On Accepting the Challenge

A mile into my four-mile run, another runner turned onto the road, a few hundred feet in front of me.

It was a gorgeous summer day, I’d finished my chores, and I was ready to enjoy a leisurely run through the pastoral landscape of our new hometown. When we lived in the District, my runs generally consisted of six half-mile circles through our townhouse development. It was monotonous, but safe and predictable. Since our move to a lovely, rural exurb, I’ve enjoyed more rambling runs through small neighborhoods, along country roads, and around the small downtown haunts. While running has always been a chore I’ve only half-heartedly embraced, I’ve recently found myself actually enjoying it. I’m still slow as Christmas, but at least I have a smile on my face. Or at least a smiling grimace.

I don’t know why it all changed on this day. It could have been the fast tempo of the music playing on my iPod. It could have been the great night’s sleep I’d had. Or it could have been the natural competitive juices that have made me a slightly above average Clue and Battleship board game player. Whatever the reason, as the other runner entered my field of vision, it was obvious to me that the alternating flash of the runner’s heels was a not-so-subtle rebuke of my running style and speed. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and I accepted the challenge. I would overtake this new-found adversary, and my Saucony running shoes would leave nothing but a trail of tears and a cloud of dust in my victorious wake.

I picked up the pace, the cadence of my footfalls perfectly in synch with the pop song currently blasting in my ears. I turned up the volume. Shoulders back, foot kick crisp, breathing controlled. I was picking up speed, and the other runner was looming larger in my vision with every step. It was one of those steps, as my foot kicked perfectly in advance of a balanced heel strike, that I realized I was actually wearing my old running shoes. The realization of inferior equipment — worn soles, diminished heel support — would have affected a lesser runner. Not me. Not this day. The challenge had been accepted, and, as I had recently reminded myself, I believed in the mantra that there are no shortcuts to excellence. This day wasn’t about the equipment, it was about the man. And, with that, I persisted.

It wasn’t long — perhaps a few more pop songs, a dash past the local Subway and McDonalds — before my adversary nemesis was right in front of me. It wasn’t difficult to pick up my speed, and smoothly pass on the left. I didn’t glance over, I didn’t acknowledge. Rather, I just let my running do the talking. I left it all on the sidewalk, so to speak. Had my manhood been tested? My mettle? Yes. The point wasn’t the fact that I succeeded in overtaking and leaving my nemesis in the dust; rather, it was that I accepted the challenge to do so in the first place.

Now, Negative Nancys out there would point out that my nemesis was a heavily pregnant woman in her early 30s wearing knee braces on both legs. But I’m not a Negative Nancy. I’m also a firm believer in gender equality, and I’m not about to insinuate that, somehow, someway, I had any advantage. I’m not going to disrespect her like that. Besides, winners don’t make excuses. And I’m a winner.

On Deep Waters

I first encountered Bob in junior high. He was an English teacher, and, although I never had him in class, I distinctly recall his smile. I would discover that his wife had been my first grade teacher, and, in later years, I would occasionally encounter Bob and his wife at my best friend’s house, as the families were close. I always enjoyed seeing them, and I always noted his smile. He always struck me as a jolly fellow. And, so, when I learned a few days ago that he had taken his own life after suffering from severe depression, the reality stood in stark contrast to my image of him.

***

When the Chief Judge asked me to stop by his office before I left for the day, I didn’t think anything of it. I worked closely with him, and I knew he respected my work. It was 2007, and, while things at home had been utterly abysmal, my career was beginning to take off. When I stopped by on my way out, though, the look on his face betrayed that it wasn’t a work matter. “I have to ask; if I didn’t, I’d kick myself,” he started. “Is everything okay? You really haven’t been yourself lately.”

