Does This Devil on My Back Make Me Look Fat?

“…resulting in the elimination of your position…”  These words, echoing in my head, cutting through the fog of confusion and what-the-fuckery. “…the difficult decision to terminate your employment…”

This week I got notice of some layoffs at the company where I’ve worked for the last 13 years. More specifically, my position has been eliminated. I’m being laid off. Shock, sadness, fear – all the usual emotions one feels at times like this, yeah – check.

I’m not angry, though. I get that it’s a business decision, and I’ve been around long enough to see this a number of times. Sometimes I was even the one on the other end of the call, delivering the bad news to one of my team members. It’s no fun for anyone, but such is the nature of at-will employment. This time, I was just one of the unlucky ones.

No grudges against my company – I maintain it’s been the greatest place to work, and I believe in their vision. I chose to work there, I believe I did good work for them, and they compensated me well during my employment. I was a grateful employee during my entire run with them – I will remain grateful for the experience.

But man, it was a crappy way to start the day – and it got worse.  Continue reading

A Gift in the Sand

I know, it’s been awhile…

This blog has been virtually dead for months, with not a single new word written since before Christmas. I’d like to say I’ve been so busy I haven’t had the chance to write, but that’s only partly true. While I have been busy, I haven’t been so busy that I couldn’t take a few minutes to post something here. I just kept not-doing it.

As more time went by, I found it harder and harder to get started, for it seemed like some acknowledgment of my absence would be in order before anything else, and I just didn’t know where to start.

I didn’t lack subject matter – I had several topics to write on. I didn’t lack motivation – several times I earnestly made stretch goals to get a post done by a certain date. But despite this, nothing got written.

What I lacked was inspiration. I got it today. Read On

A Thanksgiving Story

Today is the first Thanksgiving I have ever spent alone. In all of my forty-something years, I have never found myself on the fourth Thursday in November with no family nearby with whom to share the holiday. I knew this would be the case, so it’s not a sudden revelation. But while a month ago I was fine with it and felt no sense of sadness (or self-pity) at the idea of being alone on Thanksgiving, I must admit the last few days I’ve felt a change.

It’s probably because every time someone asked me, “What are you doing for the holiday?”, I found myself without an answer. I’ve always had an answer to that question. I’ve always said, “getting together with family”, regardless of the venue or the attendees. I also usually got to brag about my mom’s fabulous made-from-scratch pumpkin and pecan pies that were fixtures of the holiday. But this year those pies are 1000 miles away, as is my family. And since my own kids are with their mom today, I am alone.

My mom’s pumpkin pie is better than this. Though there’s usually more whipped cream.

Or, put differently – I am free. I know I create my experience of life, so I realize I can choose to create today as a day of “loneliness”, or I can choose to create it as a day of “freedom”. It really all depends on how I look at it. Sometimes, though, I need to look really hard at something before I can see it differently.

Here is a true story of something I experienced once upon a time. Nothing has been changed in this story – not even the names. It happened exactly as I describe it here. It was the first time I was shown how God often finds unique and surprising ways to speak to me. And the message I got on this particular night was: gratitude can be found anywhere.

One night, several years ago, as I was trying to get to sleep, a dog started barking. Read On

The “V” Word

I post a lot of personal stuff on this blog. I try to write honestly here in pursuit of my truth. And while some people might say that there’s a difference between ‘My Truth’ and ‘The Truth’, it’s my blog so as far as I’m concerned, my truth IS the truth. But honesty prevents me from getting all revisionist here and telling outright lies. What’s the point of lying on a blog? It’s about as useful as cheating at solitaire.

Anyway, frequent readers of this blog have read some deeply personal accounts and have been witness to some real growth over the past year. Most probably find it as interesting as watching a plant grow, but from the feedback I’ve received, my ramblings here have helped at least a few people to relax and watch the blinking lights.

Regular readers of my blog have read two previous posts that dealt with something intensely difficult, painful, yet also revelatory to me. The posts “A Flourish of Hate” and “A Flourish of Hate Redux” dealt with someone who –in my judgment– betrayed me. The essays did not focus so much on the betrayal as the effects that it had on me. After all, it would be –I don’t know, ‘wrong’, somehow– to use this blog as a platform to bag on someone who isn’t here to defend himself. So I focused not on the act of betrayal but the aftereffects — and the incredible lessons I received as a result. Read On

In A Father’s Care

He came into the world, and everything changed.

