Aug 262012
 

 

Tomorrow morning you will begin a chapter in your life beyond my understanding. I could not be more proud—more in awe—than I am. You have worked diligently to arrive at this moment, and in that journey I have witnessed in you a sense of purpose, dedication and joy, the depths of which astound me. The strength you have called upon to arrive here is inspiring.
The journey you and your cohorts from Teach For America will embark upon is courageous, important…and overwhelming. Last week. Andrew said that, while his task is to teach middle school science, his goal is nothing short of breaking the cycle of poverty. Millions have tried, and poverty still persists. But try we must, and I am thankful for the 5000 TFA corps members who will begin this year to help ensure that an excellent education be available to every child. I believe it was the theologian Frederick Buechner who first wrote that vocation is where our great joy meets the world’s great need. From what I witnessed last week in Baltimore, you and your cohorts have found that vocation.
As you begin, I know there will be moments of overwhelm…many times you will be tempted to use the word failure to describe a time spent with your students. But remember this; no act of love and caring ever deserves such a moniker.
As you move into the coming days, weeks and months, life will hand you crises…times in which you may feel lost, confused and even alone. You have the strength, wisdom and creativity to overcome the loss and confusion, and you have friends surrounding you to help you feel less alone. Your Mother and I are here, and we believe in you with every ounce of our being.
I once told you of the time when I was in high school and a huge banner of Snoopy hung in our church. He was smiling and leaping into the air; the inscription below said “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God on Earth.” If that is true, than the joy I feel at this moment for having you in my life, is that most infallible sign.
Go get ‘em Pumpkin…the world awaits your great joy.
Aug 202012
 

 

Today, as I begin the second year of my seventh decade—with kind and generous missives filling my microscopic corner of Cyberspace—I struggle to understand the clash of gratitude and sadness with which I sit.
A few hours ago, Judi and I left “Charm City”, the place our daughter has taken up residence for two years following her tenure at Illinois Wesleyan University. If you are unaware, as I was until three days ago, CharmCity is a moniker pinned upon the city of Baltimore, Maryland as an unintended consequence of marketing promotion in the early 1970s.
As I sit in the lobby of the hotel that marks the half-way point of our journey home, the clash of emotions I struggle to understand emanate from a few brief moments gifted to me by Kathryn and her fellow Teach For America corps members. This is an amazing group with whom she will share uncountable moments of laughter and joy, spawned by days marked by success; and perhaps just as many tinged by and tears and heartbreak as a result of best efforts that fall just short of their extraordinary dreams.
Just 23 years ago, Wendy Kopp proposed the idea for Teach For America in her Princeton University undergraduate thesis. Since then, nearly 33,000 participants have reached more than 3 million children nationwide with a simple but ennobling vision for America: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”
To meet members of the 2012 corps, you cannot help but recognize them as cohorts in education. But in meeting them, you would expect them to be headed for the halls of America’s best graduate schools—not the hallways and classrooms of the nation’s most lost and neglected elementary and high schools. These amazing young adults are bright, articulate and determined. But what truly sets them apart is their incredible passion for what they are about to undertake. As we sat at breakfast yesterday morning, Andrew, who is headed for an underprivileged middle school science classroom, explained that while science is his medium, his goal is nothing less than “to break the cycle of poverty in America.” This was not the sentiment of one isolated member of this corps; it is shared by more than 5000 of his cohorts stationed across the United States, waiting for their moment to begin.
In order to have this opportunity to change the lives of those so often lost, these newly minted graduates have been through extraordinary preparation: a difficult selection process, challenging praxis exams and a grueling 5-week program to draw out their natural ability to help those around them discover the intricacies and importance of the subjects they have chosen.
Just after I woke this morning, my phone buzzed, indicating another birthday wish had fallen from Cyberspace; this one from a new friend on Facebook. Ironically, this message was from a former student, from the days in the late 1970s when I taught high school math, coincidently not too many hours from Charm City.
It is from this message, and my three days with Kathryn and her friends, that the tangle of emotions arises. I know intimately those moments of extraordinary joy when you look into—and through—the eyes of a young protégé and suddenly understand the wonders and intricacies of the Universe in a nuanced new way. While the word was not used this past weekend, it is in those moments we truly understand what it means to love.
What I cannot know, what I may never know, is the sadness they will experience…sadness seeded by the depth of their dreams, and their hopes for their students and the world. When I began teaching, I did not even know such dreams were possible.
When what we want for this world is informed by the depth of our greatest passions and animated by our uninhibited generosity, the inevitable setbacks, no matter how small, tear deeply into our very being. It is that deep pain that is the price we pay for love.

