Second Chance

This was the tenth Thanksgiving without Lisa.  I realized it on Wednesday as the girls and I drove to my parents’ house in Fayetteville.

That first year was unbearable.  I told my dad we could not eat at the dining room table.  I could not fathom sitting there without her by my side.  When we arrived, he had indeed set that table.  I refused to sit so the entire family picked up plates and resettled in the kitchen – some at the table, some at the bar.

Even butterbeans reminded me of her.

I don’t like to revisit the pain.  It’s a dark place for me.

What I’m most thankful for this year is second chances.  I’m thankful that I was able to move again after years of paralysis.

Not everyone gets that chance.  Some don’t have the good fortune of accepting the loss and having the strength to find their new selves.  Some can’t get over the hurt, the betrayal the world cast on them.  Some aren’t able to find what I have – genuine happiness in a new partner.

My girls too have found happy again.  They are thriving, each in their own way.  Perhaps the greatest gift I can give them is to be solid myself.  I hope that my example of pulling out of the hole, of giving new life a chance, will enable them, regardless of what they face in their futures, the ability to dig out themselves.

I don’t take my second chance for granted.  I thank God for the people who have been put in my life – the ones who tossed me ropes and ladders and flotation devices not so long ago.  I thank God for bringing Julie into my life at the exact right time – at a time when she and I were both ready to take a leap from tough to happiness.

It’s not easy.  Sometimes grief is more comfortable.  It can be very secure – you know your role.  You don’t have to move.  Sitting is much easier than running.

But had Julie and I not trusted again, had we not been willing to leap, I can’t imagine what life might be.

I hate I went through loss.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I am thankful I jumped.  It was the second hardest – and yet, the most exhilarating of my life.

 

One-on-one

Last night I got a text message from a co-worker.  She shared that a third grade boy at one of our after-school sites, a kid from a single parent family, lost his mother and sister in a horrible car accident yesterday.  He rode with them to school.  At 6 pm when our program closed, no one came to pick him up.  That was very unusual.  Then the news.  He spent last night in foster care.

He lost his mother and middle school sister and then had to, at least temporarily, go, alone, to a stranger’s house to spend the night.

I don’t know the kid.  I don’t know much about his situation.  Yet my heart aches for him.

This little guy now has to navigate life without the two people who were his foundation.  His world turned upside down.

I’m thinking about what must be going on in his mind today.

Two weekends ago I spent the day at Elon University with Stephanie.  It was Men We Love weekend with her sorority.  It was likely designed for dads but knowing not everyone has a dad, they broadened it to men.

We spent a little time with her crew at school, but mainly we had an almost full day together.  We laughed and laughed.  Talked about her future.  Talked a bit about mine.  Saw the better part of a football game and an acapella concert together.

I cherish the time I get, especially one-on-one, with those I love.  It might be the most meaningful of all.

None of us knows how many more days we have left on this earth.  Man, I want to spend more of it intentionally building connections with those around me.

That’s the important stuff.

Expectant Joy

I went to a guitar playing church in Charlotte last Sunday.  My church here in Raleigh is more pipe than string.  It’s fun to have a little worship diversity every now and then although a bit uncomfortable for a bow-tie, suit wearing stuff like me.

It is interesting that often just the right message or quote or phone call comes when you most need it.  I got it in the sermon last weekend.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s coming – lots of fun fall weekends at various kid’s parents’ weekends.  A getaway with Julie in November.  An impending wedding.  A new house.  I’m not 100% sure what lies ahead, and yet, it is exciting!  All good stuff to look forward to.

But therein is my problem.  I spend way too much time looking forward – not basking in the goodness of today.

The pastor at this church called it “expectant joy.”  We expect it to come at some point in the future.  But what about today?  Is joyful stuff here, and we can’t see it because we are so focused on what might come?  Will we ever really see joy?  Will we ever really enjoy it?  Or will we continue to hope for more?  Will we look forward to tomorrow until tomorrow doesn’t come?

He told the story of a single mom he knows who has four kids.  If you looked at her life from the outside, you’d see a lot of tough.  Finances are tight.  Hard relationships from the past.  Loss.  Illness.  But she exudes happiness.  It seeps from her inner self.  She has discovered that recognizing what you have today and being thankful for your blessings is the way to live.

