Oct 212015
 

Dear David & Kathryn,

Yesterday, on the suicide hotline, I spoke with a young man who is struggling greatly as he nears the end of his high school career. A number of years ago, life opened before him a horrific, hellacious valley. He fell in and was held captive for too many years. In the past year, not wanting his life defined by the choices that caused his fall, he found the courage to claw his way out of the abyss.

One of the miracles of the hotline is that callers, desperate for help, will often open completely and allow a glimpse into their heart and soul. This young man certainly did. I was witness to a heart filled with wisdom, generosity and love. And while his beauty was so very clear to me, all he could see were the mistakes that led to his trip into hell. He was nearly blind to the miraculous nature of his recovery. I was in awe of his courage on the journey.

Nearly an hour into our time together, I paused and said, “I don’t say this to many callers, but I love you young man. I am in love with who you are, and who you are becoming through the struggles you have faced, and the courage you found to overcome.” He began to cry. Through his tears he said quietly, “I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because you’re the first person who has ever told me they loved me.” In that moment, I found it impossible to hold back my own tears. How could a young man preparing for college, never have been told he was loved or lovable?

As I reflected on story of this young man, I thought of the two of you. I would be heartbroken if I thought there was even a moment in your life in which you thought you were either unloved or unlovable.

I am in awe of the two of you as well. I am inspired by the joy, creativity, wisdom, generosity and love that flow from each of you. Even if I have told you before, it cannot be said too often: my heart nearly bursts with love and admiration when I think of either of you…and the miracle you are in my life.

A sage in ancient India once observed a knife that can cut anything, cannot cut itself. As humans, we can easily see in others what we cannot witness in ourselves…just like the young man I spoke with yesterday. In moments of sadness, loneliness or challenge, even if you must take it on faith alone, remember you are truly loved, lovable and are a miracle in the lives of those around you.

Love,

Dad

Dec 182014
 

Note: The following will be published in the January issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

His smile is huge and welcoming, and he has a personality to match. He admitted he is uncomfortable with hugs and tears, but on an Operation Snowball weekend, taking off the masks we wear to protect ourselves, and being vulnerable, is an invaluable part of the experience.

In spite of the tough veneer, there was a moment the façade unexpectedly slipped. As he spoke innocently of his family, he began to tell us of his birth-father—his parents had divorced many years earlier. “My Dad is my hero,” he began innocently enough, but as he continued his eyes welled up and he tried desperately to hold back the tears. “As a young man, he was in a gang—it’s part of the reason he and my mother split. But, about the time I was born, he straightened out his life. He works harder than anyone I know. I love him so much.” With that, he wiped the tears that made their way down his face.

“Have you ever told him what you just told us?” I asked. “I’ve tried,” he said. “It’s really hard, but sometimes as I’m leaving, I’ll turn and tell him I love him.” “No,” I pressed, “Have you ever looked him square in the eye and said ‘Dad, you are my hero. I love you more than I can even say.’” He stared at the floor and admitted he had not.

Why, when we see magnificence in another, especially one we love, do we frequently find it difficult to acknowledge? Perhaps it’s because a moment of affirmation requires vulnerability from both giver and receiver. When I am honored by another, it can trigger memories of the frailties I often believe define me. I can become embarrassed and confused in the face of sincere, caring affirmation and deflect the recognition…and in my inelegance, embarrass the person who only wants me to see something wonderful within.

What if, in an unexpectedly touching moment with his son, a formerly tough gang member, in confusion and embarrassment, blurted, “Don’t be silly, I’m not that great!” All the son might hear from the man he adores is the crushing implication he is silly.

Later that weekend, I sought out that young man. “At the risk of pushing too hard and being a pain in your backside, may I tell you a story?” “Sure,” he said with a curious smile.

“My daughter invited me to join her on a Snowball weekend when she was a sophomore in high school. Snowball changed my life and I am grateful beyond measure. At her last event as a senior, I pulled her aside one last time to tell her how thankful I was she invited me on this journey we shared. She looked me in the eye and said ‘Dad, I truly believe the reason I got involved was to bring you here. You are my gift to Snowball.’ I was stunned.”

