Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Stake in the Woods


Everyone knows that nothing stays the same. We are surrounded by change.  When we go back to our hometowns or to places we used to live or visit years ago, we can see visible evidence that nothing stays the same.  It  is a rule of life that things change.  Some changes take us by surprise and some are announced.  How do we live and survive in  a world of constant change?

Years ago I went walking in the woods with my dog near my home.  In the woods, there were places I liked to go; the stream, the large rock, the big tree.  But on that day my dog and I walked past those places and went into a part of the woods that was less familiar to me, further from home.

Near a clearing I found a stake that had been hammered into the ground by someone and stood above the ground about two feet.  On its side were printed the letters DOT.  And I knew that change was coming; that the days of walking in these woods with my dog were numbered; that the deer who lived here would have to find another place; that the sound of cows mooing would soon be replaced by the sounds automobiles on an interstate highway.

Going home that day, being in unfamiliar woods, I got lost and could not find the right path  But I knew my dog could lead us both out so I said, "let's go home" and he ran ahead as I followed behind. And he led us home.

In a time of change, we need someone to walk with us.  A good friend.  A companion.  A partner.  A spouse. And when we come across that stake in the ground announcing a change that will alter the very ground we stand on, we know that they will be by our side and we can count on them to help us navigate the twists and turns that lead us home.
















Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Singing in the Dark

Hurricane Florence just blew through the Carolinas and it was strangely reminiscent of another hurricane that visited us in 1989 named Hugo.  We never thought Hugo would come to Charlotte, NC and although we followed it with the weather reports each night and were concerned for the people in Charleston, SC, we in Charlotte took the hurricane very nonchalantly.

When the weather reports began to say that Hugo would reach as far inland as Charlotte, we all thought that it would dump a lot of rain on us along with some 30 mph winds and would move along and die out somewhere west of us.  We had a beach weekend planned with friends.  Hugo was scheduled to arrive in Charlotte Thursday night or early Friday morning.  We thought that after it blew through, we would get in our car and drive to our long awaited time at the beach.

How wrong we were.  Hugo came through Charlotte with a force we had never seen, blowing down trees, blowing roofs off houses, cutting off power from thousands of homes.  Getting in out of town was nearly impossible because of fallen power lines and hundreds of trees lying across the roads.  Businesses were closed, gas pumps were inoperable, and grocery store shelves were empty.  We were totally unprepared for this.

The first few days were a frantic scramble to find flashlights that worked, water, and food that would not spoil and trying to stay cool in the September heat without air conditioning.  While other homes regained their power, our house and two others on our street were to remain in the dark without water for an additional week and a half.  Our power problem (a blown fuse in the transformer) was a local problem and first priority was being given to much larger problems.

October arrived and we were hoping that our power would be restored before our daughter's birthday on Monday, October 2.  But it was not to be.  My wife's parents arrived (by then the roads were cleared).  I came home from my job (businesses had reopened).  And darkness arrived soon after.

Throughout our time without power we dreaded the night.  Night without electric lights seemed so very dark.  There was no T.V.  Reading or playing games was difficult.  Our problems seemed worse at night.

But the night of October 2 was different.  It was almost magical. The dining room was filled with candlelight including those seven candles on the birthday cake.  And as we wore our party hats and sang happy birthday, the room was filled with joy and love and we had forgotten that we were sitting in darkness, and we were somehow lifted up beyond our situation.

There is a hymn whose refrain is "Love lifted me.  When nothing else could help, love lifted me."

When nothing else could help us, love lifted us that night, out of the darkness and into a joy and peace that surpassed all understanding.





Friday, August 31, 2018

Cresting the Hill

My wife and I have been painting the inside of our our house since June.  Our goal is to paint every room and ceiling and to declutter the rooms and closets as we paint them and to fix things that we find or that we have ignored.

This has been an interesting process.  We have been making good progress, but I have found that painting is one of the easier tasks.  Giving away sentimental but unused things that have been packed away for years has been the most difficult task.

I would rather paint 10 ceilings rather than make the decision to donate or throw away baby shoes, our children's old lunch boxes, or toys they played with.

Now I have found out that I have to have surgery in early September and because of all the doctor appointments related to the surgery our progress has slowed to a crawl.  And, we have four upstairs rooms left.

So, being an old runner, I draw from that knowledge at times like this.

When the road suddenly becomes steep, and your legs get tired and your breathing is hard, do these things:


1.  Straighten your posture (stand tall) and face the hill.  Bending over and looking at your feet only serves to restrict your breathing at a time when you need to breathe.

2.  Shorten your stride.  This keeps you standing tall, and helps manage the steepness of the hill. Short steps, in this case, are better than long ones.

3.  Have faith. Draw on your resources.   Trust that your previous experiences and training will carry you upward.

4.  Walk if you have to.  Things slow down when you walk and you can collect your wind.  Sometimes this may be the only way to get up the hill.