Maybe that is part of the struggles in our society – spending too much time expecting and not enough time enjoying.

The Bully

Who could bully this cute kid??  DJ, about age 4.

 

I am currently reading a book by J.D. Vance called Hillbilly Elegy. It is a memoir that chronicles his life growing up in Appalachia.  It is an interesting look at a life of poverty.  One tenant of Vance’s family was loyalty.

Vance recounts a bully picking on a kid in his grade school.  Apparently this was sort of an ongoing issue for a number of kids at the school and the teachers and school administrators were aware of the problem.  One day, this bully, walked over to another boy and asked, “Are you gonna cry again today like you did yesterday?”

This pissed Vance off, and, as his grandmother, yes grandmother, had taught him, Vance approached, stood sideways (to be a smaller target) and punched the bully in the stomach using his hips for additional force.  The bad guy went down.  I guess the message was don’t mess with my people.

I remember DJ returning home from 3-year-old preschool one day and sharing that Belva, apparently the mean girl in Mrs. Wishon’s class, had made fun of her shoes AND wouldn’t let her play in the classroom’s miniature kitchen. Needless to say, I was angry.  I was tempted to head over to St. Michael’s preschool the next day and punch Belva in the stomach as Vance did his school bully.  After considering her age, I decided against my initial plan.

It’s one thing to stand up for your child.  I think there’s sort of an innate parental protection gene that makes us want to attack those who emotionally or physically hurt our kids.  What was startling to me about Vance was that the guy he defended was not related to him. In fact, he wasn’t even a great friend.  It was just a kid in his class who was being treated poorly.

After reading his story, I began to wonder if I had ever stood up for the little guy.  The one who struggled to find his voice.

Perhaps I have – or perhaps I too often do nothing for the underdog.  There isn’t much coming to mind – no list of heroic acts I can refer to as examples of my bravery in the face of worldly unfairness.

As I hear derogatory remarks about someone, as I consider inequities around me, as I run into individuals with no voice, I wish I’d do more.  It’s easy to ignore.  It’s easy to walk by.  It’s easy to just be thankful you’re not the one suffering at the moment.

I’m gonna work on that.

The First Stone

When I was a young teenager, I distinctly remember walking into the Darryl’s restaurant in Cross Creek Mall in Fayetteville, NC, and seeing several adults who worked with my youth group at a table with what appeared to be alcoholic beverages.  Being raised Baptist, I was appalled and saddened that they would be going to hell.

My grandfather was an alcoholic so my parents chose not to drink.  I don’t mean not to drink a lot.  I mean teetotalers.  Alcohol has not pursed the lips of my father’s mouth.  And he is pushing 82.  He told me if I had lived with what he lived with as a child, I too would not partake.

I’m not sure when it hit me that you could be a Christian and also drink beer.  Or smoke.  Or even cuss.  And I guess that there are a lot of Christians doing a lot of other stuff that I would have questioned when I was 13.  In fact, I am.

The older I get, the more I realize that life is hard.  I also realize that people, none of them, not even my dad, are not perfect.

I recently gave a panhandler $5.  I’m not sure what moved me to do so.  It was cold outside, and I had cash which is unusual for me.

For a split second I wondered what he might do with the cash.  Maybe buy a six pack of PBR I thought to myself.  And then, I realized, if I was going to have to sleep outside that night, I’d likely do the same.

What makes it OK for me to assume he’s going to do something bad with MY money, which I gave to him, and not OK for him to spend it for his needs?  Is it worse for me to judge what he might do or for him to buy the beer?  I didn’t even know his situation.  Nor do I know what I’d do with $5 bucks if I was in his shoes.

I become exhausted with myself condemning others while I, on my very, very high horse, disappoint God and others on a quite frequent basis.  I become exhausted with others for that too.

The older I get the more I find myself wanting to love, and the more agitated I get when I hear racial bias or prejudice against gays or a lack of love for an addict.  Maybe it is because I clearly see all the junk I do wrong.  I believe in the bible it says something like let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

I’m going to try to hold on to my rocks.

