Ripple Effect

My dad spent his career in a nuclear power plant.  For a kid growing up with Homer Simpson in his prime on television, this wasn’t a bad thing.  It was always an interesting conversation starter and he has some great stories.

One of the best involves breaking a light bulb.

His job, in the plant, involved many things including keeping reactors and other essential engines running smoothly. He was hired when they built the plant and learned things, literally, from the ground up. One night, a crew of guys needed someone from his department to oversee maintenance on a large machine as an alert had tripped.

My dad followed them to the area where the machine was housed.  After checking things out, he determined that a light bulb needed to be replaced as part of the repair.  He unscrewed the old bulb and placed the new one in the socket.  As he screwed it in, it broke in his hand.

This set off an alarm that tripped to other facilities up and down the east coast and cost Philadelphia Electric a good amount of money.

For every action, no matter how small or planned, there are massive consequences.

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If you are a parent, you know this is true. Try buying two different toys for a pair of siblings, believe me, it does not end well.  If you are a husband or wife, this is also true.  Little things that become routine will pile up until you find yourself buried under them.

You cannot turn on the news without being launched in the midst of the gun control debate. I remember being in high school when Columbine happened.  That day we realized that the world was changing.  Now, things that we hadn’t experienced until teenage years are happening at younger and younger ages. Bullying and suicide has become an epidemic.

Pain is real, ready for consumption on social media, and broadcast for all to see. In years where we may have battled our anger by riding our bikes across town, kids are finding sharp objects and turning the pain inward.

We spent the last weekend in Ocean City, Maryland.  I booked the days after Val’s miscarriage, in hopes that we could get away.  We found some seashells, as a family, and are planning on planting something in the yard and decorating with the shells in memory of what happened.

The boys each had a balloon and we stood by the ocean, white caps painting the waves and wind whipping through our hair.  I asked them to send a prayer up to heaven for the baby and, one by one, they did.  Carter and Aiden each said their own thing and they did it with authentic faith, emotion, and sincerity.  As they finished, one by one, they kissed their balloon and let it go.

We were frozen by the breeze at that point and, when they ran to the car, I stopped for a  moment and watched the red and blue balloons as they twisted on the air currents and made their way into the sky.

We are not a perfect family by far.  We have our issues. The boys fight like cats and dogs.  The rest of the trip had its own turbulence that comes with vacations, too much boardwalk food, and an overload of swimming.

In that moment, though, we had peace. We had a ripple of hope and the prayer of two little boys that made its way to Heaven. We had the chance to release pain and heartache, put it on the wind, and watch it rise.

We had the chance to be whole and we will walk forward, together, into whatever may come.

 

 

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Impulse

Peter is one of my favorite dudes in the Bible. He’s all of us getting the chance to hang out with the one that changes the entire universe.  He jumps to the front of the line, speaks before he thinks, and tries way too hard.

He wasn’t always on the good side of Jesus.

The night of the arrest in the Garden, Peter cuts the ear off a Roman soldier. Later, faced with the thought of his own arrest and punishment, he issues his denials. Those moments stand out in the midst of faith stories.  We tend to gloss over them and rush to his reinstatement.  We don’t want to think about denying faith, about what we would do when pressed with a death or decision moment.

Peter, in his fear, acts on impulse and I get it.  I’d bet you get it too. Imagine, all the things he’s seen, all the miracles, the rising tide of crowds and revolution.

The betrayal.

The one who would finally give freedom is now in shackles. All the evidence goes out the window of short-term memory because, if you say yes, you’ll be there too. Suddenly going back to the lake seems like a good alternative.

The familiar provides a warm bed to distract us from a life of electric possibility.

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Last night, Carter was angry.  He was tired and angry, not an easy combination for a kid with anxiety. After talking for a few minutes, he calmed.

I had read something earlier in the day online that reaction for kids dealing with hyperactivity and anxiety are emotion-based.  This means they don’t try to purposefully make their parents angry.  As I spoke to him, the thought bounced around in my head.

It is not an issue of impulse, it is a matter of emotion.

