Smoke

ash-blaze-bonfire-217247

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.

Advertisements

Night Swim

ripples-swimming-pool-tiles-347143

This past weekend, Val headed to the beach with her sister and mother while I was home handling some errands and spending time with the boys.  On Friday, the pool we joined had a movie night/night swim. I took Carter over as Aiden was sleeping at my mother’s house.

We sat in the parking lot as the pool had closed their gate for thirty minutes to get the lights up and pool ready.  They were also showing a movie and had to get the large screen set on the lawn next to the pool.  As we waited in the car, the parking lot filled with families.  Other cars arrived and started dropping off teens for the swim.  When the time came, the gate opened and we made our way inside.

I took position on a bench while Carter played with his friends.  In about twenty seconds I realized how much time had passed.

Things I wish I’d known twenty years ago:

1/  Everyone is insecure- The crowd was a mix of the “popular kids” and the outsiders.  One girl ran past me telling her friends “People want me in the pool and you are all up here hanging out.  I don’t know what to do!” Some guys swam in full t shirts, others without. The posturing was interesting to say the least.  If there’s anything I’d tell myself at 17 is that all people are insecure, not just you.

2/ These years aren’t forever I thought everything was huge.  All the conversations, interactions, days in school and days in summer.  I thought it all mattered for the rest of time. It does not. Time is fleeting (in the words of the Rocky Horror Picture Show) and the sun will rise tomorrow.  Eventually, it fades to memories.

3/ Have fun– A group of kids stood off in the corner hanging out and watching the others swimming, laughing and joking around. I know, from my own insecurities, that I missed out often on experiences and taking chances.  Courage is not an easy thing, often it may seem  cool to stay off to the side, but you must take advantage of the moments and grasp them tightly.

Because soon you’ll be a dad, watching your son swim, and wondering where all the time has gone.  You’ll know, soon enough, he’ll want to be dropped off and ask you to wait in the parking lot.

The fear of a parent is not missing out.  It is not how our kids will survive and will they make it though to adults. The fear is not having enough time.  It is knowing that one day they’ll leave the house and start their own families.  One day they’ll have their own lives and your conversations will change.

You’ll watch them graduate, meet significant others, stand in front of you and exchange vows. You’ll see them in their own house and get the call one day that you’ll be a grandparent.

One day there will be no 10 year old to take to the pool. No player to drive to baseball practice. No head resting in your lap as you watch a movie on Friday nights. No one strolling into the kitchen to give you a hug just because.

One day they’ll be out there, on their own.

And you’ll think of the day you sat at the pool and watched him swim and you’ll wish, just for a moment, that you could go back there and do it all one more time.  Have one more summer night as the sun set, listen to the laughing and splashing, and maybe you’ll get up and join him.  Maybe you’ll tell him how proud you are. Maybe you’ll stop checking email and just be there in the moment.

Because one day he won’t. He’ll be the sum of his childhood out there in the world and, God willing, be a better man than you.

Stuck

I’d mentioned before on here that my dad worked in a nuclear power plant.  He’d spent two decades there as an operator, a staff member working on upkeep of engines and various machines at the plant including the reactor. I remember being awed at the mystery of the thing, the idea of working with radiation and the precarious spot of being an everyday employee.

In fifth grade we had to do a science fair project.  Dad helped me with a presentation on the Chernobyl disaster. HBO recently aired an outstanding series on the events surrounding it.

cq5dam.web.1200.675

image from hbo.com

For those of you unfamiliar, a reactor at the plant melted down after a faulted safety test in the middle of the night.  This exposed workers and residents of the town of Pripyat and the fallout is still being felt decades later. Pripyat was a town built specifically for workers at the plant and their families.  Today it stands abandoned.

The lessons behind the incident are explored in the series. What is the price of lies and secrets? How valuable is information? When is reputation more important than life itself?

We watch the show and wonder what we would have done, being faced with certain death. We consider the cost of duty and we rage with those the government had left behind in their efforts to cover up the true scope of the disaster.

