Courage

I have friends that groan all the time about how marriage is hard. And while I agree with the implied meaning behind that statement, I balk at it being a healthy focal point.

My eyes will see what I focus on, especially with these new glasses. I prefer a different definition.

Marriage is Courage.

If the only preparation for my union with another soul is how hard it is going to be, I’ll reach that goal fairly quickly.  I’ll find it when our wills collide over something stupid like what color comforter to chose for our new house. I discovered it when I realized my partner liked the TV on for noise first thing in the morning and I prefer spatial silence til about 10am.

When two people decide to blend their lives together, there is a lot that goes into that recipe that does not appear to belong. I either develop a taste for it or figure out how to change the recipe.

Courage moved me over the years to face the hard parts of marriage. Courage was my decision to not settle for what was and reached for what could be. It takes Courage to take the vow seriously, “for better or for worse.” It seems like we had our fair share of the “or for worse” part toward the end.

Courage calls each other to shoulder the weight of the vow together.  If the relationship is lopsided in its responsibility, Courage will address that. In some cases, “or for worse” means abuse has appeared.  Courage is then called upon to move toward safety. Courage doesn’t always mean staying together.

If marriage is just plain hard but the goal is to not split up, that’s a recipe with a very bland outcome.

Now that my marriage is over by death, I can reflect back on it and see where Courage began to develop in my heart. As I grew in Faith and Wisdom, Courage gave me new confidence to not be passive. In many ways, that made things worse between us. The old dysfunctional patterns that were forged in our early years needed an upgrade, and Courage helped make the decision.

Yes, marriage is hard, but so is Life in general. Raising kids is hard. Losing weight is hard.  Getting in shape is hard. But there must be a higher goal, a better objective to focus on.

And Courage will do its best to get you there.

Make today count.

Happy Valentine Day

In case of a house fire, I have a few things in mind to grab first. I would get the photo albums in the top of the hall closet. I would fetch my Taylor guitar and I would make sure I have this card with me.

It’s a miniature history of our life together in a Hallmark card. The high points are listed year by year in her handwriting; the birth of our kids, first house, transition to the minivan phase, both of us unemployed at the same time, traveling to Ireland and Scotland with the four of us, the death of our fathers, etc. It’s a priceless chronology.  If you get to the burning house before I do, it’s in my journal next to the chair upstairs where I read and reflect.

The tradition started on Valentine’s Day 1991, ten months into marriage.  Karen wrote a new entry in it every year but one. 2017 was understandably missing. It was the worst of the bunch.

I know I can’t go back and change that year, or any other year for that matter. As I wrote previously, I’m in the middle of that wrestling match. From one corner of the ring, I hear, “You should have done that differently.” And being yelled out from the other, “Just get over it.”

My past conflict has a way of creating this dilemma.  Conflict that has no opportunity to ever make right is even harder.

This is where Perspective comes in handy.

Occasionally Dad would need to remind me, “Son, when you have a flat, don’t curse the tire that went down. Give thanks that the other four didn’t.

“The other four?” I questioned?

He finished, “You got a spare, don’t you?

This is Perspective. Everything isn’t as it seems. There is always a different angle, always an alternate vantage point from which to observe. Always a different way to see.

I found myself this morning obsessing over the missing 2017 entry and all the regret it represented during that most difficult year.   A huge phalanx of guilt came storming in. But the Kindness of Perspective stopped the assault as it nudged me to remember that there were 27 other notes that I was ignoring.

27 – 1. That’s a decent record. That’s a top seed in the tournament.

We had our share of conflict and struggle together and some of it went to her grave.  I’ll never get a chance to get it right. But at the same time, I have to be fair to the other side of the narrative. I built some good things along the way. I planted some good seeds. I led us to make lasting memories.  That investment will still keep paying dividends. Regrets only have power if I arm them with it.

On this Valentine’s Day, I only have memories and no more chances to make it right. And I get to own that.  If you are fortunate to be with the one you love today, what does showing love look like for you? Does it manifest itself in roses and chocolates, or does it take the road less traveled?  It may come in the form of courage to initiate counseling. It might mean the willingness to no longer sweep your conscience under the rug and take seriously the issue between the two of you that’s been bothering you for years.

