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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Unadorned Enchantments

Following a thunderous rain my granddaughter, Lori, and I left the house to play in the neighborhood creek. We put two matchbook boats side by side in the stream. We ran as quickly as we could to the footbridge crossing the creek and watched the progress of the two little boats. 

Although these boats were identical in size and structure, one boat quickly sailed under our footbridge while the other boat bumped along slowly was caught in a hydraulic force and spit into an eddy where it stalled.

“Pop, how come that boat kept going and the other one got stuck?” Lori asked.

Wanting Lori to be the smartest kid in gym class I said, “According to scientists studying chaos theory, it’s due to deterministic non-periodic flow.”

“That’s what I thought,” replied Lori. “I think I’ll go ask Mimi.”

I never discovered Mimi’s answer, but Lori’s dilemma presents some difficult questions: 
  • Do we just spin through life like matchbox boats? 
  • Does the outcome of our life depend on the currents of fate or the structure of our life or something else? 
  • Are our actions determined? 
  • Do we have free will to sail the streams of our choosing? 
  • Why are our lives so unpredictable? 
  • Why does the kid voted most likely to succeed spend his life under a park bench while the class clown wins the Noble Prize?

I strolled home considering these questions. As soon as I stepped over the threshold of our home, the aroma of freshly baked cookies wafted from the kitchen where I found Mimi and Lori taking the first batch from the oven. “Have a cookie.” Lori said.  

Sometimes when we try to explain the unexplainable—nature and nurture, genetics and environment, normal and abnormal, we can thank God for oatmeal cookies.

And, fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a warm hug, an act of kindness, a word of encouragement, or the gentle touch of a loving hand, not to mention, sailboats, basketballs, violins, butterflies, and reading The Chronicles of Narnia to grandchildren before bedtime prayers. 

These and other simple pleasures, the nuances, the incongruities, the subtleties, are what give life value. They are the unadorned enchantments that frame our lives. 

That’s the best I can do to explain the wonder of human behavior. And so it is that a simple question from a child gives me the hopeful assurance of life’s richness for us all.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Breaking Home

After a friend told me her triumphant story, I asked her to write about her experiences in the hope that she could inspire others. A few weeks later I received nine single-spaced pages. She wrote how the task wearied and pained her. How “difficult it is to bare one’s soul.”  Yet at the same time, a powerful catharsis blessed her. We both pray that her experience will embolden others to walk away from abuse and enter a more peaceful world.
Among the rolling foothills of the Davis Mountains cradles a little-known West Texas treasure, the small town of Alpine, surrounded by ranches flowing with undulating waves of buffalo grass marked by grazing Santa Gertrudis cattle.

Felicity grew up on one of those green-grassed ranches. She rode the range, rounded up cattle, roped ‘em, and branded ‘em with her father by her side. She adored him with his tough yet tender ways and became deeply disappointed in herself when she failed to please him.

She excelled in rodeo barrel racing, but she was plump. Kids called her Fatty Filly, Sow Cow, and worse. In all of us those early childhood scars persist throughout a lifetime.

As ugly ducklings change into regal swans, dumpy little girls turn into beautiful princesses. High school days transformed her. Felicity reached every girl’s dream when she became a high school cheerleader and homecoming queen. She felt comfortable, befriended, and loved in Alpine. Following graduation she left her contained world for new adventures at the University of Texas.

Whoa! Every UT girl was a former cheerleader or a homecoming queen. Blond, blue-eyed, long-limbed girls with Pepsodent smiles and charm school ways populated the campus. Felicity felt smothered by confident beauties that breezed through calculus, composed flawless essays, and gave self-assured classroom speeches without a single stutter or an “and-uhh” hesitation.

Now you and I know that these template coeds don’t exist, but if you are from Alpine, or Dalhart, or Alto or any of the other small Texas towns all you see in Austin are the bold and the beautiful. You don’t see the flaws and the blemishes or the girls just like you, desperate to fit in.

You also see freedom. Her Zeta big sister introduced her to Tequila Sunsets and Sunrises. She liked them, but convenience soon made vodka tonic her favorite. A drink or two turned her life into a party, but once she had a drink she couldn’t stop.

Felicity’s first semester grades ended her sorority quest; her second semester earned her an academic pink slip. How could she return to Alpine? How could she face her beloved father? Her answer: a man. A man she had met in a 6th Street bar.

She was 18. Lester, handsome, fun, and romantic, had celebrated his 30th birthday. Felicity, grievously disappointed in herself, feeling inferior to her peers, surging hormones unrelieved, failed to see the warning signs. Lester was self-centered, controlling, and one bale of hay short of intelligent. After a two-month courtship Felicity married him.