Our lives have power and potential.  We radiate with purpose.  We are driven with a force strong enough to light a thousand cities and yet we can find ourselves stuck.

We fall slave to routine. We find comfort when lies are easier than truth, avoiding correction is easier than facing the music for our mistakes. We settle and fight, pull away into isolation and find comfort in a place that slowly takes our hours until the sun sets and darkness falls.

If you find yourself in this spot, there is hope.

People in social media land make significant money helping people find hope.  They do it in appearance, words, finances, status, any key they can find.  They miss the point though.

Hope is not a concrete thing.

Hope is an internal switch.  It is the moment you realize you are tired of being tired, that nothing changes if nothing changes.  It is the point you look in the mirror and decide you’d had enough. It is the moment you burn it all down and walk away from the ashes on a new path with new life and direction.

Hope can’t be sold or captured, forced into a form or transaction. Hope comes in understanding that God is doing a work in you even in the midst of darkest night.

We get stuck when we are caught in routine, following a rote path carved out because someone said we should, falling to peer pressure and the comparison game, giving up and settling down because it is easy.

Hope is not easy. Know today that the fire still burns within you, the light of a million suns and the potential to change the world, your family, your marriage, your children, and every single breath.

I believe this and I believe, as you read this, a small voice inside agrees with me.  You can feel it ready to soar, to break out and push forward. Your day is here.

Your time is now.

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. 

close-up-color-countdown-39396

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.

Dark Times

I’ve been working on some long form texts recently.  Here is an excerpt from an upcoming book on faith. 

Dark Times

 As a kid in high school in the late 1990’s, the band Linkin Park was huge.  I wore out their Hybrid Theory album in my first car. The writing captured something our generation was feeling at the time.  In the song “Numb” Bennington’s lyrics were about, as you can guess, not feeling or connecting with those he loved. I probably listened to that song a thousand times.  Deep down, I understood.

Chester Bennington himself, as the years passed, married and had a family.  Recently he took his own life in a successful suicide attempt. That happened not long after his friend and fellow musician Chris Cornell did the same.

At West Chester University, as an undergrad, I had a class called Literature and Psychology.  We were a group of mixed majors from the two fields of study.  The professor was my favorite there and ran an enthralling class.  We spent many days discussing the connection between creativity and mental illness.  Was there something about writing that opened the door to deeper issues?  Were the creative out there vulnerable to feeling their anger and depression at such great depth that they could not get out?  We talked about the prevalence of suicide in writers from Hemmingway to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Wolf. Bennington and Cornell seemed to follow suit.

When I was in my late 20’s, I went to my family doctor one night.  I hadn’t been feeling right and I remember her standing across from me.  She asked, “On a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about your life right now?”  I replied, a 4.  She left the room and returned with a prescription for Effexor 150 mg. I took the drug for years.

bonfire-burning-camp-1368382

Depression was not what the movies portrayed, the feeling more disconnection than anything.  I’d floated above those I loved and valued.  Words seemed to come from a distance.  Thinking itself was a burden.  I remember driving to work, almost an hour each way at that time, pulling in and realizing I just couldn’t do it that day.  I’d call out from the parking lot and drive home.

It took time and effort to get out of the well that took the shape of depression.  The interesting part of the experience came from those in my faith community.  I’d spoken to some about what I was dealing with and it was pushed to the side.  Faith and Depression didn’t mix, in their minds.  It was something else.  It was a mistake.  If you believed, you had no room to feel bad for yourself.

Even later in life, in larger churches, there’d be a message about a mental health support group but it would quickly be glossed over.  We don’t like admitting weakness, even if it is reality.  It is long past time the stigma against mental suffering within churches is removed.

Our son Carter deals with anxiety.  I’ve seen him worry about things large and small.  Part of raising children is not only validating their emotions but helping them through it.  That is not an easy process and I’ve been frustrated more than once.  The same conversations night after night get old.  After the tenth time, logic gives way to yelling and that doesn’t help anything.