5.  Take a rest if you have to.  There is nothing wrong with a time out in order to gather your strength.

5.  Stay in the moment. Feel the wind.  Smell the autumn air.  Rejoice in the movement of your body, and know that the pain of this movement causes growth and endurance.


So, onward and ever upward, to the unpainted rooms upstairs, whose closets are full, where decisions will make me ponder the years, and I will rejoice in the wonder of it all.




Monday, August 27, 2018

The Light We Share

Standing in my driveway at night, I look around my neighborhood. Most houses are filled with light that shines out into the darkness.  And I know that in those houses, life goes on.  Dinners are being prepared and eaten, families gather around televisions, books are being read, people are talking, family pets are being snuggled.

In the houses that are dark, I always feel that something is wrong, that a light should be shining there. These dark houses seem abandoned and sad.  I wish those who live there had left a light on when they left.

I find that some people, like houses, have light that shines out from their inner being into the darkness.    Their light brightens every room that they enter.  My sister was such a person.  People felt better when they were around her.  She passed away three years ago, but her light still shines in me whenever I think of her and I am filled with her presence. Through her light she lives.

Astronomers and scientists tell us that the light we see from the stars is millions of years old, and when we look into the night sky we are actually looking into the past.  Some of the stars that we can see no longer exist.  They burned out before the earth took shape, before life existed on this planet. The light from these non-existent stars will continue to come to earth millions of years after life ceases to exist here.

The light from our sun and the reflected light of the earth and the moon will continue to shine out into space long after the sun has burned out and collapsed on itself, saying to those alien beings billions of miles away who look up into their night sky, that we were once here.  We lived.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Journey

Running gives you a perspective about things.  Running was never about running from point A to point B.  It was about the in between; the way running made me feel; the weather; the hills; the landmarks that I passed; other runners on the road.  In college I met one of my professors while running.  He asked why I was running.  I told him I was running for fun.  He looked at me in disbelief, like there had to be something more, some goal, some endpoint to my running that I wanted to achieve.  Running was never like that.  For me it was always the in between, the journey.

A professional football player was recently quoted as saying “Not winning the Super Bowl makes you wish you never played in it.”  Everyone wants to win.  If you play a sport, the goal is to win.  If you play cards, the goal is to win.  No one consciously wants to lose.  

The problem is that no one wants to exert the effort if they cannot win.  People who try their best and come in second place are regarded as losers.  The Buffalo Bills went to the Super Bowl four years in a row.  No other team has accomplished this feat.  This means that they were the American Football Conference champions for four consecutive years.  They owned the AFC.  But, because they lost four consecutive Super Bowls, they are regarded as losers, not as the winners that they certainly were. 

I read that Jim Kelly, the only quarterback to ever start four consecutive Super Bowls, has never watched those games, because the memories of losing them are so painful.  After the fourth Super Bowl loss, people in Buffalo were actually calling radio stations and pleading with the team members being interviewed not to take them back to the Super Bowl.  Apparently it was not worth the effort if they could not win.

There is a quote that is attributed to Henry Grantland Rice in the early 1900’s that ends, “It is not that you won or lost, it is how you played the game.”  Martina Navratilova, a tennis champion of the 70’s and 80’s, after hearing this quote, said “Whoever said that probably lost.”  

Winning has become the only thing that matters.  Not how you play the game.  Not how you conduct yourself during or after the game.  Not how you handle defeat.  Winning is the only worthy goal, and it overshadows sportsmanship, and courage, and honesty, and fellowship- everything.  This is why people cheat, or play dirty, or lie.  To win at all costs. Even at the cost of our souls.

In 1925, Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur golfer (and some would say the greatest golfer), who ever played, was winning the US Open when he accidently touched his ball with his club while setting up for a shot.  The ball moved slightly.  No one else saw it.  But Jones assessed himself with a penalty shot.  This penalty shot cost him the title.  When he was praised for his honesty, Jones said “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.”  To Jones, not giving himself a penalty shot was the equivalent to stealing, and he could not do it.  He would rather finish in second place than destroy his character.

At the end of our time on earth, what will matter will not be how many games we have won, but how we won them.  It will not matter how many degrees we have earned, but what we learned along the way.  It will not matter how much money we earned, but what we did with that money.  It will not matter how many people we employed, but how many of them we knew and cared about and lifted up.

If we are to be a people of substance; if we are to keep our souls, winning at any cost cannot be the way we play the game. Winning, in fact, will be secondary to the process of playing the game; a process in which we will find that it is not the end but the journey that matters most.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Finding Shade

Over the course of my running life there were times when I wondered "Why am I out here?"

