Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Last and Everything

Our tent was one of those green canvas jobs, a relic from a past war I imagined, eventually donated to the Boy Scouts of America.  Or perhaps it was purchased in a bulk buyout at the local Sunny Surplus.  The tent housed two canvas cots, supported by wooden legs, very roomy for the camper under six feet who sleeps on his side.  My dad was six-two.  The cots were up off the ground, its legs positioned on the wide slats of the wooden skid that was to be our floor.  The corners of the tent folded around each other and never fully closed, so there was a generous flow of crisp air during the nights, just a few degrees above freezing.  Our breath across the lantern’s light created quite a billowing little cloud.  But no matter, it was camping, a father-son weekend with the Boy Scouts.  A little roughing-it to test our mettle was just the spirit of the scouts, build boys into men and all that.
Our sleeping bags were these wide, airy quilted and nylon bags, bought at the local mega-thrift store, probably more suited for novice camping in the late Spring or early Autumn.   We had been smart enough to pack extra blankets to keep good and toasty.  But I hadn’t the foresight to pack everything I needed, already breaking the time-honored credo—Be prepared.  During the night I couldn’t fully fall asleep.  What I had neglected to pack was a pillow.  Or maybe I thought, I’m camping, and mountain men don’t need pillows.  I don’t recall Grisly Adams needing a pillow.  However, this mountain man was more restless than the princess on the pea.  I just couldn’t get into a deep sleep.  My dad hadn’t packed a pillow, but he was warm enough and was able to use his blanket as a pillow.  I could have just used my blanket, too, but it was too cold to forfeit that layer from inside my sleeping bag.  Nonetheless, somewhere in the night, I finally fell into a cozy slumber.  And it wasn’t from sheer exhaustion.
When I awoke in the morning, my head was nestled atop a thick, soft blanket, folded and folded again to create a make-shift pillow.  I looked over and saw that my father, whose eyes seemed half opened, was lying on his side, with his head on one of his opened palms.  Somewhere in the night he took his blanket/pillow and slid it under my head. 
When I thanked him and asked him if he needed it, he said he was fine.  However, throughout the day I’d see him dragging, looking to sit on a stump or a log or any other natural seat he could find around the camp.  And there he’d plop down, and then arc and bend his neck side to side, trying to ply it back into a full range of motion.  He was so stiff and tired.  But he wouldn’t admit it.
And that’s how I often remember my father (not stretching his neck), giving up what he had, everything he had, for me and my sister, and then never letting on he was going without.
It’s that selflessness that Paul advises in his letter to the Philippians, 2:4.  Paul writes, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  Paul is not asking us merely to be considerate of the wants and needs of others; he says to “look to” them.  That connotes a focus and attentiveness to the interests of others, a vigilance toward them.  And if need be, do whatever it takes to aid those in need, especially putting yourself last.  Granted, that may seem easy enough, especially if it means just giving up a blanket for a night or two to a whining child to get at least a peaceful night of sleepless sleep; but it’s when we’re really “up against it” that Paul is including.  When it really costs us, not a little, not some, but everything.  That’s what’s so hard.  It’s hard for me, too hard.  But it wasn’t for my father.
When I was eight, I awoke one morning, a Wednesday morning, my favorite day, gym day, and dressed myself in a navy blue tee, blue jeans, and Chuck Taylors.  I opened my bedroom and was about to bound out, but I froze there in the doorway—all of our belongings were stuffed in bulging boxes, stacked higher than me, in the hallway.  We were leaving, or rather escaping.  I came to find that my stepfather had been abusive and threatening toward my mother, and we were escaping while he was at work.  My mother had no real money of her own, and my father and my stepmother had a little savings.  The quick, easy way to handle it would have been for my dad to scoop up us kids and set my mother adrift.  But that wasn't my father’s way.  Instead, my father put into action a plan that all but wiped him and my stepmother out over the next several years.
My father and stepmother, who shared my father’s Christian ethic, took us kids while he hid my mother in an apartment in a nearby town until he could get an apartment for my mother and my sister and me.  It was all very cloak and dagger.  Once a place was secured, we moved within the month.  The problem was, my mother didn’t work, and except for our boxes, the place was empty.  We could have gone into camp mode, but again my father wouldn’t have it.  They completely depleted their savings, which would take years of struggling rebuild, and furnished the apartment.  And it wasn’t until two years after did my mother finally find work, all the while my father and step mother paying our rent, bills, and child support, as well as their own expenses, a financial burden that would take its toll for years to follow.  Of course I didn’t know any of this at the time. 
It wasn’t until years later that I pieced the puzzle together through prying and gathering snippets of related stories.  And not once did he ever complained to us, nor let on what a burden it was to his finances.  He was, as Paul instructs, looking to our interests, putting himself last, costing him everything. 
I must admit that my dad’s selflessness actually irked me sometimes, not because he was
self-righteous or anything like that, because he wasn’t; nor was it because his example was a standard too difficult to reach, which I find it is.  It was because I couldn’t bear to see just how much he withheld from himself.  While he would account for his life with nothing but gratitude, I would see it as one long continuous sacrifice.  It wasn’t until my sister and I were both on our own did I see him actually spend a few bucks on himself for something he wanted, not just needed.  And he would really fret over buying a certain Mills Brothers album, or an “expensive” table-top illusion for his magic routine, or even a half-decent pair of shoes.  And as far as any dream vacation, forget it.  He’d see something on TV or read a piece in the Travel section and wish aloud, “Man, I’d love to go to Chicago.”  “Boy, I’d love to see Vegas.”  Yet, he may as well have been saying, “Man, I’d like to see the moon.”  My sister and I would say, “Go!  Just go.  Hop on a train and go.”  “Aaaahhhhh one day, maybe,” he’d answer, but as soon as the words left his lips, I’m sure he had already 10 reasons not to go.  He had the money already spent on scenarios that would never occur, but could, and they probably all benefitted someone else.  I think in many ways my sister and I tried to make up for that.

