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.

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.

Time

Last night both of my boys were at the baseball fields.  Carter had a practice with his team and Aiden had his first t-ball practice.  The fields were actually next to each other so I was able to bounce between the two.  The entire time I stood there, my mind kept going over how fast things have progressed.  The little boy from four years ago was now down with his friends.

His brother now stood at first base spinning in circles and playing in the dirt.

I took a walk to the fence between the fields to find a friend of mine, a guy I had coached t-ball with back when Carter had started.  I asked him, “Do you remember those days?”  We had a good conversation and part of my heart ached for the time before.

It seems unfair that our lives are packaged with an expiration date, that we only have set years to experience things on this planet before we transition away.  We have limited time to make an impact on our family and our loved ones.

Time scares me.

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C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, wrote about the concept of time.  He wrote that God experiences time in ways we do not.  That moments don’t flow like a river, but exist all in connected point.  God has the ability to see the entirety of the past, present, and future as if looking at one painting on a wall.  Eternity is captured well in this image.

In Dante’s Inferno, his sinners can see the past and future, but have no knowledge of the present. They know what they did, they know what will happen to those they loved and the world, but they have no idea what is happening now.  Imagine living a life without being in the present.

Sound familiar?  We spend most of our lives this way.

The hardest part of time is that we marry it to emotions and regret. We set internal goals.  By 21 we will….by 30 we will….by 50 we will…. and soon enough those years arrive and the imbalance plays itself out in many ways.  We find ourselves happy and fulfilled, driven and making it happen, or upset at what we’ve lost and failed to gain.

Because some day you’ll get to completing the sentence. “One day I will” and that day will arrive. Some of the most over quoted verses in scripture come in the form of peace admonitions.  We are often told to have peace and not be afraid, usually in the midst of the scariest moments. As people of faith, we enjoy throwing these verses at friends in the midst of struggle, sometimes without thinking about why or what we are saying.

The key to conquering time comes at night.  In the still moments, when we rest and wonder about the coming dawn, take inventory. Break it into manageable content. Win a small victory.

Get one thing done.

Maybe that is the secret of peace, to know that you’ve done something with your time before it gets away.

Carter, our son dealing with anxiety, is currently obsessed with time.  We were at the playground the other day and he kept asking me how much time was left.  Finally, I told him to just go play and not worry about it.

Maybe that’s God’s point.

Don’t forget to go play. Get off the sidelines and out of the paralyzing grip of fear. Because one day it will be time.  I’d rather be on the playground than on the side wondering what could have been and what games I’d missed.

Unsteady

Today was one of those days.

If I had a dollar for every blog starting with the same concept written today, I could stop working and fill more digital writing with similar material.

We put through almost 240 patients at work, an endless sea of faces with a selection of ailments. It was a shift where you just stop thinking at a certain point and start laughing.  I heard every possible complaint at least six times, driving home and looking in the mirror wondering how I survived.

This compounds into a general unease I’ve felt recently. The cards haven’t fallen our way. We seem to stop taking up space and start getting ignored.

As a writer, this feeling is usually my internal radar saying it is time for a new book to read or write. The muse gets frustrated and bounces around inside until he finds what he wants.

For others, it can be much worse.

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There’s an entire industry devoted to self-help and direction. Writers and speakers cash in on our need for someone to tell us what to do. You can’t throw a stone on Facebook without seeing a sponsored add about leaving your job to do what you love by working five hours a week and starting your own business.

The bottom line falls on what you believe.  How do you see life when things get hard?  When those days pile up to months and years. When the kids don’t get easier, the bank account doesn’t grow and the people you need don’t answer their emails.

It is not all rainbows, even for those of us who try to follow Jesus.

We pray and we memorize our verses. We know our promises and “stand on them” even without grasping the meaning of the phrase.

I’d love some solidarity at the moment, some solid ground and a clearly visible foundation. Until then, the fight continues.

We live, even unsteady, and do it again tomorrow.

~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

Yellow Light

Last night we took the boys to my mother’s house for dinner.  The house itself is about a block away from where I grew up. It stands directly next to the elementary school that I attended.  Carter and Aiden, whenever they go down to visit, always end up at the playground.

My mom and I took the boys to the playground just after nightfall. The full moon crept up over the horizon as they ran and played.  The night had a hint of spring and I couldn’t help but feel the ghosts of the past and all the days I walked that same space to and from my childhood.

Recently I made a choice to live more intentionally towards my goals as a professional writer, father, and husband. Goals require plans and plans require time. As believers, time can be a sensitive subject.

We pray for intervention, for God to change our lives now. So how do we deal with the cosmic yellow light?

When the answer isn’t go, but wait?

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We like to think we have the concept of time locked down.  Google self-help or inspirational books and you’ll find plenty about getting the life you want in the time you demand. Technology goes to support this dynamic.  It takes no more than the swipe of a finger to order the most expensive items Amazon carries on their app.

Time is not so quick or fluid. Talk to survivors, the ones learning to live again after harsh pasts. Talk to the families who haven’t eaten in days and the men and women hunting for jobs after years of unemployment.

I still set plans and agendas.  I’m working on more intentional faith and trust.  I know God is active in every moment to make our lives part of his bigger dream. Deep inside my soul yells from the sideline.

