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.

Mission Trip 2012 – Finale or Just the Beginning?

The mark of a great church is not its seating capacity, but its sending capacity. ~ Mike Stachura

It was with a great deal of trepidation I hopped into the SUV belonging to a church friend and headed to San Antonio on Sunday, July 15. Our Royal Lane mission trip for 2012 had begun. I had little idea what to expect and wasn’t certain I was actually ready to find out.

Be that as it may, I knew that as soon as our caravan pulled out of the church parking lot, it would be too late to change my mind. I was glad, however, to be in a vehicle with only two other people. I wasn’t certain I was up for the noise level in a 12-passenger van just yet. The next challenge was trying to keep a bunch of impatient Baptists all in a neat little row on the highway. Sure, we had our walkie talkies in each vehicle but they seemed only to add to the general confusion.

There’d be a squawk indicating that someone was planning to speak, then came some ear-piercing garble no one seemed to understand. There was one exception. For some unknown (probably profoundly spiritual) reason, Garland, our fearless leader, came across loud and clear. So, when someone needed to pull in closer to the rest of the group, Garland said so. When it was time for a potty break, Garland said so – complete with exit numbers and possible stopping places.

One of the final emails from Garland before the mission trip included this little gem: “Please limit your fluid intake on Sunday morning so we don’t have to stop any more than necessary.” Time management, after all, is very important on mission trip, as we were all soon to find out.

We made pretty good time until just after our first stop in Temple. Back on the road, we first drove into a traffic jam that saw us crawling along the highway for many miles. By the time we finally made it to the toll road around Austin, we’d driven into rain. The 80 mile per hour speed limit on the toll road did us little good in a pounding thunderstorm.

Somehow, we made it to San Antonio – all present and accounted for. We were only one hour late for the dinner awaiting us on the campus of Baptist University of the Americas. By the time we got to the campus apartments in which we’d stay the week, everyone was exhausted, perhaps a little cranky. Mission trip had begun in earnest.

We were divided into five mission teams. Six, actually. Two of our members were tasked with taking care of laundry and keeping us fed for breakfast and lunch throughout the week – a very important job, it seemed to me. The mission teams were the BUA team, Rosemont Apartments VBS team, San Antonio Food Bank team, Christian Assistance Ministry team, and Alpha Home team. I worked on the food bank team, though asked to work one day with the BUA team building a prayer garden labyrinth for the university. Labyrinth’s are very important to my faith journey, after all.

Alpha Home is a non-profit treatment center providing specialized services to chemically dependent women. There’s a storage building behind the home that was in drastic need of some restoration and the team took care of repainting and restoring the structure.

BUA team laid out a beautiful labyrinth across the street from the campus apartments to be used as a prayer garden. The university will be building their new campus on the surrounding land. A lot of heavy work went into its creation.

Christian Assistance Ministry assists homeless and low-income families with food, clothing, financial services, and counseling. Our team helped prepare meals, provided hygiene kits, and assisted in any way possible with that ministry.

Rosemont Apartments VBS team provided a vacation Bible school for the children in that low-income complex. They provided fun activities during the week culminating in a little fair on the last day.

San Antonio Food Bank team showed up each morning to do whatever was asked of us. We helped assemble meals for Kid’s Cafe, cleaned out big ice chests when they returned from meal delivery, helped wash dishes, and sorted canned and dry goods donated by individuals.

In the evenings, we all gathered back on the BUA campus for dinner. This provided a chance to share stories about our day and get progress reports from each team. There was also a worship time in which each of us took part in one way or another during the week. The university was our gracious host for the week.

I know this isn’t a terribly detailed account of what went on during the week. I’m not sure it needs to be, though. What was most important, it seems to me, was that the week provided a time for a bunch of like-minded people to get together and try to be of some assistance to others less fortunate than ourselves. Did we have some fun? You bet. Was that the purpose of the trip? No. Still, no one said helping others needs to be a somber task. In fact, getting too serious about how much good we were doing would simply prove to point out our own perceived self-importance.

Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” These past few years have shown me the truth of that statement. The problem, I think, is our capacity as humans to forget what it is we can and cannot keep. One of the things I will keep for the rest of my life is the sight of the smiles on the faces of the children at the vacation Bible school on Friday morning. It’s one of those things worth keeping. I shed a few tears for the memory of what might have been. I also shed a few happy tears at the sight of what might be for those children.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of a week on mission trip was to remind us we are surrounded by need — and that we have it in our power to do something about that. I discovered that sometimes being Christ to others requires a hair net, latex gloves, and a lot of sweat. Now, that will tend to knock you down a peg or three when you’re tempted to feel smug about yourself! I’ve found, however, that it can be quite useful to occasionally allow yourself to look vulnerable — even ridiculous when necessary. After all, how do you put a price on providing a smile and a helping hand to someone else?

All in all, it was a wonderful week. I believe every member of our teams worked hard to make the week a success. Were there a few problems? Sure. After all, it’s difficult to throw thirty-five or so people together in close quarters for a week without someone getting on someone else’s nerves. But I believe everyone remembered in the end we weren’t there for us. We were there to serve others. And that notion becomes a great leveler.

The first planning meeting for next year’s mission trip is scheduled for October. I think I’ll plan on being there. Robert Speer said, “Prepare for the worst, expect the best, and take what comes.” Good words to remember whether on a mission trip or simply living your life.

What, I wonder, is your next mission?

Packin’ Attitude to Spare

Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude. ~ Ralph Marston

In a matter of a few hours, I’ll board one of three 12-seater vans headed for San Antonio. My first mission trip will have begun. Once in the van, no amount of doubt, worry, fear, or thoughts of bolting will matter. The deed will be done. I know at least one or two people along for the trip who would physically hold me back were I to try to jump out of a moving van. Hey, I’ve done it before. Of course, I don’t think I was quite as breakable back then. Better, I suppose, to just accept the inevitable. Probably less painful, as well.

So what, you may wonder, am I doing writing this little ditty when time is running out to figure out how not to go? Sure, the suitcase is packed but that has never really stopped me before. Perhaps I’m just distracting myself so I won’t even attempt to find a somewhat acceptable last-minute excuse to bow out.

Truth be told, I’m looking forward to this trip. I can’t completely explain my reservations about going – partly because they would seem silly. Ever hesitate to begin something because you’re pretty sure you’ll discover there’s even more you will need to do once you’ve started? Yeah, something like that.

Alan Watts said, “But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.” Whatever it turns out to be is what this trip will be. I know I have only one thing to do and that’s be there, ready to do whatever needs to be done. What needs to be done? Ah, therein lies the adventure, I think. For one who has spent a lifetime attempting to control everything around me in a futile attempt to protect me, this is one more step in letting go. This is one more step in letting God.

So, stay tuned. There will be more about how it all turns out at the end of this week.

Attitude? Oh, yeah, I’ve got that to spare. Let the next chapter begin.

Mission Trip 2012 — San Antone or Bust!

Here is a test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t. ~ Richard Bach

I don’t like that quote of Richard Bach’s. I mean, what does he know? What if I want my mission here on Earth to be finished? What if I went contentedly along for most of my life secure in the fact that there was no mission in it for me at all? Yeah, what about that, Mr. Bach?

I will be leaving at the end of the week on my very first mission trip with my church. I was supposed to go last year but ended up with a severe infection and had to cancel at, literally, the last moment. This year’s trip has been hanging in the balance for at least the last couple of months. Circumstances at work in the form of a new software system left my approval for time off in question until late this past week. My own health issues over the past year seemed still not to be resolved. In fact, I’d already informed the lead of the mission trip that I was not going to be able to go again this year.

Suddenly, I received permission to take the time off. My reaction? Panic. How could my boss have done this to me? Here I had the perfect excuse to allow me to bow out again and she’d just blown that right out of the water. My next reaction? Guilt. Okay, there’s really nothing particularly unusual about me and guilt. In fact, it ranks right up there in my top five most likely reactions to, well, everything. Truth be told, it’s probably number one. I am extremely adept at manipulating guilt in either direction. Either I feel guilty for doing something or I feel guilty for not doing something. It’s a very versatile emotion. I believe it’s referred to as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” For me, I just called it Being Ben.