She soon learned what Lester wanted: A pretty girl, a virgin, a Baptist, and most important someone who he could mold into a servant who cleaned his home, made his bed, cooked his meals, slept with him, gave him babies, and supported every decision he made. He ridiculed her in front of friends, blacked her eye, spit on her, and bullied anyone who inconvenienced or disagreed with him. Wine that she drank copiously and surreptitiously helped her endure.

In a few months her unexpected pregnancy interrupted her job search or thoughts of college re-enrollment. Her expanding girth and swollen legs escalated the verbal and emotional abuse.

Seven months pregnant, she packed a small bag, walked down the road to motel to call her parents. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t admit she had made another mistake by marrying Lester or tell them about the abuse. She was afraid Lester would kill her…or her parents. Her Baptist belief discouraged divorce. She couldn’t be the first in her family to end a marriage. Felicity had no money for the motel, no car, no way to escape. She returned home. 

Two years later another child was born. The children became her life. Lester’s frequent business trips brought temporary peace, but when he returned the abuse continued. School activities, PTA, and community service helped her suppress the foul verbal abuse. She wore long sleeved shirts and pantsuits in the blazing Texas sun to hide the bruises.

Finally, supported by her prayers and the Holy Spirit's presence, Felicity ignored Lester’s taunts about her ignorance and began to take courses at Austin College. Her good grades surprised her. Lester enraged by her success threw her across the room with such violence that she broke her left arm and three ribs. 

As she lay on the floor with their two 8 and 10-year old boys crying and screaming, “No, Daddy, no,” Lester sobbed for forgiveness. She refused. He left and slammed the door with such ferocity that one hinge detached, plants, china, and books flew off cabinets. Yet she stayed for two more years.

Why? Thousands upon thousands of women ask the same question each day. Why: Fear for their lives or those of their children, perhaps. No support. No money. No job. The continuous verbal and emotional abuses making them believe they deserve the beatings. Wretched self-esteem. Childhood sexual or physical abuse. The numbing effects of alcohol or drugs. A strange pitying love when their men whimper and plead for forgiveness. The yearning for resolution. The adventurous and fun-filled times.

Marriage counseling and encounters confirmed the marriage lie. She saw others living happily. Her children desired peace. She began to feel, with increasing fervor, the presence of God. Her department store work provided confidence…and some money. Finally after her manager screamed about her ignorance when she made a sale mistake, Felicity drove home enraged. The next day she filed for divorce.

After the divorce Felicity felt a strange, all consuming guilt. For an entire year Lester would call begging, pleading, sobbing for her to return. She felt pity for him, but remained resolute even though she continued to drink. She wrote:

“I wanted to teach from the time I was small. When my husband and I divorced, I knew I had to finish my degree and teach. My friends, supporters, and mentors helped raise my self-esteem and confirmed my conviction that I could be successful. While working, and raising two boys, I got my degree from Austin College with a double major in History and French. I was asked to teach French in several Austin high schools. My choice of West Lake was a great move.”

Felicity began dating man after man, looking for someone who would love her for who she was, not for what she gave. Her drinking escalated. At first she had wine at night. Soon she was putting liquor in her morning coffee.  She began watering down jugs of wine to hide her excessive drinking. She put bottles under her bed, stayed home from school more and more, and lied to protect her addiction. One day driving home from school she couldn’t find her house. Blackouts followed. Spiders appeared on her bedroom wall. Felicity continued to drink.

Staying home from school one day, drinking early in the morning, she phoned her father, an alcoholic too, who recommended Alcoholics Anonymous. That night, dressed in her finest clothes, she attended her first meeting. Most of the others there were uneducated, malodorous, tattered, and tattooed, making Felicity feel as out of place as Queen of Elizabeth branding cattle. But at the proper time, she stood and said, “Hi, I’m Felicity and I’m an alcoholic.”

Denial, excuse making, blaming are difficult to overcome. Replacing alcohol for AA strains self-belief: “I don’t fit in this group. I’m not like these people; I can stop anytime I want to; I don’t need help.”

AA, however, is more effective than a room full of psychiatrists or psychotherapists. Just going to meetings day after day. Just showing-up. Just listening takes effect.  At meetings one receives the support of those who know the difficulty of remaining sober and the value of sticking with the program. Over and over one hears AA mantras:

  • Attend 90 meetings in 90 days
  • Read the big book
  • Work the 12-steps
  • One day at a time
  • Get your sobriety chip
  • You are only one drink away from becoming a drunk again
  • Get a sponsor
  • Call someone when tempted to drink
  • Find new sober friends
  • Help others stay sober
  • Be pleased with your accomplishments while remaining humble about future challenges
All her life-long friends were, for the most part, alcoholics making it difficult to be around them. On a week hiking trip in Montana her old friend’s campfire drinking made sobriety miserable. Oh, how she wanted to drink with them.