One Spring my father was reading the paper and suddenly shared, “Says here that Tony Bennett’s gonna play The Hippodrome,” and in the same breath added, “but I don’t want to go.”  He knew that by merely saying something that smacked of a wish that we could fulfill, we would conspire to do so.  My sister and I saw it as our personal duty to make our father experience something of what he desired but of which he would refuse himself.  So knowing he wouldn’t spring for the tickets himself, we’d say, “C’mon, you know you want to go.  We’ll make it a birthday gift.”  And then he would convince us he had no interest.

A few weeks later, my car broke down on the side of the road and needed an alternator, and I called my dad later from the service station to see if he could run some money up to me.  He instructed me to go into my trunk and look under the spare tire.  Hidden there was a white legal-sized envelope with $200 tucked inside and a note in my father’s all-caps hand-writing that only read, “IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY.”   

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Little Old Me

When my father’s teeth pierced the skin of the Freestone peach, the sweet juice burst forth, out and down his arm.  He leaned forward, not wanting to stain the front of his shirt.  Too late.  He quickly took another bite, making a suction noise, eating over the cupped palm of his other hand.  Mouth full and eyes closed, he murmured, “My, God!” 
He wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist, and standing there in the kitchen, on a June mid-morning, just back from Mr. Bond’s produce truck, he began to rhapsodize: “To think, God gives us something like this.”  The peach held up before him, his head was nodding back in forth, as if in disbelief.  “Something this incredible, and all we have to do is pluck it from a tree.”  Again, he said, “My, God.”
He reached into the brown paper bag and pulled out another Freestone.  And while he finished the first one, he washed off a second. 
It was though I wasn’t in the room at all, and yet he was teaching me—Enjoy the small glories of God  because they make a moment great.  I stepped forward and he handed me the washed fruit, and then he reached for a third.  My father’s gratitude was genuine, knowing that something as awesome as God, not just considered him, but provided something simple as a peach for him; yet it was so incredibly fulfilling.  And why does God give us so much consideration and special care?  Possible, as one who loves us above all, He wants us to feel significant, especially when we may consider ourselves so insignificant.  Perhaps there is no better example of this esteem than in The Book of Luke.   
In Luke, there is a popular passage where Mary meets Elizabeth and they both exult in the blessings of their pregnancies:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!  But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.’
And Mary said, ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.  From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me --holy is his name.’
During their exchange, Mary gives praise to God.  And what she celebrates is how impressed she is by God remembering her, “[F]or he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”  Maybe a simpler way to phrase what she is thinking is, I can’t believe He remembered little old me.  God’s message is clear: The greatest of what He has to offer is not reserved for Kings or Queens or the most popular or a select few; it’s for all of us, especially the least among us, the anonymous.  That awe that Mary felt from God’s consideration is the awe I saw my Dad feel again and again, the awe that again said, I can’t believe He remembered little old me.           
I was always impressed about how long my dad could sit alone in his bedroom and practice playing the banjo.  Sometimes he would be in there for three or four hours, emerging only for a quick, cold drink of water, after which he’d belt out a well earned  Aaahhhhhh.  Dixieland arrangements of standards, Bye Bye Blackbird, Whispering, Bill Bailey, When the Saints Go Marching In. etc., would be ringing throughout our old Victorian apartment, over and over and over.  He’d be sitting on the side of his queen-sized bed, hunkered over his banjo, his music stand a foot before him, dripping with sheet music close-pinned to the sides.  He strummed with a large triangle-shaped pick.  After exhausting runs and rousing, momentum-building tags, Dad would take the edge of the pick and run it across his forehead, squeegee-ing off his thick sweat and whip-lashing his wrist to the side, flinging the salty fluid off into the ether.  When I went in his room, I could feel the immediate rise in temperature.
Later, Dad would emerge from his room and plop himself down in the corner of the high-back , patterned sofa, his button downed shirt blotched with perspiration.  “Man!” he would begin.  “I did things on the banjo I didn’t know I was capable of.” 
My dad was an extraordinary musician, but he would admit that his best moments were often not in front of an audience, but when he was practicing, playing alone in that bedroom.  Yet, he wasn’t upset by that fact.  From time to time, in a spirited reverie, he would explain, “Sometimes, I make runs and create something on the spot that I’ve never done before and just play at a level that I can’t normally play…It’s like God is right there, y’know?” 
What my dad reveled in those moments were what we all so badly clamor to know—that we matter.  He was simply glad to know that God was remembering him, thinking of him.  In some tiny corner of the world, my dad was sitting alone on his bed and playing his heart out, and God was listening to him, even allowing him to reach new heights, to experience a moment of greatness.  Maybe that’s why he could play for hours.  He wasn’t just strumming out his chord-melodies; he was communing with God.  While not as earth-shaking as the “immaculate conception,” my dad felt no less recognized in God’s thoughts, enjoying immeasurable treasures and delights that were put on this earth, just for him.  It is just this recognition that I’m trying to get my own children to see, if for nothing else than to experience sheer joy.        
I spent the first Saturday in November raking the leaves in my backyard.  It was one of those crisp, cloudless Autumn days, mid-fifties, and full of sun.  I whipped the leaves into a massive pile that was almost as tall as my three-year-old son.  As I topped the pile off with more leaves, he busted through them with laughter that was loud and uncontrollable, erupting leaves all about him.  This pattern went on and on as he seemed to only be able to utter one word—Again!  I couldn’t rake quickly enough to keep fortifying the mound.  Eventually, we collapsed into the nearby hammock, both of us gloriously exhausted, my son nestled under my arm, his head on my shoulder.  We swayed back and forth, looking up at the bare tree branches in front of the azure blue sky, giggling and catching our breath.  The high branches were a towering cobweb above us, with a few fluttering leaves dotted among the network.  When one fell, we would try to guess where it would land. 
“Isn’t this beautiful?” I asked my son.
“Uh huh,” he agreed.
“Man, God put this here just for us,” I continued, in my best attempt to have my boy beginning to see God at work in our lives.
“Is He here?” he asked.
“Yup.”
“Is he on the hammock,” he asked.
“Yup,” I said, “so scooch over; make some room.”
“Does He like leaves?”
“He loves leaves!  Look at the reds and oranges and yellows and greens and browns.  He gives us these colors just to look at and to make big leaf piles to dive into.  Isn’t that nice of Him?” I said, and then I dug my heel into the earth and pushed off to increase the pendulum swing again.
Often it’s too hard to tell what my kids absorb and what they don’t.  Mostly, I won’t know until life plays itself out.  But, if I can do one thing for them, it would be to try to bring them joy, not from the grandiose, but from the seemingly insignificant, like a peach or a song or a leaf. 
Earlier this week, I saw a construction paper turkey, hanging on the door leading into my son’s pre-k class.  On each feather was written a child’s name and a quote of what he is thankful for.  Under my son’s name read, I am thankful for God.  I am thankful He is in my life.  Of course I can’t help but wonder, does my son think of himself as “little old me.” 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Arm's Length Away

