“I can’t beat it.”

Last night Val and I rented Manchester by the Sea. Let me first clarify things by saying, I know and understand the issues around Casey Affleck and his treatment of women and that I wanted to watch the movie from the viewpoint of what I could learn as a person and a writer.  It delivered well on both fronts.

Affleck plays a janitor whose brother dies of Congestive Heart Failure. The remainder of the movie reveals the ghosts from his own past as he faces his brother’s death and the care required for his teenage nephew.

(spoilers below)

You spend the movie rooting for Affleck to have a change of heart, that he’ll embrace the kid and stand in as his father.  In the end, he can only do what he knows.  He runs back to Boston and lets his nephew be adopted by family friends, even though he finds an apartment with an extra room incase the kid wants to visit on the weekend.

In their emotional final dinner together, Affleck tells the kid:

“I can’t beat it.”

When we face down grief and trauma, our response is often the same.

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Time freezes.

To avoid the pain we jump around. We think about the past or the future to avoid the present. We do whatever we can to not live in the moment. We check out.

Our smartphones become our pacifiers.

There are conversations floating in the air begging for our engagement and the effort is just to hard. We’re emotionally and physically spent.

We just can’t beat it.

I’ve recently taken small steps to combat this.  Every morning, before leaving for work, I pray with Carter if he’s the only one awake. If everyone is up, we all pray together.  It is a moment he looks forward to now.

I carry an index card in my wallet with three statements on it:

Find Joy Every Day/ No More Wall/ I am My Own Husband and Father

I’d been missing out on the joy around me, living behind an emotional wall, and feeling like I could only measure my worth as a father against those men I knew around me.

Everything, I realized, was wrong.

Joy is there, if you take a moment to see it. The Wall can come down if you take the emotional effort to work through it.

You can be the mother, father, husband or wife you want to be regardless of anything in the past or present. You can take a positive effort to shape the future and create your own identity.

You can create You.

This isn’t easy but it is part of my new journey. I hope you’ll join me and I know, one day at a time, things can change for all of us.

 

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Allow me to Reintroduce Myself

It has been a while.

I left off here in a dark place. In the few months since, things have changed. I’d looked in the mirror, stared into the abyss as it looked back at me.

I realized a few things.

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Ironically, it took watching Tony Robbins on his Netflix documentary to help see the truth. To look at some limiting beliefs, to realize what I’d cost Val and the boys over the last ten years.

Things have changed.

I’ve given myself permission to be the best father and husband I can be, to be my own man and stand on that foundation.  We cleaned out our house taking almost twenty bags of various things to be donated/trashed. My book collection is down to a few volumes of importance (everything from here out will be digital).

Some weight has lifted.

I started a new job, taken far too long to settle back into writing. I’ll start my first season as head coach for Carter’s baseball team this spring with opening day on April 1st. We are making steps towards a more purposeful life.

The boys are still crazy and active. They still surprise us with what they do and say on a daily basis.

So this blog will be a return to the words, the calling to put things down on paper, to stay honest, to honor the permission to write.

That’s the biggest thing that’s hit me in the past few months.

I’m allowed to learn and grow, to not have all the answers. To be a father and figure it out on a daily basis.  To be a husband and do the best I can. To be a writer no matter where the words end up.

To reach an audience because I know you are still out there. You’ve been there like me and you’ve grown.

To know that it’s okay as we go forward.

I hope you’ll join me on this new start.  Through a crazy baseball season and busy summer of sports for Aiden and Carter, trips to the pool and our first family vacation. Many stories wait to be told and I’m excited to see how they end up.

And I’m okay.

It’s taken a long time to get there, but I think I’ve finally found the starting point, the foundation to look towards the future and I’ll take that for 10:09 PM on a Tuesday night.

 

Silence

It hasn’t been an easy two weeks.

I watched the turmoil of this election as it played out across the world. We’ve had our struggles in various parts of life. I’ve taken a job that has me working long shifts a few days a week and our family time has suffered.

Carter looked at me the other morning and said that he missed me and he wished I was home at night. As a father, hearing that breaks my heart.

You want to provide and make a difference but you don’t want to lose your son as a trade-off.

These weeks have seemed like a holding pattern.