I became a father eleven years ago. My experience as a dad is no more profound or special or remarkable than any other man’s experience as a dad. And yet, I suspect every man’s experience as a dad is special and remarkable. Becoming a father is an opportunity to see the world anew, through the eyes of the baby that changes a man into a dad.

From the minute I saw him, I knew that I would die before I let him meet harm. That is what I said to myself – that I would die before I let anything happen to my beautiful baby boy. It was love at first sight — but like the infant I held in my arms, I had no idea what that love would come to look like as the years went by.

I had no idea how to be a dad. I had a father, but I did not have a dad. My father did not spend any time with me as a child, did not teach me any life lessons, did not show me what it was to be a man, let alone a parent.  So when I had a child of my own, I was winging it from day one.

I was terrified. The first night home from the hospital, his mother and I took turns sleeping, so one of us could hover over his bassinet and make sure he didn’t stop breathing — because all the parenting books we’d read filled our heads with horror stories of babies suffocating under blankets or pillows or cats that climbed onto the baby’s chest to steal their breath away in some evil feline plot to gain dominance over man. (never mind the fact that we didn’t have a cat.) We slept with his bassinet right next to our bed. We also had a baby monitor in his bassinet next to his head, and the receiver in between our pillows so we could hear him — three feet away.

Like I said — terrified.

As the years went by, I sought to ensure his health and safety as any good parent would. I was hyper-vigilant in making sure he was looked after, he was comfortable, he was never neglected or left unattended. I made sure I told him he was loved at every available opportunity, and I demonstrated that love with physical affection and tenderness that I never received from my own father. I was bound and determined to be the Best Dad Ever, and keep him from harm.

And in that lofty, noble goal was my supreme error.

I spent countless hours worrying about his welfare, his feelings, his future. The older he got, the more I saw myself in him — and I saw him repeating some of the behavior that was shown not to work for me when I was a kid. I wanted to help him avoid the mistakes I made, and when he was resistant to my “help”, I worried more.

When the divorce came, I was wrapped in fear of what would become of my children. I was certain they would end up “broken” because their home was broken, and I would lie awake at night grieving the loss of the happy future that I was sure was lost to them.

And when a new man was brought in to their mother’s home almost immediately after I moved out, I just knew that my role as their father would be usurped and the bond that I had forged with them would be lost. I did not know what it was like to have a bond with a father, so I did not know how strong that bond can really be.

“Have a little faith in your kids,” my friend Rich suggested one night as I tearfully shared my fear about the new living situation we were in. “You’re the only Dad they will ever have. No one else gets to fill that role for them. Don’t you think they know that?”

I sighed reluctantly and believed it, but as the days went by, I still ached and worried about them. I would lie awake at night, unable to sleep, missing my kids and in deep despair over the path their lives were now taking. I spent weeks dwelling in despair, frozen in fear. I did not know what to do.

One day my son told me that he felt that his mother’s boyfriend seemed to be giving him messages that he needed to change. My son indicated that this man was of the opinion that he wasn’t okay the way he was. I was livid, and I plunged into even deeper despair over the fate of my son. I knew I was powerless over what went on in his mother’s house, and I knew that if I confronted the situation directly it would likely end up in a restraining order (or worse, a prison sentence) — and that would mean I’d see my kids even less than I already did.

I shared about this in a support group one day, and was really only intending to unload my burden because I had grown weary from carrying it around. It was difficult to speak with the giant lump in my throat that threatened to break into a sob, but I finally got it out. I felt a little better at having given voice to my fear, but I was no closer to knowing what to do about it.

And then a woman spoke. I did not know this woman. I had never spoken with her before.  But she delivered a message to me that day that I desperately needed to hear.

She said, “When I have a loved one in my life that is going through a tough time, and I find myself unable to bear the fear or sadness that I feel for them, I put them in The God Room.”

I looked at her, surprised, for I had never heard this phrase before. This was something new to me. She continued to speak, and while she spoke in the group, she looked at me as she talked. She delivered this message directly to me.

“When I’m in fear for someone I love, I close my eyes. I visualize myself walking with that person, holding their hand, smiling and telling them what they mean to me – telling them what I want for them, sharing my hopes for them. And as we walk, we come to a door. We stop before the door, and I turn to my loved one and I tell them, ‘I love you so, so much.’  And then I turn to the door.”

