Open Thoughts

Some are less and some are more : An update, of sorts.

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It seems about once a year or so I go through a phase of questioning my writing and the purpose of this blog. This past phase was a bit longer than normal, but also a bit more clarifying. That is, once I was asked to clarify why I was backing off, “Because I’m trying to be more healthy.”

“That’s pretty ambiguous,” my friend said, shaking his head, “explain.”

So I did. It went something like this:

Two maybe, but never three:

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For the past several years, I’ve been working hard on writing more consistently. “One post a day,” I promised myself. Even if it was simple and short, I had to write/publish something on my blog or work on a chapter for my book.

Then we moved (again), I started Grad classes, kids entered sports, and then, and then, and then. Somewhere in there was my marriage, social life, and gaining a few extra unneeded pounds. My life was busy and certainly productive, but it was not healthy.

So I gave up writing for a while.

“But that was really good for you,” my friend reminded me. And he was right, it is. Writing is not only therapeutic, it’s clarifying and inspiring and something I truly love. But so is my marriage, my kids, and the many other things that take up time and demand thought.

Then, my wife posted this:

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Do you know the good years when you’re right in them, or do you only recognize them after your future is the past, and it’s all come and gone? 
I took a small break like I always do this time of year because it is work, heart-life-work, this bittersweet pursuit to hold on to time just so. If I get too distracted, if there is just too many things and I hold it too loosely, life slips through my fingers and falls to regret. But if there is a desperate clenched grip, it squeezes through anyways. Grip too tight? Not tight enough? These are the days, the good days. 
It is finally Spring, which means lamb kisses in barns and sports are over. It also means road trip camping season has nearly begun. 

I’m terrified. Terrified of wasting time, of missing out on opportunities, and of one day looking back with regret. But more than anything, I’m terrified my kids will grow up without great memories of their father. If they one day, many years from now, described me as hard working, loyal, and a man of character, I would be happy. But also a bit disappointed because, as much as those qualities mean to me, I also want my kids to one day look back at the life their dad lived and say, “He inspired me to live.”

Which is why, recently, I ran The Spartan Race with my son.

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If you follow me on social media, you’re probably tired of this photo. But I’m not. This photo, to me, is a reminder to get out more, to try new things, to push boundaries, and to endure. It’s a reminder to prove I’m alive, to myself for sure but even more so for my kids who are watching, day in and day out. “Prove you’re alive!”, I tell them, but they don’t always listen. Because they’re kids. But when I live it, when I put the phone down, the computer away, and the books back on the shelf, when I take a weekend (with the support of my loving wife) and break out of the norm and and run a race with my oldest son, they see it, they experience it, and they want to live it too.

“Can I do it next year?” my two daughters asked.

“You bet,” I said, “And I’ll do it again with you.”

“Me too,” Judah yelled from the backseat, “And next year, I’m gonna beat my time.”

Me too.

I may not be writing as much lately, which, if I’m honest, is frustrating and sad. But because I’m writing less lately, I have more time for other things, for life things, and for the moments that are fleeting quickly. And I don’t think I’ll ever regret that.

So that’s one reason why I haven’t been writing as much lately. It’s also why I haven’t listened to or posted about podcasts either.

Because . . .

Podcasts are cool and all, but sometimes . . .

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most of the time it’s because I enjoy them and often find inspiration from them. Sometimes, though, it’s because I like being the guy who listens to a lot of podcasts. So when the other day, while heading out for a morning run, my podcasts wouldn’t play, I was super annoyed. I even considered not running at all because, how boring would that be, running in silence? But the Spartan run was nearing and I knew I needed the training, so I headed out anyway. Soon after, I started thinking.

The night before, I didn’t sleep well because I had this thing with one of my students earlier in the day and it was bothering me. A lot. We’d been going around this misunderstanding for some time and that morning it had came to a head. We argued, yelled even, and refused to see the situation from each other’s perspectives. By the end of the conversation, he walked off and I threatened suspension. It wasn’t great and I wasn’t proud, but I was pissed. At him, myself, and the situation. It felt like all my work with him and his fellow classmates was suddenly lost because I handled the situation poorly and because I didn’t know how to fix it.

“Hard choices are often hard because they impact other people’s lives in meaningful ways,” Steven Johnson writes in Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter Most, “and so our ability to imagine that impact - to think through the emotional and material consequences from someone else’s perspective - turns out to be an essential talent” (pg 122). But because I was constantly distracted by work and kids and podcasts, I was unable to think or consider my student’s side of the story. Only mine. Until I ran without a podcast. Then and only then, I had time to think.

“When we are left to our own mental devices,” Johnson continues, “the mind drifts into a state where it swirls together memories and projections, mulls problems, and concocts strategies for the future” (pg 79). It solves problems. But only when it has time to do so. Listening to podcasts every chance I had never allowed my mind to sit and rest, to mull problems, or concoct strategies. It was always busy.

Just like my students.

