A Family Affair

“It’s a family affair, it’s a family affair.  One child grows up to be somebody that just loves to learn…”  Family Affair (1971), Recorded by:  Sly & The Family Stone.  Composer:  Sly Stone

Somebody told me once that the terrific thing about grandchildren is, after they visit they go home.  That thought leaves some room for the idea our own kids don’t leave to go home because they ARE home.  For me, as a dad, that was a good thing.  I was/am blessed to have three great daughters.

To my grave I will say, I was gifted by God to be in a position to take on “Mr. Mom” for many years.  Tabitha (31), my oldest, and Megan (29) are two very different ladies.  Who said siblings had to be alike?

Girls - Tabitha And Megan

(1998)

When they were born, it was early in my radio career, working overnights.  When they were about two and four, I was on the air in the evenings (7pm-12am) for a few more years before taking daytime on-air hours.  It was during those sleepy evening and overnight shows I was able to be with my girls in the daytime.  Moreover, it was their formative years, all the way through elementary school days.  I didn’t plan it.  It literally was one of those “God Things” in our lives.

Domestically speaking, those were times of horrific turmoil in hour home.  We did a decent job of hiding it from friends, but it all took its toll.  In efforts to avoid dishing out unnecessary dirt on some private family dynamics, I will say nothing more on the subject.

All things work out together for God’s purpose.  So, it was my pleasure to instill in these young hearts my faith, my real-world experience, and loads of wacky, swinging-from-the-chandelier-playtime.  We built memories.  Most of all, when they needed protection, they knew who to run to.

Nine years after Megan came along, D’Anna, my youngest, was born.  Unfortunately, I was working an afternoon drive-time show during those same years in her life.  I regret I didn’t get the same amount of quantity time with her, but we sure had tons of quality times together.

Girls Sept 2003 - Visit back to Carrollton

(2003)

When thinking back to those days of tea parties by the dollhouse, walking on hands and knees pretending to be a riding horse, or playing dress-up (Complete with make-up.) I would never consider changing any of it.  Nope, not one thing.  It was all so worth it.

Girls - T&M kiddie pool

(1992)

During my daddy/daughter years, I dated my girls.  We set calendar days, reserving them for “Dates with dad.”  Sure, we did stuff as a pack, but I wanted one-on-one time with each girl.  Just a movie, playground, or dinner at a favorite spot always suited us nicely.  Again, all so worth it.

D'Anna & Me in Houston-June 2007

(2007)

If parents were blatantly honest, I feel it would be said we learned so much while parenting.  I know I did.  Do you feel that way?  The triumphant trio grew up knowing they never had to “perform” or “measure-up” for my love.  Each one saw unconditional love, no matter what kind of trouble they fell into, or words spoken in haste, or diverting to another ideology different than mine.  To this day, it holds true.  Scripture taught me the way God loves.  It works.  There are rewards of various shapes and hues.  For one, to this day they want to communicate with me.  The girls want to visit with me, showing honor and respect personally toward their old man.  Although I am faulty, blemishes and all, somewhere, sometime, I must have done something right.  It really was so worth it.

Today, I’m about thirty minutes away from Tabitha and D’Anna.  I love it!  Megan is about a four hour flight away.  That’s hard.  Usually, when she comes for a visit, it’s either for a funeral, a wedding, performing with her band on tour, or to be by my side when I am in the hospital.  In recent years I was on my deathbed twice.  She was there to join Tabitha and D’Anna next to me both times.  Feeling their hands in mine gave me an enormous amount of comfort, a boost to fight for life.

Girls - March 2019]

(This week, march 2019.  L-R:  Megan, Tabitha, and D’Anna.)

This week, Megan, who is literally a busy rock star and recording artist in Western New York, came to spend some time with us in Dallas, with a boyfriend in tow.  Things are getting somewhat serious for them.  He seems like a really nice guy.  In fact, we have a few things in common.  As we watched them drive away for the day in their rent-a-car, my wife leaned over to me and said, “Your girl got her a guy just like her dad.”  I replied, “REALLY?”  She went on to explain our interests, talents, and backgrounds are very much the same.  Even the coloring of our eyes and hair are the same.  How come that didn’t pop out at me?

Girls and Me Sept 2016

(2016)

There is one thing very noticeable to me.  It is the connection we share as a family.  When my girls and I are together, it seems like we pick up right where we left off last time.  The years don’t seem to calculate our ages, or bond.  Our first dinner together this week testified to it all.  We could tell what each other was going to say.  We knew when we were going to laugh, what we would eat, and what our favorite movies are.  It’s amazing to me.

In scripture, God calls those who belong to Him “His children”, an intimate title to say the least.  He states the number of hairs on our head are numbered.  Now THAT’S intimate.  It is written He knows our thoughts before we think them, or speak them.  He knows how and why we tick.  Most of all, He said we know His distinct voice in our hearts.  My favorite name for Him comes from the Aramaic, the ancient language Jesus spoke.  It’s the word  “Abba”, meaning “Daddy”.  It’s a very affectionate, closely knit family title for a father.  When crying out in pain, from the grunting of the core of the hurting heart, one calls out for relief to the cozy “Daddy” instead of the more official and distant term, “Father”.  Two of His biblical descriptions are “The Rock”, and “Shelter”Jesus Himself gave us a snapshot of how He loves by describing a hen.  He mentioned how sheltering she is by spreading her wings over her chicks, pulling them to her side, taking on the downpours onto herself.  What a beautiful picture.  It’s exactly the definition I’ve tried to be, and continue to attempt to be, for my girls.  There are times of failure in this area for me, but it’s what I strive for.  In the end, it’s all so worth it.

My hope is that no matter where they are in life, or on the planet, they can feel our DNA strand.

Family ties can be tightened when knotted with fuel for the race.

“See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are…”  1 John 3:1 (NAS)

Slippery Slopes

“…She was going way too fast.  Before she knew it she was spinning on a thin black sheet of glass.  She saw both their lives flash before her eyes.  She didn’t have time to cry.  She was so scared.  She threw her hands up in the air.  Jesus, take the wheel.  Take it from my hands. ‘Cause I can’t do this on my own.  I’m letting go…”  – Jesus, Take The Wheel, (2005)  Recorded by:  Carrie Underwood.  Composers:  Brett James, Gordon Sampson, Hillary Lindsey.

14 years ago, an old friend of mine, Jaylene Johnson, miraculously survived a severe crash.  (See her car above.)

She is a successful singer/songwriter/recording artist, Juno Award nominee and Covenant Award winner from Winnipeg, Canada.  To say she was exhausted at the end of a cross-Canada solo tour, would be an understatement.  With her heater blowing full throttle, as she was driving home after a heavy snowfall in North Western Ontario, she was eager to see her hometown.  Jaylene was negotiating the roads as well as could be expected.  There was a moment in time she thought maybe it was best to grab a hotel before they closed the highways, but that had yet to happen.  Her car was packed to the roof with her guitars, keyboard, sound equipment, promotional products, and luggage.  The only thing on her mind was the weather conditions bearing down on the route.  She is a cautious driver, well versed in winter driving, but the semis nipping at her bumper were not so careful.  The rear-view mirror became her friend.

jaylene johnson performing

Jaylene on-tour.  Photo:  Tim Hellsten

The last thing she recalls is the map.  She had made it just outside of Upsala, Ontario, in the Thunder Bay District, when all went dark.  (Some of the following details came from eyewitnesses, EMT’s & police reports, along with her own post-accident inquiry.)

Travelling westbound, she had reached the top of a ridge overlooking a valley below.  As she began to descend into the valley, she slipped on some unexpected black ice covering the highway, and lost control.  As her little vehicle slid across the highway, she hit a transport coming eastbound head-on.  When she came to in the wreckage, a stranger on the scene, named “Willie”, pulled her through a shattered window, held her hand, and covered her with his coat before the EMT’s arrived.  As she sobbed, he comforted her while stroking her hair as she laid there in shock.  Fast-forward, she spent the rest of the day on a back brace in a Thunder Bay hospital.  Her body was riddled with pieces of broken glass.

Back in 2004, I was doing a radio show in Buffalo, NY while she had just released her first major album.  At the time, it was rare for Canadian artists to get radio airplay on the USA side of the border, especially independent bands.  I wanted to change that trend in the corner where I was.  The station I worked for was operating with 110,000 watts, reaching well north of Toronto, generally all of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).  The signal stretched over the entire Western New York area, northwestern Pennsylvania, and some portions of Ohio.  There was too many stellar Canadian artists putting out top-shelf cuts, not being heard on the U.S. side.  My number one focus was quality writing, production, along with terrific vocals to debut south of the Canadian border.  However, it was under a global relief, development and advocacy banner where our roads converged.

World Vision International had approached the two of us to join their work in El Salvador, as part of an ad campaign for support.  We worked together there, alongside other Canadian artists, for a week or so.  I was doing live reports back to the radio station as I interviewed World Vision workers, as well as benefactors.  It was there Jaylene and I became friends in a much warmer climate.

me in el salvador with world vision 2004

Jaylene took this photo of an interview I was doing with a World Vision recipient through a World Vision interpreter.

After our trip, we kept in touch.  Jaylene graced my show, in studio, a couple of times when she was performing in the GTA or WNY.  Through the years I kept track of her tours and television appearances.

After hearing from her on the details of the accident, I grew concerned about her health in the wake of such trauma.  In the end, there was no need for concern on my part.  God took the wheel, indeed.

I’ve had my own experiences with icy paths.  When you believe you can negotiate the roads in that condition, caution and prep would be top priority.

Come to think of it, no matter what climate you travel through, icy roads can derail your life.  Do you know what I mean?  We can be living life as a smooth operator, no issues in sight.  Then suddenly, without warning, our feet come right out from under us.  Zero traction takes us by surprise.  We’re never really prepared for it.  Just when we think we are, “BOOM”, on our tailbone we go.  (And it’s always the tailbone, right?)  For some, it might be losing traction on funds and finances.  We might experience losing traction on world peace.  Maybe a loss in traction with our child, our health, our marriage, or our nation.  It happens.  Before you know it, we slide hard into a nearby ditch, off the trek we were to be on. Just like Jaylene’s shellacked pavement, the ice doesn’t have to be thick to cause a head-on collision.  We can find slippage on the invisible, and/or what we deem as non-threatening.  It’s a tragic mistake.  Some find slippery slopes that lead to life-ending results.  There are non-negotiables out there which can transport you to where you don’t want to be.

“…stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand….and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace…” – St. Paul, Ephesians 6. 

