Taking Offense

It was a game we’d talked up for a week, ever since the tournament schedule was released.  Our team would be playing a team from New Jersey, one of the best in the region.  They were undefeated. We’d drawn them in a seeding round in a tournament that happened to not have a tiered playoff like usual.  Basically, it was win or go home.

Carter got the start on the mound.

I’d spent the days leading up to the game building him up, telling him it was business as usual. Before he took the mound that afternoon, I told him to not leave a single pitch on the field. He said he wouldn’t, and jogged out to the mound.

The first inning, he was dominant. No runs, one hit.  He doubled up a runner from the mound on a soft line drive. Both teams traded runs in the second and, by the time he took the mound in the third inning, we’d had a small lead.

Then he received his first balk warning. The next batter reached on an error.  The field umpire took position over Carter’s right side and watched him every pitch.  The balks kept coming.  The runners moved.  After a walk, another runner did the same.

Parents started yelling at the umpire.  He insisted Carter wasn’t stopping in his motion (a balk happens when a pitcher doesn’t stop  and “come set” before throwing).  As his dad, I knew he liked to work fast.  I tried to slow him down.  Our coach talked to him.  Parents were yelling, the other team was yelling, people were getting restless.

In one look from the mound I knew he was done.

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Photo by Rachel Xiao on Pexels.com

One of my goals in 2020 is to live a year in less Offense. Pastor Erwin McManus described it as freedom and the ability to trust again, to go deep in relationships and community.

Do you know anyone who is perpetually offended? Every breath is another opportunity to make them angry?  It’s not an easy relationship to be in. I work in an office with individuals who put in 40 Offended hours a week, every single week.

Personally, I err towards cynicism. It’s a trait I’m looking to change in myself for the new year.  Optimism is the key, the idea that change is possible.  Living Faith as a verb and not a noun, an act not an anchor.

I’m looking to gain the 20,000 foot view. Cynicism is easy. Doubt is easy. Burnout is easy.

The challenge that shapes us into new people is to remain hopeful, to see opportunity, to work towards what we are called to do, to marshal our anger when it’s needed.

Change is hard but worth it.  I believe 2020 will be a transformative year. I’m ready to reshape the husband and father I am into what I can be.  All it takes is time.

 

Regret

In high school, I was on the Mock Trial team and I loved it. I was a lawyer for all four years of my time and lead attorney for the last two. I found I’d enjoyed speaking in front of people, the analysis that came from the legal process, and the chance to spin a story for an audience.

The last day of our last trial, the team adviser came up to me in the hallway of the courthouse.  He was an actual attorney in the county, a younger guy, and he shook my hand.  He looked at me and said,

“You should really consider law school.”

I laughed.  My mind flashed with images of defending criminals and what would happen when I lost?  Then it flipped to putting people in jail and what would happen when they were released?  Of course time, cost, and effort played into the idea.

In the end, I didn’t go.

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That conversation was a crossroad, one of the many we face in life.  The idea had been offered.  What if I’d taken it and followed?  How would life be different?  Where would I be a decade into a law career?

Now I have friends who are lawyers and I’ve known others.  It’s not all the glamour of the many television shows out there. It can lead to success and burnout, victories and defeat. Was it to be a part of my story that I’d never followed?  I’ll never know.

Regret is chasing memories.

Add in traumatic memories and you create a dangerous combination.

A shard of pain can stick like a nail in wood. Addictions swirl into long term substance abuse and manipulation. Emotional and physical abuse. Control. Mental games of chess.

Trauma creates an unbalanced ledger.  Our souls respond in kind.

Cancer, for example, can paralyze a person in fear and motivate another to live their best life. An abusive relationship can send one into a spiral of darkness while another may be inspired to take back their life and set up healthy boundaries.

Our lives are filled with mirror moments. We stand in spots where we are called to make a choice, to look at ourselves and see who we really are.

We all see the signs.  Some recognize them instantly, some miss, and others will only see them years later. We all need clarity in our lives.