Theara and the Beatitudes

I recently taught a Sunday school lesson on the Beatitudes.  I think I may be plagiarizing, but I no longer have a copy of the book, and I don’t remember the author’s name.  So know that credit for the following concept goes to whoever the guy is who wrote this Presbyterian book on the Beatitudes.  Sorry dude.

The author says that often people who struggle economically find their joy in the allness of life.  He says that allness isn’t even a real word, he made it up.  But maybe it should be.

Am I’m making life too complicated?  Maybe it isn’t about the house or the car or the college tuition or the next vacation or the number of years ‘til retirement.  Maybe it isn’t about being included in the important meeting at work or having everyone in the world like you or being President of the Board.  Perhaps it is about being in the moment – being fully satisfied with what you are given today; right now.

Matthew 18:3 says to approach life in a childlike way.

When I worked at the Cary YMCA, there was a kid in our programs named Theara.  She had Downs Syndrome and came to the Y after-school and during the summer most days for years and years.  Now, Theara could get frustrated and definitely told you what was on her mind.  One day we were walking to Bond Park about a mile down the greenway from the Y.  She got tired, sat down, and refused to go any further.  It was hot, and she let us know that we, in her opinion, had mucked up her day with this ridiculous trek.

I sort of liked the fact that you never had to guess where you stood with Theara.  If she was happy, you knew it.  If she wasn’t, you also knew it.

But what I most admired about Theara was that she was full.  She was full of love, and joy.  She delighted in a camp skit, song or cheer.  She loved theme days where you had the opportunity to dress up in costume.  She loved running into me in the hallway, walking up to greet me with a high-five and a joke or some little tidbit about her day.  She would get so excited about the smallest things.

She wasn’t waiting around for happiness to find her.  She found happiness in almost every aspect of life, with the exception of hot walks to Bond Park.

The Beatitudes encourage us to be meek, merciful, peacemakers, pure in heart and several other things that I’m not very good at.  Who in the heck even wants to be meek?  Is that a good thing?

Perhaps what Christ was saying was to take the talents you’ve been given and maximize them.  Or maybe, that the things society says are important, like leadership and clout, are not the things He finds important.  He made this world and wants us to enjoy it no matter who we are or what we’ve been given.

The author says that happiness replaces pain but that joy embraces it.  He explains that joy takes conquest of all the stuff of life, both good and bad, while happiness depends largely on circumstances.

I, for one, too often seek happiness instead of living with joy.  And when you do that, happiness is sometimes evasive.  Joy isn’t fickle.  It doesn’t leave us even when things aren’t going our way.

I think Theara has it right.  She has contentment with who she is and where she is.  Maybe I should spend more times with kids – I might learn something about living.

Others or yourself?

My dad is a great teacher.  He is very involved in his church and is constantly leading classes on raising kids (not sure if he has credibility there), marriage (he nailed that), communication, and other life stuff.  Recently he sent me the book The DNA of Relationships by Gary Smalley.  Dad’s using it for a class right now.

I’ve meandered through the book over the past month, and one of the big ah-hah’s for me has less to do about relationships and more to do with self.

Dr.  Smalley suggests that happiness comes from within.  He quotes Abraham Lincoln who said, “I reckon that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  Smalley goes on to say that a relationship with another flawed human being will not make you happy.  He asks, “Do two unhappy people normally form a happy couple?”  The answer is no.

I’m no expert on resilience or tackling hard issues.  I just did what I had to do.  But one thing I did realize through my grief was that I couldn’t live in a state of unending sadness.  I remember my counselor telling me in an early session after Lisa died that it would be three to five years before I would feel normal again – and that’s if I worked hard.  My response to her was, “That is unacceptable.”  I could not stay in that state.  I had to get out.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends, including three incredible kids, who injected joy and purpose into my life on a daily basis.  Although I was mad at God, I also had my faith.  I knew there was something more than we see here on this earth.  I clearly didn’t escape on my own.  But there was something in me that drove me to seek more.  That internal drive gave me my life back.

It wasn’t easy.  There were times that I actually felt guilty about being happy.  I had feelings of betrayal when I enjoyed life.  But I kept thinking, my kids deserve a happy dadThey’re going to face other significant obstacles in their life, and they need to see that there can be happiness after tragedy.  It was an example I had to set for them.  And that drove me to get better.