In Paul’s time, Roman soldiers were fitted into special sandals with studs on the soles, like cleats.  For me, my preference are my insulated snow-boots with cleats on the rubber soles.  Better yet, Paul indicates a true gripping.  It’s more like the spikes on a mountain climber’s boot.  Anyone who has ever fallen hard on the ice, or slid down a slippery slope in the winter, or did so in a social, political, or economic climate, would recommend cleats in decision making.  Just ask the citizens of Venezuela.  Unlike Jaylene, when driving in the ice on bald tires, your future is certain.

Prep all you want.  There’s always the God-factor outside of your own abilities and strength.  Have you been there?  Maybe you have and you didn’t truly take the time to consider it.

As for Jaylene’s ordeal, a couple of mysteries still hover.  One unsolved oddity surrounds “Willie”.  As she was being placed in the ambulance, she looked back for him.  He, and his coat, were gone.  No person at the scene could tell her who he was, where he came from , or where he went.  Plus, according to the reports, the shear impact from the head-on collision with the transport, and her small vehicle, was of tremendous force.  Yet, she walked out of the hospital, on her own power later the SAME DAY!  Just shocking.

Also, one of the EMT’s was familiar with her music from Canadian radio.  He went the extra mile after taking her to the hospital.  He went back to the scene and helped to retrieve her property from the wreckage, all on his own time.

Lasting effects remain with her, mostly psychological in nature.  To this day, Jaylene will tell you, she can’t seem to fully relax anymore.  Yet, she does see God’s hand in the incident on several levels.  So do I.

jaylene johnson promo Jaylenejohnson.COM

I’m proud to say she continues to write, record, and perform.  She’s now married and raising a family.

When in slippery, tight places, it goes better when fitted with the cleats of fuel for the race.

“For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.  They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone.”  -Psalm 91:11-12 (NAS)

 

A Trinket Has Lots To Say

“Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…” Old Man – 1972  By: Neil Young.

It’s true.  A trinket has lots to say.  I believe the older one gets, the more this truth stands out.  One of my old high school friends collects guitar picks, some from rock concerts of note from the past.  For you, it might be a bigger trinket like a 1960 Chevy Corvette.  If you were to visit my house and rummaged through some shelves and boxes, you will discover some valuable items.  Sure, they might not appear valuable to you, but for me, they are treasures.

In Greenville, Texas, just one house over, and across the street from my grandparents old home, lived an elderly couple.  I knew them as, Mr. & Mrs. Cook.  (All of the houses there were built in the 1840’s-1860’s.)  They were not just neighbors, but also friends from our church.   My mom tells me the old folks there in the house became like grandparents to her, along with her two brothers throughout the 1950’s.  Mrs. Cook was known to be very astute, a woman who could see clearly what was beneath the surface.  She had the right last name, too.  She was widely known for baking terrific pies.  All the kids on the block were welcomed at their house, mainly after school before parents arrived from work.

Mr. Cook, could usually be spotted sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch just watching the neighborhood grow.  I have one picture of him on his front porch, but at the moment I cannot locate it.  Vivid in my mind is a derby hat, round Teddy Roosevelt-style bottle-lens glasses, a cane and a wooden leg.  (The below is as close as I can come to generally representing him.)

mr. cook

Mr. Cook was a quirky, funny character with loads of stories to tell, usually with a punchline at the end.  The kids would gather on his porch knowing they would hear of adventures, heroes, as well as, the old witch who lived in the large, unkempt, overgrown house some three doors down.  (Actually, he might have been telling the truth.  She was a spooky old lady, who once shot at someone walking in front of her house on the sidewalk.)  His tales told of local ghosts to watch for, the old long-gone minor league Greenville baseball team, and how he lost his leg jumping off a mule wagon where his foot landed in a deep pothole in a dirt road.  As he told it, the leg snapped off and ran away from him in the woods, never to be seen again.  The norm would be that he would raise the cuff of his pant-leg, revealing his old wooden, rather rustic “limb”, so to speak.  There, in the shin area, was a missing oval-shaped knot in the timber.  He would invite the curious, wide-eyed kids, to knock three times on it to see if a squirrel lived inside.  As I’ve been told, he offered the little ones to take a look inside the hole to find the critter in his hollow leg.  Then he would dare them to stick a finger inside the hole just before the kids ran away from fright of the idea.  His belly laughter was loud, so was his good nature.  He loved to tease the neighborhood kids and they loved being teased.

In one of my previous posts, I have written of my mom who was barely 16 when I was born.  Mr. and Mrs. Cook often cared for her when her parents were at work during her pregnancy.  Mrs. Cook could’ve been easily mistaken for a midwife, right up to the day my mom went into labor.  They were at the hospital to greet me when I arrived.

Take a deep breath.  You may find this hard to believe, but you will just have to trust me on this.  Mr. and Mrs. Cook are part of my very first memories.  Although my memories come from my 3rd and 4th year of life, I have been told they often babysat me, gave gifts, including Mrs. Cook’s homemade clothing tailored just for me.  By the time I was 2 years old, we lived with my grandparents, but the Cooks were very much my 2nd grandparents.

Me and Tippy 1962

As early as 3 years old, I have memories of playing on the front porch by his feet.  When I was 4 years old, I remember how he would grab his cane, walk me down the sidewalk and around the corner, to an old general store, about four houses down.  (Long since gone.)   To this very day, vivid is the limp, the cane’s sound as its tip touched the concrete of the sidewalk, as well as, his hard leather wingtips scuffing along the cracks of the pavement.  His caring, rough, large hand held mine as we walked slowly to the old general store.  He never let his handicap keep him from life.

old general store

Photo:  Pinterest

Mr. Cooper’s General Store was a small, old wooden frame, neighborhood store.  Way before large grocery stores were available for small towns, there were “neighborhood” stores and shops.  When the neighborhood was new, merchants would set-up shop near, or in the central area, of the houses built.  One hundred years later, there were some of these old stores still open for business for the very local patrons.  As I recall, we would walk into Mr. Cooper’s store, with burlap, sugar and the scent of old weathered wood wafting through the air.  Creaking sounds came with each step on the old planks of the floor.  There, on the counter-top, sat large thick jars of hard candies.  A ring would reverberate through the small business as the heavy lid was removed from the jar.  I wish I could recall the sound of his voice when he said, “Al, how ’bout that candy cane right there?  A broken cane won’t do.”  No doubt, I didn’t hesitate in confirming.  I do remember walking back to his house with a peppermint cane sticking out of my mouth.  You guessed it, each time we went, I expected to get a candy cane.

candy-cane-classic

There was also a counter-top curio case filled with small items.  Among the shelves was a hodgepodge of assortments like, a children’s slingshot, Indian head nickel, small coin pouches, tiny glass dolls, etc.  One item that stuck out was a small black glass pepper-shaker, in the shape of a baby elephant, Dumbo-style, about 3″ tall.  (In retrospect, it must’ve been a mismatched item, as there wasn’t a salt shaker with it.)  At this point, my memory has faded.  However, a few years ago my mom presented it to me.  She had kept it in a box of little treasures for some 50 years.  She told me Mr. Cook had given the tiny elephant to me while he had taken me to Mr. Cooper’s store on an occasion.  Instantly, I recalled him picking it out for me.  Mr. Cooper placed it in a small paper bag with my candy cane.

As times and circumstances changed, sometime in 1964, my mom and I moved to a boarding house a few blocks away.  Yet, we still spent lots of time at my grandparent’s home, and always looked across the street to see if Mr. Cook was sitting out on his front porch.  His chair sat empty more often as time went by.  When he did appear on his porch, he always waved and yelled out a greeting of some kind.  Visiting him was always a highlight of that time period.

On May, 18th, 1965, Mr. Cook let go of this life.  It happened to be my 5th birthday.  In those days, it was customary to have a wake, with an open casket in the house of the deceased, for family and friends to visit and grieve together in familiar surroundings.  Food would be brought and shared, along with lots of conversation about the one honored.  My mom was heartbroken.  When we arrived at the house, after greeting Mrs. Cook, we approached the coffin.  It was my first experience with death.  Watching my mom cry, I told her something I had obviously been taught in Sunday School at our church.  Although I do not recall doing this, they tell me I looked up at her and said, “Don’t be sad, mom.  This is only the house Mr. Cook lived in.”  She tells me she squeezed my hand, chuckled, choked back the tears, and told me I was absolutely right.  We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.  It would be easy to say, that 5 year old was talking about the old structure, the house we were in, constructed of wood and paint.  However, I was taught well.  The body in the casket was only the cocoon, the shell, or the “house” Mr. Cook lived in.  The spirit of the elderly man we knew, with all his stories, laughter and kindness, had exited to live at the feet of his Creator.

Through the decades, we have seen multiple families move in and out of the old house on Jones Street.  There’s never been a time I didn’t want to walk up to the front porch, introduce myself so I could tell them of the magnificent couple who resided there.  There’s never been a time I didn’t look over at the old porch, imagining Mr. Cook sitting in his chair waving at me with a gigantic grin on his face.  There’s never been a time in my life when unwrapping a candy cane, I didn’t think of him.  Isn’t it odd how an item, or a place, can bring back visions of old love from long ago?

Today, a small trinket, that insignificant little glass elephant, sits on my bathroom shelf.  I see it several times a day.  It makes me smile.

As for Mrs. Cook, she was a strong, healthy woman.  There was no reason why she couldn’t have lived another 10 years or more.  From May 18th, to July 22nd, she lived alone in her house.  As you can see by the dates of their tombstone, she wasn’t without him for very long.

mr. cook tombstone

Over the Christmas holidays, I visited their graveside.  There are two flower vases, one for each side of the tombstone, not seen in the picture.  I went alone.  I stood there in the chilly Texas wind, spoke to him of my gratitude for helping to teach me, early in childhood, more of what love is.  Before walking away, I placed a peppermint candy cane in his vase.  I hope it’s still there.  More than that, I hope he was told what I did there.

A trinket has lots to say when filtered through fuel for the race.

“For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” – St. Paul – Romans 14:7 (NIV) 

For Something You Love More – A Short Story

By: Alan Scott Brown

The holiday season of 2009 was a lean one for many.  Doug Benford was eager to see the year fade off into the realms of history.

He didn’t hear the alarm this particular Friday morning.  Sparks, his beloved tan and white Jack Russell Terrier and Dachshund mix, jumped on his chest with an ample supply of tongue lashings to the face, warnings for outdoor bladder relief.

“Okay okay, pal, I’m up!” Doug said with a bite to his groggy voice.  “Hop off the bed.  I’ll meet you at the back door.”

On his way to the closet he asked himself common a question, “My better-half brought him home, saying he was part rooster.  Why can’t he just wait for the alarm?”

Doug laid-out his clothes for the day – jeans, flannel shirt, and leather jacket.  As he was changing, he heard a familiar scratching coming from the back kitchen door.