Recently, after watching and talking and listening to staff and students around my school, we’ve made a few changes for next year: no cell phones during class time and block scheduling. When asked by a few students, parents, and board members, “What is the genesis of these changes?” I answered with, “Because life for our students is too busy, too distracted. We want them to slow down, to dig deeper into their classes and content, and to be more cognizant of their thoughts, emotions, and surroundings.” (Okay, I didn’t say it exactly like that, but more or less the message was the same). The morning my podcast didn’t work and I had to run in silence, I was convicted of this for myself as well because, for me at least, I can get a bit snooty about kids (and adults) playing video games or wasting time watching television. “They’re a waste of time, a distraction,” I find myself thinking and often times saying.

Yet, how often do I allow myself - my brain - to sit in silence and think, consider, and drift? How often do I play with memories and projections, mull problems, and concoct strategies for the future?

In the same way I want my students to slow down, to rid themselves of distractions and to wrestle with the intricacies and complexities of life, I must be willing and able to do the same. Podcasts, although better then gaming, can still be a distraction that quickly pulls me across the surface of thoughts and ideas, preventing me the opportunity to stop, sink, and struggle.

So that’s why, along with writing, I haven’t listened to as many podcasts lately.

But also, I don’t have time. Or perhaps energy is a better way to say it because of course I have time - we all do, if we really want something. We just need to make time for it. But energy? Yeah, I’m pretty low on that.

Here’s why.

For the Eulogy, not my Resume:

I’ve written a few times about the difference between eulogy virtues and resume virtues. It comes from David Brooks and his book, Road to Character, and it is something I think about quite often.

Resume virtues, Brooks explains, “are the {virtues} you list on your resume, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.” Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are the virtues that people talk about at your funeral, “the ones that exist at the core of your being - whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” They describe how you used your resume.

Recently, this concept has challenged me more so than ever because, for various reasons, I have been presented with the possibility of pursuing a doctorate, and for many reasons my answer would have been and very easily could have been “no.” But then my wife got involved in the decision making process and her simple reasoning stuck, “because it will open doors”, which, on the surface is pretty common and not all that groundbreaking. Because that’s what resumes do. They open doors. But my wife didn’t end there.

“Because it will open doors, which will potentially allow you greater opportunities to serve.” And she’s right! Not only will furthering my education (ideally) allow me to better serve my here-and-now local community, it will provide me the opportunity to help others too, if the moment or opportunity should arise.

Or, as Chef José Ramón Andrés Puerta would say, “an opportunity” to help.

José Ramón Andrés Puerta is “a Spanish-American chef often credited with bringing the small plates dining concept to America. He owns restaurants in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, South Beach, Florida; Frisco, Texas; Mexico City, and Dorado, Puerto Rico” (via). He is also credited with dreaming up and creating World Central Kitchen which travels the world and serving 150,000 meals daily to those in need.

Every time you have a disaster, you bring the different experts into different areas for the reconstruction, for the relief process. So you need to understand that if you have to rebuild homes that you'll bring architects. If you need to take care of people in the hospitals, you bring more help with doctors. If you have to feed people, it's only very normal and logical to me that you will bring cooks. And that's what we do. Kitchens, restaurants are chaos. And chefs, restaurant people - we manage chaos very well. After a hurricane, it's a lot of chaos. And people go hungry, and people go thirsty. And what we are very good at is understanding the problem and adapting. And so a problem becomes an opportunity. That's why I think chefs more and more - you're going to be seeing more of us in these situations. We're practical. We're efficient. We can do it quicker, faster and better than anybody (via)

Because of his resume and his intense training, Chef José Ramón Andrés Puerta not only gains access to kitchens around the world, he gains access to people in need around the world. He uses his resume as a foundation to live his eulogy virtues.

And that has been continually convicting to me.

I want to learn and grow and develop my resume as much as possible so I can be as helpful as possible, here in my current job, but also anywhere at any time. When there is a crisis or a need, I want to be ready and available and not stuck behind some bureaucratic red tape. I want access, a seat at the table, so I may best be able to serve and remember the poor.

That is why I’m writing less, listening to podcasts less, and working more on my resume.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Open Thoughts  :  On Parenting

Scales of Justice : When Pigs Were held Accountable

In January 1457, a domestic sow and her six pigs were charged with murdering and partly devouring an infant. “The sow was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging”, but her offspring were pardoned, “partly because of their youth . . . and the fact that their mother had set them a bad example,” (via).

The mother, for her part, was “hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood, near the gallows” (via), as an example to the other pigs and livestock on how they were expected to behave.

Because in the mid 1400’s, animals were running amuck, and they needed to be held accountable.

In his 1906 book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, historian E.P. Evans recounts dozens upon dozens of instances where animals were put on trial and convicted for their crime: sparrows were prosecuted for chattering in Church, a cock burnt at the stake for laying an egg, and sheep, according to Criminal, “a true podcast that understands crime,” were being tried, sentenced, and executed “for seducing men into more than friendly relationships” (via).

It was a very scary time young sheep in America.

At any given time, a man could see a sheep, misinterpret it’s bleating and body language for sexual advances, and be unable to control himself. He would have to have that sheep.

And the sheep - not the man - would be held accountable.

“Eventually,” the podcast continues “people decided that criminal intent wasn’t something you could ascribe to animals” and a sort of paradise was restored. For the sheep, at least.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. “Every 8 minutes, that victim is a child,” with” only six out of every 1,000 perpetrators” ending up in prison.