I worked diligently to get my grief out – like sweating out a fever.  I looked for ways to give back to help others in my situation.  I leaned on Uncle Jesse and followed his lead of reinserting zaniness into our house.  I leaned into my grief while simultaneously running in the opposite direction.

This strategy of aggressively facing my grief while looking for ways to combat it worked.  It gave me the ability to develop new friendships, to have the courage to try new things and find new passions, and to enter into an incredible relationship with Julie, my girlfriend, who I truly, truly love.  I can’t imagine my life today had I taken the alternate route.

Movement forward doesn’t come from others, although they can help.  It comes from within.  It comes from perseverance and an internal rejection of sadness or anger or resentment or whatever other negative emotion that festers inside us.

Those who know me would not describe me as an over the top optimistic dude.  I’m naturally sarcastic and can be a bit Chicken Littleish, one eye always watching for the sky to fall.  But those who look beyond the facade, they see more.  I saw an old friend in downtown Raleigh recently.  She looked me up and down and said, “I can tell you’re happy.”  How refreshing to be described that way.

I am grateful I had it in me to declare war on grief.  It’s a battle worth fighting.

More! More! More!

I’m selfish. I want to help the world, but I’m just too lazy or too greedy to do it.

On Friday night, I was at a fundraiser. It was for an international group that helps people in need.

The video they shared to kick the night off would rip your heart out. I had to drink another glass of really nice wine to absorb it all.

This man shared a letter from a kid he supports somewhere in Africa. The girl had written a thank you note for the man’s support but shared her concern about her father. Apparently he had to wait to work in his field until after several others in the community had finished their work. He didn’t own his own ox or plow. He borrowed. Therefore, he was the last to plant.  She feared for the family’s livelihood for the next twelve months if he didn’t get his dirt turned soon.

My kids are worried about a lot of things.  But they aren’t worried about whether they’ll have a roof over their heads or food to eat.

Just tonight I put a big helping of shrimp linguini in the fridge because I made entirely too much. We don’t eat leftovers, but I continue to save them because I can’t handle the guilt of throwing perfectly good food away. The Tupperware will sit there until next weekend. I’ll feel fine tossing it out then because no one would want to eat it at that point, not even really hungry folk.

Do you know how much it cost to buy the girl’s father an ox and a plow?  $300.  And there would likely be enough left to purchase a donkey too. I have suits that cost that much.  Several of them.

I also spend that much at Costco sometimes because I get carried away. I need to buy extra shrimp and linguini so my icebox won’t be empty.

This is a nutty world.

What if we could get our extra linguini to Africa by Tuesday? Wouldn’t that be nice?

The problem is that I’m much more comfortable giving my leftovers. That’s easy.

I took a car full of stuff to Goodwill today because I was through with it. And, I get a tax write off. But what if I gave more up front to combat the zany inequities in our world? Heck, in our city.

I probably won’t do that. Instead I’ll buy more stuff and complain about paying taxes – which sometimes do help people in need. More for me!!  More, more, more.

 

Joy

cogswell-joy

I got a weird and wonderful call this week.

The area code was 910.  I recognized it because it is the same as my parents’.  On my phone screen the word Fayetteville popped up. Most people would not get excited by that word.  My hometown does not have the most exciting nor stellar reputation.  But for me, when I imagine that city, I just get all warm and tingly inside.

The voicemail was jumbled and cut off a few seconds into the call.  But I could clearly make out the name, and I surely recognized the voice.

“Danny, this is Joy from Fayetteville.  I saw a picture of you on Facebook and…”

Joy!

Joy was the pianist and a youth leader at my church when I was growing up.  Although old to us at the time, she was probably early thirties, she was so stinkin’ cool.  She was one of few adults who let my friends and me call her by her first name:  Joy.  How fitting.  She brought a ton of it to me.

In many ways, I was an insecure teen, not quite sure what to think of myself or my place in the world.  I did not peak in high school – that is an understatement – I didn’t even slightly ascend.  But Joy and Doug and Kim and Mike and Mr. Lundy and Mrs. Byrd and Miss Patty hurled themselves into my life with the full intent of helping me to discover all that I had that was good.  I’m sure it was a chore – like finding a pineapple tree growing in the Alaskan Tundra.

