Waiting in the Dark

Each year, Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas produces an Advent booklet of daily meditations by current and former members of the church — one for each day of Advent. I have had the honor of contributing for several years now. This year’s theme is Waiting for the Light. My meditation was placed to be read on December 12 this year, so I share it with you on that date.

A host of people help in the preparation of each year’s Advent meditation book. Sharlande Sledge spearheads the effort and Pam Allen designed this year’s beautiful cover. It is truly a labor of love by people who have been changed by their association with Lake Shore, myself among them.

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. [Isaiah 9:2]

Waiting for the Light

Waiting for the Light

Waiting in the Dark

Years ago, I had to make a move to Roswell, New Mexico. It was a move I had not anticipated and had not wanted. At the end of a long, lonely drive down from Washington State, I topped a hill and saw the lights of Roswell stretching out before me in the valley below. “So, this is where I’ve come to die,” I said out loud to the empty seat next to me. Things were bleak in my life and I’d become accustomed to the idea that they were unlikely to get better. It was just before Christmas and darkness was everywhere I looked. I had never heard of Advent and wouldn’t for another thirteen years. If I knew I was waiting for the light, I’d long since forgotten it.

But, instead of being the place I’d come to die, my time there became the beginning of a rebirth. While my darkness initially deepened those first few years, one of a series of doors began to open for me in 2003. Very gradually the darkness began to dissipate. It was still to take another few years of crawling around in that darkness before I realized there was light in my life and that it had been there all along.

More recently, another move not of my choosing. The difference this time was that I’d already begun to see the light surrounding my life. A host of generous people became the mirrors of God’s light and love in my life, helping me see more clearly the light shining just around the edges of my long-familiar darkness. I finally understood the light exists wherever I move. Despite my fear, I found another host of mirrors in my new home – another source of strength where I feared there might be none.

Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the light of the world, knowing full well there would be darkness ahead for him. He understood darkness doesn’t have to consume us. He showed us there is light in all our lives and instructed us to share that light wherever we go. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” [John 1:4-5]

Once I began to understand the light, I knew my wait was over. This Advent season, may God’s light shine into your darkness, giving strength to share the hope of Christ with others trapped in whatever darkness surrounds them. Sharing your light with another miraculously increases your own.

May this season be filled with waiting and wonder. Seize time during what has become an unnecessarily hectic season to take a deep breath and look beyond the hustle and bustle to remember that the greatest gift you can give another is the gift of yourself.

Him That Grow’d Up, Grow’d Old-er

60th sell-by date

Satchel Paige said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” I think that’s probably a trick question. It’s a little like that saying about a tree falling in the forest. If there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Yeah, like that. If there’s no one there to hear me moaning and creaking as I get out of bed fresh from turning sixty, have I really turned sixty? Have I already passed my best “sell by” date?

Here’s a little pome (this stuff hardly qualifies as a poem) in honor of my six decades — tongue-in-cheek, naturally, and dentures on a shelf.

Hint: the pome reads more easily if you use a sing-song rhythm — out loud — and forget pentameter. A Texas accent also helps. If you’re still confused by the pome, please refer to the previous fifty-five posts for background.

In looking back on years gone by
Despite the contrary things he’d know’d
Time marched on without his help
But them that watched saw how he grow’d

And things had happened on the way
But they were things he had not see’d
Though clear to others and plainly so
His anger became, you know, his creed

So long ago the lights went out
Ne’er again, he thought, would be his need
For things outside himself, you see
And with himself he much agreed

His counsel only he would keep
All others he ignored
When others thought to think him good
He thought them off their gourd

When at some point as years piled high
He found himself not quite so drunk’ed
A little light peeked through, it’s true
But life it mostly stunk’ed

His problem still, I’m here to tell you
All selfish and self-centered
No matter how he’d tried to change it
His life it still was splintered

To his surprise, things were a’changin’
These filled him full of dread
For over all those years of hiding
He’d expected, surely, to be dead

If there’s a moral to this story
We’d expect for it to lead
To something dark, foreboding
Surely not a life that’s freed

The boy that died so long ago
Or ‘least to him that’s how it seemed
Was found to still be breathing
Or was it only what he’d dreamed

He’d worried on and on and on
If him they really know’d
Would walk away and leave him there
Alone along the road

It took some time, sixty years, you know
From what he knew he’d sowed
His life was full of something, sure
That some would call a load

But things can change
Or so he’d been toad
They change no matter what you do
No matter you’ve said “vetoed!”

Things they’re changing still
And though some fear’s subsided
He’s trying to do better, true
But himself he’s still derided

Slowly, yes, ever so slowly
He found he remembered still
That one from long ago, so long
The one he’d tried to kill

So now they’re friends these two
Even have between’em a code
And with the help of each of them
On them some honors were bestowed

And you may think the two are one
With you they’ve disagreed
But gradual-like and none too fast
The merger will proceed

Good and bad they’re just one coin
On that he now agreed
You say he should have known ‘fore now
And ask if he’d accede?

The two were always one
If on that fact he’d been confused
But one forgot the other
The other not amused

Now they’ve met again
The two as one decreed
We’re in this thing together
They mutually agreed

But wait, you ask, again and louder
What’s next, how’ll it all conclude?
You look to him and wonder
Not to answer would surely be rude

Undeterred, it’s said, he turned his face
Into a wind that blow’d
And smiled, but only to himself
And ambled down the road.

Deacon Eek-in — Week One, Twice

So I was very close to ordination. I was delighted to be ordained a deacon, which is the last step between, before becoming a priest. But then it all fell apart. ~ Thomas Keneally

Unlike Mr. Keneally’s experience, in my case it all seems to have fallen together.

Sunday, October 21, 2012. I, along with five other ordinands, sat at the front of the sanctuary for the service of ordination as deacons of the church. Looking out over the congregation, I couldn’t help but wonder how this had happened. I couldn’t help but marvel at the amazing, sometimes frightening, sequence of events that brought me to this place and this time.

  • Ordination: the process by which individuals are consecrated, that is, set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies.
  • Ordinand: a candidate for ordination.
  • Benjamin Eakin: always considered a highly unlikely candidate for ordination.

I tend not to see myself in a very good light. Perhaps that’s been obvious at times. In fact, left to my own devices, I see myself as something less than worthy of notice. The roots for that go back a very long time and I won’t go into them again here. Suffice it to say I am not my biggest fan.

As I’ve said before, I stood before a congregation a few years ago to join my first church in forty years. Standing there, my thought had been, “I wish I could see myself the way these people seem to see me.” It had been only four months since first setting foot in church again and there I was joining that church. It was the beginning of a process toward changing my view of myself.

To give credit where credit is due, though, I have to admit the sequence of events began much farther back than those four years. In fact, odd as it sounds, I suppose the sequence had already begun by the time I walked away from church at age seventeen. What followed was a largely dark period of thirty-three years where much of what I might have recognized as me disappeared behind a blur of alcohol. Fighting my way back, though, finally began in earnest at age fifty with the struggle to get sober. I was to find that more of me survived than I might have suspected.

So, let’s just say the semi-conscious journey to those chairs down front began in 2003. With most things, I am nothing if not a slow learner and a fast forgetter. More than that, though, I had to fight my way through a lot of anger that was preventing me from even beginning to consider looking at what I’d come to believe about myself and the world over the years.

I’d always considered myself to be open and accepting of the world at large. It’s very uncomfortable to realize that’s not precisely the truth. I’m not saying there wasn’t a part of me that was open and accepting, I’m saying that part of me had been buried beneath a series of masks designed to protect me from the world. The problem with that approach is, once you circle the wagons, you find it affords very little protection. Instead, what you end up with is isolation. While that may seem safe at first, the result is a continually smaller world. Once the process starts, it becomes easier to continually tighten the circle. I ended up with my wagon mired in a tiny world where there was no feeling of protection at all.