 

Aug 152012
 

 

I have been reading Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love the Life You Have, a wonderful new book by a favorite author, James Autry. He penned an essay entitled “To Serve & Protect” in which he speaks of the difficulties of the honorable profession of being a police officer. In my work related to suicide prevention I have come to learn, as a group, they face one of the highest suicide rates of any profession…the reasons are numerous and complex. In 2007 and 2008, the City of Batavia lost two officers to suicide. Below are words I discovered to honor them.
 
It’s too late to thank Mike Rappley and Carl Ensign, members of the Batavia Police Department, who, for reasons we will never fully understand, found their lives so unbearable that they chose to end them.
In the wake of their deaths, I have been thinking about ways I silently mistreat the men and women whose lives revolve around the simple pledge to “serve and protect.” In fulfilling this sacred oath, they often find themselves in the position of interrupting the normal flow of life—stopping me for a violation or redirecting a trip home to deliver me safely past an accident or construction project. And when that interruption impacts my life, they are too often the recipients of my frustration and anger.
Years ago, I spent time with an officer in his patrol car. In those hours, there wasn’t an opportunity for anyone to affirm him for his work. In fact, since his time was spent inserting himself between the lawful and unlawful sides of our society—facing only the unlawful side—I couldn’t imagine when a kind word or a simple thank you would be part of his job. These servants typically face only danger, sadness and criticism. They halt dangerous practices in the community, end domestic disputes and wake us in the middle of the night when a loved one is lost to one of life’s many tragedies. We have even come to rely on them to resolve neighborhood disagreements we have become too timid to face personally.
The word respect is based on a root that means to look. Re-spect means to “look again.” We respect another when we take off our blinders—reflect on our biases and limited interpretations of life—and look with fresh eyes at who they really are. Since Carl’s death, I have been trying to show my respect for the men and women of the Batavia Police Department by looking again at the many things they do to make this community a safe and magnificent place to live.
So, to every member of the Department, even if you cannot see it next time I pass you on the street, know that I will be saluting you for all you do. Thank you.
 
Post Script…to this day, four years later, I still salute every police officer I encounter.
Aug 122012
 
      “Truth never happens in real time.” Those are the first few words in the book “Sacrament of Fear” written by an old friend, Will Dresser. The moment I read them, they captured a profundity I did not completely understand. Perhaps I do now, if even just a little.
On July 28, I rode the final leg of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa—affectionately known as RAGBRAI. RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world. This was the 40th annual trek, and 10,000 riders registered for the 7-day adventure. Additional souls can ride any segment, so, on July 28, there were somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 riders who peddled from Anamosa to Clinton—across the beautiful, rolling farmlands of eastern Iowa.
I left Anamosa at 7:15 a.m., and for the next five and a half hours, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of bicycles were captured between the west and east horizons of my world. It was amazing. I have never experienced anything like it in my life.
I will admit my euphoria ebbed and flowed as I rode. There were times every muscle ached. Due to the dearth of natural padding in the nether regions of my backside, I wondered if I might have a “dead end” before reaching the final miles into Clinton. Even though each of the small towns along the route offered refreshments, music and warm welcomes, I took only two short breaks. I feared if I stopped longer, I’d never convince my tender derrière to return to its rightful position saddled atop my metallic steed.
Arriving in Clinton, I felt a bit of a fraud. Lining the streets for the last several miles were thousands of local families, sitting on the front lawns, waving flags and signs, cheering us all on. “You’re doing great!” “Congratulations!” “Well done!” They were yelling primarily to the brave souls who were completing the grueling 7-day ride. Even though I had ridden only 69.4 miles, it was the longest ride of my life, so I allowed myself to accept the warm greetings and congratulations of the kind people of Clinton.
Some weeks later, however, I realize the truth of the ride was not in my euphoria at my accomplishment. It was in the message enrobed by my effort.
Our son, David, is webmaster for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, the QCCVB—if you go to VisitQuadCities.com, his are the fingertips that animate it. Over the past four years, he has hosted Judi and me for numerous events and extravaganzas. I love witnessing his great delight in having us there to support and enjoy the things that have become important to him. He has come to love the QuadCities and the two states that encompass them.
It was David who encouraged me to challenge the final leg of the 40thannual RAGBRAI. But this invitation into his world was different from those that brought us here before. It was clear, if I accepted, I would be on my own. Neither he nor Judi had any desire to put their body to this test. They were happy to act as “support crew,” and enjoy a leisurely drive from point of departure to the spot were riders dipped their front tire into the “Mighty Mississippi”, attaching an exhilarating exclamation point to the end of the journey.
When I finished that sunny afternoon in Clinton, Iowa, David’s only question was “Dad, did you enjoy it?” The euphoria I felt made my reply clear. But it wasn’t my words that answered his real question…a question many of us have of our parents. The truth, unavailable in real time, was that, having put so much of myself into this event—training for weeks and exerting most every muscle for more than 5 hours—was a tangible expression of my love and regard for him…and who he is becoming in this world. The physical act said more than I could ever put into words.
I have been reminded yet again that our actions do speak louder than words, and the intensity of our actions often speak to the depth of their meaning.
I do love who you are, David, and who you are becoming, more that words can ever express.
Aug 062012
 

