A World of Hurt

We spent seven hours yesterday in the ER!

After a lovely time enjoying breakfast with good friends, solving all the world’s problems, and seeing beautiful pictures of Greece and points beyond (from their recent cruise) . . . my wife’s poison ivy (we think) got bad enough to warrant a visit to the Emergency Room.

“Waiting” is often the name of the game in the ER, especially in large hospitals. And this was no exception. With each encounter we were treated with kindness by hospital staff that (for the most part) seemed to really enjoy their work. What was MOST interesting was the microcosm of hurting persons playing the waiting game along with us.

Some patients were silent, and stayed to themselves, but some . . . .

An African-American female in her late 20s waited patiently (or so it seemed) in a wheelchair, her left foot in a cast of some sort. She spoke mostly with her eyes, glancing her and there. She was there before us, and when she was finally called back to triage she shouted loudly to the whole room, “Thank you, Jesus!” She apologized for her outburst as they wheeled her by, but I gave her a thumbs up.

A Puerto Rican woman was wheeled up beside us, and further conversation informed us that she recognized us from church; she was in off-and-on severe abdominal pain from what they thought was probably her appendix. Shortly, her daughter appeared, then her husband. But a pleasant interaction with her continued into the evening even though at times her English was obfuscated by her thick accent. Prayers were exchanged between us.

A young man was wheeled in by a male friend, or sibling perhaps; he was in such agony and proceeded to use a nearby counter for a footstool. He tried to sleep most of the time, but on occasion he would gasp, moan, them slump back into his chair, or alternately rest his head on the counter. A nurse gave him a test in the waiting room; I think she was checking his blood sugar. I heard her say, “271.” Ugh.

Across from us an older gentlemen was there with his wife. Several times she would move from wheelchair to a nearby seat, and when she did (with his help, of course) her face would contort, and she would struggle to her feet in agony. When seated she would slump to one side and grimace in pain. I felt so sorry for her (and for him). But my sorrow lightened a bit when she finally got up and walking by us informed the room that she was “an 84 year old woman in excruciating pain” and no one was helping her. She yelled at and insulted the intake persons (and the hospital), but they held their ground with her. She sure had a lot of spunk hidden beneath her pain, and was at no loss for words as she and her husband stormed out angrily. The staff person said, “What’s your name?” as they took her off the waiting list. And I thought I could sense their professional heartfelt relief and willingness to accommodate the angry woman by deleting her from the queue. BTW, a nurse, not yet informed about the woman’s dramatic exit, called her name for triage examination just moments after the angry departure. But alas . . . .

Another woman (there with a man, or husband) was “heaving” into the trash can near us. It’s so hard to watch people at their lowest. I understand the drowning man syndrome in these settings, i.e. the drowning man is notorious for being so dangerous to save, because he is flailing about, desperate and willing to do ANYTHING if it might save him from a watery grave. If you wade in to help him, “Beware!” He will take you down with him if necessary. What he would NOT do to you in his sane moments he will do without hesitation at his desperate moments.

As I walked around the enormous waiting room area, marking time, I was sometimes met with a smile and sometimes with a blank expression. “These are people just like us,” I reminded myself. They don’t want to be here, but they NEED to be; they are hurting in some way to which they cannot bring relief. They are turning to this place, and these men and women dressed in scrubs . . . for answers. And for compassion.

We live in a world of hurt, don’t we? Two days ago my youngest daughter was recounting all the pain and hurt, sickness and death, and general depression among our friends and family in the past few years. It is inordinate. Does it seem that way for you, too?

In simplistic terms our lives are about trying to stay alive and helping others to stay alive. Now I know it goes much deeper than that. But the truth is we are, each one of us, intent on staying alive, searching for meaning, seeking for happiness, and finding something useful to do with our selves. When that light, that motivation, that powerful urge for self-preservation is gone . . . we long for the EXIT sign of life to appear.

At that moment we are no longer the drowning man flailing in the waters, beating the surface with our arms, lunging upward for a breath; rather, we acquiesce, or we dive deeper seeking our own demise.

There is much to enjoy in this life: the beauty of nature, the gratification and security in loving relationships, the meaningfulness of good work, the pleasure of food, rest, and a myriad of other benefits. That’s the “sunny” side of life. But . . .

