A day at the lake …

Lake_Milton_Ohio Do you have a place that’s special to you? Perhaps a place from your childhood where you felt safe and happy? A place where something important happened?

My place is Lake Milton.

It’s an odd-shaped lake near Youngstown, Ohio, roughly a 90-minute drive from my home in Cleveland. As a child, that commute in the loaded-down family station wagon felt like a trip to another world.

In some ways, it was.

I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. The immigrants who settled there built narrow, wood-framed houses that were very close together. The driveways between them were just wide enough to fit a car.

Nobody had air conditioning, so windows were open during the summer. You could hear the neighbors arguing, smell what they were cooking. The closeness made you feel connected, for better or worse.

And that’s part of why the lake was special.

My father’s sponsor in AA owned a cottage by the lake. We rented it for a week every summer. The backyard was so spacious — enough to play baseball. Jarts, too. (No, we didn’t impale each other. Well, maybe that one time …)

We spent much of the day swimming – some of us would, anyway. Me, I’ve never been much of a swimmer. But the inner-tube races were fun.

And those sun-splashed days were followed by unforgettable nights.

At dusk, fireflies would rise from the ground — dozens, hundreds, thousands of blinking little bugs. Fireworks? This was better.

At least once per stay, my father would fire up the red Coleman lantern – it made a hissing sound I still remember — and take us night fishing. We’d strap the lantern down on the middle seat of the aluminum boat and head out.

We’d reach the middle of the lake, turn off the motor and drop some lines in the water. We never caught anything, but that didn’t matter. We were out in the middle of this darkness that was unlike anything I’d experienced.

When you looked up, you saw so many stars that it took your breath away. There were more stars in the sky than fireflies in the backyard. And even though the dark was normally frightening, in those moments it felt magnificent.

I realized how it’s possible to feel so small and yet so big at the same time. How you can feel grateful to be part of something so grand.

I understood what Louis Armstrong meant when he sang of bright blessed days and dark sacred nights.

The cottage had paneling that gave off a distinctive wood smell. Even now, when I go into a store that carries lumber, I can get a whiff of that smell and feel like I’m back at the lake.

Actually, I haven’t been to the lake in oh, maybe 40 years. I grew up and moved off. Some of my siblings have gone back and provided discouraging scouting reports. Developers have bought up lots. Expensive houses occupy the fields where the fireflies would take flight.

I’ve been back to the lake many times in my dreams, but not in person. I don’t really want to see how it has changed. I’d rather preserve the memory.

I added a new memory of the lake a couple of weeks ago.

On my way home from my daughter’s graduation in Pittsburgh, I wound up taking a detour (that’s guy-speak for getting lost) and drove past Youngstown. I saw a road sign for the Lake Milton exit.

Moments later, I was on a bridge driving over the lake. It looked so … small. I glanced to my right in the direction where the cottage and the dock would be located. I couldn’t pick them out, of course.

No matter. I’d rather preserve it the way it is in my mind.

I got to thinking about how lucky I was to have a place like that. A place that taught me about the magic of life.

Once you’ve seen the magic – felt the magic – you can recognize it in other places, in other people, in other settings, in every stage of your life.

How it makes you feel so small and yet so important, all at the same time.

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God inside the lava lamp

Lava   A friend was telling me about how she’s felt disconnected lately — from people, from God, even from herself in some ways. Feeling detached and unplugged from life, basically.

Yeah. I know the feeling. Don’t we all?

There are times when you feel just plain worn out. Trapped and frustrated. You feel like you’re the person in the Beatles song — sitting in your nowhere land, making all your nowhere plans for nobody.

You make a little progress, and everything else seems to fall apart. Life seems pointless at the moment. You’re wide awake at 4 a.m. — AGAIN! — turning things over in your head.

It’s like there’s been a power outage and you’re alone in the dark. You’re feeling disconnected from life and from love.

Some people see those times as proof that there is no God. Even the most spiritual people have many, many times when they feel like God has taken the last flight out of town.

So, what do we make of those times?

During the 1960s, some people decided that those times were proof that God was dead. Kaput. How else do you explain our lack of love?

Something else happened in the 1960s. The new kind of lamp was invented by a British accountant who got his inspiration from an egg timer at a pub. (Really. Look it up.) The lava lamp soon became an interesting addition to the psychedelic scene.

Also, an alternative way of looking at God in dark times.

Back in the 1960s, that’s not how I was told to imagine God. My grade school religion classes were heavy into punishment. We were presented with a very harsh, legalistic and unsympathetic God.

A God who doesn’t make sense to me.

