Waiting . . . for Snowfall

Many businesses are closed today. Schools are playing it safe, too. After all, just one year ago Atlanta was inundated with a winter storm that snarled traffic literally for “days” and the Governor (and other officials) were given a sound verbal thrashing by stranded citizens and parents of school children who had to spend untold hours on their school buses.

So today, they are playing it close to the chest (so to speak). “It’s coming,” they say. But the forecast is changing slightly. Now it looks like more rain than anything else. And it may come later than expected.

And I am home, too; the job I was supposed to go to today was canceled late last night. Of course, there are always things to do. But . . . I am still left in somewhat of a holding pattern – like a jet airplane waiting its turn to land or on a runway waiting in a long line of planes for take off.

Waiting disrupts everything.

And in the end you want the waiting to have been worth something, don’t you? Almost to the extent that even if you are waiting on another Snowmageddon or Snowpocalypse (as some termed it last year) you find yourself disappointed if it does not occur. Then we accost the meteorologists, deriding their computerized weather models, and vowing never to trust them again. At least . . . until the next time a weather disaster is predicted.

Instead of being glad we were made safe, and no weather disaster occurred, we are angry that our normal way of life was disrupted “for nothing” (as we put it).

We cannot be pleased, can we? We border on insufferable with our attitudes sometimes.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to me how life patterns become so ingrained in us that change to them leaves us in a state of confusion. It becomes hard to order the day because our normal routine has been upset; the things we normally do as a matter of course are not done, and it is as if the absence of those habitual procedures leave us stranded and without a compass.

We manufacture our own personal Snowmageddon sans the snow. We leave our vehicles in the middle of the interstate highway of our lives, and begin to walk . . . rather, trudge through unfamiliar terrain. It is cold, bleak, and disturbing to us.

Give me routine.

I know some folks seem to thrive on the unpredictable, and for them the more uncharted the day – the better! I am not one of those persons.

And I am not ashamed of that!

I dare say that waiting is not in anyone’s hip pocket. As I mentioned in the previous blog article, it is hard for all of us. Clearly, there are lessons to be learned as we wait (if only we will learn them), and we can train ourselves to be more adaptable to altered life situations. And I promise to work on this skill if only . . . if only you would go ahead and give me back my routine (for goodness sake)!

So, here I sit. Here I wait. I thought I could at least write about it as the time passes.

In another hour or two the cold rain will likely begin, followed in the wee hours of the morning by some snowfall (or so they say). Temperatures will hover around freezing in the early morning, then give way to milder temperatures that should melt anything that has accumulated up to that time. So, tomorrow promises to be a bit closer to normal.

But today’s apple cart has been upset. No doubt, the news tonight will be filled with comments of disgruntled persons who will say that officials should have better predicted the weather and given us another normal day of commerce. No matter! Remember, we can’t be pleased.

Soon, my routine will return. And I will probably find that I long for something . . . (you guessed it) . . . unpredictable to occur!

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Did You Get the Virus Yet?

Intercostal muscle strain. That’s what they call it.

It happens when a 61 year old man tackles a fallen tree with a hand saw, subdues it, cuts it mostly in half, then attempts to military press it over a fence and send it crashing to the earth beneath.

I’m in pretty reasonable shape for my age; I lift weights and walk on the elliptical on a regular basis, am only about 20 pounds overweight, and eat relatively well. But . . . that did not exempt me from the consequences of straining to cut that tree down.

Actually, it had been there for months. And I had put it on my “to do” list. One night during a storm the tree had fallen and I found it the next morning straddling our backyard wooden fence. In short order I went out and shifted its position slightly so that it was resting on one of the wooden support beams concreted into the ground (rather than resting on the flimsy slats). “There! That should hold it until a later date,” I said to myself.

Months went by . . . . Finally, I decided (the fact that my wife kept asking me to deal with it had nothing to do with it) it was time to cut this tree down to size. So, after trimming the other bushes in the backyard I headed for the unwelcome intruder. And . . . you know the rest of that story.