Six out of 1,000! That number is abhorring. So too is the fact that “{n}o more than 20 percent of rapes are reported to the police” (via), a number that many find unbelievable. “If it was as bad as you say,” the argument goes, “if he was doing something you didn’t want, why didn’t they scream or fight back? Why didn’t they fight for their life?”

And the answer, unfathomable to many, is that by staying silent and allowing it to happen is exactly what they were doing, fighting for their lives.

“One of the things that is difficult for most of us {to understand} about a rape,” Dr. Lisak states, “is that there doesn’t have to be a gun to the head, there doesn’t have to be a knife present, there doesn’t have to be a verbalized threat for the act itself to be enormously terrifying and threatening.

There is a difference between sexual violence and other forms of assault. Sexual violence is so intimate.” When your body is penetrated by another person against your will. It often induces a uniquely powerful kind of terror. According to many peer-reviewed studies, a large percentage of the victims of non-stranger rapes “actually feared they were going to be killed,” even when “there was no weapon and no overt violence.”

Staying silent means staying alive, so too is remaining silent. “Around 90% of rapes are committed by known men, and often by someone who the survivor has previously trusted or even loved. People are raped in their homes, their workplaces and other settings where they have previously felt safe” (via). Rapists can be friends, colleagues, clients, neighbors, family members, partners or exes”, not some stranger hiding in the bushes. It’s someone they see consistently, that they know by name, and that will probably see in their house, at work, or at the next family reunion.

Which makes the allegations all the more difficult, because the victim will be asking family and friends to face each other rather than stand united. And that, according to Judith Lewis Herman in Trauma and Recovery, is extremely difficult. “It is morally impossible,” she writes, “to remain neutral in {cases of sexual assault}”, because “{t}he bystander is forced to take sides.”

It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering . . .

Victims of sexual assault demand empathy. Sadly, however, what they often receive is apathy. “Boys will be boys,” they hear echoing from police officers, school administrators, lawyers, friends, and the many others who are meant to serve and protect them. “You shouldn’t have been drinking,” victims are told, or “Look at what you’re wearing” and “why did you put yourself in that position?”

Instead of empathy, victims are often attacked and maligned for speaking out. Instead, they are held accountable for the perpetrators actions, or mocked on live television.

“Drunk guys,” Krakauer writes in his terrifying book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, “who may have ‘made mistakes’ nearly always get the benefit of the doubt. Drunk girls, however, do not” (via).

Why is that?

The answer - or problem, rather - seems to be that we, as a country, lack empathy. At least for those unlike ourselves.

In the classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus finds himself defending Tom Robinson, a black man, before a white jury. Tom Robinson has been accused of raping a white woman, but the evidence against the claim is as clear and as simple as “black and white.” Atticus, the judge, and every person in the courtroom knows Tom Robinson is innocent, but because black men were considered little more than cattle, it wasn’t shocking to expect a black man to pay the price for a white man’s (or woman’s) sins.

Atticus understood this. He understood that in order to win and save Tom Robinson, he needed the jury to empathize with the victim; he needed them to see and understand Tom Robinson like they saw and understood themselves - as human. A task as murky and complicated as black and white.

“You know the truth,” Atticus states, “and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women - black and white.” And you can almost see the jury, nodding their heads in approval, perhaps even whispering, “them Negros” under their breath or quietly in their minds. But then, Atticus asks them to reach towards empathy.

But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.”

Atticus paused and took out his handkerchief. Then he took off his glasses and wiped them” (pg 205).

It is here, perhaps, that Atticus lost the jury, and the point were Tom Robinson was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. In order for the jury to acquit Tom Robinson, they would have to empathize with him. And in order to empathize with him, they would have to admit that they, white men, were similar to a black man. And if they were similar to a black man, that would mean black men weren’t property or cattle, they were human. And if they were human, then the white population would have a lot of explaining and reconciling to do.

Instead, they convicted him of a crime he didn’t commit, as an example of how they were expected to behave.

It was also an example and reminder to themselves and their fellow white Americans, because if they sided with Tom Robinson, if they took his word over the white man’s - if they empathized with him - they would reduce the gap of power. And if they lost the gap of power, they might lose control. If they lost control, the African American community would have a voice and the ability to defend themselves against the white power. They could also accuse it. And that would be extremely dangerous for the young white men of the coming generation.

So they chose to avoid empathy and embrace power. They decided to keep things as they were: divided, and imbalanced.

It is often said that history is written by those who win, by those who have the power. But so too is the present.

Those in power decide what is real and what is fake. They determine who is right and who is wrong, and perhaps most importantly, they decide who is responsible. Be it sheep, black America, or woman.

But the thing is, “Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs,” writes Jessica Valenti, a Guardian US columnist, “Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them” (via).

Sure, woman can become better educated on how to defend themselves, where they should or shouldn’t go, on how much is too much to drink, and on how to recognize the warning signs of a possible sexual assault.

Or, men can just stop sexually assaulting women.

