What Has It Got In Its Pocketses?

       What we choose to carry with us every day is not a simple decision, and it often determines how well we can help someone solve a problem. If I have a pocket knife I can free you when you’re tied up by pirates, as well as open an important Amazon Prime envelope you’ve been expecting. If I have pen and paper I can capture those song lyrics we both love, as well as accurately record a complicated Chick-fil-A order so as not to disappoint the granddaughters.

        One my creative mentors, Austin Kleon, wrote about artist and painter, David Hockney, who had a special pocket sewn into his suit coats for a sketchbook, and the musician Arthur Russell who had pockets sewn onto his shirts so he could carry around a pen and a pocket notebook for musical ideas. My own example? I carry 3x5 cards in my pocket, folding lengthwise, for taking notes and recording observations, a practice I learned from Anne Lamott.

       But unless I am willing to wear a utility belt (or its cousin, the fanny pack) or carry a man purse (murse?) I am limited to carrying only what will fit in my pockets. That requires picking and choosing.

       I used to carry a book everywhere all the time, meaning I was not only entertained but also productively engaged whenever I was stuck waiting at the doctor’s office, or airport, or ballet class, or at a red light. Then one day to my displeasure and embarrassment I realized I had shifted from reading good books while waiting to relying on marginal entertainment on my phone. I had traded enlightenment for distraction.

       So I stared carrying a book again. But it was harder to keep up with and more cumbersome than I remembered from the old days. Then I had a bright clever idea, only ten years after everyone else had it, to use my phone to read eBooks. I put the App on the front screen to make sure I saw it often. I know it sounds goofy nerdy but since installing the app I’m feeling better about my pockets.

       What am I carrying in my pockets today?

       Wallet: an assortment of plastic cards (security key, Cracker Barrel, insurance, Visa, Library), Driver’s License, $37 in cash (plus my secret stash))

       3x5 cards

       Pen: Energel 0.7mm, blue, with a cap so it won’t leak in my pocket

       Change: $ 0.42 (two pennies, two nickels, and three dimes)

       Keys: Toyota Tacoma, house, Midland Yoga Works, office, mailbox (I used to have a key to my church so I could get in at 6:00 am for Iron Men, but I loaned it to someone and I don’t remember who it was), small Swiss Army knife, “fish” symbol given to me in the 1990s to remind me whose I am. I’m stingy about adding anything to my key ring since it has to ride in my front pocket; every device or key has to earn its way onto the ring.

       My iPhone, which the closest thing to a MacGyver Swiss Army knife as far as solving daily problems and continually rescuing me. It’s my camera (which I didn’t even need to carry just a few years ago), computer, photo album (way better than the plastic fan-folds I used to carry in my wallet), address book, calendar, calculator, personal entertainment source, FM radio for NPR, alarm clock, Bible, map, GPS, dictionary, weather station, conversion chart, calorie counter, video viewer, cycling odometer, eBook reader, music tuner and practice tools, math conversions … and, I almost forgot, a telephone.

pockets.jpg

Whenever I empty my pockets on my bathroom counter I think about a song by Eric Bibb:

I got a pocket for my keys, a pocket for my cash

One for my ticket in case I got to leave town fast

My favorite pocket, you know the one I'm thinking of

It’s the pocket in my heart for your love.

 

I got a pocket for my pen, one for my book

A pocket for my glasses when I got to get a better look

But my favorite pocket, said it from the start

It’s the pocket for your love inside my heart.

 

I got a pocket for my comb, a pocket for my candy bar

One for my passport when I'm traveling that far

But my favorite pocket fits just like a glove

Is the pocket in my heart for your love.

(Pockets, by Eric Bibb

How about you? What do you carry with you every day?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Need Directions?

       Last month I spent a week in Santa Fe, one of my favorite places to visit, yet also one of the most confusing towns I ever drive in. I must be getting smarter about it though, since on this trip I never got lost more than twice any one day.

