Winter Waiting

Perhaps it is because the season of winter bridges those seasons of autumn and spring that we bestow so much power to the New Year. We quickly transition from the dying of fall in which flowers, trees, and even the grass lose their color and their foliage, into a cold and barren landscape of winter that drapes itself in a blanket of white and long shadows, and finally, and for many, slowly into a season of new life; spring.

The old year passes. The new year begins. Dark at first, yes. Cold in its beginning, certainly. But the landscape, lonely and forsaken, contains a hidden hope for a brilliant spring; one filled with color, sound, and scents.

I never regret the winter months. They give me the opportunity to reflect: Sitting beside a warm fire, with a coffee in my hand on dark mornings, I ponder the meaning of life. I think about the things I can accomplish. I plan great and daring feats and dream big dreams as my dog sleeps at my feet.

January is a month for short days and long shadows. It is a month of solitude and visions of what can be. If I strive to be my very best when the days grow longer, and the sun once again warms the earth, I can achieve anything. January is a month of new beginnings, even before the snow has had a chance to melt away.

If my car tires and battery are new and my hat and mittens are at my side, I say bring on winter in all its glory. In my estimation, winter is not the end, but an exciting new beginning. It opens new chapters to the book of my life, and I am glad for it.

Working in Tandem

Modu likes to draw, and while he is not professionally trained, he has been able to create some beautiful work. On the wall in the lunch room in the Nessima Camp of Catania, his map of Africa is a featured image. To the right of the map, he’s added a proud lion, a towering giraffe, and a stately Baobab tree. He is quite good.

Together we sat at the table sharing our love of drawing. He drew an alligator. I drew a dragonfly.

Then we tried an experiment: I drew a squiggly line and asked him to make a picture out of this. He’d never played this “game” before, and it was quite a challenge. He couldn’t readily think of any option that might complete the picture. So, I asked him to draw a line, and then I finished the drawing adding some eyes, a nose, and a mouth. His squiggle became a man’s face.

We tried again. I turned Modu’s jotting into a car. I gave him another simple line, and he turned it into a box on top of a truck. He wrote the number 32, and I turned it into a man with glasses. I wrote the same number, and he turned it into a starling.

Finally, we returned to the original, complicated line. We studied it together for a few minutes. Even I found myself stymied by the nonsense image. And then inspiration hit. Modu picked up his pen and started to draw. In a matter of seconds, he’d turned a meaningless form into an original, creative image.

It was a flash of inspiration and a quick sketch, but a perfect example of cooperation and creativity. The image might not be gallery quality, but in my judgment, it wins an award any day.

Water Off a Duck’s Back

I believe everything we need to know about life, we can learn from the birds. For instance, did you know that ducks are waterproof?  Really. It’s true. But more on that later.

First, let’s talk about how hard life can be and how people can be very mean. It’s true, and you know it’s true. You can’t deny it. There are days when you walk out of your office, church, school, home, or beauty salon and wonder if you can ever return.

People say hurtful things. It is almost as if they relish in the painful look on your face. They search for ways to stab at your heart and wound your spirit. I don’t know why this happens; I can only assume that their pain must require this kind of pathetic response. This mode of living is sad; it is unfortunate for them and tragic for you. A life lived at this lowest level, day in and day out is toxic, and it can become debilitating and life-threatening if we don’t protect ourselves.

Here’s where the duck comes in. Did you know that there is a special gland located near the base of their tails called the Preen Gland? This fantastic adaptation produces a special oil that ducks use to coat their feathers. This oil, once applied to the surface of the feather, creates a protective barrier that keeps out the water and life-draining cold temperatures. It helps trap in their life-sustaining body heat.

But here’s the thing: The duck has to spend much of its time preening to benefit from this protection. Otherwise, the water world in which they live will kill them. Without self-care, the water will seep into the down feather layer and make it impossible for them to survive. Their self-maintenance saves their lives. Without this protection, they can’t float above the water. Without this self-care, the weight of the water in their down makes it impossible for them to fly away from danger. In short, without taking the time to take care of themselves, the ducks will die.

When is the last time you protected yourself from the constant barrage of negative statements and hurtful comments? When did you last take some time to prepare your outer shell, preen yourself, oil your feathers? Does the constant barrage roll off your back or does it seep in where your protection is weakest?

Allow me to offer some suggestions you might consider to strengthen your protective layer, keeping you safe from the hazards or interpersonal life:

  • Spend five minutes in solitude.
  • Speak words of encouragement to yourself and especially to others. (By the way, did you know how smart you are?)
  • Take time to look at art.
  • Go for a walk in the woods.
  • Take up a hobby. My wife enjoys knitting. I enjoy playing guitar.
  • Laugh. Watch a funny movie. Go to a comedy club. Read a comic book (I suggest the Far Side, whenever possible).
  • Sing at the top of your voice when you are in the car.
  • Pet a cat.
  • Walk a dog.
  • Eat an excellent meal.
  • Drink a fine wine. One glass will do.
  • Smell a beautiful flower.
  • Hug a good friend.