There is also Pain. Rejection. Failure. Hatred and Fear. We all tend to embrace the former benefits and run like a cheetah from the others. Nevertheless, they find us; none of us is fast enough to elude them all. One day we find ourselves or our loved ones in the Emergency Room of life, seeking relief from some malady we cannot resolve on our own.

What we get to choose in those moments is how we will treat our fellow life-travelers and/or the professional staff that offer to help. But it begins when we acknowledge:

We live in a world of hurt.

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He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

My recent trip to the ENT doctor has left me with a new revelation: I’ll probably never hear like I used to hear in my left ear. All this started about seven years ago when a particularly bad sinus infection plugged up my left eustachian tube. A small tube was put into my eardrum to help it drain. Since then this has been done several times; the last tube, installed about a year ago, must have been the size of a railroad tie.

At any rate, I think the eardrum has finally said, “Enough!” It has allowed scar tissue to make residence there and the result is a somewhat muffled, boxy sound in that ear when I sing. It is especially apparent when I’m in an auditorium with loud music, or trying to harmonize with another singer.

Ah yes. When I sing. For many years now I have sung as a part of my living. That avocation was truncated after my heart attack but has been slowly revived as of late. I am fortunate to be able to perform again, even in a limited way, but . . . it is frustrating to lose clarity in one ear. Forever.

Yes, forever! That is a daunting awareness.

When you’re young so many of the maladies that plague you can be dealt with in time, and you find you are restored to your former self. Sometimes you’re even stronger than before (an injured tendon or muscle can sometimes become less prone to injury after it heals). The body is amazing. But as time goes on, and we age, many of us find ourselves unable to bounce back. My heart experienced such a setback almost seven yearss ago; it will never be the same. And now . . . my ear.

I don’t like when things break. If I can repair a solar light for the yard it makes me feel really good. Or if some caulk seals some failing woodwork, or grout restores the bathtub tile to its former glory, it is gratifying. I don’t mind problems and challenges. Except . . . when the problems or challenges CAN’T BE MET.

When all my best efforts are fruitless, my striving to no avail, my best figuring fails to resolve, and I am utterly powerless to affect a resolution . . . that is devastating. It requires a realignment of my stars (so to speak), a monumental shift of my personal tectonic plates, a grand mal adjustment to my psyche. And that’s no easy adjustment, no “walk in the park” (as they say).

In our lifetime, each of us will face these mammoth, insurmountable obstacles; obstacles that force us to reevaluate, refocus, retool, and press on with brand new goals dressed up in clothing we never dreamed we’d have to wear. But . . . either we wear the new outfit and learn to love it, or . . . we choose to wallow in disappointment and despair.

It’s comical sometimes . . . the things we think. For instance, when I was a young man I used to see elderly men walking for exercise in long pants and street shoes. I laughed and said, “If I couldn’t wear my running shorts, athletic shoes, and RUN for exercise, I don’t think I’d bother!” Now . . . (and for some years now) I do just what they did. And I’m glad I can even do that.

We ALL encounter setbacks and defeats. The question is never whether or not we WILL encounter them; rather, what will we DO when we do so.

You see, I have a decision to make: will I continue to SING (albeit with limitations), or QUIT! I have chosen to sing.

Once, decades ago, I used my guitar to accompany a very elderly gentleman as he sang and played the violin. His voice was shaky and uncertain, his violin skills clearly in the past. Yet he sang and played a song he had written for his bride many years before I was even born. And he made no apologies for his lack of precision, because . . . precision was not the most important thing going on in that moment. He sang and played because he loved to sing and play, and he did so to honor the memory of his beloved wife.

Beethoven . . . well, you know the story; how he finished his ninth and final symphony even though he was deaf. By contrast, few of us are at our ultimate best when we come to our final days. The skin of the strong man’s mighty arm is replaced with wrinkles once stretched by impressive muscles; the aged, knowledgeable writer and scholar is sometimes no more erudite than a schoolboy; and yes . . . the great singer of songs who once wowed audiences and brought them to their feet in thunderous applause . . . is sometimes unable to even carry a tune.

As Gandalf the Grey said, “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.” As we age will experience losses; of this there is no doubt. Can we learn to relinquish, to let go of, to pass on to others the dreams that enthralled and inspired us for a time? Can we take a backseat to others in their life’s quest when it comes our time to shift into a new identity, one that functions as a supportive role instead of a leading role?

