The Perfect Church Song

Every Easter reminds me of the perfect church song, thanks to an event about a quarter century ago. It speaks to all days, but particularly today…Easter.

The short version of the story is that the new pastor to our parish liked to change things up at the last minute, including the songs that were to be sung. On this particular Sunday, he told the congregation that he wanted to change the listed song to one of the old, beloved songs that everyone knew.  Before he got a word out, a child’s voice from the back of the church began to sing what he thought of as an “old, beloved song that everyone knew.” 

“I love you…you love me…” the child sang. Of course, it was the theme song to the popular Barney cartoon.  Who knew that a cartoon purple dinosaur’s song, shared through the innocent voice of a child, would summarize the perfect song for church. I think of that event often, but always on Easter.

Happy Easter everyone. I love you.

Everyday saints and angels…every day

Saints serve as role models as to how we should live and angels provide us the guidance and protection needed to live thusly. You’ve probably used everyday phrases like, “You’re an angel for helping that person,” or “She’s a saint for dealing with that person with such patience and grace.” We encounter such angels and saints often. With my new job, I see them every day.

The everyday angels and saints that I see every day live at, attend or work at New Danville, a farm-environment master-planned community for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities so they have the opportunity to live, learn, work and grow in communities of their choice. My job is to garner funds for their programs, activities and facilities; while I work to find support, I am finding attitudes, empathy, patience, grace and love befitting everyday angels and saints.

My first day was last Wednesday. One of the first orders of business was to be introduced to the team members and to some of the clients – we call them Wranglers – as they gathered before starting the day’s activities. Within less than a minute of standing in the room of about 40 people I felt love, support, empathy and humanity coming from all corners. And humor, as well as energy and enthusiasm that I look forward to tapping into every day.

That’s the point: In all people is the potential to be either angel or saint, or both. Everyone has the choice to live that way; everyone has the choice to see such characteristics in others. It is best to not just observe everyday angels and saints, but to learn from, grow with and become energized by them. They are around us all everyday.

With time, take time

Weeding is probably not high on the list of desirable chores for most people. I’m not sure it was for my neighbor and for the fellow parishioner but seeing these “senior citizens” weeding gardens reminded me that with time (age) comes the wisdom to take time.

The neighbor is in his 80s. My wife and I, as well as most of the other neighbors, keep an eye on his house, watching for him to be sure he is okay. The other morning, I saw him sitting on the sidewalk with an unlit cigar held in place by a practiced grip between his teeth and baseball cap protecting a head with much less hair than decades before. He was pulling weeds. Several hours later, he was still sitting on the ground, pulling weeds. There are times when taking time is the best way to deal with the passing of time in the mundane moments of life.

The same day, while volunteering for a grounds clean-up day at our parish, I witnessed a woman who had taken the chore of weeding rose gardens. She sat on the ground instead of kneeling, like the neighbor had done, and meticulously pulled weeds as she chatted with a friend on the phone. Just the tone of her voice sounded cheerful, joyful and not the least bit annoyed by the dreaded weeding task.

Both the neighbor and fellow parishioner shared a few attributes: they were seniors, patient, seemingly in the moment, and making the most of those moments. They, of time, had the wisdom/patience/grace to take time as it came.

Chores are part of life. In our younger years, we tend to rush through them to get them “over with.” By accepting that tasks take time, whether the chore is enjoyable or not, we can make the most of the time put into our efforts. With time (age) we can learn to appreciate taking time in moments. There is no need to wait to learn that wisdom.

Have Someone Better Than You

We were talking about the old track days; Bob nailed a timeless truth.

I had sent the tight group of friends from the high school days – we used to be the “Lunch Bunch”
 of five, but we are now down to four – a video clip of Matthew Boling who graduated from our high school almost a half century after we did. Boling is a track superstar. While we weren’t, we loved the sport.

In the email dialog, I responded to a question with the statement that my best quarter-mile time was 54 seconds, a time achieved while being self-coached, having been essentially kicked off the high school team for not being willing to get a haircut. Ahh, the ‘70s. Then Bob replied, “Just think what you could have done with him as a workout partner.”