I haven’t felt this much stress in a long time. And when I’d try to type I’d find nothing.

Silence.

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One of my goals recently is to be more honest. I’ve starting thinking about a project based on fatherhood, a book to reach out to other guys going through the same things as me.

Something for the rest of us that don’t have our lives lined up in a neat row.  The ones not in the holiday movies wearing sweaters as a fire roars in the background.  The dads staring down bills, stressed out spouses, crazy kids, and demands demands demands.

I’ve taken to listening to podcasts on the way home from work.  Something about the miles of dark highway makes it easy to listen. I had on my guy, Pastor Erwin McManus, and he said this last night.

He said his wife asked him why he always speaks about courage and living an adventurous life.  He replied:

It is my greatest fear to miss the opportunities God gives me and not live out the life he has planned for me.

His fear is missing the boat, the side street, the fork in the road that leads to God’s Grand Design.

I’ll admit, there are days where that design seems so far off in the distance that I’m not even standing at the starting line.

My fear, the thing that haunts me, is the same.  It is missing the opportunities that are coming, the open doors, the connections, the chance to live a full life and do something to put a dent in the universe.

We find what we look for; a sliver of daylight in the night, a crack in the wall, a whisper in the silence. Sometimes we only have the strength to turn our heads in the right direction and, just barely, open our eyes.

It’s a start.

 

Is This It?

I recently watched the movie Risen.  Originally meant as a sequel to Passion of the Christ, it took on a life of its own without Mel Gibson’s involvement.  The film tells the story of a Roman tribune Clavius, played masterfully by Joseph Fiennes.

Clavius is present at the crucifixion and is ordered by Pilate to go find the body of Jesus to stop any kind of rebellion that may happen if followers steal the body and claim him risen. He goes searching and, spoiler alert, finds the resurrected Jesus meeting with the disciples in the upper room.

Clavius follows the disciples to Galilee and, in one of the most powerful scenes, wakes in the middle of the night to see Jesus sitting away from him on a rock.  He joins him and they have a unique conversation.

Jesus asks what frightens him and he replies, “Being wrong.” They keep speaking and Clavius breaks down, telling Jesus that the only thing he wants “is a day without death.”

Two powerful statements that hit home with many of us.

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt unmoored at the moment. God has shown up in our lives in many ways and we still seem to fight the same battles.  Val and I often talk of where we should be, ten years more stable than now, and wonder when we’ll arrive.  When will our dreams and visions come to pass? Why do we look in the mirror and feel like we’ve lived ten lifetimes?

We are all moving towards the same point.

I picked up Carter from school today (a recent job change has me working three 12 hour shifts with four days off a week) and took him and Aiden to the playground. Things are different from when I was growing up but, in the end, the same.  I watched the kids chase each other, boys play a basketball game, and the crowd climb all over the monkey bars.

The sound of laughter drifted away on this unseasonably summer breeze.

My mind went to the election.  Is this really it? We grow and we chase money. We chase power and influence. We base our comfort on the balance of our bank accounts and, as long as the commas are in there, we’re good. We are living in a country teetering on the brink of a fracture.

I watched my boys and wondered what they’ll learn from it.

As I type, a line from Pastor Erwin McManus comes to my head.  He spoke about faith and feeling like we can’t ask and dream big because we’re afraid we’ll prove God doesn’t exist.

We are scared, like Clavius, to be wrong.

I also want the second part of his admission to Jesus. How about one day without the shadow of death?

One day to live like a million others follow.  One day to give and serve and love without feeling the weight of the future. One day with the courage to retake the first step (God I’ve taken ten thousand first steps chasing a dream) and keep walking.

One day to not feel like a failing father and a lacking husband. To not hold us up against everything around us and look in the mirror and feel the weight of it all.

One day to be free. To tap into the dream God has waiting, the life that will impact the world and change others. The stories that will be told for generations to come. The words that someone will read and know and understand.

One day without death.  Just one Jesus.

I’ll take one.

 

10 Lies We Tell Ourselves as Fathers

1/I am ready. You are never ready.  From the moment I held Carter for the first time, I knew my life had changed. No amount of guidebooks, movies, or internet research can prepare you for having a kid.