Attending AA almost daily for the first six or so years of sobriety was crucial. As she developed new friends, cultivated her talents, became Christ centered, and had the Holy Spirit’s guidance Felicity began to attend meetings less and less. Now after over three decades of sobriety she no longer goes to meetings. Felicity warns, nevertheless, that almost all alcoholics do better when they stick to a lifelong AA plan.

As a child riding on the ranch, when fishing in the sparkling stream that ran through their land, when walking through the cedar that grew on their mountain hillside, Felicity felt the presence of the Holy Spirit—a warming of the heart, a tingling sensation of being loved. She wrote: “It was only when I drank that I lost any sense of God’s presence, though now, I realize he never left me. 

Soon after I joined AA the agonizing urge to drink occupied my mind and spirit. One night I had a terrifying vision of Satan. His deathly, dreadful, presence loomed over me, petrifying me. As his menacing apparition engulfed me, I screamed, 'In the name of Jesus Christ leave me.'

Satan vanished. I knew that Christ had intervened and saved me from the devil. I knew Christ was with me. He protected me. My urge to drink that night evaporated. 

Another time, I had a vision of a beautiful, radiant Jesus standing amidst feathery, alabaster clouds. I knelt before Him and accepted Him as my savior. There was warmth all around me, a surrounding glow that comforted me for several weeks. Christ gave me courage to continue my painful journey to sobriety."

To make enough money to send her sons to college, Felicity earned her Masters in School Administration from Southwest Texas State (now Texas State). After serving as a high school principle, she had saved enough money to follow a dream of designing and operating home entertainment functions. She knew that Austin’s high society would benefit from her special gift. Planning meals, designing invitations, arranging seating charts, hiring caterers, finding the proper musicians, and all the other details that make home entertaining successful was a difficult but fun and rewarding task. When her back gave way ending her business she wrote three books on entertaining at home.  

After many years she found the man she sought. A childhood rodeo friend she hadn’t seen for thirty years walked into the Big Bend Regional Medical Center hospital room where her mother lay dying. They began dating. Sam’s rugged good looks, his kind consideration for her family, his abiding Christian beliefs and most of all his unconditional love for Felicity erased her lack of trust in men. She calls her husband a renaissance man, a man for all seasons.

The Holy Spirit’s almost inaudible whispers gave her the courage to leave an abusive relationship. Earning two college degrees helped rub out “stupid,” words that Lester shouted year after year. The courage of her God allowed her to find a man who loved her and a man she could love in return.

As Felicity and Sam sat in the rocking swing on the old homestead’s veranda, she watched her 10-year old grandson, Clint, riding a colt in a distant pasture. When they crested a hillside, he turned the gelding and the horse bolted for home, Clint bouncing from side to side to side, almost slipping off the saddle, holding on, then almost falling again before getting his balance, leaning forward in rhythm with the colt as they glided toward the barn. She wrote:

“…. What a metaphor for my life. Now, after all those rocky years, I’m home again gliding along with a man who loves me, and with my Lord and my God cradling me in the saddle. Jesus Christ has brought contentment and joy to my life. Everything I have now, my blessed sons, their children, great grandchildren, dearest friends, home, a loving husband, are a gift from God, and I thank him for leading me to sobriety and opening my eyes to the real treasures of the world, all those positive things not found in a drink of alcohol.”


Monday, September 12, 2016

Time Passages

North of Taos the Alamosa Valley flattens the land west of Highway 38. In the distance across the sage brush desert one can see the beginnings of a cut sliced by the Rio Grande. The gash deepens as the River's icy knife chilled from the mountain snow carves through soft, volcanic rock forming the Grand Canyon of the Rio Grande. The narrow canyon walls tumble and twirl the river into Class IV & V rapids.

Several years ago my son, Brad, and I took a raft trip down this twisting canyon known as "The Box" by river guides. Just before we entered the most treacherous part of the river our guide steered us to the shallows where we paused to receive his safety instructions. He told us what to do if we got caught in an undertow or a hydraulic; how to sit and lean through the narrows--and "for goodness sake don't fall out of the raft here."