It is a scary time for young men. It is a scary because if they are consistently allowed to behave like animals, if they are not be held accountable for their actions, and if we as a country do not collectively begin to expect more from them, it is indeed scary to think of the men they will become.

And the offices they will hold.

Rewind Forward : When today becomes the past

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I often return to the moment before the accident. One moment, I see a young beautiful lady laughing into the camera . . . CUT . . . three months later, she woke up from her coma. When I saw her for the first time, I asked my father, "Who is this woman?"

This video truly shook me a bit, and not just because of the death of so many family members (actual and relational), but I'll admit, the thoughts and memories of older days, when we were camping and living and struggling together, came rushing in. I easily resonated with,  

Do you miss him sometimes?

Not just sometimes . . . always!  Always!

And I don't think I'll ever stop. But also, 

I'm ready - to stop looking back, and to look forward. For a long time, I dreamed of standing here together again. But life took another turn.

Some of my family have said the brokenness we're experiencing is "God's will" and until He decides it's time for us to reconcile all we can do is pray. I think that's bullshit. I think we are a product of the decisions we've made, of the truths we hold so dear. Life didn't take the turn, we did. And now, we're miles and miles apart, still heading in opposite directions, waiting for and dreaming of the days when someone else will turn around. 

As I write, my family (wife and kiddos) are traveling the country. We're nearing the end of our fifth week on the road (from Wyoming to Pennsylvania with stops in Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and North Dakota). On our way to Virginia, I wrote in my journal,

We’re nearing 4 weeks of road tripping, and some days, I just want to be home, sitting on a couch, doing very little. Because traveling is expensive, because traveling breaks habits and somehow convinces kids it’s okay to push and break rules, and because one-year olds don’t sleep well on the road. And we are tired. 
But then we stand and look over the valley and I get to see the country with my son, my wife, my kids - my family -and then, through the perspective of young eyes, the miles and millions of cups of coffee are worth it. Because someday, I’m going to wish they all fit in the van again.

I don't know what sort of turns life has down the road, I just know that for now, we're all in the van together. I also know that however I travel now, the way I love my kids, the conversations we have or don't have, the stories we share the memories we create will most definitely and directly impact how we, a family, travers the road ahead. 

You can't outrun the past. With that I agree. But I can choose to sit in the present, to live and love and pursue with the tenacious truth that I'm not guaranteed tomorrow, and that someday memories might be all that I have left. 

Although hopes and dreams will forever be before me, I do have a say in how this thing plays out. These days are about these days and right now. The ripples will take care of themselves. 

On the eve of turning 35 . . . What's next?

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There's a scene in one of my favorite movies, Liberal Arts, where a retiring professor is lamenting with an old student (Josh Radnor) about transition and getting old. At one point he tells Josh, "Ask me how old I am." When he does, the professor (played by Richard Jenkins), responds with, "None of your god damned business," and they both smirk. "Now," the professor continues, "ask me how old I feel." 

"How old do you feel," Radnor asks.

"Nineteen. And I've never not felt like I'm nineteen."

I don't think 35 is all that old, but it does seem to be a sort of wrapping up and moving on. For the past thirty-four years, I've been able to get away with many mistakes and shortcomings because I was either young and dumb, a newly-wed man, a young father, or new to my profession. I was allowed to make immature mistakes. But thirty-five, with four kids, and a recently hired principal? That man is no longer young, no longer new, and no longer has an excuse. He's also half way done with life and should know better by now. He is now fully and completely an adult. 

That is, if he doesn't keep putting it off.

In his TED talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator, Tim Urban brilliantly and comically describes the mind of anyone struggling with, or fully embracing, a life of procrastination. And for most of his talk, he's cute and funny, because his content is light and simple, and because what he has to say is relatively harmless. It's just the funny quirks of life. 

Then, in his concluding thoughts, Urban reaches beyond the college essays and weekly schedules and simple deadlines that direct so much of our daily lives - the contained kind of procrastinations - and talks about the second kind, the deeper kind. The kind that don't have deadlines, the kind that matter most. These are the ones that, at the end of our lives, we're most proud of, most excited about, and the ones people talk about when we've past on.

They're the entrepreneur kind, the outside the career kind, the working on relationships or growing as a person kind. And because they have no weekly or monthly deadlines there's never a sense of urgency to get them done. We can always put them off until tomorrow, until life is a bit less busy, or until this current contained deadline is finished (which they never are because there is always another one right behind). So they are continually placed on the shelf, waiting for future days, and hardly ever getting the attention they deserve. 

So in order to create a sense of urgency, in order for these goals and ideas and ambitions to be brought down and polished off, Urban shows this graph. And it really got to me.

Waitbutwhy.com

Waitbutwhy.com

At first, it looks like a LOT of squares with plenty of time to do many things like traveling, writing that great American novel, and getting to know my kids and wife and extended family. 

But then I saw this one, and I got a bit more anxious. 

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This morning, while waiting in the hallway between classes, several teachers passed by on their way to wherever they were going. "Morning," I would say, or, "How are you?" and their responses were fairly common. "Happy Friday" and "TGIF!" I would nod my head in agreement because, even though I love being a teacher, I too love the weekends. And when Monday comes along, I look forward to the next one. 