The intermittent flashes of lightning seemed to have caused a strobe light, casting odd shadows across my room.  And in the far corner, the chair with the pile of clothes heaped on its back ceased to be a chair, but some deformed, demonic being, shape-shifted from what I had seen in the light of day.  It just stood there, waiting.  Perhaps waiting for me to make the first move, any move, breathe even.  Finally, after one crack of thunder, I slid out of bed and through the doorway, my pillow and blanket clutched in each fist.  I ran down the hall and entered my parents‘ bedroom.  They were sleeping soundly.  My father, who was deaf, couldn’t hear the storm at all without his hearing aid.  He was lightly snoring.  I stood next to his bed, staring down at him, about to wake him; but I didn’t.  I laid out my blanket and pillow on the floor next to him.  I lay down, an arm’s length away, and I went to sleep.   

At first light, I crept back into my room, where the beast had shape-shifted back into an old wooden chair with dirty laundry heaped onto its back, never to return.  Who knows what got into me?  From some unknown place, a fear took a stranglehold over my seven-year-old mind that night, which I could not shake.  Waking up to such an image, I cried out in the silence for my father.  Wherever he was, it was the only safe place in the world.  If I was going to have any peace that night, it would only be when I was with him, even if it was lying on the floor next to him, feeling him close in my life.  Knowing, not hoping or believing, but knowing that when I’m with him I’m okay.  It is this knowing, far beyond faith or belief, but this actual truism that concerns Jesus in The Book of Mark. 

In Mark, 12:30, “Jesus was asked which is the most important commandment of all, He replied, ‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’”  One could read this passage and think, Okay, I love God…easy enough.  But what Jesus is saying here is not something to be taken lightly at all.  He is saying love the LORD in such an absolute and complete way that it may be impossible for most.  How many of us can say that we have such a genuine love like that for more than a few immediate family members, or maybe even friends?  How many can say that about just one other person?  And, how is a love like that even possible?  Can it be genuine just because it’s God?  Because a love like that just isn’t possible in an instant, just because Jesus commands it.  A love like that is only possible through a cultivated relationship.  It’s the unquestioning love of a child.  It’s the unconditional love of a father.  It’s the love my dad had for me.  And it’s the love he had for God, a love that stretched across a lifetime.   
I remember one of the earliest times I witnessed the relationship between God and Dad.  One afternoon, I walked into my parents’ bedroom, looking for my father.   He was sitting with his back to me on the far edge of the bed, and his head was down, and his hands were together and shaking.  With his “good ear” turned away from me, I could tell that he hadn’t heard me come in.  I just slowly backed out without him seeing me.  Days later I asked him what he was doing.  He said, "Praying."  I didn’t know he prayed.  So of course I asked what he was praying for. 

“Well since you asked, right now things are really tight and we have to pay the rent and buy groceries and I didn’t have any money coming in.” 

“So you were praying for money,” I asked.   

“Nonono.  I was praying for help.  I don’t pray for specific things, just help or guidance.  And then I stay open to however God answers.  I put it in His hands.  And He always has an answer.”  He said this with a confidence that was not for my benefit, but because he was genuinely at peace with his trust in God.  He spoke with the assurance of someone who was speaking about someone close, an old friend, a parent even.  He was speaking about someone he didn’t just believe in, but someone he trusted because God was someone with whom he had had a long, close relationship.  There was no distance between them.  And, there was no question that God wouldn’t come through. 

Consequently, the next day after I saw my father praying, there was a knock at our door.  It was my father’s sister.  She had dropped by, unannounced. She couldn’t stay long.  She just wanted to share a bit of her good fortune.  It turns out that the day before my aunt bought a lottery ticket or scratch off or something and won some money and she decided to share some of her winnings.  I know prayer usually doesn’t work that way, and it’s even dangerous to want it to; but on that day, it did.  My aunt put $500 in my father’s hand, and was gone soon after.  My father was proud of his sister, and he often spoke of her generosity; however, I don’t think he was surprised.  Why would he be?  Why should we be surprised when we get the love, help, and support from those closest to us?  My father was close with God.  They had a relationship, like father and son.  So why should a son be surprised when a father helps him out?  He wasn’t.

In his final days, bedridden and in and out of long bouts of light sleep, my father would call out, “I want Jesus!”  He wasn’t saying it like he wanted the faith he didn’t have.  Nor was he saying it as a wish to welcome Jesus into his heart just in time, as some sort of feeble loophole to gain salvation at the 11th hour.  He was crying out for Jesus, wanting him close.  Knowing that the safest place in the world is with him.  Feeling that any possible comfort is with him.  Admitting that any peace to be had is with him.  My father summoned Jesus as a scared child would cry out for one whom he loved above all, one whom he has known all his life, one with whom he has had a relationship of unwavering trust, as one would cry out for his father, alone in a thunder storm, desperate, needing only to sleep on the floor, an arm’s length away.        