I hope to sing by myself and with others until my last breath. But that will only happen if I accept the limitations of my ear. And who knows what else as time goes on. I must remember the joy is in the doing, not the hearing. It derives from the heart; the sound does not matter.

So . . . what obstacles are you facing?

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The Big Eraser

It seems like the first things you learn when you start school become the bedrock upon which all future learning rests. Maybe Robert Fulghum was right when he wrote, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Paper, pencils, desks, etc. are things you will use all your life. Learning to read and write are foundational to all future communication.

That’s why it was so hard on me in Miss Montgomery’s 1st grade class at Woodmore Elementary School in Chattanooga, TN. I had trouble with the concept of writing one answer on the first line of my paper, then going to the line just below it to answer the next question. Stacking things in this order made no sense to me; I wanted to write in a “run on” style, I suppose. Thankfully, Miss Montgomery had also introduced me to one of the greatest tools in all of schooldom: the eraser!

Erasers are the greatest, aren’t they? You can make a mistake, a misjudgment, a miscalculation of some kind . . . then make it as if it WAS NEVER THERE! You simply rub the mark that needs to be expunged and presto – it is gone forever, never existed, totally eradicated.

Well . . . not always totally, right? Sometimes I found that a residue remained. Like a scar from the previous pencil mark . . . and often, an indentation in the paper itself caused by the force of the pencil as it was pushed onto the paper. But for general observation – gone. Right? What a great tool!

As I got older in school we began to use ink pens. Hmmmm. I wondered how mistakes could be remedied with that more indelible instrument. Then voila! They started to make ball point ink pens with white erasers on top. That’s right! Saved again! Errors vanquished. Mistakes excised. Simply cut out of existence. What could be better?

Of course, the erasing wasn’t perfect. You could still often see a shadow of what had been there before. And the surface of the paper was a bit torn, defaced, ragged. But the main evidence of your error would not be very visible, at least not without close inspection. For all practical appearances . . . it was as if nothing amiss had ever happened.

Except, that is . . . when I had to rub really hard on the paper. Especially if the ink had had time to dry. Because then I would scrub harder to get out the ink stain and invariably . . . the paper would tear. Doggone it!

I learned early on in the 2nd grade (especially after one traumatic visit to Principal Johnson’s office) that you certainly don’t want anything bad to go on “your permanent record.” To me that was kind of like putting indelible ink on your paper: it would never come off! And I’d made enough mistakes already in my short life to know I didn’t want THAT!

Now, as I approach 69 years of age this fall, I look back over my life and see LOTS and LOTS of things I’d love to use that eraser to erase. Trouble is, they aren’t on paper. They’re on my Permanent Record. Oh, I have a pardon for those things BTW. And that is priceless. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still ramifications, consequences, lasting results from my previous words, actions, and inactions.

Erasers are great, aren’t they? And in grammar school they can be quite useful as one learns. But if we take them with us into adulthood the stakes grow higher. Ultimately, torn pages from our tireless efforts to expunge our guilt will result in more than just an effacement of wood pulp.

“Now we have computers,” one might say. Nobody much uses paper anymore. “And if you make a mistake . . . you just hit delete.”

But . . . a history remains in that machine. Doesn’t it?

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This Is Us

Pittsburgh Steelers

Finally watched the final show in the sixth and final season of This Is Us last night; I rank this series up there with the series, LOST, in terms of cinematography, acting, and story line. Excellent stuff!

One of the prominent features of this series is its realistic portrayal of a family comprised of one adopted child and two of natural birth. Back stories of the parents, grandparents, and extended family combine to present a true-to-life, messy, complex, sometimes combative, other times jovial journey from birth to midlife for the three siblings.

Topics such as body image, racism, sibling rivalry, alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, and divorce, and death, as well as true love, forgiveness, straight talk, perseverance, and the hereafter, run throughout the series, making it into an emotional ride that rings true with life as I have lived it, seen it, and read about it lived. I highly recommend it!

As I examine my own little world today, I have: friends suffering with addictions, family members in the process of divorce, others coping with dementia, cancer ravaging a good friend’s family, incidents of neighborhood theft, troublesome health issues, as well as delightful times with my grandchildren, a daughter expecting a child, adequate security in retirement, and a loving wife who has put up with me for over 46 years.

Life is indeed a potpourri of events, feelings, educational experiences, mysteries, agonies, and moments of great exhilaration.