Listen to your heart.  It’s probably been telling you for quite some time now.  Don’t ignore it. It can be trusted. Make things right.

I repeat these phrases to myself daily. They’ve become a mantra. From page 48 in my book.

Make today count.

When Anger Shows Up

Conversation is a favorite pastime of mine. I guess I could even call it a hobby. I could listen for hours when I latch onto someone interesting and willing to tell their unfeigned story. I’ve been known to fall asleep on the phone mid-sentence while talking to Feng Dude. The last time it happened, my phone log indicated the call ended sometime around 3am. The sun woke me up in my patio chair that morning.  How I love getting lost in a rich dialogue.

A good conversation starts with a few tabs, much like on my internet browser. I might have several tabs open at one time on my laptop.  This feature makes it easy to pass back and forth from one topic to another. A person who can hold multiple tabs open keeps a good conversation rolling.

A tab for conversation I like to open up begins with this question. What makes you angry?  This can lead us to insightful discoveries about what matters to each of us deep within. It might begin on the surface with the driver that was tailgating me on the way into work or the low-hanging fruit of infinitely maddening political topics.  But I like to see if we can get past that and find out the anger that leads to vulnerable sadness.

Anger is a natural, and may I even say, necessary part of grief.  Anger is how I am alerted to a wrong being done, or where I see injustice occurring. I get angry at my loss because I wasn’t created to lose.  I didn’t sign up for the loss I just experienced.

As anger is an inevitable part of the grief process, I will eventually need to move past it. But many get tied up in this emotion and find it difficult to get unbound. I believe the trap is set, not because anger is present, but because anger goes unaddressed. When anger isn’t included in the conversation, it becomes like the wounded child that is ignored. That child will be heard one way or another.

I was met by anger on day 2 and it frightened me. I did not want to feel this way. But through the encouragement of a few trusted confidants, I looked anger in the face and listened. I bought a journal and dedicated it to translating the anger into words on a page. I even wrote a disclaimer in the front of the book, indicating that if anyone ever found this collection, please note that this is from the pen of a grieving man.

As I began, I wrote in it daily. And I didn’t like to. I wasn’t comfortable with how it felt to be so honest with myself. I was afraid it would make me trapped in the anger and define me as an angry person.  But it did the opposite.

As I squared off with anger, the better part of my heart eased back in with a new invitation. I have nothing to fear of anger.  It doesn’t need to decide anything for me. It’s only there to alert and warn me that something isn’t right. Like all other emotions, I need to respect anger and like any good conversation, I need to stop talking and listen to what it’s trying to say to me. Once its done its job of sounding the alarm, and anger feels heard, that’s when Hope and Love can step back into the leadership role of my heart.

It’s been several weeks since I made an entry into my anger journal. Mainly because I’m not angry anymore. But also because I honored the anger enough to pay attention.

Make today count.

Have You Seen My Glasses?

I just got new glasses for the first time in 10 years.  I usually wear contact lenses and only rely on my frames for early morning while my eyes adjust to being awake. I’ve been wearing a current prescription with my contacts, but a very outdated one with my eyeglasses.

When the new ones arrived, I put them on and immediately thought they got something wrong. I couldn’t see the same.  My vision was skewed and I assumed I was going to need to send them back. But I read the instructions in the box they came in and there was an assurance that my initial impression was very common.  Eyes require a period to adjust and adapt to the new correction. It encouraged me to be patient with the new prescription and not panic just yet

As promised, after about 20 minutes of wearing them, I realized how inferior my old glasses were and how superior the new ones became.

In a similar way, I’ve decided to view my new place in life through a different set of lenses than through the old ones that were handed to me by the environment that has shaped me. Panic, fear, and anxiety all seem to be the default methods that my reflexes want me to use as I navigate my loss. 

Do not misunderstand. It is not without work and not without effort.  It has required time to accept that I still retain the freedom to make choices on how I will live.  I am determined to pursue a different way to see my world now.