Then the next one.

Then the next.

And the next.

Until I saw them all, neatly piled in rows and lines, advertising the entirety of my (possible) life, and it terrified me a bit. So I printed off a sheet and started filling in the boxes. 

The first grouping was nothing all that extraordinary, just my days growing up in Indiana, making friends, playing sports, graduating high school, and generally wasting a whole lot of time. A lot of time. And a lot of boxes. So instead of going line by line, box by box, I started making little patterns, dividing up the space into little chunks, and finding a sort of rhythm in the process, which made the time go by faster and with a little more flair - with a little more excitement.

Days in Indiana

Days in Indiana

Then, suddenly, I found the whole process a bit discomforting. I was filling in boxes, weeks of my life, with such simplicity and absentmindedness that I even forgot what I was doing: shading in the days and months and years of life that I will never get back.

I started considering how fast I filled in those boxes, how quickly they turned into years, and how many I might have left.

When I was finished, I added in a few key dates: the day I finally graduated from University, when Josey and I married on a small mountain top in Montana, the day I turned thirty. 

I placed my kids on the chart (not when they were born, but how many squares they have lived).

Then I found the day (roughly) Judah will graduate high school and the square my grandfather last filled before he died. Suddenly, the time allotted seemed a little bit smaller.

Indiana Out of house, before marriage Marriage but before China China Still married, post China

Indiana
Out of house, before marriage
Marriage but before China
China
Still married, post China

I may feel like I'm nineteen, and hopefully always will, but my squares are quickly filling. Sometimes with great fanfare, other times not, but always they are. And on the eve of my 35th birthday, I'm feeling that reality more then I ever have before. 

If I live to be as old as Grandpa was, I'm already halfway there. The empty boxes until my first-born son leaves are fading. And with each passing year, I get further and further away from the immortal age of nineteen.

I don't think working through all this means I'm in a midlife crises. In fact, I think this could and should be a good place to be (at least I hope it is) because this might be exactly what prevents the crises, some years from now, when the panic of a deadline is realized and there isn't enough time to cram in the good and important stuff, leaving a large and empty space of regret. 

I know I'm not the first, the only, or the last person to turn 35, to wrestle with mortality, or to look back on life and gasp at how quickly it has past. Nor am I the first to look at the future and hope and dream of what could be yet cringe at all of the things that actually could be.

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"Everyone," Urban says at the end of his talk, "is procrastinating on something in life . . . and because there's not that many boxes up there . . . we need to start working on it today."

Here are few things I've been procrastinating on:

1. Pursuing my family
2. Writing an actual book, not just blogs
3. Teaching my son how to cook
4. Taking my wife on a vacation . . . without kids
5. Saving for colleges
6. Writing more letters
7. Getting back into shape
8. Forgiving family
9. Giving
10. Shaving.

And I don't want to procrastinate another day, I will tackle two right off the bat: writing more letters and giving.

If you've read this far, write a short favorite memory (either here or on Facebook) of you and me and on the evening of Sunday, April 30th, Judah will pull a name from a hat.

That lucky person will get a FREE BOOK and handwritten note!!!

As always, thanks for reading.

Enjoy the weekend!

Why we argue, and how we heal.

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We got into a fight Saturday morning, a good one, but not really a real one. It started off simply, over something that could have easily been batted away, like that pestering fly that lands on your knee. But instead, I chose to pounce, to dig in, and then to not let it go. More than once Josey tried to calm things over, to move on, but I refused. 

So we argued about the dumb shit that doesn't really mean anything but in the moment, for whatever reason, means everything. 

Later that morning, I found myself sitting on the edge of our bed, alone, and thinking, "What the hell am I doing? Why am I choosing this fight?"

It didn't take long for the answer to surface, but because I'm bullheaded it did take a decent amount of time for me to head down the stairs and seek forgiveness. 

A few hours later, the van was packed and we were headed to the Badlands.

I don't know if other couples argue and find themselves divided over the dumbest things couples can bicker about, I just know we do. Sometimes it's because the stress and excitement of finally spending Thanksgiving with family suddenly crashes, minutes before takeoff. Other times its because there's been some miscommunication and I was supposed to be home by 5:15, not 6:30. 

I also know that, for us, sitting in a van with fresh coffee wafting from cupped hands, an atlas on the dash, kids in the back, and hours and hours of road ahead, we heal.

We talk about the past few weeks, then sit in silence and watch the miles blur by. We talk about our hopes and dreams, or fears of failure, and of future trips. We talk about what's been on our hearts and eating our minds. Then Josey sits in the back with the girls and they laugh and whisper and sleep. Judah sits up front and talks like a young man and scours the atlas for shortcuts and upcoming cities. He quizzes me on capitals and I tell him of the time my family drove west and my dad lost his wallet on the camper. 

Soon Josey returns and we discuss and sit and be some more. Because the laundry's at home, because lesson plans can be done later Sunday night, and because our cellphones are down and we're just there, together. 

And I love that.

My grandfather, and the tools he left behind

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"Was your grandpa good at making things?" Judah asks.