Sometimes we grow up thinking that the goal in life is the absence of conflict, the defeat of all things evil, the eradication of all disease, the financial security of the masses, and the establishment of justice and fairness, i.e. a “level playing field” for all persons on the planet.

Then . . . as time goes on (and sometimes it comes quickly) we see these very things have not been realized in our own family, among our friends, and every place we look in the world. Discouragement meets disillusionment; we are first confused, flummoxed . . . then, hardened, cynical. We long for the Utopia we believed existed somewhere, but disheartened that we cannot seem to attain it . . . even in our own lives.

One day . . . hopefully, we come to accept the failures in our human nature, and if we are persons of spiritual and metaphysical awareness we acknowledge that the Source of our troubles is not one we will one day defeat on this earth; we cannot eradicate it. Going further in our quest we also arrive at the belief that our love for one another is, in fact, the only glue that keeps us bound to one another. And interestingly, it alone is powerful enough to withstand the onslaught of discouragement and disillusionment.

“Love launches us to heights and perspectives that alone give us not only tolerance of the troubles in the world, but the ability to see beyond the failures and embrace the persons involved in them – unequivocally.”

Ivan Benson

Your family is like this, isn’t it? It is a microcosm of the whole world and everyone in it. The struggles and failures, followed by renewed aspirations and successes; the agony of sickness and death, followed by the exquisite and incomparable beauty and promise of a newborn child. All of it encompassed in a blanket of familial love where the all drastic contradictions are melded into an inseparable unit, unassailable to any outside force or entity.

Or . . . such is the dream. Right?

That dream has the ring of truth (in my experience).

That’s why I love This Is Us so much. Broken persons portrayed in a broken world, raised by broken parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania find a way to overcome the onslaught we all face. That way is LOVE.

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Playing Favorites

The last few days I’ve been pondering an odd question: “What’s the best water you’ve ever tasted?”

Funny, isn’t it, where the mind goes sometimes? I was remembering a hike in Southern Arizona, one I repeated several times with various people (the Harlan’s, my neighbors; my cousin, John; my friend, Larry Stark; and others). We called it “Mount Baldy,” but it’s given name is Mount Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains of the Coronado National Forest just south of Tucson, Arizona.

Currently I read on the internet that the climb is supposed to be about 11.5 miles roundtrip, a challenging hike where you rise about 4,000 feet in elevation, and take approximately 6 and 1/2 hours to complete. Larry and I got to the peak in about an hour and a half as I recall (we were young, crazy teens, and motivated to set a record if we could). The best water I’ve ever tasted was at “Bellows Spring” which is part way up the mountain.

For many years now I’ve mistakenly remembered it as “Belle” Spring, and the mountain as Mount “Wrightston” (with the added T). I guess nobody’s perfect, right? But it’s odd how sometimes things are larger when you’re young than when you visit them as an adult. Or how the names of things are either learned incorrectly from the outset and never corrected, or they just morph over time into something different.

The water at Bellows Spring comes out of a metal pipe, nothing fancy, or picturesque . . . . But by the time you reach that point in the long trail the cool water from the spring takes on a beauty of its own. As I said, my memory is that it’s the best water I’ve ever tasted. I wonder why.

If you ask me about the best steak I’ve ever had I’d say without hesitation: “Charlie’s Steak House in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.” If you ask me about my favorite scenery in this country, I’d have to say: “The West” (both northwest, and southwest). If you ask me about my favorite car I’d say: “Corvette.” My favorite meal? “The One I’m Having right NOW!” Ha! Actually, I’m partial to “hamburgers,” but find I can enjoy lots of other things with more prestige, too.

The best breakfast I ever had was on an overnight camping trip; the “bacon and eggs” the next morning were exquisite. But I’m sure that wouldn’t have been true if the setting and the hunger level had been different. The coldest I’ve ever been was on an overnight camping trip in Montana, at the foot of Mt. Haggin, wet from a fitful overnight in a soaked cloth sleeping bag (and a second to that would be after sinking hip deep in a snow drift near the foot of Mt. Baboquivari on New Year’s Day, 1968).

But the best water? Without a doubt. Bellows Spring. But why?

Sometimes . . . to get at the truth about something . . . you have to go back and recreate the events that surrounded the point in question. And when I do that in this instance I get the following:

1. I was always with people I loved when I drank from this spring.
2. I was always very thirsty and tired when I drank from this spring.
3. I was always accomplishing an arduous task (hiking) when I drank from this spring.
4. I was nearing the last segment of the hike when I drank from this spring; victory was close.