I felt the shockwave of a bad diagnosis three separate times. The first two created the same aftermath. “How could this happen? This isn’t what I signed up for. What am I going to do now?” But on November 02, 2018, I sat in a consultation room and felt that same bomb drop for the third time. As the words inoperable and terminal were sinking in, the better part of my brain decided it was time to start fighting back.

My grief journey began on May 28, 2010, not November 02, 2019.  I’ve had nine and a half years to process the days in which I am living right now.  I played these scenarios out in my mind many times. This is what makes me who I am.  I may not be the guy you choose to captain the ship, but you’ll want me around when the ship goes down. I’ve learned this about myself and how to lean into it. I know my strengths and weaknesses.  I can see solutions clearly in times of crisis when others are in denial.

My physical vision needs severe correction due to acute astigmatism and myopia. I require the help of lenses to bring things in focus. The same is true in my life situations. Sometimes I’m not seeing circumstances clearly.  I need correction in the form of new thinking and through someone who can remind me that what I am seeing is not what I’m capable of.

Writing is my life boat. And it’s my new eyeglasses. It’s my way to fight against the sinking sensation of loss and sorrow. Through them I’ll assist others in seeing a different way to safety. The time to help endangered passengers is before the boat hits the bottom of the ocean. By that time it’s too late. I can’t wait to have it all figured out before I extend a hand.

You’re Throwing Away Papers. You’re Not Throwing Away Larry.

There are many great resources available to help guide my grief process. I recommend these two books that prepared me for my loss. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande and Final Gifts, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley.  It’s so helpful to hear from people who are a little further down the road that I am and listen to them describe what’s coming. But in all my reading, there has been one experience that I’ve found doesn’t have clear guidance. 

Moving through loss involves the adaptation to a new lifestyle.  My life involved a dance with a partner for nearly 30 years that I no longer accommodate now.  Partnership is full of intentional acts (some big, mostly small) of deference. These acts were ingrained in me from the beginning of my relationship and I learned over time to assimilate the needs and desires of another person into my own.

Towels for example.  When we got married, I folded towels one way and she folded them another. I wish I could say I was mature enough at the time to let that one go, but I felt the need to describe why my way of folding was superior.  My enjoyment of harmony led me to not die on that battlefield and since laundry was one of her tasks along our divisions of labor, she got to choose how the towels would be folded.

Now that I do the laundry, can I go back to folding them my way again?

It’s fascinating how something as little as changing how a towel is folded in half or in thirds can become a personal quandary.  My mental talk starts with “I guess I can go back to doing it my way now” but quickly flips over to “but do I dishonor her memory by changing?”

The conclusion I have come to is this: If it bugs me to change, maybe now isn’t the right time.

Loss leads me to many decisions like this.  Some are easier than others. My daughter and I already went through her clothes. But some of my friends still haven’t gone through any personal items long after the passing of their loved one. Neither is right but sentiment does have a way of getting stuck. I keep this story in mind as I progress.

Karen provided care for a few years to an elderly woman who lost her husband. She would take her to the grocery store, the post office and on other errands. But she noticed over time that her friend was not coping very well with her loss.  Being the practical type, Karen decided to volunteer to help get her house cleaned up and organized, since it appeared nothing had been kept up for many months.

She went over to her house one Saturday morning to get started, and it didn’t take long for her to recognize that this was not going to be an easy task. With every bag of trash Karen filled, her friend would start going through it, retrieving papers that reminded her of her husband.  In frustration, Karen stopped and said sternly, “You’re just throwing away his old papers. You’re not throwing away Larry!”

That was a funny story then, and it’s even funny now that it applies to me. I find myself saying Karen’s words to myself over again as I rummage through the bathroom closet and find 7 pairs of nail clippers or the kitchen cabinet and find 37 coffee cups.

“I’m just throwing away nail clippers and coffee cups. I’m not throwing away Karen.”

Grief will require choices be made eventually and I can’t tell you when the right time to make them is. My experience this morning is to make the easy choices first, and that will lend permission to make the harder ones at a later time.