As the woman shared this visualization, I could see it clearly in my mind. I was mesmerized. She continued.

“I see myself turn the doorknob, and I can feel it is pleasantly warm. And when I push open the door, we are bathed in light. The door opens into a room that is filled with the purest, brightest, whitest light imaginable. It is warm and feels safe and comfortable. The light fills me with a sense of peace, and grace. And I visualize myself turning back to my loved one, hugging them tightly, and I kiss them. Then I usher them in to this room filled with the bright, peaceful, warm light. And then I close the door.”

She paused for a moment, and then said, “I put them in The God Room. I do this because they are in God’s hands, not mine. I can love them, and I can support them, but I have to let go of my will for them and let God’s will be done.”

She looked at me one last time and said, “Put your kids in The God Room. They’re gonna be okay.”

That woman gave me a great gift that day. She reminded me that, while I love my kids fiercely and unconditionally, I am only their Dad. I am not their God.

Today, when I feel that fear over my children’s well-being, I remind myself of what my role in their life really is: I get to love them, I get to model behavior for them, I get to demonstrate what works, I get to support them in their own learning, on their own life paths. And I get to play with them, giggle with them, sing songs with them, and be silly with them.

But I can’t shield them from all harm, all sadness, all heartbreak. And really, why would I want to? For shielding them from that is interfering with their life experience. My job is to help them grow up to be good people in the world, and part of that is helping them to deal with adversity. God is in charge of the rest.

My son is eleven, and adolescence is approaching. We are seeing the signs already – the moodiness, the frustration, and impatient and intolerant attitude that surfaces now and then. He is experiencing his challenges – some of the very same challenges I experienced at his age. I remind myself that my experience is not his experience. He will experience this in his own way. I get to support him in his growth, help him up when he falls, and love him through all of it.

He is in The God Room.

Encountering God at the Gas Station

Happy Memorial Day. Yesterday I had a chance encounter with a veteran. And God.

Yesterday I pulled in to a gas station, silently remarking to myself how strange it is to be grateful to find gas for $3.95 a gallon. I pulled up to a pump and immediately noticed that my gas tank was going to be several feet away from the fuel hose because the person parked at the next pump had pulled his vehicle forward so far it was essentially taking up two spaces.

I felt a moment of annoyance and thought of pulling around to another pump, but all appeared to be occupied. I sighed, mildly frustrated, and recognized that the annoyance and frustration were signs that I was in my “controlling and managing” mode, and so I tried to let it go and just eased forward as far as I could. I cut the engine.

After I started pumping my oh-so-cheap gas, I had a thought to wash my windshield. The day before I noticed it was rather filthy and tried cleaning it with the car’s washers, but the wipers weren’t strong enough to completely remove some of the larger bits of smashed bug that dotted the glass. These would only be erased by some serious manual scrubbing.

I thought about how you used to be able to get actual cleaning solution in the water to wash your windshield at service stations, but nowadays it seems gas stations will only supply a receptacle of dirty water, and I again recognized the lack of serenity in my thinking. I let forth another sigh, and mentally said a quick prayer for acceptance and courage and wisdom.

I received all three instantly.

 When I turned to retrieve the squeegee, I saw that it was already being retrieved by a man. A very old man. The man whose car was parked in two spaces was now taking the tool I needed to clean my windshield. But instead of annoyance, I felt curious. I watched him.

He walked with a cane, slowly and with great effort, and he leaned upon it as he bent down to retrieve the long handled squeegee. He wore baggy shorts that billowed around his skinny legs, and what appeared to be wool socks with sandals on his feet.

It took him a few moments to get the squeegee out of the water and return to a standing position. His hair was white and his skin was covered in liver spots, the badges of old age. It seemed to take him forever to move from the water receptacle to his car, the water from the sponge-side of the squeegee dripping down onto the pavement, some of it splashing on his sandaled feet. All the while, he leaned heavily on his cane. This was a difficult task for him.

Without really thinking what I was doing, I walked over to him, giving him a wide berth so that I did not startle him by sneaking up directly behind him.

“Sir?” I called as I approached. He did not hear me, and so I moved a little closer and called louder, “Sir? Can I help you with that?”