Inside the following seconds, I realized that my home life drama was unintentionally spilling over into my work life. My months-long effort to hide any trace of the fact that I was dealing with my then-partner’s confession of a lengthy affair had been far less successful than I had imagined. Who else knew? How does he know? What have I done wrong at work? I wrestled with those questions and more, all while trying to maintain a blank expression that wouldn’t further confess my suffering. “Really? Huh. Everything’s fine. Maybe I’ve been going at it too hard. Sorry about that,” I replied, or something to that effect. Honestly, he didn’t seem too convinced, but I think he was wise enough to play along, knowing he had expressed his concern and opened a door that I could walk through anytime I wanted. We exchanged some more pleasantries, surely, and I walked out to my car, upset at myself for not being able to handle everything privately and even more upset that my partner had caused yet more disturbance in my life.

***

Seven years after that moment in the Chief Judge’s office (and six years after I transferred out of that office), I stood at the end of a long hallway in a conference hotel. There to present on some legal issue or another, I found myself frozen, as I spied the Chief Judge twenty yards from me, his unmistakable silver hair and trademark plaid shirt giving himself away. He couldn’t see me, but I was instantly transported back in time to that moment in his office. The moment he had seen right through me and reached out in concern. My instinct was to go up to him and admit my subterfuge, to tell him that he had been right, to let him know that I was dealing was some really awful stuff all those years ago, and to acknowledge that his small kindness of checking on me had always stayed with me. For him, perhaps, it had simply been a friendly inquiry. For me, I would tell him, it was a wake up call, as well as a reminder of the power of simply caring enough to ask, genuinely, how someone is doing. I wanted to say all that to him, right there in the conference hotel, between the long lectures, complimentary hotel mints, and bored attendees. But I couldn’t. Despite my best intentions to come clean, I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to go back to that time and place, even it was just to acknowledge it. I took the easy way out, lurked in the shadows behind him, and dodged any interaction. He deserved more.

***

In partial repayment for the Chief Judge’s kindness, I’ve found myself relaying that story more than once to colleagues and subordinates over the years, as we chat across my desk. That brief moment taught me that I want to be the kind of coworker that genuinely cares about the folks that work with him. More importantly, though, it taught me that everyone carries around their pain, no matter how well they hide it. It’s made me more sympathetic and empathetic when I encounter folks in my life that are, obviously, having a bad day. A bad week. A bad month. I’ve been there, and I know that, try as we might, we can’t always slap on a happy face and pretend bad stuff isn’t happening.

Over the past few days, I’ve come back to those lessons as I think about Bob. This jovial, gregarious person in my mind, gripped by something unreachable, despite all the Chief Judges in the world.  We never truly know the burdens those around us carry; our snap judgements, for good and ill, can’t do justice to the deeper waters running through all of us. It’s a reality that counsels love, kindness, and forgiveness, not in a sappy greeting card way, but rather with the wisdom and humility to recognize the complex fragility of life.

On Barbie and Ken

In comedian Sarah Silverman’s hilarious new special, she riffs on the unattainable example of Barbie’s body and the impact on the little girls who play with Barbie dolls. It’s not a new criticism of the dolls, but it is interesting (and funny) to consider that Barbie is unable to wear anything but high-heeled shoes, along with myriad other body-morphing proportions. It certainly isn’t unreasonable to assert that a barrage of such images throughout a young girl’s childhood communicates a message that, at minimum, isn’t body-positive.

But what about Ken?

I never played with Ken dolls, although I’m sure my sister had a few. My toy chest contained an assortment of GI Joes, Star Wars figurines, and He-Man action figures. Come to think of it, despite my efforts to exercise several times per week, my body isn’t even close to resembling the buff, chiseled figure that He-Man himself cut. No one is confusing me for a military assassin, ala GI Joe. I’m certainly no Star Wars Jedi, although perhaps a little more back hair would allow me to pass as Chewbacca. The point is: my toys presented a version of masculinity that I have, on almost every conceivable level, failed to attain. Sure, memory fades, but I know none of my toys resembled the stocky, 41 year old, orthotic-wearing, hair-thinning “specimen” I’ve grown (devolved) into today.

Taking my head out of my toy chest, my failures only multiply. My childhood room was wall-papered with posters of Michael Jordan, but my lone year of organized basketball in 5th grade stands as a sad testimonial to the fact that the power of positive thinking isn’t always that powerful. As I grew older, my bookshelves contained examples of great minds, but my pedestrian intellect once again falls short.

