Road Trip!

Ah, road trip. The mere mouthing of those magical words increases my blood rate and secretes a jolt of adrenalin into my system. Wondrous, unforetold serendipities await the friends who pile into the chosen vehicle and pull away from the curb early on a fresh morning. Energy abounds, everyone talks at once, good-natured ribbing cranks up, and off you go.

And that’s exactly how it was a few weeks ago when I and three of my fellow photographers and salon members left Nashville bound for that pathos soaked soil of the Mississippi Delta. The lure of good blues music is what drew us there, but that is not all we found. Good music, to be sure, but so much more. On the first night, at Clarksdale’s famed Ground Zero Blues Club, we listened to the real stuff, done by Dave Dunavent and his band. Skipping way ahead in this little vignette, we are now active participants in bringing Big Dave to Nashville to make a 5-song demo with one of Music City’s many fine producers. Now this young, endearing, affable, humble kid can’t believe that 4 perfect strangers are giving him every dream-seized guitar picker’s “break”. But, we had to. We fell in love with him and his music.

Then there were the evening sessions of the FourChair group, when, once checked into the motel and prior to hunting up some grub, we located plastic chairs and an appropriate site near the motel pool, lit up fine cigars, poured ourselves a couple fingers of fine whiskey, and set about solving the proverbial world’s problems. Wisdom and story abounded. Well, probably more of the latter, especially as the sessions lengthened and the glasses emptied, but, strangely enough, it seemed we were actually getting smarter about the same time.

And then, the photos. Crazy, fun stuff shooting each other, yes, but mostly trying to capture the timeless atmosphere that inundates this flat, hot, challenged land. From the movie-like magnolia and spanish moss laden neighborhoods of Greenwood (The Help was filmed there) to the poverty strewn streets of Leland just a few miles west on US 82, to elegant cypress trees soaking in the sloughs of Sumner, we tried to record as much as possible. But, in three days? All we could hope to do was nab just a hint, just a flavor or two, a mere semblance of the mystery that moves over that land like a wisp over a bog. Frustrating and quietly satisfying at the same time. The only just response is to return one day, sooner than later, and try to dig a little deeper.

Would any of this have happened without someone having initially uttered those enticing words midst a group of adventure hounds? Yes, any of us could have made a journey down there alone, but scan back through this remembering and cross out everything that would not have come to be. Wouldn’t be much left. Different memories, and not nearly as rich. Road trips. Love ‘em. But, road trips with the fellows? Now you’re talking. And you ain’t just whistling Dixie. 

Peas for blog post.jpg

A Lovely Discovery

I go to museums.  Enjoy it immensely.  I pour through photography magazines and compendiums of  artists’ production.  Often inspiring.  I can’t seem to sate the yearning to view images I’ve not seen before, to learn of a photographer, classic or contemporary, I’ve not known before.  Usually, almost by definition, these are artists who’ve garnered some measure of acclaim, whose work has come to light and been enjoyed by many.

But, every now and then – rarely, really – I’m the first on the scene, so to speak.  I am shown, by some grace, an artist’s mostly hidden treasury of beauty.  That was the case this morning when a friend stopped by to deliver some vintage cameras I’m using in an upcoming exhibition.  She’s also a photographer, and, although I’ve known her for years, had only seen an image or two of hers. Before leaving, she asked if I had just another minute, ran to the car, returned with her smartphone and began to shyly unveil photo after photo that was unlike any I have seen.  Filled with color, imagination, whimsy…a feast I helped myself to.  Ideas that have never occurred to me seem like child’s play to her.  She weaves portions of images with others to create story, fantasy, a new reality.  Technically superb and emotionally pure.

After pleading with her to step from behind the curtain and let other aficionados in on her trove, I said goodbye and began to wonder and marvel at the gift she has been given.  We are all, and I mean all, gifted in some extraordinary, intentional way.  No one is born without the need and capacity to create, to submit into the world our offerings, unique only to us.  Perhaps not in a manner the world might typically define as art, but, regardless of conventional definition, art, nonetheless.  Any honest expression of our own thoughts or skills given freely is a creation of art.  And, cumulatively, the observation and taking in of each others’ calling is what fills out our daily enjoyment of life.  If we just look around, if we’re fortunate enough to be shown new craft, then we add hues to our own palette that color and enrich our existence.

So, if you haven’t already, discover yours and let us all see it.  Give us that moment, that lovely moment of exquisite discovery.

What Makes Me Free?

The place I always go to first when the term “freedom” comes up is the political route. That seems to be the common thread in most conversations about the subject, and particularly via the media. But, as I sat in my “quiet time” spot this morning, that word popped into my mind for some reason (gee, I wonder how that happens?), and the source of my freedom begged for a broader explanation. This is what occurs to me:

1. My country gives me freedom. The constitution spells out very specifically what kind of freedoms this includes. You know them well: speech, assembly, worship, due process, no discrimination, and others. It is an amazing list that women and men continue to die to preserve, and one that is still the envy of communities around the world.