“Hey, Sausage!”  (His wife’s nickname for Sparks.)  “So help me, if I wind up painting that door I’ll have your hide on the garage wall!” said Doug as he threw on his shirt on his way to the back door.  As Doug opened the door, Sparks let out his high pitched terrier yelp.  Just then, like a flash, the short-haired companion headed for his favorite backyard spot.

The Tennessee morning had a light dusting of snow on the ground which gleamed with intermittent rays of sunshine, coming through the high clouds.  As his routine of late, Doug walked slowly across the frosty lawn, taking in each step, each sight, as if organizing a mental photo album.

A streak of unfortunate circumstances had disabled his income.  He had adjusted surviving on what little savings was left, as well as weekly unemployment checks.  He had one more CD he’d not cashed-in, but the clock was ticking.  After almost fifteen years at the Spring Hill GM plant, the layoffs cast him into a devastating position.  He had to put his SUV up for sale just to make it through a few months.  Now, an antique Ford pick-up took up the driveway space.  The truck was a project he once enjoyed, making efforts to refurbish it.  For now, its bed served to hold branches, twigs and scrap lumber.  Doug had resigned to warming part of the house with wood he had chopped-up from selective trees on the property.  He feared cutting electricity altogether, as he considered resigning to a log cabin with a potbelly stove.

With foreclosure looming in the near future, he turned to gaze slowly over the home he and his wife moved into some years ago.  In those times it was sheer dreams of Americana, complete with a house full of visiting kids from the block and friendly next-door neighbors.  Standing in the cold morning air, while facing the back of the house, he caught a quick glimpse of an apparition.  Through the frozen fog of his exhales, he saw a little girl peering out an upstairs bedroom window, wearing an innocent grin only adoring parents could memorize.  For a moment, just before her image melted away, she held out her hand with a slow wave.  After a pregnant pause, he came to himself, shaking his head after a few seconds in the midst of waving back.

Grieving families know all too well how quickly an automatic smile can be transformed into the frown of loss.  Dreams of the tragic car crash on a wet highway that took his wife, Cheryl, and his four year old, Emily, haunted his days and nights.  The years seemed like weeks, since that deadly sword of fate carved a trench in his heart.  What was intended to be a wonderful July 4th get-a-way to the Smokies, had plunged his world into an abyss, so dark and so deep, that only a day’s work at the plant could distract his focus from the torture.  Now, he could no longer use full-time work as the medication of choice.  Jack Daniels was his new covert friend.

The house was filled with echoing vacancy.  Doug’s depression pained his physical body as he stepped up to a young Loblolly Pine tree, the “King Pine” of the South, planted firmly along the back line of the lawn.  It was now the lone tree, carefully nourished and treasured with love.  It was a tree of so much pride, wrapped in a father’s heart.  He got the idea from a neighbor to plant a seedling in the yard on the day Emily was born, a symbol marking the start of a precious God-given life.  As she and the tree grew, he nailed a pink ribbon to the trunk each year on her birthday, gauging her height.  On the day of high school graduation, Emily was to stand next to the tree, in full cap and gown with cameras flashing, as he was to nail the last pink ribbon to the trunk.  Now, the tree grows as a stark reminder of the missing pink ribbons, which would never be added.

A tear slowly rolled down into his salt-n-pepper stubble thinking of what might have been.  He and the family dog were now struggling in the wake of this unexpected cosmic eraser of hopes and imaginings.  As he blinked to see his wristwatch, Sparks broke the heaviness by taking wild, full-beans laps around Emily’s tree.  With a half chuckle he hollered, “Yep, let’s get it together, boy.  The kids will be waiting.”  As much as he wanted to reminisce, the day’s schedule wouldn’t allow it.

The old rusty Ford sat in the driveway nearly every day as Doug took the economically-forced bus ride to his annual part-time gig.  He gave it a pat on the hood as he walked by on the way to the bus stop, some two miles from his house.  After boarding, the sprinkling of a late November snow was already beginning to say its good-byes to the morning sun.  As he traveled from intersection to intersection, watching the angry holiday traffic, he was reminded of the dreary miles to a job he had learned to despise.  His circumstances had soured his very bones, which caused a dismal filter on everyday life.  It was only short-term; a job to keep the water bill afloat with soup cans on the shelf for another month.  Sitting next to another city traveler he whispered to himself, “Homelessness is for February.”

The local mall was overwhelming the day after Thanksgiving.  The insanity of consumerism was in fast forward mode, with shoppers only taking time out for a dash at any empty table in the food court.  Black Friday stress was evident on every face, full of hustle and bustle, and way beyond the expected annual rat race.  A year of recession had taken its toll, especially for low and middle income households.  Customers needed good deals.  Coming down the escalator were platoons of humanity with shopping bags in both arms, trying to recall where they had parked.

At the bottom of the moving stairs, where the steps vanished into the first floor, families were lined-up.  In a roped maze line, displaying a parade of holiday weariness, children were decked out in their festive best.  There were little girls sporting satin gowns, coupled with silk ribbons in their hair.  The boys were squirming, pulling at their neck ties of Christmas colors.  Mothers were busy working on uncooperative strands of hair, along with fathers staring absently into space, eating steaming hot pretzels, in efforts to tune out the mayhem.  And there in the distance, in the center of the activity, was a throne, laced in gold metallic paint and red velveteen, fit for a…Santa.  Cameras were locked and loaded for personal documentary, at a fat cost.

Each morning on the way to the outside employee entrance, Doug passed an elderly Salvation Army kettle volunteer ringing his little tin bell, greeting potential donors loaded down with holiday cares.

“Hello, young fella!” the old man belted, with a sincere warmth that could melt frost.  Doug never wanted to appear as a Scrooge, so he always responded like an award-winning actor on the red carpet, “Good morning!”  The old guy always seemed to pick up on Doug’s tossed spirit.  Wishing to cheer, the jolly man responded, “Yessir, it’s always a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.”

Doug stepped up his pace, thinking to himself, “Do the most good by staying home, that is.”

Every day – weekdays and weeknights throughout the month – the routine was the same.  And, every day he thought of alternative ways to get to the employee entrance without passing the old man at the red kettle stand.  In his sleep he heard, “It’s always a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.”  At times he wondered if he said it aloud after Sparks would wake him, jumping up in the high antique bed, landing on his chest, whining and sniffing his face.

The door of the break room flew open as Doug came stumbling in, murmuring under his breath.  Startled with the sudden sound, a cleaning lady, who was pouring a cup of coffee, responded lightheartedly to his clumsy entrance.

“Hey Doug, did Mr. Grinch bring you to work today?”

He closed the door with a bit of frustrated force.  With a large exhale he replied, “Oh, Maggie, that old bell ringer out there has two volume levels, loud and very loud.”

Maggie again responded with a joyful chuckle, “Last year, you complained about that old man just about every day.  Let me ask you, now did it ever get you what you prefer?”

Doug grunted as he took off his jacket.

“Come on,” Maggie said, “I’ve already got you a cup of cheer this morning.  I just made the first pot.  Donuts are in the box.”

Maggie was a poor single mom who worked at the mall, sweeping up debris shoppers left behind, emptying trash cans and mopping floors.  For such a hard working woman, with just above a minimum hourly wage, she never let her state in life rule over her disposition.  It was noticed, and certainly Doug had a front row view of her jovial way of getting through daily life.  Maggie was the type who had Christmas spirit during the storms of the spring, in the heat of July, and while the leaves of every hue let go of their branches in autumn.

Doug had a tendency to hide stored-up layers of envy, wishing he could rise above his strata of fog to shine like Maggie. Through the year he would walk the mall for exercise and visit with Maggie on her breaks where the two would debate about the recession, religion, and geopolitical news.  Yet, the one thing he wouldn’t discuss with his friend was his loneliness, due to his cascading losses in life.  Although they were like a wave he had to surf, he remained embarrassed by his state.  Sadly, he felt the pain was for him to own, not to share.  Maybe it was his pride, or just the way he was raised by somewhat stoic folk, but he kept his troubles to himself.

After taking another sip of the fresh java, Maggie shared more than he expected.  “Ya know, Doug, you’ll have to bring that little mutt of yours up here before Christmas comes and goes.  My little guy, Aiden, has a DVD of “101 Dalmatians” and just cackles at the antics, along with all those cute faces.  He’s in first grade now and has yet to even pet a dog.  Can you believe it?  Honestly, one of these days I’ll have enough saved up for a dog from the pound.”

Doug found himself listening closely to her, dreading all the while the next twelve hours at the job.  With a click, the time clock struck 9:30am.  Downing the last swig of coffee, he pulled the words out of his mouth, “I guess I can’t stop the clock, Maggie.  I’ll see you later.”

“I hear that.  Have a good day!” said Maggie.  She slowly shook her head as she watched him walk away with shoulders slumped, heading to a section of metal lockers.

Chin to his chest, Doug opened the locker door.  He let out a big sigh at the sight of what was hanging on a hook.  The fluorescent lights above him landed on a bright red Santa suit, complete with black boots, a white wooly strap-on beard, and a hat only the best Claus could wear.  With a weak groan, he collected the heavy fur wardrobe and turned to the men’s room to change.

Doug was a man of integrity at heart.  Playing the role of the jolly old elf to the throng of kids and parents was done well; after all, this is what he was hired to do.  Through the weeks he sat in that chair posing for pictures and videos with children from all slices of life.  Overbearing mothers, some with their diamonds and silk purses, bothered him the most as they pushed and prodded their little brats with the will of a perfection-driven, Hollywood director.

He was amazed at the variety of Claus worshippers.  No matter the race, religion or status – whether rich or poor, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or atheists – the farce continued with plastic smiles and a “HO-HO-HO”.  For weeks on end he fought with the beard-pulling kids and petrified youngsters, forced into this scene by their pseudo stage-moms.  Then came the dreaded college students, who insisted on posing with him for the fun of it.  Oh, and then there was the occasional Calvin Klein-clad seven year old, who must have come from a long line of mobsters, threatening him with Christmas Eve cookie and eggnog withholdings.  Frankly, the shock wore off after hearing a set of twin girls demanding that they get whatever the little girl before them inquired about.  It was that caliber of child that pierced his heart the most, as he thought of the sweetness of his little Emily and her selfless personality.

What kind of young woman could she have been, if life had been granted?  He fought the gravity of the emotional vortex which took him to that awful place of deep inexplicable loss.

With each day he felt a growing anger toward children.  So much so, he counted down the remaining shopping days when he could hang up the suit and candy canes for the very last time.

*****

It was the night of December 23rd, when Doug shuffled his way up the driveway after another marathon day in Santa’s court.  In the darkness he spied an envelope taped to his front door.  It was a notice for interruption of electrical service from non-payment.  He looked down, shook his head, letting the document slip out of his hands.  No amount of cinnamon sticks, sugar cookies, nor magical reindeer dust could keep the feelings of resentment and dejection away.