       It’s obvious to me that early Santa Fe street planning, assuming there was any, was dominated by free-spirited hippies rather than actual traffic engineers. There are only two major roads in Santa Fe that pretend to follow cardinal directions. St. Francis goes mostly north-south, and St. Michael goes sort of east-west. All other roads meander haphazardly. Even Interstate 25, the one that bisects the United States from El Paso, Texas, to northern Wyoming actually runs east-west along the southern part of Santa Fe.

       I used to drive around Santa Fe with a map on my lap and a phone book beside me, and whenever I got lost I pulled over, looked up the address of the business I was in front of, cross referenced it to the map, and learned how far off my plan I had drifted. Now I use the navigation system on my phone, usually Google Maps, and the firm but sweet-voiced woman who lives inside the app tells me when and where to turn, so I get lost only half of my trips instead of all my trips.

       However, I miss having a city-map-sized view. I need a big picture to understand where I am, and navigation systems provide only real-time fine-grained detailed information. I’ve traded knowing my place in the world for not getting lost, which pleases anyone riding with me, but I’m not convinced my life is better for it.

Santa Fe 1.jpg

       There might be another aspect to getting lost that I’m forgetting. Sometimes, when we set out on a journey, we don’t really know where we’re going until we get there, or what we’re searching for until we find it. Paul Myers wrote, “Straight-line thinking, even in its most benign state, is a world without the mystery, the danger, and the wide boundaries of love.” (Rooster in the Cathedral)

Retreating

       I’ve learned to turn out-of-town trips, like my week in Santa Fe, into retreats – a deliberate step away from the details of everyday life, a chance to refocus on the bigger view. When I spend most of my time alone, my brain changes. When my pace and place change, I think new thoughts. I come back home with fresh to-do lists and observations, often based on ordinary details I’d’ve ignored or passed over at home.

       In my archives I still have a rose-colored paper place mat with scalloped edges, from a restaurant in Farmington, NM, from an engineering workshop in 1998. I was fresh from a lecture about coal gas completions, which I followed with a run along the Anima River, and my brain was firing off ideas like a string of Black Cats. On that place mat I wrote ideas and plans that still alter my life trajectory even today, twenty years later.

       I need, I crave, these frequent pullbacks from my normal days. Whether in Santa Fe, or Dallas, or the Guadalupe Mountains, they settle my thoughts and replace old with new. The provide the big picture I need and keep me from losing my way.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Running With God For Forty Years

       Once, I read in John 13, about a time when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and asked, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” I wrote in the margin of my Bible: “Almost never.” I seldom understand what Jesus has done for me in real time; only later when I look back can I hope to grasp the significance.

       May 2018 has been a looking-back do-you-understand-what-I-have-done session for me. It marks forty years since I first started running, one of the most unexpected decisions I ever made. Having done nothing athletic up until that point in my life, it was an unpredictable and unbelievable change that forever altered my trajectory.

       I started running in May 1978 for one reason: to win back the heart of a girl. As it turned out, I was successful. I’ve been married to Cyndi for almost 39 years. What I never anticipated when I took those first steps down the sidewalk was how God would use running to speak into my heart. I’m a better man because I run, I’ve become a deeper and more consistent follower of Jesus.

Berry 2.jpg

       Through the years I’ve had friends who take up running after they hear me describe my spiritual encounters, and typically report back they never heard from God, but heard instead the voice of The Resistance telling them to go back home this was too hard and hot and painful and stupid and they should stop right now. Why is it different for you, they ask.

       Not because I was a good runner. Even though running has been an important part of my life, I have never had any talent. For forty years I’ve been a stumbling plodder who’s only skill was I wouldn’t quit. Nowadays, what I call running looks more like unskilled race-walking to the casual eye.

       So how did an awkward non-spiritual hobby like running become spiritual practice? For me it was running three miles every day, and then later five miles every day, in harsh weather, brutal dusty winds, cold rain, or threatening Texas heat. The intentional repetition eventually moved running from  a discipline of my will to feeding my heart; moving my feet and legs was a calming influence that allowed my mind to wander toward God. It didn’t happen quickly. It took a lot of miles.

       Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (NIV) There’s more to guarding our hearts than merely avoiding evil. Erwin McManus compared guarding our hearts to building core strength. Anyone who has worked out in the gym under an instructor for the past ten years, or read a magazine article about getting stronger, knows that everything comes from our core strength. In the fitness world, it is all about core strength training nowadays. It’s important in the spiritual context as well.

       Proverbs doesn’t give specific instructions how to watch over our heart. For sure, it means to pay attention to relationships and influencers and activities, to know that what goes into our life tends to stay with lasting consequences. For me, running put both meditation and adventure into my heart, as well as fitness and strength.

       Currently I do more cycling than running. I’m not completely happy about that yet, but I’m giving cycling a chance. The only things I’ve done longer than running are loving Cyndi, playing music, reading, and following Jesus. We’ll see what happens with cycling.

       I first started running in 1978 to win the heart of a girl, but instead, I found God. He chose running to be one of the places he revealed himself to me. Through my time alone, on my feet, the God of my parents and my grandparents became my God. It was on the road and on the trail that my relationship with God became personal. We developed a friendship which grew bigger than church and deeper than rules of behavior.

 

       Follow this link if you’d like to read more about running with God.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

A Forty Year Story

       Last Sunday morning I skipped church and drove to the lake. Not to fish, but to run. I parked in one of the lots on the west side of White Rock Lake in Dallas, about halfway between the north and south ends, and assembled my gear. I was running the lake by myself this time; Cyndi was attending a weekend yoga workshop.

       Circling a lake is a commitment. There are no shortcuts home. You have to run all the way around, no matter how tired you might be. And this trail is nine miles around. I knew I'd be stiff, sore, and thirsty by the time I got back to the car, so I had my Advil and large drink ready. After all, I was increasing my regular distance (and by regular, I mean once a week at most) by 200%.

Path 4.jpg

       My first time to run at White Rock Lake was in December 1985, during my attempt at the Dallas White Rock Marathon. Sadly, I dropped out of the race at mile 15 due to plantar fasciitis in my right foot. I returned in December 1987 with a van-load of friends and we all completed the marathon together. It was my second marathon finish and still stands as my personal best time.

       Once, in February 1998, when Cyndi and I visited Dallas to celebrate her fortieth birthday, we awoke at 7:00 AM and drove to White Rock Lake for a morning nine-miler. The trail was full of people just like us, wearing clothes just like us, and it was invigorating to be around so many other distant runners. The energy in the air was contagious. Later, after the adrenaline wore down and the sweat stopped dripping, Cyndi and I drove to La Madeleine for a low-impact breakfast in front of the fireplace. After that, we planned our Dallas trips around finding time to run at the Lake. Of course, Cyndi always ran off and left me, but since we drove to and from the lake in the same car it seemed like we were doing it together. Those mornings are some of our favorite stories.

       This run, last Sunday, on the final weekend of April, was something I'd been planning for weeks. I was celebrating a big anniversary. Forty years ago, in May 1978, I started running. I'd just completed my first senior year at the University of Oklahoma when I returned home to Hobbs, New Mexico to work as a summer engineer for Getty Oil Company. Within my first week I realized my plans for the summer were in trouble: the girl I'd dated the previous summer, who attended New Mexico Junior College, and whom I'd hoped to date again, had been seeing a track-and-field jock during the school year. A javelin thrower, of all people. How could I compete for her attention against a guy like that? I needed something besides good grades in college to win her back.

       After analyzing my dilemma, I did something uncharacteristic for me - something that shaped the rest of my life. I decided to run. If I intended to compete with a jock for the affections of Cyndi Richardson, I had to do something physical, and running was the easiest thing I could think of. It was the first voluntary run of my life. In fact, other than an occasional touch football game or church softball game, it was my first voluntary attempt at any sport besides ping pong.

       I ran almost every day that summer in Stan Smith Adidas tennis shoes (a big mistake) and Levi cutoffs (an even bigger mistake). Eventually, after beating my knees and chafing my legs, I realized the importance of buying real running shoes and better shorts.

