In the Present

I am on a flight to Boston.  The bustle of passengers, the loud crackle of the flight attendant announcements, and the dull roar of the engines barely register with me thanks to my incessant need to check my emails.  I am on the aisle and the seat next to me is empty.  At the window, is a man in his late sixties.  Long grey hair pulled back into a ponytail, thin arms with green tattoos faded past the point of any recognizable form.  Lost in my phone, I didn’t even notice he was speaking to me at first.  It wasn’t until he gently touched me on the elbow and leaned into me that he caught my attention.  “Is this all really normal?”  He asked me quietly.  I was completely confused and it evidently showed on my face because he clarified, “This is my first time flying, I’m just nervous.”

I responded quickly with a “Yeah, it’s normal” and went back to my phone.  Finally, it was time to switch my phone to airplane mode and put the emails away as the plane began to take off.  That was when I thought back to the interaction.  This man was genuinely nervous about a new experience, something out of his comfort zone, and had reached out to a stranger for comfort and I had basically brushed him off.

I took out my earbuds, put my phone away, and decided to be present.   He was flying home from visiting his grandchildren.  A cancer diagnosis had forced him to fly instead of driving like he had done so many times in the past.  We spent an hour talking about his life, building cabins in northern Arkansas, taking his grandkids trout fishing, and lost years from opioid addictions. 

After a few jack and cokes, he dozed off and left me to my thoughts. I realized then I nearly missed a chance to be human to someone.  To be the bare minimum that should be required from me as a member of our species.  Basic human kindness.

I began to wonder how many other times I had missed someone reaching out.  A coworker trying to connect or a neighbor needing a sympathetic ear.  How many opportunities to be the very thing someone needed in their day did I allow to slip by?  I tried to play back the week in my mind, combing through conversations for any signs I missed.  There were at least a few. 

Doesn’t everyone need and deserve that every once in a while?  Someone to simply engage, to listen, to be interested in how they are feeling and what they are experiencing.  Someone to be present. I know I do.

So be open, be present.  Even the smallest interaction could lead to something amazing.  Maybe you open up and find a deeper, stronger connection than you’ve ever known.  Or maybe you shake hands, wish them well on the rest of their journey and never see them again. 

Either way, you’ll each be better for it. 

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” – Henry David Thoreau

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Learning

“The years teach much which the days never know.” –  Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have always loved learning.  I love finding some new amazing piece of information.  In school, I loved the feeling of accomplishment that came when mastering some new topic or challenge.

Learning doesn’t stop as you become an adult.  It simply changes. As an adult, the lessons I learn are not about Mitochondria, Colonialism or Algebra but most often about myself.  And take it from me, it is not easy to learn about yourself.

It’s not easy because sometimes you don’t like what you learn.  Recently, the years have taught me that I can be selfish, moody, angry, lazy, hurtful, impatient and unwilling to change.  They have taught me that I am not as creative, smart or talented as I sometimes think I am.

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

So what do I do with the knowledge I have gained about myself?  Do I accept that the years have made this of me? Or do I take what the years have taught me about myself and use it to make my days better?

I choose the latter.  I choose to acknowledge my faults, failures, and shortcomings over these past three decades and do my damndest to be better today.  Does that mean I won’t act selfishly today?  Of course, I will be selfish, but I will also strive to be generous.   I will still be angry but I will try hard to deal with it in positive ways.

I will work at learning from the years so that my days are better.  So that in decades ahead the years find that I am generous, kind, caring, hard-working, patient and accommodating.  I hope they find that I am a good parent, husband, and person…. in spite of myself.

Hand-me-down (a short story)

shoes-1560610_1920Koda waited anxiously for his name to be called, his feet tucked tightly under his desk.  It was something he did, almost a compulsion. He did it to hide his shoes. They were hand-me-downs, like nearly everything else in his wardrobe, and at least a size too big. They used to be white with a long blue stripe down the side but now were yellow from age and dirt. Even when they were bright-white and new, they were ugly shoes. They were the cheapest, blandest, sneakers you could buy at Walmart. He knew because he was there when his parents bought them for his older brother.  

Koda looked down at his shoes as he repositioned them under his desk. The left shoe had a new lace, white and clean which looked out of place on the worn shoe, especially compared to the right shoe with its old frayed lace. Why his mother hadn’t replaced both laces he could never understand.  He had asked her to, she simply smiled, gave him a curious look and replied very matter-of-factly that he only needed one.