He found himself shouting into the chilled air, “God, what are you trying to do to me?  Don’t you think I’ve been through enough?”  Exhausted, coupled with anger and sorrow, Doug sat on the front steps, pulled his knees up to his chest and released his tears.

After dragging himself inside, he reached for the liquor cabinet in the kitchen for a shot of synthetic comfort.  Being pragmatic, he immediately began to plan just how he could survive another two months without electricity, until the bank took the house.

Later, that same night, he stoked up the fire in the fireplace, warmed up a can of soup on the hearth and sorted through his mail.  Sparks just looked at him with an expression of, what seemed to be, canine telepathy, ‘Whatever it is, it’s okay.’  Doug, appreciated the cute facial expression.  While scratching the dog lovingly behind the ears, he replied with a whisper, “You’re right, boy.  You’re right.”

As he and Sparks snuggled, with the oak logs ablaze, warming his cold feet, thoughts of his childhood rolled through his memory like an old movie.

Doug’s dad always left the nativity set for him to assemble under the tree.  He recalled taking a great deal of satisfaction placing all the characters where he pleased.  In particular, there was one figurine of a lamb, just tall enough to peer over into the manger, as if curious to why there was a baby where his dinner should be.  Doug broke out with unanticipated laughter just revisiting the thought.  Soon, he would be like the baby Jesus: in a crowded town, without a home, hanging out with an animal.  That was the last thought ushering him into a broken night’s sleep.

Christmas Eve morning was uneventful: same walk to the bus stop, same bus route with the same street scenery.  For the last time he would stroll by the old Salvation Army soldier ringing that hideous bell.  With Doug’s head turned the opposite direction, the familiar daily gruff voice addressed him once again.

“Hello young man!  It’s a good morning, ain’t it?”

In a huffy tone Doug nodded, “Yeah, I guess. I’m sure you’re serving where you can do the most good.”

Without a trace of offence, the old man laughed, “That’s right, son.  Loving others before loving ourselves.  God willin’, next Christmas I’ll be waitin’ for ya, right here.”

With a brisk step, he moved away with the gate of a New York jaywalker.

For the third day in a row Doug entered the break room to find his friend Maggie wasn’t in her usual place.  The coffee pot was empty and the counters hadn’t yet been wiped down.  He felt a sagging inside, knowing this was his last morning to pretend to be someone he’s not.  But, without Maggie’s bright morning face, along with her joy-filled attitude, the boost to make Santa what he could be, would be lacking.

After he suited up, he visited the mall manager’s office to ask about her.  She had left a message that her son had the flu and, actually, asked for Doug to call her when he got a break later in the morning.  He found himself feeling sorry for the little guy as the hours dragged on.  At his noon break, only after a final “HO-HO-HO”, he went back to the office to ring Maggie up.  Her voice shook as she told him of her overwhelming fear of Swine Flu.  She had seen the symptoms before, during a recent outbreak.  Struck by the unsettled sound in her voice, Doug’s heart sank.  Surprisingly so, he experienced a deep emotion for a little boy he had never met.

Maggie’s voice cracked a bit, “Doug, he wanted to come see you…I mean, Santa…before you shut down.  As you can see, that’s not gonna happen.  He simply won’t see Christmas this year at all.  I’m wondering if you would think about doing me a favor.  Why not come here, to the apartment as Mr. Claus, after you get off tonight?  If you can’t, I’ll understand.  No pressure.”

Doug paused only for a moment.  Without thinking it through, his response came so naturally, “Sure, sure I will.  We close down early tonight so Kris Kringle can get back to the North Pole for dinner with the Mrs.”

With a great deal of relief, she gave him her address in hopes for a holiday shocker that would be one of Aiden’s greatest childhood memories.

Around 5:30 that afternoon, Doug got off the bus near the apartment complex.  Right away he realized where he was.  Way back when, he and his co-workers would laugh and mock the “trash” that lived in this ghetto.  If there were second class citizens in town, they lived here, according to his way of thinking.  He looked up into the cloudy sky with a quick and silent thought, “God, why me?”  The neighborhood was known for gang violence year-round.  He began cautiously walking toward the rundown complex.  Looking over his shoulder a few times, he asked himself why he wasn’t carrying a weapon for protection.  He shook off the mental images, as he mustered up some holiday cheer for a sick little boy.  Maggie soon heard a “HO-HO-HO” at the door.

Maggie’s chin quivered as she fumbled a bit disengaging the locks.  She opened the door to find Doug standing there, decked out in his Santa suit, exhausted from the gauntlet of last minute shoppers.  On the verge of collapse herself, Maggie responded, “Oh, Doug, thank you for coming.  You have no idea what this will do for his spirit.  Come in, take a load off.”

He sat nervously on the couch, with his knee bouncing up and down.  After pouring him a mug of hot cocoa, she prepared Doug for the visit to come.  She softly spoke of their financial frailty, admitting Aiden was unaware of the struggles they faced.  Doug was touched by her candor.  He understood and opened up to her the facts of his similar circumstances.  Clearly they shared a harboring of unearned, unnecessary guilt and shame.  He knew their kindred spirit hit a benchmark as the conversation led them both.  With hard truths shared, Maggie squeezed his hand as they both looked down at the floor recognizing their somber moment.

Almost as an afterthought, Maggie reached for a sealed plastic bag, pulling out a surgical mask.  She stepped up closer to him, ready to place it over his strap-on white beard.  Doug quickly grabbed her by the wrists, took it in his hands, and placed it back in the bag.

“But, Doug, he has a 103 temp right now.” she explained with deep concern.

With a half smile he replied, “He doesn’t need to remember a St. Nick who took precautions to be with him in a time of need.  I’ll take my chances.”

She nodded in agreement while holding back the sob rising from her belly once again.  With a deliberate hush in tone, she said, “Okay, Follow me.”

Aiden was in bed, half asleep from the meds prescribed.  He was pale.  His eyelids were swollen and his little face was gaunt.  Being roused by the opening of the bedroom door, he heard his mom’s forced cheerful voice, “Honey, look who dropped by to see you.”

When Doug walked through the door, Aiden gasped, “SANTA!!”

With the best delivery he could put out, Doug moved into Santa-mode, “HO-HO-HO!  Merry Christmas, young man!”  The little guy threw his head back with an exuberant belly laugh of his own, followed by an aggressive, lingering chest cough.

Maggie knew what needed to happen.

“I’ll leave you two alone.  Honey, Santa can’t stay long. Okay?”  She then exited, closed the door softly behind her, bracing herself against the hallway wall.

Right away, Doug’s heart was lifted as he saw a very ill little boy whose bloodshot eyes lit-up with wonderment.  Doug had witnessed hundreds of red-cheeked faces, with a look of awe only a child could express, but this face was vastly different.  The smile Aiden displayed at his unexpected visitor could have ignited Doug’s house with every Christmas light string possible.

Surrendering to being authentically moved, in his best Santa-voice he belted, “Well, son, what do you want under your tree in the morning?  It’ll be here in a flash and I don’t have much time.”

In response, Aiden struggled to sit up in bed, “Santa, can I tell you a secret?”

Doug tried hard not to laugh but managed to say, “The fact is, Santa is well-known for keeping secrets.  Let me have it.”

The boy motioned him to bend down closer so he could speak softly, “Um, we don’t have a Christmas tree this year.  Mom said we couldn’t afford a tree.  So, I know there won’t be anything waiting for me, ’cause without a Christmas tree, you can’t put any gifts under it, right? Everybody knows that.”

As Doug felt a lump growing in his throat, he turned his head away, and looked out the bedroom window for a moment for distraction.  He dared not allow the boy to see Santa breakdown.  Aiden continued sharing his thoughts.

“Santa, there’s just one thing I want, if you can do it.”

Doug quickly responded, holding tightly to his Kringle character, if only by the fingernails, “Of course I can do it!  I’m the king of the elves!  No limitations here!  What will it be?”

Aiden whispered slowly, “Give mom a new face in the morning.”

For the boy’s sake, Doug wanted to look like Father Christmas understood the request.  Concerned he was not going to pull it off, he spoke quickly, “Well, what kind of face should she have tomorrow?”

With a sore throat, the boy swallowed hard, “Uh, Santa, ever since I got sick she no longer smiles.  She wears a strange frown, one I’ve never seen before.”

Doug paused and stroked his fake beard.  A sense of bona fide fatherhood rolled through his veins, a sensation he hadn’t possessed since the loss of his little Emily.  He cocked his head slightly to one side.  It seemed to be an automatic gesture, as he brushed a strand of hair from the boy’s forehead with his white-gloved hand, and with the other, presented a candy cane.

Leaning closer to the lad, he said tenderly, “Boy, just love your mother every minute of every day, and you’ll see that smile.  Now, close your eyes and get to that ‘long winter’s nap’ you hear about.  Merry Christmas, Aiden.”

The boy was weak but had enough strength to squeeze Doug’s finger.  As he broke out with a grin he replied, “Merry Christmas to you, too.  And be careful on the roof.”

With that, Doug left the apartment, as if in a rush, without saying more than Merry Christmas to Maggie on the way out.

Standing in the open doorway, watching him quick-step toward the bus stop, she yelled, “But Doug, what happened in there?”  As he climbed onto the nearly vacant bus, he felt crushed with the perplexing crossroads of what to do for the two of them.  All the way home one phrase from an old man bubbled up in his mind.

‘It’s a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.’ 

 Once again, he considered his poverty, his rapidly depleted savings, and his last payroll check from the mall.  It was a stark certainty for him, unemployment launched once again on Christmas Day.  The means were slim to none, and for him, humbling.  Taking off his white gloves, he rung his hands, bowed his head, and for the first time in a long time, prayed for wisdom, strength, and clarity

*****.

Christmas morning came early for Maggie.  She had attempted sleeping in a chair in Aiden’s room, which didn’t deliver.  After taking his temperature, she shuffled her way to the kitchen to make her best Christmas breakfast to celebrate the most special, the most meaningful holiday of the year.  It wasn’t long until a weak little boy awoke to the smell of buttermilk flap-jacks and French toast, crowned with cinnamon.  The boy noticed the candy cane still clinched in his hand.  He thought to himself, ‘This can be Mom’s Christmas present.’

Slowly lifting himself out of bed, he stumbled down the hallway to hang the peppermint cane on his mom’s bedroom doorknob.  Walking passed the sliding glass door to the patio, he could see the sunlight peeking through the slats of the vertical blinds, wishing he had snow and health to play in it.  Rounding the corner, he could see his mom working diligently in the kitchen with her hair a mess, along with swollen, sleepy eyes.  Maggie’s tired face brightened as she saw him standing there in his footed pajamas, with some long-awaited color in his cheeks, looking as if he had a little more energy than the day before.