2. God gives me freedom. Freedom FROM something – the destructive grip of evil – and TO BE something – all that I was created to be. I believe I was created by God. I believe He didn’t do that haphazardly, that He placed within me certain specific skills and interests, and that He did so for particular reasons of His own. And now, He’s freed me to discover those and to dive in with abandon.

3. Well-being gives me freedom. Being healthy is an amazing blessing, one of which I’m conscious all the time. Also, being retired is like opening the largest present under the tree every day. We’ve saved a little money, and my wonderful wife still brings home the bacon, so I have this amazing latitude for spending my days however I desire. Wow.

4. The love from my wife and family gives me freedom. When you’re loved unconditionally for just who you are, it frees you up to be exactly who you are. There are no requirements for pretending in order to measure up to someone else’s model. How can I ever repay that?

All these people, God Himself, my blessed situation – all these form my freedom team and have given me what I could never produce myself. When I try to imagine my life without this… well, I can’t imagine it. So, how do I react? What could possibly be an adequate response? Maybe that’s another session at my “quiet time” spot….. But, one required response for sure is gratitude. Bottom of the heart, daily, reciprocal, boundless gratitude. You might notice that I smile a lot. Being free causes me to smile a lot, and for that, I am grateful.

V in the Swing.jpg

Now THAT'S What I'd Vote For

The polls are open today in our town. On the ballot are the offices of mayor, vice-mayor, council members and a referendum. That, together with my utter disgust with what’s been happening in DC over the last several years and particularly the past few months, has me wondering if there is a way out of what most Americans are fed up with – an increasingly uncivil political environment where the premium seems to be on who can shout the loudest, stand the firmest, blame the most, and listen the least. And, at all costs, not doing anything that would risk re-election, even if that means what’s best for the whole of us falls victim and continues to be put off.

No point in giving examples. All forms of media have flooded us with that. What we have seen much less of, however, are truly constructive approaches toward long term solutions to what our country finds itself desperately dealing with. And, I don’t have them, either. At least, not in some glib, PAC pleasing, mindless sound bite. Maybe no one has those answers at this point. Well, if that’s true, how are we going to get there? By continuing the poisonous, destructive, exhausting, polarized activity of late? No reasonable person could believe that we can stay on this same course and be satisfied with the results.

So, what approach is called for? I’ll take a stab at what comes to my simple mind:

The end of “non-negotiables”. There is only one rightfully non-negotiable issue in our country’s history that I know of – slavery. Everything else should be wrestled with together and workable solutions found. No more signing pledges with any single issue group that boxes the elected representative in a self-constructed corner.
The revaluing of compromise. How did the extremists on both sides take over the conversation? Apparently, the politicians believe we want that and will vote for that, but I know almost no one that thinks that way.
A conservative approach to managing the country’s resources. There is simply no reasonable, convincing argument to spend beyond our means. Families can’t do it and be healthy. Businesses can’t do it and stay in business. Balance the doggone budget!
• A sensitive, fair approach to human issues. All Americans deserve to get help if they’re doing all they can to help themselves.
Everyone pays their fair share of the bills. No one earning above poverty level income should escape paying his fair share for the privilege of living here. Get rid of tax breaks and subsidies that clever people can use, even as they prosper, to avoid paying taxes.
That’s pretty much it. That, and a return to decency. Good, old-fashioned, common-good decency toward each other.

Candidates, try not to fall into that trap of believing you’re unelectable if you don’t give in to one extreme group or another. Campaign money is not the only way you can get elected. Let your constituency know (and with modern media, there are so many ways you can do that ) that you basically subscribe to the above approach or one similar in nature, and I think you’ll find a hungry public ready to respond. You do that, and you’ll be fine. Now, THAT’S what – and whom – I would vote for.

Pair of Flags.jpg

A Declaration of Interdependence

The paper this morning confirms yesterday’s sickening anticipation – no serious progress at the Copenhagen global warming conference.  Yeah, some weaker form of agreement was struck, but no serious targets and no deadlines.  In other words, no real determination that we’d better join forces and solve this thing.

Although there are plenty of us who’re not yet sure this is an actual issue, I do believe that the good science overwhelmingly confirms the reality of warming.  It’s here and it’s getting worse at an accelerating pace.  Fixing it is not optional.  Expensive?  Yes.  But it really doesn’t matter what it costs.  What is the alternative?

We in America celebrate with universal delight the steel-willed men who bucked up against the tyranny of Mother Britain and Declared their Independence.  It was a time when the world had more space left than it knew what to do with.  A time when distance or geographical shape and mass was all that was needed to provide separation, isolation, and protection for a body of people.  That, and a decent military.  If an ocean lay between you and your royal parents, you could thumb your nose at them and have a fair chance at keeping them at bay.

That world is gone.  Technology has rendered physical separation almost as helpless in self defense as a toy gun.  It has made it easier for a smaller enemy to threaten a much larger one.  We are crowded now, not enough space for everyone in many areas of the world.  We’re scared and reacting to it in a protective way.  We’re trying to outrun hatred.