At almost every turn, I’ve fallen short of the toys, heroes, and role models I surrounded myself with. Way short. And that’s not a rebuke to those that level fair criticism at Barbie dolls. It’s true that women have lived and to a very large degree still live in a sexist culture where their looks are prized over their intellect, character, achievement, and spirit. That is wrong, and it makes the criticism of Barbie dolls an important point to make. That said, it’s also important to point out that things, be they dolls or action figures or sports heroes, only have the power that we grant them. Try as I might, I was most likely genetically predestined to fall very short of Michael Jordan’s basketball example, but my fascination with his athleticism and will to win opened up a sport to me that at every stage of my life, whether playing or not, has brought me joy.

I imagine most of us, especially when we are young, wile away the hours dreaming of being beautiful or brilliant or strong or funny or adventurous to such a degree that the world has never known, yet all but the most lucky few never reach those great heights. In fact, it’s been said that it is that very instinct — to be more than we are — that is the essence of humanity. These dreams, these fantasies, can inspire and animate our lives, but they can also teach us the hard but valuable lesson that falling short, but not being defeated in the process, is an essential part of the human condition.

On a Maiden’s Mother’s Day

“Good morning,” Pastor Don beamed. “God bless us as we gather this beautiful May day.”

Sarah Jennings sat in her usual row at Second Calvary Church in Stop, Colorado. She wore a blue dress with roses sewn around the collar. Close inspection of the roses would have revealed she had worn the dress many Sundays over the years, but, at a distance, Sarah was prim, pressed, and presentable. Her matching purse and red leather Bible sat comfortably at her side.

The congregation at Second Calvary Church always seemed a little brighter, a little cheerier on Mother’s Day, eager to witness the traditional bestowing of lilies on the oldest mother, the youngest mother, the mother of the most children, and the mother that had traveled the farthest to church that day. In Stop, Colorado, population 10,000, there was rarely a surprise winner, and this year would be no different.

Sarah smiled as Ms. Fanny Lucille claimed her now annual lilies for oldest mother. At 91, Ms. Lucille had claimed the title of oldest mother for ten years in a row, and absent another pneumonia scare, she had little competition. Ms. Lucille grabbed her lilies so eagerly it would have surprised many in the congregation, including Sarah, that Ms. Lucille had not seen her children for over a decade.

Sarah watched with obvious interest as her friend Betsy Pluff stood up as the youngest mother in the congregation. At just five weeks old, Betsy’s daughter was the newest addition to Second Calvary Church. Sarah noted the obvious fatigue in her friend’s face, and she accurately surmised that Betsy’s daughter was not allowing her to get much sleep. Sarah could not have imagined, though, that Betsy’s restlessness was, in part, guilt over the knowledge that she despised everything about motherhood, as well as her husband.

Trudy Caruthers smoothed her wool skirt purposefully, before she stood to accept her lilies as the mother of the most children. Sarah Jennings could only sit in amazement, wondering how the pint-sized dynamo of Trudy Caruthers had given birth to 14 children before age 35. To Sarah, it was an embarrassment of riches; riches that needed no lilies to announce to the world the cascade of blessings that had been bestowed on Trudy Caruthers’ home. A future look back at the weekly bulletins from Second Calvary Church would never record, however, that Trudy Caruthers cared far more for the attention for birthing children than for the task of actually raising or loving them.

It was the story of Kim Su that touched Sarah the most, though. Sitting in her pew, listening to how Kim had flown from South Korea that week to visit her daughter, that was when Sarah felt the emptiness. The longing that, most of her days, consumed her thoughts and animated her fervent prayers. Why had she never been allowed to experience the love that was so obviously all around her? Where was her child? Sarah Jennings ached to feel a connection so strong that it would take someone halfway around the globe just to be in the presence of a loved one. She did not, however, contemplate the strength of the need to apologize for years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a spouse that went unstopped by a helpless mother, as Kim Su did.