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Take and Give


Whenever I get the New Yorker magazine, the first thing I do is go through and read the cartoons, starting at the back and working my way to the front.  It’s my little ritual.  It’s my little treat, like starting with dessert, a little cup of chocolate mousse before the meat and potatoes.  And then I scan the articles and memoirs and stories for an entrĂ©e.   This is an actual luxury.  Having two kids and taking class at nights, there’s very little “me” time to be stolen for something as decadent as reading for pleasure, especially during the week.  I could do it at night, but I’d be out in seven paragraphs. (And, I’m really not a bathroom reader.)  So I read in chunks, a page here, a few cartoons there.  I take what I can get.
One afternoon, I was sitting on the sofa, chugging my way through a two-page essay, while my 3-year old son was at the dining room table in, drawing with colored pencils.  He brought in his first drawing for me to look upon, orange and brown circular scribbles, which after much spinning round and holding it near to my face and far, it was explained to me that it was a mountain vista.  (Then I saw it right off, of course.)  My son must have relished the ooohh-ing and ahhh-ing I gave his work because he began quite a prolific phase following the mountain landscape.  He was rushing back and dashing off scribbled masterpieces for my immediate perusal.  The problem was, I was starting to read the same paragraphs over and over.  I couldn’t even remember what I had just read. 
After the fourth piece, I said, “Why don’t you just make a pile and I’ll look at them all at once when you’re done.”  Holding the fifth out to me, he said, “I made it for you.”  And then he just stared up into my face.  Uncle.  “You win,” I said, and then I pulled in his newest piece for further scrutiny.         
I actually had to remind myself that he was seeing mountains, that he was proud, that he was doing the most important thing in the world at that moment.  More important than some magazine.  And the last thing he needed in the world was a brush-off from Dad.  He needed one hundred percent of me, living for him.  This is not always the easiest.  Sometimes, I have to be reminded, like the best of them.
There’s a passage in The Bible in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, 10:24, where Paul commands, “Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.”  This passage is widely interpreted, yet the common denominator of those interpretations is simply this: Paul is clarifying that no man should seek his own gratification, especially at the expense of others.  To always be considerate of others is what is most important.  In short, live for others. 
When my father used to sell pianos and organs, sometimes he would have to drum up business by demonstrating instruments at festivals and shows, grabbing leads from passersby who showed a smidge of interest.  “I’ve always wanted to learn how to play,” they would say.  Or something like, “You mean it’s just that easy?”  And then my dad would attempt to reel them in.
On some of those Saturdays, my dad would take me along, often by default because there was no one home to watch over me.  My dad would hand me a fiver for a hotdog and a drink and to play some of the games designed to entertain children, ring toss, fishing with magnets, or maybe I’d get my face painted. 
It’s fair to say that, like so many young boys, I idolized my dad.  He was the bedrock of our family.  I even emulated him.  If he rolled up his sleeves, I rolled up my sleeves. If he picked up a walking stick in the woods, I picked up a miniature version.  And so when on one of those Saturdays at a craft show when I was looping around the circle of wares I found the perfect homage to what my dad meant to me, I didn’t think twice about handing over whatever paltry sum that paid the price for the monument I had found to my father.
At one of the craft tables, an elderly woman with light brown hair and white roots was selling her creations of walnut figures.  She had cleverly taken halved walnut shells as heads and fixed little twigs beneath them to resemble bodies and glued each on to tiny planks of painted wood.  And next to each, she had written words of inspiration, Hang in There, You’re the Best, Best Friend.  And then there was the “World’s Greatest” figurines, World’s Greatest Teacher, World’s Greatest Secretary, World’s Greatest Fisherman.  But they all melted from view when I spied the one that seemed to have been specifically made for my father—World’s Greatest Dad. 
After paying the proper coins, I scooped up the walnut-faced talisman and cradled it in my hands, as though I were holding a chalice; and I weaved my way back to my father.  “Dad, I got something for you,” I beamed. 
He stared into my outstretched hands and merely said, “Don’t spend your money like that.”   I didn’t know what he meant then, that he would rather I spend it on me.  Still, I was crestfallen.  Deflated.  I saw that he was genuinely disappointed, which made no sense to me.  I expected him to lose his breath, gather me up in a firm embrace, and we’d have one of those Lifesaver father-son moments we’d always remember.  Instead, he may as well have slapped the craft out of my tiny hands. 
But then his carriage changed, perhaps sensing my devastation.  He picked up the walnut man and began to study it, even remarking that he thought it looked a little like him.  He said it was a treasure.  I knew what he was doing, but I didn’t mind.  I wanted so badly for him to like it and to see that I was making a public, proud gesture about how I saw him.       
More often than not, what Paul asks in his letter to the Corinthians goes completely against our instincts, our own desires to feed our own selfishness.  Obviously, that is why Paul must make a direct plea to that point.  Even the most righteous must be reminded.  Even my dad had to remind himself.  And at the moment when he saw the crushed spirits of his boy, he endeavored to make it right. 
Over the next several years, I’d run into the little walnut man from time to time.  He was always there, but I hadn’t consciously focused in on him.  He had blended into the background, as would an old dime store lithograph or a yellowing bouquet of silk flowers.  But he was there.  My father saw to it.  I’d turn a corner and see the little statue on a shelf or on the back of a side table or on some ledge.  Because it was once important to me, it became all important to my dad to return my gesture with a small symbol of pride in what we meant to each other.   Across moves and room rearrangements, he lived quite a long life, that little guy; until only in recollection once I had become a man did I discover that he was actually gone. 
As none of us dads would, my father didn’t actually believe he was the “world’s greatest dad.”  But I did.  And so by just shutting up and accepting a little gift from me, he was allowing me to celebrate what he meant to me.  In his taking, he was giving.  Giving me the consideration I was hungering for.  Giving me everything I needed.   Living just for me.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Relief of Rescue

One night a couple of years ago, I was having the most pleasant dream.  I was sitting on a bench, sipping a drink, while a parade marched by.  There were banners and horns and everyone was waving.  And my foot was very, very cold.  Suddenly I awoke, and my foot was still cold.  I looked down to the end of the bed, and I could make out my daughter’s silhouette.  She was shaking my foot with her chilled hand and she was whispering, “Daddy.”  I knew at once why she was there—she had wet the bed, again.  It was the third time within a week.  “I’m really sorry!” she said, as I was pulling off her sheet and covers. 