In short, preen.  Take time to take care of yourself, and in the end, the vitriol of others will quickly roll away, like water off a duck’s back.

Practice Makes Perfect

Do you remember learning to brush your teeth? Do you remember learning how to tie your shoes? How about walking around the room? Eating solid food? Skipping? Pulling on your pants? Neither do I…And yet, I do these things every day without a second thought. Okay, in truth, I rarely skip, but I could if I so desired.

I had the privilege of babysitting two charming young ladies a while ago. As they prepared for bed, they took up their toothbrushes and went to work on their petite, perfect enamels. Their scrubbing took on an aggressive vigor. Each tooth received devoted attention until the “spice” of the paste forced a quick rinse and spit.

After prayers were said and the night-song was sung and they were soundly tucked into their beds, I sat in the silence of the living room, waiting for mom and dad to get home. I did some internal math. I calculate that these young women have already performed this night-time brushing ritual more than 500 times in their very short lives. And yet, holding the brush is still a challenge, the minty taste still overpowering, and the angle of the brushes in their little mouths is too sharp. I wondered, how much longer will they have to practice this daily habit before they are masters of the brush, lords of the oral cavity, and keepers of the dentistry? The old saying is true: “Practice makes perfect”.

This thought made me ponder, what corners of your life skills require ongoing repetition in order to make perfect?  What habits do you need to perform on a daily basis to help make them optimal?  What qualities within your character need more attention?  What characteristics in your life would benefit from more practice?

Perhaps you need to practice patience with others, or yourself?  You may need to apply sincerity to your words. It is possible that you should exercise more love for others.

Think about it for a moment: What life skills and healthy habits do you need to improve through practice and persistence?

Oh, sure, it might not be easy, no new skill ever is. It is possible that your hard work might be a challenge to your body, mind, and spirit. The angles might be tricky. The taste in your mouth might be too strong. But it is only through constant practice and attention to detail that you become the master of these things that matter so very much. It may take hundred’s of attempts before you get it right, but in the end it is worth the time and the attention.  After all, the old saying is true:  “Practice makes perfect”.

A Heart Filled with Gratitude

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I often find that my heart is hard and my responses are harsh. I frequently experience moments of selfishness.

If you are like me (and I pray you are better than this), you know that we are less than grateful. We are selfish and rarely satisfied. Despite jobs that pay the bills and provide high levels of entertainment, a home that keeps us warm and dry, food in excess, and productive, full lives, we often yearn for more. In the process, we fail to recognize the abundance of blessing in our lives. We overlook the gifts for which we should be grateful. We bypass the simple things that can warm our hearts if we allow them.

If simple little Piglet can understand the importance of gratitude, how is it that we who are well-educated, highly-sophisticated and well-heeled, can ignore this fundamental truth of life? How hard would it be to stop and give thanks for those little things that mean so much to us?

For instance, today I am especially grateful for the first cup of coffee in the morning. This dark liquid warms my heart and satisfies my soul.  With the first sip, I pause and remember I am grateful. May my relatively small heart hold a significant amount of Gratitude.

 

A Little Help From Our Friends

Let’s be honest, we all need a little help from time to time.

There are single candles that just won’t go out…they need that little extra breath.

There are cars that won’t start…they need that little jump.

There are children that just won’t stop crying…we need grandma.

There are careers that continue to flounder…we need coaching.

There are hearts that remain broken…we need love, care, and sometimes therapy.

Weakness is not found in the problem, but in failing to ask for help. The struggle is not in the issue itself but our wrong-minded determination to address the problem in isolation.

What do we gain from standing alone when we could stand side-by-side or arm-in-arm?

I’m grateful for the challenges of life and even more thankful for those who come alongside to make the task that much easier.

The Power of History

I am a student of history, and for a good reason: History repeats itself.  When one knows the story, it gives one power. Not the kind of power that results in world domination, but an understanding that what is happening now, has happened before, and will happen again.

History proves that terrible people do terrible things. They always have and they always will.

History tells that good people do good things. They always have and they always will.

History reveals that good people (eventually) step up to stop the terrible people.

History shows us that where we are today is not where we will be a year from now or a decade from now.

History gives us insight into the future if we simply pay attention to the past.

I sleep better because I know some history. I realize that everything will not be easy or safe, but I rest in the confidence that any situation will change, given enough time…given enough history.

And for that, I am extremely grateful today.

The People You Meet

Let me be honest:  I over-packed.  I knew it when I bought the groceries.  I knew it as I packed the cooler.  I certainly knew it when I loaded the car.  But there was no turning back.  This was our first visit to Symphony on the Prairie for the season and I wanted it to be special.  To that end, I was going to need everything in my car to make happen.

But there was a problem.  Between the two folding chairs and table, the cooler full of food, wine, cheese, crackers and cookies, the blanket in the bag, the picnic basket with our other supplies, my book and camera, I was a little over-loaded.  I suspect that Lewis and Clark traveled lighter.