“A workout partner.” The words rattled around in my head because of their truth and wisdom: “You need someone who is better than you, who pushes you, who makes you grow beyond yourself, who is your partner…to achieve your potential.” I wished I had seen it that way when I was a younger, more hard-headed (if that is possible) than now, more rebellious young man than the senior that I am now.

His simply observed truth reminded me of stories my dad shared about his boxing days in 1932-33. Dad was a featherweight. He shared stories with me about how the little guys like him would train with the big guys. The featherweights could pound on the bigger guys like banging on human heavy bags; the big guys liked training with the littler fighters because it improved their speed. They trained with workout partners who pushed each other to great success. It takes work; it takes working with those who are better; it takes working with others with different skill sets.

Potential is rarely met alone. Fortunately, it is never too late to learn that lesson. Thanks, Bob.

Life’s Whittlin’

I have several knives, including some that were my dad’s and granddad’s. None of them are collector’s items, save for quality of nostalgia they hold or the usefulness in general application. My specialized knives are appropriate for hunting or fishing. None of them would be of much value for whittlin’ and whittlin’ is what life is about.

The last time I earnestly tried whittlin’ – that persistent application of patience and edge to the forgiving textures of soft wood – was with a blue Cub Scout pocket knife. Trust me, that was a long time ago. A very long time ago. But whittlin’ has a romanticized place in my memories and imaginings, and most assuredly was something some of my Mississippi kin were likely good at. Actually, whittlin’ has always been part of my life, not with me as the whittler, but I am the whittled.  You are, too.

Life’s experiences transform us just as whittlin’ can transform a block of wood into a detailed piece of art or a practical implement. Some passes of the blade make significant changes to our “shape,” and sometimes they make nuanced changes. It is only with whittlin’ that the square peg begins to find its way into the round hole, and only with persistence and precision that the fit becomes perfect. Life is whittlin’ me to be a better “shape,” a better person, a more skilled and patient person, a more resilient and courageous person. Life is whittlin’ on you, too.

Sometimes we fight the whittler’s hand. OK, we often do. Imagine the whittler trying his craft on a piece of wood that constantly moves or thinks it knows better than the whittler what potential it has.

See experiences for what they are: shaping you to your greatest potential.

Use your good…

A couple of decades ago, when my youngest son was but a wee lad, he would famously attribute good decisions or good ideas of his own with “I’m using my good brain.” Sadly, we all don’t do that all the time.

I often remind myself of his expression when faced with a challenge. (I also prefer to envision him, blond, waist-height to me, missing a tooth and smiling proudly with his pronouncement…it makes me smile at the challenge I face.) Do I want to use the ol’ “tried and true” solution, or do I want to try something more creative and adventurous? Do I want to give up because an answer doesn’t come easily or I do I want to accept the challenge and find a way beyond the hurdle? Do I want to write or photograph in the same ol’, same ol’ way or do I want to try something that better expresses my thoughts? Do I want to keep using the regular recipe or try something different? You get the point. At all moments in life we are given the chance to “use our good brain,” whether it is how to use what we know, or how to add knowledge and wisdom to our inventory of tools and discern that information for greater use.

We have been blessed with good brains. How we feed them and use them is up to us. But feed them and use them we must.

There is a lot of junk food out there that we go to for food, but it is certainly not sustenance. It is more like cotton candy for the brain. Skip social media and read the classics, or watch a movie of substance and story, or write your thoughts and ideas, or… there are so many ways we can feed and exercise our brains.  Just like exercising our bodies, if what we do to feed or use our brains doesn’t take some effort or “hurt” a bit, then we’re likely not doing it right.

Pause at your next opportunity to spend a moment, express your voice, create something or tackle a challenge…think and consider…”how can I use my good brain?” Think of a little kid, with a gap in the front where adult teeth will soon appear, smiling his affirmation at you.