She was already changed and had gotten her sleeping bag out to sleep on the floor, but she had decided to tell me before bedding down on.  “Are you mad?” she asked.  “Well,” I began, “if pressed, I’d have to admit that I’d rather be sleeping through the night.  But never not tell me.  I’m not mad, Sweetie.  And I don’t want you sleeping on the floor.  We just have to figure out a way to get you to get up when you have to go.  I want you to get all your sleep, too.” 

Offering her as much reassurance as I could muster at 2 a.m., I tucked her back in over top layers of towels and blankets, went to the bathroom myself, and collapsed back in my bed.  And in the morning, I complained to my wife, again, about how I needed more sleep.  Nothing new there.
 
I was annoyed, of course, but that was one of those real parenting moments; and I couldn’t blow it.  Not the getting up and changing the covers and getting her back to sleep, that’s not what I needed her to see.  It was my attitude—that when my daughter needed me, and wanted me, she should never hesitate to come to me.  In case something really big happens, she needs to know she can race right to me and I’ll be there for her, just as she did as a kindergartener wetting the bed.   

The assurance I wanted give my daughter is partially the assurance Paul is addressing in his letter to the Galatians.  In Galatians 6:9, Paul writes, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”  What we can “reap” most in that “due season” is trust, the kind of trust that must be established at the beginning and then bolstered and buttressed over a lifetime, so that our children can at least know that there is always one safe, constant to turn to in their lives.  It’s the trust I am trying to instill in my daughter and son.  It’s the trust I always had in my father.  The trust he built for me.                

Somewhere in my early 20’s, I went through a phase where I kept locking my keys in the car.  I was driving a third-hand, red, battered, Pontiac Ventura.   This was in the days before remote controlled locks.  I actually had to push the down the locking stem on the door manually, with my bare hands.  And if my keys were still in the ignition, there was no friendly voice or pleasant gong to remind me before shutting the door and sealing the keys inside.   At the height of my negligence, I locked my keys in my car four times in two weeks.  And I’d have to call my dad to bring me another key.  To my great surprise, he never got mad, or he never showed it.  I remember that when he was sort of exasperated he’d drop his head and give a deep sigh.  And so when I would call him up from wherever I was, the library, the supermarket, the movies and say, “Dad, I’ve done it again.”  SIGH.  I could hear his head dropping over the phone.  “Where are you?”  And fifteen minutes later, he’d pull up, unwind the window an inch, stick the key out of the top of the window, and pull away.  He knew I didn’t mean to do it.  And I do recall that there was mention of some sort of magnetic box under the car with a spare key.  But that was after the last time I had a car key conundrum. 

Two friends and I went to see Paul Simon in Central Park.  Had a great time.  But before the show, I lost my car keys.  And we didn’t have enough money between us at that point to get a room or pay a lock smith or anything, and NY was not being charitable or welcoming to our little huddled mass at all that night.  Finally, it’s two a.m.  Exhausted, I make the call:  “Dad, you’re not going to believe this.”  BIG SIGH.  “Where are you?” he asks.  “I’m parked at the garage we always park at when we come to NY.”  “Stay there,” he said and then hung up.  He called my sister, picked her up to keep him company, and at 11:00 the next morning the two of them appeared in the distance on the sidewalk, walking down from 6th avenue, my father dragging his one foot a little more than usual.  Our trio shouted out and hugged him, as if seeing Dad was the happiest sight of our lives.  Perhaps it was—just an hour earlier we had seen a cabbie robbed of his cab right in front of us.  Dad handed us the keys.  With no more fanfare, we got in our cars and drove home.

I love retelling this tale, as I have done countlessly over the past 20 years, not because of the extreme details of rescue, but because of how impressed I am that my father had rescued me, yet again, without lecturing me, without berating me.  He knew I didn’t want lose my keys.  He knew that I would have exhausted every option before I called him.  But he also knew that when I called him, I knew he would get me home.  That when I put my problem in his hands, I would find peace, the relief of rescue.  That’s what I trusted. 

Still, part of what my father reaped, and is still reaping, is the legacy of his example that I try to continue, like on those nights when I am deep in a dream, and cold, little hand yanks me out of a pleasant slumber to change wet sheets.  And I do it, without too much grumbling, and with a little understanding, and kiss to the forehead.

A few days later after lost-keys-in-Gotham saga, I found my keys actually in my car, dangling from the base of the turn signal.  The steering column was very wide and hid it well.   I figured I dropped them near my car and some nice New Yorker opened my car and slid them down on my turn signal lever so I would find them.  About a year later, I told my dad what had happened.  All he did was drop his head and sigh. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Show, Not Tell