As I recall, the final portion of the trail to “the peak” (the place where you get to sign your name in a notebook, date the event, and place the notebook back into the metal ammo box in which it resides) was covered with large rocks, and cumbersome. But the view from the peak (9,456 feet) was awesome, allowing you to see into Mexico as well as much of Southern Arizona.

And all of that, including (no doubt) many things of which I’m unaware, contribute to my evaluation of the water. The who, the where, the why, etc. of something you do . . . these things can color the scenery, enhance the taste, and produce the quality you remember for a lifetime. Your hunger and thirst, i.e. your need can contribute to the quality imbued in a memory as much as anything.

So, try playing “favorites” today. What’s the best water you’ve tasted? Your favorite meal? Try naming your … ests and ask yourself, “Why?”

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The Vicissitudes of Life

My father loved vocabulary, and he encouraged us to learn words, too. One way he did this was to use words unknown to us, so that we would have to look them up to find their definition. At the time it seemed oppressive and punitive, but in retrospect I must say it helped me to love words, too. My mother was a lover of words, too, just not so provocative with the way she taught them to us.

One of the words I learned from my father long ago was the word “vicissitudes.” To me it always held a negative connotation, but in actuality it just refers to changes or alterations in life. Of course, changes can sometimes be troublesome, especially for those of us who like most things to remain as they are.

I am reflecting today on “the vicissitudes of life,” the changes that have occurred over the past few years for me and for many that I love. You, too, may identify with these vicissitudes for you and/or those closest to you. Looking in retrospect at the vicissitudes of your life can sometimes give you gratitude for the unwanted changes; that is, you might decide that what happened really made things turn out better than they would have otherwise. Other times . . . not so much.

Many stories about innovative inventions are like this: penicillin; plastic; the pacemaker. Of course, to be honest, many mistakes do not turn into inventions; rather, they destroy, maim, or kill (just to give equal time to the possible detractors in the audience).

But in your life’s experience . . . what would you say?

I know my near fatal heart attack in October 2016 was nothing but an unexpected disaster when it happened. And the resulting irreversible damage it caused seemed to confirm that assessment. But looking back on it now . . . it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. How can such a vicissitude be viewed in two such diametrically opposed positions?

Sometimes a vicissitude can be a catalyst for more change. It can cause one to “rise to the occasion” (so to speak) as it did after the disaster at Pearl Harbor. It can unite a whole nation as it did after 9/11. Often, struggle (a vicissitude which is almost always unwanted) can catapult you into a more honest, genuine and authentic relationship with those you love.

And so, the object is not to find any way possible to avoid, or block, or prohibit the vicissitude (if that were even possible); rather, the object is to embrace it . . . even reluctantly (since none of is an expert at this) as soon as possible, then look for the resulting benefit on the horizon. [NOTE TO SELF: horizons can sometimes be pretty far away]

Over the past two years families have suffered from many vicissitudes heretofore unknown (or at best, infrequent), and this has taken a toll the proportion of which is unparalleled in modern times (at least in the USA). These vicissitudes have split families, severed marriages, exacerbated the incidence of mental illness, and left an emotional pallor on the faces of untold millions. If you can identify with this resulting depression and discouragement, you are not alone.

However, I for one am trying to look to the horizon for a coming benefit. At least I am trying to do so. Because I am learning (slowly, mind you) that when the challenges of change arise I have a decision to make: I can either embrace the change (as quickly as possible) and arrive at its benefit, or I can resist/deny the change and suffer even more fallout and pain before I embrace it. It’s my choice. And yours.

So, if you find yourself in the midst of turmoil, be it family, personal, national, social, etc. do not lose heart. Get honest, Be genuine. Let authenticity do its cleansing work.

The sun will rise again.

[Thank you, Dad, for that good word. Rest in peace. You didn’t waste it on children who didn’t pay any attention. We have seen the horizon you wanted us to see. And it is beautiful!]

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The Gift of Memory

A tattered and worn out teddy bear named “Teddy” stands guard near our bedroom window on this cold December morning, awaiting his 64th Christmas morning this year. He is surrounded by other ancients: the Chattanooga Lookouts baseball given to me by the team pitcher when I was three years old, my favorite childhood books, and a copy of the New Testament given to me by my Aunt Sarah in 1964. He wears the Army jacket made by my mother. But he shows his age, doesn’t he?

