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.  

 

 

Night Swim

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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.

Threads

This week is a unique one on a few fronts. Carter has two days of school, then he’s off for spring break. We are rounding the turn on warmer weather. Baseball, professional and youth, is on the horizon.

Summer seems just over the hill.

Easter is at the end of the week. In terms of Biblical history, Jesus has arrived through Palm Sunday and cleansed the temple.  Soon he will be arrested and find his way to the cross, rising again in victory.

It is a time of resurrection for us as a family. We’re moving towards new things, situations, times and experiences. On Saturday, I drove to Delaware to visit my dad and, driving home I started thinking about the threads that carry us through from past to present and future.

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Our pastor on Sunday said you can’t separate Christmas from Easter, the birth of Jesus from his death and return to life. The experiences of the past speak to our future.

The children we were influence the adults we are.

We throw down gauntlets with every painful experience, internal promises we make ourselves to avoid the same issues decades later. They can have positive or negative results. We tell ourselves we will never ____ (fill in the blank). It can drive us to obsessive levels of perfection or success.  It can also cripple us with doubt.

Every writer is scared of rejection. If I could go back and talk to myself as a kid, I’d tell him that it will be okay. All the struggle will amount to something. The people who have cycled in and out of your life all had their reasons and it was nothing against you. The first publication will feel as good as the first big one.

It takes birth and growing up to face loss and resurrection.

I’d tell myself to make the most of the years because they will pass too fast and you’ll find yourself sitting in front of a laptop typing a blog post while your own kids sleep in their beds. That the dreams will keep coming, the calling will get louder and more clear, that you will make a difference and the words will count for something in the end.

That it is never over, so many years later, and the fight is worth stepping into the ring even when you don’t have the energy to leave the lockers.

~Matt

The Beginning of The _nd

The last post and this one combine to give you a preview of one of my upcoming projects.  Here is the introduction to The _nd, a story of transformation, redemption, and a life worth living. I hope you’ll hang in and follow as the story unfolds…

I got down to a knee on the gym floor facing a trio of first graders, my son Carter in the middle of them. The youth basketball game happened behind us. We were getting killed; I mean not even a competition, by a team older and more experienced. The boys were dejected in the special way that young boys can get, faces down, tears just hovering on the surface. I looked at them in the eye.

“It’s not over,” I said.

“Yes it is,” Carter told me. “If we were better, it would be different.”

My father logic searched for an answer. I tried to explain the thinking behind sports and competition, dipping towards an eternal lesson they could take into their adult lives. I pictured them accepting awards one day saying, “this guy that helped my basketball team when I was younger, he told me…”

The best I could do was something about small victories, about taking a fight one step at a time. They nodded. I added some of the usual sports clichés, patted them on their respective shoulders, and went back to yelling instructions at our players across the gym.

How many of us are sitting on the sidelines, heads down, looking to get out?

The opposition seems bigger, stronger, more experienced. The score is not in our favor. It may be real numbers like age or finances. It may be a force like an addiction that will not go away. We try and try, putting in our best shifts on the court, yet nothing works.

So we limp over and wait for the final buzzer.

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This project is about more than motivation. I’m not throwing on my spiritual Richard Simmons workout gear. This is about a major shift in our narratives.

For every life is a story.

We are born with divine purpose, called to dreams beyond our belief and comprehension. We are meant to push our limits, exceed expectations, and feed off endless hope.

Then our past kicks in.

We grow and build the stories around us. The first lines often come from parents, positively and negatively. Kids internalize everything. They remember and start shaping stories early

When conflicts come, it is these stories they fall back on. If they are flawed, which humanity dictates they will be, fear and anxiety result.

We must start listening to a new voice. One that tells us the ending has yet to be written on our lives, that we can break free and start fresh, that we can push towards higher destinations on the journey….

Stay tuned and check back as we continue this path of the unwritten ending.  Share with anyone you know needing some hope and I pray you’ll find some too along the way.