I have run in deep, wet snow that was falling sideways, sticking to the sides of buildings; pouring, cold rain that made steam rise from my head; hard, windy, cold that froze the sweat in the hair on the back of my head.

But the worst were the hot days.  Not just hot, but hauwt!  People say the devil once traveled through the South and that's the word he used to describe our July and August days.

On one such day, I was struggling up a particularly nasty hill that, for some reason, hated me as much as I hated it.  I swear that hill used to puff itself up right before I got to the top so that I would have to run ten yards further up before starting down.

Sweat was rolling off of me and into my eyes.  My hair was drenched; my shirt, pants and socks were soaked through and the heat rose off the road in waves.  The hill beat me down.  I stopped running and began to walk.

Walking is strange.  Things slow down and I began to notice things I had never noticed, like the large oak tree in the middle of a field planted with beans.  I stepped off the road and walked across the field and into the shade of the oak.

As I sat down, I immediately felt the relief of cool breeze blowing under the tree.  I looked across the field of row after row of beans.  The quiet sounds of the wind, the rustling of leaves and the birds were all I heard.  I was filled with a sense of peace and rest and energy.

After a few minutes, I walked to the road and ran up the hill.

Sometimes you just have to find the shade.














Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A Better Present

I often hear people talking about their past, as if a past, replicated in the future, is the answer to all of our problems. "I just wish that things were the same as when I was a child.  They were so much simpler then."  Things are always much simpler for children than for adults.  I once told my daughter that we could not buy something because we did not have enough money.  "Well," she said, "just go to the bank and get some money."  Simple.

People who want to return to an idyllic past forget that the 20th Century was virtually born into a world at war, and war has affected every succeeding generation of Americans into the 21rst Century.  They forget that women could not vote until August 18, 1920; that  black people were severely oppressed in this nation and their basic rights as citizens were denied by law until the early 1970's.  Some of us have pasts that we are glad are past and we would not return to them.

Satchel Paige once said, "Don't look back.  Something might be gaining on you."  If we spend all of our time looking backwards, the now will pass us by. Too many of us are rooted in a past that never existed, unable to move forward in the present; unable to see the present for what it is; a blessing; a gift from God. The secret of living in the present is not to live in the past but to live in the now; to constantly grow and transform ourselves into something better based on our past experiences.

Living fully in the present enables us to pay attention and to listen, really listen, to others.  It enables us to help others in a way we could not otherwise do.  It enables us to offer love without constraints.  It enables us to forgive and make peace.

We cannot return to the past.  We cannot change the past.  But God has given us the brains to learn from our past and to live better lives and become better people in the present based on the past. If we do that, then we and our children may have better futures.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Red Tide

In the early 1990's I traveled to Clearwater, Florida for a conference. I arrived at the conference the day before it began and since the conference hotel was on the beach, one of the first things I did after arriving was walk out to the beach.  I had heard of the beaches on the gulf side of Florida all of my life and I could not wait to see a beach with no waves white sand that squeaked under your feet, and water that was so clear you could see fish swimming by your feet.

Clearwater Beach did not disappoint me.  I walked for miles down the beach, waded into the water, watched a horseshoe crab swim by my feet, then sat in the sand and looked out over the calm, gently rolling tide.  I was mesmerized.

Toward the end of the day, I walked back toward the hotel and the sun began to set and it seemed that everyone on and off the beach turned to face the sun.  The music that a band was playing in the distance stopped and in the golden sinking of the sun below the water we all became one people, watching the wonder of God's hand, feeling the silent quietness of the sunset.

I walked back to my hotel room knowing that I had to bring my wife and children to this place so that they could experience what I had experienced.

I went home and described my experience to my wife and we planned to vacation in Clearwater the next summer.  The following months I talked about Clearwater to my children, describing the beach, and the water and the sunset.  They began to talk about Clearwater as if they had been there.

Vacation time finally arrived and we left for Clearwater.  We stayed at the same hotel that I had stayed in earlier. We went down to the beach.  And what we saw was a nightmare.  Dead fish were everywhere covering the sand and hundreds of sea gulls swarmed down to peck out their eyes.  The once clear water was filled with brown, slimy seaweed, and dark rain clouds hovered overhead.

After talking with several people we found that Clearwater was having what they called a "Red Tide", so named because the seaweed make the water look a reddish, brownish color during the several days it is passing through.

"I can't believe you thought this was a good beach." commented my wife.

The children had fun, though, throwing seaweed at each other.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Fireworks


Dad was born on July 3, 1927 in Wilson County, NC.  Somewhere nearby, I am sure someone was shooting fireworks into the air.  Dad used to claim that all the fireworks on that day and the day after (July 4) were in celebration of his birth.  And we would laugh.

But, since his death in 1996, every time I see fireworks (no matter what time of year or what particular day), I think of him.  It is fireworks more than anything else that remind me of him.