We were told that God loves us unconditionally — Aww! — but only on the condition that we follow certain rules for behavior, many of them dealing with sex.

Oh.

If we failed to meet those conditions, the unconditional love went away. And so did we, too, sent off to be flame-broiled. God was portrayed as a cosmic Santa who sees all that we do and is more than happy to slip a lump of eternally burning coal into our stocking.

Well, isn’t that disturbing!

As I got older, I realized: I don’t buy it. That’s not how I’ve experienced God.

To me, God is more like a lava lamp. Or, to be more precise, the power that brings the lava lamp alive.

(Note: Any and all descriptions of God are totally inexact and severely lacking. But that’s OK because they can also be helpful in some ways. Or harmful. Each of us has to decide for ourselves. Now, back to the lava lamp …)

When you turn on a lava lamp, a clump of inert wax is sitting at the bottom of the oil-filled chamber. As the oil warms, the wax starts moving and rising. It comes alive, in a sense.

It’s the same for us.

In my experience, we’re all plugged into a loving power that warms us and makes us glow. A spirit — some call it grace, others simply call it love — that flows through us and brings us fully alive. A spark that heats the glob of good stuff inside each of us — love, compassion, creativity, laughter — and makes us bubble up.

Even in those times when we’re feeling disconnected, we’re still plugged in. Maybe we’ve just turned ourselves off for a while. Or something has happened in our lives that has turned us off.

That’s OK.

We all spend time in darkness. It’s part of life — an important part. We can do a lot of soul-searching and growing in the darkness. But even when we feel immersed in darkness, the spark is still flowing through us and working inside of us. Gently. Lovingly. Always there.

And when we’re ready to glow again, God is ready, too. Patiently waiting for the moment. Eager to help us flip the on-off switch.

Encouraging us to open ourselves to others. To let them wrap their arms and their love around us and turn us on again. And for us to do the same for others.

Bubble up. Light up our little corner of the room. For a while.

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Helping ducks cross the road on Sunday morning

ducks   I was running a little late for church this morning, and it wasn‘t a good time for that. I was filling in as our youth group leader and wanted to be there early. Also, it was my job to pick up the doughnuts.

Our little church is big into doughnuts. We get two dozen of them at a discounted price as long as we choose ones with holes. We’re OK with that, since we’re all supposed to be trying to become a little more hole-y anyway.

I was zipping down Route 4 north of Cincinnati, a six-lane highway that you can travel at 50 mph. I believe that’s the speed limit, anyway. As I went along in the left-hand lane, I noticed a little, round lump in the slow-speed lane.

A turtle!

Its little head poked out of the shell. Legs were flapping away, dragging it toward the traffic. No way was it going to make it across six lanes without getting smooshed.

I wanted to save the turtle. But that would mean turning around and being even later to get the doughnuts and get to church.

You know how you start rationalizing to avoid doing what you really need to do and really want to do? I can’t be late for church. It’s illegal to make a U-turn. It might be dangerous to stop for the turtle. Somebody else can save the turtle.

I kept telling myself all those things and feeling bad. The turtle needed help. It needed me.

At the next intersection, I made that illegal U-turn and went back. By the time I got there, someone else had pulled over and picked up the turtle and was carrying it to the safety of a grassy field.

Hooray for the turtle. And for the person who stopped to save it.

Wait, there’s more.

I picked up the two dozen doughnuts and got back on Route 4. A little ways farther, a mother duck and her babies were crossing the road.

Oh, no!

They had already made it as far as the other side of the road, so I slowed but really couldn’t help them. Two cars on the other side stopped, and a young woman got out of one of them and herded the ducks the rest of the way across the road.

How can you not smile?

Somewhere, the turtle was eating grass and the mother duck and her ducklings were doing whatever mother ducks and their ducklings do. And none of them was smooshed. Chalk one up for life.

I no longer minded being a little late to church, where I discovered yet more good stuff was in store.

Four boys were in our youth group this day. Our project involved those find-the-hidden-picture drawings you see in Highlights magazine for children. You know: The ones where you have to locate the comb, the toothbrush, the muffin, the mitten and the carrot hidden in the line drawing.

The lesson was about how we often see things, but don’t necessarily recognize what’s there. We have to look hard to find things. Sometimes it helps to turn the picture sideways or upside-down so we can recognize what we’re seeking. It’s right there in front of our eyes.

The conversation turned to recognizing the people who could use our help, and seeing ways that we can help them. And we asked the question: Why do we help others anyway?

“Because they need help,” one 9-year-old boy said.

Yeah, that!

“And,” his 9-year-old brother added, “because it makes us feel good to help people.”