I think what I saw when I first returned to church was something of a surprise to me. Without meaning to, I noticed there were loving, caring people there. These people weren’t at all the self-righteous, judging people I expected. Of course, I reserved the right at first to change my mind as soon as their true colors began to show. Usually, when I’m suspicious of something, I’m able to confirm my suspicions soon enough – even if that something isn’t really there. Self-fulfilling prophecies tend to work that way. Despite my tentative, suspicious view of the people I met at church, I found I was gradually accepting that my long-held stereotype of haughty, got-my-ticket-punched church folk was, at best, exaggerated.

Change is rarely ever pretty, almost always uncomfortable. Letting go of my negative feelings about church people has taken a while. It helps, though, when you are surrounded by people who seem to genuinely care about the world around them. The fact they are also human tends not to get in the way nearly so much. It’s largely a change of perspective. When I stop focusing on what I consider the negatives about people, I’m able to see that spark of the divine I believe exists in us all. If I’m ever able to forgive you for being human, I may find a way to forgive myself, also.

When I found out I was to be ordained as a deacon, I told an old friend I hoped to have a ring for him to kiss by the time he got back from vacation. He replied, “Ben, my father was a deacon in the Baptist Church for many years. There is no ring. I do, however, still remember the secret handshake.” Even deacons, I think, should surround themselves with smart-alecs. It keeps you humble – and laughing. My friend, Judy P., said Tom might want to start calling me “Your Eminence.” Tom thought perhaps not. Instead, he said he was afraid I was now forever going to be known as Deacon Eek-in. I’m pretty sure he’s right.

In case you’re not aware, my last name is pronounced “Akin” but spelled “Eakin.” The “E” is silent. Rather, I should say the “E” is supposed to be silent. I’ve spent a lifetime correcting people: “No, the E is silent.” I don’t much correct folks anymore. Somehow it’s just not particularly important these days.

So, Deacon Eek-in it is, I suppose. Either way you say it, God will know who you’re talking about. With help, I hope what he hears you say about me is good. At the very least, God will know whether or not you’re right.

When I was growing up, it seems I never walked from Sunday School to worship without looking over to see some of the deacons smoking in the alley. Despite some apprehension I had about that, I have been assured smoking is not actually a requirement for being a deacon. Somehow, that’s a comfort.

Back to ordination. Each of the six ordinands were to take part in the service in one way or another. I was to lead the invocation at the beginning of the service so walked out behind the pastor, music director, and two of the other ordinands. Up onto the dais we went. I and another of the ordinands sat down in the chairs on the left. Looking around, I realized everyone else up there was still standing. The music director wouldn’t motion everyone to sit until the entire choir was in place. Too late. It was going to look even more odd for me to stand again. I must point out, though, that I only sat down because the ordinand next to me sat down first. It was one of those monkey-see, monkey-do things. My very first faux pas as an almost deacon. Ah, well, it will surely not be the last.

I love to manufacture problems. Pretty early on in my new church career, I became aware of deacons again. Looking ahead, I knew there was at least a tiny chance someone might eventually ask me to serve. The plan I hatched in my head was that if I moved my church membership often enough, I could ensure a deaconship could never happen. By the time I was asked if I’d serve, I knew I didn’t want to go elsewhere. As I’ve said, things had changed. When a friend asked me at the end of August if I’d serve if she nominated me, I can’t express the honor I felt simply from being asked.

I had to fast-forward through the DVD of the ordination service to find out when the six of us actually became deacons. The service was largely a blur to me. But, there came that moment when it was declared from the pulpit that we were deacons. I don’t think I felt any different at that moment than I had the moment before. That would come shortly in the laying on of hands ceremony.

The six of us – new deacons – moved to the front of the sanctuary to sit in chairs facing the congregation. Slowly, the congregation became a sea of individuals moving past us. They leaned over to offer congratulations, perhaps a prayer. I don’t remember much of what was said. I mostly remember how I felt. The tears started immediately as the pastor leaned down to me first. The tears continued until the end. Viewing the DVD, I realized that, from the vantage point of the balcony, this ceremony was very much like watching grass grow.

From the perspective of one who sat in those chairs down front, however, it seemed the world had shifted just a bit on its axis. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting the ceremony made me feel special – if only for a little while. You see, time had passed since that thought of “I wish I could see myself a little the way these people seem to see me.” I now realized that I was beginning to see what they saw. Very gradually, I’ve begun to forgive myself for being human. I’ve begun to accept that there’s at least a small part of me that wants to serve others. Perhaps I’ve done that in some ways for a very long time. The difference now is that I see I may really have not had an ulterior motive behind every move I’ve made over the years. Part of that is simply who Ben is, no matter how I may have tried to deny it.

So, now the real work begins. In so many ways, I really have just fallen off the turnip truck. Thankfully, I have no idea yet what that work is to be. I’d hate to scare myself more than I do normally. Next Sunday will be my first deacon meeting. In my church, deacons serve three-year terms. As I understand it, I became a deacon on October 21. My term as an active deacon, however, didn’t start until November 1. So, in a way, each of the two preceding weeks could serve as week one for Deacon Eek-in.

What’s ahead I can only guess. I know the deacons go to camp together once a year. Oh, sure, they call is a retreat but I know that’s just a grown-up word for camp. I’ve already begun writing my name inside my underwear. There’s just so much to learn — so much preparation.

All jokes aside, I have been given a gift I never expected to receive. Two congregations have played a part in helping move me from that deer-in-the-headlights guy at the front of one church to that grateful-to-God guy at the front of another. Through the eyes of each one of those people, I believe, God looked out and smiled at me.

It’s amazing what a smile can do.

My Life as a Marlboro Man

As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain from smoking when awake. ~ Mark Twain

Technically speaking, I wasn’t really the Marlboro Man – at least not one of those three poor cowboys who ended up dying of lung cancer after appearing in Marlboro commercials over many years. Yep, they were real cowboys. Philip Morris & Company wanted some authenticity in the commercials. What they got was likely more authenticity than they’d bargained for.

Marlboro cigarettes can be traced back as far as 1847 in England, though I wasn’t smoking them then. The Marlboro Man campaign was started in 1955 in an effort to transition from what was first marketed in the U.S. in 1902 as a “woman’s” cigarette that was “Mild as May” to a “man’s” cigarette. Gone were the mild references to women. The new Marlboro smoker was a rugged man. It appears their efforts paid off handsomely. The original Marlboro men were models and Philip Morris decided they weren’t rugged enough. That’s when they went out and found some real cowboys.

I was three years old when the Marlboro Man advertising campaign began but I don’t believe I smoked my first cigarette before I was twelve. Apparently, I resisted the advertising as long as I could. It’s been downhill ever since.

I don’t recall smoking regularly until age seventeen. It may be that I just don’t remember well, but by seventeen smoking had become a pretty essential part of my everyday life. Unfortunately, I tend to have a fairly addictive personality. Booze and cigarettes seem to be made for each other. At least it seemed that way to me. In addition, cigarettes were more acceptable to other folks during working hours than a six-pack of Budweiser.

I was a hairburner for most of the years between age eighteen and twenty-five. For a variety of not particularly good reasons, I decided I would not go to college. Oh, sure, I was also a bank teller for part of that time but cutting hair provided the bulk of my meager income during those years. Cigarettes seemed an essential part of a job I mostly hated. I felt I had to be on-stage performing and talking all day long as I cut hair. Terribly shy, it was an effort to show up for work and become responsible for the hair (and lives, as so many of them seem to feel) of countless people. I mean, just how many Dorothy Hamill cuts did they expect me to do in one day?

There was also always Valium around to help take the edge off, but smoking seemed to relax me the most. During that period, in fact, I relaxed with up to three packs a day. And, long after the Valium had been put away, the cigarettes and booze remained as constant companions.

I’ve quit smoking a number of times over the years. I think I made it three months once or twice. But, like my drinking, I didn’t have a quitting problem, I had a starting problem. Seems there were always reasons why today just wasn’t a good day to quit, while it always felt like today would be a great day to start. The reasons varied but were mostly a variation on a theme.