Next reaction? Depression. I was going to be letting someone down either way I went. Those at work, after all, would be hard-pressed to survive a week with me gone. Delusional, you say? Certainly. Still, run with me on this one, okay? I asked my boss if she was going to have to drink heavily while I was gone and she said yes. I felt instantly better. Those going on the mission trip? They would not be hard-pressed to survive the week without me, but I would be left to wonder, once again, what I’d missed by not going.

Versatile, you see? Put me in a boxing ring by myself and we’re guaranteed a knock-out blow. It matters little which side delivers the winning blow, I still end up the loser in all cases. It’s sort of the nature of guilt and depression, though, isn’t it?

So, why is there more fear associated with the mission trip side of the argument over staying and making sure my department at work stays afloat that week? Change, pure and simple. There have been so many changes in my life these past few years. You’d think I might be used to it by now. You’d be wrong. I’m left wondering all the time whether or not I can survive any more change – good or bad.

What could change, you ask? And, how do you know there will be change? And how can you be sure what change and, after all, why should that be frightening in advance?

There will be change, that much I know. How? The change is already there. It’s walked with me all my life, generally ignored. The change is waiting there, just out in the wings, ready to try to take center stage unless I can stave it off once again. And I’m afraid I may not have the strength to fight it off any longer. Surrender, as it turns out, is a process rather than an event. Nothing happens if nothing happens, but nothing huge ever really happens all at once. Oh, sure, the change may be there waiting to be acknowledged but it takes some action on my part to allow it to take full effect. You might call that my saving grace. Well, it had been in the past. But, it takes massive amounts of energy to hold off who you know, deep down, you really are. It’s been a waiting game, I suppose. God’s infinite patience, it appears, may win out in the end. It probably always does, acknowledged or not.

So, what’s a mission trip? Frankly, I don’t know. Oh, I sort of know the particulars of this trip but that doesn’t mean I really know what it means. I think that’s been my fear. I think if I go I’ll find out and there won’t be any turning back. I have been told, in fact, that once I go I’ll want to go again. What? I mean, who’s got the time?

Here’s what I like about the missions I’ve seen now in two different churches. With each, the focus is on helping others. That’s it. No requirement that you listen endlessly to some church’s agenda for your soul, no coercion, no “you’d better turn to the Lord now before it’s too late” message. Showing up with open arms is all that’s required. The rest will come as it does. That’s what I like. I am convinced that I will be on a trip with a group of people who none of them believes exactly the same thing. What’s even greater about that is the fact they’re willing to admit it. It makes it a lot more difficult to try to drag someone else over to your side when you know your side is your own personal, deeply-held belief system – loosely in agreement with others on the same journey with you.

But why spend money going somewhere else to help others when there are so many in need right in your own neighborhood? Excellent question. You’re a bright group! I’m sure I must have said it before, but it bears repeating. I admit that question has troubled me a little, also. Wouldn’t the money spent be more useful given directly to aid local folks in need? Perhaps. On the other hand, here’s how it shakes out for me. Caution: this opinion may change in a couple of weeks after I’ve returned from the trip.

Going on a trip together, whether vacation or otherwise, pushes people in closer proximity to each other than is likely to happen on a daily basis. Often, that even holds true if the people on the trip happen to be a spouse or other family members living in the same house with you. One of two things, even both, are likely to happen. Either you find out that you were right about how much those people annoy you or you discover things about them that gives you a deeper respect for them. Either way, you’ve learned something and I believe that’s always useful. Win-win.

Couldn’t you do that getting together right where you are? Well, yes, to a degree. I have a feeling, though, that it’s simply easier to see (and acknowledge) people in need when you’re in a place unfamiliar to you. It may feel safer to reach out when you know you’ll be going home in a few days. I mean, if you discover you really suck at helping others, at least you will have learned that hundreds of miles from home.

On a more positive note, you may discover that, whether you suck at it or not, help is help no matter how well or poorly you believe you do it. And, that knowledge may help you return to your everyday life a little richer, a little more open, a little more caring. It may be that you discover the part of mission Bach was talking about is simply opening your heart a little more each day to the needs of others. It may be that you return home with a new urgency to reach out a hand to others right where you live. And if that’s so, it sounds like it should be well worth the money.