As the year turns and a new decade dawns, I pray you experience this in your life. May 2020 be the best ever.  No matter where you are in your journey, I pray for bigger and better things, for fulfillment, for physical and mental health.  I pray you are bigger than your emotions and you can stand strong when the waves come.

Spend your energy making memories, not chasing them.  You’ll be surprised at what follows.

 

Legend

The house was all dark wood.  Basement and one level set back from the road.  We’d park in the lot of the community pool that sat across the street, the one my uncle had managed for years. The smell was Thanksgiving, pure and simple.  Turkey, filling, cold iced tea. A long table sat in the dining area.

I remember the conversations, the jokes and stories.  My uncle’s voice was often the loudest and his laugh would get us all going.

In the beginning of November, he passed away.

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He was a teacher, a football and wrestling coach for thirty years.  As I look over social media I find his stories.  A student mentioned their house burning down.  My uncle had taken him in, without question, until the family was back on their feet. The stories from other students were numerous, the inspiration vast.  Men and women recounting the interactions with their teacher and coach who had often made his way to friend and loved one by the time they’d grown into adulthood.

Val and I recently attended the first home wrestling match of the season for the district he’d led all those decades. The athletic director had given us shirts that the wrestling team would wear for the season in his memory.  We’d worn them with pride.  After a moment of silence, the team made their way to us and each wrestler shook our hands.

Mourning has a way of creating evaluation. Val and I sat and made a bucket list and a plan to check items off as we go. We’re looking to the future with hope after some positive changes this month.

I’ve learned a few things from my uncle that will stick with me.

-Serve without hesitation. It may not be as drastic as taking someone in but, if you see a need, fill it.

-Find a passion. In this day, “career” doesn’t have the best vibe to it.  Still, it is a noble goal.  Find something that drives you towards long-term commitment.

-Tough love. Some of the stories I’d read were about my uncle’s tough love for this players and students.  He wouldn’t hesitate to correct if needed.  As parents, this can be a challenge and this generation of kids is not one that takes kindly to correction. Tough love is an investment that often pays off years later.

-Toughness. My cousin, his daughter, was an only child.  She’s a college lacrosse coach now and a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.  She’s a former Olympian and had found her way to the top of the sport.  I’d always heard that my uncle had treated her like an athlete, no different from the kids on his wrestling or football team. Don’t doubt your kids and what they can handle.  You’d be surprised.

Some of my best memories were spent on the porch of my grandparents’ house. After dinner the men would gather and have their iced tea or coffees.  They’d tell their stories. Now, I see it as what it was, a chance to step in the past for a few sentences and remember how things were before life got complicated.

We like to think that a new year brings new hope.  We make resolutions and try our best to change. The past two years have seen large shifts in our identities.  Val and I have both had to look in the mirror and answer some tough questions.  We’ve understood who we were and where we stand.  We’ve faced loss and hardship, trials and struggle.

Our boys are bigger and getting older.  We’ve learned the value of boundaries and how healthy ones look.  We found some unity and come together as the four of us do this thing called life.

I believe, deep down, changes are coming. There’s an assurance that’s only found from looking into deeper shadows and depths. Tides shift. Change is possible.

No matter how deep set the patterns, change is possible. No matter how dark the storm or cynical the soul.  Change is possible.  There’s no timeline on story.

Just a start.  Page one. In the beginning…

 

Tides

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In the moment before a tidal wave, waters on the surface recede.  Witness accounts have placed this happening sometimes hundreds of yards out, a once calm process broken up and disturbed.  Life on the ocean floor suddenly exposed to air.  Moments of routine destroyed.

One second you can breathe, the next you cannot.

And in that pause, the rumble of miles of water, pure tons of force.  A flow moving at speeds beyond understanding, plowing through borders and boundaries.  Everything held dear is swept away.

I’d like to write about some cinematic moment, some vast realization played out against the backdrop of soaring violins, fall sunsets, and family embraces.  I’d like to write that an angel appeared, told Carter to not be afraid, and peace settled. None of these things happened.

We’ve explored options and have found some that seem to work.  Carter is progressing.  Formally large worries are not as large anymore.  He’s faced some fears and walked through them. We are on the dawn of tween years.