I knelt across from him and took his hand in my own. I looked in his eyes, red and laced with tears, and asked him a question.

“Do you really want to feel like this?”

He took a breath and said no.

For the first time, in the moment, I saw things for how they were.  His issues were something concrete outside himself.  They didn’t own him. They weren’t his identity. They were something we could help with, work with, and teach him how to cope with and forge himself into the person he wants to be.

We stood and I hugged him, pulled him close and shut my eyes. I told him I loved him.

For a second, I understood.  That actions don’t make the person, that impulses are what they are. That Carter’s feelings ran as deep as his soul and that we had hope.  We would walk forward together.  No matter how many bumps in the road, we’d come back to a moment as father and son.

As I was going to bed last night, I stepped into his room and looked at him sleeping.  I thought, for the first time in a while, that we could do this.  It would take effort, time, honesty, and work but we could do this.  We could do this.

We could do this.

Missing Out

I had the same dream last night.

It is a dream I’ve had probably fifty times over the past few years.  I’m at college, back at West Chester University.  I’m a senior and it is the end of the semester.  I have one class I need to graduate, literally one class to attend and I can’t find it.  I walk around campus and can almost feel the sun on my face.  The whole time, the location of the class does not reveal itself.

I search and search, never finding it. The day goes on and I start an internal debate.  Do I really need it to graduate?  What if I miss it?  Can I graduate and somehow take it in the summer?  What happens if I can’t graduate? The questions keep coming. The anxiety builds and, every time

I wake up.

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Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a real thing that has grown from the social media boom.  People spend their days looking at Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat stories and compare their lives to others.  If they don’t stack up, it creates worry and anxiety.

Everything is comparison. Every picture, every filter, every vacation and creatively-shot dinner. We look at our plate and wonder why the salad isn’t as green, the steak isn’t as marbled, the wine isn’t as red and why our kids are running laps in the living room while theirs sit and eat.

Missing out translates, at the bottom line, into regret.

I’ve written before about being on the Mock Trial team in high school.  After our last case, the attorney advisor told me I should consider law school.  I said to Val the other night, what if I’d gone to law school?  Where would we be today??

Our stories are formed in intersection and opportunity.

My cousin’s husband is a financial advisor.  He told a story once that a friend in the business had called him to say, “hey man, I have this small iced tea company in upstate New York about to go public, you want in?”  He passed on it.  It was Snapple. Now, not every chance is that clear or easy.

Our lives are built on the foundations of our yes and our no.

Did you ever find yourself in a job you knew, without hesitation, wasn’t for you?  I did direct sales in the city of Philadelphia for two weeks, in mid summer, walking around in a shirt and tie. It was not for me.  I actually don’t regret taking the job as it was a learning experience but, in the end, I could have turned it down.

I believe, in the depths of my soul, that we are all called to make a difference. Someone you know, someone you talk to or email today, they need you.  They need to hear your voice and they will find security in it. They need you to push, or pull, them forward towards a greater calling.

I don’t know if regret every truly goes away.

The Apostle Paul wrote often about changing his message to suit his audience.  If you page through his books you’ll notice tone changes and logic progressions. Paul’s fear was not missing out, it was missing in. It was presenting what was on his heart in a way that would connect with everyone from new believers to Roman citizens and politicians.

“What if I strike out?” my son asked the other day riding home from baseball practice.

One of Val’s favorite movies is A Cinderella Story. In the movie, Hillary Duff plays the main character and, on the wall of her father’s diner is the quote, “Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game,” paraphrasing Babe Ruth. Ruth may not be the greatest role model, but he has a point.

We must do our best to be present, to be in the moment with those we love. To be in the moment of our choices and to have peace with the directions our lives take.  We must sit in our emotions, to hurt with those in pain, to laugh until we cry, to hold a hand and stand with someone in their moment of weakness.  We must know our own value and live life with an understanding that we are worth it.  We are worth treating ourselves better, worth surpassing prior generations, worth stitching up our wounds and going back on the battlefield again.

It is worth striking out because adversity brings growth, because nothing changes if nothing changes.