“Merry Christmas, honey!” she said without hesitation.  Hugging his frame, she could feel his weight loss, “Have a seat. Breakfast is almost ready.”

He made his way to the table where a rare sight was waiting.  By a stack of pancakes, dripping in warm maple syrup, was a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice blended with milk.  He knew then that this was no ordinary morning.  Maggie had saved up enough to splurge on a holiday breakfast that was beyond their norm of a simple cup of oatmeal.  Aiden felt an appetite for the first time in three days, and it was good timing for them both.  After a quick prayer, which included, a “Happy birthday, Jesus”, he began to dig in.

After a bite or two, Aiden got up the courage to ask a hard question. “Mom, after breakfast can I go outside to play?  Lots of my friends will be playing with their new toys.  I feel good enough.  Really I do.”

Barely drawing a breath, Maggie almost cut him off, “Absolutely not, young man.  You won’t be playing for a few days yet.  You are not out of the woods by far.  Besides silly, the sun isn’t up yet.”   With a puzzled look on his face he charged back, “No, Mom.  I saw the sun coming through the sliding glass door.”

Puzzled, Maggie looked at her watch, put down her fork before heading to the patio door.  As she walked away, he sprinkled more cinnamon on his delectable stack.

From the other room he heard her inquisitive tone, “What in the world?  Aiden, come to the patio, quick!!!”

The boy leapt up, with strength he didn’t think he had, and hurried to the sliding glass door to find his mom pulling back the blinds.  As she did, it revealed a brightly lit patio with a string of white lights up and down the posts, lacing around the patio door frame.  His eyes followed the string of lights along every inch in disbelief, until he spotted a magically lit, gloriously decorated large Christmas tree standing in the corner of the patio.  He couldn’t catch his breath out of pure shock.  All the branches donned silver bells and blue balls that ricocheted gleaming lights, carefully arranged up and down the depth of the branches.  At the very top perched a golden star with tinsel streaming down from its tail like a frozen waterfall.

The two found themselves speechless.  Both mom and son realized their mouths were opened in awe as they spied a large Virginia smoked ham under the tree, with all the trimmings for a traditional family feast.  Next to it, a tin of old fashioned frosted sugar cookies was propped up against the large tree trunk.  But, the biggest surprise of all was something they could not have imagined.  Next to the tree, an animal crate sat with a metal plate over its door.  Etched on the plate was the name, “Sparks”.  Gazing through the mesh door was a curious look from a short-haired dog with big brown eyes.

Aiden dropped to his knees, “MOM!!  It’s  a…it’s a…uh..uh…a…”

Maggie forced herself to speak through her astonishment, “…A DOG!!!”

As the boy opened the crate, the Jack Russell Terrier-mix jumped into his arms, licking his face like flaps from a flag, as Aiden giggled uncontrollably.  The boy looked up at his mom to see a face of laughter, a face shining with joyous, youthful wonder, exuberance, and hope.

“He did come, he did!!” yelled Aiden.

Maggie responded quietly, deeply moved, “Yes, well yes.  I guess he did, indeed.”

She noticed a Christmas stocking hanging down from one of the branches.  She carefully retrieved it while asking her son to reach in for whatever it contained.  With eyebrows raised in anticipation, an enormous grin he pulled out several gift cards from food stores, clothing retailers, and a local toy outlet.  Both began laughing in a sense of bliss that had not been heard in the apartment for quite a long time.

Suddenly, the boy noticed a mysterious color along the trunk, previously covered up by the stocking.

Fixated, he asked, “Huh…What’s that?”

Maggie took a closer look.  In the glow of the festive lights, four weathered pink ribbons were nailed to the trunk, almost evenly spaced apart.

“Whaddya think that’s for, mom?” he asked.

Maggie slowly tilted her head as she stared at the hanging pink ribbons running up the tree’s trunk.

Speaking with a sense of bewilderment, “I’m not sure, honey, but I do know this, it makes this Christmas tree even more unique and magical than ever.”

*****

The Christmas dawn found Doug sitting in his lawn chair, with a mug of coffee warming his hands, looking at his treeless back yard.  There, braced against a freshly cut stump, stood a well-worn axe.

He still didn’t know what his future held.  The anxiety remained.  But, what he didn’t expect was a volley of truths flashing in his heart from outside of himself.  For the first time, he accepted the fact that his pain and depression had morphed him into a modern-day Scrooge, with a twisted complex concerning children.  It was the giving of himself that revealed this tumor growing in his heart.

He sat there in the still crisp air, with a thankful heart for the old bell-ringer’s message each morning.  Doug had found a God-given moment to do the most good where he was.

He smiled at the thought of his childhood nativity set.  He remembered placing the ceramic baby Jesus in the manger next to the one curious lamb, taking in the divine event.  For Doug, he rested in the fact of sacrifice being a choice, rendering joy to the most disturbed souls in his own backyard.  The ancient truth, that giving one’s “self” away, is what the baby in the manger would later say is the best of blessings.

With a silent nod, he smiled thinking that millions of cups of spiked egg nog, millions of angry shoppers, and millions of wrecked lives could never diminish his newly discovered mission.

                                        Sacrifice is giving up something you love

                                                for something you love more.

                                                              – Cindy Beall

As We Are Known

“I remember you from a long time ago, when my eyes were new…” (1998) “I Remember U”, Recorded by:  Chaka Khan.  Composers:  Prince, Yvette M. Stevens, Larry Graham.

Confession here:  I am so glad the above yearbook shot is in black and white.  It was a 1975 double-knit, burnt orange suit, with white-trim stitching.   Oh, and bell-bottoms with white high-heel platforms.  (OUCH!)  I was just, “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.”

This particular post is here for one simple purpose.  I’ve experienced a phenomenon of late.  It’s been a refreshed observation, at least for me.  I’ll explain in a bit.

For several months, I have been looking forward to my high school reunion.  Finally, in late October, the two-day event came.  Many times I heard the comforting phrase, “I would know you anywhere!”  Among the festivities, a golf tournament, and a casual ice-breaker at a local club, which went into the wee hours, from what I’ve heard.  Plus, us vocalists put together a gathering of choral department alumni.  (Complete with singing some of our favorites from our choir days.)

RLT Choir Reunion Oct 2018After 40 years, (yes, I typed 40 years), here are some of us from the tenor section preparing to do some harmonies right off the page.  The “young” man on the left, with the water bottle, is yours truly.  (Ha-ha-ha)

Our sore aged feet could testify how a few of us enjoyed a tour of the old high school.  (Lots of additions and remodeling had occurred.)   Then, at a local country club, the semi-formal gala with dinner, drinks, and dancing wrapped up the benchmark hang-out.  Let me tell you, I was exhausted after the weekend was over.  Maybe not so young.

Hundreds attended our long-awaited reunion.  No surprise there, almost 900 people walked across the stage during our graduation ceremony that year.  Unfortunately, about 60 of us are deceased now, including some very dear friends.

There was the unexpected.  A few classmates, I reconnected with, had gone through huge changes.  I found strangers, who were my old friends.  For example:  An old goat-roper who is now part in the upper-class of millionaire strata.  I bumped into old known substance-abusers who are now on the straight and narrow.  And sadly, some who are still chasing the dragon, among other indulgences.  Stunned would be the word describing how I felt when a cowboy, who once was a long-haired, stoned, hippie-type, hugged my neck.  What a change!

RLT 40th Tammy Chris Mason & MeOf course, there were many deep-level, intellectual debates concerning how to change the world….NOT!

RLT Reunion with David Bradley and Sylvia's hubby, Kevin Hurd.Being an old actor/singer, there is just something to be said about the unexplained bondings of former fellow cast members, and show-people in general.

RLT 40th wTammy & Kathy Grisby Even fellow artists who recognize you before the shave and haircut.

RLT High School friends Jon Ford, Wylie Post, Kelly Kelley, Me, Gayle Moseley. May 2015I’ve said this before, there’s just something special about “old love”.  Do you agree?

DNA can be a wonderful thing to some, and cruel to others.  Unrecognizable were a few who looked at least 20 years older than most of us.  Then there were others who had barely changed at all over the last 4 decades.  One of the more humorous lines I heard at the gala was, “Hey, at our age, we NEED these name tags.”  Yes, without the name tags there would be too much time spent at guessing who was who, and fearing some feelings might be injured.  Above all, what was so evident, too many now look like their parents from back in the day.

You know what was amazing to me?  Beyond the wrinkles, weight-gain, baldness, and hair color, it was the spirit of the individual which had the outstanding identity stamp.  It’s true!  The persona of each person jumped out, as if to say, “Hey, Alan…It’s me!”

Although the words, “Spirit” and “Soul” are often interchangeable, there really is a difference.  No doubt there have been times you’ve connected with someone even before you recognized their appearance.  Unlike a bald spot, you can’t put your finger on it, and that’s the point…you can’t.

Think back on your real-world life experience.  Have you ever been drawn to someone’s very soul?  Maybe there was nothing to attract your eyes or ears, but drawn none-the-less.  Maybe it was a perfect stranger passing by on the street.  Maybe it was a chance meeting, done in a casual manner, but the spirit of that individual radiated out toward you, like waves on the beach.  Have you been there?  I must admit, I have kindred spirits in my life.  How about you?

We are triune beings.  Much like an egg with the albumen (white/clear), yoke, and shell, all three separate, yet all in one.  Our body is separate from the personality, and the personality is separate from the core essence of ourselves.  You recognize the core when gauging the turns of the heart to the right or left, up or down, and backward and forward.  THAT essence, the eternal part us, which longs for a connection with something bigger outside of ourselves, outlasts both persona and body.  THAT segment of the individual has the ability to bond with The Supreme One, a relationship which can extend beyond time and space, as we know it.  What a way to be put together.

As you know, even voices change with age, but the spirit/soul of a person will go on.  It shouldn’t surprise me in the least.  After all, Celine Dion’s, “My Heart Will Go On”, from the movie, “Titanic” reminded us.  Then there’s the Apostle Paul alluding to it about 2000 years ago.  Concerning the mystery of the afterlife, when considering his existence, outside of the physical body.  It was recited during the memorial service for Pres. George H.W. Bush.  Paul wrote…

(My emphasis.)

For NOW we see in a mirror dimly, but THEN face to face; NOW I know in part, but THEN I will know fully, just as I also have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12 (NAS)

Turns out, I just might know you anywhere!

The Ancient Of Days, the Inventor of “old love”, pours it out liberally in fuel for the race.