I went by dad and mom's graves not long ago.  Dad was buried in the veterans section of the cemetery, near the flags. He and mom rest there, and my sister is buried in the same cemetery, not very far from their graves.

In the hymn, O God, Our Help in Ages Past, there is a verse that says, "Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all who breathe away.  They fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day."

It is tough to think that those who lie in their graves today will someday be forgotten and no one will really know who they were.

There should be a day that we dedicate to the memory of all who have died before us.  A day in which we intentionally remember those who "fly forgotten in the ever rolling stream of time."

And, it should be a day of celebration, not mourning, with music, and food, and fireworks.

Especially fireworks.






Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Valentine for Darlene


When my children were young and in grammar school, I would sit down with them near Valentine's Day and double check to make sure they had not forgotten anyone on their Valentines list and that everyone in their classes would receive a valentine.  

I would tell them how very important it was that no one was overlooked or left out.  This may seem strange to some.  But the reason I would do this was because of a little girl named Darlene who will reside in my memory forever.

Darlene was an ugly little girl.  I say this now, not to demean her as we did then, but to describe her as we thought of her.

She was fat.  She had brown hair that was never combed.  She wore clothes with holes.  The soles of her shoes were separated from the rest of her shoes so that when she sat at her desk you could see her toes.

My parents had moved into a new home and I had to change schools and I was new to the fourth grade class.  I knew no one on that first day.  When I sat down at my desk, I heard all the boys laugh.  And when I dropped my pencil and the plump little girl next to me handed it back, I heard them laugh again.

At recess one of the boys came up to me and filled me in.  He told me if Darlene had touched one of his pencils he would have thrown it away; that the cooties from her hair could jump at least as far as my desk and only the most unlucky person in the world would be caught sitting next to her.

I saw her on the playground, standing alone, watching the other girls as they stood in bunches and talked.  A few of them would cut sideways glances at Darlene, then whisper into another girls ear.  Darlene would turn her head away and pretend she didn't see.  Once she turned and looked at me.

When I think of that moment now, when our eyes met, I wonder what would have happened if I had walked over to her and spoken to her?  But I didn't do that.  I looked the other way and found someone else to talk to .

And when we went back inside, I slid my desk away from hers.  And I didn't speak to her.  I don't think I ever spoke to her.  But I did join the others in the class who made fun of her, who ridiculed her, until any self-esteem and confidence that she had were totally gone.

When she sat down at an activity table, the children at that table would slide their chairs to the opposite end so that all the chairs were bunched at one end with Darlene at the other.  And the class saw to it that she always ate lunch alone even though she was sitting in the middle of us.

On Valentine's Day, I threw her valentine away.  I didn't give her one.  Neither did anyone else.  I remember her sitting at her desk with her empty valentine bag while everyone else opened their valentines.  And we all thought it was funny.

This continued throughout the year and the next year, and the next.  Year after year.  I can't remember if she ever had a friend in school.

Looking back on this as an adult, I have often wished that I could go back in time to that playground long ago and reach out to Darlene and write her a thousand valentines.

Such wishes are to no avail.

So, the valentine that I hope I have given Darlene has been to teach my children the lessons I have learned; to respect everyone;  don't believe everything someone tells you about another person; to treat other people the way they would like to be treated; to speak to people on the playground; to slide your desk toward people, not away from them; and to give everyone a valentine.

Happy valentine's day, Darlene.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Snow in the South

Snow is a rare event in the South.  It is something that causes great joy and panic; great dread and anticipation.   We both love and hate to see it snow.  Snow has a transforming effect on us.  We become a people mad for bread and milk.  The slightest hint of a snowstorm and people rush to the nearest grocery store and clean the shelves of these two items.  I have never understood this, but it happens, for real, every time it snows.

Snow changes us from football watching couch potatoes to olympic bobsledders; flying down every nearby hill on trashcan lids, cardboard boxes, upside down aerobic step boards, fire pit bowls and whatever else we think will slide down a hill with us in them.  People don't seem to own sleds here.  I even saw people riding a person down the slopes.

Snow makes everyone a child again.  We are amazed at how snow lays on the branches of trees and how it piles up on the hood of the car or the porch.  We know deep in our hearts that each snowstorm is snowing harder and deeper than any time in the history of our lives.  And the worst of each snowstorm is directly over our houses.

Snow for us is magic.  Sound is muffled and a strange quiet pervades.  Leafless trees are coated in wonder.  A walk in the forest is a walk in wonderland through which the wind whispers something that you can feel but you don't quite understand.  A hill becomes an adventure.

Snow in the South is temporary and fragile and most snows are on the ground no longer than a day or two.  It is sad when temperatures change from freezing to sixty degrees overnight and the snow is suddenly gone.  And with it the magic.

And life is too soon back to normal.

And the whisper of the wind can no longer be heard.