Along with many stuffed animal fights in his past where he lost red glass eyes and lots of body hair, he also went through outpatient surgery performed by my older brother and me (I am sure it was an idea of his; I was merely a nurse standing by to help monitor anesthesia and vitals). You see, we thought his metal internal growling box needed removal; his back still bears the brown threaded stitches used to sew him back together.

He was the highlight of my Christmas as a four-year-old in December 1957, sitting atop a stack of variously sized, beautifully colored and decorated cardboard boxes in the wee hours of that morning. My brother and I had awakened early (3:30 AM as I recall), and Dad gave us permission to emerge from our tiny bedroom in the 600 square foot house (formally a chicken house) in which we dwelt until 1963. The moment was magical for me; I have never forgotten it!

Memory is amazing, isn’t it? For the things we forget as well as the things we recall. Some with uncanny clarity and emotion.

Mom and Dad are both gone from this life as our family prepares to celebrate Xmas 2021. Twelve years gone for Dad, nine years gone for Mom. But they are still in my heart. Dad never met any of my four grandchildren; mother, only the first (for a brief time).

But Teddy is still with me. The company in England that made him did an amazing job. I wonder if they expected him to live this long. One day, he too will fall to pieces, I suppose. Fabric, stuffing, thread; these things don’t last forever. But I digress.

What interests me today . . . the thing I wanted to share with you . . . is the amazing longevity of a gift. Teddy sitting atop those cardboard boxes 64 years ago thrilled a little boy in a way he has never forgotten. Hopefully, you will give gifts to your children (and others) this Christmas that will be treasured for a lifetime. Blessed keepsakes.

My oldest granddaughter (7 years old) was visiting several weeks ago. She saw Teddy sitting in our bedroom and we started a discussion of his origins, etc. Finally she said to me: “When you die will we get him?” I smiled, thoughtfully, and said: “I suppose you will.”

Of course, wherever Teddy goes to live out his final days there is no way his new caretakers will ever treasure him the way I did. The way I do.

The thing is, you never know which specific gifts will give the recipient a tug in his/her heart years hence. Frankly, you never know which gifts will survive the passage of time. What relics of your past do you still possess? Gifts from your younger life, keepsakes from your family? Sets of china dishes? Dolls? Other toys? Furniture? Consider them this Christmas, gaze at them, handle them, share the stories, and . . . remember.

Merry Christmas! Make this one unforgettable!

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The Impossible Dream

It was a great honor to be asked to sing “The Impossible Dream” (1965, music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion) at my high school graduation in May 1971. Along with an amphitheater filled with parents and students, another individual was present, a representative from the University of Arizona department of music. I planned to attend there in the Fall of 1971 and major in vocal education. So, this man’s presence was quite important to me.

When nervousness from singing “under the stars” in front of a multitude of people caused me to sing very flat on the final note of the crucial phrase, “This is my QUEST,” I was devastated. But there was little I could do. Because at that moment, compounded with the nervousness of singing to such a large audience, I had added a vocal blunder to the mix. Ugh!

At that moment my rendition of “The Impossible Dream” was rendered truly impossible to me.

I loved the Man of La Mancha, and had enjoyed singing songs from the score; the lyrics to “The Impossible Dream” were almost magical in their appeal to a young man:

To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go.

To have a quest, a goal in life, a purpose, and be undaunted by forces outside of you, indomitable in spirit, matchless in courage. It is virtually every young man’s dream.

Then later, the memorable refrain which seals the pledge:

This is my quest,
To follow that star,
No matter how hopeless,
No matter how far;
To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march into hell
For a heavenly cause.

By the way, this was not the last time I sang flat in front of an audience, or allowed nervousness to interfere with my singing or speaking. You would need a notebook to record all the various occasions I could list. But you see, that’s part of the beauty of it: I have never stopped singing or performing since that night.

The thing about a quest, a heartfelt conviction, a spirit of determination, an indefatigable drive . . . is that the bearer is not deterred by apparent impossibility. For he or she looks beyond what is visible, sees the invisible, then makes the invisible visible.

Now he or she may do so while trembling, hands shaking, knees knocking, voice quivering, etc. The goal is not to become unflappable (although that would be nice); rather, to never quit on the dream. Any real “dream” has an element of impossibility to it.