I fold the towels in thirds now.

Keys

I had lunch with Weed yesterday and when I got to the pub late, I found him at the table reading my book.  He let me know that this was the first book he had read in a long time because of dyslexia. But to overcome it, he told me how he learned over time to assign colors to words, and that they became more like symbols he could recognize, since the words themselves might appear jumbled or backward.  I was moved by his story because it showed me how he refused to let his limitation stop him from overcoming.

As a writer, I accept that there are times when I sit down to this computer in the morning and feel completely inadequate to communicate anything. Sometimes I am so full of intensity and sentiment that I have no familiar words to describe it.  In frustration I have to assign a few of them that I know to try and form a thought that might make sense to you. More often than not, I finish a post like this wondering if it’s just gibberish. It falls so short of my internal experience.

But the desire to connect with and communicate a message supersedes the restriction.  It’s in our nature. It bourgeons like a bud in spring. It wants to be seen.

One symbol I have assigned to my writing is the icon of a key.  A key is meant to unlock, open up and allow entry and passage. I can lock my front door without a key but I can’t open it unless I have the right one.  I never want my words to bind or restrict. I want them to liberate and emancipate.

Words are my keys that I hope will open up a whole bunch of locks. This drives me to keep writing even when I feel like I just spent 45 mins tapping out nonsense.

Your words have the same loosing effect on me.  They open me up also. Some of you have taken time to write back about your grief journey and it’s helpful and appreciated.  It gives me insight I didn’t have before.

When I take the risk to reach out and share a story, it sometimes feels like reaching for the doorknob in the dark, fumbling through the keyring, hoping that the one I selected from the many in my hand will fit and lead me inside.

We all possess keys to unlock each other’s heart.  I love finding people who hold one for me.

Save Some For Seed

It’s been important for me to recognize the role of hospitality amid my grief.  In the restaurant, I tried to always make a point to my staff that we show hospitality to each other first, then to the customer.  I can’t give what I don’t have. It becomes much easier to serve kindness to a guest if my starting point is kindness.

Even if I know how to extend toward and receive kindness from people. I need to include myself in that mix.

Do I know how to be kind to Kevin?

If I spend all my energy taking care of others, I will most certainly deplete my source. Eventually I will have nothing to give. I will be doling out rations from an impoverished heart. If I’ve stored up nothing, I will have nothing to offer in the upcoming season.

A principle like this comes from farming.  There is seed for sowing and there is seed for food. It’s important to keep those distinct and separate.

The farmer instinctively knew to hold back a portion of seed from the best looking plants after each harvest. He would save this selection to plant next year.  The rest could be ground into flour to make the bread for the family to enjoy. He didn’t eat the seed. He kept it separate from that which was designated for food, else he would have nothing to sow in the springtime. Much of that farmer’s job was to take care of the Homefront.

Dad taught me the importance of this principle when he or someone else would gift me money.  He would say, “Don’t use that all up at once, son. Save some for seed.”

This little lesson has stuck with me through grief. Kindness is both seed for sowing and seed for food. I must scatter it as well as consume it. I can’t act foolishly by thinking it doesn’t matter.  The farmer kept the majority of his seed for food. He knew if he didn’t take care of his household, he wouldn’t be around to continue sowing and reaping for them in the future.

If you’re grieving today, I identify with your pain, but I don’t know what it means to be you. What you’re feeling is unique and personal.  I sow this thought with you in the midst of your hurt. Take a moment to consider what it would mean to be kind to yourself. You matter. Even though the pain tells you otherwise. Someone will need your story someday. And I want you to be around to tell it.

Lack of Faith Isn’t The Problem

Someone told me recently, “I liked your recent entry about faith. I wish I had faith like you.” I said “Faith isn’t usually the issue. I think what you’re talking about is your lack of Hope.”

I get this from this simple definition I have adopted:

Faith is being sure of what I hope for,

Certain of what I don’t see.

You may have never thought of it this way, but Faith and Hope need not be proportional. If a grain of Faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain, I’m positive that you and I already possess this measure of Faith. 