We – all of us – must jettison old ways of thinking and acknowledge that there is no substitute, no option now for working together until solutions are found and implemented for the world’s problems.  We must Declare Our Interdependence and move forward into that with the same fierce determination and grit that created a bright new future here in the 1770’s.   I believe that would work, that it could provide for all people what we hoped for back then.  And I believe that it’s the only solution

Full of Thanksgiving

No, that doesn’t refer to being sick of leftover turkey, dressing, rice & gravy, cranberry sauce, and all the rest of that most anticipated dinner of the year. In fact, Julia and I plan to peel back the aluminum foil one last time in a couple of hours for a little repast redux. Microwaved, of course.

It means that, in addition to the suddenly bulging midsection of my body, my heart is also filled to overflowing with gratitude. Now, I generally am aware of the good things that God has seen fit to bring my way, but this week, this unique American moment, my mind tumbles around so many specific names and things and places and memories, that they all run together in one big jumble of “I can’t believe all this is mine”-ness. But, here goes my attempt to start a list….

I’m thankful….
• For Julia Park, my love, my answer, my partner in life.
• For my three babies, all God-given and all grown up into amazing people. And I have one terrific son-in-law.
• For the crazy things my grandson says, like “ It looks just like this one!”, raising his free hand frantically one day in the car, desperately wanting help to find the other one after pulling it back through the armhole of his shirt, hiding it under the seatbelt and getting it stuck there.
• When my granddaughter tells me I’m her favorite man and writes me cards with that on them.
• When my other granddaughter, at age 3, finally got up her nerve and settled into my arms with her head on my shoulder. It’s been there a lot since then.
• That my sisters sure seem a lot nicer now than they did when we were growing up. I like to see them and hate to see them go. I can’t believe I’m saying that.
• For church. All my life, I’ve been in the church. It’s made all the difference. Thank you, thank you, Mom and Dad. I’m sorta thankful for you two, also. Like head-over-heels thankful.
• For good jobs and great opportunities. I wouldn’t be able to be retired now, were it not for good people who gave me a shot.
• That God put in my being this insatiable desire to capture the world with a camera. I come alive when I raise it to my eye.
• For my buddy, Jim, who I’ve been hanging with, through side-splitting and sober moments, for a long time.
• For new friends of late, particularly those who get as silly about photography as I do. To have one or two great pals in your life is a gift. To have as many as I’ve been given is an embarrassment of riches.
• That I’m healthy. My goodness, am I ever blessed in this. Every morning that I get up and go about my day doing for myself, going where I want when I want, I am conscious of all those folks, many of whom I know, who have to have help, or who can’t go at all.
• For the senses. The smells that can instantly transport me back to another moment in time. Eyes that know color and shape and neighbors. Taste buds that long for, and are satisfied by that first taste of morning coffee just brewed and steaming. The sounds that warm your heart and those that warn of danger. For skin that feels the first warm breeze of spring and the soft pudge of a one-year old. These are our navigation tools, given to guide us around and through all of life.
• That I live in the U. S. of A. All the people here and abroad who love to denigrate America for whatever reasons, God bless you. And God help you. ‘Cause if you can’t see for yourself that our good so astoundingly trumps our bad, then bless your little heart, you just don’t know no better….
• For aimless drives in the country, watching no clock, looking for nothing more than my heart.
• That you can make just about anybody grin with a simple smile and a “How’re you doing?”
• All the other folks who’ve been given passions and skills in so many areas that make my life better. Doctors, pastors, computer geeks, mechanics, trash collectors, writers, leaders, teachers, athletes, chefs, artists, carpenters, mailmen. Yes, even politicians. Can’t live without ‘em, folks.
• For the first Saturday of college football and its “Toe Meets Leather!” feel. For the last Saturday of college football – Rivalry Saturday – that gives us UNC-N.C. State, Florida – Florida State, Alabama – Auburn, Texas – Texas A&M, and so many more here in the South.
• For Tar Heel basketball. Blue Heaven.
• That it’s ok for a Methodist to enjoy a wee dram and a stogie. Oh, yeah.
• That I know Jesus and He knows me. By name.

I have to stop. Not because this list covers it, not by a long shot. But because I hope you’ll stop now and make out your own list. I’m sure it’s as long and rich and life-giving as mine. Happy Thanksgiving. All year

Big Family - wedding - happy.jpg

4 More Days!

Most Monday’s at midday, you can find me at one of my most treasured moments of the week, serving lunch to homeless men at the Rescue Mission downtown. Here is a place that for decades has welcomed the unwelcomed in for something to eat and a place to sleep. And…if a man wants to give life one more fear-filled try, they take him into a 7-month program of intense training, support, conditioning, and faith building. A fellow can learn computer skills, math, English, lots of Bible, even get his GED. He is surrounded by counselors, teachers, ministers, and like-committed forgotten souls. If he navigates this chance well, he “graduates” and is ushered (with additional support, if he wants) back into the flow of the real world. As they near this restart moment, men go through a jumble of emotions – excitement, chilling fear, pride, shame of the past, gratitude, impatience. Many leave and make it. Many leave and fall at the first offer of a hit. Some come back through “The Program” to try yet again.