“I will see Him myself; my eyes will look at Him, and not as a stranger.  My heart longs within me.” – Job 19:27 (CSB)

 

The Fall of Life

Painting by:  My father-in-law, the late Bob Niles.  The Cimarron River, Oklahoma.

“The falling leaves drift by the window.  The autumn leaves of red and gold…And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song.  But I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall.” –  “Autumn Leaves” – recorded by many, including Nat King Cole.  English lyric version written by:  Johnny Mercer – Capitol Records, with music for the English by:  Joseph Kosma.  (Adopted from a French song, “Les Feuilles Mortes”, French lyrics composed by: Jacques Prevert.)

To say, the majority of our Texas trees are just now releasing their leaves, will be comical to my friends and family to the north.  Yes, Texas trees turn late in the year when so many are bare in points north on the map.  Although I love my Texas, I do wish the foliage was as brilliant as they are elsewhere.  However, I’ll take what we can get.

In the immediate neighborhood, I enjoy the tree across the street from my front porch the most.

Autumn Tree(Pictures from my phone never do the colors justice.  Don’t ya hate that?)

Here in north-central Texas, grab your camera while you have the time.  The leaves turn and drop really quickly.  In no time at all, they are on the ground, ready for the rake.

God’s artistry is, well…simply divine, so to speak.  Where I live, He paints the leaves in mid-late November in various golds, yellows and maroons, depending upon the species.  The nutrients dry-up, choking-off the green chloroplasts in the leaves, while dashing them with hues only a painter could conjure on canvas.  Then, by mid December, the Season-Holder sends the winds to do their job.  Yet, there are exceptions in Texas.  Not every tree belongs around Dallas/Ft Worth.

In my neighbor’s backyard, just on the other side of the fence, is a rather tall exotic tree, native of Indonesia with large leaves.  It looms mainly over our garage, driveway, and side-yard.  Misbehaving, due to not realizing its no longer in Indonesia, it sheds its leaves overnight if the winds can muster-up moving a flag.  When it does, we wake up to shin deep leaves in the driveway.

Wednesday, during prep for Thanksgiving at our house, as we were expecting a few family members, I tackled the job of raking the platter-sized leaves from the driveway.  Don’t get me wrong, I needed the exercise, but it was a lengthy activity without a leaf blower.  We have a compost pile in the far corner of our backyard.  Seeing how many leaves there were, as well as the ginormous size of each, I knew full well it would fill the designated compost section.  And I was right.

Autumn Compost Pile I must admit, the little boy came out in me as I enjoyed hearing the loud crunching sound beneath my shoes.  After awhile, it wasn’t such a novelty any longer.  It took many trips from the driveway, across the front lawn, around the side of the house, across the backyard, down to the back forty to the compost pile.  There they rested, all dead, in the falling-leaf cemetery.  Sad, isn’t it?  All unwanted, as if they were no longer needed, no longer pleasing to the eye, or of any shading value.

Yesterday, being the day after our Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S., I visited my oldest uncle.  My precious, Uncle Bob is my mom’s eldest brother.  At 79 years old, he is in the 2nd stage of Alzheimer’s.  I’m old enough now to have seen the dreaded disease a few times in my family, going back a few generations.  My mom’s other brother has dementia, on the foothills of the big “A”, as well.  In fact, my mom wonders if she is experiencing some early warning signs herself.

My visit was mainly with his wife, my Aunt Ellen, and her son, Bobby Jr.  I watched my uncle, a man I have admired since I was a toddler, an intelligent man of mechanical and electrical engineering, sit in his recliner while playing with a blanket like an 18 month old child.  There’s no question concerning his inability to recognize me, and that was okay.  Through the years I learned how to interact with other family members who have suffered from this “long-goodbye” disease.  He shook my hand with a nice grip, smiled, and told me he felt good, after I had told him he looked good.  It won’t be too much longer when he will not interact at all.  How I wish I could wrap my magical arms around him, holding the progression back from changing him any further.  Yet, it’s not the nature of the monster to obey our commands.

Too often a society will see the diseased, or dying, as throw-away items.  Many years ago, my dad told me he had stopped seeing about his mother, overtaken by Alzheimer’s.  When I inquired about his remark, he said, “Well, she’s not the same mother I once knew.  She is no longer useful to me.”  I froze.  It’s astonishing.  Some 34 years have flown by since I heard his explanation and it still astounds me to this very day.  For him, even though sorrow was involved, she was a throw-away item to him.

Allow me to be sarcastic for a moment, with a pinch of anger.

You have seen some “throw-aways”, I’m sure.  For some, it might be the guy at the Thanksgiving table who only makes minimum wage  Or it’s the guy at the table who is of wealth.  For others, it might be the single-mom, working 10 hour shifts as a waitress at a diner, with a pencil behind her ear.  When leaving the eatery, after tipping her as little as possible, it’s common to be approached by a homeless man in the parking lot.  After a well rehearsed sob story, he asks for bus fare, when it’s probably a scam to purchase another bottle of cheap Scotch.  Is it possible there is a neighbor with a heavy accent from another part of the world, or another part of the state?  There might be a co-worker who has a brother, stricken with AIDS, who is no longer claimed as family.  Maybe it has to do with a few hundred people living in the low-rent apartments from the other side of the tracks, not to mention anyone who resides in a mobile home from a trailer park.  It may simply be an individual with an obnoxious nervous tic.  Lately, it seems, the “throw-away” nearby is an outspoken Democrat or Republican, and certainly anyone under a red cap who attends political rallies full of cheering presidential fans.  Where does the list stop?  Seriously.  Do we stop with the elderly, the babies, the ill, the poor, the odd, the mentally handicapped, the black, the brown, the red, the Asian, the blue-eyed, the brown-eyed, the blind, the atheist, the person of faith, the vegetarians???  Before you know it, there are thoughts, coming from those without blemish or issues, surrounding the “raking-up” of these “throw-away” segments of citizenry, appointed for the societal compost where they can pile-up and wither away together.  After all, they are no longer pleasing to the eye, no longer useful or needed.  They are usually noticed when they get in our way of sight, or too loud under our shoes.  Hum, where have we seen that before?

“Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father, as well as the soul of the son is mine…”   – God –  Ezekiel 18:4 (ESV)

The truth is, we ALL fall down, one way or the other.  The universal truth is, we ALL fall short of perfection, the perfect standard.  You know it, and I know it.  The eternal caliper is immovable, uncompromising, and righteous.  Honestly, which one of us can ever measure-up?  Only one did, and He wasn’t you or me.

In God’s undying outreach of love toward us “throw-aways”, GRACE (unearned favor) is offered.  It’s an offer from the spout of fuel for the race.

2 Peter 3:9 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.


Continue reading “The Fall of Life”

Here’s To The Educators

Photo:  smilingcolors.com

“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man (humankind) a more clever devil.” – C.S. Lewis

Miss Cain’s first grade class was busy in a reading circle.  Each child in the circle was to have his/her turn at a word in a workbook, one after the other.  The teacher herself, in her green Celtic plaid dress, was sitting in a chair inside the ring of readers, listening carefully to each delivery.  A girl in class had just finished her reading only to be followed by silence.  Miss Cain had seen this before, too many times apparently.  It was him again.  There he was, staring out at the meadow he loved playing in just outside the classroom window.  Before he realized it was his turn to read, BOOM!  He suddenly felt a solid bump on his right knee from the edge of Miss Cain’s fist.  “Alan, you’re daydreaming again!  Pay attention!”  It was her first year to teach.  Probably all of 22 years old.  I had a huge crush on her.  After all, her short blonde silky, soft curled hair was cut in a chic fashion (It was 1966.) which bounced up and down like a slinky when she walked.  My mom said Miss Cain had two wardrobes, one for the conservative school-look and one for her other life.  She had steel blue eyes which matched her terrific smile.  She reminded me a bit of a mix of Goldie Hawn and Kim Novak.  Above all, she drove a fire-engine red, MG Midget Roadster convertible.   What little guy wouldn’t be impressed?  (I lived across the street, so she never offered me a lift home.)

MG Migit 1965

I thought she was the cat’s meow.  So, as you can imagine, it broke my heart when she called me out with a firm bop on my knee.  Several times that year she and my mom had meetings about my daydreaming.  It was a sign of things to come.  They didn’t speak much of right-brained, artsy kids in the days of yore.  She probably retired early because of me.

In most districts around here, the new school year is just kicking off.  Skylar, my 2nd grade granddaughter, started school this past Wednesday.  The kids are hopefully prepped and ready to tackle another year in the classroom.  However, the educators have been prepping for awhile.  There’s so much work done behind the scenes that nobody thinks about.  An educator’s work is never done.  I know all too well.  My wife is a tutorial teacher.  My oldest daughter is a teacher.  My middle daughter has been a teacher.  I have a slew of family on both sides who are teachers or school administrators, active and retired.  Many, many of my friends are educators.  And, do they have stories to tell!

Meet my salty, Aunt Grace Atherton.

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She taught school for decades.  She married my great-uncle Robert Atherton who was also a teacher.  The two of them went on to be well-known school district administrators in east Texas, and the Dallas-Ft Worth area, back in the day.  The two of them raised educators, spawning a second generation of teachers and administrators who made a difference.  In fact, in Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Ft Worth, there is an Atherton Elementary in honor of the couple.  They were salt-of-the-earth types.  He passed away in 1977.  As for her, she always reminded me of our own personal Bette Davis with an unmatched persona.  At 99 years old, she walked faster than I did.  She was a firecracker, a get-it-done lady.  I remember her email address was “grace-a-doer”.  She passed away at the young age of 103.  Sharp as a tack until the very end.  They LOVED teaching.  Moreover, they LOVED the kids under them.  Love matters!

It may be in the genes.  I, too, was a teacher for a broadcasting school in the mid 80’s, then trained many in voice-work, music vocalization and mentored air-staff during my radio years.  Loved every minute of it.

Please, allow me a moment here.  Stay with me on this and see if you recognize someone in your life.

Meet the Irish Rose, Peggy O’Neill.  Choral director, music theory, piano and guitar teacher.

Peggy O'Neill

She looks so calm in this old photo.  To this day, she will tell you, when I walked into her choir room, with a chip on my shoulder in 8th grade, she knew I was trouble from the start.  It was my first year in the area. I had come from a tough Jr. High school where it was the norm for race riots to breed gang warfare.  I think she saw me as a special challenge.  No doubt, she was on target.  Affectionately known as P.O., she did challenge me in a myriad of ways.  Later that year, she had me doing solo work, MC work, stand-up comedy, as well as guitar lessons.  She knew exactly how to keep me perking.  It wasn’t long when I wanted to excel just to make her proud…or because of the sheer fear of her Irish-red-faced wrath.  Unexpectedly, I became her #1 tenor in choir.  She must’ve loved me because she followed me to high school, the following year, where she became part of the choral directorial staff.  We still laugh about that.  She and I remain friends to this day.