 

Note: This article will appear in the September-October issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
How are you doing? Before you answer, think carefully…there might be more at stake than you think.
I might be wrong, but there is a good chance your immediate response would have been to a question other than the one I intended. If you are like most people, you were tempted to say something like “Fine, thanks,” “Couldn’t be better,” “Not so great,” or perhaps “Life has been a struggle, but I’ll make it through.” Those are answers to the inquiry “How are you?” What I asked is “How are you doing?”…as in “In what manner are you completing the task in front of you at this moment?” Recently, I have begun to wonder if the manner in which I approach the activities of my life is just as important, or perhaps far more important, than the activities themselves. I have been reflecting on my “to be” list as actively as my “to do” list.
Having watched some of the Games of the XXX Olympiad, athletes know attitude is critical when translating mental desire into physical results. On a golf course, if I pull a driver from my bag and approach the ball with confidence, I am far more likely to hit a solid drive than if I approach with the belief that hitting a microscopic white orb with a small mallet at the far end of a very long graphite shaft is simply impossible. (You now know why I haven’t played golf in twenty years!) I was on my bicycle recently when I came upon a very narrow path, perhaps fifty feet in length, bounded on both sides by a high railing. While I never have trouble keeping my bike steady in the open, once bounded by the railing, fear welled up and made the first 30 feet a difficult and treacherous escapade. Once I neared the end of the challenge, my confidence returned and the final 15 feet were easy to negotiate.
My attitude toward day-to-day activities has an impact far beyond how my brain’s neuronal impulses might ease or challenge the movements of my muscles. If I am filled with animosity as I wend my way through my daily toils, I will create different outcomes than if I am joyful and filled with gratitude. Interactions with others, especially my family, are more fruitful if I begin by remembering how much I love them, rather than entering a conversation angry over a perceived lack of respect or difference of opinion. When I begin my interactions by reminding myself to focus on their wholeness rather than mine, life is far more generative. There is a reason why we say “if you’re angry, count to ten before you speak.”
Edward Lorenz was a meteorologist, who, in 1969, coined the term Butterfly Effect, when he discovered that infinitesimally small changes in initial conditions can radically change the course of weather over time and distance. It is said that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world, by changing initial weather conditions ever so slightly, can cause a tornado, hurricane or tsunami weeks or months later halfway around the globe.
The Butterfly Effect applies to far more than insects and inclement weather. Any time we change initial conditions, the course of human history is altered. And while it is difficult to imagine that some distant, future international conflict may erupt because of the attitude with which I approach a golf ball, it is not difficult to see how a careless, angry comment from a parent to a child can change the course of their lives. I know…I hear from callers on the suicide hotline how tsunamis of painful emotion have erupted because of thoughtless or angry comments from important role models many years earlier.
So, I’ll ask again. How are you doing? How are you approaching what you are doing in this moment, or in the very next? If you are anxious, angry, greedy or frustrated could you stop for just a moment, take a deep breath and instead approach the next moment with more generosity, care, love and concern?
It just might be that the future of humanity hangs in the balance.