During their time there, I’m privileged to make so many new friends, fellow brothers in Christ. I learn their names and their stories. Take W.B., for example. (He told me a few times that the way to remember his name is to think of Warner Brothers.). He turns 58 today as I’m writing this. He’s divorced, but has a big family – 31 grandchildren, all local. He fell in love with stuff that’s bad for you and it got him. But, he wants so bad to have another crack at it. W.B. stuck his head in the door of the cafeteria yesterday, looked at me with a cheek-splitting smile, held up a hand with all fingers spread and shouted, “4 More Days!” W.B. is chomping at the bit to get back out there when he graduates on Friday. He said he’d take ANY job that paid minimum wage. He just wants another chance to be a man, to earn back respect, both from himself and from family and friends.

It struck me yesterday as it often has that the power swirling around those halls is the same one that lies behind the eyes of most of the folks we meet who seem joy-filled, positive, determined, fun to be around, seemingly on a mission – hope. HOPE. Hope – the real belief that better days are surely on their way. That I CAN achieve this thing, this dream. That God IS, in fact (not in theory), working in the world, working in MY world, for good. That people are good. That life is good. That temptations, obstacles, pain, loss can be overcome. That the past is the past and it cannot determine my future. That today brings to me a new, blank sheet of paper and a sharpened pencil, on which to write my dreams. The Scriptures give us this: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1, NKJV). A person with hope in his heart and the faith to believe it is true is a person equipped and readied by God to become all God intends him to be. How much more power-filled can a person be than that?

Where do we come into all this? Well, certainly to make Hope the watchword for our own lives, but also to be enablers to those who might not be on as solid a spot of ground as we may thankfully be. To grease the skids for souls new to the idea of Hope. To help them realize what they hope for. We know in our deepest being that we are to give from our plenty to those with little. It’s not just money and things, though, although those are necessary. It’s those other provisions of a life well-stocked for moving out and moving forward. Respect, opportunity, encouragement, a hand, friendship….hope. HOPE. Give it.

 “4 more days!”. Good for you, W.B., good for you.

Why Am I So Angry?

It’s just a game, after all.  Or, that’s what I’m telling myself over and over.  Carolina is up at the half over FSU 24-6, pushing them all over the field.  Stopping the run like crazy.  They must’ve left their spirits, their courage in the locker room at the half, ‘cause they sure didn’t have any the last 30 minutes of the game.  They score a single field goal and the ‘Noles whip them, 31-27.  That’s a killer, just a ruination of confidence.  If you can’t hold that kind of lead, can you even hope to win again?

 But, my ire isn’t about just this game.  It’s about this whole stinking season for Park teams.  Even perennial Division 1AA power, the mighty Terriers of Wofford, are having an off year.  Vanderbilt, fresh from their first bowl victory in 50 years, their first winning season in 23 years, stink this year.  And the Titans….holy moly, the Titans.  What the…!

Started last year 10-0, and this year, they’re 0-6, handing the Patriots their all time victory margin last Sunday – 59 points (The Mighty Tights put up a big goose egg on the ol’ scoreboard).

 I scared myself toward the end of the Carolina game.  Several times I had to literally get myself under control.  I almost threw the remote at something.  Anything. 

 What’s at the bottom of this feeling?  Frustration’s certainly near the top of the list.  Maybe the seldom felt Stress Monster is rearing his nasty head after a week of having to hustle to meet a bunch of deadlines – a very rare situation for me these days of retirement.

 Whatever it is, I don’t like it.  None of these things are worth feeling like that, or letting myself get away from what I know is important.  Those things, I have plenty of and always will, because they’re not ephemeral, nor fleeting, nor dependent on uncontrollable elements.  They’re family.  God.  Grace.  Joy.  A future that goes on blissfully forever.  Beauty.  Friends.  Freedom.  (I’m already feeling better….) 

 Hmm.  What I’m doing, I guess, is counting my blessings.  Like counting to ten, maybe.  Yes, feeling a little better.  Heartrate returning to a more lazy pace.  Might even start to feel sleepy soon.  Sure hope so.  Game?  What game?

 Whew.  Well, now.  Hey, thanks for letting me vent, get this off my chest.  Think I’ll grab a bedtime snack and hit the sack….  ‘Nite.

The Great Sense of Touch

A baby girl was baptized Sunday at our church.  When the pastor carefully took her from her mother’s hold, the child, less than a year old, immediately reached up with both hands and began to clutch, rub, and feel the preacher’s chin, cheeks, and lips.  She was exploring.  She was learning.  But when her right arm curved around his neck, the oohing congregation knew something else was transpiring.

Touch.  The wonderful, enlightening power of touch.  When we think of the incredible, God-equipped gift of our senses, those of sight, hearing, and smell come to mind quickly.  But this runt of the litter, this under-sung B-teamer brims with lush pleasures and life-giving potential.