As I see it, what’s missing isn’t Faith.  It’s Hope.

That’s why I describe my book as a Story of Hope Amid Severe Loss. Hope got it all started. Hope dreamed it. Hope sustained it and Hope pulls me through my hardships of late.  This was the constant thought that kept me writing amid self doubt. I kept repeating, “I hope this work will matter to someone. I hope it will lift somebody out of their hopeless situation.”

My Hope knew where it wanted to go. Faith shoved me out the door.

I’m flush in Hope now, and I plan to dump as much of it out on anyone who will listen and receive.

I write knowing I’m in the middle of a story. It’s not even close to being finished.  But I take the risk to put my thoughts in cyberspace because your story isn’t complete either. You’re also in the process of wondering if you can Hope or not.

  • You’re in a relationship that you’re settling for.  It’s not driven by Hope. It just feels better than the thought of being alone.
  • You’re stuck in a shitty job. It feels hopeless.  But at least it’s a paycheck and they provide healthcare.
  • You’re getting older, feeling the limitations of an aging body.  The Hope of anything being better sounds foolish. 
  • You’re 60 and have no retirement savings.  This wasn’t the way you planned it. Where’s the Hope now?

These aren’t theoretical situations. I’ve been there. And how often do I combat my hopelessness with a salvo of defensiveness? 

  • “Nobody understands.” 
  • “My situation is different.”
  • “That’s nice for you, but I live in the real world.”
  • “Hope doesn’t work that way.”

Faith will see to it that I get what I want, regardless of how great or small.  If I merely don’t want to be alone, Faith will obtain that kind of relationship for me. Faith won’t find me a deep intimate connection unless Hope desires it.  Faith will take me as far as my Hope wants it to.

Faith will keep me in my shitty job if that’s what I hope for.  Faith will get me up and out the door every morning to collect my paycheck. But Faith won’t go beyond my Hope to seek out anything better.

Faith always likes Hope to take the lead. 

Faith will pack up the wagon and drive it wherever Hope says to go. It’s not an easy path to travel, at least not in my experience.  Hope will lead through valleys as well as peaks and soaring vistas. Faith might walk for years before even getting a glimpse of what Hope is talking about. But Faith is being sure of what I don’t see.

On another note. I received word that all tests from my cardiologist were negative. Everything showed a normal functioning heart. The only thing abnormal was the episode that Sunday night. I’m feeling right and continue carry on. Thank you to so many of you who reached out once you heard of my news. That means a lot.

What To Do With Someone’s Tears?

My eyes leak regularly and I’m OK with that now.  I tear up daily and often several times a the day.  My Today’s a Good Day song might move me somehow. The show on Netflix this week spurs emotion.  Your story about your loss might trigger something in me. All of these experiences are somehow punctuated more accurately with tears.

So what should you do when we’re meeting for coffee and you’re in mid sentence and you see my eyes begin to well up?

You let me cry. Then ask me about it.

You have not upset me.  You have not induced the tears. My emotion is not your fault.  You are not the reason I’m crying. It’s actually the opposite.

Something good is going on inside me.

Grief takes me to a good place, even though it doesn’t feel or look good at the time.  It can even make things awkward between us. But like any generous gesture that is difficult to receive, my tears may become a gift for you if you are open to accepting them.

Ever wonder why the tear ducts are in the eyes? Why not tuck them away where they can’t be seen so obviously.  Why not the armpit? Then they could blend in with the sweat or be held back by anti-perspirant and no one would be the wiser.

I believe it’s because tears are not meant to be hidden. I’d rather see someone cry than watch them sweat.

Crying makes me more vulnerable, but it also makes me more alive and human.  Tears are a signal to those around me that even though my world is out of sorts, my soul is operating properly.  As you see me cry, you acknowledge that I have not numbed my inner world. In spite of this circumstance, I still have the ability to be moved. Yes, I’m very much alive.