This past weekend he played baseball in a tournament just outside the city where I’d attended college.  I took Carter to dinner after the games in a restaurant that Val and I often frequented.  The night was cool with families milling around outside.  We walked through the restaurant and shopping area around it while my mind was in a different time.  We went into the Barnes and Noble where I’d stood almost twenty years ago waiting for an engagement ring to be finished in the mall down the road, one I’d give to Val later that night.

So many hopes and expectations, excitement looking forward.

At some point, life teaches you that expectations will fail. The path will not come easy.  Fear and worry will hound you, large black dogs of acceptance whose red eyes shine when you look at the window of a sleepless night. The things you believed as a child will be shed and the nuclear explosion impact will hit that nobody is perfect and you’ll spend decades processing that fall out.

Slowly you’ll emerge and realize:

Optimism is a choice. Hope is earned. Dreams can change.

Fear can hold you back or push you forward.

Nothing breaks your heart like the pain of a child.

Love is not the passion in the early years of marriage.

Love is the overdue bill, the unnecessary credit card, the change in body type, long hours, cold dinners, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, text messages about nothing, arguing and still, after the kids are in bed, sitting on the couch with each other and watching a movie.

Love is seeing a broken heart and standing next to it. Love is knowing every pain and scar and still holding hands.

Friendship is golden, community is scary but both are necessary.

You will get angry and yell at your kids and you will sound exactly like your parents and your child will look at you. You’ll see yourself and in that moment the entire universe stops spinning.

 

Then the waves settle. The sun sets. Night falls.  You climb in bed next to your spouse and say I love you and realize there is nowhere else you’d rather be.

 

Smoke

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I recently finished the book Vicious by V.E. Schwab. She has a razor’s touch and style that carries you into a world of heroes, villains, shifting allegiances and every role in between. There are great lines in the book itself but one, an aside of descriptive observation, lives in my head.

A character is waiting for his girlfriend on their college campus.  She writes,

“Eli was waiting on the building steps in the late afternoon with a cup of coffee in each hand. The dusk smelled like dead leaves and far-off fires; his breath escaped in small clouds as he held one of the coffees out to her, and she took it and slipped her arm through his again.”

Writing is powerful and these few sentences put me right there on the steps.  The time, smell, breath and taste pulled me into the past.  How many of you read that paragraph and were immersed in sensory feedback?  I could smell the smoke and taste the coffee.

Fall puts me in the past, in the midst of slate skies and Friday Night Lights. The sound of the school band echoing down the streets of our home town, the nights where pumpkins and candles just start to wink through the darkness.

Time is a double-edged sword. It is that fire that never stops consuming our memories and expectations.  It has a unique talent to absorb the past and future. I look at my sons and realize they’ll be looking back at me one day as teenagers, men, husbands and fathers. I look at Val and realize one day we’ll be holding hands as our grandchildren play in the yard.  I look in the mirror and wonder what happened to that kid staring back.  No debt, no regrets, no missed opportunities.  Just chance and an open road of time.

And almost four decades later, here I am. God, that sentence scares me.

The smoke from far-off fires reminds us. Everything changes.  Everything will burn and emerge a new creation. We will raise our boys until one day they’ll step out into this world on their own.  We will keep on our path as it grows and changes.

In a way, things are the same. Yeah the weight of life is heavy.  The choices we’ve made, good and bad, have shaped our story. Our love and mistakes as parents have helped to shape two boys into growing kids.

We are still that couple walking home from high school holding hands. We still stand at the edge of opportunity.  Some days dusk seems closer than others.

And the sun still rises.

Every day is a chance for something more.

The Lake

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Do you have a sense of purpose in life?

Have you come to terms with life and death in a way you resonate with?

How much power do you have in designing your future?

Death, it turns out, is not your greatest fear. Actually, your greatest fear is reaching death and having never truly lived.

When you organize your spiritual life, you become clear on what your life is about. You become clear on what you stand for, and how you want to spend each day. You develop conviction for what really matters to you, and what is a “distraction.”