       My campaign to win Cyndi's heart proved successful in spite of my marginal performance as an athlete. I suppose it was my charm that she fell in love with. By August I was enjoying my daily runs, so I kept it up when I went back to school. And surprisingly, I stuck to it; I ran four or five times a week that entire school year. Never in my wildest imagination did I anticipate that daily running would become instrumental in how I lived my life, how I planned my time, where I traveled for fun and leisure, how I met my friends, and how I ended up serving in local government. The daily dose alone on my feet became an integral part of my next forty years. In fact, those nine miles last Sunday morning pushed my lifetime total to 37,495 miles. And yet, all I wanted on that day in May 1978, when I put on my shoes and stumbled through three miles, was to win back a girl.

       Some of the most important decisions we make are the stories we choose to live with. I often worry that, as a writer and as a teacher, I fall too often on the same old stores time and time again. Surely, I must be boring people in my repetition. Even worse, I hear myself telling the same old stores to Cyndi, most often stores of our early days when we first fell in love with each other. And when I read back through old journals I am surprised how often I write about running at White Rock Lake or Lady Bird Trail, or about trips up the same old trails in the Guadalupe Mountains, or even the same stores from my Daily Bible. And, well, here I am, writing about a forty-year story once again.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

What Are You Willing To Do?

       Bob and I were having another of our rambling conversations about oil and music and theology and family when Bob asked, “If you could wave a magic wand and become best in the world at one specific thing, would you choose your career or one of your hobbies?”

       We both agreed: we’d use it on a hobby. Bob said he asks that question often and everyone says the same thing, hobby. “So where would you wave it?” he asked again.

       As a writer? Maybe. I’d like to have a worldwide audience, but being the world’s best comes with expectations. Would I be content investing hours each day to writing? And if I did, wouldn’t that turn writing into my career, no longer a hobby? Would that ruin it for me?

       Or would I wave the wand to be the best teacher? I’ve always wished I could learn languages quickly and do voice impressions … I don’t know if that would make me a better teacher but I’d have more fun teaching.

       Bob said his answer would be playing the guitar, and he suspected mine would be music as well. Would I wave my magic wand to become the world’s best trombone player? Maybe. But I’m only interested if it’s jazz.

       Part of the problem with answering the question is this: absolute phrases like best in the world are paralyzing. For example, it’s hard to tell someone your favorite movie, easier to list a few of your favorites. What if, instead of best in the world, Bob changed his question to ask: “If you could wave a magic wand and improve something by 100%, what would you choose? Where would you double your current skill level?”

       That sent me down the question-asking rabbit hole. What if I knew for a fact that I could double my skill level at something if I put in my 10,000 hours of directed practice? Would it be worth the trouble?

       Now, unlike waving a magic wand, I have a scenario that’s much more likely. I’m certain I could double my skill level at – anything – if I put in the practice. Unfortunately, that puts the pressure back on me and my own desires … takes the magic wand completely out of the picture. What am I, personally, willing to do to get better?

       Anders Ericsson wrote this in his book, Peak, the reason most people don’t possess extraordinary capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity, but because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rest of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of good enough.

       Ouch.

beginner band.jpg

Becoming a Beginner

       I had lunch with David this week, and as always he challenged me. He brought a couple of magazine articles he’d copied and highlighted because he knew they were the sort of thing I liked to read and think about. And also because the articles spoke to recent personal changes both of us have experienced while reading the current Iron Man book, A Praying Life, by Paul Miller.

       One of the magazine authors, James Petersen, described a core principles of life: “One should always be on a learning curve.” He wrote that “to be on the learning curve you must be willing to be a beginner again, to wrestle with skills not entirely under your control.”

       That sounds easy enough except people like me go to great lengths never to be a beginner at anything. Certainly not a beginner in public. Like most men I will step aside and give up opportunities rather than let people see me, and judge me, as a beginner.

       David reminded me that I had recently started taking trombone lessons for the first time in forty-two years and wasn’t that a beginner move for me. He was correct. I made the decision to start over, listen to someone else’s advice and be willing play like a beginner in front of people because I knew that’s what it would take to get better.