I write this to you today who may have someone like me in your life and you’re never quite sure what to do when you’re around them.  You’re afraid to say anything because your person seems to be so unstable and unpredictable. You’re at a loss so you either say nothing or try to cheer them up somehow.  As food for thought, let me pose this reflection:

What are their tears telling you? What are they making you feel?  Are they reminding you of something and you just don’t want to go there? In this way, your lamenting friend might be in a better place than you.

I’m so grateful for the ability to weep now. I’ll welcome anything from a misty-eyed moment of beauty to a full-on ocular deluge.  I’ll try to be sensitive to the situation, but then again, I may let it flow. I won’t worry about you and how I might make you feel awkward.  My emotion is extending a key to you to unlock something in your heart.

Hound of Heaven

Faith informs every aspect of my life.  It is central in my decision making process. It guides my thinking and how I observe the world around me.  It influences my view of politics and community involvement. And certainly the most fun part about faith is how it prompts me to engage people in my life.

One of my favorite names for The Author of Faith was coined by English poet, Francis Thompson. He wrote a poem titled The Hound of Heaven. It tells of the process of a man being sought by the Voice and the Feet of a pursuer.  The man ran, even for years, from what he did not want to reckon with. It only took me 17 years to stop running.

If you’ve ever watched a pure-bred hound out in the field pick up the scent of its game, it’s a very fascinating sight.  This cute little dog transforms from a sweet pup into a single-minded animal-tracking machine. Everything goes out of focus for the moment.  The hound won’t stop until it finds what it is looking for.

Over the years, I have the same fascination of watching The Hound of Heaven at work in my life and in the lives of people around me as He seeks us out in compassion and kindness, wooing us into a better, more secure place in the knowledge of a Love that knows no end.  Even now as a grown man I can recall the feeling of joy of being caught by The Hound as a teenager. And life has never been the same since.

But He’s not done. Even still, the Hound is constantly on my trail, looking for me.  He is always inviting me away from waywardness to a better place of peace and rest.

How do I know if the Hound of Heaven is after me? I pay attention to these three encounters:

Dreams – I dream at night constantly and have for years. I have vivid stories played out in my mind, many of which I can recall in extreme, stark detail.  At first I thought they were normal and everyone had them. But when I began to share them with friends, I would get puzzled looks back. I quickly learned that my dreams of this nature were not common and that I should pay closer attention to them.  When I started writing them down, I could see a new meaning in them. I’ve come to recognize the baying of The Hound of Heaven through my dreams. That sound is unmistakable now. He has something for me in them.

Abundant Blessing – I keep a timeline in my journal titled History of Provision. I regularly look back through it and see the times where I have received abundantly and unexpectedly.  One most notably was the gift that enabled me to retire all of Karen’s medical debt in 2012. The points on this map lead me back to my knees in gratitude and awe far more quickly now that I keep this perspective. Gracious Provision is another effective tactic of the Hound. HIs Kindness is the impetus for repentance, not judgment. 

Mysterious People – I love how The Hound brings mysterious people into my life to carry a message to me. It is the unlikely or even uncomfortable source through which He likes to speak.  During my college days, I recall the street preachers on campus who liked to yell condemnations to passersby. And every time there were students ready to take the bait and could not resist the urge to yell back.  At the dorm one night, one of my hallmates was gloating about his exchange with Preacher Jim that day. “What an idiot,” he kept saying. I stopped him and asked, “Yeah, but what if a greater purpose out there was not about him at all, but about getting you to think differently about the course of your life.” The conversation immediately changed from gloating to vulnerable dialogue. The Hound was seeking him. I could see it and had fun watching Him work.

If you have a friend or relative that prays for you regularly, expect a mysterious person to show up and get your attention.  That person will have a word for you. The Hound of Heaven has great hearing and doesn’t let the pleas of these faithful souls go unheard. My mother was that person for me, and still is. I attribute my turn towards a life of faith as a result of her petitions.

I was raised in a faith tradition that taught me I needed to tell people what to believe or else.  I’ve rejected that position long ago. Showing Kindness is now my first concern and far more effective than judgment. I prefer to watch the trail where The Hound of Heaven is going and follow along.  

Listen to The Hound of Heaven by Michael Card