It is worth it because someone is always watching, may it be your kids or your inner child, someone you love or someone you admire.  They are watching and waiting for you to tell your story.

So step up to the plate without fear. Without regret. Take a moment and breathe.

Open your eyes and swing.

The Race

The permission slip was waiting for me when I got home from work last night. Carter said he was involved in a race in gym class.  This race was, from what I found out, part of a series to choose a team of relay racers for an event in April.  The elementary schools in the district all send a team from each grade to race on the big track at the high school.  He will be one of four boys representing the entire third grade for his specific school on their relay team.

I’m not surprised.

If he needs to get from point A to point B, he’ll run. It is easier to go fast than go with the flow. Running is in his blood.

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Paul writes the following in his letter to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

We all run in our own ways.  Our minds and our emotions set up internal pathways to prevent trauma and pain.  We navigate these like walking through dark alleys in the rain. When we get too close, to run to something that can dull the pain.  This can take the form of positive things like sports, prayer, study, friends or loved ones.  This can go the other direction into addiction or running away altogether.

Part of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is the path into the unknown, the question out and far away that the heroes must answer.  They must face their demons and, no matter how far they go, they will fight to the end.

The Race will take us where we do not want to go.

Val and I have a friend right now battling cancer.  Her race is to fight, to live and see the sun rise again tomorrow.

My race has taken me on a journey to find what it means to be a father and husband, writer and man of faith.  To discover what the term “faith” even means and find the shape of authentic spiritual experience. To reach out and touch the divine and know, no matter what happens, we are not alone.

I race against being alone.

Val runs with a huge heart, one that allows her to reach out and absorb pain and sorrow, suffering and grief.  She runs as a mother, finding strength to feel and love so much and still spend time with our boys and me, to take the extra time to be in the moment and stay there in the midst of being exhausted.  Her race will unleash the beauty of her spirit that flutters there underneath the weight of life.

Carter runs against his worries, against the shadows that seem to take shape.  Against the voice that tells him things are not safe and he needs to find some level of control.

Aiden runs with his mother’s heart, open and loving. He’s a forever friend and I pray he never loses that characteristic as he grows.

As a family, our race has taken us through heights and depths, victory and tragedy.

Paul advocates running as to get the medal.  What does this mean?

Note he doesn’t mention a participation trophy.

Running to get the medal is an image of the process of faith.  Salvation may arrive in an instant but the race is a process.  Faith is refinement that happens over the years. Our pain is shared with those who need to know they are no alone.  Our struggles build trust. Our suffering builds perseverance. Our exhaustion builds hope and we lean on the arms that can hold us up.

Getting the medal is the will to keep going. To believe when everyone else has stopped. To put one foot down when the pressure on your shoulders.

 

A few years ago, I walked Cliff Walk in Rhode Island.  The trail runs next to a set of mansions from the golden age of industry titans in this country.  As you walk, signs appear on the way warning of rough terrain.  The coast line bobs and weaves around rock formations and outcroppings.

The day I walked was hot, the sun blasting off the water’s reflection. I felt my legs tiring and, realizing the old issue that I’d have to go back as far as I’d walked, I finally decided to stop at a sign warning me that rough terrain was ahead.

On the way home, a side street offered a view of the trail. I found myself near the same spot I’d stopped, facing the rough terrain. From there I could see the other side, a point looking out to the ocean with blue waters across the horizon.

Paradise was there.

Just past the point of giving up.

A letter to my son

You didn’t cry.

Thirty-seven hours of labor. In and out of the hospital. Your heart rate rising and falling until your doctor decided it was time to go and get you.  Mommy was given medicine and fell asleep.  I waited in the hallway with your aunt Tara and both of your mom-moms. They wheeled you out around midnight and the hospital policy was that I was the only one that could hold you before mommy woke up.

We sat in that room together for two hours and you looked up at me with deep eyes.  You didn’t cry.  You just watched me.

I found a note the other day from when you were three.  I worked a later shift at the time and we spent many mornings watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse at 5:30 am on the couch and, at the time, we didn’t think anything of it.  We thought you were just an early riser.

