Life’s Letters

My wife told me about a letter from her great-grandfather to her grandfather that she is taking to her brother.  What a treasure!  I doubt the author thought of his penned letter as a treasure when he wrote it.  So it is for much, or most, of what we write to friends and family. Correspondence of today is a treasure for generations hence.  What letters do you have?  I got to thinking about that and the box of correspondence that I have been collecting and holding for decades.

I have a box of items, writings and memorabilia that I began to collect when I was nine or so.  Included in the cardboard box – I call it my Wonder Years box for the television show by the same name which represents my era – is pretty much every letter and note I received from friends, most of whom were girls.  Many are taped on the creases for having read them so many times as a coming-of-age boy-to-man. I have a letter or two that my brother wrote me before I was old enough to read and he was in Korea with the Air Force after the war.  I have notes written to me on torn scraps of grocery bags when I worked at Handy Andy grocery store.  There is a lot of growing up in those notes and letters, though I admit to not having opened the box in a decade or more.

I never really thought about why I kept them, but I knew somehow that I should. One of the stories I wrote when I was 12 and poems I wrote in high school appeared in my book Daddin’:  The Verb of Being a Dad.

Perhaps the writings will illuminate ideas for a book (perhaps the one I am working on now about growing up in Houston!). Perhaps someone will reach out to me someday and I ask for them so they can better understand their mother when she was a young woman.  Perhaps they will remain there until I am gone and my sons, granddaughters and grandsons read them to better understand me.  Who knows?  The point is that we don’t need to know why we keep treasures. We never know when personal writings as poetry, letters or stories become a treasure to someone else.

Sadly, the era of text messages and emails have stolen from our collections the writings of friends and family.  Maybe we should be printing many of them and putting in a box for future generations.

Benevolence at the Waffle House

The man walking along the side of the street caught the attention of my wife and me.  The heat index was in the low 100s. The man in black shorts, black shirt and bright fluorescent colored athletic shoes stood out for his attire, and his ink work.  He was bald, and all of his scalp was tattooed; tats appeared on his arms and legs. It was hard to note any details as we drove by, but he definitely caught our attention. Minutes later, we would catch a more close view of the inkwork and the man; we would also see benevolence in action.

We were in the neighborhood of the church we attended in the past when we lived south of Houston.  We would often go to the Waffle House near the church after Mass.  Since we were in the area again, we decided to stop by for lunch. What we were about to witness spoke to “love thy neighbor” as much as any homily could have.

The man in black took a seat at the end of the counter. The manager asked the man what he wanted.  Barely audible, the customer asked for a glass of water.  “I don’t have any money, but water would be good.”  Even less audible than the customer, the manager said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” A waitress brought the man a sandwich – grilled cheese, I think it was – to go with his water.  While he was waiting for the sandwich, he wrote. And wrote. He made his notes on a piece of paper that reminded me of a mini-scroll, about three times as long as it was wide. The manager spent time with the customer, who showed the benevolent manager some of what he had written. Their conversation continued.

As I watched the interactions, I thought of this past Sunday’s homily about the Good Samaritan. The manager provided the man comfort and sustenance on a horrifically hot day; he also provided the man attention, respect and listening.

There were only a few customers in the restaurant that day. I am not sure how many paid attention to what was happening at the end of the counter.  Benevolence and love was served at the Waffle House that day.

Instructions for Life

I watched an online video for visual instructions on how to install quick-hitch attachments on my tractor. I learned some about installing them, but I learned more about what usually happens in life when people want guidance and help with challenges.

The two men in the video were standing at the rear of the tractor and discussing how to install the attachments. The parts and the cardboard box they came in were laid out on the ground. The men discussed how the parts likely fit and the ways the roll pins would resolve part of the installation challenge. They discussed options, each sharing information that seemed to be a mix of previous experience and speculation. As I listened and watched, my attention moved from the tractor and the adapters at the end of the lift arms to the paper flapping in the breeze. As they considered and speculated, the paper flapped as one end was weighted down with one of the parts. As they experimented and discussed, the instructions flapped for attention.

While it might be humorous to make a gender joke about men not reading instructions, the joke is actually on all of us. If we breathe, we are guilty of tackling challenges in life – both big and small, critical and inconsequential – without referring to knowledge, wisdom, instructions and guidance that are readily available, and I don’t mean on the internet.