So, about 8 days ago I began to feel a strong pain in my right rib cage. It was in a very definite area, but I could not get to it, could not touch it in a way that identified the exact spot of assault. Ice couldn’t seem to deaden it, and ibuprofen didn’t seem to phase it. If I was sitting I could not usually feel it. But rising from a chair, or with legs extended in bed it was clearly present.

I went to the gym (as was my usual course) and tried to do exercises (much lighter, of course) in an attempt to identify the exact motion that would aggravate the pain. But to no avail. Nothing seemed to reach it. I spoke with several trainers about it, googled it online. Hernia didn’t seem to be the culprit, but intercostal muscle strain sure fit the bill. And there you have it.

With a repair time of anywhere from 3 weeks to 6 months I’ll be good as new. What?

Then to add insult to injury my eldest daughter came down with a nasty virus, then my youngest daughter, and then . . . me. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer with it as violently as they, but it has zapped me, nonetheless. In fact, I am still not over it.

I have been relatively impervious to illness for a number of years now. Oh, on occasion something would put me below par for a bit, but not for long. I have been rather healthy. But embarrassing as it is, I must admit there is a sense of great pride that goes along with not getting sick “right along with everyone else.” [NOTE: The fact that my wife began to have a twinge of it last night, but seems to be fine now, exacerbates that deflation to my pride.]

Then . . . this happens. And I am . . . just like everyone else. Isn’t it amazing how a slight change in a person’s temperature – even just a degree or so – makes them listless and incapacitated? We are delicate beings whose quality of life is maintained within a relatively small spectrum.

“To heck” with schedules, plans, goals and objectives. When you get hurt, or sick, all your best agendizing must be laid aside. It must wait. And you . . . must wait.

I am not a good waiter. No . . . I am not talking about waiting tables (although, that is one job I’ve never done in my life). You know very well what I’m talking about, because you have the same problem, don’t you? None of us is very good at waiting.

And yet . . . some things can only be arrived at by waiting. In those cases no amount of “by hook or crook” can advance us toward our desired destination. Healing comes gradually, and in its own time.

So, there has been lots of Netflix, napping, and trudging to the bathroom and back; a few pieces of toast, boiled eggs, and broth with soda crackers; Gatorade and Sprite, etc. But I am confident that one day we will emerge triumphant into a life that is a bit more fun to live. And, frankly, that’s how it has always worked.

So, have you gotten the virus yet? If not, I hope you don’t! I hope you continue to feel strong, impervious to disease, and unable to identify with the foibles and weaknesses of us lesser beings.

But if you do indeed find yourself flat on your back . . . embrace it as best you can, and remember that “this, too, shall pass.” Oh . . . and be careful using muscles you are not accustomed to using. Hire some professionals like I’m about to hire (to finish the job). It may hurt your pride (and wallet), but . . . your ribs muscles will thank you!

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The State of the Onion Message

Two nights ago President Obama presented the annual State of the Union message. To say that it “made history” is an understatement! Whether or not you agreed with all the President had to say, or whether you think our country is or is not headed for better days ahead, one thing is certain: we are headed somewhere.

And it behooves us all to take stock from time to time as to where we are headed personally, as families, and as a nation.

This analysis can be called (for lack of a better name) “the State of the Onion.” [NOTE: the unfolding and gradual revelation of various aspects of personal life have been described as something akin to peeling an onion, layer by layer exposing deeper, more private, and more fundamental building blocks of a person’s life]

I usually find State of the Union messages to be very uplifting, encouraging, inspiring, and challenging. I suppose, of course, that is their intended purpose.

But when I look at my own life, the progress (or lack of progress) I have made in my own personal endeavors, and the areas where I need improvement, I sometimes come away a little discouraged. That is, the State of the Onion is not always as inspiring as the State of the Union.

And yet . . . I must assert that improvements and insights into my own personal life have an eventual effect on the State of the Union as well. Unruly citizens make for an unruly nation. There is carryover from my personal life that influences the public policy of the nation of which I am a part.