Part of an authentic faith life is dealing with the dark and ugly sides. When Val and I experienced the miscarriage we didn’t have a single set of friends from our church that we felt comfortable speaking with.  We had ones outside of church.  That contrast says something.

There are three certainties in life; death, taxes, and the fact that you’ll deal with bad things. Even if you call yourself a follower of Jesus, you will not be immune. If anything, the target on your back will be greater.  People watch when you speak of faith.  They watch you directly and indirectly.  People, in this case, can be friends, family, and coworkers.  They look for moments of hypocrisy.  They want to see where you fall short of “being a good person,” as if faith could be boiled down to that equation.

We need to redefine the term itself.

Faith is not being a good person.  Faith is conviction.  It is knowing you are a work in progress, understanding that suffering is coming, and shaping a response that will help move past the conflict. Faith is showing yourself in good and bad times, in the light and the darkness.  It is knowing that things do not change in an instant, they are works in progress. Your desired future is out there.  It will take a journey of massive effort to make it.

Faith is dangerous.

It calls you to levels you’ve never considered. It makes you face your fears.  You step into conversations you never thought you’d have.  Faith shines a light in the darkness and those things in the shadows are shown in their full radiance.

Faith calls you to enter in hostile places and make a difference.  Innovate.  Come up with something never imagined before and see it to creation. Faith is a catalyst for ideal futures that connect to the dreams of God.  It is a way in to the most dangerous path in the universe with the greatest reward at the end.

Faith redefines the idea of community.  Service. Giving. Support. It transforms spaces into authentic areas of worship. It redefines cities, faces down poverty and hatred, offers hope to those who have forgotten what it looks like.  Faith is love across lines, boundaries, belief and act.  It is a challenge.

Faith is not ignorance.  It is reaching out.

Faith is not silence. It is voice.

Faith is not acceptance. It is transformation.

Faith is not the safe path.  It is a journey into the wild.

Faith is an inferno and a whisper, power and prayer, storm and silence.  It is change and it is here.

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.

bay-beach-beautiful-831077

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.

Broken Mirror

I met Val when I was sixteen and she was seventeen.  We’ve been together since 1999 and married since 2007. We’ve experienced each other as teenagers and adults, grown into the realities of marriage and children  and what it takes to build a life together.

One night, in the early years of dating, I was helping her brother put an air conditioner in Val’s bedroom window. They’d lived in an old twin home at the time and the place had windows that were likely original.  The window we were working on got stuck, probably because of the humid night, and I placed my hand securely on the sill and started to push up.

The thing wouldn’t move.

Two minutes later it finally moved and, in one swift moment, I put my hand right through the glass. The window shattered.

Thankfully, I made it without any serious cuts or wounds.

abstract-art-break-414752

There are moments where you look in the mirror and decide you’ve had enough.

The turnover to 2019 was one of those moments for us as a family.

We looked in the mirror and realized we were tired.  Tired of debt. Tired of being unhealthy. Tired of feeling lost.  Tired of just surviving. Tired of being tired.

So we decided to change things.

We’re back in the gym (I’m down more than ten pounds so far).  We are building our savings and finally designing a budget (starting Financial Peace University next week). We are attending church again.

Some of our goals may be common, but they are valuable to us: Finding authentic community, becoming financially solvent, being better parents and living in the moment with our boys, support a charity and becoming more generous.

We’ve decided to support Through the Heart, a non-profit that assists families dealing with miscarriage and infant loss. We remember how it felt for us and we’re so excited to help families dealing with the same.

I’m in the midst of reading The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, a book that is changing my life about moving forward with purpose. I highly recommend it as every chapter is gold.

This path won’t be easy but, when you have a mirror moment, you can’t go backwards.  You can’t sit still anymore.

You burn the boats at the shore.

In many ways, this is a start we should have had years ago.  That’s the point though, to start, because as long as you’re breathing you have time to make a difference. We’ve spent too long not investing in ourselves and our family.