For instance, I was absolutely going to quit smoking when cigarettes reached a dollar a pack. A pack cost around twenty-five cents when I started. So, prices would have to quadruple in order to trigger the financial incentive to quit. It was sometime around 1987 before a pack exceeded a dollar. By that time, I’d already been smoking for over twenty years and had managed to move the price point up a bit. In fact, each year found me moving the financial incentive even higher. The price of a pack of cigarettes today is at least twenty times what it was when I started. Obviously, the financial incentive was simply not going to work in my case.

In the 1980s, I was still smoking in my office at the book publishing company. Yes, the hair cutting career had come to end. My smoking had not. My father wasn’t all that thrilled but, you know, I had an ashtray in there and figured I should use it. We smokers eventually moved outside. We continued to smoke inside at home, though. Sometime in the nineties, however, we moved the smoking permanently outside – it was yellowing the paint. You might think smoking outside with a temperature below freezing or well above 100 would be a fine incentive to quit. Again, you’d be wrong. The weather incentive simply meant you smoked faster. It’s good to be adaptable when you’re a smoker.

The Surgeon General’s office first published warnings about the dangers of smoking in 1964. Coincidentally, that’s about the time I started smoking. As a very mature, I’m sure, twelve-year-old, I was not at all worried. After all, twelve-year-olds are invincible. Ask them. They’ll be happy to tell you.

I’m not entirely certain sixty-year-olds are quite so invincible.

I have been sick to death of smoking many times over the years, so have repeatedly decided to quit. The patch, Nicorette gum, hypnosis, acupuncture. Tried ’em all – learned to smoke with them all.

When I got sober almost ten years ago, my plan was to quit drinking, quit smoking, and go off my anti-depressants all at the same time. Frankly, the anti-depressants had to go because I could no longer afford them. A friend counseled me against trying to stop them all at the same time, so the smoking stayed. It was difficult to determine which of a variety of frightening withdrawal side-effects I was dealing with when I stopped drinking and weaned myself off anti-depressants at the same time. It was quite a roller-coaster ride – one I don’t recommend.

I think I may have finally run out of excuses to continue smoking – except one. I’ve spoken with many people who insist that giving up cigarettes is even more difficult than giving up drinking. I might feel the need to argue with them on that point but I will concede smoking is a strong addiction. After forty-three years of almost continuous smoking, the question has become what to do with all the time left over when not smoking.

Yes, not smoking. I started taking Chantix again a few weeks ago. I’ve decided it might be nice to give myself a birthday present of another broken addiction for my sixtieth.

Wondering why no blog in a while? Let’s blame it on Chantix. One of the ways Chantix works is by slowing the metabolism. So, I’ve been a little mellow yellow [Donovan, 1966] of late. Most times, I write when I’m at least slightly angry. How does that work? Well, I write furiously (or while I’m furious), then take out about half of what I’ve written – the really angry parts. Without smoking, I’m left without the creative break of stopping every so often to go to the garage for a smoke while allowing my brain to run through what I’m writing. Now I have to figure out how to write without that distraction. Maybe I should be angry about that. Why yes, that might even help.

Of course, I’ve been on Chantix before, though it’s been a few years ago. Chantix interferes with the receptors in your brain that give you that bang for your buck from a cigarette. Despite that, I just wouldn’t put them down and learned to smoke with Chantix, as well. Some people think I’m a little stubborn.

So, I’m not saying I’m a non-smoker – yet. There are still those forty-three years telling me it ain’t necessarily so.

Besides, there are downsides to quitting. For one, I’m beginning to taste food again. As I’ve long suspected, I’m still not particularly fond of the stuff. And, what to do with your hands? It took forever to figure out how to stand around without a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I finally learned to lean on one hip so as not to be too unbalanced while smoking. Now, without a cigarette, I seem to be tipping over into walls or scrubs – at least a little more than usual.

The benefits of not smoking are legion. My lungs would appreciate a break, my pocketbook would certainly appreciate a break, and there’s a certain part of my psyche that would appreciate being able to pretend that I control something in my life.

It’s a little late now to retire on what I spent on cigarettes for the last forty-three years. Instead of quitting today, I think I’ll try just not starting.

God’s Fine Print

Nothing in fine print is ever good news. ~ Andy Rooney

Ever notice how our lives seem to be filled with fine print? We’re confronted on a daily basis with offers too good to be true, often failing to notice the fine print beneath the offer. Upon reading the tiny type at the bottom of the offer, the end result is that we find, in fact, the offer was too good to be true. We’re a people who love to get something for nothing and are continually fooled into thinking something for nothing actually exists.

In very many ways, I was taught growing up all about God’s fine print. Sure, they may call it Good News but, as Andy Rooney says, it turns out nothing in fine print is ever good news.

God is love. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But, wait. Someone seems always ready to point out their own version of God’s fine print. You are loved – but only if you do x, y, and z while rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time. You are loved but if you’re not careful it can all turn on a dime and leave you in a world of hurt. We’re dealing with a finicky God here, you’re given to understand, full of contradictions and not a little vengeance.

I’m afraid I heard too much of what others believe compose the exceedingly long list of reservations contained in the recitation of caveats to God’s love. I’ve long had my doubts, however. It seems to me God’s love has to be either/and or either/but. Either God is love (and I am loved) or God is not (and I may be loved, but it depends). A long list of buts would simply prove that God is not love. That seems, for me, not to be an option.

Here, then, is the sum total of what I believe to be contained in God’s fine print:

”                                .”

It’s a rather quick read. As it turns out, there really is one thing we have that qualifies as getting something for nothing. While there appears to be nothing I can do in this life to earn God’s love, it is there nevertheless. While I can certainly treat my neighbor better than I’m accused of doing on occasion, I do not have it in my power to lessen God’s love for me when I don’t. I’m simply not that much in command of the world around me. Sure, it took me a long time to realize it, but I’m finally ready to admit the world does not revolve around me.

So, when you’re tempted to listen to those who place conditions on a love God refuses to place on himself, I might suggest that you say to those people, as Jesus said to Peter, “ ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ ” [Matthew 16:23]

But, you may ask, “Why should I do good things when there’s no threat of punishment?” I’ve always considered this to be a ridiculous question. The threat of punishment doesn’t encourage me to love God and my neighbor, it merely puts me in a position of resenting the need to love God and my neighbor. Rather, the freedom received in believing that I am loved by God is the only encouragement I believe actually works. It stops judgment on my part, reminding me that judgment is not my job. That belief allows me to see my neighbors as the flawed humans I know myself to be, and in turn to give them the same break I’d like for myself. God, after all, is in the redemption business — not the punishment business. Punishment is what we do to ourselves. Or, if we don’t, there are always plenty of others at the ready to do the punishing themselves — and that, thankfully, is not of God.

If there’s any fine print in God’s repertoire, I believe it is the same as the big print: God is love. And if God is love, you are loved.

Now, that’s good news.

Horton Hears a Who, What, Where, When, and Why

Commercials are not the only junk food in the speech market – indeed, when compared to shallow news reporting, vacuous television shows, or political doublespeak, commercials are not even the most harmful to mental health. ~ Rodney A. Smolla

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (or at least 250 miles or so from my present location), a boy grows up in the odd land of small-town newspapers. Referred to not all that affectionately by his friends as the Weekly Rag, the townspeople nonetheless gathered around the front office of the newspaper each Wednesday afternoon or evening to get their first glimpse of that week’s edition. Located on the west side of the town square, the office was a regular hotbed of local gossip. As though there was nothing better to do (and perhaps there wasn’t), people stopped their day and drove downtown for a copy of the newspaper. I remember people hanging around in the front office, out on the sidewalk, and in their cars. Waiting.

You’d have thought something important had actually happened.