“That was more than six years ago,” I continued, “yet, I remember that moment as if it was yesterday. I will take those words with me to my grave. If you tell your father how much you love and admire him, don’t be deterred if his initial reaction is tainted by confusion and embarrassment. In the end, I am certain he will, as well, carry your words with him until the day he dies.”

At the end of the weekend, that “tough” young man left a note for me in which he said I was the sweetest man on Earth and that he loved me. And now, despite my own embarrassment, tears are having their way with me.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I believe in always committing myself to more wholehearted living. So, as I move into the year 2015, I will try diligently to speak to those I love of the joy I find in their presence in my life, and try even more diligently, when told of their joy at my presence in their life, to acknowledge their affirmation with grace, gratitude and humility.

May 222014
 

There are moments that emerge unexpectedly that remind me to slow and be witness to miracles.

Many years ago, I published an interview with a favorite author, Peter Block. One of the most touching moments came when I asked about his children. He said, “I always knew that the kids were the most important thing that would ever happen to me in my life. And If I was ever going to witness a miracle it was watching them grow up.”

At the time my own children were…still children. Today, as they continue to find their paths into the world, I have a much more vivid interpretation of Peter’s words. I woke this morning to a text from my daughter, Kathryn, with an attached picture. She said…Necklace

10 years ago, you bought me a beautiful and unexpected present for my 8th grade graduation. Today, I wore the same necklace to receive my Masters degree from John’s Hopkins! Thanks for everything dad. I love you.

I am reminded of a letter I wrote to her when she participated in a Kairos retreat in high school. The words I was given are truer today than when I wrote them so many years ago…

Why is your presence in my life a miracle? How else can you describe the flowering of someone so beautiful from soil that so often seems coarse and arid? As hard as I have tried, as much as I wished to be a perfect parent, I grieve over the endless times I failed. I am saddened by the hundreds of times you longed only for a listening and compassionate ear, and I found it necessary instead to attempt to fix or teach. I lament how often the stress of my life intruded on yours in the form of unjustified anger and frustration. I mourn the lost opportunities when a different kind of attention would have nourished you in more abundant ways. And yet, in spite of my failings, you emerge as a caring, compassionate, fervent young woman. Beauty is always a miracle. Too often we simply fail to take the time to sit quietly and be witness to it.

I am thankful every day for David and Kathryn, and that I was chosen to help shepherd them into this world. But days like today remind me to sit quietly and simply be witness.

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.

 

May 282012
 

 

If I am open to the road less traveled, life lies in wait to take me on extraordinary journeys. A recent such escapade began in the most unlikely of places—with an obscure comment in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson mentions, in passing, a book Jobs reportedly reread every year. It wasn’t a book on technology, or one that explored business, economics, product design, politics, movies or music. It was an autobiography written by a Hindu spiritual figure first published in 1946. Just before departing for our recent vacation to Hawai’i, I purchased Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I turned the final page as the plane hit the tarmac in Honolulu. It was clear the road forward was about to take a radical turn—as I caught sight of the ancient volcanoes that formed the beautiful island of O’ahu, Yogananda’s work pointed me to three ancient texts: The Bhagavad Gita,  The Upanishads and The Way of the Bodhisattva.
These volumes are wonderfully disturbing. Wonderful, because, if I am open to the messages they offer, the Universe becomes a larger and more interesting place. Yogananda recounts times in which spiritual teachers would accurately foretell the future, live for months or years without eating or drinking, spontaneously heal those who were ill, levitate their bodies many feet off the ground and simultaneously appear in more than one place. I find these books disturbing because every neuron in my brain fights back, having been wired and rewired by western science. They collectively scream, “You cannot believe any of this…and even if you do, you better not admit it to anyone!”  The culture in which I was raised would have me pass these texts and ideas off as fantasy, fiction, witchcraft or perhaps even psychoses.
It might be possible to put the books of Indian & Tibetan Hinduism aside as a collection of wayward thought. But then I recall a surprise discovery in my Father-in-law’s library shortly after he died in 1999. There, amongst his books, lay many that recounted the spiritual traditions of the ancient Hawai’ians. Their spiritual leaders and healers were called kahuna. The kahuna, like the swamis and yogis of Hinduism, also performed many clearly impossible acts. There are those in Hawai’i who, to this day, will talk, for example, of witnessing spontaneous healing of human ailments.
Should you choose to set aside both Hawai’ian and Hindu spiritual tradition in order to hold sacred the wisdom of Western science and technology, then be prepared to set aside the ancient traditions of many of the indigenous peoples of the world—Africa, South America, Australia and others. It’s safe and easy to set all this “witchcraft” aside, and reflect exclusively upon the enlightenment heralded by the coming of Aristotle and western logic, science and analysis. I, on the other hand, wonder if I should be more open to rewiring my neural connections to allow the possibility of perception in radically new ways.
On a long walk up the ancient, expired volcanoes of Hawai’i, I recounted some of the stories I was reading to my daughter, Kathryn. “Do you believe them?” she asked. “At this moment,” I told her, “I am choosing not to disbelieve…to remain uncertain.” Because if the certainty of western knowledge has left me blind to—unable or unwilling to see—the reality of wisdom traditions that are broader, more complex, mysterious and infinitely more interesting, I want the possibility of being a witness to those traditions in the few years I have left in this life.
I wonder if, that too, was the road Steve Jobs wandered.
Aug 052011
 