The time for change has arrived.

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).

the-passage-poster-600x927

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.

Rough Draft

I had a post written.

It was a nice fluff piece meant to grab some likes positive comments. It was ready to go.  Then things changed.  That voice that drives my writing shifted and I realized it was time to get real.

There’s a certain point where you have enough.

Now, you can read your Bible and find stories of the men and women in the early church dealing with their own issues.  Some ended up martyred for their faith. Paul prays to have “a thorn” removed and remarks that he was denied multiple times.  He just had to keep going.

What if you can’t?

backlit-curve-dark-724712

Our lives haven’t been easy, how about yours?

Debt. Struggle. Fear. Anxiety. Hard kids. Hard jobs.

Just

Not

Having

Enough

Do a quick google search and you’ll find plenty of people willing to sell you ways out.  They’ve made careers from it. Books, meetings, podcasts, seminars. Take all you want, read all you want, listen to everything.  Sometimes, at night, the ghosts don’t go away.

People act like it’s easy.  It isn’t.

We are the suffering.  The struggling. The ones trying every day to make it work.

We are not far from all we can take.

There’s power there.

And if there’s anything I’ve found it is that all arrows point to faith. Getting up. Taking a breath.  Getting dressed and doing it all over again. You may not realize it, but all of those things are acts of faith.

Not everything will be a success story.

It is about the small victories.  One day clean. One day happy.  One day knowing what joy feels like.  One day feeling understood by those around us.  One day holding hands with a loved one and feeling secure.

The anger and resentment are almost like a fully formed person.  The thing in the dark that knows you’ll come back because no matter how far you make it on a first step, you’ll always stumble and the darkness will be waiting.

I don’t know where you are right now.  Or what you are doing. Or how you’ll get a chance to see this.  Maybe a friend will read it in WordPress and text you a link. Maybe you’ll nod your head the whole way and realize we are in the same boat.

Here’s where I’d flip it and wrap things into a nice little bow.  There’s no neat ending this time.

Take a step.

Even when it hurts. Even when you’ve been knocked down for the 1000th time.  Get up one more. Make today better than yesterday.

Then repeat.

Because the darkness will swallow you if you let it.

It is time to fight.

Keep moving.

 

The Game

We had baseball practice last night.

Now summer baseball is a different animal.  Local seasons usually run through April and May, finishing in early June. This keeps summer for vacations and whatever else families have on their plate.  In our area of Pennsylvania, a variety of summer sports kick in from basketball to soccer and swimming. Summer, for all these kids, is a busy time.

Add in the heat and things really get fun.

We finished practice last night with running the bases.  By the last lap around, the boys were huffing and puffing.  One kid stood off to the side and one of our assistant coaches told him to get back in there because, “it won’t get easier if you are sitting out.”

How many of us get trapped in catching our breath and, before we know it, the sideline is a comfortable place to be.

athlete-baseball-field-48151

We throw around the idea of courage way too loosely.

We hide it in buzzwords like hustle. The Bible tells us more than once to not fear. We who claim to follow Jesus are told to be salt and light in the world.  That implies interaction, for salt is only tasted in contact with something.  Light shines in contrast to the darkness.  Neither can stand alone.

I used to have a repeated dream.  I was back in school looking for the classroom for my final exam and couldn’t find it.  The last test I needed to take to move on was delayed and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t complete it.

I turned thirty-six last week.  Today at work someone said “You’re still in your prime.”

God, I hope not.

There’s fear and excitement in the unfinished story. Anxiety waits on the horizon like a crashing wave when our faith waivers. When we start to wonder if this is it, if we are in our prime, if our life can’t get any better.

If we are stuck.

We are not designed to be stuck. We are designed to change the future.

I believe the future can change. Hard times will come. Disasters will happen and we’ll emerge stronger.  The trick is to stay off the sidelines and keep running.

Because quitting makes nothing easier.