At the time, Quanah, Texas was a town of around 5,000 people. By the time I moved to Austin around 1972, I was amazed to find the student population of The University of Texas alone was eight times greater than the town where I grew up. Suddenly, Quanah seemed an even smaller town. The idea that the newspaper might have anything in it these people didn’t already know was a little ludicrous.

And yet, there they stood – waiting.

Sometimes the waiting was patient, other times a little indignant – especially the later it got in the day with no newspaper. Any number of things can go wrong when you’re putting out a newspaper. Presses break down, last-minute changes cause a needed rearrangement of type or a rewrite to make more space, the Linotype machine’s melting pot might not heat up quickly enough to stamp out the needed lines of type for a story or could jam as any of thousands of moving parts slipped out of alignment. While we later moved to offset printing, my life in the newspaper office began when metal type was placed by hand to form the words needed for each column of a story – a little like Gutenberg, I think. All of the large type for grocery ads and such were assembled from racks of individual lead letters of varying sizes. It was a labor-intensive process.

And, for all that labor, people didn’t stand around waiting to read about the latest world crisis, the results of a state or national election, or the winner of the Miss America Pageant. No, they had three fuzzy television stations for that. They had the daily Wichita Falls Times Record for that. This was a weekly paper. Most any world news contained therein would likely already be old news. But what you didn’t get from television or the Times Record was the important stuff – the who, what, when, where, and why of the goings-on of a small town.

How was the wheat crop looking? (Come on, kids, Dad would say. I need a picture of some wheat. Yeah, kneel together over there in that wheat. Okay, got the shot for the front page!) Were they really going to build a ninety-two-mile pipeline to bring water from Greenbelt Lake to the northwest to replace water from local gypsum wells? Was the Rotary Club still meeting Wednesday’s at noon? Could just anyone show up for the screening of Billy Graham’s latest movie, The Restless Ones, at First Baptist Church? Who turned over farmer Jones’ outhouse on Halloween night this year?

Those Eakin kids, Michael (rear), Ben, and Judith.

Those Eakin kids, Michael (rear), Ben, and Judith.

Let’s face it, reality TV would have died of boredom in Quanah, Texas. Now, I’m not saying that would be a bad thing. Anything that could kill off reality TV would be A-ok in my book. No, this was real reality – not trumped up, screaming in your face for fifteen minutes of fame, fake reality. These were real people living real lives with real problems. Boring? Yes, probably. Real? Yes, definitely.

It’s hard on a kid growing up in a town where most people know who you are. It’s not that a lot of them knew my name, you understand. No, what they knew was whose kid I was. I was referred to as Little Ed on too many occasions. What they knew was that I was the newspaper editor’s second son, so knew where to call if they thought they’d caught me doing something wrong. Now, you’ll realize I’m not admitting to doing anything wrong. No, I have a fifth amendment right to help me out there. Besides, I feel certain that anything anyone ever thought I might have done wrong was merely a misunderstanding on their part of what actually happened.

I’m pretty sure I never ended up in the pages of the Quanah Tribune Chief in the police blotter section. I came close at least once but, you know, there are advantages to being the son of the newspaper editor, too.

I’m not certain when I started working at the newspaper, but I know it was early. By the time I was a teenager, I worked there regularly. I was there on Wednesday’s after school, naturally, to help collate the sections of the paper. In fact, it was the only thing that would excuse my being at Wednesday night prayer meeting. At some point, my job became cleaning up the office. After getting my driver’s license at age fourteen, I did a lot of the paper deliveries to various newsstands – the convenience stores, grocery stores, and restaurants.

For all the jokes about the newspaper, it happened to be one of the things that brought people together in a small town. Death notices were printed at the newspaper office and I often delivered them to the businesses downtown. Being a weekly newspaper, deaths couldn’t wait for Wednesday. People needed to know the day and time of the funeral. The why of the death could wait for Wednesday, the who, what, where, and when needed to be answered on a more timely basis. I didn’t mind delivering these notices until one day when I was returning the balance of the notices to the funeral home. I was probably ten or so. No one seemed to be around as I walked in. I called out but received no answer. Cautiously, I walked further into the building. As I walked through another door I came face-to-face with, well, some dead guy in a coffin. After that, I simply left the notices on a table just inside the door and beat a hasty retreat.

My father was a tireless promoter. Sure, promoting town events brought in advertising revenue and was part of his job but it also promoted a sense of community. What better way to bring people together than a good ol’ hootenanny? Or perhaps a fiesta on the courthouse square? A lot of the goods for the fiesta had come back from Mexico with us as we returned from one of our family vacations. There was a church on every other street corner in Quanah, but someone dancing a jig at the courthouse – well, that’s entertainment!

When the water pipeline from Greenbelt Lake was complete, Dad’s idea was to bottle water with a few chunks of gypsum at the bottom. Equipment was borrowed from a bottling company and we went to work creating souvenirs of the bad old hard water days. I believe it was marketed as Real Quanah Gyp Water. Besides, this gave another excuse to have a celebration of the town square. On more than one occasion, Dad and I pantomimed some musical numbers from one of Stan Freberg’s comedy albums. Being small, my part was that of the drummer with the deep voice. It was really quite funny and I was always really quite terrified. For all the clowning I do, I’m really quite the introvert. But, it felt like one of the few things my father and I did together by that time, so I think I enjoyed it for that reason despite the fear.

Like many kids, I began experimenting with smoking by the age of twelve. I mentioned the Linotype machine before. There was an open flame under the pot that melted the lead used for forming the type slugs. We called it Pig Iron. One evening I was alone at the newspaper office, sweeping the back. Our big trash barrels were often cardboard drums discarded at the gypsum mill outside of town. Since no one was there, I decided to have myself a little smoke. I tore off a bit of paper, lit it from the flame under the lead pot, then lit my cigarette. With a flick of my wrist, I extinguished the piece of paper and threw it into one of the big barrels. Well, I thought I’d extinguished the paper. Instead, I’d just thrown burning paper into a barrel full of paper. By the time I realized what had happened, the barrel was ablaze.

My first bright idea was to smother the flames by turning the barrel upside down. Might have worked, too, if that had sealed off the oxygen. As it was, I’d just loosened up more of the paper and added fuel to the fire. I finally managed to beat out the flames, then ran to the back of the building to open the large overhead doors and let the smoke out. Just across the alley, there was a garage apartment. The nosy so-and-so living there was hanging out the second-story window and called out to me that he had already called the fire department. I suppose, however, the charred marks on the concrete floors might have given me away even without a visit from the firetruck.

You’d think that might have ended my career as a smoker. You’d be wrong. After all, I looked hip, slick, and cool with a cigarette in my hand. They said so on television all the time – right up until January 1, 1971 when cigarette advertising was banned on television. After that little blaze at the newspaper office, my mother and father sat me down in the den at home. They told me if I was going to smoke, I needed to do it right there. They’d put an ashtray in the den for me. While I know this was designed to shame me into quitting, it was a fairly transparent bluff. Had I actually lit up in the house, I’m pretty sure all hell would have let loose. But, hey, they had to try.

Despite the fact that I was pretty generally known in town, I also felt invisible. Or, perhaps, I simply wanted to be invisible. In any case, my invisibility probably had a lot to do with my becoming a class clown. When you’re afraid of being teased again, the easiest way around it is to call attention to yourself in an effort to control the teasing. My brother had already become kind of loud and in-your-face, so I think I wanted to be the opposite. I wanted to be the good one. I don’t think I succeeded all that well.

Invisibility, however, didn’t seem to stop me from taking part in a great number of things. I may have wanted to be invisible but that didn’t mean I didn’t also want to be the center of attention. My sophomore year of high school, I believe, saw me writing and staging an apocalyptic one-act play called The Sacrifice, about the world after a nuclear war. Yeah, I was quite the life of the party even then.

Still, when you feel invisible yourself, I think you begin to notice there are other invisible people out there, too. While I may have fought the urge for many years, there was a part of me that wanted desperately to be able to help other disaffected people.