…a gift of

I don’t recall what happened that got me and a few members of the university president’s staff crosswise. Forgetting the reason for interpersonal turbulence is nothing new in any type of relationship, whether interpersonal, inter-family, inter-community or inter-national. I reported to the president, as did they; their offices were located in the president’s suite while most of my team and I were downstairs. Everyone felt the tension. There seems to be many similarities to those conditions and general society today.

In what was likely divine inspiration, I came up with a course of action. I was tired of the situation, and it wasn’t fair to anyone within the reach of the ripples of tension. So, I bought a bunch of flowers for each person involved and each bunch contained a card that simply said, “Peace.” I walked into the suite, and without saying a word – letting the flowers and the card be the only message – I handed the flowers to each of the people caught in the situation.

The outcome included tensions relieved, tears shed and sincere appreciation. All from a simple, yet sincere, gesture of peace.

Here we are at the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace and tension between people seems high and constant.  It has been a crazy year that has created rifts where none once were and widened those that had already been in place when the proverbial stuff hit the fan early in 2020.

While the people who received flowers from me did not become lifelong friends of mine, we were able to interact without tension and more civilly. Isn’t that something we can all do with each other?

Peace. We could use more of it. Each of us has the power to take steps to decrease tensions and increase peace. Christmas is a perfect time to offer the gift of peace to everyone you encounter.

Merry Christmas, friends.  Peace be with you.

Thankful for and Giving Thanks

As I viewed the poignant portraiture by Shelby Lee Adams of the people of Appalachia for the umpteenth time, I am reminded of being thankful, of giving thanks, for being alive and the opportunities that brings.

My kin on my dad’s side are from what I describe as the toe-tip of the Appalachians in Mississippi. I have always been in awe of people who have the courage, humility, perseverance and fortitude to face challenges in the quest for a better tomorrow. It was that spirit that has enabled all the McInnis’ of my generation and younger to live lives completely unlike that of our parents and grandparents; we had wants, at times, but never unmet needs.

My middle son visited Appalachia on a mission trip almost 20 years ago. The team worked in the hollers, small valleys between mountains, and my son had many poignant conversations with the people the team was there to serve. The crews helped with home repairs, clean-ups and a variety of other needs that required the limited skills and unlimited energy of service-minded high school students.

I will never forget the hope expressed in one man’s message. He and his family lived in a house of which chickens had free access. From the low position of the holler, he pointed to the higher elevation and the nice homes there. He said, “Someday, my kids will be able to live up there.” Each day’s challenges were part of the quest. Success is not necessarily defined by living away from the hollers though; his dream included it, but maybe not everyone’s dream was thus. As Shelby wrote, “…the most soulful, honest, giving and communicative people often are those living in the rural hollers.”

Robert Fulghum, of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten fame and many other outstanding books, is a pretty famous guy. I recall an interview he cited when someone asked him if he considered himself to be a hero of the Fulghum line. His response was something like, “Absolutely not. I have had opportunities to succeed and do the things I love because of those who came before me. I believe the Fulghum heroes are those from centuries ago who lived in one-room homes with sod roofs and dirt floors and each day committed to making the day better than the one before. Those are the heroes; I am the beneficiary.” I do not remember where I read about the interview, nor do I remember the exact quote, but I will never forget the sentiment.

So, this Thanksgiving I am focused on being thankful for simply being alive. No matter the conditions, others have lived through worse and never lost sight of the chance for better tomorrows. Each day we draw breath is another chance to make a difference, to utilize opportunity for things subtle and profound, and to be soulful, honest, giving and communicative.

Happy and blessed Thanksgiving, my friends. Thank you for being you.

A Look of Love

More than half a century ago, Burt Bacharach and Hal David penned words to the great song, “The Look of Love.” In a recent interaction with strangers in Luckenbach, Texas, I saw what could only be described as “a look of love.”