2/My kid will be a copy of me. Some of you may luck out on this.  I did not.  I have dark hair and brown eyes.  My boys are a blonde and a red-head and their personalities are polar opposites of my own in many ways.  Some nights I shake my head and wonder where they came from.

3/My marriage will stay the same. Kids start you on a process of discovery.  Your time is now split and your love has grown deeper and wider than you could ever imagine.  Now, what to do with it?  You were a team and now you are a unit. Days are blank slates and you must rewrite the script every morning.

4/My wife can take care of it. I’m guilty of this.  When you add kids in the mix of work, money, family, faith, and health things can fall to the side. When you have a wife who takes care of things, it can be tempting to let it go.  Be sure to step up and do your part.

5/My wife can take care of it (part 2). There is a phrase thrown around in faith circles of being a servant-leader. In the midst of the noise, it can easy to forget to take the time.  We should be talking about life, faith, disappointment, hope, love, joy, and salvation whenever we can to our kids. We should start them on the right waters and help guide their spiritual journey into the future.

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6/The sun will always shine. There will be fights.  The first time your kid looks at you in anger, you will never forget it.  You may think you’re a great dad but all it takes is a wrong answer to a question and it will set things off.  Disappointment is okay. Your kids need to experience negative emotions and learn how to process them. This is the hard part; give them permission to ride out the storm.  It will be valuable in the end.

7/Stuff is enough. A pile of toys only leads to more piles of toys. Eventually the interest fades and the gap must be filled with something. You can’t buy them off because the void will continue to grow. It is at the point where Val and I seriously limit gifts.  Experiences are more important.  Objects pass but memories will live on.

8/No second chance. Your kids are not your chance to “make things right.”  Too many people maneuver their children to sports or other endeavors to live out everything that did not happen in their own lives.  We hold up the past against our kids and vow to not make the same mistakes again.  This is fine as long as we understand they are their own person and a new story waiting to be written, even with influences from the past.

9/No measuring stick. Get a group of dads together and what happens? The talk will move from marriages to jobs and eventually kids. Achievements will come up, sports, talents, schoolwork, whatever it may be.  Don’t fall into the trap. Let your kids stand for themselves and let their accomplishments come up in conversation from other sources. Don’t be that guy, that trophy parent.

10/Never break the mold. You are allowed to cry, to laugh, to be embarrassed in public and play on the playground.  You are allowed to hug your kids, pick them up and spin them around before throwing them on your shoulders. Maybe your dad never did this with you but, in the end, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it with your kids.  Start a new family tradition and have the courage to see it through.

To My Son on Turning 8

Dear Carter,

Your labor wasn’t easy for mom.  Thirty-seven hours. Three visits to the hospital over the weekend before she was admitted. You tried for a regular birth but just couldn’t make it out.  The doctor had to go get you.

I remember, before he did, standing in the room with mom and the doctor watching the screen showing your pulse as it climbed and fell.   The air was thick, the lights unforgiving.

He stood and said they were doing a C Section and, in the middle of August, you arrived.

I was the first one to hold you.  Mom was in recovery and they wheeled you out to me.  We sat on a chair in the room with the television playing in the background just after midnight.  You didn’t cry.  We had peace.

You ended up in the NICU with an infection and, a few days later, we took you home.

I still look at that picture of the day you got home and wonder where the years have gone.

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You ran before you walked.  You woke at the first hint of a ray of sunshine and we spent many mornings on the couch at 6 am watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

I remember you starting preschool and, eventually, elementary school.  I remember dropping you off that day and crying at how much you’d grown and how, for the first time, you were in other hands.

I’ve watched you grow into a blonde ball of energy. Strong and strong-willed. You are my athlete, sensitive and caring. You have your mother’s big heart, even if you don’t know it yet.

Great things are coming for you. New experiences and learning, new friends and activities. I wish you joy as you learn more about who you are.

I’m sorry for not being the perfect dad, for the days where my energy doesn’t match your own and my patient is spent. I’m trying my best and will keep working to do better. I want you to be as proud of me as I am of you.

Your world will only get bigger and wider. You will keep learning.  You will inherit the good and bad from my generation and you’ll need to handle it with strength that will come from these years.