Looking back, I know there were plenty of people in that little town who didn’t quite fit – according to majority opinion. We are all taught subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of isms as we grow up. It may not be intentional on the part of parents or community. On the other hand, it can be quite deliberate, resulting in continuing tragedies. Racism, sexism, egoism, legalism, materialism, nihilism, perfectionism, privatism, ad nauseam. Too many isms are aimed, one way or another, at exclusion. Too often, we forget that reaching out a hand to another to lift them up harms us in no way. On the contrary, we all become stronger in the effort.

When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, then asked his own question.

‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.’
[Luke 10:36-37]

How many invisible people have you passed today? Comfortable in our isms, we tend to ignore the who, what, where, when, and why of the invisible ones around us. Nothing much changes until we are willing to wake up and say to ourselves, “Oh, that is my neighbor and I hadn’t even noticed it.”

As Horton (who heard a Who) said:

“Because, after all,

A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Where’d Them Words Come From Anywhos?

I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying. ~ Oscar Wilde

I can relate to Oscar Wilde. More to the point, if you’ve read much of what I write, you can probably also relate to Oscar Wilde. I pretend to write the way I do in order to invite you to stop and think. The truth is probably closer to the fact that I can’t seem ever to keep to just one topic at a time – often in the same sentence! It’s probably a curse. Nevertheless, I attempt to turn it into an endearment. You’ll have to be the judge as to how I’m doing with that.

It occurs to me that some of my readers are simply too young to understand or relate to a number of my references. Consequently, it seems appropriate to give a little lesson in doing research. Yes, yes, I know this sounds a little too much like school or a class in ancient history, but I assure you it can be fast and fun.

When I was growing up, we had a set of encyclopedias in the bookcase — sort of like Wikipedia printed on paper. In fact, it was the set you see in the photo attached to this blog. Yep, that three-year-old boy in the picture was encouraged to look things up even then. You can probably imagine how old that must make that set of encyclopedias, but let’s not go there, okay?

Anyway, my siblings and I had a tendency to ask questions about a lot of things. My memory of it is that I did a great deal of the asking. I’ve probably mentioned before that “why” was one of my favorite questions growing up. It’s not a question parents like to hear, however, particularly if it’s in response to being told to do something. “Why?” was often answered with, “Because I told you so.” A second “Why?” was likely to get me in more trouble than it was probably worth. Somehow, I tended to forget that part on a fairly regular basis.

Now, back to research. It became a bit of a game in our house to see who could wait the longest before one of us would finally get up and go to the shelf to look up the answer to the question asked. This was, obviously, in the world before the internet. Mother’s usual response to many questions was, “Look it up.” That seemed infinitely more trouble than if she’d simply answered the question. Like many things, however, it’s likely she didn’t know the answer or, at least, the whole answer. That being true, mother was often the one who would finally walk to the shelf to look up the information needed. In fact, that game continued for the rest of our lives until her death. She simply couldn’t resist the temptation to know the answer once the question had been asked. I’m convinced I am blessed with the gift of curiosity from both my mother and my father.

The result of all this curiosity has been a lifetime of looking for answers, too often in the wrong places, I suppose. I discovered along the way that I have an analytical mind. I try to follow the patterns in any given task to see how I might be able to work faster or better within the framework. A friend at work recently looked at me like I’d lost my mind when I said I was trying to see the logic in how some aspect of our new billing system worked. Her dismay, of course, stems from the problems of learning anything new. I explained that there is logic in how the system works even if it is stupid logic. We are, in fact, surrounded by stupid logic on a regular basis in life. That said, if I can see the logic, no matter how inept, I have a chance of figuring out how to make it work to my advantage. Beneath it all, I think we’re really pretty lazy. Faster and easier allows me to do more with less. And, having discovered the bonuses of a good nap, I need the extra time.

I must admit my memory isn’t nearly good enough to feel certain about some of the things that pop into my mind from, oh, say, fifty years ago. But, as long as I can remember a piece of it or even something about a piece of it, I can do the research needed to boost my memory. So, Google has become my friend over the years. I can usually find out something about almost anything within a matter of seconds or, at the most, minutes. The more I do this, the easier it becomes.

For instance, I wanted to mention Brylcream in a recent blog. How the heck do you spell Brylcream? No problem. I begin typing “Brill” into Google and, in many cases, Google hints at possibilities for my search and for the spelling. If that fails, I can always try “hair cream, 50s.” Amazing what pops up. Suddenly, I have links to other things from my past I may not have thought about in years, giving me additional sources with which to torture you in a blog. Win-win.

Of course, a little prudence is in order here. Suppose you wanted to find a Bible reference about lust, knowing you should “help” someone you know by pointing out yet another of their personal failings. Simply typing in “lust” may lead to some interesting links. Say, perhaps, you really didn’t want to know all that much about the 1985 John Waters film, Lust in the Dust, starring Divine and Tab Hunter. Admittedly, that reference may be tame by comparison to some of the other links that could pop up. Fear not, most links are fairly self-evident without clicking on them, saving you the embarrassment of seeing something you’d likely rather not.

Usually, this research is a case of less is more. If you get too specific with your search, you’re likely to come up with too few good leads. Instead, Google (or the search engine of your choice) will try to come up with references to each individual word you typed. I try to start small, then work my way up, if necessary. Using my Brylcream example, beginning to type “brillcr” almost immediately begins to suggest Brylcream. I get leads to “Brylcream CVS,” “Brylcream TV Commercial 1950s – YouTube,” and “A brief history of Brylcream.” Who knew Brylcream has a history? Even Wikipedia gets in on the act, informing me that Sara Lee bought the personal care unit of SmithKline Beecham in 1992. Now, why should I be surprised that a chewing gum manufacturer originally made Brylcream.

So, looking up a meaning, a spelling, or related topics can become an adventure unto itself. As I write, I tend to use search engines to check a spelling, a bit of grammar, or to remind myself the year of an event I know happened but have no idea as to when. There are seemingly endless things I know happened but have no idea of the date. Often I find the decade is about the closest I can come to remembering time – and even then I often find I’m wrong.

Then, too, my memory can be woefully inadequate when remembering the meaning of words. In my reading, I wonder how many times I’m going to need to look up the meaning of hubris? A lot, apparently. Hubris: extreme pride or arrogance. How could I forget that? Arrogance: an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions. Presumptuous: failing to observe the limits of what is permitted or appropriate. See? Endless. Don’t let me catch you saying you’re bored and have nothing to do. One thing leads to the next, then the next, and, finally, the next. Before you know it, you’re reading complete sentences. Pretty neat trick, eh?

I believe I was served well by being encouraged to be curious – even when that curiosity was an annoyance to my parents. I’m not content simply trying to infer [deduce or conclude from evidence and reasoning rather than from explicit statements] the meaning of a word merely by its context. When I assume [i.e., make an ass out of u and me], I too often get it wrong. I believe I’ve done enough assuming for several lifetimes. Assumptions keep me in the dark. They keep me from even trying to find a further truth about myself or others. So, I look up stuff. And it’s amazing what I can learn when I look things up more than once. I discover that truth is fluid. The context changes throughout life. What I knew absolutely at some point in my life turns out not to be true for me today. The times I’ve stopped growing in life are those times I refused to ask new questions or seek new truth about old questions.

Ever say things you think mean one thing only to find out they mean something completely different? For instance [e.g.], when should I use e.g. and when i.e.? In other words [i.e.], what do they mean? No, no, I’m not going to tell you what they mean. Okay, perhaps I hinted a little at their meaning but I don’t want to discourage you from looking these things up. If I did that for every word in my writing, we’d be here all night. No, a little homework never killed anyone and you are no exception no matter how much you’d like to insist your case is special.

A new school year has started. What better time to take up the task of asking questions anew? Google doesn’t even expect you to bring it an apple. That would just make the keys sticky and make it more difficult to get the answers you seek. Let’s not make life any more difficult than it is already.