There’s the tactile thrill of contact with familiar things.  Who among us can resist touching that baptized baby’s soft little cheeks and Tootsie Roll toes?  And what about the feel of really fine, supple leather?  The sudden relief of stiff, frozen hands at last gripping a steaming cup of hot chocolate on a blustery January day.  The silky fur of your dog’s just-washed coat.  The cool, hard surface of quarried marble in museum halls.  Tickly, spongy moss under  bare feet on the forest floor.   The firm assurance of a wedding band.  Fine, warm sand sifting through your toes at the beach.  That first freshening crash of surf on chest.  And then, there is the sheer, “ah, welcome back” pleasure that comes from hands around the tools of a favorite pastime: your driver on the first tee; the skillet you’ll use on a family request for tonight’s dinner; a worn, earth-fragrant garden trowel; the solid right hand grip of your best camera; a treasured pen given by someone special; even the keys of your computer laptop when you’re on there for something fun.  So much of what we know about this world is learned through our fingers, our feet, our skin.  To go back to touch again those things we love evokes old memories and new pleasures.

Perhaps more important is the power of one person touching another.  Jesus healed with a touch, and instantly, lives were changed forever.  That power has been passed down to you and to me.  The perfect gesture at the moment of greatest need cures some things that no amount of pills can.  You shake hands with just the right amount of firmness, but this time you put your left hand on top of the clasp; you caress your wife’s cheek gently and smile; you put your arm around her waist in public; you grab your son-in-law in a big ol’ bear hug, assuring him that he’s family, too; you actually touch that homeless person, acknowledging a humanity already assured by God; you provide to a hospitalized friend that welcomed touch from someone other than a doctor or nurse; you greet a nervous, unsure stranger with outstretched hand.  You touch the arm of a troubled co-worker and ask, “are you okay?”  And who can forget the electrical surge your whole body felt when that so-cute-I-wanna-cry girl in junior high brushed your arm and smiled, signaling that maybe, just maybe she kind of liked you, too?

Sometimes words are needed.  You say it the best you can.  But a touch says you mean it.  You really do care. 

Use the good sense.  It makes good sense.

Bob & Carol dancing.jpg

The Nod

There are an almost infinite number of ways to greet someone.  Although we all have our little personal tweaks to this important human interplay, we can say, with reasonable surety, that there are girl styles and guy styles of greeting. 

Girls are demonstrative.  They extend the hand and often the arm as far as they can and wag them repeatedly, as if at the 10th uninterrupted wave, someone will hand them a $50 coupon good at the closest nail spa.  The verbal portion is sing-songy, as in “How are YOU-ooh?”, the last word starting high and ending a half-octave lower.  Sometimes they grab each others’ upper arms and  jump up and down while rotating around an imaginary May pole.  Squeals seem to help at times.  The first comment is always about how incredible the other looks.

Guys?  A totally different story.  Cool rules.  That’s why we use The Nod.  The Nod does it all for us.  You’re shaking your head in agreement if you’ve ever seen a Clint Eastwood movie.  There are basically two kinds of nods: (1) a single upward nod of about 1 ½ “, where the chin ends up pointing at the other guy, the head thrown back slightly, and (2) a single downward nod of exactly the same distance, with the chin tucked toward our forebear’s apple.  In both cases, the eyes never wander from their direct lock on those of the other dude.  And never, never do you nod more than once.  Nod twice, and you appear unsure of yourself.  Nod three times, and you look like you’re in agreement with something the other guy hasn’t even said yet.

The Nod strikes that perfect balance between acknowledgement (I see you.  You know I do.), respect (You’re a man.  I’m a man.), and warning (I’m bad.  You bad?).  The verbal part is short, preferably mumbled as a single, multi-syllable word, as in “Howyadoin?”, or “Wazhapnin?”, or “Whadayano?”.  The Nod is most naturally executed in the middle of this word.   And don’t even think of touching me unless we’re long time pals who’ve agreed to let our guard down, ministers, or in the Christian publishing or music business. 

If, and I mean IF, we use the hands (other than to shake firmly), it’s one hand barely lifted, palm toward the other man.  The Indians started this and it still works.  Except we don’t completely flatten the palm.  We sort of let the 4thand 5th digits curl disrespectfully downward to retain some modicum of control.  And, if we’re driving, we raise one finger off the wheel as we pass the other sky-pointer.

Harley riders have the best wave.  The left hand drops down and away from the handlebar, facing the oncoming rider, the thumb, 1st and 2nd fingers extended,  with a little curl still remaining.  The head does not move toward the other HOG man.

We begin to learn this in our unsure, respect-hungry teens.  It serves us well in the military, and then as we build our careers among other men.  It reaches its refined, customized, most awe-inspiring zenith around our 50’s or early 60’s.  After that, not only does it begin to seem not quite as important, but perhaps even a sign that, despite all the bravado it attempts to portray, maybe we didn’t reach that place where it was no longer needed, where nothing else needed to be proved.

At any rate, these days, being retired and past that zenith, I’m finding that nodding seems more useful ‘long about mid-afternoon, in an easy chair, feet up on an ottoman, with hands folded atop the newspaper spread across my lap, and no one else in the room.  Ah, yes….

But, still, it would be nice, I admit, to one day pass a stranger and his young son, exchange The Nod, and hear a small, receding voice exclaim, “Dad! Was that Clint Eastwood?”