The first day of school was always the hardest for Koda.  Everyone came in their new clothes. Brand name jeans with strategically placed rips, t-shirts with famous logos, and of course, their new shoes.  Koda noticed shoes. All of the unblemished, new shoes shuffling down the halls made his yellowed hand-me-downs all the dirtier in comparison.

The first day also meant ice-breakers, introductions, and stupid little scavenger hunts for things around the classroom like the recycle bin and class rules chart.  He hated the thought of standing up in front of the class, mumbling his name and an interesting fact about himself. At least he had gotten a seat at the back of the class, thanks to a little bit of understanding from his dad.

Koda begged his dad the night before to drop him off extra early.  His argument had been that their car was old, loud and ugly. His dad had laughed and insisted he liked the ugly old car but Koda persisted, and even though his argument hadn’t been eloquent, it had worked.  When they pulled up to the school, Koda thought his dad looked sad. As he reached for the door handle, his dad had put his large hand on Koda’s shoulder and looked him in his eyes.  Koda could tell it was important because his dad wasn’t smiling and his dad was always smiling. Smiling, laughing and telling stupid jokes that made him laugh and smile even more. Koda wouldn’t admit it but he loved his dad’s stupid jokes. But in that moment, his dad looked serious.  He pulled Koda toward him just an inch, still staring directly into his eyes like he was going to tell him a secret. After a moment, his dad took a deep breath and said, “Koda, you matter.  Not the car you drive or the shoes you wear. But you, you matter.”  His dad had poked the middle of his chest with his large index finger as he said the last two words.  

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Now, sitting in the back of the class, hiding his shoes and waiting for his name to be called, he remembered his dad’s words, “you matter.”  His chest began to pulse where his Dad’s enormous finger had poked him. He could feel it growing warmer with each pulse until it was radiating from his chest and spreading slowly through his body.  The warmth had reached his knees when his name was called. He passed neat rows of plastic desks and didn’t even notice the shoes beneath them. By the time he stood in front of the class, the warmth had reached the tips of his toes, filling his whole body.

He stood at the front of the class, smiled his dad’s smile and said proudly, “Hi, My name is Koda.”

Bedtimes and Roller Coasters

I’m standing in the hallway watching my wife tiptoe into our oldest son’s room.  Her hair almost glows from the deep gold light of the Minecraft lamp on the dresser.  She leans low, one hand pulling her hair away from her face while the other steadies on the edge of the bed.  As she bends to kiss his rosy cheek, I stand in awe.  It’s a beautiful moment.  A mother expressing her affection for a son who is completely unaware.

Twenty minutes before this sweet moment I was exasperated.  I had spent the better part of an hour arguing with a six-year-old about bedtime.  No matter what time our routine begins, it inevitably goes off course.  Bargaining for more snacks, one more video game, more time playing Legos, additional bathroom breaks, and of course at least one attempt to sneak from his bed into the living room and hide behind the sofa unseen, all bring the bedtime routine from a relaxing wind-down to an all-out battle.

There is a roller coaster at Six Flags over Texas called The New Texas Giant.  Before it was known as The New Texas Giant, it was simply The Texas Giant.  “New” was added to the moniker in 2011 when the enormous coaster underwent a remodel, replacing the old wooden tracks with steel.  I was fortunate enough to ride the coaster before the remodel.  The coaster was boisterous, to say the least.  As the car ascended the first hill, chains clanked, wooden beams creaked and the car shook violently.   The wild ascent would culminate in the car reaching the top of the first hill and stopping for a split second before smoothly gliding down the hill at breakneck speed.  After a few moments of flying effortlessly down the track, the coaster would turn violent once more.  It would shake, rumble and roar as it attempted to climb hill after hill only to glide silently and smoothly down each hill.

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There are moments as a parent when I feel my world is shaking violently.  Kids scream, argue,  and fight.  They are messy, stubborn, irrational and loud.  Some moments I wonder why I got on the rollercoaster, to begin with.  Then, there are moments like last night.   Moments when the ride is smooth and my face is plastered with a smile.  Moments when I forget about the commotion, the noise and I am reminded of why I took this ride.

I hope in the crazy moments, the loud, boisterous, annoying moments, I remember how worthwhile it all is.  I hope I can remind myself of the smooth descent ahead.  I hope I remember that, eventually, the ride will be over and not only will I miss those smooth moments of quiet joy, but I will miss the loud, wild, world-shaking moments as well.  Because eventually, wooden coasters become steel, children become adults and I become too old to ride the roller coaster.

“How many times have you noticed that it’s the little quiet moments in the midst of life that seem to give the rest extra-special meaning?” – Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers