gives me a reason to go back and see it again.

The Shrinking Tomb

Right after my mom died, we all assumed that my dad was going to continue to live on his own. I was still finishing up seminary at the time and flew out to Minnesota just a few days after my mom’s funeral. So, imagine my surprise when midway through my week in St. Paul, I received a phone call from my dad telling me that he was in the hospital. He assured me that everything was okay and that he would be fine, but I should have known better.

Dad had lost a lot in a short time period and it would be difficult for just about anyone to recover from that kind of loss. A career. A home. A wife and partner. The familiar. The convenient. The comfortable.

Dad continued on his own, living in the townhouse that was supposed to have served my parents throughout their retirement for the next four and a half months. Then, well, you know what they say about something hitting the fan?! That Christmas may very well have been the worst Christmas in my forty plus years.

Dad was in the hospital for a few weeks, he recovered enough to leave but not enough to be on his own. We were uncertain what would come next for him. I tried to be as sensitive as possible in the midst of my father’s frailty. He had been pushed into so many things in such a short period of time that I didn’t want to find myself guilty of being one more person pushing him into something that made him uncomfortable or sad. So, we held on to his townhouse, hoping that one day he would be strong enough and well enough to get back there again and live on his own.

That day never came.

When I would go down to visit my dad, we would generally go out to lunch, maybe stop by the cemetery to see my mom’s grave, and then stop by the townhouse. Sitting there in the townhouse at the dining room table, opening up the mail that had come, I think it still gave him a sense of control, a sense of solidarity, and a sense of independence. I’m not exactly sure how it felt for him all of those times, but eventually, it was just me going to the townhouse and to the cemetery.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was visiting two tombs. Although the townhouse still contained most of my parents’ belongings, it was empty, cold, and lifeless. Sure, there were memories there, but it was as if time had stopped and every time that I set foot in there, it was as if I was walking into an alternate universe where time was suspended for however long I chose to stay. Just as Edmund, Lucy, Peter, and Susan had set foot into the wardrobe transporting them to Narnia, so the townhouse had a similar effect on me. The difference was that while the Pevensie children were in the wardrobe time was suspended, the townhouse acted as sort of a time vacuum to me. The time that I spent there seemed to pass quickly without me fully realizing it.

Over time, I realized that visiting the townhouse wasn’t too much different than visiting the cemetery. They were both tombs, of a sort. One was warmer, an larger, and better decorated, but they both contained something that was no longer there, except in my mind. In that townhouse I could find myself reliving memories, getting lost in daydreams, and simply remembering what used to be.

We embraced the difficult task of getting rid of everything that we did not want to hold on to, helped (thankfully) by a friend who ran estate sales. In the months before the townhouse finally sold, it felt more and more like a tomb as there was nothing there anymore, no furniture, no pictures, no clothes, no sign of what used to be, just emptiness. We transported the remaining belongings to a storage unit not far from my house after the townhouse sold.

One afternoon, not long after the townhouse sold, I found myself driving to the storage unit. As I opened the door, the remaining belongings still held that smell, you know, the smell of my parents. Not sure I can explain that in a way that would do it justice with words, but it was the same smell that hit me every time that I walked into the townhouse.

I realized in that moment that the tomb had gotten smaller. It had gone from townhouse size to storage unit size. In some ways, it was a fitting metaphor for my grief. Not to say that my sense of loss over my parents felt any smaller, but it seemed that I was better able to handle it and on some level it had somehow shrunk from the size of a townhouse to the size of a storage unit.

In the absence of the townhouse, I’ve not got many reasons to frequent Williamsburg. There are no trips to the townhouse, nor are there any trips to the cemetery. My trips to the storage unit are limited, but I know that one day, in an effort to eliminate expenses, we will need to eliminate that storage unit as well.

The tomb is shrinking.

Entering into this Lenten season, it seemed fitting for me to come to this realization. After all, the culmination of the Lenten season has to do with the discovery of an empty tomb and, beyond that, all of the implications that come with it.