"Extremely," I say, stopping to look at a picture of my grandpa, dad, and me. It used to be in my grandparent's little dining nook. Now, it sits on my workbench, amid screws and tape measures and other tools my grandfather gave me. 

Tools I've just recently gotten back because they've been in storage for the past five years. 

"What's wrong?" Judah asks.

"Nothing" I say, "I'm okay."

"But you're crying," he says.

"I just miss 'em is all," and Judah wraps his arms around my neck.

“Thanks,” I say, patting his back, “I’m okay.” Then, we get to work, measuring and cutting and creating. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we talk, but most of the time we just work, side by side in the sawdust and under the dangling yellow lights. Working with my grandfather's tools.

Then, somewhere in the night, the song Tupelo Honey by Van Morrison comes on and I stop to text my dad because it's his favorite song, and whenever I hear it, no matter where I am, I think of him and me working and singing and laughing. A lot. Because if there's one thing my dad and my grandfather have in common its that they love to work hard and laugh even harder.

I look at the photo again and can almost feel my grandfather's arms around my shoulder. Only it isn't mine anymore, it's my father's, and I can't even imagine how he must feel, how much he must miss his dad, and how hard it must have been when his father's tools were stolen from his garage in the middle of the night. 

But then Judah asks if I could cut some wood for him, if I could hold this piece while he screws his plane together, and if I could tell him a few stories of Grandpa, since he doesn't really remember him anymore. 

"Sure," I say, and I tell him of how fishing with Grandpa on Lake Michigan was my favorite, especially when we didn't catch any fish, because he could tell the greatest stories and we'd just be there together, sometimes in silence but always together. I tell him about the time we went on a trip to Canada and Grandpa could't keep any minos in his hand because they kept escaping through the hole where his finger was cut off. I tell of how he drove down from Michigan just to watch me play a Friday Night game and how much it meant to me, because he'd never seen me play before. Then, I tell him about my grandfather's laugh, how he would squint one eye and sort of cackle out the greatest of all laughs. The kind that, even if the joke isn't funny, you laugh anyway.

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Judah listens, asks a few clarifying questions, then reaches over and grabs my grandfather's tape measure. And he does so without thinking, because he doesn't know my grandfather used that same tape measure to build decks for people in his community, that my grandfather made furniture for each of his grandkids, even when he was months away from never picking up another tool again. That my grandfather was a master craftsman. 

But I do. I also know that he was a man of intense and extreme character, that he loved and supported his kids beyond measure, and that, when he died, his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids flew and drove from all over the country to be there - no matter the cost.

Because he was our grandpa. 

And our grandpa was great at making things. The tools just happened to be there.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Open Thoughts  :  On Parenting

 

Because they call me Dad : A Fireside Sunday

     Photo by  @storyanthology

     Photo by @storyanthology

I could have taken a nap. I could have read a few more pages of In Cold Blood or got busy with any of the other millions of things I can get busy doing. I could have spent a large chunk of the day writing. But I didn't. Because my wife thought we should make a fire.

And as often happens, she was right. 

Snow fell from the trees and landed in our laps and dinner and our kids laughed those long and deep laughs that warm the soul. 

We sat together as a family.

Elias spit raspberries. 

I can't help but constantly feel guilty for not writing more often, for not "pursuing the craft" because I know full well, if this is ever going to happen, it won't just fall in my lap (I already said enough about that).

But then we have a day like today and I'm reminded there isn't room. Nor do I want any. Because Eden "loves the mornings" and Zion asks if she can cuddle and help make breakfast. And I get to be there. 

Because they call me Dad.

And because my wife asked me to build a fire.

So we did.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Open Thoughts  :  On Parenting

On top, but alone : a sabbatical from writing

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As 2016 drew to a close, like many people around the world, I planned for new beginnings, new hopes, and set a strong resolution: to write a blog every single day. I knew it was low hanging fruit and that it wouldn't bestow upon me the ever elusive title of "author," but I was okay with that, because it would ensure that I intentionally wrote a polished piece of work every single day. Up to that point, writing in my journal was erratic, sloppy, and unchallenged - it was a place I could live and write without consequence for my grammatical errors or faulty ideas.  It was a place of little growth.

So, for almost the entire year, I published something daily. Sometimes I struck gold, other times a septic line, but always I learned and grew - even if only slightly. Because people now had access to my thoughts.

Friends revealed my terrible grammar.

My wife refined my insensitive rants.

Readers encouraged my process, thoughts, and style. They commented, liked, and shared my writings which inspired me to stay up and write, well beyond my bedtime, because I had to write, I had to publish, and I had to maintain the number of views I was becoming accustomed to. 

Writing, suddenly, was no longer about writing. It was about getting Mother Mary up the mountain. And I couldn't figure out how to stop.

About halfway through the year, after writing about a variety of topics, posting videos, songs, movie trailers, and whatever else caught my interest, Mother Mary was still far from her summit, and I could feel my strength, my desire, and my purpose, slipping. When school started and life began to fill up, she lingered on the cliff. 

So I sent two dear friends an email entitled, "A Crisis of Sorts."