So imagine my relief when I spotted two fresh-faced youth pulling a wagon and sporting Scout Venture Crew outfits.  I’ve never paid to have my goods carried to the concert but I was desperate.  And so I waved to them to meet my car, even before it was parked.  As I exited my vehicle, they came alongside and quickly helped with my burdens.

As is my custom, I arrived early to the program.  I wanted a good seat and so I was the 5th car in the lot…which meant that my two Symphony Sherpas would be my companions until the gates opened another hour later.

But here’s the thing:  I had the great fortune of snagging two of the nicest, most interesting young people I’ve met in a very long time.

Stephen and Hannah are a sharp pair of siblings trying to raise funds for a whitewater rafting trip later in the summer.  While they could have simply begged the cash from relatives or employers, they determined to earn this money the hard way; by hauling over-packed coolers and lawn furniture for people with poor planning skills from the rolling grass parking fields of Conner Prairie to the slopes of the amphitheater.

To my great relief, what could have been an hour filled with awkward silence turned into one of my favorite parts of my evening.  This brother-sister team were charming young people who were not afraid to talk, tell stories, and share their dreams.  In addition, they were willing to ask questions about my own experience and acted genuinely interested in my answers.  We shared a pleasant time discussing travel abroad, family life, music interests, daily work and a future in writing.

For instance, I learned that Stephen is an amazing piano player and I imagine (at least from the boasting of his sister) that he could impress even this Conner Prairie crowd.  He hasn’t determined his ideal career path, but who has at the age of fifteen?

Among other things, I learned that Hannah is going to change the world.  Seriously.  She is currently a nanny, shaping the lives of the blessed children she cares for and I imagine she is a powerful force in her nuclear family as well.  She plans to travel abroad and I believe she will make the most of every opportunity afforded to her.

As a side note, Hannah is incredibly strong.  She lifted my cooler as if it were a feather pillow.

Should you visit the Symphony on the Prairie this summer (especially one of the weeks in August), I suggest you look for this team.  They’ll be popular among the attendees so you might have to wait your turn.  But the wait will be worth it.  You will enjoy their company, have a wonderful conversation, and be glad to spend some time with the nicest pair of young people anywhere on the Prairie.  Give them a good tip.  They are worth it.

Continue reading “The People You Meet”

Beasts of Burden

During our recent trip to Utah, my wife and I rode horses and mules around Mt. Zion National Park.  It made it possible for us to see the beautiful mountains from an entirely different perspective.

My ride was a mule named Peekaboo.  In the words of our guide, she was “a Cowboy’s Cadillac.”  The ride was smooth, allowing us to climb hill and valley without a care.  The view was grand, taking us to locations we wouldn’t otherwise traverse so quickly.  The beast of burden was gentle but powerful, carrying me without a care or hesitation.

However, the mule was not the only beast of burden on that trip.  A shuttle bus moved us from one part of the park to another.  A plane transported us 3,400 miles from Indy to Phoenix and back in a matter of hours.  A rental car moved us across the desert landscape without a care.  Our Hyundai waited for us in the parking lot after our plane landed and it returned us to home and hearth.

Every day we use beasts of burden, either animal or mechanical, without a second thought. As I think about my 45-minute commute to work each day, driving at 65-miles-per-hour along highways and interstates, I have to stop and give thanks that I have the luxury of a modest vehicle to help make that trip in a matter of minutes, rather than days.

Just as I was grateful for Peekaboo, I am so very grateful for my humble Hyundai and my ability to travel with ease.

Life is a Gift

There isn’t a rhyme or reason for why any right or wrong occurs in a person’s life. Sometimes you make the right choice and take the win. Other times you find that the dealer has the advantage and even with your best intentions, the house takes the pot. Each day brings a new set of challenges, and there are never any easy answers. More often than not, I’m just happy to come out even.

In my 19,000+ days on this planet, I’ve had some tough times, and I’ve had some great successes. This year goes down in the history books as one of those winners: My health is good. My kids are strong. My marriage is blessed. My house is still standing.

I can honestly say that within my lifetime, I’ve seen some inspiring and jaw-dropping sites; like Masada in Israel, the Vatican Museums at night, and Paris in the morning. I’ve stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon. I’ve stood in the rain and fog of the Smokey Mountains, and I’ve basked in a dry, crystal-clear Arizona sunset. I’ve watched waves lap up on the Mediterranian, Atlantic, and Pacific shores. I’ve counted hundreds of birds over three continents and most exciting of all, witnessed half-a-dozen California Condors flying across the skies of Utah.

But for all the moving sites I’ve seen and the places I’ve been, perhaps best of all, time with my family right here at home has been more meaningful than anything. I love having adult children…and better yet, I love our adult children. Our kids are witty, loving, and gentle. They enjoy one another and any time with them is a gift. Don’t tell them this, but my wife and I are loving the empty nest phase of life. Without worrying about a sitter, we can pick up and go to a movie, for a walk, out to eat, or on a drive whenever we want, no questions asked.

So far, the past 53 years have been pretty fantastic. They haven’t been perfect; no year is. But there isn’t much about these 19,000 days that I would trade.