He was taking the squeegee to the hood of his car instead of the windshield, rubbing it against the surface slowly, awkwardly. He heard me and turned to look at me, his face a mask that I could not read. “What?” he said, in a voice that did not sound as old as he looked.

I gave him a friendly smile and said, “Can I wash that for you, sir?”

He looked at me and I could see by his face that he was tired. His blue eyes were milky and I briefly wondered about his vision and the fact that he was driving, yet he wore no glasses.  He did not smile back at me, but he did respond. “Can you wash this for me?” he said, more to himself than to me. “Can you wash this for me” he said again – more a statement than a question.

He sounded mad, and for a moment I wondered if I’d made a mistake in offering to help.

“Yes, I’d be happy to do that for–” I started, but he continued talking.

“I need the exercise,” he said to me. “My doctor says I need to exercise as much as possible. Every little bit helps, he says, so I need to exercise wherever I can”, he said.

I smiled, trying not to look as awkward as I felt. I glanced at his vehicle and noticed that the dash board was covered – and the backseat filled – with belongings. Personal care items, clothes, a blanket, medication, papers…

I had a strong suspicion that the man lived in this car.

I looked back at the man, and he was looking at me. “I hate to exercise,” he said to me.

I smiled again, and it felt genuine this time. “Well, I hate to exercise too,” I replied. “I’m with you on that one.”

He said, “My doctor tells me that I need to exercise to keep my strength, but the truth is, I just want to be done. I’m ninety-five and a V.A. outpatient, and my doctor tells me that I need to exercise but I’m tired.”

He looked back at his car and said again, “I’m tired. I just want to be done.”

I did not know how to respond to that. I glanced again at the interior of his car, then back at his weathered, tired, face with the milky eyes that still seemed to see me clearly, and wondered about this man’s life. I wondered if he had any family. I wondered if he had any friends. I wondered if he did, in fact, live in that car.

“I’ve got arthritis and my bones ache, and my leg is bum so its hard to get around,” he continued. “But I just keep going.” He turned back to look at me. “What else can I do, right?”

I glanced back at my own car, with my children in the back seat completely unaware of the encounter I was having, and felt an urge to climb back there and just hold them tight. I was suddenly very aware of how precious human connection is. As I stood before this tired man who had reached a point where he had seen enough, I felt a sense of overwhelming gratitude. In that moment, I realized that there is nothing in the universe I want more than the life I have and the people I hold in my heart. In that moment, I felt young and vibrant and full of love.

“But you asked if you could wash this for me,” the man went on, “and here I go on and on about myself. No, thank you for offering, but I can do this.” He looked me in the eye and gave me an appreciative nod, then turned back to his car.

I wanted to help this man, and heard a voice in my head say, “Help is what we ask for; service is what we render.” I reminded myself that I can not help anyone, but I can be of service to them, willingly and lovingly. I had offered to be of service to this man, and he declined. Still, I tried once more.

“Are you sure I can’t clean that for you, sir?” I asked, sensing the answer before I received it. “I would be happy to do it.”

He touched the squeegee to the hood of his vehicle and said without looking at me, “No, thank you, I’m just going to get this spot off the hood. Its a –” and he mumbled a few comments about whatever it was that he was cleaning off his car, which I could not hear or understand. Then he glanced back at me and said, “Thank you, though.”

I smiled at him one more time. “No problem. You have a good day, sir.”

He did not say anything further and turned back to his car. I walked back to my own car and returned the hose to the pump, collected my receipt, and got in my car.

As I drove away, it occurred to me what a gorgeously beautiful day it was, and I breathed deeply. I turned up the music for the kids and we sang. I looked out at the sun and the clouds and the trees and felt joy. I thought about my interaction with the man at the gas station and felt sadness. Mostly, I felt a deep appreciation for all of it. Everything.

Especially for my dirty windshield.

The Lunch Box Oracle

If a kid’s lunch box reveals something about their future personality development, then for me, the writing was on the wall pretty early: I was gonna be an odd guy.

Back when I was young, lunch boxes were metal, rectangular containers, like miniature suitcases, usually with an accompanying thermos for a beverage. The paint used to decorate them was probably lead based and fully toxic, but they were cool, they were fun, and they were much sturdier than the old brown paper sack option.