The Three Boxes

I was a worrier.  A control freak.  I thought of worse case scenarios a lot.  I tried to avoid calamity, or even small setbacks, like the plague.  If something bad was possible, I thought a lot about it.  Before it even happened.  It didn’t matter what area of my life we’re talking about.  These boogeyman possibilities would pop into my head throughout the day, even in the midst of an otherwise enjoyable moment.  I wasn’t much fun to be around.   Something had to give – my sanity or the worrying.

For some reason, this idea raised its logical little head many years ago – worrying ain’t helping nothing.  Not one time had worry itself solved the problem, avoided the catastrophy, or even made me feel better.  No, in fact, it made me feel worse.  So, I knew I needed to replace worry with something else: action and peace.  Here’s what I came up with – put everything that is in front of you into one of three boxes and then take the appropriate action.

Box 1 – Things you have total control over

Examples might include

  • What attitude you take to work with you this morning
  • What you say back to someone who verbally abused you
  • What you absorb into your mind and soul through reading
  • Whether you do today what you’d rather put off until tomorrow
  • Whether you begin to save money for the future
  • How much effort you put into enriching your marriage
  • Whether you pick the phone up one more time to try for a job interview

Action Required: 100% Results.  That’s right, no room for partial delivery here.  Why?  If you can absolutely control it, then there is no reason whatsoever to not do it and do it right.  None.

Go back through the above list and form in your mind what you know would be the correct action for you to take in each situation.  Nothing to stop you from doing it, is there?

Box 2 – Things you don’t control, but do influence

Examples might include

  • How a co-worker responds to you
  • How your kids turn out when they’re grown
  • Who gets elected
  • Whether your spouse works to enrich your marriage
  • How your team works together
  • Whether the product you sell or market to retail actually sells through to John Doe
  • How long your car lasts

 Action Required: 100% Effort.  The key here is to do all you possibly can to achieve the best outcome.  You don’t control it, but you can surely influence it by intelligent thought and hard work.  Again, no excuses for not giving it all you can.

Box 3 – Things you can neither control nor even influence

Examples might include

  • Whether that hike you were looking forward to gets rained out
  • How the stock market fares this year
  • What the competition is doing
  • When the love of your life is going to walk into your life
  • How much food prices go up
  • Whether your new boss is someone you would have selected
  • How the other drivers act on the road

Action required:  Well, as I used to so articulately explain to the patient folks who worked for me, “If I catch you spending 5 seconds worrying about a Box 3, I’ll kick your a___!!!  I mean, why would you?  Worry about something you can’t do a dang thing about?  So, every now and then, just to be sure you’re not hanging on just a little bit, fold the top of the box over, take it out back, pour some gasoline on it, get the marshmallows, and set the sucker on fire.

So, there it is.  Oversimplified?  Maybe a little.  But it has surely helped me these past 10 years or so.  I don’t worry (well, maybe ALMOST never….).  In Box1 and Box 2, action is called for.  In Box 3, no action is required.  The only constant among all the Boxes is the total absence of the big “W”.  And when the big “W” leaves his place in line, taking his buddy Stress with him, other more pleasing states of mind take their place.  Like peace.  Joy.  Relief.  Energy.  Well-being.  I’ll take that trade anytime.  Give it a try.  It’ll take a little practice sorting all your issues into the right boxes, but soon you’ll start getting that incredible sense of clarity and freedom that sweeping away unproductive thought and action gives you.  And that’s going to make you a better, happier YOU.

Is There A "Heal" in Healthcare Reform?

Everybody’s blogging about health care reform.  Everybody’s talking about it, reading about it, screaming about it.  You can’t live in this country these days and not know that this is THE subject, THE issue that surrounds us all.

 Information is scattered across the surface of all we see and hear – TV screens, ipods, laptops, radio, newspapers, magazines.  Wouldn’t it be nice to just know which data is accurate, which is true?  And then there are opinions.  Oh, my goodness, are there ever opinions.  Some spewed, some skewed, some almost lewd.  The volume is on its ugly way past 10.

 So, in the midst of this cacophony of thunder and noise from all directions, how in the world are people who would like to think of themselves as rational, decent, law-abiding, caring citizens supposed to decide what the right path is?  What are we supposed to say to our congressmen and senators to help keep their feet planted not in the hardening cement of partisan positions but on the strenuous but noble path toward real solutions that stand the test of time?

 Well, one thing I’m not going to do is clamor for or against any proposed plan, bill, strategy, president, congressman, or senator.  I don’t have any specific solution to suggest.  No idealogical drum to beat.  What I do suggest is that we be guided, as we should always be, by what we know about God.  What, in our core, we believe to be Right, with a capital “R”.  That uncomfortable place where we line up our emotional human responses and urgings against the truths that have existed since Time began, those that do not change depending on the societal winds of current days.  Those that were set down by a Creator who was planning for eternity.

 We might not completely agree on those tenets, but here are some that keep demanding my attention right now:

  • We are to do the best for God, man, and ourselves with whatever resources, talents, and gifts we have.  He did not imbue us with them arbitrarily.
  • We are to work for our supper, if at all possible.
  • We are to share, to help those who truly cannot help themselves.
  • We are to work and play nice together.
  • We are to settle disputes in a respectful, honoring way.
  • We are to fight for justice and against injustice.
  • We are to be guided prayerfully by God.