You will know the love of Jesus, of community and service.  You’ll meet an amazing woman and find yourself with a family one day.  You’ll call mom and I when your son has jumped off the couch for the 1000th time after you said not to do it and you’ll ask us how we managed.

I’ll hand her the phone and laugh.

Happy Birthday son,

Matt

 

 

The Small Moments

I laid in bed next to Aiden, handed him his stuffed animal dog, and turned off the light.  Through the faint glow of the nightlight I watched him pick up the dog and turn it to look at me.

“Daddy, what are you doing?”

Putting Aiden to bed, I replied.

“What did we do today?”

I went over a few things.

“What is the roof doing?”

Keeping us warm.

“What is mommy doing?”

Hanging out with Carter.

This went on for ten more questions from the dog interrogating me about various parts of the day. Then I had to ask Aiden questions from the dog in return.  I was amazed at the creativity he’d developed in three years of life. As he drifted off to sleep, I thought of the rest of the day.

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Our time with Carter wasn’t as peaceful. Val and I both think we’ve turned a possible corner with some of his temper issues. Tonight he decided to take a shower and, by the time we made it up to the bathroom, he had soaked the floor. With our recent floor damage problems, Val and I were both upset.

I watched his face twist into sorrow and anger at why we were mad.  He said it was my fault he got in trouble as the first parent on scene. Voices increased in volume and we found ourselves in the classic parent/child standoff.

Life is made of small moments.  They tell you to grasp them and not waste any. They tell you to track what you do with them and journal your progress. You are supposed to “make the most of it.”

What if the moments are painful? They pile up like cards houses into a sum that can be beautiful or blown over with a slight wind.  You tell yourself that you are strong and ready.  You map out a strategy and believe it will work.

Then you’re back at square one.

The pile rebuilds. Beauty emerges as you wait for the wind to blow and cringe the moment it dances across the back of your neck. You rebuild and rebuild and rebuild until one day the pile isn’t yours to claim anymore and you pray you’ve done your best. Until then it is one small moment at a time.

~Matt

A Eulogy for the Bunny

An era has ended in the lives of a print publication almost sixty years old. Playboy announced  today that it will, after a large dip in circulation numbers, cease printing nude pictorials of its centerfold models. According to the report in the New York Times, founder Hugh Hefner himself approved the change.

What does this mean for men like us who follow Jesus and for men in this country in general?

When I was in middle school, we had to do a biography report on a famous entrepreneur. I chose Hefner and, somehow, the project was approved.  Hefner is an interesting story. He founded the magazine in 1953, publishing a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe that was circulating the market without a publisher brave enough to send it to print.

He faced down opposition from many fronts, always claiming the magazine celebrated beauty without exploitation. It pioneered the “girl next door” ideal. It published leading authors of the day in one of the highest-paying literary markets, often being confirmation that they had achieved status as a writer. Hefner put forth a style, with his smoking jacket, pajamas, and mansions on multiple coasts.  He once boasted to have fulfilled every fantasy he had.

The Times cited the emergence of the internet as the kiss of death for the magazine.  What was once mystery is no longer.  Men of any age have instant access to any image they like at the touch of a smartphone button.

So tonight we say goodbye.

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In a way, Hefner influenced culture more than he could have imagined. Playboy was a force that defined the transition to manhood for years and, believe it or not, we were all wrong.

I have no issue with beauty and women are prime examples of the beauty of God’s creation (my wife being the best!). The problem is the one Hefner tried to ignore. His centerfolds turned women into objects.  It told a generation of wives and daughters that they would never be good enough as the models that waited in the magazines hidden under the bed or in the garage. It told a generation of young women their greatest asset was their body.

It removed the mystery and tried to simplify the equation.

The equation is not simple.

Today we pay our athletes millions of dollars as they assault their spouses and girlfriends. An income gap still exists between men and women. Young girls look in the mirror and fight their image as they fight bullying and abuse.

In the Bible, Jesus is presented with a woman caught in the midst of adultery.  It is the famous scene where he tells the crowd that anyone without sin is welcome to cast the first stone.  They are ready to kill her, as per the penalty of the time, and after his interjection they drop their stones and walk away.  There’s a part of this scene often missed. The woman was caught in the middle of the act, odds are pulled out of bed and taken directly to Jesus. She was in the center of the crowd, probably not wearing much, as Jesus came to her defense.