Let’s recap, shall we? Less is more, Brylcream and chewing gum have something in common, you’re never too young to learn something new, you’re never too old to forget something old and end up thinking you’ve just learned something new, and complete sentences are good. Just keep those cards and letters coming to yourself. You are, after all, the only one who can know your truth. I’d just suggest that it’s never a good idea to simply settle on the one truth. It leaves you asleep at the switch when your new truth is trying to nudge its way into your life and show you you’re never really done with the growing up part of life. From diapers to diapers, every step we take is another step toward home.

I’m still full of questions, though “why” is no longer such an important question to me. Knowing why doesn’t change my now. “What’s next?” is a better question these days. While knowing the why can still leave me wallowing in the midst of suffering – all the while wondering “why me?” – “what’s next?” is capable of helping me use the necessary suffering of life to take the next step forward toward home.

Class dismissed.

Silver-Plus — Ageless Shampoo or Where’re My Sea-Monkeys?

Aging seems to be the only available way to live a long life. ~ Kitty O’Neill Collins

I’ve had white hair for a long time now. Not as much back then as now, but still a lot. Of course, there’s also less hair now at the same time there’s more white. I was what you might call prematurely gray – that is, until I was not. So, for a great many years now I’ve used a shampoo called Silver-Brightening from Jerimack. I’ve had increasing difficulty finding the shampoo, then recently found it again. Only now it’s called Silver-Plus Ageless Shampoo. New and improved, I’m certain. Oh, and the bottle is smaller and it costs more.

I’m wondering if I have a valid case for deceptive advertising here. I mean, after all, I’ve used this shampoo for the past thirty years and rather than being ageless, I appear to be age-ing. What’s up with that? Am I perhaps using it incorrectly? Maybe they meant me to massage it into my face rather than my scalp. Come to think of it, I do believe my scalp is looking pretty youthful.

To shampoo. Origins: Hindi & Urdu cā̃po, imperative of cā̃pnā: to press, massage – first known usage 1762. Hm, perhaps I’m on to something here.

Think about how our lives have been surrounded, submerged even, in advertising. A friend was recently in San Francisco and says he thinks he was gypped. A whole week there and he didn’t find Rice-A-Roni on a single restaurant menu. Does that mean it’s not really the San Francisco treat? Or, consider Marlboro cigarettes. I used to smoke them and I can tell you I never once found myself riding a horse across the plains in my chaps and spurs, all the while looking terribly manly. I wanted to, as I recall, but it didn’t happen.

Seems to me television and print ads when I was growing up were for the really important things in life – the necessities, you know? Brylcreem, for instance. It was very important when I was a kid, for some reason, to make sure your hair was sufficiently glued down to your head. It presumably looked groomed. The same went for women for most of the sixties. White Rain hairspray gave the hold needed for those tortured “ratted” big-hair hairdos of the period. Ah, the romance of nuzzling up to a girl with hair the texture and hardness of a brick wall.

To this day, I have a problem walking down the aisle where they stock the, er, ah, feminine sanitary napkins. Gee, did that mean I wasn’t supposed to use napkins? I’d hoped all napkins were sanitary. I recall any number of jokes surrounding the name Kotex. As kids, none of us, I think, had any idea what these products were used for but there was mystery attached to them, so you laughed at the jokes anyway. They were a taboo topic around the house. They must have been important, though, since they allowed girls to swim, bike, play tennis, and such. It left us boys wondering why the girls should have all the fun. Some mysteries, I’ve found, are better left as mysteries. The literal mechanics of the human body can be rather disturbing, even after you understand them.

Yes, Charles Atlas, I was one of those skinny kids who was tired of having sand kicked in his face. Okay, perhaps I was tired of having dirt kicked in my face – Quanah, Texas being some distance from any sort of beach. Nevertheless, I still got the point of the ads in the back of my Superman comics. Skinny bad, muscled good. I didn’t order the course Mr. Atlas was selling, though. I suppose I was already used to being the kid with dirt kicked in his face.

I was one of those kids who snuck letters off for all sorts of offers in the back of comic books. Imagine my surprise when a representative from Art Instruction Schools, Inc. showed up at our door. I’m sure he was as surprised as I when he discovered that “Mr. Ben Eakin” was, in fact, a twelve-year-old boy. What should he expect, though, given the ad was in a comic book? My mother graciously handled that one just before I got into trouble as soon as she closed the front door. I find almost fifty years later that the answer to the question in the ads, “Can you draw me?” is still no.

One television ad today promises to get real about what goes on in the bathroom. Then, they simply try to sell you their brand of toilet paper, again without getting real about what goes on in the bathroom. I think it was simpler in my youth. Mothers could just ask, “Number One or Number Two?” See, it was a simple math lesson. Consequently, most toddlers knew how to count, at least up to two, long before they made it to trigonometry. And, long before McDonald’s seem to find the need to redesign their cash registers with pictures of food in order to help teenagers who were never expected to learn any math without the use a calculator.

In my youth, any indication of sexual matters was conveyed through the use of innuendo. You know, rockets rising vigorously into the air, fireworks going off, the tide coming in. Sort of confusing to a child, I suppose, but probably intentional. Today, there are unending ads for Viagra, Cialis, and the like. The focus on youth and being youthful today is off the charts. The message is that men are something less than men if they don’t have the youthful sexual vigor they may have had in their twenties. Of course, there’s the obligatory caution that you should consult a doctor to make certain this sort of vigor isn’t going to kill you. I’m fairly convinced that many women might prefer their men lift a finger on occasion to take out the trash, perhaps to clean up after themselves – rather than strutting around the house with their sexual vigor showing. Besides, this advertising is aimed at men who likely have reached an age where all that sexual vigor may finally seem hardly worth the effort.

I had my share of Sea-Monkeys,® lizards, turtles, hamsters, guinea pigs, alligators, ant farms, and birds as a child. I managed to make it home on my bicycle once with the materials necessary to build an aviary before my mother got wind of it and made me return it all to the lumber yard. My grandmother raised parakeets in an aviary just like the one I planned to build. Mother was not amused. Amused or not, my mother must have been far more patient than I gave her credit back then.

Back then, there was the term “keeping up with the Joneses.” Today, it seems more the message would be “keeping up with the Rockefellers.” Advertising focuses on the need to be young (or at least youthful), prosperous, and, well, greedy. Want is increasingly defined as need. I need the latest, greatest, shiniest, newest, most expensive. Even many churches sell the idea that God wants us to be wealthy – if only we “do” religion correctly. I wonder what that says about the poor of the world. What, surely, are they doing wrong to bring so many problems down from God onto them? Talk about cherry-picking scripture! Makes me wonder if some of these people have ever actually read the Bible.

I probably have less stuff than I’ve had in a long time. You know, material goods – the stuff that supposedly makes the world go round, or at least the economy go round. Still, funny how less can feel so much like more.

Would I trade my aches, pains, and white hair in order to be twenty-one again? Oh, no. Life in youth is filled with so much uncertainty, so much needing to define oneself. In some ways, I feel I’m coming rather late to an understanding of who I am. In other ways, however, I feel I’ve come to that understanding much earlier than many of my peers. Now, there’s a frightening thought!

But don’t ask me to be younger today. I barely made it through being young once as it is. The thought of repeating all that is just too much to consider. Catherine Aird said, “If you can’t be a good example then at least be a horrible warning.” Perhaps it’s possible to be both in one lifetime. If nothing else, I’ve been a pretty horrible warning to myself. It’s taken a while, but I’m working on becoming a good example – of what I’m still not entirely certain.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for openness. Most parents probably wait too late to discuss with their children the things they need to know. But it seems to me we’ve entered the age of TMI – too much information. How’s a body supposed to absorb it all? How’s a child supposed to make heads or tails of it all? I paid dearly for having too much information at too early an age without something to counter-balance that information. So, information is good but only when we get it from the right places. The wrong place to get it? Advertising ranks right up there with getting your information from the older kids on the playground. In fact, it surpasses that. At least the older kids on the playground aren’t trying to sell you something with what they don’t know themselves.