When faced with the emptiness and loss of what was, it’s easy to linger on it, allowing it to diffuse into our souls and somehow convince us that it’s the end. Facing the emptiness of the townhouse and the condensed memories that take up the storage unit, it’s a reminder to me that there is hope beyond tombs, I can picture in my mind that storage unit being empty one day, and I think it will be symbolic to me, in a way, of the hope that remains in the midst of emptiness.

The tomb was empty, the clothes remained, but the body was gone. Jesus was gone. In much the same way, Mom and Dad are gone, the tomb is empty. Sure, there are still earthly shells of what used to be, but the lifelessness and emptiness that seems so palpable point me to a picture of hope, reminding me that death is not the end.

Some people give up things for Lent, they take part in a fasting of sorts to focus them on the meaning of the season. I’ve never been one to do things simply because everybody else does and I don’t think that I will start now. In fact, maybe my visits to the “tomb” might become more frequent in the midst of this Lenten season. Visiting an occupied grave may serve as a fitting reminder to me that there was an empty tomb that was visited many years ago and the implications of its emptiness are as relevant today as they were back then. In addition, the ramifications of that emptiness ring loud and true today and on into eternity, so if that’s what tombs remind me of, bring it on. Nothing like finding a little hope in the midst of emptiness.

The Chair

2014-10-13 07.56.16I have a chair in my media room. It’s not the prettiest chair. While it’s pretty comfortable, there are probably way more comfortable chairs out there. The thing about this chair is that there’s so much more attached to this chair than comfort and aesthetics.

When my wife and I got married, like many young couples, we didn’t have a whole lot. I was working in the engineering field and she was working at our church. I also volunteered at our church, playing in the band and leading music, filling gaps wherever they might be. In all of my time and travels, I met some incredibly gifted people, and among them was a drummer named Steve.

Steve and I became friends as soon as I met him. He was a PK (pastor’s kid) like me, so there was an instant bond there between us. We were musicians who played multiple instruments as well. I think that we were both troubled souls as well, like most musicians, there was a deep longing within us, a restlessness that came out through the creative process of making music.

Steve was real and genuine. There was no pretense to him, and I loved him for that. Life’s too short to cover stuff over with fixings that simply hide what’s really going on inside. Every time that I spent with him, I would stand in awe of his abilities on whichever instrument that he was playing. In fact, on more than one occasion of listening to him play, I wanted to hang up my musician’s clothes and never touch an instrument again. But, alas, I continued.

When I got married, Steve mentioned a chair that he had. He and his wife were getting rid of it. Never one to turn down a handout or free stuff, I willingly accepted his offer. He delivered the chair and it began as just one piece of furniture at the onset of this journey that we call marriage. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done.

Steve is gone. He’s been gone for a few years. I can’t remember how long it’s been since we lost him. A bass player friend whom we used to play with all the time informed me of this loss when it happened. I was kind of numb when I heard the news. Two young children and a wife. Incredible skills and abilities. The troubled soul had finally found rest. My only solace was the knowledge that his faith stood throughout all that he had wrestled with and gone through. That solace usually doesn’t take immediate action though, it usually takes some time to set in.

Through more than 13 years of marriage, 3 homes in 3 different states, the chair still remains. There’s something about sitting in it. It brings me back. I can’t help but think of Steve when I sink into the chair. It represents something so much more than a simple chair.

As I looked at it the other day, I thought about the movie “When Harry Met Sally.” When Harry and Sally’s friends, Jess and Marie, are getting married and getting rid of some of their individual stuff, they argue over a wagon wheel coffee table. The coffee table finally goes in the trash after some arguing back and fort

One day, this chair will probably end up in the trash too. It seems inevitable.

But, for now, I’ll milk every minute that I can sit in it. I’ll dream of another time and place, of the times that I enjoyed playing music with my friend. It will serve as a reminder to me of the beginning of my marriage as it was among the first pieces of furniture that we ever hard. It will also serve as a reminder of Steve. Sitting there among my music and instruments, my pictures of Miles Davis and Bob Dylan, I think it kind of feels at home…….but furniture doesn’t really have feelings!