At just about the beginning of each new school year, I wish that I could travel back in time and reteach my first students.  I feel I did them a real disservice, and I would like right the wrongs of that year, applying all what I now know.  Although I am not about to hunt down all 122 of them and send them hand written apologies, and although most have gone on to college and are flourishing in their careers and families, I still can’t help fighting back the image of them sitting somewhere in front of a keyboard struggling to write a letter or an essay, fuming with frustration, and then cursing the name of their ninth grade English teacher as they conclude that it’s all his fault.  I realize that this wish isn’t that uncommon among teachers, but it doesn’t make it any less sincere. 
What am I now doing differently?  That’s a book in and of itself.  But if pressed, I’d have to say modeling.  So much of what I originally did was lecture, chalk-talk, sage on the stage.  Just tell them.  And that does work with some, but not too many.  What I neglected to recognize is how we actually learn best, through showing, not telling.  It’s like when someone says, Tell me a story.  That’s not what he’s really asking.  What he really wants is to be shown a story with words.  We need the visual.  We need the example.  The proven pudding.  Whether it’s an essay or critical analysis or a poem, I give them the model and then we journey together toward the answer.  It’s no great secret that’s the most effective way to learn.  It’s how I learned.  It’s how I’ve always learned best, through modeling, through example.  And not just in the classroom, anywhere in life.  Yet where I seemed to learn what has been most valuable to me is from the examples, the models, set by my father.
Recently on Facebook, a newly “confirmed” friend sent me a message that she recently remembered that my dad had taught her older sister to play guitar.  He, too, was a teacher.  A natural one.  He had more different jobs than anyone I have ever known, but I mostly remember as a teacher.  Not because he taught guitar and piano for so long, but because I can’t ever recall him not teaching.  It was a roll he was just suited for.  However, I don’t know how he would have fared in a classroom of two dozen adolescents.  He could have handled the students, but he would have been confined by the four walls.    His classroom was the world at large, and my sister and I were his chief pupils. 
Unlike my teaching, my dad didn’t make up lesson plans, create power points, and give quizzes.  His teaching was conducted by the deeds he did, the words he spoke, and the actions he took.  And I learned, constantly. 
My father never graduated high school because of his deafness and the need to help support his family.  From time to time, that fact cropped up to alter his endeavors.  Yet, Dad was an accomplished salesman, and he carried quite a respectable reputation.  There was a certain company trying to recruit him for a lucrative position, which would mean a great deal more of much needed money.  However, the policy of the company was that all sales personnel must have a high school diploma.  Yet, he checked the box indicating that he hadn’t graduated on the obligatory application.  When he went on the interview, the vice president, who was pursuing him, reminded my dad of this.  The VP’s solution was to lie and check the box on the application next to “achieved high school diploma.”  For my father, that was out of the question.  The VP all but begged my father, assuring him that it was just a formality, no one would ever know.  My father never worked for that company.
I asked, “Why not just sign it?  Who cares?”
My dad only said, “I try to live my life so nothing comes back to haunt me, especially some little lie on an application.”  My dad would never then turn to me and say, “Now you do likewise with your life’s decisions.”  That was telling.  Instead, he showed; that was teaching. 
It was because of those moments that my father had such a high reputation in a business where so many wished they hadn’t forfeited their integrity, while my father fortified his.  There were dozens of scenarios like these that I had heard, not just from him, but from so many others in his business who recounted them like folklore.  No doubt about it; his example set a high standard to follow.  And his was the one to follow. 
In Paul’s Epistle to Titus 2:7, Paul outlines a qualification for a good leader.  He stipulates, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity…”  Here Paul distinguishes a good leader from bad by clarifying with the word “model.”  Not someone who tells.  Someone who demands of others what he may not practice himself.  Not just wisdom for the ear.  He says model.  Show, not tell.  In order for others to follow, they must first see the way, not just hear way, or be told the way.  That alone weeds out most as potential good leaders, good teachers.  It’s why my father was a natural teacher—he modeled good, and he showed integrity and dignity, even to his last breath.
The final days of my dad’s life was spent at home, in hospice.  The family sat with him around the clock and took care of him, as if he were a fragile newborn.  More than once while I sat with him, he spoke out, “Jesus, forgive me.  I know I have offended you.”  I first thought, If this man has offended Jesus, then I’m in real trouble.  Moreover, to me, this seemed like maybe it was a private thought, something between him and God.  A confession.  
Until his final breaths, my father kept his awareness.  He knew who was sitting with him.  He knew when I was there.  He would open his eyes, look around, and then drift back into a light sleep.  He spoke little, but what he spoke was very specific.  He said he’d miss me.  He whispered once that he thought I was a good son and a good father.  And without hesitation I assured him that if any of that were true, it was only because of the examples he set before me. 
And so as I sat there with him in those hours, it occurred to me that he was doing more than just bringing closure, saying goodbye, confessing even.  He was still teaching.  As he showed me how to live, he was showing me, in his final lesson, how to die.  How to face the end.  Setting one final example.  Still, even then, he couldn’t not teach, he couldn’t not model, showing dignity, showing faith.

In writing about his own father, American writer Clarence B. Kelland remembers, “My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.”  It is in that watching that we actually learn.  Seeing the consistent example, the life-long model, that Paul is describing.  The model that shows the way, whether it’s in the classroom, in the work place, or in the final hours.  Showing, not telling. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Giving to the Need