Every step of the way on our life’s journey, we have been able to pick up knowledge, wisdom, instructions and guidance, either from our mistakes and successes, or from those we encounter. We try, and we learn; we miss our goal, and we learn; we watch others, and we learn; we ask others, and we learn; we listen to others, and we learn. We have knowledge, wisdom, instructions and guidance in us that we have picked up along the way, and we have access to people who can help.

While online videos can be useful when trying to learn something, I think we are missing much by not calling someone or asking a family member or neighbor to show us how to do something.  There is much more to be gained than just instructions when we get learn from a living, breathing teacher, guide or mentor.

The previous paragraph may sound like a contradiction to my original premise.  After all, the men were seeking guidance from each other, and that can be a good thing, for the conversation if not anything else. What they missed amidst the conversation was the information they sought. And that’s my point: we have what we need to face challenges; to find joy, happiness, faith, courage and success; and, to seek solutions by asking the right questions, because of the life we’ve lived, not despite it.  Don’t ignore what you have while searching for what you think you need.

My Sons’ Lessons to Me in Word and Deed…and how they apply to you

I’ve always said that my sons are my heroes, my friends and often times they are my teachers. In a recent conversation with my oldest, he shared a profound insight and perspective that I also see carried out in his life, and in the lives of his two brothers.  Once again, I am impressed, inspired and informed by his message about something big in life:  getting stuff done. Real stuff.  Important stuff. Life stuff.

When he shared it as we stood out in the cold, I thought, “Man, this is a TED talk that everyone should hear.” And it is.  But at that moment, he had an audience of one and I don’t know if he has been nominated yet for a TED experience.

Almost 15 years ago I wrote about a similar topic in my book, Listen to Life:  Wisdom in Life’s Stories in the story Dreaming Isn’t Working.  My message was that one can’t dream about peace (or anything else, for that matter); one has to work at goals, dreams and visions. The fact of the matter is that I lost much of my energy, commitment and fortitude for that and had noted recently in my journal that one of the most dangerous thoughts is “I want to…” as in when someone may say “I want to (get a new job) (have a loving relationship) (make a million dollars).” Wanting it can bring us false comfort as if we are working towards the goal. I wrote that two days before my son shared his message.

He talked about the story of the Little Red Hen who wanted bread and proceeded to do all the work to have it. You know the story; everyone else wanted some but they weren’t willing to do the work. He referred to his second language – German – and took a bit of turn about things coming into existence because they are willed into existence … through work, effort, knowledge and exertion things are willed into reality.  Whether it is bread, life changes or anything else to be made, there must be the effort to will it into reality through effort and commitment.  (His version is great.  You ought to hire him for a motivational presentation.)

As I took in his message, I realized how much I needed that reminder and encouragement, though he wasn’t telling me to encourage me; he was simply sharing a speech he had recently given. As with most of my sons’ educational moments teaching their dad, they usually are not setting out to teach their old man; they, too, are simply sharing.  I listen and I learn.  And I watch.

My other two sons provide evidence of their older brother’s message; I am pretty sure they have not heard his speech though.  All three just know in their hearts and souls that change only comes with effort in order to bring it into existence with the will to take action. I only need to watch the actions of all three to see the important reminder that change comes from effort, not from “wanting” or “dreaming about.” I see what they have done in their jobs, career paths, projects, relationships and family lives. They don’t blame others for life’s challenges; they accept responsibility; they put in time and effort to make things different or better than they are; and, they appreciate that outcomes are a result of effort.  If they see how they want things to be different than they are, they commit themselves to the goals, the purpose and the results. Their senses of purpose and values underpin all their decisions.

I learn a lot from them, and thought you might appreciate these lessons, too, if you’re trying to get stuff done.  Real stuff.  Important stuff.  Life stuff.

An Easter message … you are loved

(I don’t have an editorial calendar for my newsletter and blog . I send them out when I feel like my audiences’ needs and a message I have are in synch. For this weekend, I considered something new but decided to re-present this one from 12 years ago.)

I took a nap on Saturday, the day before Easter, and had a dream.  I’m not one to remember dreams, nor do I put as much stake in them as some of my inspirations did, such as Edward Weston.  Saturday’s dream, borne in the sleep of exhaustion (mental, emotional and physical), provoked me, unburdened me and relaxed me with a message not unlike the day to follow:  Easter.  I believe, however, that part of listening to life is listening to any and all messages that are available.  This one was truly overwhelming.