~Matt

Throw Away Old Stories

I’ve mentioned Donald Miller’s Storyline blog on here more than once and for good reason as I almost always get some selection of inspirational material.  If you haven’t followed them yet, I recommend it.

This past week, there was a post about changing the narrative you are living.  The writer told a story about a friend’s mother and this woman’s visit to her friend’s house. The friend complained that, when her mother was over, she “turned into a twelve-year-old again.” The writer continued to talk about growing up as an outsider and how she needed to overcome that to succeed in her creative efforts.

The post was up on Saturday and it has bounced around in my head since then.

How many of us are living old stories?

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I feel like this past year has been a journey to break the hold of old stories on my life.  I was not what you’d call an outsider as I had friends from different social groups.  I was not, though, the popular kid.  I didn’t jump at opportunities to show off.  I wasn’t a sports star or an actor with the drama club.

Oral presentations scared me until I took a public speaking class in high school.

These stories carried over into my early 30’s and I feel the fight rising. It is only a conflict because the old stories still exist.  Because the old part of my soul still stands on the sidelines content to be okay.

The time to be okay is over.

Change is possible if we allow ourselves to do it.  How many of us avoid the difficult conversation about Jesus at the water cooler because we were rejected in the past? Because someone made fun of us for being different? How many let those with stronger wills influence our lives and the lives of our children? How many refuse to stand because we’ve been knocked down too much that it is just easier to stay there?

Do we avoid risk because we fear failure or success? Breaking apart or breaking the bonds that hold us down?

I pray this week is one of change for you.  That you step out of your comfort zone and throw away the old stories impacting your life.  Starting writing new ones and see what happens.

~Matt

Weekend Inspiration-Lessons from the Past

After a beautiful morning of taking Aiden to the playground, I decided to look to the past for some Weekend Inspiration:

I had grandparents that could, and parents that can cook and I remember many nights with the smell of fresh pasta and sauce on the stove. Now that I have kids, I traded in tradition for ease more than once and this lesson rings in my ears every night at dinner:

LOS ANGELES

Taken from a letter my mother wrote me before I went to college.  We had a cat at the time, so the original was “pet a cat and you’ll feel better.” I think it applies to all pets and is a great reminder for the darker nights of the soul:

when you are down

I was shy growing up, to a fault.  Maybe it was the only child thing where I’d grown used to being by myself.  Now, looking back, I’d tell my self to:

strike up more

Every summer we would take a vacation as a family. As I grew from playing in the sand to walking with Val and finally watching my kids play in the sand, this is clear:

Some of your best memories will be made

 

Have a great weekend!

~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

Break Every Chain

This is a post about freedom.

Not a belated July 4th celebration.  A different kind of freedom.

We all have ways we define our lives. We claim things for our own. We fill in our incomplete sentences and pick identities from the moments of life God had placed in our past. Make your way around a party and talk to people.  You’ll find the spoiled one, the beaten down and abused, the rich and privileged.

I remember playing on the golf team in high school.  One of the guys was the son of a family that owned a pair of furniture stores in town.  He wore the best clothes and had the most expensive golf clubs.  His name was his identity.

There is a danger here.

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The crucifixion scene in the Bible always fascinated me.  The imagery was harsh and dramatic. I could picture the wind and rain-swept hillside, the trio of crosses with thunder crashing in the background.  I could see the guards and the brave few supporters of Jesus gathering at his feet.  The part that fascinated me was his words:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

There are volumes of debate and analysis on the meaning of this question.  We understand that, in the moment, Jesus had taken on all sin to be the living sacrifice for our salvation.  God, in perfection, could not assist.  His Will be done.

The Son had to move on without the Father to complete his ultimate journey.

I believe we are all called out on the water.  To realize our destiny, we throw off the chains of our past and step forward.

We are shaped by our past, defined by our future, and driven by our dreams.

Tonight I pray you know freedom from the things holding you back. I pray you find new life and look in the mirror and know you are okay. You are strong. You are able.

You will make it.

~Matt