 I was raised in a conservative environment.  I am conservative myself at my core.  Most of that, I believe, is good.  Hard work, strong values, decency, the core freedoms of democracy, and only as much government as is absolutely necessary.  So, you may form an instant opinion from this as to how I would vote, were some of the controversial plans currently tossed around be put to us in a referendum.  But, it isn’t that simple, is it?  Because here’s the kicker for me – Jesus said to His guys a few centuries ago….”When you did it unto one of the least of these, my brothers/sisters, you did it unto Me”.  He followed that sobering statement with, “When you did it not unto one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it not unto Me”.  Who is my brother?  Who is the least of my brothers?  Whoever they are, they look just like Jesus.  And I think it would be best if I treat them that way.

Wearing Well

I grew up loving to hear my Granddaddy Park laugh.  He had this joy of living that never failed to lift my spirits.  A simple man, uneducated, he grew up in North Carolina in the late 1800’s and moved to South Carolina to ply his trade in all sorts of ways.  He sold magazine subscriptions.  He could fix you up with an insurance policy.  He was a beekeeper.  But the job that captured my imagination and, I believe, was a spark that set me to love wandering around the countryside whenever I can, was as a mapmaker.  He rode the dirt roads of the northwestern section of the state in a horse-drawn buggy, fording creeks and tying up at hitching posts in little towns for a bite of lunch, as he drew out on paper his best reckoning for where the road along the south border of the Robinson’s place ran into the Pickens-to-Cowpens highway.

 He would sneak me a draw from his ubiquitous pipe or thin cigar whenever my parents weren’t around.  He would stop the old alarm clock that ticked so loudly from its perch on the mantle, so that I could fall asleep at night.  He took me fishing and let me “rob” the beehives.  He would go up to perfect strangers on the sidewalk, thrust out his hand, and say “Howdy.  My name’s Park.  What’s yours?”  How could you not love a man like that.

 His house was old, small, and tidy.  It had its own sounds and smells.  It had stood the test of time, just like Granddaddy Park.  He died 15 years or so after Grandmother did, at the age of 88, playing bridge with 3 ladies from the senior citizens club, when his pacemaker gave out.

 I wanted to be like him.  To live nobly, simply, to wear well.  To be the kind of person other folks looked up to and wondered how he had found that center, that “ah ha” understanding of life and values and meaning.  He looked good old.  He sounded good old.  His aging body only showcased his growing wisdom and solidity.

 I’ve always loved old people and old things.  Buildings.  Automobiles.  Trains.  Bibles.  Pipes.  Books.  Beliefs.  There’s just something about time that takes care of whatever is good and deserves to last.  Even as temporal things like people and objects grow older, weaker, and decay, we/they take on a new, more earned beauty.

 There’s a natural vibrancy to the young, the new.  All new cars are shiny.  The leather seats have a smell that is hard to beat.  First residents of a new home enjoy the fact that nothing is worn.  Not the carpets, nor the paint, and plumbing all works.  Teenagers have unbounded energies that spring from sinews, organs, and systems designed by God to last much longer.

 But all of that fades.  Especially with things, sometimes not so well, but often in a way that brings out a color that wasn’t there before.  A texture that begs to be touched.  An intermingling with other colors and textures that can’t be thought up.  It just happens and never in the same way twice.  In this way, they continue to serve us, even though they’ve been left  by us in some final position, some parting attitude.  They give us a different kind of beauty, and they often stir up memories, usually good ones.  They just beg to be photographed.

 And so, like Granddaddy Park, I wander around the country, enjoying being alive, looking for whatever catches my eye.  Which so often are old things.  Beautiful, rich old things.  Incomparable, irreplaceable old things.

 May we all wear this well.

 (if you’re drawn, like me, to old things, I’ve tried to capture a few of them with the camera and they’re on my website ( under the “Old is Beautiful” tab.)

Thoughts From the Pew

There’s no place more satisfying for me on a Sunday morning than our church.  Sunday School is a stirring, open back and forth about the Scriptures and what they mean, led by a brilliant teacher, but that’s maybe for a later day.

But, this morning, as I sat in my usual spot in the seat on the center aisle, right side, three pews from the rear of the main floor, I was inundated with sensory awareness of what was around me, and what it means to me.  And how good it is.

The music.  The choir in tune and on key.  Some of us out in the congregation in tune and on key and the ones who weren’t making the mix all the richer.

 That moment after the first hymn when we “turn to each other and greet your neighbor with the peace of God”.  Earlier in life, this was oddly embarrassing.  I can’t tell you why.  But, lately, I love it.  Shaking hands with friend and new friend alike, encouraging the visitor, hopefully, to like this experience and return.  “All God’s children”.

 Babies giggling or crying periodically.  Mommas rocking or jiggling them, “shhhhhh….”  Momma two pews in front stands to sing the hymn, cradling and swaying, little bare piggies protruding to her right, and one pudgy hand to her left, clutching and releasing air, clutching and releasing.  Young daddies holding the hymnal, trying to focus in the midst of the heavy responsibility of suddenly providing for more than just themselves.