“And everybody needs help sometimes,” said another boy.

Wow. Yeah, and that, too.

We looked at the famous photo of Earth taken from Apollo 8. If you remember, it was the first time we got to see ourselves from the vantage point of another body in space.

Earth-Apollo11Mission-NASA

The boys wondered why the photo was so grainy. I told them it’s from the 1960s. They seemed to think those were prehistoric times and started talking about pixels.

I told them that the grainy photo of Earth kind of fits what we do at church. We try to help each other find God in this picture. Sometimes when it seems that God is nowhere to be found, we just have to look a little closer and recognize the divine everywhere.

My morning had been all about finding. Finding the divine in a turtle saved, in a mother and ducklings protected, and in four young people showing they’re already so wise.

There it is, not hidden at all.

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Wide awake at 3 a.m.

Moon   A rain delay made the game last until nearly midnight. Finally finished with my stories and planning notes, I was packing up in the press box. It was already past 1 a.m. Ugh.

Something caught my eye right below.

There was a cat. Prowling around the front row of seats. Probably scavenging for something to eat.

I’d never seen a cat at the ballpark. Dogs, yes — there are several Bark in the Park promotions. But never a cat. So I took a picture and headed for the parking garage.

I decided to post the cat photo on Facebook when I got home. You have to share any unusual cat photos, right? It’s a federal law or something. And Texas probably objects.

So I posted it with a funny little note — well, funny for nearly 3 o’clock in the morning. I figured my friends would see it in a few hours when they woke up and react to it with their own, funnier lines.

Then I started scrolling through others’ posts to see what they’d been up to all evening, allowing my brain to settle down a bit before I tried to go to sleep.

Wait! I got a notification that one of my friends had just “liked” the cat photo. I’m not the only one awake?

And then another friend liked it. Yet another friend started a conversation in the comments section. Soon, someone else joined in.

Whoa! I had lots of welcomed and unexpected company. It was like a social media summit meeting. About cats.

Many of those friends have day jobs and would be getting up in a few hours to go to work, wondering why that second cup of coffee barely made a dent in their grogginess. Yet here they were, commenting on a cat photo at 3 a.m.

It reminded me that I’m not the only one who loses sleep. We all have nights when our brains are stuck on slow simmer.

Physical issues. Family issues. Relationship issues. The car is dying and there’s no money for a new engine. The boss is being totally unreasonable. The kids are sick. I’m sick. I just got home from work and am wide awake. Why is the neighbor’s dog barking again?

Ugh.

You’re in that groggy state when you pull back the covers to go pee, and somehow your brain does that zero-to-60 thing before you reach the bathroom.

That usually happens to me sometime around 4:30 in the morning. I turn over, glance at the clock to see how many hours of sleep are left, and my brain says: “Tell me again all that we have to do when that alarm goes off in a little while?”

No!!!!!

No matter how hard you to try not to think about it, you start thinking about it.

Or your brain reminds you of that embarrassing moment you had yesterday, the one in front of everybody in the dining room that involved the bowl of potato salad. You’d forgotten about for the last few hours in your dreamy state.

And off you go.

It’s easy to feel alone with your brain in the middle of the night. The winter nights are the worst. The darkness arrives so early and goes so long. You feel claustrophobic. It’s easy to imagine you’re the only person in the world who can’t find the “off” switch for their gray matter.

And the problems that are pulling an all-nighter in your head seem to grow 10 sizes while you try to get comfortable on the pillow.

Soon, the alarm is giving you the pre-set wake-up call. As if you needed it.

It was eye-opening to get such an immediate reaction to the cat photo. Reminded me that we all have those nights. Lost sleep? As much a part of nighttime as full moons and fireflies.

And it’s comforting to know that at least some our friends are doing the same thing right now. Instead of sleeping, they’re curled up in their pajamas checking out a cat photo.

Better yet, they know that if they ever need to talk, all they have to do is call or text you — and you can do the same with them — no matter what the hour.

In their sleeplessness, they remind you that you’re not alone.

Those 3 a.m. friends are the best.

cat

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Picking our pocket

Graduation   Do you remember any of the speakers at your various graduations? Grade school? High school? Trade school? College? Whatever? Me, I don’t remember any of them. Not a single one. Or what any of them said.

Sorry. It was a long time ago. And I had a lot on my mind. Big days, and there’s so much for your head and your heart to take in. That speaker’s carefully chosen words didn’t even leave a dent.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate a good commencement speech. One that says something not only to the distracted graduates, but to everyone else paying attention.