In the dream, I walked away from a gathering, judging from the background noise, and to a car in the driveway.  I was alone and moved to the car to lean against it, hoping for it to support me and my thoughts.  The sky was blue and was also reflected in the glass of the driver’s side window.  I crossed my arms over the edge of the car’s roof, looked at the glass one more time and then leaned forward in surrender, placing my forehead on my arms.  I recall wondering what to do, when I would be more in control of my life’s direction and a dozen other questions that raced in my head.  My dad appeared at my side (he died almost 25 years ago) and I began to cry.  I choked on my thoughts and was only able to say, “I’ve got a question or two for you in just a minute.”  Before I could gather myself enough to ask, he kissed me on the top of my head and disappeared.  Tears again flowed.  And I awoke.

The tears were not dream tears.  My face was wet and a puddle of salt water had collected in my CPAP breathing mask, and they ran out when I turned on the pillow.  I longed to get back to the dream, but simply lay there and felt the tears empty with new tears following them.

When I turned over in bed, I was not sad, but confident that, no matter what, I was not forsaken.  The feeling was similar the next day, Easter, as I sat in church and sent my prayers forward in hope.

No matter where you are in life and how life is treating you, you are not alone.  You have your God, those near you and those who have passed before you.  And while you can’t always hear the answers to your questions and prayers, there is love and support there for you.

Happy Easter, my friends.

Helping Them Achieve Their Dreams by Remembering Your Own

The letter is about 50 years old and is addressed to “‘Pro’ Fisherman.”  That was her sending a letter to me though she couldn’t remember my name.  It was also an indication of a love that I clearly bore for fishing, and, I’d like to think, a talent that I exhibited for it, too.  I thought of that letter differently as last month I watched my youngest son on a nationally televised fishing show. He represented his employer, and out fished the experts.  I remember when he had the dream of being a professional fisherman.  I believe that I was better able to help him achieve his dream by remembering my own.

Years ago, I first presented my topic, “Helping Them Achieve Their Dreams by Remembering Your Own.”  Intended for parents, teachers, coaches, etc., the topic strives to help others remember their dreams, their hopes, the challenges and the joys along the way.  There are multiple routes in pursuit of a dream.  While my son’s goal a dozen years ago was to be a fisherman, with a little encouragement and guidance he was able to see that he could be associated with what he loved without doing exactly it.  His career is well on its way in the recreational marine world, and along the way he has had some amazing fishing trips without the hassles of dealing with the variety of customers that guides get stuck with.  In his words, he’s “living the dream.”

I could relate stories of my other two sons and dreams they had, and how they have been able to tap into them in different ways throughout their lives.  The first step is having dreams. The worst step is to quash or diminish the dreams of others. My oldest wanted to be a fisherman, writer and teller of tales.  All three are firmly woven into the pattern of his life now. My middle son has dreamed of adventures all  his life, and he has enjoyed many in his own life, from climbing the Continental Divide to diving to reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. For all three of the boys, there are many dreams yet to be had and to be enjoyed.

My sons have had much more adventurous and exciting lives than I had at their ages.  And that’s okay.  I had my own kind of journey based on my own dreams.  But, by remembering my own, I am better able to encourage theirs and relish the joy of witnessing them in pursuit of their dreams.  We can call do that for each other – parents to kids, leaders to team members, teachers to students, friends to friends and people to people.

Remember when … for context and perspective

Remembering when

 

I was talking to my friend Jim, checking on how he was feeling after knee surgery.  He had been struggling with pain – something that he “put in its box” to deal with it – for two years. He was only a few days post-surgery when we talked about how he felt and how he hoped to feel soon.

He often says wise things as a matter of course in conversation. One of his comments on this occasion has been rattling around in my head ever since.  Speaking of the pain he had, and hoping for pain relief once healed, Jim said, “I don’t remember not feeling this way.” He went on to elaborate, but those seven words reveal much about how we lose context, perspective and opportunity in life when we can’t remember life any other way that it has been “recently.”

One of the outcomes of my LIFElines book and workshops is to help provide a higher-level look at life that provides views otherwise unseen.  Jim’s comment verified the importance of such a view.

Some people face a downturn in life after years or decades of good health, strong finances, secure relationships etc., with fear, panic or depression.  They have forgotten that life has peaks and valleys, ebbs and flows, yin and yang. Some people feel trapped in negative situations because they’ve forgotten that they ever had a life without disease, abuse, sadness, loneliness, etc.  The right viewpoint reminds us of the context and perspective needed for the humility, courage, optimism and strength to maintain joy and happiness in life’s complicated journey.

No matter your situation, it has not always been that way, nor will it be.