You see, Sea-Monkeys aren’t really monkeys who live in the sea. Nope, they’re a combination of brine shrimp and a registered trademark, which means it’s probably we who are the monkeys. Yes, yes, I know I’m probably bursting another one of your bubbles – kind of like that Santa Claus thing. But I’m now convinced that it’s possible to live in the real world because there are some bona fide wonderful things in it. Sometimes the world looks pretty ugly when we view it at its speeded-up pace. The trick is to slow down enough to allow our eyes to adjust to what’s really there – minus all the hype, the lies, the hucksters trying to sell us a bill of goods.

When we’ve adjusted our sight in order to see what’s around us, we are allowed to be amazed, to be grateful, to be at ease. Godspeed. What a wonderful word. I imagine the word as describing what I’m trying to say. At God speed, the wonders of all creation come into view. At God speed, we are allowed to be who we really are (and perhaps once knew we were) because that’s the way we were created. At God speed, we are able to allow others to be who they are without judgment because we realize no judgment comes to us through God.

I imagine there are some who would be shocked or perhaps merely amused at a silver-brightened guy who was considering getting another bowl of those amazing Sea-Monkeys. Wonder, after all, shouldn’t be reserved only for the very young. It’s still there, though it may be buried under many years of developmental sediment. Stir the waters a bit and you’re likely to find it again, just where you left it.

Godspeed, my friends. God speed.

On Loving Yourself Too Little

People need loving the most when they deserve it the least. ~ John Harrigan

I told a friend at work recently that I was planning to be simply darling when I did a presentation at church. “Well,” I added, “perhaps spiritual AND darling.”

She said, “You are just so in love with yourself, aren’t you, Ben?” Hey, who wouldn’t be?

While I admit that I am one of my favorite topics of discussion, I am unfortunately also one of my favorite targets. Where does that come from? Oh, yes, now I remember. People who know me also know that behind the “it’s all about Ben” theme lies a lot of sadness. Thankfully, behind that sadness there’s now also some laughter where once there was only more sadness, then even more sadness beyond that. Eldridge Cleaver said, “The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.” Surely, the price of hating yourself is an inability to love others fully.

None of us escapes sadness in our lives. But I’m learning we do get to decide what to do with that sadness. Apparently I didn’t know that for a good part of my life. I know I’ve held on to much of that sadness for too long. On the other hand, the sadness has stayed long enough for me to try to learn what it was trying so long to show me. It turns out sadness and pain can be great teachers if only we will allow it.

Too often we’ve forgotten these two crucial teachers in our there’s-a-pill-for-everything society. The tendency is to reach for the pill bottle at even the hint of a problem and for any kind of pain – physical as well as emotional. When we do, though, we place ourselves in danger of failing to recognize even bigger problems. There’s no need in suffer unnecessarily, but it’s equally important to recognize that some suffering really is necessary. If we never suffered, we’d never move forward. We’d never take the risks needed to convince us to move from comfortable point A to unknown, probably scary, point B. Comfortable point A may not even be particularly comfortable. It’s familiar, though, and still our tendency can be to stay with what we know.

I don’t talk about the sadness and pain just for the sake of talking about it. I’ve found it’s been very instructive for me each time I decide it’s time, once again, for me to get into panic mode. I spent years attempting to stave off the pain with an ocean of alcohol. All that really accomplished was to set the pain ever more firmly in my life. But the absence of alcohol didn’t fix the pain – it only fixed the drunkenness. In fact, for quite some time the pain actually intensified – or at least my awareness of it intensified.

When nothing changes, nothing changes. Something had changed, of course – I stopped drinking – but in the beginning that was the only thing that seemed different. Please don’t try this at home, kids. I was what you might call an expert. Or at least I should have been an expert after all those years drinking. But when you remove the painkiller and suddenly expose the full scope of what the alcohol has been hiding, it’s probably not going to be very pleasant sight – at first. Thankfully, I was told more would be revealed. Had it all been revealed at once, I’m afraid, I’m not certain I would have survived it.

I know I’ve written about some of this before, so bear with me, okay? Just think of me as you would that beloved grandparent, parent, or friend who starts to tell you a story you’ve heard a hundred times before. When I say something like, “Did I ever tell you about how I had to walk uphill to school every day five miles in the snow – both ways?” just shake your head “no” and let me continue. I’m told it builds character.

Life, I’ve discovered, is an engraved invitation complete with an R.S.V.P. attached. Roughly translated into C.B. radio jargon, R.S.V.P. is French for “come back, good buddy.” Too often we simply send our regrets, though we may not fully realize it at the time. We find ourselves too busy with the necessities of life to remember to also attend to the necessities of the soul. That’s how it seems to have happened for me. I tried to distract myself enough never to allow the sadness to completely take over. The unintended result was that the sadness completely took over. It directed everything I did while I tried to pretend it did not.

What’s happened, gradually, is that I’ve become willing to accept that I won’t always know immediately where I’m headed, but I’m heading there anyway. The most stunning of these events to me was my return to church. I was torn suddenly about a desire to go back after believing I’d been quite content for many years not to be there. Surprisingly, it was time for me to allow the feeling to lead me someplace I thought could be good. I realize now that every change in my life has started with some, if not a great deal, of fear. It was time to stop trying to protect myself and see where my path less traveled would take me.

Part of where that path lead me was to an awareness of even more sadness. I guess I’d thought I already knew about it all. It had become so much a part of my everyday life I no longer recognized it as sadness. And while that initially frightened me, I decided to follow the sadness wherever it was supposed to take me. It was the sadness that allowed my body to remember the things I wanted to forget and would never forget as long as I tried to hide it from myself. It was the sadness that continued to try over the years to nudge me to stop and deal with it. Thankfully, the sadness finally won out.

The sadness showed me where my anger was really covering pain. There was simply no way that was going to change as long as I refused to look at it. And that meant also looking at my part in it all. It’s so much easier to get caught up in self-righteous anger at what others have done to us, isn’t it? It’s also a lie every single time. We always have a part in it, even if it’s just that we were there and now refuse to let it go. The residue, however, is ours to carry – either as knowledge or self-destructive hurt. But, one way or another, we’ll carry it.

So I carried the hurt, believing I was able to ignore it and go on. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Put on a happy face and move along, please. No loitering around the house of pain and sadness. It’s one of the things we’re told by what Richard Rohr calls “happy-clappy religion.” God wants only what’s best for us (we even get to decide what best means) and will give it to us if only we believe the right things, say the right things, and ignore any and everything that might be a negative because that would show we have too little faith. Personally, I’ve always had a little trouble with the idea of God as game show host.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes we are ever capable of knowing for certain what’s right. The problem is that, when we ignore our own pain, we’re likely to shove the pain off on others. And that’s exactly what happens when sad, pained people try to protect themselves by circling the wagons around their group, defiantly insisting their way is the only way.

There’s a lot of need everywhere in the world. But there’s also a lot of need right in our own home – our body. Ignore it at your own peril. But don’t begin to believe that your own need outweighs the needs of others. When that’s done, other people become less in your sight. The smaller my own world got, there was a corresponding shrinkage in my ability to care for others. It was necessary, you see, in order for me to go on ignoring the rest of the world.

So, sadness can be a great teacher in the ways of loving yourself. The mistake I’ve made is in tarrying there too long without using it to move past. If I’m unwilling to learn what the sadness has to tell me, I simply end up becoming even more sad. I’ve been there and done that. George Eliot said, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” That, however, requires some faith and, even more than that, some action. I have to make certain I’m looking at the sadness for what I need to see in order to move past it to the next thing needed in my life. No amount of faith or wishing will change what has already been. I have the choice today, though, to look beyond the sadness to something better.