As the last of the lilies was passed down the aisle, passing from hand to hand, past Sarah Jennings, the congregation bowed in prayer. Pastor Don prattled on, the organ accompanied him, and the congregation smiled. Fanny Lucille, Betsy Pluff, Trudy Caruthers, and Kim Su’s hands clutched their flowers.

Sarah Jennings’ flowerless hands clung to her red leather Bible, praying for forgiveness of the sins that made her unworthy to be a mother.

On That Last Voicemail

The voicemail is dated September 24, 2016. It’s exactly thirty-three seconds long, and it’s from my grandmother. She died in January. I still haven’t listened to it.

And I’m not sure why.

I don’t mourn my grandmother with weepy emotion. Her death has not caused me great anxiety or to lose sleep. Yet she flits around the margins of my thoughts frequently. I wonder how my mom is doing. I guess as to what will become of her home. I ponder what my grandmother really thought of her life, and I hope she thought I was a good grandson.

Listening to her voicemail won’t answer any of those questions, though. I am entirely certain the message is a “thank you” for some flowers or card I sent. A routine call from my grandmother. So routine that, for all my care and concern, I felt safe not listening to it. I’d be embarrassed if she knew that. That I could take it for granted so easily.

Perhaps a part of me fears that the message will be a request to call her back. Maybe she wanted to hear the voice of one of her grandchildren, scattered away from her hometown as they were. And maybe, just maybe, that sweet request will cut right through me. Maybe I had to charge my iPod. Or watch a funny youtube video. Or organize my socks. I was just too busy to answer the phone that day. It’s typical and innocent and awful and ugly and sad, all rolled into one.

Then again, maybe my grandmother had the wisdom to not read too much into any one thing. Maybe that’s the great gift of the accumulation of years, to understand that our love is not measured in the moment but over time. Maybe she knew that. And maybe her call was just the slow, steady paddling of her love, always rowing in my direction. Doing her best, the best she knew how.

I know I’m making something out of nothing. A moment can be just that: a moment. Not imbued with high import or meaning. It’s just a voicemail. Of my grandmother’s voice.  Sitting on my iPhone. Waiting. And whatever she says, only my heart will be affected. She’s not there to call back.

I’m not waiting for some special moment to listen to it. I don’t feel like I’m keeping her spirit alive by not listening to it. It’s not some B-movie plot, a MacGuffin to spur blog entries. But, whatever it is and for whatever reason I’m keeping it, I can’t manage to hit play. It doesn’t feel like denial. It just…is.

If we knew with scientific accuracy how love and death work, life would be the poorer for it. I think both scramble up our hearts, and we spend years trying to make sense of it all. And maybe I’m just not ready to make sense of my grandmother just yet. Maybe I’m not ready to solve the puzzle, to finalize my theory on how and why she lived. Maybe keeping the final piece just out of reach, as benign as it may be, relieves me from having to do that. Not denial per se, but a prolonged break from the task of figuring out what the hell it all means in the end.

It will be a random Thursday afternoon. I’ll probably have just enjoyed a snack, maybe I’ll be watching rain clouds out my office window. I’ll look at my phone, see the voicemail, and hit play. Thirty-three seconds will pass. Tucked away far in the back of my heart, in a private chamber, a tiny tumbler will drop one last time. I won’t have solved the riddle of love or life and death in that moment, but it’ll be enough to just cherish the memories of her.

A Eulogy For My Grandmother

[Author’s Note: Following are the remarks I made at my grandmother’s funeral.]

When I think of my grandmother, “B,” I think of many things:

  • Her home’s green shag carpet that’s been around so long it’s actually back in style,
  • Family dinners that always came with sides of deviled eggs and rolled bananas, and
  • Christmas ornaments that may or may not have been around at the founding of our country.

Over the last few days, though, my mind keeps pulling back to a random day in high school when I wandered into Lic’s Ice Cream. B worked there for a few years. That day, when I walked in, she saw me, gave me a great big smile, and, without asking, went about getting me a bowl of chili and a pimento cheese sandwich. She got me seated at the counter, made sure my lunch was just right, kept checking on me while she worked, and paid for my meal. Now, if you knew my grandmother, you know she did not spend money at restaurants easily, so it was no small thing for her to buy my meal. I’m sure I got a big hug and kiss before I left.