 Heads of white, couples sharing this hour as they’ve done for decades, more aware than ever of the immeasurable impact on who they are and what they are.

 The lady on the very last row, who must sit there because she loves to belt out the Gloria Patri in her operatic voice, and wouldn’t want anyone to miss the experience.

 A young man and his guardian, the young man mentally challenged, who stands during the entire service, rocking from side to side, moaning.  Even in the density of his disorientation, he knows where this place is and wants to be here.

 The pastor mixes story and funny church moments with lectionary to get the point across.  Sometimes I’m listening.  Sometimes, my mind is wandering all over the place.  That’s not the pastor’s fault.  I don’t like it when I lose track, but believe that, somehow, the substance of all the pieces of this hour dig in and stay there.

 Then, the charge and the benediction.  I like it when the pastor chooses the door I usually exit through to stand and share brief moments with us individually.  It’s good to grip the hand of the pastor.  You want to say things like “well done” or “you were right on the money today”, but I don’t think he wants that.  He’s likely in more need of a friendly handshake and sincere well-wishing.

 My earliest memories included Sunday’s at church.  My whole family, probably going back hundreds of years, have been church people.  I can remember my Granddaddy Park’s First Pres of Spartanburg, where he was an usher.  The dark, wooden arches that held up the lighter, warmer ceiling with its Tudor chandeliers casting that welcoming glow.  Grandmother Ingle…well, they used to say that she “closed the church doors” on Sunday morning after worship, because by the time she’d talked to everyone she loved there, no one else was left.  My daddy was celebrated with a going away party at church when we moved to another town.  He had been serving on the Board of Deacons and as the Superintendent of Sunday School, a substantial and critical spot in the Baptist church.

 I’ve been in church, with a few brief backslidden moments, all my life.  During those moments of being absent, I think I believed it wasn’t really that important, that other things took priority.  But now, at 66, I have to laugh at my misguided judgment, for whatever those other things were came and went, but here stands the church still.  And all the good that is generated there.  There, in the midst of the body of saints, none perfect, all frail, all failed in one way or another, but all hungrily lapping up the grace, mercy, love, joy, strength, confirmation, edification and friendly faces for all they’re worth.  All glad they’re there.  I’ve often said to people that I can’t remember ever leaving the church on Sunday feeling worse than I did when I came that morning.

 So, that’s where I’ll aim to be at that hour for as long as God gives me the physical ability to do so.

 As the Good Word says, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord”.    Amen!

The Bitter Pleasure of the Last Word

This morning, I read the final pages of Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide.  This is the first of his two autobiographical books, chronicling the turbulent, heart-finding, mean-ending year he spent as the first white teacher on Daufuskie Island (called Yamacraw in the book), off the South Carolina coast near Beaufort in the late 60’s.  This is not a review of the book, as I would probably not give it all it deserves.  It, like all his – my favorite author – works is simply impeccable.

No, this is about the experience of finishing the reading of a great book.  That moment of exquisite sadness that you see coming a few pages from the end, that you race toward, yet often reread to try somehow to extend the exhilaration you’re feeling just then.  You’re suddenly aware that you have a satisfied smile on your face.  You can feel that you’ve learned something, more often than not, about yourself.  You feel a little proud of yourself that you were smart enough to choose this book, and clever enough to grasp its meanings.  Smug intelligencia that we are. 

You roll the words and chapters around on your tongue, savoring their rich sequence and construction.  The moments of surprise, those of justice celebrated, of injustice overpowered.  Passions loosed, for good and bad.  Love won.  Love shattered.   Like Elvis, you can’t help falling in love with a character or two.  And despising the hateful SOB’s always lurking on the pages.  

Stories that teach me about a particular part of the country, or period in history, of formation of a movement, or terrible time for some group of us…these I especially love.  When you finish one of these, you know something you didn’t before.  You’re better equipped to pass that 10th grade history test you hated.  And we all know how much more fascinating you’ll be at the next social gathering.  “Did you all realize that back in….” 

You know the book did its job, and then some, when, after reading that last word, you read the Author’s Acknowledgments, trying to wrest some final insight, some revelation of inspiration from the author’s words, some ah-ha about who set him up to be successful with this work that you’ve consumed.  That’s what I did this morning.  I read every word of that section, because there was nothing else left to read.  But, joy of joys, delivered to my door this week from Amazon, was my copy of Conroy’s first new novel in 14 years.  Hot dang! 

So, as you select the appropriate spot on just the right shelf of your bookcase that houses only your favorite reads, on which to place your latest trophy, your most recent encasement of brilliance, your mind is already racing through the possibilities for that next choice.  What adventure to embark on?  What knowledge to acquire?  What theme?  What part of history?  What kind of characters?  All these delicious choices to make.  Well, whatever it is, make it a great book.  Let’s agree to never spend time with books you can’t remember three days after you finish them.  Read books that you’re proud to have read.  Books whose author amazes you and takes you through your mind and into your very soul.  Books whose last words invoke that last dreaded, thrilling, bitter pleasure.