Over the weekend, I attended my daughter Abby’s graduation from Point Park University in Pittsburgh. The commencement speaker was Charlie Batch, the former Steelers quarterback.

(Note to Pittsburgh: I love your city, especially your downtown. It’s fantastic! But your obsession with sports is, well, a little bit creepy. People everywhere decked out in Steelers jerseys because it’s the NFL draft? I’m thinking an intervention might be in order.)

Charlie does a lot in his community. He works with kids who are having a tough go of things. He makes a difference in their lives, just as others made a difference in his.

He knows how that works.

Charlie described how he grew up in one of Pittsburgh’s roughest neighborhoods and used football as his way to get ahead. When he was in college, his younger sister was killed by a stray bullet in the crossfire between gang members. In his deep grief, he decided to quit college, quit football and go home.

A coach befriended him and talked him out of it. Told him that it served no purpose to waste his life in addition to losing hers. The comments resonated. That coach changed his mind, and his life.

Don’t we all.

Each of us has so much potential to affect others‘ lives, even though we’re not always aware of it. We make such a difference with how we treat others, what we say to them, how we’re there for them.

Sometimes, it simply comes down to spending time and sharing a few words and a little love and compassion. That alone can help someone get what they need.

Which led to Charlie’s second point: We need to be careful about who we choose to be in our pocket. He was talking about the linemen who form a protective pocket around the quarterback.

Quarterbacks love their blockers. Without them, the quarterback would be an abysmal failure and wind up on his back on every play.

Charlie’s question: Who have we chosen to be in our pocket?

You know what he means.

There are those who are willing to be there for us so long as it’s fun for them or so long as they can get something from us. As soon as we stop being fun or we start needing something from them, they pull away.

We’ve all come across people who are willing to be around us so long as we act like them or follow their direction and fit in with the rest of their group. When we try to be ourselves and share our thoughts and interests and feelings, they push us away.

And then there are those who are willing to be our friend so long as it’s not very challenging or messy. When we go off the deep end — as we all do at various times — they become hard to find.

If we choose those people for our pocket, we’re in trouble.

Thankfully, there are those other people. The ones who genuinely want to get to know us and love us and experience life with us. They’re willing to pay the price to be with us — the blockers in the pocket get knocked around a lot — because we’re worth it to them.

They want us in their lives, just as we are, messiness and all. They love who we are. They see greatness in us, even when we don’t see it in ourselves.

When something fantastic happens, they’re right there hugging us and celebrating with us. When we get knocked down, they’re right there offering a hand to help us up and encouragement to move on to the next play.

Always right there.

With one caveat: They’re not willing to let us grab their hand and pull them down. If they’re on the ground, they can’t help us or anybody else get up. And sometimes after a particularly hard hit, they have to let us catch our breath and regain our bearings before they can help us back up.

Those people are the ones we need to surround ourselves with. Better yet, we need to become one of those people for someone else.

Someone who’s good to have in the pocket.

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Holy cards, zits and split ends

saint   Are you familiar with holy cards?

If you went to Catholic grade school, you probably got a few of them along the way as rewards for achievements. If you’re not familiar with them, let me explain:

A holy card is kind of like a baseball card. There‘s a depiction of a person on the front. Instead of batting or pitching statistics on the back, there’s a prayer or maybe some detail about the particular saint’s life.

And the saint is always depicted as perfect. In every way.

Gorgeous hair, even though there was no hair product or rinse-and-repeat back in those days. Radiant complexion _ not a scar or zit anywhere. Immaculate clothes, free of any stain or wrinkle or frayed edges.

How does that happen?

And the saint invariably sports a peaceful, other-worldly expression, even if they’re about to be burned alive or fed to the lions. (I don’t know about you, but if I was about to get char-broiled or turned into a snack, I certainly wouldn’t be peaceful. And my clothes wouldn’t be unsoiled.)

Whether it’s on holy cards or stained glass or paintings by the masters, the people we consider saints usually get turned into symbols of perfection. Holy from their hair to their hemlines.

And that’s wholly a crock.

A saint isn’t someone who’s perfect. A saint is someone who tries.

Ideally, that’s all of us.

A saint is you. A saint is me.

Saints are messy and confused and disoriented, like everyone else. Their lives take unexpected turns. They do embarrassing things. They’re insecure and needy. They have lots of baggage. They wake up at 4 a.m. and worry. They look in the mirror and say, “Really?!?“

What they do, though, is try. Really try.

They put their messy little selves into every moment as much as they can. They try to make a difference, to do something good and useful with their lives. They open themselves to love. They work at growing into their best self.

They try.

We try.

And yeah, our neediness and self-centeredness get in the way. We all screw up, even when we give it our best shot. Our insecurity and fear hold us back. We say the wrong thing sometimes, make the wrong choice at times.

No matter.

What matters is that we keep asking for a little guidance and inspiration and courage. And that we keep trying, even when we’re discouraged and unsure exactly what to do.

Especially then.

In those times, it helps to have a little faith that something divine and unexpected will emerge from the messiness, like a beautiful plant poking out from muddy ground. We trust someone else to make the blossoms appear.

We set out to become our true selves a little bit more each day. Our loving selves. Our compassionate selves. Our forgiving selves. Our joyful selves. Our coffee-stained selves. Our split-endy selves. Our awkward selves.

Instead of air-brushing away our imperfections and Photoshopping our shortcomings, we ought to highlight them and make them stand out. Depict them in stained glass.

Show what sainthood is really about.

Yes, it’s that easy. And that hard. The bar for sainthood is very low, and very high. It’s about putting our love and ourselves into every moment, no matter how messy we happen to be at that moment.

Even when we’ve just dumped a plate of potato salad in our lap. Or said the wrong thing. Or felt our heart sink over some bad news. Or looked in the mirror and recognized a zit forming on our forehead.

Even then.

Especially then.

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To wear some hair

Fur   Max the cat loves to curl alongside people and rest his forehead against their leg. Makes him feel safe and loved, I suppose. Every time he does it, he shares a little bit of himself.

There’s always some of Max left behind.

Anyone who has a pet knows the experience, especially now that it’s shedding season. You can’t walk past your pet without some of their hair being drawn to you as though you’re magnetized.

Every interaction leaves a little bit of them stuck to you.

We humans do that with each other, too.

If you think about it, a little bit of us rubs off on everyone we meet. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we leave a part of ourselves in every encounter.

In a sense, we share our hair, too.

(Which explains why I seem to have less and less of it on the back of my head. I’m not losing my hair; I’m just sharing myself generously. Yeah, that‘s it!)

The whole hair-sharing thing is pretty cool, actually. Every stray strand of our pets’ hair contains their DNA, their molecular blueprint. Who they are, embedded in each hair.

And when their hair gets embedded on us, we’re attached to them in another way. We not only hold them in our hearts, we wear them on our sleeves. And our pants. And our jackets. And our …

The same goes for us.

Every interaction involves sharing a bit of ourselves. Some of us rubs off with every word, every smile, every frown, every tear. When we’re kind to someone, it affects them. When we’re nasty, it affects them, too.

How we treat others tends to stick with them, even if it’s only for a little while. Every stranger that we come across ends up carrying a little bit of us away with them.

I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen an impatient shopper approach a kind check-out lady who smiles at them, says hello, compliments their choice of gifts, talks to them about their day. In a moment, the shopper’s mood changes. Instead of frowning, they’re smiling and having a nice conversation.

You want to know what grace looks? Well, there you go.

The check-out lady not only rang up their purchases, she also put a little bit of herself into the transaction, too. And it affected the other person.

Our kindness rubs off and sticks. So does the other stuff — the ways we treat others when we’re in a self-obsessed mood, when we’re negative and judgmental.

Even our indifference rubs off. When we ignore people who reach out to us or walk past someone without acknowledging them, we tell them they’re not worth our time or attention. And that also leaves a mark.

Our most intense hair-sharing moments involve our most intimate relationships. Often, the fur really flies.

So, too, does love.

Love leaves us covered in pieces of others. It’s a messy and amazing thing. Everyone who truly loves winds up covered with bits of others that rub off on them.

And they don’t seem to mind. In fact, they learn to like having parts of others attached to them. They feel naked if they don’t have strands of hair here, there and everywhere.

Maybe that’s one definition of love: Pulling others close enough and holding them tightly enough that we wind up covered in their hair. And they in ours.

Now, that’s not a popular idea these days, especially in our culture of individuality. We’re told to keep a safe distance from others. Don‘t let anyone get close enough to rub off on you, especially someone who needs you. Tell them to keep their hair to themselves.

Don‘t tread on me. Or shed on me.

We’ve become very good at avoiding others’ hair. And at using one of those sticky roller things to quickly whisk away any stray hairs that might somehow find their way onto us.

We stay very neat. And very alone.

Which is a real shame, because we miss out on so much of the really good stuff of life.

When someone entrusts a strand of themselves to us, we have a part of them with us always. Every moment, every day. Even when there’s a distance between us, they’re still on us and in us.

And that strand will cling tightly to us for as long as we choose to leave it there.

A piece of them and their love going with us everywhere.

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