Meet Ted Polk, the man, the maestro, the legend.

Ted Polk

T.P. is how we lovingly refer to him.  He was so many things to me during my high school years, but officially he was the top choral director and chief of the choral department.  There were five choirs total in the school of 3,500 kids.  He had a tender way of leading.  He taught music, but more than that, he instructed us in life.  Through my four years with him, I believe he gave some commentary on the lyric of every piece performed.  Rightly so, he made sure us music lovers didn’t just jam to the compositions, but rather knew the meaning of the lyrics and the composer from which they came.  He ushered us into giving each lyric value, not in just musical mathematical mechanics, but also the soul of the phrase.  Under him, I learned how to be more than just a singer and sight-reader, but an artist.  Craftily, he used his faith and philosophy as he directed rehearsals.  He lived what he believed and shared it openly.

I recall a couple of times how T. P. warned us not to get so absorbed in the workforce after school hours.  Gently, his message was how work will always consume your adult life, so free-up those precious days of youth before they fade into history.  The care and the encouragement for each of us was so apparent, available and tangible.  His door was always open and I took advantage of it many times, even after graduation.  He recognized talent and knew how to grow it, mold it and give it wings.  That’s what he did for me.  I could write a novel about this man.  He later would become the district’s Fine Arts Director over all the schools in our Dallas suburb.  Even today there is a middle school which bears his name.  When he died suddenly, a few years later, thousands of us mourned and still do.  You will never find me ashamed to say: I am the man I am today because our paths intersected in my early teen years.  Thank God!

Meet the lovely Anel Ryan.

Anel Ryan

Anel, among other things, was a theater teacher.  It was her first full year to teach when I was a senior in high school.  I was a singer, not an actor…or so I thought.  My choice was not to take theater.  All my electives that year had to do with music and voice.  When I won the male leading role in the musical production that year, Anel took me under her wing.  She was/is a super talented actress and director.  Somehow she saw some seed in me beyond singing and stage presence.  She basically tutored me in and outside school hours with a catch-up acting course, complete with character retention exercises, as well as proper blocking and stage etiquette and disciplines.  It was all so foreign to me, but she pulled out the results she was looking for.  If not for her direction, her challenging this boy and her Job-like patience, I know my performance would have been lacking.  That May, Anel wrote the following in my yearbook, “I’ll be watching your life.”  Oh, my!  I can’t tell you how that small sentence turned my core several times during the days of adulthood.  Afterwards the acting bug stuck!

The following decades were filled with lots of stage and video characters taken, plays written and a couple of thousand pages of script as a voice actor.  There were times she agreed to critique me privately for role development after high school, as well.  Years later, the tables were turned.  One year, while casting my next radio theater project, I asked Anel if she would tackle a tough role for me.  Even though she was living over 160 miles away, she was happy to do it.  She’s one of my heroes in this life.  I love her dearly.

Stay with me.  There’s a method to my madness.

Meet the engaging Eric Bowman.

Eric Bowman

This comes from a humorous newspaper photo as he was pretending to be a student.  Like Anel, Eric was an alumni of our high school.  We used to poke at him while we sang
the “Welcome Back, Kotter” theme song when he walked into the classroom.  Do you remember it?  Are you singing the first line?  Me too.  He taught Government and Civics.  His talented style drew the students in with analogies along with side stories of humor.  I dreaded the class until I discovered his brand of teaching.  He got on our street level to help us understand and respect the due process of law, voting and the systems of civic, state and federal government.  I loved his class, as most did.  When I was chosen to be on a jury for an armed robbery, right after the year I graduated, I couldn’t wait to go back to tell him of my experience.  He soaked in all of my verbal waterfall describing my jury duty, including my youthful, wide-eyed exuberance.  He grinned from ear to ear listening intently.  He was excited to see my excitement.  He followed it up by asking what I learned from it.  He was always finding ways to stretch our minds.  I am so glad I visited that day.  He died in a car crash about a year later.

And then there’s an education of another kind.  Often it can be just as relevant as math or science.

Meet the champ!  Demetrius “The Greek” Havanas.

Demetrius Greek HavanasHe was simply known to his students and friends as “Greek”.  Greek was my Kickboxing and Tae-Kwon-Do trainer.  He was a world renown, blue-collar martial arts instructor and world contender in both standard tournaments as well as full-contact bouts.  It would take about four pages to list all of his titles and accomplishments.  (I suggest a Google tap and/or a YouTube viewing.)  With his professional teaching techniques, he created national and international champions.  This was my life outside of school and church.  While being trained by Greek, he kept me and three or four of my high school mates off the streets and among quality….well, okay, semi-quality competitors.

Channeling certain energies of youth can be a very good thing for the community at large.  He knew the ends and outs of protecting yourself in street fights, or in the ring.  He taught us endurance,physically and emotionally.  He taught us how to respect other athletes studying other styles that were different from our circles.  By just hanging around him we learned much about respecting other races, creeds and cultures.  This boy really needed it at the time.  He taught cool-headed, rewarding confidence which gang members often avoid.  To this very day, 40+ years later, I deal with pain like a fighter in a competitor’s bout.  His training opened our eyes to endure.  He instructed in the knowledge of absorbing pain, struggle and fatigue while never giving up.  Under his training you either were toughened to the hilt, or you dropped out to join a chess club.  Case in point:  Last December, when they opened me up for a quadruple bypass, the cardiac surgeon told me I had old bruising on my chest plate, like a tattoo.  I smiled, knowing whose footprint branded its mark there.  He lost his life in a plane crash in July of 1981.  The who’s-who of the martial arts world came to his memorial service, including Chuck Norris, who couldn’t even get in the building due to overflow, standing outside on the steps for the duration.  Through my tears I thanked him for coming.

People building people.  Constructionists building society.  C.S. Lewis was right.  Education alone will not bring inner peace or enlightenment.  It’s such a misconception not often determined through the lens of study.  The turnip will not be squeezed.  Virtues and attributes like ethics, faith and love will not drip out of degrees and diplomas.  Stellar core values often are discovered in individuals who never finished school, or cracked open curriculum from higher learning institutions.  Educators worth their salt know this, accept it and adhere to it.

Great educators produce great educators.  The evidence is all around us.  Common denominators seem to include:  passion stirred with compassion, intuitiveness and love.  It matters!

The debates rage concerning unions and non-unions, private or public schools, home schooling or the little rural frame building out in the woods with an old school bell.  The rub will most likely continue.  However, if you’re an educator of the heart, you’re enriched already through a higher calling.

May this new school year grant you wisdom beyond your degree, beyond your training, beyond your studies.  May your goals be worthy and focused.  May the care for the kids be authentic, full of grace and discernment.  May you and your classroom be well protected from evil.  May it be a sacred, honored and loving place.  May you be comforted when you burn the midnight oil only to rise up early the following morning.  May you discover new loves this year that will ink themselves on your heart during your coming days of rest.  Most of all, know that your very fingerprints will remain on their hearts and minds for decades to come.

Miss Cain, wherever you are…here’s to ya!

Remind yourself each day that many may write about you long after you are gone, maybe some 40-50 years from today.  When wrapped in the thought, you might just find more fuel for the race.

“My friends, we should not all try to become teachers.  In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others.” – James 3:1 (Contemporary English Version)

 

 

It’s Only Dinner…Right?

Photo:  tomesto.ru

“I’ll light the fire.  You put the flowers in the vase that you brought today.  Staring at the fire for hours and hours while I listen to you…Our house is a very, very, very fine house…”  From 1970, “Our House”.  Recorded by: Crosby, Stills & Nash.  Composed by: Graham Nash

A very talented friend of mine, going back to my high school days, recently pitched the idea of having dinner together.  I loved the gesture.  I even can say I had a spark of excitement run through my heart when he suggested a casual dining get-together.  But, the spark was quickly quenched.  It’s not like we had never been in a casual setting before.  Indeed, about three years ago we had a great time with a handful of school chums, from our teenage years, along with some sour cream potato skin appetizers.  We discussed old times, careers and swapped stories concerning our families.  Before we knew it, three hours scurried by.  We took some pics together, promised to do it again soon and went our separate ways.  However, THAT was before the presidential election.  Keep reading and bear with me.

My old friend is one who I have admired for over forty years now.  His talent in the acting, producing and directing arena is well-known.  I learned so much from watching his stage work, so much so, I utilized his methods during my theater years.

Enter stage right:  Donald Trump.  BOOM!  Suddenly, I was reminded of how opposite we were on the political and cultural spectrum.  How do I know this?  Because he has gone rabid on social media.  You know the type.  Posting anti-this and pro-that, some real news stories concerning the politics of the day, along with some false stories and spins of the same.  Discouragingly, he often spouts off, in cyberspace, with degrading mockeries that often offend me on a personal level, yet not targeting me directly — even to the point of trashing anyone who may have opinions differing from his, like mine.  Recently, he got as good as he gives from another online friend.  This friend of his was pushing back, displaying a couple of profound foolish statements our mutual friend had made.  My friend “Unfriended” him because he disagreed with the vigor my friend typed out daily on his page.  It’s sad to watch his meltdown.

Angry-man_on_computer

Photo:  fallout.wikia.com

Unfortunately, since the election, he rarely posts anything about his life, his joys or his family.  Frankly, I miss my old friend.  He seems unable to put down the political hammer and just be his peaceful, cuddly self again.  It’s as if something has taken over his kind spirit.  It’s like he has been swept away, kidnapped by tons of foaming-at-the-mouth pundits.  Regrettable isn’t close to the sadness I feel concerning this new person I once loved spending time with.

If you read my blog articles, then you know I don’t pitch a tent on politics, per se.  Really, I would rather talk about the thickness of tire tread than debate political discourse on public forums.  As for my old friend, I avoid the temptation of replying to his heated political rants.

We have seen an evolution in our culture over the past couple of years.  My friend represents a huge part of the population in America who are dangerously close to sparking another civil war.  I’m serious.  Do you get that notion sometimes?  Peaceful gatherings for protesting policy has now flipped into dog-fight style, in-your-face-screaming and shoving contests.  We now have elected officials calling for a civil disobedience once viewed as beyond the laws of our society.  There’s been a call for public stalking and harassment of others who speak opposing rhetorical discourse.  Violent insults now vomit out of the foul mouths of ranters toward fellow Americans who hold rival thought.  Profanities that are violent in nature, which I won’t type here, are dumped publicly on people of another political persuasion.  These reckless mouths of venom, with sledge hammers for tongues, are applauded from those who live in their bubble, without a sense of shame or proper decency.  It’s almost numbing to me now.  Where have we seen that before?