A grandmother showing love, caring, and kindness to a grandson is not big news. Maybe it’s even pretty ordinary. But I keep coming back to the simplicity of that moment, and its lessons, and I wonder if something essential about B is locked inside.

Fifty years ago, my grandmother lost the love of her life much too soon. The loss was profound and obviously permanent; an event that even those that would come along years later, like myself, would understand echoed through the decades.

Life carried on, though. Her three children grew and thrived, four grandchildren followed, and now five great-grandchildren. She worked outside of the home, was active in church and social groups, and had wonderful friends, many of whom are here today. Still, I always knew that the script my grandmother had written for her life had been changed, and dealing with that loss was the great test of my grandmother’s life.

In our society, we talk a lot about love: great romances, dream weddings, the love of a child, but we don’t spend much time acknowledging that, to love someone, to truly love someone, you open yourself up to great loss and hurt. For the lucky, those great losses and hurts are few and far between and come after many decades of happiness. My grandmother’s life stands as evidence that those great losses and hurts can come much sooner than expected.  More importantly, though, her life stands for carrying on, in the best way that we can, finding and sharing happiness when and where we can.

In her own way, to the best of her ability, my grandmother did that. And that is what I will remember about her life. The love she planned on did not last as many days as she wanted, but she still found ways to touch the lives of so many people, in so many different ways. Even in the simple act of making sure her grandson had a good meal.

The last time I shared a meal with my grandmother was this past summer. I left our breakfast together that June morning to attend a wedding. It was not lost on me as I drove away that I was going to celebrate a love that B didn’t get to enjoy for as many years as she surely wanted. I’m not sure if my grandfather is waiting for her on some ethereal plane, but, for her strength to carry on as she did, for the small but wonderful acts of love she shared, I certainly hope he is.

On Photosynthesis

Mr. Smith’s seventh grade biology classroom was pregnant with the smell of rats, snakes, and fish, but surely the worst odor emanated from the dozens of adolescents in plastic, multicolor chairs. The floor was institutional grey tile, and the pale green walls did little to jazz up the look or add pizzazz to Mr. Smith’s lectures. Still, I remember finding the salamanders enchanting and the thrilling prickliness of the tarantula’s legs as it would slowly walk up and over your nervous hands.

As a school building of some age, my junior high enjoyed old, plate glass windows, and, while Mr. Smith droned on about the beauty of photosynthesis, I often found myself gazing out the window to the local cemetery that abutted the school’s property. In almost every way, the cemetery was unremarkable: a tidy small town cemetery with gently rolling hills, grey headstones for Smith, Thomas, and Johnson, and a smattering of flowers and other tokens of affection. As a 13 year old, I didn’t understand death or really have any conception of it, but, in hindsight, I enjoy the irony that my distraction from learning about life in biology class was to tombstone watch the local graveyard.

A little more than a quarter century later, I found myself in that graveyard, looking up at my seventh grade biology classroom window, listening to a minister drone on about life and death and God and other bromides that were reaching me with the impact of Mr. Smith’s photosynthesis lectures. Now, the prickly tarantula’s legs were replaced with the softly stinging realization that I was studying death. And it wasn’t a gaggle of pimply teens staring at a spotted salamander in a stinky aquarium, but a gathering of friends and family around my grandmother’s casket.

I’d like to imagine that the 13-year-old me could look out that classroom window and see the 40-year-old me, in some weird and wonderful disturbance in the fabric of space and time. If I could see him, and if I could talk to him, I’d tell him that Mr. Smith has more to offer than he realizes, but, every time he says the word “sun,” replace it with the word “love.” And, when my 13-year-old self laughed or made a sarcastic remark, I would tell him that, one day, as you stand in the back of the funeral home and see friends and family and strangers and neighbors from thirty years ago walk in, you will understand that love is the light that makes everything grow.