For me, that’s meant looking inward in order that I might see how better to look outward. What more do I need to release in order to be able to see how much I have already and how much more I never really needed. While it’s tempting to say I’ve had enough sadness in my life, I now feel certain there will be more. The difference, when I’m willing to see it, is that I now know the sadness can be my springboard to a greater happiness — contentment, even. As I become willing to see myself, as the old hymn says, “just as I am, without one plea,” I also become willing to allow some of my own self-resentment fall away.

I think it’s time I begin to believe, “People need loving the most when they deserve it the least,” or, in my case, “when I believe I deserve it the least.” Maybe then I can start affording myself a little of that love. After all, I have been surrounded by love my entire life, deserved or not. It’s called grace, I believe.

And when I consider the vast possibilities for grace, how could you possibly fail to love me? How, indeed could I possibly fail to love myself?

A Summer Vacation — Almost

A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking. ~ Earl Wilson

I seem to have taken a little hiatus from writing of late. It’s almost like I’ve taken a summer vacation. Almost. Sadly, I’m not good at taking vacations and have almost never done it. I’m one of those people who has always needed to take someone else along who was better than I at deciding how to have fun, how to decide what it is we need to do next. Well, decide what it is I need to do next. I may not have realized it then, but I’d already handed over the living of my life to other people – people whom I felt knew better how my life should be lived. Up the that point, I was pretty sure I’d already failed miserably at that task.

I had a great time at Six Flags once. I was probably nineteen and already had no idea how to fun. Fun, loosely defined, meant taking a risk and I was already pretty much done with risk by that point in my life. Not a dangerous physical risk, you understand. The risk was in looking stupid, looking childish. It meant trying not to offer myself up to ridicule by looking silly in the pursuit of enjoying a moment too openly. My friend would say, “Let’s ride the roller coaster.” I didn’t want to do that. Roller coasters are scary. They’re controlled danger, designed to raise the adrenaline level while, at the same time, keeping you strapped safely in place. I rode the roller coaster anyway and had fun.

See, there’s an equally disturbing second part to having fun. Not wanting to stand out, I agreed to do something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do in order not to look frightened or to appear to be too much of a stick-in-the-mud. Of course, I knew I was both. Life’s complicated, isn’t it? I knew I might actually have fun if I got on the roller coaster but couldn’t take that first step of my own accord. I needed some help to step outside my comfort zone and gamble there might be a reward in doing so. By comparison to the continent of the Americas, my comfort zone had already shrunk to the size of Rhode Island.

Years later, I took what was to be essentially my last vacation. I was still in my thirties. Here’s how it went:

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, whatever you want to do.”

Now, imagine a week of that. Rule number one for taking a vacation when you’re uncertain how to do it? Make sure you’re going with someone who isn’t equally afraid of making a decision about what might be fun. Either of us could have been wrong, you see, and neither of us wanted that to happen.

As I recall, every other trip that might have been called a vacation could also be called a working vacation. Those were a little easier. Those were the type of vacations my family took when I was growing up. Too often, I suppose, we tend to do what’s familiar. We continue because it’s easier than taking a risk. Working vacations mean there’s less actual free time for which you have to take responsibility. Mary Crosby said, “I can enjoy a vacation as well as the next person, as long as I know it’s a vacation and not a premature retirement.” I suppose that’s always been another of my worries. I’m afraid to go away because someone might discover I’m not indispensable.

So, as apprehensive as I may have been about going on a mission trip with my church, I went. I suppose it could also have been seen as a working vacation. We had jobs to do when we arrived and there would be some off time to do as we would. I could choose to spend that time with others in the group or spend some of it for my own quiet time. I did a little of both. What I’d already learned by then was that how that trip went depended entirely on me. Entirely. I could open myself to new experiences and grow or I could spend a week in fear and do as little as I could get away with. Hopefully, I chose the former. But I knew how I perceived the week was dependent on remembering that I don’t and can’t control the actions of others. As long as I remembered to take care of my own little piece of Rhode Island (me), I could allow others the same courtesy without (too much) judgment.

I hadn’t taken a hat along with me for the mission trip because I was supposed to be working indoors. Besides, I hate hats. Well, hate may be a little strong. What I really hate is how I think I look in a hat. There, that’s a little more honest. And yet, I ended up one day working on the labyrinth one of the teams was building. I spent a lot of the day shoveling crushed concrete in the full sun.

It finally dawned on me that I should probably at least put on a little sunscreen. Later, I realized I hadn’t put any sunscreen on the back of my neck. I always seem to burn there worse than anywhere else. So, I finally decided to run back across the street to grab another one of my t-shirts. I put the neck of the shirt on my forehead and allowed the rest of it to drape over the top of my head and down my back. Some of the missioners thought I looked a little Egyptian that way. Rosa, another friend, said she was thinking more along the lines of Mary.

Bottom line? I didn’t care. I could laugh at Rosa’s comment because I knew there was no malice in what she said. In the past, I would have assumed malice and taken offense. I’ve found, however, life’s so much easier when I don’t do all the thinking for others. Oh, sure, I still do part of it for them, but not so much as I did in the past. And besides, Rosa’s comment was funny. Why wouldn’t I laugh? It’s a part of what having friends is all about.

But, I’ve been occupied with some real-life issues since returning from that trip. What is it, I wonder, that makes them real-life issues? I mean, as opposed to what? Unreal-life issues? It’s interesting sometimes to wonder where some of our expressions come from. It’s a little like reality TV, I think. If reality TV shows are what we believe are actual reality, no wonder we’re in deep trouble. They seem more designed to make us feel better – dare I say superior – to others. We can sit back with our beverage of choice and laugh at the antics of the characters. At the characters, not with. Another reason I don’t watch reality TV.

It’s not good, however, to look too closely at the things at which we are laughing. If we were to take a good, honest look at ourselves, we’d too often find our laughter is like the little boy whistling in the dark. He’s trying to distract himself so he won’t be as afraid. Can it be we’ve become a nation of people who need to look down on others in an effort to elevate ourselves?

Anyway, back to those real-life issues. Mission trip helped me see that I can move forward. I can keep fear in its place. Fear is a good thing in small doses. It helps us protect ourselves from real danger. Taken in too big a dose, however, it tends to freeze us in place. We can’t move forward for fear of what we may find a little way up the path. I’m finding that taking a little bit of fear out of the equation allows me to step forward a little bit and peer into the future. Unfortunately, perhaps, that means also peering into the past.

As long as I remain unwilling to look a little forward and a little back, it’s likely my present will look today just like it did yesterday. If I continue to be afraid of the answers, I will never ask the questions. And not just safe questions. At least in my case, I’ve found the only way to determine what I need to do next is by asking the dangerous questions. The but-what-about-that-scary-stuff questions that have frozen me in time for many years.

So, it’s time to ask questions, then really listen for the answers. If I ask the right questions – and those are simply the ones whose answers can frighten me the most – I can begin to see what I need to do in order to move out of a place of fear to a place of faith. It’s not like I haven’t done it several times in the past few years. It’s that more questions are revealed once I’ve acted on the answers I’ve received to the previous questions. It seems each new set of questions triggers yet another round of fear on my part. The difference, I hope, is that I’m beginning to learn that not asking the questions is more detrimental to me than asking them.

So, vacation’s over. It’s time to sharpen my Number 2 pencils and drag out my Big Chief notebook. There will be a test, of course. There always is, don’t you know? Fortunately, it’s not the grade I get that matters. What matters is that I came, I saw, and I surrendered. Conquering has always been a useless enterprise for me because the reality is that we never really conquer. The result is always that we discover we’ll need to conquer something else, then another something else, ad infinitum. Surrendering means never having to say “I’m sorry” to yourself. It opens my eyes to what’s real and allows me to take a step forward where others too frightened are still trying to conquer.

I’m finding there’s no need to apologize to myself as long as I know I’ve done the best I can do at any given moment. God asks nothing more of me. And I should never think less of myself for having tried. As long as I do what I can, I’ve not failed. If I wake up in the morning, I have another chance to find out who it is I’m supposed to be. That takes questions, answers, and the willingness to act on the answers to the questions I didn’t want to ask.