The following will be published in the next issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.
Like a modern day Parthenon, it wore the ravages of time—but this monument to human endurance had no one to defend it against old age, or protect it for future generations. It stood pockmarked and failing, left as nothing more than a canvas for modern day artists and their graffiti. It stood as a memorial to what appeared to be a very different age.
Judi and I were examining this concrete formation in a digital image from our daughter Kathryn. On it, stood twelve students from her summer program in eastern Europe. “Do you have any idea what we’re standing on?” Kathryn asked via Skype. “It’s all that remains of the luge track from the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.” I was stunned! A feeling of sadness and loss assaulted me. This immense sculpture, which appeared to be from a much earlier age, was only 30 years old; a mere child in the panoply of human construction. Yet this child sat neglected and unloved.
Then Kathryn lobbed a verbal bombshell I found vastly more disturbing than the digital image on my computer screen; one that explained the premature aging of the luge track. “During the tour of Sarajevo, the guide insisted we remain on the path he traversed…if we were to stray, we would run the risk of detonating a land mine.”
I had to catch my breath. My little girl, one of two young adults I have tenaciously guarded and protected for the majority of my adult life, was walking the terrain ravaged by the Bosnian War that raged from April 1992 to December 1995.
As we sat in the comfort of our home, intimately and immediately connected to our daughter by the Internet, yet separated by thousands of miles, she proceeded to take us on a pictorial tour of Sarajevo; each image littered with the remnants of war…hundreds of buildings that still wore the scars of bullets and mortars.
In the weeks since our virtual pilgrimage to war-torn Sarajevo, I have been dragged back many times to images of life in a country where children live in constant fear of straying from the path…children who have lost the opportunity to roam freely and explore the land where they live. And while I am aware there are many places in America where children live in fear of straying from their homes, there is simply nothing in my life experience that can help me understand what it would mean not to be able to stroll the thousands of fields and forests I have wandered and explored over 60 years.
As I travel the roads and byways of America, I see much human creation vandalized by graffiti. And while most disappoints or angers me, an occasional image reveals artistic potential, or strikes an indispensable note about what it means to be human. But land mines are the hellish graffiti born of hatred and human conflict with no possible redemptive value. It is bad enough we scar human creation with pigment, but it is simply inexcusable to have scarred with explosives that which was created and left for us by the eternal.
Then, finally, I wonder if even my child has been left scared by the journey. In spite of my desire to protect her, will her experience of the results of hatred and conflict detonate within her some time in her future? Actually, I am hopeful it will. I am hopeful, as a result of experiencing humanity in ways I never could, she and her generation will find ways to diffuse the next generation of bombs, mortars and land mines before they too can be used to ravage tomorrow’s monuments to human creativity and endurance.
Nov 222010
 