Here's an excerpt from that email:

For the past several weeks I've been working hard at my blog (god that sounds stupid). I've stayed up late, sacrificed lunches, and spent many many hours thinking on what to write, how to write, and to whom I might be writing for. And whenever I publish something I think, "Yes. That's good. I like that." But whenever I go back and reread various works and thoughts, I think, "NO! That's shitty. I hate that," and I get fully discouraged and lose hope {of} ever doing anything with writing because what is my blog going to do? How is this getting me anywhere closer to being a writer? Where is this going to get me?

I've started writing a bit more on personal matters, believing it might be encouraging to others because we're all tired of the surface bullshit we post on Facebook and Instagram and whatever. Some of the best and well-known writers and thinkers I've come to love are those who write and think honestly, and I want to emulate them. But as I work on a second piece about the struggles of a broken family, I keep questioning myself, "What's the point?" Outside of myself, who truly cares about this?" I know writers are supposed to "write for themselves," and I get that, I do. But it's also bullshit. We, as humans, as writers or artists or whatever we call ourselves, want to inspire, to help, and, as selfish as it sounds, be validated in what we do and the time we spend doing it. And this is EXACTLY where I'm struggling.

What am I doing wrong? Am I completely deluded in thinking that what I'm doing, the time I'm spending, and the way I'm writing is doing anything other than wasting time? 

Their responses, as I knew they would be, were golden. 

One writes, "Has the blog become too consuming? Does it interfere with other priorities? Are there any unhealthy byproducts that come from writing this blog? . . . Consider your motivations for writing the blog . . . maybe taking a “sabbatical” from the blog would be the healthiest option."

The other, "Have you heard the phrase, "Kill your darlings"? . . . I'm not saying your blog needs to be scrapped completely. I think if it's a momentary stumbling block that will be fine in the long run, keep going. But if it's a race of hurdles where you just trip over hurdle after hurdle, maybe it does?"

In short, why am I trying to place Mother Mary on top of a treacherous mountain? 

Because it's the good and right and noble choice? Because it serves the smaller and greater community?

Or because I want to take a selfie on top the world? 

Are there any unhealthy byproducts that come from writing this blog?

Maybe. Maybe not. But the real problem was that I never asked, that I never allowed myself to consider the possibility that there were unhealthy byproducts. How could I? To kill my darlings would be to kill myself. 

Why am I dragging Mary up the mountain? 

Kevin Ashton, in How to Fly a Horse, tells of the gruesome story of a time when "doctors did not scrub in or out of the operating room, and were so proud of the blood on their gowns that they let it build up throughout their careers." And because it was a teaching hospital, it was common practice for doctors to deliver babies after dissecting corpses. 

The hospitals mortality rate was so terrible mothers would often rather give birth in the streets, on their own, rather than in the hospital. Because their survival rate was higher. 

Yet, none of the doctors asked why or assumed they played a role in any of the deaths. When asked to simply wash their hands, almost immediately, the mortality rate went from 18% to zero. 

However, "This was not enough to overcome the skepticism. Charles Delucena Meigs, an American obstetrician, typified the outrage. He told his students that a doctor's hands could not possibly carry disease because doctors are gentlemen and 'gentlemen's hands are clean' (via).

Charles Delucena Meigs, the American obstetrician, was doing great things - saving lives and advancing our understanding of the human body. Why would he ever need to question his actions when his motives were so good? 

Because people we're dying. And at that point, it shouldn't have mattered his perspective, his convictions on the cleanliness of a man's hands because, people were dying. 

And people are always more important than convictions.

I want to be a writer. Bad. But more than that, I want to be a better person. Writing has helped me be that, I think, but not always. Sometimes not. 

Because sometimes, instead of helping and loving and living a life worth writing about, I drag Mother Mary up the mountain. 

And the selfie just isn't worth it.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  The DR Who Championed Hand-washing  :  How to Fly a Horse :  Open Thoughts

A space for home

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This transition process is taking longer than we expected. We still don't have lampshades, we have to borrow my in-laws vacuum almost weekly, and our dining room still doesn't have a working table and chairs - we have to crowed around a small countertop island to eat as a family.

But those are simple things that can easily change in the near future. It's the other stuff that's taking time, the human stuff, the kids crying themselves to sleep because they're thinking and dreaming and missing China stuff. The missing home stuff. And I didn't know what to do. 

We can talk about China and their friends, revisite old photographs and some of our favorite memories, and we can talk about all the blessings we've been able to experience since arriving back in the states. But that doesn't seem to help. Not much anyway. So resort to words like, "It will be okay, I promise. You just need time," or, "by this time next year, you'll be feeling much better, I promise." But they're empty. Because really, I have no idea if it will be okay, if things will get better. If they will ever stop missing home.

My optimism, in the end, amounts to nothing.

But then, this morning, my wife sent me a text that convicted and challenged my heart. She was writing to share the news that she'd been featured on a forum that receives close to a million submissions, and she was one of seven people chosen. "It's not a big deal," she wrote, "but it is just a little encouraging. She continued:

It's funny how I am feeling so sad about loss and constantly worried I'll shrivel, but there are spaces of delight here. Just comparing apples and oranges. But getting this photo featured means more than just that. It means there is hope for a Home again. Even if it's hard to believe now.