It didn’t seem to bother them that I was imperfect.  Sometimes I cussed.  Once I led the brigade of boys on a youth retreat in a full on mooning convention.  We pulled our pants down every single time a girl in our group walked by and even mooned passersby from the church bus windows.  These adults showed me love and compassion and how to invest in the lives of those around you.

Because of my work at the YMCA, I often read articles on how to insure that children grow up with a strong self-esteem and the ability to be productive members of society.  Having adults outside of your family who care about you is a key factor in accomplishing those goals.

I am thankful for Joy and for my church that poured into me for so many years.  I am thankful for the adults who have done the same for my kids.

Now, it’s my turn.

 

What’s My Role?

IMG_0532

I had the opportunity to chaperone our middle school youth group’s trip to Asheville, NC, this past week.  Asheville Youth Mission is a Christian organization that coordinates service opportunities for groups throughout the year in and around their mountain town.  We took 13 teenagers and experienced six mission placements in a week.

We worked at Manna Food Bank where Michelle, four other kids and I “got” to rip open hundreds of mesh bags full of rotten, slimy okra and toss them into a compost pile.  There was gagging and one episode of vomiting.  Not me or my child.  Michelle is used to disgusting food.  She was just thankful that she didn’t have to eat it for dinner this time.

We planned a pirate party at a day care center for adults with severe intellectual disabilities.  We shared some great jokes with our new friends:

What’s a pirate’s favorite country?

Arrrrgentina!

I left that afternoon both uplifted and incredibly grateful for my healthy children.

This was my second year at AYM, so I wasn’t surprised that I would be spiritually and emotionally moved at some point during the week.  I just didn’t know how.

Day 1 was the okra; not moving – emotionally or spiritually.  Perhaps gastronically, but that’s about all.

Day 2, however, hit me hard.

We pulled up to Hinds Feet Farm around noon.  It was not a corn field.  It was actually a safe place for people to go who suffer from traumatic or acquired brain injuries.   These adults come to Hinds Feet Farm, held in the back of a church, daily, where they build friendships and participate in programs.

I was fortunate to break bread with Sarah, Jay and Vanessa, three of about 15 present last Tuesday.  Jay immediately shared that Sarah was his wife; they both wore wedding bands.  Sarah clarified that their marriage was spiritual, that at this point they were unable to live together and had not yet had an official ceremony.

After lunch, several of our new friends shared their stories.  We learned that Sarah and Vanessa had been in car accidents.  Vanessa’s was three days after she turned 16.  Jay was hit in a brawl, fell backwards, and suffered significant bleeding on his brain.

Although their stories were inspiring, it was the lessons they shared that really hit home with me.

Each told us that they were intelligent; that they weren’t scary; that they just struggled with speech and with memory.  They asked us to treat them like real people.  Not to shy away from them.  Not to assume they aren’t smart.

As I listened to them, I thought about all that is going on in the world today.  Perhaps part of their struggles was my fault.

I don’t hang out with anyone who has a traumatic brain injury, so I simply don’t understand.  In fact, I don’t really hang out with Muslims, the homeless, those outside of my socioeconomic sphere, transgender folks, etc., etc.  Sure, I have acquaintances at work and throughout the community who are different from me, and, they are some of the nicest, most engaging people I know.  But I’m not eating dinner with them on Saturday night.  Instead, I spend my free time with my family (all lily white, middle class, southerners), and friends from church or clubs or my neighborhood (most lily white, middle class, southerners).  I’m guessing it is difficult to truly understand others if you don’t spend significant time with them.  In fact, Sarah said with slow, slurred speech, “You can’t understand if you don’t walk in someone else’s shoes.  And your feet are probably the wrong size.”  I think I should at least try them on.

At times, I get so frustrated with the unrest in our world.  Things seem so dire.  And yet, if I’m honest with myself, I can’t say that I’m doing anything to make it better.  Perhaps I should spend a bit more time pondering my role in all of this.  And maybe I should work a bit harder to connect with those who don’t look, act and think just like I do.

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