As December 2021 rolls onto the scene, today, I am reminded of a “dream” that buoyed the spirits of ancient Jews for generations: the coming of a Savior, a Messiah, a Deliverer who would right all political wrongs, restore peace to a troubled populace, and reign with unprecedented aplomb. The “Christ” part of Christmas.

But that did not happen. At least, not in the way they had hoped and dreamed.

What did occur was even more impossible than the anticipated military coup of which they dreamt.

A teenage girl, living her ordinary life, became pregnant in a truly impossible way. But the male child she delivered months later came in the most ordinary way. He was raised by ordinary parents, people like you and me, who made child rearing mistakes and sometimes exhibited less than lofty attitudes. He was like us in every way. Not regal. Not wealthy. Not particularly handsome.

Very possible . . . on the surface.

The announcement of angels around his humble birth was witnessed by only a handful of shepherds, their glorious singing heard only by a few. Nothing worldwide. No regional significance. Almost unnoticed. The visit of the Magi when he was young was known only to them, the stargazers, and a few prognosticators. The King’s fear of possible competition from him caused a violent local stir for a bit, but eventually subsided. His wisdom in the temple at age 12 was remarkable, but . . . nothing earth shattering, apparently.

When he finally began to teach and gather disciples his intentions began to unfold. But not clearly to most; they were still expecting the regal, the political, the matchless rule of a man in Judea who would right all wrongs done to his people.

But he had an even more impossible dream: to deal with the sin of the whole world, to reign in heaven, and to hobble the power of the Evil One until his ultimate demise once and for all at the END of all things.

And he did not stop. Nervousness did not deter him; fear did not win the day. He followed his quest even when those closest to him did not agree with him, or understand him. Then he literally “marched into hell for a heavenly cause.”

Overthrowing the Roman Empire would have been possible. Making a way for forgiveness of sin, impossible. Coming to earth in a chariot of fire with angels blazing the way would have been possible (although an amazing sight to see). Being born an ostensibly bastard male child to a lowly teenage girl, yet destined to lead others in unprecedented spiritual renewal, impossible.

Christmas is the reminder that impossible dreams are the best gifts to give and receive in this season. When you unwrap them, rest assured they will set a new course for your life. So, “follow that star” that led wise men to Jesus so many centuries ago. Then pledge to never forsake the quest to:

Right the unwritable wrong,
To love pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star.”

As we look at the shape of our country, our world, we can easily be discouraged. Most of us only see the visible. In fact, many would say that is all any sensible person can see. As a result we hunker down in fear, self preservation, and defensiveness; we wear anger like a suit of clothes.

But some things are invisible. Like impossible things. To be seen . . . they require a quest.

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Electric Trains

If you were a boy like me, growing up (initially) in the South in the early 1950s, then you probably like trains as much as I do. There is both a mystique and an irresistible call in the air when you talk about railroads with little boys. And not just little boys. Big ones, too!

My father was a steward for a while with Southern Railroad out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. That fact lent itself beautifully to my fascination with trains. My next door neighbor, Mickey, had a father who worked in the rail yard, and once gave us a ride on his engine. So exciting!

So, when Dad one day went out to the garage, reached up to the planks that held storage above the spot where you’d park your car, and came down with a cardboard box that contained an old electric train set (possibly Lionel, but I don’t recall) that had once belonged to his nephew, Edward, my brother and I were beside ourselves.

There was a transformer that went with the set, a heavy, square black box that was probably about 10 inches wide. When you ran the engine you could smell the electricity surging through it, and it smelled like it was mixed with oil. It was probably a fire hazard, but we didn’t know that, so . . . .

We would take our time setting up the track, sending it under chairs and winding here and there. Then we’d turn off the lights so we could see the bright headlight on the engine as it made its way through our makeshift hill and dale. The sights and smells were nothing short of captivating.

Then in 1963 when we moved to Tucson, Arizona that box never surfaced again; I guess it didn’t make the proverbial “cut.” I wish I had it now.

What DID stay with me, however, was a fascination with trains. Every time since as early as I can remember I have been captivated by railroad tracks. Even in college in Arkansas one time I walked the railroad tracks all the way from Searcy to Kinsett. I didn’t know it was against the law. I took a girl named Melinda on a date one night, and after the show we saw (The Don Cossack Choir) I asked her if she’d like to walk on the railroad tracks with me. She gave me a weird look; I had no clue what was wrong. To me, it seemed a perfectly natural thing to do.