Go on eBay and you can find classic, retro lunch boxes going for hundreds of dollars to grownups yearning to possess them, either for the sentimental value or to add to a collection of related memorabilia. It’s not often that I see children with the metal rectangular suitcase lunch boxes anymore – nowadays it seems everyone is going for the miniature thermal coolers or flexible nylon bags to take their lunches to school, complete with frozen ice packs and plastic bottles to hold the beverage. No themes, no characters, no imagination – but the Gogurt stays cold.

I remember having lunch box envy. Some kids had superheroes like Batman or Superman or The Incredible Hulk on theirs. Some kids had their favorite baseball or football teams on them. Some kids had them with cartoon characters or favorite TV shows. They might change each year, the kids coming to school in September with a new box bearing a different theme; and some kids just kept the same one year after year. They were a reflection of the kids’ interests, their hobbies, their characters.

I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but the lunch box I ended up with was adorned with images of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Kids actually saw me carrying my lunch in this.

As the youngest of four kids, I was the recipient of a lot of hand-me-down stuff – clothes, toys, butt-kickings…  But I honestly don’t remember any of my siblings ever using this lunch box. Which means I must have gotten it new. I have no memory of picking it out; I have no memory of requesting it. I didn’t even know who the hell Jonathan Livingston Seagull was. If I had a hand in selecting this lunch box, I’ve clearly blocked out the memory.

I remember seeing the paperback book when I was little. The book had a different design than the one on the lunchbox, and someone in my family had brought a copy of it into the house at some point. I knew nothing about the story, but at the time assumed it was a tale about certain sea birds. I had no interest in reading it, and in fact, did not read it at all until I was in my twenties – and then only because I realized I had no idea what the hell the book was about, and wanted to satisfy my curiosity about why on earth someone bought me that lunch box in the first place.

After reading it, I still didn’t know why I had that lunch box. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t just a straight story; it was more like a fable, in that it had a “message”. I thought the message was pretty lame at the time, but that is more a commentary on where I was, spiritually, than any slight against the book itself.

The book is about a seagull (named Jonathan, of course) that grows tired of conforming to the limitations of traditional seagull life – wanting to give up the daily food squabbles in favor of perfecting his flying skills. In return for his lack of conformity, he is booted out of his flock. He continues to pursue greater flight goals on his own, and is eventually introduced to a new society of gulls who take him to a higher plane of existence. He meets a wise seagull who becomes his teacher, and he learns the importance of being true to himself. His teacher’s last words to him are “keep working on love.” Jonathan finally comes to understand that the spirit cannot be free without the ability to forgive.

As I mentioned, when I first read the story I was appalled that I had been duped into reading what ended up being a story “with a message” – it felt like propaganda at the time. “Sentimental hogwash”, as old man Potter would have said. I was so defensive against anything remotely spiritual, likely because at the time I was spiritually bankrupt. But it was fairly easy to ridicule the novella – I mean, it was a story about birds seeking self-improvement, after all.

Of course, I now see that – however simplistic or banal the book might have been – the message it carried is universal. I get it today. It’s a message that could benefit anyone and everyone: forgiveness yields freedom.

But my inner child says “Come on, honestly – could a six year old be expected to get that? Who picked out this damn lunch box?” (Yes, my inner child casually swears a lot.)  “I want to know whose idea that was! Hey – I loved cartoons – where was my Scooby-Doo lunch box? How about a Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner lunch box? Flintstones? Jetsons? Was anyone paying attention to what I was actually interested in? I just wanna know who picked Jonathan Freakin’ Livingston Seagull!” (Apparently, my inner child is also a bit of a punk.)

Given the lessons I’ve received in the last few years, and how they resonated with me – hit me at my core – it would seem that the instruction to “keep working on love” is a message I was meant to receive at some point during this lifetime. It just seems strange that the message would technically be conveyed to me through something as ridiculous as a child’s lunch box. I suppose it’s better than a Magic Eight Ball. I am reminded of another message that I’ve received very recently: “We don’t get to choose the messenger”.

Maybe it’s one of those “it wasn’t the lunch box that I wanted, but it was the lunch box I needed” scenarios. Perhaps nobody picked it. Perhaps it picked me. It seems kinda cool when I look at it that way.

A Scooby-Doo lunch box would have been a lot cooler, though. I’m just sayin’.