I loved the way she said that, "there is hope for a Home again. Even if it's hard to believe now" because it reminded me that hope is active.

It is her taking pictures every day, even when she doesn't feel like it because its her and her passion and the best way she knows how way capture life, because soon enough these times will be gone.

It's her working on a home, daily, even when there isn't any more money left or much to do so she rearranges the few pieces of furniture for a second, third, and forth time because that's how she builds a home, little by little, and over time. 

It's how she moves towards hope.

Hope is active, optimism passive. Optimism believes things will get better and turn out okay while hope gets off the couch and ensures that they do - even when it's hard to believe that it will.

"There are spaces of delight here", and with hope, those spaces will expand and grow and fill up with memories, laughter, and Life. 

Until this space becomes our Home.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Open Thoughts  :  On Living  :  Josey Miller Photography

Open Thoughts : A Family of Home, not perfection

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“The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life. It’s easy to make it complex.”

 

The moving in process has been slow and sometimes painful, but it’s also been beautiful. Not because our house is full or the walls are covered with decorations, but because they aren’t, because it is taking us longer than we thought, and because our house is finally starting to become a home filled with imperfections.

Just as it should be.

Last week, our fake wood-burning stove arrived in the mail, and when we set it up and turned it on, it was just about perfect. Our kids gathered around, touching the glass and awing at flames that flickered and wood that glowed – looking just like a real fire - and when we turned the lights off to the rest of the house and cuddled beneath blankets for the evening reading, it felt fully perfect.

Somehow though, after the kids were in bed and Josey and I were sitting in the quite of the night, we both missed our even more fake fireplace in China.

Then suddenly, strangely, we were homesick. And we couldn’t quite figure out why. Because that fireplace, the one in China that was made from an old chest with one side cut out, with Christmas lights behind embossed glass for fire, and an old pipe for a makeshift chimney, wasn’t nearly as nice as this one. Not even close.

“But it was full of stories,” Josey said. And that was it. That was what we missed. Because that fireplace, the one with the Christmas tree lights for a fire had embossed glass that was found in a nearby trash pile in one of Josey’s favorite back alley streets, and it was just what she’d been looking for, for months. And that chimney, the one that looked like an old industrial pipe was the third old industrial pipe I’d brought home because the other two didn’t work. I found this one discarded beneath our old school, and when I picked it up, three baby kittens scattered across the dusty boxes, bricks, and piles of old carpet. And they scared the shit out of me.

That fireplace took months to build. It required difficult negotiations in a second language, hauling material up seven flights of stairs, and rebuilding, remodeling, and reworking over and over again until we got it right. But, when it all came together, when we finally assembled the last few pieces and hung and stuffed our Christmas stockings, our little monster of a creation became the centerpiece of the living room.

And our kids loved it.

When we sold it, Josey cried.

Our new Amazon fireplace, however, is perfect looking, but it doesn’t come with stories. Just Styrofoam and cardboard boxes.

But then Uncle Trauger comes over and helps us make the shiplap backing from old barn wood Judah and I pulled and denailed from a distant farm on a cold and misty Saturday afternoon. And suddenly, there’s life.

And then the end tables Josey bought at a local thrift store are painted by my daughters which means they’re full of paint blobs, running lines, and imperfections. And they aren’t even hard to miss. But whenever I see them, whenever I set my coffee down in the predawn morning, I hear Zion’s giddy voice telling me how she painted all day with Mom and how, “Mom broke two paint brushes, and I didn’t break any.” I see Eden, with paint in her hair and dotted along her arms and legs and toes, trying to fix her imperfections with entirely too much paint on the brush, only exacerbating the problem.

And I fall in love with those tables and their stories and the home they begin to build.

Because that’s the outdoor fire pit Aunt Lu bought us when she came to visit in October and those are the shutters we had a friend carry from China and drop of with my brother in Montana and have waited over three months to unwrap and that’s the chair we bought for $12.50 at a Thrift store in Laramie when visiting our little sister at university and stayed in a cabin and bought our first pumpkins at a beautiful farm where Eden and Zion rode horses and Judah finished a maze in 48.3 seconds. 

I love stories. And I love that I think of them almost every single day.

And the thing is, even if we wanted to fill our house quickly we couldn’t because we’ve chosen a single income teacher salary lifestyle and even though there are several days that it’s hard and frustrating because I just wish we could get a little bit further ahead and not have to work so hard, most other days, I love it. Because it forces us to wait, to learn and to be reminded that we can do without, and it allows – unwillingly at times – for us to find and capture beautiful stories.

Stories of creating rather than buying.

Stories of building rather than pulling from shelves.

Stories of human imperfections rather industrialized perfection.

Stories of thrift stores and garage sales and sometimes even trash piles. Of making things work out of imagination and re and re and redecoration.

The kind of stories that make a home, not a house.

And the kind of stories that carry with us long after the furniture is sold or tossed or lost over the years.

And those are exactly the kind of stories I want to tell and retell and hear my children share to their friends and family and future children. Because those are stories of the family.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Open Thoughts  :  On Living

 

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