So, as the New Year has begun, and the State of the Union presented, as religious organizations point followers to renewed dedication, as businesses gear up for the challenges of 2015, and as investors examine and prognosticate about our financial future – I would like to suggest that we not fail to focus on our own personal onion.

The truth is, you are the only person who can peel your onionskin. You can choose to delve deeper into an understanding of yourself, or you can refuse to do so and “go about your days.” You can peel the onion, layer by layer; or you an choose to let it be.

Trouble is, unless you eat like Jim Carrey in The Grinch, onions are not really good unless they have been peeled. Neither are human beings. We all develop a protective skin on the outside; there are no exceptions. But we are of little use until that skin is peeled.

Can it be discouraging to peel your onion? Definitely!

Will personal change be made mandatory by what is revealed? No question about it!

But the benefits, to you and to others, will outweigh all the pain – hands-down.

So, let me encourage you to get out your peeler and start to work. Better days are in your future if you peel the onion. That is a guarantee.

No matter what the true state of the union is in any given year, or in any given administration, you will have control over the state of the onion.

And having that . . . your life, and the lives of those around you, will flourish.

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Happy New Year!

A New Year! Once again we have embarked on the journey into a brand new year, and the excitement is all around us, isn’t it?

I watched on the television as people on the other side of the world celebrated exuberantly with fireworks, etc. hours ahead of our own festivities. And when the clock tolled midnight here in the Eastern Time Zone the champagne flowed, the tears fell, kisses were shared, and numberless voices welcomed the coming of the New Year!

It’s just another day, isn’t it? I mean, nothing has really changed except the way we write the date on our checks, right?

But something about it engages the hearts and minds of people all around the world, at least in the developed countries. We celebrate. We dream of new adventures. We embark on journeys that we hope will be fulfilling and (truthfully) satisfying beyond our wildest dreams.

We lay aside the sadnesses and disappointments of the previous 365 days, and hope for better days ahead. Interestingly enough, we celebrate this new beginning with a fervor that rivals the piety and religiosity of the most dedicated spiritualists, whether we be men or women of faith, or not. For at least one moment in time . . . as the clock strikes 12 . . . we are unified in our hope, and expectant both as individuals and as a people.

And it is almost magical. At least for a while.

As I pondered this phenomenon I was struck with the realization that every day holds the same promise. Does it not?

Doesn’t each new sunrise provide us with the exquisite opportunity to right our wrongs, change our ways, and revitalize our relationships?

What if we somehow were able to harness that New Year’s Eve excitement? What if, as individuals, and as a people, we learned to see each New Day in that same light? Wow!

And why not?

Isn’t that what the saints and thinkers we most admire are known for? Living in the moment? Making each new day the most special day yet? Perfecting the art of valuing other persons in a way that empowers them and revives them? Fully actualized and present in every possible moment?

Well? What’s the secret? What’s the magic mantra that makes it all happen? How do I receive this monumental realization that is bypassed by so many? [One must ponder that for one’s self].

“The future isn’t what it used to be. Only today is all that’s promised me,” sang the Judds many years ago.

The fascinating and incomprehensibly beautiful thing about life is that we receive a daily reprieve with each sunrise, a brand new chance to change our world, an opportunity to better ourselves and others that happens so regularly (like clockwork) that we fail to sense its awesome quality.

That’s why the only New Year’s Resolution that makes any real sense to me comes from Ebenezer Scrooge: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” May we follow his example.

So . . . Happy New Year!

Today. And . . . every day.

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The Gift

This spring I will complete my 12th year as an entertainer at Stone Mountain Park. It has been a wonderful experience in countless ways.

About 10 years ago I was privileged to work with master story teller, Tom Marquart, as he told the story of the birth of Jesus . And not long after that my friend Scott Rousseau wrote a version of the Christmas story that we began to use every year at the park. It was called “The Gift.”