Then you were busy.

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You ran before you could walk. Literally, not a joke, ran across the living room floor before most kids took their first unsure steps. We hit every playground in the area. You climbed, jumped and played with the best of them.  We tried sports as soon as we could.  You played soccer, baseball, basketball, football, anything you could throw and catch.

When you were happy you were happy.  When you got mad, you started to get mad, like really mad.  You became a swirl of sadness and anger wrapped into a screaming package.

Your brother came along when you were four and, for a little, things were okay.

The anger got deeper. You got stronger and the combination wasn’t the best thing for us. Still, we thought, it is just a phase. You’ll grow out of it. You’ll keep getting older and things will calm down.

Then one day you told me you couldn’t get a thought out of your head.

Now, let me put this in context.  You’ve grown. You are strong and fast, talented in anything that requires athletic ability.  You still feel deeply, you still find your heart-broken more than you’d like.  You want things your way and you hate criticism.

Like me.

You have made friends and lost them.  People have cycled in and out of your life. The day you told me you couldn’t get a thought out of your head, it stands out now.  At the time, I tried to avoid it.

Then it got worse.

You obsessed over thoughts and feelings, things that weren’t right.  Your worry started to take over your life. Things that were easy weren’t easy anymore. We went to the doctor and we tried and your mom and I still told ourselves that this too will pass.

The other night we were looking at a math homework sheet and you were having trouble focusing.  I asked you what was going through your mind. You looked at me and said things were all “scribbly”. I still hear you saying it.

I want you to know something.

It will all work out.  Your mother and I are here for you.  You are still that kid that I held in the hospital.  You are still busy and you still feel deeply.  Whatever is going on in your head is real and, even though we’ve waited five years, it may not be going away.

So we will get you help. We will stand by you as your mom and dad.  We will give you the support you need in school and outside of school.

We will do this for you and we will be your advocates.  We will be on your team and we will attack this stuff now and get it knocked down and manageable.  We will get you your life back.

We will pray for you.  Everyday.

We will talk to the doctor, the therapist, anyone we need to get a team around you to help you because we can’t do it alone.

Carter, I love you more than you’ll ever know.  I’m typing this at my desk taking breaks between paragraphs to wipe away the tears and hope that no one notices.

I’m sorry for my frustrations, my irritation, my anger.  I owe you more than this.  I owe you a better father and better role model. You deserve a better man than me to follow.

But I promise you, today, I’m going to work on it, to get better, to be that father you deserve.

Just know I’m sorry.  I’m here for you.  I’m still holding you 9 years later and you’re still looking up at me and I promise things will get better.

We’ll do this, as a family.

Love,

Your dad.

Haunted

How many people from your wedding party do you still talk to?

This was a question floated to me the other day.  At the moment, the answer is one and that’s because he’s my brother-in-law. There’s a phenomenon out there known as ghosting and we, as a society, are particularly good at it.

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noun: ghosting

1.the appearance of a ghost or secondary image on a television or other display screen.

2.the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.

Val and I were friends with another couple for a year or two.  Our kids played together.  We had dinners, trips to the playground, they even watched our kids once which is not something we normally ask of anyone outside of family.  One day, out of the blue, the calls and texts stopped.

I realized, after a while, we were ghosted.

Relevant magazine did an entire article on this, about how people in the church are skilled at ghosting. The entire concept of friendship has shifted over the years.

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Digital communication has increased availability but decreased depth. Those we care about can be reached with a few taps of a phone screen.  This has made our walls and armor quicker to deploy.

I worked for a financial company right out of college.  One team had me on a 5 am to 1 pm schedule.  It wasn’t horrible once I’d gotten used to it.  I liked the people, thought I had fit in well, and it wasn’t too hard of a job.  One day, HR called me into a meeting.  The rep slid a printout of an email across the table.  It was from the supervisor of the group saying about how I was a liability, didn’t fit in, and it wasn’t working out.  He advised an internal move that I eventually completed. This was in 2008 and, eventually, I was laid off with a few million other people across the country.