The opening stanza of the song states,

“The look of love
Is in your eyes
The look your smile can’t disguise
The look of love
Is saying so much more…”

As my wife and I sat at a picnic table, enjoying live country music in the famous venue arranged for social distancing, a woman came by to begin a conversation about Miniature Schnauzers; we had ours with us. As the woman and my wife chatted, a young man came up; he was the woman’s husband.  Maybe it was the beer the woman had enjoyed, maybe it was the way my wife listened gently to the stranger, but the conversation moved well beyond dogs and into a special place. The woman shared that that day was the couple’s anniversary; my wife shared that we were in town for our anniversary, too. The man’s smile broadened as he listened to his wife share. When my wife asked whether the couple had children, the woman’s smile went from one of happiness to that of hiding hurt. The man’s look changed, too, to a “look of love.”

The young man stood, looking downward toward his wife who sat on a picnic table bench as she shared with a stranger the story of their family. They had a couple of kids but had lost another; the latter “anniversary” was just a couple of weeks away. The woman’s tears and tone of voice as she shared with a loving stranger were wrenching; the man’s expression as he watched his wife can only be described as a look of love.

I sat quietly, but felt a strong appreciation for, and respect of, this young utility lineman who had worked two weeks straight on helping the hurricane-hit communities in East Texas and Louisiana regain electric service. His expression, over which he had no control, said, “I love her; I wish I could make her pain go away; I’m glad she has someone to share with.” It said so much more.

I have photographed people, as vocation and avocation, for 47 years; I watch expressions and how they convey emotions and personality. On this evening, while eating BBQ sandwiches and listening to country music, I was blessed with a reminder of how love appears in expressions that arise from within instead of being painted on externally.

I saw in the young man’s expressions on his anniversary evening the feeling of the song’s last four lines, too:

“Now that I have found you
Don’t ever go
Don’t ever go
I love you so”

From others can come affirmations of that which is beautiful, joyful, genuine and loving.

Inter-generational Wisdom

I gained a lot of wisdom from my dad when we fished together, tossed a baseball back and forth, worked under the hood of a car, and in my early adult years, as we simply conversed. All my sons are older now than I was when I lost dad, and we’re scores of miles apart. Wisdom is still shared when we get together, but it sometimes happens in text messages, too.

My sons and I have a group text thread that captures collective exchanges. I suppose that I have a few years’ worth in my phone’s data files. My oldest son has undertaken crafting a wood shop in a shed in his backyard.  He loves woodworking of many types and is creating a place to maximize his interests and talents in a space that is efficient and effective. His tone is rightfully proud and excited as he shares with his brothers and me in the group texts.

After a recent update from him, I replied, “Places of craftsmanship are havens. Ah, I miss my darkroom.”

He replied, “I’d go crazy without them” to which I said, “I understand. It is good that you did not give up on them. They will never give up on you.  A little wisdom from an old man.”

I smiled out of love and nostalgia: love for my sons, of my dad, of the memories and of our relationship.

I recall when my dad had a neighbor build a shed in our backyard so he would have a place to store yard equipment and, more importantly, so he would have a place to convert old metal files and other pieces of steel into knives ranging from tiny to machete. He had surrendered his previous workspace in the garage years before so his son – me – would have a place for a pool table and fun. He was not nearly the craftsman that two of my sons are in workshops, but he loved the haven for the respite that it provided. As an accountant, a cruncher of numbers and a knight for people against the IRS dragon, he used the grinding away of steel into form and edge as a way to grind away the stressors of the work. He was also able to create something tangible.

Long after I am gone, my sons will be in their places of craftsmanship (of various types), and hopefully they will remember the wisdom from their old man who remembered it from watching his old man. “Places of craftsmanship are havens… It is good that you did not give up on them. They will never give up on you.”

Wisdom does not just flow from older to younger.  Not by a long shot.  My sons’ wisdom has come to me in expressions that constituted “out of the mouths of babes,” as well as in poems, conversations, reflections and musings shared in all manner of times and activities throughout their lives. Much of what we shared weaves between the many stories in my book, Daddin’:  The Verb of Being a Dad.

As the book states, it is the moments that matter. In moments, wisdom can be shared. It grows with each passing on to another, and between generations makes it even more important.