He meets us all in our darkest moments and most vulnerable moments.

Now the Playboy centerfold is finished. It is a small, but correct, step in the fight against pornography and the objectification of women. I’m typing this as Carter and Aiden play in front of me on the floor. Two boys, both growing into men and needing help defining the word. It is my job to help them do it without seeing women as objects, to recognize that beauty runs much deeper than appearance, to stay gentlemen and be respectful.

It is time to break the bond and put the Bunny to bed once and for all.  Manhood can, and will, change for the better if we can move past the entitlement, admit that all seats at the table should be equal, and that none of us are qualified to throw even the smallest of pebble.

~Matt

37 Hours

It started days before.  We had gone the length of Val’s pregnancy getting ready for Carter’s arrival. At the first sign of labor, I took her to the hospital.  They checked her out and sent us home.  It wasn’t time yet.

The pain wouldn’t stop.

We went back again and was turned away.  Finally, around midnight, Val was in serious discomfort and I drove her to the ER.  They admitted her into the maternity ward.  I remember standing by her side as the doc pulled up a chair and watched the heart monitor fixed to Carter’s readout.  For almost fifteen minutes he watched before telling us it would be a c section that needed to happen as soon as possible.

I was in scrubs and ready until a nurse came in and told me the drugs hadn’t hit Val quick enough and she felt the incision, so they put her to sleep. I wouldn’t be allowed in.

I sat on a gurney next to Tara, my sister-in-law, and waited again.

Just after ten that night, and almost forty hours of labor, they wheeled him out wrapped in his blanket.

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I held him until Val was recovered enough from the procedure to join us in the room. He didn’t cry, shifting his eyes to me and just watching.  My boy, dark hair and eyes, looking at me and asking now what?

The dark hair is now blonde and his eyes are now hazel like his mother’s. He has more energy than I’ve ever had. He’s pushed me to places I’ve never experienced before and taught me things about myself. He’s complicated, strong, emotional, intense and loving. He has a way with words that cuts to my heart.

Tomorrow is his birthday.

So thank you Carter, for everything. I pray I can live up to what you need and be the dad you deserve. One day, years from now, you’ll dig this up on whatever passes for a smartphone and read it and smile, I hope.

We love you.

~Matt

Radioactive

My mother worked in a nuclear medicine department at a hospital for forty years.  She’s still there, inching her way towards retirement.  My father was an operator at a nuclear power plant before he retired.

I used to tell people that I glowed in the dark.

I remember visiting the hospital or the power plant (pre 9/11 years) and being amazed at the concept of radioactivity. Somehow this substance could kill you if you were around it too long.

I called my dad after 9/11 and would hear the stories of increased security, guards with automatic weapons and armored vehicles. Every year the township distributed iodine tablets to help against the possibility of exposure from a fallout event.

We all have our fallout events.

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This week, we took Carter in for some testing.  He’s been complaining of a rapid heart beat and some chest pain here and there. His emotions are erratic and we decided to talk to his doctor.  For two days we’ve wondered about results and the call came in today.

Everything normal.

So I look at him and wonder why?  What changed and what can we do to help?

The other night, after he had flown off in a rage and finally calmed down, he hugged me.  I told him I was sorry, that I wanted to make him feel better.

“Daddy, you don’t hug me enough anymore. You give me more high fives than hugs,” he said.

Feelings came crashing through. I’d seen him from my lens and not his. I’d assumed he would be mild mannered, like me, and not this vibrant, active, and emotional kid. I had parented him by attempting to attach the influence of my past to a person who had not known what it was like, one who never glowed in the dark.

It was an amateur parent thought:

He’ll be cool and low key, just like me.

I was wrong.

He has parts of me, yes, but he is his own person.  One who needs more hugs than high fives, freedom and the chance to grow. He’s Carter, not me.  One day he’ll be a father and I want him to know I’ll be there, with love and support at whatever level he needs.

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This is Carter from last Sunday.  My reason to keep fighting to get this fatherhood thing right.

~Matt