I still have trouble trusting people.  This creates an issue because we need people.

Writing is a solitary effort at heart.  I loved the process of getting my MFA and working in writing groups but, in the end, it was always me and the story.  It was my wall to climb. Depending on someone else requires trust and accessibility.

For Val, her background lends her to a different path.  She handles things on her own.  It is easier to just do it than to rely on someone else who could let you down.

Community is never easy.  Humanity is not pretty or nice or politically correct.  People let us down, they walk away for no reason.  They leave us behind.

The trick is to not let your ghosts haunt you.

Because someone out there needs to hear from you today, a text or a phone call, a note of encouragement or just to know that you are there. Someone needs to be lifted up.  Take a second a give it a try.  You may find that, when you lift someone else up, you get lifted yourself.

We can climb out of the wreckage of ourselves and rebuild.  We can rise above the mess. We can restart one day at a time and rewrite our stories.  We can do it together.

What we mean when we talk about dying

I started a Netflix binge on the show Altered Carbon. The cast is solid, the writing is skilled and the visuals sell the show.  The basis of the story, off the novels by the same name, is a futuristic world where there is now two kinds of death.  People have “stacks” in the back of their neck where their consciousness resides in a small disc.  You can die, if your disk is salvageable, and find yourself placed in a new “sleeve” if you have the means to do so.  You can RD “real death” if the stack is destroyed. The show dives deep into the meaning of death and immortality, faith and power.

One of the main characters delivers a stirring speech about death being the great equalizer, how it gives meaning and people weren’t designed to live forever.

I believe that, at certain points, God is trying to tell us something.

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Last month, my wife and I lost a baby.  She was pregnant 18 weeks at the time. I’ll never forget that night in the ER.  One of Val’s close friends is battling cancer a second time.  We are a country reeling from school shootings and acts of violence. The prospect of looking at mortality seems to be a current issue.

There is no coincidence that our faith systems operate on what happens after death and really our life systems do also.  Our days are either filled with meaning or denied meaning, stress or peace, life or avoidance.  Often, all these forces act together and sometimes within a few minute span.

Faith and death are connected.

I remember reading the Bible as a kid and agreeing, thinking that I believed it. It was an Okay Now What? moment. Then life happened.  I did eventually find myself in a genuine faith encounter and, after it, life happened again. The path is about the struggle and how we handle it. Mindset dictates action. Faith dictates mindset.

Though this isn’t always true.

Read through the Psalms, Jeremiah, the account of Peter around Easter and you’ll find imperfect people giving voice to their conflicts of faith and reality, hope and experience.

After Val had the miscarriage, Carter said to me, “Dad, I wish our lives were normal.”  I said that the hard stuff is normal, the trick is how you respond to it. Things haven’t been easy the last few months and sometimes faith is the act of getting up in the morning to do it all over again.

We take things for granted.

I usually spent summers, before summer jobs, at my grandparents. Now I’m typing this post at work, in my mid thirties, but I still remember weekday mornings.  We’d get in my grandfather’s truck and go to the diner that sat across from the French Creek Outfitters, a fishing and hunting store.  We’d have breakfast and go buy some lures to use that morning.

He’d pop a country music tape (Mel Tillis, Patsy Cline) into his truck and we’d head to the pond. I remember him methodically working his way around the shore casting and casting again. My young mind went off in many directions.  I’d think about school, tv shows, anything.

I’d kill for one more cup of coffee and one summer morning at that pond, for a few hours of conversation that I didn’t know I needed at the time.

Time keeps moving and death does give it relevance. Everything is relevant. Everything counts no matter how far we hide it under our mental gymnastics, addictions, conversations, media, and other means of denial.

Because in the end the sum of our lives is the moments we give and take, the ones we want to grab and squeeze and pull every single second from because it all slips away and that war has taken down great people and civilizations.  It sits deep in our heart and, over time, we decide how to deal with it.

Faith pulls us close and rips us apart. It also builds us up again one stitch at a time.