Walking up the sidewalk behind the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., I spied the man ambling toward my wife and me, and I braced myself for the oncoming story of his broken down car and how he would only need a few bucks to help him get back home.  I had heard it over and over, again and again.  If every one were true, I would start to think that I was some kind of fated angel sent to meet distressed travelers whose cars, only moments before, had just sputtered their last gulps of carbon monoxide.  So instead, I would much rather he say, Buddy, can you spare…  The man was in his thirties, shorter than I, black, and wearing a sweat-stained T-shirt that was hanging out of his pants.  He locked eyes with me and caught me a little off guard with a new approach—the plain truth.
“Hey, man,” he began, smiling a genuine smile.  “I could use an ice-cold beer right now.  Could you help me out?”
My wife and I stopped right there on the pavement.  Now perhaps it was because we were in a particularly good mood, as we were about to see Paul McCartney, the cute, albeit graying, ex-Beatle, the composer of Yesterday and Hey Jude, in concert again, plowing through three dozen of his greatest hits, that, returning the man’s smile, I gladly reached in my pocket and pulled out four ones.  “Honesty,” I belted.  “I can appreciate that!” I continued and jammed the bills in his outstretched palm.  “Here you go, my man.  I hope it’s one of the best beers you ever had!” 
He pocketed the money and told us to enjoy the show, and as he started off he said, “I’m gonna drink to you.” 
“Then I have everything,” I answered, ending the kibitzing, and then we continued our trek up the sidewalk to take our place in line.
Now, I know that there are those who will be quick to respond, You’re just making the problem worse, feeding an addiction, etc.  Maybe.  Or if he had given me some sad story, I could still give him the money and I could sleep better, having chosen to believe that I had provided some wayward soul with adequate  bus fare; and right now he’s tucked away safely, full-bellied, in bed, thinking Thank you, citizen as he drifts off.  I could.  Or better yet, I could have muttered Sorry as my wife and I rushed passed him, staring down at the sidewalk just beyond our feet.  And by the time Macca was filling the arena with Hello Goodbye, we all would have forgotten about each other.  That’s one way. 
But that wasn’t my father’s way.
I used to have the same reservations about whom to give to, how to give, or at least how to assess someone’s need.  Once my father and I were out on one of our aimless adventures, walking up a city street to see where it led.  Often we let our ’73 Impala decide where we’d go.  That day, we drifted into Canton, an old neighborhood pocket a few blocks off the water.  As we ambled away from the harbor, looking in storefronts, peering down alleys, watching people, and adjusting to the crisp morning air, a block ahead of us a disheveled man was shuffling toward us.  He was unwashed, dressed in a stained, blue down coat, loose fitting jeans, and sneakers that were almost impossible to see that they were once white.  His salt and pepper hair was thick and matted and spread straight down his sunken cheeks and around his chin.  His skin was darkened and leathered from too much exposure to the sun.  
Out of instinct, my father and I tacitly veered toward the curb to give the man a wide birth.  But as we veered, so did he.  I thought, I know what this bum wants.  And I just wanted to get past.  I thought, As soon as Dad refuses him we’ll speed ahead to put distance between us.  At last his eyes met my father’s and he asked us in a scruffy voice, “Hey, could you spare some change?  I really need a drink,” his hand turned upward and out, but to no one in particular.  He probably expected to hear his no and to continue walking.  My dad stopped and said, “Lemme see,” as he reached under his coat and into his pocket.  He pulled out some crumpled ones and placed them into the man’s palm.  “Good luck, buddy,” my dad said as we started off.  The man said nothing in return and shuffled on. 
Once we were out of hearing range of the man, I asked, “Why did you give him money?  He actually told you he was going to buy more alcohol with it.  Isn’t that just what he doesn’t need?  Isn’t that why he’s out here?” 
My dad stopped and said, “You missed the point.  I don’t want him to drink.  And I don’t want to support his drinking.  Even though it’s legal.  But he seemed like he really needs a drink.  I can’t judge that.  It’s not my place to judge his need.  All I know is that he does need something, and he asked me for help.  I didn’t give him a couple of bucks for his drinking…I gave for his need.”  And on we walked.  It was a lot for my fecund mind to wrestle with.  It still is.  My instinct is to judge and act accordingly.  But my father was able to wrestle through that. 
Give to the need.
That sentiment is echoed in Paul’s second letters to the Corinthians 9:7.  Paul writes, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  Although it is the ending prepositional phrase, “for God loves a cheerful giver,” that too often is thrown out as a verbal balm to those who are coaxed to give and who feel they have given more than they wanted.  But it is the beginning of that line that carries the secret of giving, even cheerfully, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart.”  Paul is clarifying that giving must be personal, thoughtful, and perhaps not entered into lightly.  So perhaps giving will mean more for the givers, as well as the receivers.  And maybe, giving can’t be turned on and off so easily, or with a snap judgment.
When my father gave, he gave in the name of Jesus.  He gave from his heart.  He gave to the need, which, hopefully, helped the man.  When that man approached me my father and me on the streets, it would have been quick and easy to dismiss him and continue with our day.  And we would have forgotten him by the end of the next block.  But what my father recognized in that man was that it could have been any of us, himself even, down on our luck, shuffling along. 
When my father and I would set out on an aimless adventure, at an impromptu point A, something always happened that was memorable—a picnic, a street juggler, a fender bender, who knows.  And sometimes, we even found hidden treasure.  Like a gift.  Like a guy asking for some spare change, triggering me to better understand need and my father and God and maybe even myself.       