No matter how well defined, everyone has a moral system governing their behavior. Most people believe in being honest and good people.But until you organize your spiritual life, you’ll experience internal conflict when acting contrary to your values and vision.

-Benjamin Hardy

 

I shut my eyes to sleep and open them to the lake.

Waves lap against the boat. The metal reflects the heat of the morning. Mist rises from the water. Dragonflies land and take off.  To my left, a fish blasts through the surface and the dragonfly, a living flash of emerald, buzzes past my head with too much peace for having faced death.

I am young. I turn in my seat and see no one.  I am alone and fear grips me like ice.

Do not be afraid. The voice sounds from all sides, from the water and sky, the trees and forest, the earth and air. The boat dips as a weight settles behind me.  I turn to see a man.

He wears a suit the color of fall Pennsylvania sky.

Who are you? I ask.

I was wondering the same, he says.  His voice is a mix of many. I hear my father, my grandfather, years of blood running through the past.

He tents his hands on his lap.

Ask.

I feel a drop of rain, hear thunder in the distance. Rain destroys the calm surface. My shirt sticks to my chest.  I shut my eyes as memories roll like waves. Every moment, conversation, up and down. Joy, sorrow, embarrassment. Frustration.

First hand held, first kiss, slow dancing at the prom, proposing marriage. Moving out. Plans, dreams, visions, struggle.

Loss.

Wind rips through the trees, pulling the breath from my lungs. I force out a word.

Why.

He laughs.

Because I formed the first star and set its place in the sky and, in that moment, I knew you. I knew your purpose. I shaped the wind and every single drop of rain.

He raises his hands. The storm dies.

The story is unfinished. The ending is written and your role is of vital importance. I need you in the place that can only come from hurt, from loss and suffering.

I need you to walk through the fires and come out refined.  The fires will only get hotter, the journey longer, the force harder.

I need you because you need me.

I’m scared, I say. An eagle soars from a distant tree top.

I’ll be with you.

Stand.

When you fear          When you cry

When you can’t take another moment

When you lose

When you feel like you have nothing left

Stand.

More storms are coming, he says.  Know I will pull you through.

Thunder crashes and he is gone.

 

 

My eyes open to a storm outside. Aiden climbing into our bed. Red numbers on the clock.

And the sound of rain tapping against the glass, peaceful in the night.  

 

 

A Sum of Years

Can’t you just act ten years old?

i project as much as i can, a hurricane of noise.  He lowers his head.

i’m on my bike, a red Diamondback, riding across town with the sun on my face and all the time in the world. i take a dollar to Allen’s Variety Store and stock on up baseball cards and candy.

Go to my dad’s on the weekends and watch the Phillies on television while he mows the yard. 

Getting hooked on Are You Afraid of the Dark. 

The bullies. Eat lunch out of a brown paper bag and search for who looks at me and says something. 

Shoot pool on the weekends and smoke a cigar like i know what to do with it, smell of Cool Water cologne. 

Drive around for hours with Val in my first car, an 84 Oldsmobile with tan seats like couches. 

Walk King of Prussia Mall like it is a foreign country and window shop. 

Work in a factory during summers in college and come home covered in oil and dust. 

Graduate and wonder what the hell to do next. 

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Hired. Fired. Hired again. 

Move out. Marriage. 

Find out i’d be a father. 

Lay off. 

Struggle. Every. Day. 

i walked down the stairs as he stayed in his room. i sat on the couch.

Disappointment. Failure. Not living up to the ideal of what i could be and feeling never enough. 

The alarm sounds at 6:30.  Shower. Dress.  Put the coffee on. Make a thermos.  He comes down the stairs and lies on the couch.

Dad can you put on the PlayStation Vue for me?

Sure.  Why are you up so early?

I didn’t sleep well last night.

i tousled his blonde hair. He pulls the blanket over his shoulders.

i’m going to work, i say. Be good.

I will.

Back on my bike crossing town, winter jacket zipped tight.  Inhale and feel like i’m flying and still, deep down, know the pain is coming. 

One Day.

The Edge

Maybe you’ve been there.