Now as I approach 68 years old I find I am still enthralled with railroad tracks and trains, and I’d like very much to have another electric train in the house. I actually built a table for an HO gauge train years ago, then sold it to a neighbor. Now I fantasize about having one encircle the room where we keep computers, guitars, etc.; I’d put it above the door, up high, so it wouldn’t take up any needed space. Pipe dream? Perhaps. But it would be fun to share with the grandkids.

What intrigues me is my fascination with small lifelike things: trains and tracks, buildings with small lights, miniature people doing realistic tasks. As I blogged several years ago about this I commented about this desire to have a small world at my fingertips, one where I was large and in charge, and all that occurred was in my purview and in my control. Maybe you’re not so different from me.

There would be no viruses in my little world, no serious illness or death, no impoliteness or unresolved anger. It would be idyllic, with a bucolic countryside and a small town full of pleasant, industrious, happy folks, friendly pets, and well behaved children. There would be harmony.

The ancient Hebrew writer, Isaiah, spoke of a time to come when wolves would lie down with lambs, and carnivores would eat straw. That sounds like a pretty safe place to live.

This world, of course, is not like the little town I describe. Maybe that’s why we are drawn sometimes to the “Mayberry” kind of existence, where peacefulness is rarely interrupted by anything more serious than jaywalking or a flat tire. I’ve written about our desire to create Utopia before, and I suppose this is just another way of achieving that same thing. It’s a bit of a conundrum as to why that desire is in us, when there is no way it will ever come about. But that’s a subject for another time, in another blog.

As good as our life is down here, it is far from idyllic. Perhaps the desire to have a diminutive world in the form of a train set is not a bad thing. In fact, it might be “just the ticket” helping us retreat from time to time to an existence over which we have more control. Of course, we must return to “the real world” and learn how to navigate reality. But who couldn’t use a little break from the drama now and then?

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Times are hard right now. In addition to the usual concerns of the day (the economy, the healthcare system, political rivalries, etc.) there are any number of thorny issues that are pressing on the populace, demanding attention and threatening our demise.

Is this a harbinger of our END?

I do not want to be blindsided, or bushwhacked. And I’m sure you do not either. But how many times in your life have you felt things were about to come unglued? Personally. Socially. Nationally. Internationally.

We are told that history repeats itself; that nothing lasts forever. And those things are indeed true. But there is an innate capacity in the human spirit, one of resilience, the God-given drive to bounce back, to reestablish, to redeem.

It’s called HOPE.

You cannot live long without it. Life is merely a drudgery traversing a landscape of barren, worthlessness without hope.

Relationships require hope to survive. Nations are skeletons of rudderless, seafaring vessels without hope. Our world with all its diversity and multifarious cultures only thrives if there is hope. But . . . with hope . . . even broken relationships can be redeemed, nations can grow eagle’s wings, and our world . . . can be reestablished.

Now, I am not so naive as to present to you dreams of Utopia; I do not believe that is possible in this world. That is not the goal. If it is, then it is a foolhardy goal. But what I do believe is that within each of us, in the midst of the battle that our dark side promotes, is a life-giving desire to do right, to promote wellness, to establish goodness. I call this the Imago Dei; you may call it something else. Nevertheless, it is present, even if you have no name for it whatsoever.

And we are in dire need of calling on it in these hard times.

Look deep inside. If you have struggled with depression over these last many months, if you have become disillusioned with the state of the world or the country, if you have been disappointed in the political, medical, or social answers that have been touted as panaceas to our ills . . . refuse to give up the one, innate attribute you most need: HOPE.

It has carried us through difficult times in the past, and it will do so again. This is not our first rodeo. We have been here before. Time tends to erase part of our memory, doesn’t it?

Whether you prefer to quote Winston Churchill’s “Never, never, never, never, never give up!” or Jesus’s “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” it is right to cling to hope.

Are you angry? That is understandable.

Are you depressed? So are many of us.

Are you discouraged, disillusioned, disappointed? There are many who are.

Are you frightened? Only fools would not be.

But the real question is this: are you able to sit quietly, reflect on your life, and allow a tiny molecule of hope to rise to the surface?

If so . . . even if the hope is in embryonic form . . . you will begin to kindle the resilience needed to weather the current storm.

Hope refuses to be defeated. And the fallout from hope is always kindness, empathy, goodness, and a heart more-than-ready for hard work.

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