Garland, our fearless leader for the mission trip, says the three most important things to remember about a mission trip are: focus, flexibility, and faith. There’s a need to focus on the tasks at hand to do the best we can at any given moment. Flexibility is key because nothing ever goes exactly the way you plan it. And faith. Faith plays an enormous role here. It’s important to have faith that it will all work out the way it does and, somehow, that will be enough.

So, frightened though I may be about the potential result, I’m packing my sunscreen, a hat (hate them), two sets of work clothes, toiletries (no need to stink up the place), medications (a whole separate bag, in my case), work gloves, reusable water bottle, a swimsuit (yeah, like I intend to let anyone see me in that), and bug spray. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? Either those with me will discover I’m not as patient, spiritual, and serene as I occasionally appear or I may discover that I’m actually more patient, spiritual, and serene than I believe myself to be.

Years ago, I had an intense fear of asking someone to dance. Only a small part of that had to do with the fact that I’m an awful dancer. When I sobered up, I came to realize asking someone to dance never once killed me. Not once. Can you believe it? I suppose a fear of reaching out a hand to someone else is the same. No matter how much I fear simply breaking down in tears at the mere gesture of offering help, it’s likely that also won’t kill me. Not even once.

Perhaps Richard Bach is right, after all. I’m not dead, yet. That said, the mission must not be over.

Imagine Yourself Beloved

Imagination is the voice of daring. If there is anything Godlike about God it is that. He dared to imagine everything. ~ Henry Miller

Imagine a world where you grew up knowing you were one of the beloved. I mean really knew it. Oh, you grew up that way? Wonderful. I’m happy for you. No, really, I am. But if that’s the case, please imagine along with me and some others in the world (many, many others, actually) that you hadn’t grown up knowing that — sometimes, perhaps, despite the best efforts of others around you. Our minds are interesting places. Outward impressions don’t always reflect inward perspectives. We may appear to understand being loved while never quite believing it for ourselves.

Imagine that it took many years, much pain, great resistance even to the idea itself before you could consider the possibility for yourself. I’m not talking about imagination as in the not-really-real. I’m talking about being able to conceive of the truly real even when there’s no tangible proof in front of you. Can’t quite picture it? I’ve been told I have imagination to spare. Allow me, then, to imagine a bit of it for you, okay?

Beloved of who, you ask? Or you may still prefer beloved of whom? Of what? Why, beloved of God, naturally. Don’t believe in God? That’s okay. It’s not really required for this exercise. Know that I believe and do me the small favor of listening to how I now imagine God in an ofttimes cruel and insensitive world. You see, I can’t personally imagine anything more lonely than an inability to believe in anything greater than yourself. I’m not saying you have to call this power God, just that you may find yourself wanting to do so at some point. And I think you shouldn’t feel you can’t call that power God just because there are others who disagree with you about who God is. I spent many years deliberately trying to keep myself in that place. I’d rather never return there.

Sometimes, when there are dark things happening in your life – things you don’t understand and may never fully understand – you find yourself living in a world of imagination. As a very small child, I imagined myself in lots of places besides where I was. I imagined myself as lots of different people – people, in fact, who were not me. Anyone but me. And I remember those things from as far back as my mind will allow me to remember – as far back as I’m willing to allow my mind to take me. Imagining can be a gift when it’s too confusing, too painful to be where you are. But imagination can ultimately also allow you to see clearly things that are otherwise shielded from your view.

Let’s imagine some incredible, far-fetched, seemingly impossible things together, shall we? Some things that would be true now if we all believed in a truly loving God. I’d suggest you close your eyes as we travel into this impossible world except that, well, then you wouldn’t be able to read along and that just won’t work unless there’s someone handy to read this out loud to you. So, let’s just pretend we’re able to close our eyes and get started. A couple of deep breaths might be in order. Impossibility can be exhilarating. It can also be uncomfortable and downright infuriating. That said, let’s begin, shall we?

Imagine a world where every child was born into a world that cherished that child. Imagine we all worked together to insure the child was wanted and cared for despite the circumstances of birth, even if the parents seemed not to want the child. Imagine we desperately wanted to welcome all children into a village where they were protected and allowed to grow without fear of molestation of any kind instead of blaming them, along with their parents, for being born. Remember, now, I said we were venturing into the realm of the far-fetched. Take another deep breath — it gets worse.

Imagine a world where there were no religions in which some told you God loves you in one breath and that God will send you to hell in the very next breath. What is it, I wonder, some don’t understand about the word beloved? They must surely not believe they are themselves beloved. Punishment is about power and control, not love. Beloved is not conditional.

Imagine a world where people understand that their concept of God is not God. It’s, well, their concept of God. Imagine how small we make God when we think we can imagine even the tiniest part of God. Imagine what it would be like to imagine the biggest God you can find it in your power to imagine, then accept that you have failed even to begin to imagine God. Imagine being grateful for knowing that.

Imagine a world where people recognized that saying you should hate the sin but love the sinner proves they have already failed at being loving and that they need to take a closer look at themselves and their desire for judgment.

Imagine a world where people weren’t blamed for being poor, weren’t suspected of wanting to live their lives on a handout. Imagine a world that, instead, granted each individual the respect that comes from knowing they want better for themselves and for their families. And, even if there are some out there who work hard at not working, that we all have some responsibility in that, given we pride ourselves in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, never willing to admit that no one does any of this alone — suspecting, however, that others should. Imagine knowing deep in your soul that you are no better than anyone else, then realizing you are indebted to many and always will be.

Imagine the end of the concept of charity and the return of the concept of the helping hand. Imagine an end to the false pride that pushes away a helping hand because we finally know we won’t be judged for needing help — knowing we all need help at one time or another and more often than we’re willing to admit.

Imagine a world where it would never have been necessary for Ghandi to have said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Imagine yourself helping change the world — whether Christian or not — so no one feels the need to say it again.

Imagine a world where each of us realizes we are damaged, fragile beings and are beloved nonetheless. Imagine that you found it absolutely impossible to believe you are beloved and, at the same time, that others are not – even those with whom you disagree. Imagine realizing it’s not necessary to get good before being beloved, that being beloved is all the encouragement we need to begin the process of getting good — then acting like it.

But imagine, also, a world where you walked away from your beliefs — your imagining — because you became convinced that others had told you and continued to tell you that you were not one of the beloved – would never actually be. Imagine a place where people wouldn’t say, “We never meant for it to sound that way,” while continuing to do the things (or failing to try to stop the things) that insured the idea would continue to be spread. Imagine yourself wandering for forty years through anger and pain. Imagine, though, that after all those years you found people who told you the others were wrong. Imagine you slowly began to believe these people were right. Imagine you realized they saw a God it appeared so many others had long ago discarded as, well, too namby-pamby. I mean, what’s up with that “thou shalt not kill” nonsense? Imagine a world where people didn’t feel the need to insert their own fine print in order to justify their petty wants or needs.

Imagine a world where people were not harmed or ridiculed for believing in their concept of God, a world that realized we’re all talking about the same God. Imagine, even, that no one was harmed or ridiculed because they chose not to believe in God. Imagine that in each concept there are places where our encounters with God point to something far greater than we’ve understood over the millennia. Where we realize our mistaken translations of many of those encounters over the years while we’ve convinced ourselves that we are the chosen. Imagine a world where being right was unimportant, where being good was, instead, our guiding light. Imagine being gracious because we actually believe in a gracious God.

Imagine a world where we took care of each other – where we fed each other. A world where we realized there’s enough to go around simply because there really is enough. A world that wasn’t so self-centered we’re content to let others starve to death rather than share. Imagine a world where we wouldn’t have to be ashamed of our own selfish behavior, or desperately pretend we’re not, because the selfishness simply wouldn’t exist.

Imagine a world where exclusionary concepts are rejected as never in the nature of God, but always from the nature of man. Imagine flying out into the universe, then looking back down at humankind. How small we are, floating in a vast universe clinging precariously to a blue-green ball. Then imagine looking around from your vantage point above the earth. How big God would appear in a universe in which we’re still unable to find an end, even after years of searching.