“The Gift” has been through several revisions over the years, and it has become a staple at Stone Mountain Park during the Christmas season. If you ride the train around the mountain after 6:00 PM at night you will hear Grandpa Lacey (or one of his relatives) telling the story of the birth of Christ; it is a homespun conflation of the celebrated tale, mixed with country humor and charm.

The point is obvious, of course. The gift is Jesus; the gift is the offer of eternal life. And, as Grandpa Lacey says, “There just ain’t no price tag you can put on that one.”

As I sit in my den this morning, surrounded by beautiful Christmas tree lights and decorations, I am reminded that my life is (and has been) one massive conglomeration (for lack of a better term) of gifts.

It is simply astounding!

The places I’ve lived, the people I’ve known, the opportunities I’ve had, the sunrises and sunsets I’ve witnessed, the literally countless enjoyments I’ve savored for 61 years . . . the GIFTS of my life have been amazing.

We talk of gift giving and receiving especially at this time of year, and we have created the term re-gifting (for those not-so-special presents we pass on to others); we gift-wrap and we speak of a person’s giftedness (when looking for talent). Clearly, a gift is something the recipient does not earn; it is not payment for services rendered.

Thus, the beauty of the term. It has not been sullied over the years – at least not yet. Non-profit organizations continue to engage patrons by asking them to make a “gift” (as opposed to a donation), and fundraisers are careful to employ the word “gift” when helping persons to draw up a will that includes their organization.

We love gifts!

Grandpa Lacey asks the crowd on the train, “What’s your very favorite thing about the holidays?” And he knows that at some point (often right away) someone will say, “gifts” or “presents.”

And at that juncture the Par-cans dim, and he shares with them his gift, the gift of a story.

And quite a story it is! Whether or not you believe it to be true in every detail (I know some of my readers do not) there is an engaging charm about it, and the traditions surrounding it are enrapturing. As the character played by James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams says, “the memories will be so thick” you will have to “brush them away from your face.”

The “gift” is life.

It is shared by believers and unbelievers alike. For believers it is a gift that extends from here to beyond the grave; for unbelievers it is a gift only during his/her life on this earth. Nevertheless, it is a gift: unearned and undeserved. And it is LIFE.

As I have shared “The Gift” at Stone Mountain Park for these many years I have paid attention to the fact that I never tire of telling the story (there have been seasons when we’ve told it as many as 350 times). I think I know why it doesn’t tire me – at least in part. Because when I tell the story something happens between me and the audience.

I’m not talking about hocus pocus; rather, there is a profound sense we share in those moments – the sense that we are discussing the most elemental ingredients of the universe. We are discussing life.

And we are discussing an aspect of life that makes no sense apart from the existence of ultimate love and altruism: we are discussing the giving of gifts, i.e. giving to others without measuring their deservedness, and without regard to compensation.

We celebrate giving in this season. And I get to tell trainloads of people about it!

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No Room at the Inn

As the Christmas season approaches, and colder weather creeps in on us, my thoughts turn to . . . rodents in the chimney.

Please understand, I would rather write about something else, today. Almost anything else. But the truth is, this morning when I got up to begin the day my plans were trumped by the encroachment of a varmint in the chimney, probably an R.O.U.S. (for more information, see The Princess Bride).

He is clearly above the chimney flue and not in the firebox itself (thank goodness), but he [I apologize for any sexist slur implied; I could just as easily have said “she” but women don’t like being compared with rodents as a rule] has been quite busy building, tearing down, straightening his living space, or . . . I don’t know what all else.

I decided that a trip to Kroger for a combustible firelog would be in order. My plan was to heat (or smoke) this guy out of his new found apartment forthwith. I purchased the log, placed it in the firebox, lit the match, and waited with great anticipation for the heat and smoke to rise through the flue, knowing I would be delighted to hear the scurrying paws (or whatever it is they have) as the unwanted intruder departed, running for his life.

Instead . . .

To my chagrin I heard increased activity from the little interloper. After this persisted for some time I realized that I had just provided what must have been welcome warmth to the busy creature. I could just imagine him saying, “Wow! I had no idea this apartment came with central heat!”