Not a second after we left the shallows our raft hit a bone jarring rock. I tumbled backward. My upper torso was in the river; a safety rope kept my legs inside the boat. The river undercurrent frustrated my efforts to pull my upper body into the raft. Brad braced himself, grabbed my life jacket with both hands and yanked me aboard.

Within a millisecond rapids plummeted our raft. Huge boulders flew by. Spray soaked us. The guide shouted instructions that we couldn't comprehend over the river roar. Then, suddenly, we were through. The river had sucked us into turmoil and then spit us into tranquil waters.

As we paddled the placid water my thoughts were on my son. When he was five I carried him on my back up the rocky cliffs of New Hope Creek near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We took our first raft ride together down the French Broad in West Virginia when he was nine. He had questions and wanted help with his life jacket, his paddle, his safety gear. I was his protector. He looked to me for strength and support. And now in a blink of an eye I had become dependent on him. He had rescued me from a concussion--or worse.

Our raft trip completed we rode up the canyon road to Taos in the Mountain River Adventure bus. Wet, tired, thirsty, and hungry, I looked back at my son sleeping peacefully, a slight smile of his face. I remembered, then, carrying his grandfather dying from leukemia from bed to bathroom. He who had once carried me when I was a babe had become too frail to rise from bed without my help.

From grandfather to father to son life flows at rapid river speed. We can better enjoy the trip when we ride with those whom we trust and love.

Phrases to Improve Communication

These phrases may help close a deal. Get a raise. Get a date. Improve relationships in a marriage. Bring you and you rebellious teenager together. Help a committee agree on a plan of action.

1. What prevents?

  • What prevents us from getting together?
  • What prevents us from agreeing with each other?
  • What prevents us from closing this deal together?
  • What prevents us from talking with each other for 15 minutes everyday?
  • What prevents us from having a weekend together away from the kids every two months?
  • What prevents us from ending meetings 10 minutes before the scheduled time?
  • What prevents us from having coffee together?
2.  What causes?
  • What is causing our inability to understand each other?
  • What is causing our inability to go for coffee together?
  • What is causing our inability to agree on a curfew time?
  • Is there anything I am doing that is causing hesitation in our getting together on this contract?
  • Is there anything of which I am unaware that prevents us from agreeing?
  • Is there anything that causes us from decreasing the number of meetings?
  • Is there anything that causes us from decreasing the length of meetings?
3.  What would happen if?
  • What would happen if we agreed on this contract together?
  • What would happen if we went out for coffee together?
  • What would happen if we got together at a specific time to talk for 15 minutes everyday?
  • What would happen if we agreed on a curfew?
  • What would happen if we as a committee decided to agree on this action plan?
  • What would happen if we had less meetings?
  • What would happen if we let you have the car keys every Saturday?
  • What would happen if we decided on a specific time for doing homework?
  1. What prevents you from using these suggestions?
  2. What causes you to hesitate to use these phrases?
  3. What would happen if you used these techniques?

Friday, September 9, 2016

When Disaster Strikes

Trees snap. Rooftops sail through the air. Cars tumble. Walls collapse. Water engulfs the land. A hurricane tears the shore asunder. An earthquake swallows cities. Terrorists threaten civilizations.

We will be tested. Our lives filled with prestige, power, possessions, ease, and comfort can suddenly be assaulted. Through no fault of our own, we can lose everything.

When we suffer loss our utmost trial may not be pain and misery, but, instead, our supreme challenge may come from trying to understand why God allowed us to suffer.

Until calamity plagues us we think we know all the answers. When disaster strikes we realize that our knowledge is like a like a drop of water in a vast and tumbling sea.

Only God knows exactly why things happen as they do. God, omnipotent and omniscient, may allow tragic events to unfold in ways that we fail to understand:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowlege of God!
How unsearchable his judgment,
And his paths beyond tracin out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God,
That God should repay him?
Far from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever!
                                                  Romans 11:33-36

When disaster strikes we can be comforted by God’s desire for our lives:
  • God’s intentional aspiration: that all of us would trust him, love and glorify him, and put him first in our lives.
  • God’s ultimate expectation: the redemption of man. Man returns to faith in God despite tragedy and hardship.  

To be in God’s will provides peace for three reasons: 
  1. We lose the fear of being alone and becoming overwhelmed. The dread of self-blame recedes. We consider tragedy and as an event that can bring us closer to God.
  2. In times of despair, discouragement, and defeat the love of God will give us hope in recovery. 
  3. He can give us courage, power, and the wisdom to soar, to surge, to rise above catastrophe. 
Human wisdom is always partial and temporary, but when we trust God, we will prevail. God has given us a spirit capable of forbearance and endurance.