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Spare the Television

“I did it!” Grace exclaimed, rushing in the front door.  “I did it!  Come outside and see!”  I went out and stood on the sidewalk to see my daughter pedaling away down the sidewalk, on two wheels.  Finally.  We had taken the training wheels off a few days before, but she just couldn’t  hold herself up.  Even when I raced behind steadying her, my hand in an iron grip on the back of her seat, she would teeter and fall off to one side.  She was close to tears because she wanted it so badly.  She wanted to glide away in a balanced stride, independent, confident, more grown up.  And like everything she tries and doesn’t get immediately, swimming, piano, lacrosse, she’ll get really down on herself and then within a few days something will click and it will be as if she never couldn’t do it.  This was no different.  There she was speeding away from me, faster and faster, her body in a racer’s hunch, her exhilaration palpable.  She had found her new obsession, her new love, racing back and forth down the sidewalk of our block.  Nothing could get her off her pink and purple Disney Princess coaster—except me.  Within the hour, I took it all away.
We had established a rule that Grace could ride in the street if an adult was supervising, which she fully understood.  Moreover, she could walk her bike across the street and ride the other sidewalk, if the feeling of wanderlust was too overwhelming.  Yet, when I went out to check on her progress, there she was with a few other of the neighborhood kids, riding up the middle of the street as if she was its new owner, obviously mad with independence…not an adult in sight. 
I walked to the middle of the street, and when she caught a glimpse of me, my eyes locked into her face, I extended out my arm and upturned hand, pointing my index finger toward her, curling it in and out as fast as I could, which translates exactly to, Young lady, if you don’t come here as quickly as humanly possible you will be sorrier than you could ever imagine.
“Tell me which adult is out here watching you!” I demanded as she halted before me.
“Oh, that’s right.”  She avoided my eyes and slumped her shoulders. 
“Honey, you can’t see what we can see!  You could’ve been killed!”  And then I had to make an on-the-spot decision that I wish I didn’t.  “Off the bike.”  We walked inside, and after a brief deliberation with my wife, I informed Grace that her bike was off limits for the next 24 hours.  I told her, “I need you to see how important listening to me is, so I have to do this.”  She pulled her chin into her shoulder, shook her head, and wiped her eyes.
In Samuel Butler’s 17th century poem Hudibras, Butler originates the popular misquoting of a passage in Proverbs.  Butler writes, “Spare the rod and spoil the child."   However, Butler is using the line as double entendre giving advice for birth control.  The actual passage from Proverbs 13:24 reads, “He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes."  Without argument, this proverb is offering child rearing advice.  Unfortunately, too often the focus is on the “rod,” borrowed too often by those who want some sort of validation for spanking or some other sort of corporal punishment.  Yet, what the real focus should be is the ending message: “[H]e that loveth him correcteth him…”  In more modern terms, a parent who loves his child will correct him.  To let a child run wild and not correct him, nor even discipline him, shows no love for the child.  It would be ignoring the child, showing no care for the child’s actions.  Moreover, to correct him is to be done out of love, as it is to show love.  That image is less like a parent spanking a child in some sort of lashing rage, but more like the thoughtful decision to discipline a child in hopes of protecting a child, even beyond what a child refuses to see.  It is this brand of deliberation that my father employed when correcting me.  In fact, it was far more effective than any spanking.
One of the rules I was supposed to follow when was playing outside, was that I was supposed to be home before dark.  But like most kids, I found it too difficult to tear myself away from what I was doing, hide-and-seek, kickball, whatever.  And so I would stretch my time and play ignorant when I was late, claiming it wasn’t really dark, my finger tip pointing to somewhere out on the horizon where inches of light still held on.  So then my dad changed my curfew to an exact time, eight o’clock.  However, I still saw curfews as a more of a guideline.  If my father said to be back home by eight o’clock, I heard it more as eight o’clock-ish.  I would stretch that ish and then explain that it was eight when I stopped and headed home.  My father had finally had enough.  Which was actually surprising because he wasn’t a three-strikes kinda guy when it came to following his directions.  But, I guess he wanted to see me be responsible enough on my own.  I wasn’t.  Not yet.
“When I give a direction, I expect it to be obeyed,” he would demand, his index finger held up, signaling that what he said was the one and only thing I needed to know.
“Nothing happened,” I would argue.
“Something could,” he rebutted, “but it’s not important that you understand that.  What’s important is that you listen to me, because I understand that.  Tomorrow I’ll tell you your punishment.  We’ll find something that’ll make you listen.”
My father wasn’t really a spanker, but at times like that, I rather wished he was.  It would have been quick and out of the way and forgettable.  But to wait to tell me the next morning, that took real thought—translation this one’s gonna hurt more than any spanking.  And it did.
It’s not an understatement to say that as a kid I was a T.V. junkie.  I loved watching television.  I felt it to be on par with chocolate.  I wasn’t allowed a T.V. in my own room, for my dad knew they’d never see me.  I don’t think there was an hour in a day I couldn’t find something I liked watching, because there was so much to like, from Shazaam and The Gong Show and Fantasy island to Ultra Man and That’s Incredible and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  Pure genius.  I was hooked.  And obviously, my father knew it.
My dad didn’t really believe in physical restrictions because he didn’t want to take away childhood exercise as a punishment, so I could still go out and play and ride my bike.  But what he did do was far worse than the lash of any rod.  The next morning, my father informed me that for an entire week, while I was allowed to watch T.V., I was not allowed to choose any program to watch.  I couldn’t even sway the opinion of anybody else watching.  And if no one wanted to watch T.V., then the T.V. was off.  If I broke this rule, he would just keep adding days.  This man was smarter than I could have possibly given him credit for.              
Well over 30 years after the fact, I still remember that week as one of the longest weeks on record.  And what I did discover was that my family, namely my sister, had the absolute worst taste in T.V. viewing.  It was unbearable.  I once read that if the Earth suddenly stopped spinning, everything not anchored down would be swept up into the atmosphere; yet there I sat, stone still, too desperate from withdrawl to move, trying to figure out Love American Style and why Mary Hartman was named the same name twice.  Some mercy was shown when my folks watched Little House on the Prairie and Happy Days; and one night, probably not able to bear my agony any longer, my sister swore that she wanted to watch The Six Million Dollar Man.  And thank God she did; because without that dose of quality action TV, like some weekly visit to the methadone clinic, I don’t think that I would have made it.  Yeah, my dad knew my Achilles heel, my kryptonite.  That man meant business.  At the end of the week when my exile was up, I could see he, too, was relieved.  Newly paroled, I settled in for a night of the Bionic Man and the Bionic Woman, letting them flow over me like cool waters. 
After the first day, I could have been hit by a bus, but I was home each night by 7:55, and I didn’t need a watch.
What I only saw was the immediate.  He wanted the respect.  He was my father and I should obey him because of it.  That was the full scope of my perspective.  But he was willing to risk that because his scope was far broader.  He could see the potential dangers much farther down the road than I could imagine.  And as a father, his job, as he knew it, was first and foremost to keep me safe.  I didn’t have to like it.  I didn’t even have to understand it.  But what I never question is that however he corrected me it was first done out of love.  The love that I hope my daughter can feel from me, even as she’s pedaling away from me, farther and farther down the road.