Imagine a world where it is unnecessary to try to be bigger than God. Imagine how much better we’d treat each other when there was no longer a need for a cosmic pissing contest among those claiming to know the mind of God. Imagine if your Dad really wasn’t bigger than my Dad — just part of the bigger body of humanity.

Imagine a world where the definition of profanity encompassed anything that included hurting one another. A place where words weren’t considered nearly as filthy as actions of violence against our neighbors, even against ourselves. Imagine a world where violence wasn’t glorified.

From Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith1,

  • “But so many people wage wars in God’s name.
  • ‘Mitch,’ the Reb said, ‘God does not want such killing to go on.’
  • Then why hasn’t it stopped?
  • He lifted his eyebrows.
  • ‘Because man does.’ ”

Imagine a world where this wasn’t true.

Imagine, too, a world where God wasn’t blamed for the worst man can offer by people claiming to be God’s voice here on earth. All the while, these same people continue claiming to have God on their side, excusing any and every atrocity imaginable. Imagine refusing to believe these people know anything of the God of mercy, turning your back on their message of hate – presented, they say, in the name of love. Imagine yourself beloved in the face of overwhelming messages to the contrary.

Imagine that the greatest gifts you can receive come from giving rather than by receiving. That in the giving, you receive more than you need.

Imagine a world where we all knew the difference between needs and wants. Imagine that we could pass that on to our children instead of the belief that our individual rights trump everything else. Imagine a world where we respected our neighbors enough they didn’t feel the need to arm themselves against us. A world where their difference didn’t make them wrong – merely different. Imagine a world where we embraced rather than feared the differences.

Imagine a world where God is God and we understand we are not.

Imagine yourself beloved.

1 Have a Little Faith: A True Story, © 2009, Mitch Albom, Hyperion Books

Choking Hazard

If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up! Not me! ~ J.M. Barrie

I wonder how J.M. Barrie’s creation, Peter Pan, would fare if he lived today rather than around 1902, his first appearance in The Little White Bird. Peter was never going to grow up, didn’t trust adults, still (according to Barrie) had all his baby teeth, and, oh, he could fly. Sadly, today’s version would likely wear a helmet and be trussed in a harness designed to ensure he would not be able to fall and hurt himself. There would be knee pads, elbow pads, wrist-braces, butt-pads, padded gloves, and an athletic cup. That is, he would surely have those things if ever he were allowed to fly. There would be the requisite legal forms to be filled out and signed, of course, and a team of lawyers standing by to sue the makers of any piece of equipment that happened to fail during said flight. Even now, I can visualize the ads on TV that would begin, “Have you or a loved one been injured or killed while trying to fly? We at Midas and Litigious can help with your lawsuit no matter how frivolous or inane (lawyers not certified by the State Board of Legal Specialization).”

Peter would probably be cautioned it had been discovered in California that fairy dust contained ingredients found to cause cancer in rats. He’d return to his home in a tree to discover that the walls had been covered and the floors raised by thick, cushioned foam to prevent him from scraping himself against the sides or fracturing a hip after a sudden happy thought lifted him off the ground. He’d be encouraged to hang one of those little bottles of antibacterial soap around his neck just in case he happened to touch anything. Can’t be too careful, now can we?

Discouraged, Pan would likely throw in the towel (hypoallergenic, naturally) and decide it was time to grow up and leave Neverland. On top of everything else, someone who probably tell him that a boy in tights hanging around with a bunch of other scantily-clad boys and a fairy called Tinker Bell looks pretty gay. I’m picturing the suicide hotline in Neverland swamped with calls when taunts against the Lost Boys by members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas (the people behind godhatesfags.com) became unbearable.

How in the world did we get here? I am fast on the heels of sixty and have yet to break a bone (knock wood). That despite the fact that I was fond of climbing tall trees (when I could find one in North Texas), racing bikes in shorts with no helmet or padding, swinging high and leaping out of the seat as it swung forward and high, using the top of the swing set to practice my high-wire act, swinging on a rope that was haphazardly tied to a big limb on a tree, swam nekkid in the Pease River only to have some of the other boys run off with my clothes (they thought that was pretty funny), and survived a near-drowning in a pool after a cousin pushed me into the deep end before I knew how to swim and was caught without a pair of water wings (heavens to Betsy!). The near-drowning was due to the fact that my father was busy scolding my cousin for pushing me into the deep end while I watched them from under the water. I’m pretty sure I was under there for thirty minutes or so before he finally reached down into the water and pulled me out, all the while still scolding my cousin. Well, maybe it only felt like thirty minutes. But I’m still convinced it was a near-drowning.