The boardroom, the dinner table, the athletic field.  The presentation that will make or break the contract.  The conversation that will pull your son out of depression. The date that will bring back the light in a spouse’s eyes.

There is an edge in life.  The feeling is cold.  The edge of a knife that runs through your core and into your soul. Hearts pound. Nerves grip and release. A cold sweat appears.

The edge is clear.  The edge is hard, the hardest thing you ever face.  The edge is powerful.

The edge is the door to your biggest dreams and deepest heartbreak.  For those of us willing to live there, it can be the most empowering place in the universe.

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The edge calls you.

It’s the reason you go to the gym, strap on the sneakers and pound the pavement.  It’s the moment you look in the mirror and decide this isn’t working and you are sick of it.  You are sick of feeling down and sorry.  You are sick of waiting for permission.

Here’s a secret: Permission isn’t coming. Know why?

Because it comes from you.

The way through fear. The way around worry.  The way to advance in the face of odds that seems so large.  The way through the darkness is to move.  One step at a time. One moment of a minute of an hour of a day.  One choice in the midst of the darkest night. One yell from the primal depth of your being to declare…

I’m done.

This isn’t working anymore.  It is time for a change. Starting now. I’m done with the old and I’m living in the new, on the edge, with momentum and purpose.

It is the first gasp of breath when you haven’t breathed in years.  It is the first beat of a heart that knows a reason for living.  It is the first embrace when your souls connect again after so many years apart.

It is life on the edge and it is calling. No more excuses.  No more waiting.  Time keeps moving.  Will you move with it?

The choice is yours.

The Passage and Sorrow

On Monday night, one of my favorite novel trilogies premiered on Fox as a television series.  The Passage stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar and an excellent young actress in Saniyya Sidney. The entire cast does well and the production value is high.  Justin Cronin’s series of novels provide a wealth of material and I’m excited to see where they take it.

The series itself is the story of the world after a virus was discovered by a scientific team in Bolivia.  The team is searching for the secret to immortality and, as any good horror trope goes, the secret is found in the blood of a man hiding in a Bolivian cafe who happens to be two centuries old.  As you’ve probably guessed, he’s a vampire.

Cronin added enough to make things interesting.  The government is running a test program called Project Noah on 12 individuals in an attempt to refine the virus. Those infected now have unique powers that include physical strength and psychic manipulation.  Of course they feed on blood and actions will ensue that releases them into the world (not to spoil anything for those watching it like I am).

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Part of the story established in the premiere episode is that Gosselaar’s character, Agent Brad Wolgast, has a daughter who had passed away around age ten. He is instructed to bring Amy (Sidney’s character, a girl around the same age) to the testing center and decides that he can’t follow through.  They make a run for it while being chased by the Department of Defense.

Child loss and sorrow is something that has hit home for Val and I as, back in February 2018, we suffered a miscarriage at just past twenty weeks. We have two healthy sons and this was a surprise, a deep wound, and something we are still processing.  Our oldest still asks questions about the sibling he would have today had they survived.

In the episode there are moments where the sorrow hits Gosselaar’s character and, at great risk, he decides to run. He had a to follow orders or follow that internal compass driving him to protect Amy.

We learn in the episode, in a call with his wife, that he has been distant and separated, buried in his work.

Sorrow, in many ways, can act like a virus itself.  It can drive us into things and stuff, emotional noise and distance.  It can make us cold and withdrawn. It makes things so much easier to not feel because the emotions are white-hot.

Sorrow can be an asset though.  As the episode shows, it can drive our moral compass stake deep in the ground.  We finally put our foot down deciding to suffer no longer.  We go against what is expected of us by the world and, in that, find the energy to keep moving. We make hope and strength a priority. We work to control what we can and understand what we cannot.

We work to help others, other parents, relatives and friends who may happen to have gone through the same.

I never though we’d lose a child. In 2019, this loss will be a catalyst for us to be better parents, better lovers and friends.  Val and I will be growing together.  In the end, we never stop growing.

Make no mistake, you are always moving.  Some times it takes redirection to get the will to fight and the pull towards faith in something more.

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.