White Mob

A demand from a misguided elected official has gone out to the public.  It involves finding people of other views in order to kick them and their families out of restaurants during a meal, shouting and cursing at shoppers in a store, or filling-up for gas at a gas station.  For some, public spittle seems to be an acceptable form of shaming, disgracing and humiliation of others at the movies, street corners or even at the front doors of their homes.  (There’s plenty of videos.  Don’t just take my word for it.)  This activity cuts gravely into what we are to give and share with our neighbors, to uphold the standard right of  “…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  We’ve seen this activity before in all its ugliness.

White Cafe Mob

Honestly, what are we doing to our nation?  Have we not learned from our past?

Someone might say, “Oh, Alan, It’s just words.  No one is being harmed.”  Really?  Try asking Congressman, Steve Scalise about that.  Try asking a dozen or so Republican lawmakers who were there at softball practice when the politically crazed gunman, purposefully targeting Republicans, opened fired, almost killing Rep. Scalise.  Try getting an answer from William McKinley, John and Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.  Try asking the many in our history who were illegally hanged by hooded mobs due to extreme hatred, or without due process or trial. (Oh, that’s right, you can’t ask.  They are all dead.)

Name-calling has become the norm in the public square.  The word, “Nazis” has been labelled on public officials and citizens just right of center.  Think about that!  If we really believed Nazis were taking over our country, wouldn’t we feel the patriotic duty to load some weapons and take a position?  Calling anyone a Nazi who disagrees with another slant is way out of orbit.  I have friends who lost multiple family members in the Holocaust.  They know the genuine article.  Trust me, today’s Neo, white supremacist versions are like nursing babies in comparison.  The irony of falsely pointing out a family who has a different viewpoint than our own, calling them a despicable term like “Nazi” is indeed acting like…a Nazi!  Ask anyone with dark skin, a Jew or a member of the gay community from WWII what it’s like to be labelled a “rodent” that should be purged from neighborhoods and exterminated.  Again, most are dead now.  This damaging spew must stop before the heat rises to uncontrollable levels.  It will be too late after that dragon is released from his cage.  We’ve seen where that takes us here and elsewhere.

“Stone is heavy and sand a burden,
    but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.”. – Solomon – Proverbs 27:3 (NIV)

White Arab Spring

No, I’m not done.  Why?  Because words, spittle and stalking matters.  What’s worse, it will matter much more to the next foolish John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald or John Hinckley Jr.  It matters to the next wacko in a high-rise with an arsenal peering over an audience at a concert.  Better yet, it will matter tremendously to the next political harassment victim, when violently reacting to public assaults from aggressors because they simply snap.  What father or mother wouldn’t defend their young if attacked, shoved or spat upon from a group of screaming agitators at a mall?  Some celebs (without much cerebellum) have called for assassinations, attacking the White House with explosives and kidnapping politician’s children.  One well-known bright bag of gas celeb called for the kidnapping of the president’s 12-year-old son in order to promptly throw him in a cage with pedophiles.  Another threw out the idea that the Trump family females should be raped.  Holy piles!  Mob mentality ignites easily when soaked in gasoline.  The irresponsible blathering of those calling for this dishonorable aggression need to be careful what they are asking for.  Wars have begun over far less.

Civility can, and is exercised, among those who are on opposite ends of the house in Washington.  It’s a sure sign of a healthy republic.  Why measure love with the caliper of a political obstacle course?  Even in the House of Representatives, dear friends, from across the aisle, go to dinner together and play golf.  Just because you are anti-this or pro-that, doesn’t mean you must alienate the ones you love with hateful shellacking.  Taking deep breaths or counting to 10 or 20 really helps perspective.  Recall that before a policy initiates, before an election, before a current event, you loved and accepted another person with another persuasion or doctrine of thought, for a reason.  Remembering why you loved originally, should aid in bringing back focus away from the dizzy political news cycles, policies and videos of public humiliation and harassment.  From a socialist, to Republican, we should be about peace and respect first, before we crucify each other.  Self-absorbed loss of respect for others will always take a dark and dangerous exit ramp to where you really don’t want to be.

If you are one who will read this and say something like, “Yeah, but he said this first, or she said that first,” I just have one thought for you: visit a summer camp of middle schoolers and take your mirror.  We are all responsible for our own words, actions and thoughts.  Each of us.  We should do what we can, as individuals, to bring peace and a cool, mature level-head.

Like a watchman at the gate of a fort, I wait for my friend’s dinner invitation.  Visions of harassment and vile debate (and maybe chanting) being spewed across the dining table give me pause.  Still, hope exists of seeing him again and sharing a peaceful meal. It’s only dinner, right?

A nice summer salad, grilled fajitas and good conversation would go well with a tank of fuel for the race.

“And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” – Jesus – Mark 3:25 (NKJV)

 

 

Peace Paradox

“Like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay me down…” Simon & Garfunkel (1970)

The gusts coming off Lake Erie can, and will, knock you over as you jog on the break wall stretching out under the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, NY.  Erie feeds into the mouth of the Niagara at the end of the break wall.  After moving there in 2003, I couldn’t wait to make this my new jogging track.  The cool mist from crashing waves kissed my face as the gulls flew about with their unique vocals, the experience was almost addictive.  A friend told me that by the time November arrived I would find another place to run.  Being a tough Texas boy, I laughed.  He was right!  Little did I know the wintry winds off Lake Erie, along with the dipping temperatures, went right through me with a piercing I had never felt.  Plus, the strong, rising waves hitting the break wall, tends to splash over the walkway.  By December, horizontal icicles form on the railing.  The walkway is a thick sheet of ice by then and the winds are often 60-70 mph and well below zero.

Peace_Bridge

Photo: wikipedia

The Peace Bridge connects Buffalo, NY to Ft Erie, Ontario, across the Niagara.  If you are able to zoom-in, you can make out two flags (American and Canadian) flying halfway by its railing where the U.S. and Canadian border is designated.  Have your passport in hand.

Further out on the break wall, it’s a very peaceful place to be, but it wasn’t always.  Cannon fire was common in this area coming from the banks on both sides of the river.  Many ships were sunk as they made their way from Lake Erie.  During the War of 1812, the battles were daily as the British and the Americans were locked and loaded for their causes.  Extraordinary history was made in the area.

The Peace Bridge commemorates the peace accords signed by both nations to cease hostilities, putting away their arms.  The bridge is more than a stretch of concrete and steel for 18-wheelers executing open trade between our countries.  To a point, the bridge has a voice, loud and clear.  It shouts out to all who pass by, this is a peaceful place, decided equally by two powerful nations.  It shouts out there were individuals, patriots, who met across the tables and hammered out a deal, a contract that fitly benefited both peoples to the south and the north of the Niagara.  It shouts that a promise was given long ago, by men in powdered wigs with swords resting in scabbards, that their future generations would not see bloodshed between them again.

Peace bridge Buffalo Night

Photo: thousandwonders.net

Now imagine, if the builders extended their end of the bridge just slightly off from center.  Let’s imagine the builders on each side spanned their half of the bridge unequally so that when they met in the middle, one side was three feet off from the other, rendering the roadway useless, but rather created a drop-off down to the chilly currents below.  One might ask where the mutual benefit lies.

In peace talks, whether with North Korea or anywhere else, one side cannot benefit while the other does not.  A bridge built must have negotiated plans and well-thought out profitable reasoning for both parties’ satisfaction.  Give and take are not just words, they must be actions, as long as the end result doesn’t weaken one party or the other.  Should one party deliver a boatload of cash to the other to buy a synthetic peace that would be fruitless in the end?  Common sense says….NO!  That would be approving, even engaging in simple blackmail.  Threats should not be profitable to any nation.  Only the aggressive nation benefits from that mistake.  One party cannot come to the table expecting everything it wants on a silver platter while giving nothing in return, hoping to acknowledge goodwill.  Otherwise, there will be no lasting bridge.

The same is true with our personal relationships.  When wronged by another, something must be said at the table of reasoning.  If the one injured, by the first strike, comes in peace to remedy the cause of the aggression, only to be met with a shrug of the shoulders by the aggressor, there is no bridge.  Troubled waters remain without a crossing.  The ministry of reconciliation is just that…a ministry.

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” – St Paul (Romans 12:18 NIV)

To eat from the tree of peace, one must starve self.  Peace-making has a chronological cycle in the psyche that says peace must first administer a choke-hold around the neck of the “Me-first” mindset.  There is a biblical concept that states, to die is to gain.  To live one must first die to self’s raging appetite, to give up the self-buffet daily lunch one is accustomed to.  When making peace, humility and self-denial is key.

It boils down to loving one another, looking out for the other’s best interest with a generous heart.

When peace is settled, run free where the fiery cannonballs once flew without fear.  When sprinting with fuel for the race, the trail is found dry and clean.

Cistine Chapel Artwork

” ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ Says the LORD, ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool.’ ” – Isaiah 1:18 (NAS)

To Miles With Love

“There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who standing looking
Ooh, it makes me wonder…”
Composers:  Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
“Stairway To Heaven” – Led Zeppelin, 1971

(In honor of my friend Miles.)

Out of the blue I heard you didn’t pull the cord
The parachute used to float through life has failed
They said you were sleeping, not spilled on the floor
Gigs hushed, mountains unscaled, now grief prevails

Gone are those sweet days of our youth’s resilience
You with your rock band and I with mine
Gone are the days of full volume, crushed to silence
Where are our shots of laughter and innocent times

Miles' Warrors

You faced the horror, finding your mother passed
I knew we were too young to absorb or defend
So you turned to medicate softly to deaden the gash
The depths I did not see, the mask held to the end

Miles' keyboards

Fun-loving years we gleaned, all things well considered
You covered the pain with amps, frets and strings
Watching from afar your heart and mind dismembered
In wild abandon, you fought through choking weeds

The winds of change split our paths, yours a thorny way
Decades of numbing drink with daily acid to drop
Sad, not finding you through the wars of chosen haze
Still, your talents carried you with art and prints to crop

Miles' Art

Your love spread wings, giving shelter for those in your Victorian
They say you had a lofty heart, always aiding, always there
Yet, the demonic fuel did flow, like Pilate in his Praetorium
How were you able to be played, yet show Christ’s love and care

Miles' Corvettes

The great house has been stilled, and the guitars now hung
Your Corvettes are washed and waxed with no place to go
Shelves hold your empty bottles and your dealers stunned
Like dominoes, your inspired drunks, all lying in tight rows

As for me, I couldn’t sleep the night you so quietly left us
It all makes sense as I think back on the ache in dismay
Sometimes the burn of our past brands as we adjust
But, Miles, my best memory, that glorious night we prayed

How vital to select the correct nozzle, pumping fuel for the race.

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” – Jesus – John 10:27-28 (NIV)