And yet I survived. Like other kids, I had my share of bumps and bruises. I was also a bookworm who often had to be convinced to go outside to play. I took plenty of taunts that likely helped me grow up into a frightened, depressed adult. But, I wouldn’t trade any of the physical bumps and bruises for the world. They were temporary hurts received in the course of being a kid. They were, in fact, a part of being a kid. I can still picture miscalculating my speed in a race around a 45-degree turn, falling over with my bike, and skidding along the sidewalk to a stop. My left arm and leg took the brunt of the fall and were skinned pretty badly. I’m willing to bet I cried in front of my friend Jimmy Meeks, but that was still fairly acceptable when you’re six or seven.

On a trip home recently, I stopped at a convenience store to get some coffee and realized I hadn’t had lunch. I surveyed the racks filled with Hershey bars, 3 Musketeers, Junior Mints, and a dizzying array of other candies, then decided on a package of cashews. I got back in the car and headed out again, forgetting, once again, to rip open the package before driving away. Many of these products are sealed in packaging that requires either superhuman strength or a pair of scissors to get to the goodies inside. I flipped the package over and found this on the back: CHOKING WARNING: Do not give nuts to children under 6 years old. I had to think about it for a moment, then decided it was probably okay for me to eat them, reasoning that 59 is greater than six.

Did you know the most common choking hazards for children are hot dogs, peanuts, carrots, boned chicken, candy, meat, popcorn, fish with bones, sunflower seeds, and apples? Yep, I read about it. And yet, I ate all those things as a child and survived – somewhat. According to the story I was reading, after one woman’s child choked on a kernel of popcorn, she remarked, “Neither one of us knew that popcorn was unsafe.” What?

Over the years, I’ve wondered more and more about this problem we seem to have with common sense. Why? Well, it seems to be in very short supply in this country. Back in the 1700s, Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.” I believe he’d find it even less so today. Until just over a century ago, the child mortality rate in the U.S. was a staggering 20%. Many couples were still having large families because they knew they were likely to lose one or more of their children to disease or some injury before the child could reach the age of ten. And yet, millions of people managed to grow up and thrive in a world devoid of warning labels and child restraints.

Don’t get me wrong. It makes perfect sense to me to strap a child securely into a car seat before pulling out of the driveway. I likely wouldn’t have fallen out of a moving car as a small child had the car come with child locks in the back seat to prevent me from opening the door. And while that incident may explain a little about how I turned out, I maintain I survived it. Many warnings and laws have come out of tragedies that might have been averted. The problem, in my opinion, comes when warning labels and litigation take the place of people thinking for themselves. How is it that someone doesn’t know there exists the possibility of swallowing or inhaling a kernel of corn, thereby choking on it? I have choked on popcorn more than once in adulthood. It follows that a child might also have a problem with it, especially since their airways are considerably smaller. Did that kid’s parents never eat popcorn as children? Never eat popcorn, period?

It seems we’ve become a nation of frightened people struggling to strap an athletic cup around children (and ourselves) in an effort to believe we can control, even prevent, all danger – and should be able to do so. The simple fact is that this kind of protection is impossible. And it’s not like we all don’t know that on some level. My question has to do with what we’re doing to children who are now forced to live in this protective bubble. What we’ve ended up with, it appears to me, is a culture that seems to say to children that it’s possible to survive anything as long as we’re careful enough — while not requiring children to take any responsibility for themselves. Of course, there’s not as much to survive after we taken care to protect kids from every sharp edge in their worlds.

In addition, we are promoting an almost complete absence of common sense. Already we have a generation who believe they are entitled to whatever it is they want, whenever it is they want it. Already we have a generation who increasingly worries about the germs that surround them, to the point of being afraid to touch anything unless they can immediately whip out the bottle of antibacterial soap. Already we have a generation whose first thoughts are not of taking personal responsibility for their own safety and conduct but instead wondering if there’s already a class-action suit they can join against anyone who may have inconvenienced them.