I’m ready.  Put me in coach!

Thankfully, that determination isn’t mine to make.  We all have a place and a calling. We all have a job not yet finished as we are still breathing and our hearts still beat.

So tonight, take a breath. Help is coming. Doors will open. The preparation time will end and, in a moment, you will be pulled into the tide of action.  Until then, enjoy the work and refinement.

This is the hard part.

Soon, the fun begins.

~Matt

What it Means to Say Goodbye

Last night, Val and I went to the hospital to visit my grandmother.  She’s almost 98 years old.  My grandfather had passed away three years ago and she is my last surviving grandparent.

As we drove home, I reflected on the past as we all do when we face transitions in life.

Time is so important.  None of us know what we have left. It can be a year, ninety-nine years, or a hundred. We must grasp it and make the most of our moments

My grandmother grew up around the Great Depression.  Her father was a butcher and supplied meat to their neighbors. She told me stories about card games at the house where her and her siblings would crawl on the floor and pick up the money that was dropped by the intoxicated guys above.

She drove cars around her family’s property.  She worked numerous jobs, raised two girls while my grandfather was in Italy during WW2, and raised a son after the war who would eventually become my father.

We had family dinners, oh the family dinners! Multiple sides and main dishes, deserts that she would get up and make early in the mornings.

My time at their house always meant one thing in life, a sense of peace, of love and acceptance.

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Photo Credit: Chris Blakeley via Compfight cc

At our wedding, the pastor specifically mentioned my grandparents as our aspired goal.  They were our inspiration. A marriage lasting almost seventy years and becoming cornerstones of a family.

As of this morning, she is still with us. I’m going through the day still finding memories from the past. From sleeping over in the summer, to fresh coffee cake for breakfast and fresh iced tea for lunch. She taught me how to crack an egg for baking, something I’ll pass on to Carter one day.

She’s been a blessing in my life and has made me a better person.

We drove home from the hospital and I wondered if it would be the last time I said goodbye to her.  I kissed her on the forehead and thought about all the years she had done the same to me.

We all called her Princess, a name that I came up with when I was little.  So this morning, Princess, even if you don’t get a chance to see this post, I want you to know how much you mean to me, to Val, and our family. You are a treasure.

Thank you.

~Matt

3 Ways to Take Back Your Time as Parents

I’m excited to be adding a new addition to this site.  Val and I will be posting together and covering some topics related to marriage and families. We’ve been married for seven years and in a relationship for sixteen years as we met in high school.  She is a hair stylist and a Thirty-One consultant.  You can find her website here. Now for the first post of the series:

Friday morning I asked a coworker how her kids were doing.  We each have two boys, roughly the same age.  Val and I had met her and her husband for once for a play date with all our kids.  She proceeded to tell me a story about the day before and  struggles to get the kids in the car, dropped off at their daycare, picked up, and dealing with them destroying the house at home.  I could identify with every issue.  Her husband works later hours and drives a good distance to get to his job.  She finished her story with this important question that she asked her husband:

“When do I get a break?”

Val and I work opposite hours.  She has the boys during the day and they often find ways to drive her crazy. She needs a break. I know she needs a break and yet the hardest thing is to engineer ways to get it done.  Carter and Aiden love her and want to be around her so any suggestion I have to take the boys on my own is often met with resistance from their end. We talked last night and realized that we needed a strategy, a plan to take back some time as parents.  Kids can rule your world but, only if you let them. Here are three tips to take back your time:

1/Meet at the table: Unity is powerful. Your children need to see you together and a meal is the perfect place.  If you are in a marriage where you work different hours, then pick one of the meals of the day and have it together.  If this needs to be on the weekend, make it happen. When the family shares a meal as a unit, great things can happen. You parent as a team, talk about the day, plan for the future, and touch base on any issues.  Being together as spouses creates valuable time when one party usually has the kids for the majority.

2/Open Communication: American Beauty is one of my favorite movies.  It is a tragic story that hits home on many levels.  In this clip you’ll see an interaction between Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening (husband and wife).

How many of us have had talks like this with our spouses? On the surface, we see the conflicts.  Spacey has traded in their family car for his dream car. He asks Bening why she has no joy in her life.  In the movie Bening is having an affair, thus her response to his question. They are living on two different levels, just look at their outfits.   To combat this in the real world, make sure you have open communication.  Use social media, phone calls, text messages, whatever you can find.  Leave notes around the house of instruction and encouragement. Stay unified as parents and you’ll be able to meet conflicts and solve problems as they arise.

3/ Rewards: We all want rewards. We want acknowledgement of our efforts at work and at home.  Schedule a personal reward each week, even daily if you want.  Make it a hot bath, watching the football game, getting that one ____ that you’ve been walking by on your trips to Target. We need to pay ourselves every now and then.  If you structure in a personal reward, stick to it. Create a goal and your days will have direction and momentum. Create a goal as a couple and you have unity. Create goals as a family and bring everyone on board. Achieve these goals and let the rewards flow.

I’m excited to keep this series going as we head into fall.  Keep your eye out for more posts from Val and I together as we move into that magical time of year, Back to School. Let us know what you think and we look forward to your responses.!

~Matt and Val