There is no clear place of entry from the outside (that I can see), but there must be some way he entered our domain. [I knew I should have left up those NO TRESPASSING signs. Now look what’s happened!]

When Joseph and Mary made their trek to Bethlehem lo these many centuries ago they searched for an Inn in which Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus. And finding “no room at the Inn” they settled for a stable, and laid the babe in a manger, a feed trough for animals.

And I suppose the unidentified creature inhabiting my chimney has done something similar. Although, I suspect that just as soon as he can get into the Inn he will do so!

You may not appreciate the fact that I have compared the rodent intrusion of my residence with the birth of the Christ child in a stable, but . . . [Work with me here, OK? I’m trying hard to make lemonade from lemons, all right?].

I suppose the besetting of my plans is something I should realize is always a possibility. And that implies a resetting of my plans, sometimes done (as they say) “on the fly.”

The fact that Joseph and Mary could not find a birthing place befitting the King of the Universe seems incredible at first blush. But seen in its larger context it becomes remarkably fitting. And so . . . I will try to see my situation in a similar light, today.

As stated in the previous blog entry (Casting Call), my life is not a script over which I have absolute control; sometimes I have no control whatsoever. And truthfully, (although I would love to give it a try) if I wrote the script of my life and had the power to make it come about as written, it would not be nearly as interesting, not nearly as helpful to others, not nearly as transforming for me – as the one I am living.

So . . . I will accept (albeit a bit begrudgingly) this little trespasser, and deal with whatever havoc he may wreak. Face it! At worst, he has given me something to blog about, today. And at best? Well . . . we’ll just have to see how this one turns out, won’t we?

It’s just that way when . . . there is no room at the Inn.

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Casting Call

Yesterday one of my former students lost her husband to a heart attack; a young family is now fatherless. A good friend in his 60s just lost his brother to cancer early today.

As I write, my wife and I are sitting in a RaceTrac C-Store, enjoying free Wi-Fi and a cup of coffee; Carly Simon just got through singing, “You’re So Vain,” on the overhead sound system, and the atmosphere is inviting and comfortable.

It is a beautiful fall day outside, with milder temperatures than we’ve had recently. While we are enjoying our hint of spring, New York is still feeling the effects of record snowfall.

The President will address the issue of immigration tonight; politics and world events trudge along. Israel was bombed a day or so ago; many are suffering the loss of loved ones. And families across our country are looking toward the beloved tradition of Thanksgiving next week.

Have you ever paid much attention to the credits at the end of a movie? I am always fascinated at the number of jobs and positions. One that constantly intrigues me is “Casting.” You know, the person(s) who decides who gets to play which role.

Clearly, by the time the movie hits the screen any decision about roles is ancient history. Once those roles have been set, and contracts signed, actors are not at liberty to “try out” for another part; changes like that are not made in a willy-nilly fashion.

When the casting is done well . . . the movie is usually a success, assuming (that is) the screen writing, directing, camera work, sound work, makeup, stunt work, editing, location selection, wardrobe, catering, transportation, etc. are all done well, too.

There are lots of pieces in the puzzle, aren’t there? More than I ever realized.

Our lives are like that.

Sometimes I ask myself what my role is in this life. Who am I here to support in this “all the world’s a stage” existence? Do I have a speaking part? Or am I just an extra?

Am I a principal whose part is crucial to the storyline? And no matter what my role is determined to be, can I play it in such a way as to make the other actors’ and technicians’ jobs easier?

I am at a loss as to how to comfort my former student and my good friend. The storyline has moved forward in their lives, doubtless in a way they would rewrite if they had the chance. But the roles have been set; the parts are being played. And the story keeps moving ahead, unfolding as it proceeds; baffling us, surprising us, and sometimes overwhelming us.

None of us is the director. None of us is the screen writer. Nor are we technicians in this drama we call life. We are the actors. There was a casting call. We responded to it.

Now we must play the role we have been given.

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