Is it any surprise that children should be afraid of strangers? We’re afraid of allowing anyone near them who has not first undergone a criminal background check and probably a credit check, as well. Again, it’s someone else’s responsibility to certify it’s safe to move about the world at all.

The problem I see in all this is very simple. None of us is getting out of this world alive. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we may return to allowing for the possibility that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. Is it good to be cautious? Certainly. The problem comes in relying on others to provide safety instead of taking charge of active involvement in our children’s lives – even in our own lives. We’ve all become so busy it’s tempting to allow technology to parent the kids. The result appears to be that the children are parenting each other, with sometimes tragic results. As we watch learning skills diminish, is it all that difficult to see why? In a world where the only thing that matters is what my kid gets, to the exclusion of anyone else’s, is it any wonder teachers have increasing difficulty teaching anything at all? What? You’re going to fail my little Johnny? We’ll just see about that! Once again, personal responsibility takes a backseat (strapped in, of course) as long as I can make it someone else’s fault. Whatever little Johnny needs, he should get – regardless what it is or the cost to the other children in the same classroom. And when the classroom is filled with children whose parents all worry only about what their children should have at any cost, most everything grinds to a halt. In the process, all the children pay the price.

Is it any wonder that a sense of community is rapidly disappearing? Is it any wonder that so many are growing up with no sense of caring for anyone but themselves? How could they not? Having everything handed to them along with no sense that at least some of their own care is up to them, we’ve taught kids to look away from anything that may inconvenience them. Is this different from the world in which I grew up? Yes, I think so. Did the same dangers exist when I was growing up? Yes, I think so. Living in a small community where it appeared everyone knew everything about everyone else didn’t prevent my abuse. Was some of that due to a more naïve time? Probably. Is the answer to the dangers different from those when I was growing up? I don’t think so, with the exception of being more open, more honest than seemed to be allowed when I was growing up. I don’t think we have to instill a distrust of everyone in order to protect ourselves or our children. Children need to understand that their bodies are their own. Knowing how to respect their own bodies is half the battle in making certain no one else can abuse that body.

Is all this a little harsh? I don’t happen to think so. Does it apply to everyone? No, I’m sure not. It has become prevalent enough, however, to be an increasing problem for us all. Ever checked out at a fast food restaurant and watched a teenager who obviously doesn’t know how to count? Ever watched some teenagers try to read, only to discover they are practically illiterate? Ever checked out the spelling on Facebook? It appears it’s a little too easy to blame a teacher when, too often, the kid never had a parent interested enough to see to it the child opened a book growing up – required that some responsibility for learning fall on the child. Teachers have a seemingly impossible task these days when any kind of control is taken from them.

One of the most dreaded questions asked of me at the dinner table growing up was, “How’s school?” On the other hand, my mother took an active part in making sure I did the homework I was assigned. My father wasn’t around all that much, but it was clear he believed I needed to do the best I could do. The responsibility, you see, was mine. Help was available always, but it was up to me to do the learning.

The answer to all this involves more attention. It involves trying to regain a sense of community where there’s the realization that what helps the kid down the street or across town ultimately helps my kid, also. Protecting my own at the expense of everyone else ends up protecting no one in the long run. The sense of isolation increases. The sense of fear of, well, everything and everyone else increases.

Common: Occurring, found, or done often; prevalent. Sense: To know through firsthand experience. Common sense. Got some? Share it. Don’t got some? Ask someone who has it to share it with you. The result will undoubtedly be an improvement for us all. That, after all, is what community is all about.

And those choking hazards? Perhaps the worship bulletin at church when I showed up after so many years should have included a cautionary note. “Warning: portions of this service may create a lump in your throat resulting in a choking hazard as you begin to remember what it’s like to be a part of a community. Please attend with caution unless you are already accustomed to being surrounded by loving people who are willing to believe that you are also loved and loveable because we can not be held responsible for any damage to your self-centered image of yourself.”

I choked. I survived. And now I fly.