This weekend, Judi and I joined our children in the Quad Cities, David’s adopted home, for a new tradition of enjoying their many pre-holiday events. If you haven’t been, I recommend it.
All weekend, the two of us sat in amazement in the presence of our children. I know David and Kathryn are no more amazing than millions of other emerging young adults, but since they are my children I demand the right to be in awe of who they are becoming, and speak of them as if they truly are God’s gift…because to me they are. What can bring me to my knees, is wondering why I have been given the gift of them in my life.
After expressing my disbelief on a social media page, a dear friend commented, in part, “Seems to me ‘everything’ you and Judi did explains their beauty.” I appreciate the generosity, but I see little way my efforts can explain the beauty in front of me this past weekend. As hard as I tried, as much as I wished to be a perfect parent, I grieve over the endless times I failed. I am saddened by the hundreds of times they longed for a listening and compassionate ear, and I found it necessary instead to attempt to fix or teach. I lament how often the stress of my life intruded on theirs in the form of unjustified anger and frustration. I mourn the lost opportunities when a different kind of attention would have nourished them in more abundant ways. And yet, in spite of my failings, they emerge as caring, compassionate, fervent young adults.
Judi has a growing passion, and a passion for growing, orchids. Last week, after more than a year, she coaxed one of her plants into rewarding us with three absolutely gorgeous blooms. They are stunning. And while I do not want to demean the loving care Judi gave them, their beauty is far greater than the effort to raise it. A bit of care, some water and a nourishing environment yield a thing of stunning beauty. The orchid rushes forth, becoming what it was always intended to be so long as it has a healthy environment and nothing gets in the way of its journey from seed to blossom. The magnificence of the blossom is contained in the tiny seed from which it grows. No matter how hard she might have tried, no matter the extent of her care or the nourishment she provided, Judi could not coax the plant into producing roses. Anything she might have done to try would surely have damaged this thing of beauty.
When people tell us we did a wonderful job raising David and Kathryn, I usually reflect that if we did anything well, perhaps we stayed out of their way just enough. We tried to provide a loving, nourishing environment, but we always knew they had to blossom into the amazing humans they were intended to be; an orchid if it was their birthright or a rose if that’s what was implanted in their soul.
So why have I been given the gifts of David and Kathryn in my life. Maybe, just maybe, they weren’t put here for me to be the teacher, but the learner. Perhaps they are in my life to teach me something about the unimaginable mystery, miracle and beauty of this Universe. This weekend was a magnificent lesson and I am grateful beyond words.
Jan 072010
 

Note, this letter was written in 2007 when my daughter attended a high school retreat. She was recently elected President of the Illinois Wesleyan University Student Senate. I am reminded again of the words I was given 3 years ago…

Kathryn,

To describe your presence in my life is nothing short of describing a miracle. For nearly 17 years I have been witness to the emergence of a woman with extraordinary, innate talents and nearly limitless potential. The care, concern and love you exhibit for those around you moves me. The love of life you radiate brightens my world. The passion with which you pursue that which matters inspires me. The self-confidence you exude amazes me.

So why is your presence in my life a miracle? How else can you describe the flowering of someone so beautiful from soil that so often seems coarse and arid? As hard as I have tried, as much as I wished to be a perfect parent, I grieve over the endless times I failed. I am saddened by the hundreds of times you longed only for a listening and compassionate ear, and I found it necessary instead to attempt to fix or teach. I lament how often the stress of my life intruded on yours in the form of unjustified anger and frustration. I mourn the lost opportunities when a different kind of attention would have nourished you in more abundant ways. And yet, in spite of my failings, you emerge as a caring, compassionate, fervent young woman. Beauty is always a miracle. Too often we simply fail to take the time to sit quietly and be witness to it.

When I was about your age, on the Feast of the Epiphany, the church to which we belonged hung a HUGE banner with a picture of Snoopy, from the Peanuts comic strip, with an ear-to-ear smile, leaping into the air. Underneath it read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God on Earth.” Kathryn, when I think of you—and your presence in my life—my hearts leaps much as Snoopy did so very many years ago. And if that kind of joy is an infallible sign of the presence of God on Earth, you are that sign in my life.

Long ago I stopped trying to describe the love I feel for you. Some feelings—and those of a parent’s love for a child are among them—are meant simply to be experienced because they are beyond the limited facility of language. Love transforms. It will have to suffice to say that my love for you makes me more whole, more fulfilled and more complete. I am more human because God saw fit to allow you and me to share a portion of our journeys.

I wish you a life of joy. I wish you a life in which you too will experience often the gift I experience in you.

With endless love and admiration,