       As it turns out, David is one of those friends who listens too closely to the stories I tell, and then remembers those stories for too long, and reminds me of them all too often. I’m blessed to have friends like him.

       If I want to break free from the homeostasis of everyday life, and radically improve what I do, I have to become a beginner, whether that is in music, or writing, or teaching, or loving, or even engineering.

       How about you? Would you be willing to be a beginner at something to break through to the next portion of your learning curve? What would be on your list … learning a new language, writing a novel, cycling, juggling, skydiving, throwing pottery, drawing, piano, guitar, stand-up comedy?

       Care to join me? Let me know which learning curve you’ve jumped aboard and we can hold each other accountable. Maybe, together, we’ll double our skills.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Turbulence

       It was windy when I left home on my bike last Tuesday for a quick midday ride. But the air was clear; no dust.

       To be honest, the northwest wind was significant and I knew I’d have to fight it the entire way, but I’d been dormant long enough. I needed to move.

       I road my regular route to GreenTree only to discover the main boulevard was being rebuilt. Half the road in both directions had been scraped down to the caliche base, meaning if I wanted to go my regular route I’d have to bump across a three-inch deep canyon and dodge giant road-building equipment. I was certainly on the wrong bike for that sort of thing, so I modified my route using the unaltered roads and found the distance I was looking for.

“The wind shows us how close to the edge we are” … Joan Didion

       Pleased with my problem solving ability and manly wind-fighter legs, I headed back home on Wood Street. About two blocks east of Midland Drive I looked to the northern horizon and saw an epic Dust-Bowl-Days wall of sand blowing toward Midland. It was frightening, so the first thing I did was stop and take a photo, since no difficult task or situation goes undocumented nowadays. Then, I stood up on my pedals and took off for home. Could I make it home before the sand overtook me? We’d soon find out.

sandstorm.jpg

       A couple of drivers slowed as they passed me, lowering their windows and shouting advice while pointing at the approaching storm, assuming, I suppose, I hadn’t noticed it or else I wouldn’t be out riding. They wanted to talk to me, but I had no time for conversation. I was in a race against nature.

       I almost made it. I was about a half-mile from my house when the headwind and sand hit me full on, instantly dropping my speed from 15 mph to 7 mph.

“You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone born from above by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” (John 3:8, The Message)

       Here’s the thing: It makes no sense to complain about the wind or sand. Having lived in West Texas for 53 of my 61 years, I have no excuses. Only a fool would be surprised about something as permanent and persistent as the wind. I either keep my bike in the garage until perfectly calm days, which are few, or take on the challenge.

       I use to dream of a laminar-flow life where my projects flowed smoothly through the days and weeks in unbroken parallel streams with no turbulence, like cycling on a dead-calm day. That seemed ideal to me. Who wouldn’t want a life like that?

       However, through the years I’ve learned most of my creativity comes from turbulence. That’s why I write so much about struggle and hard work. I doubt I’d have much to write if life suddenly went laminar. After an essay or two about how peaceful I felt, I would be done.

       And I often hear people complain about the roller coaster nature of life, the constant up and down, over and over. But a roller coaster on flat level ground wouldn’t be much fun. I doubt we’d ride more than once.

       My pursuit of God is born in turbulence, too. I’m afraid I would forget about God if I didn’t have to beg Him for help on a regular basis, every time I felt the wind and sand in my face.

       Had I known the wall of sand was eminent I wouldn’t have gone riding last Tuesday. But I’m glad I did.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

How Do You Pray?

       I was in Dallas, sitting next to Cyndi in the Love Field food court, waiting for our connecting flight home from skiing with family in Brighton, Utah, just after we gave our granddaughters back to their mother, reading from Joshua 18, when Joshua was dividing up the land among the tribes of Israel after they had conquered the area.

       Joshua 18:1-3 “The country was brought under their control, but here were still seven Israelite tribes who had not yet received their inheritance. So Joshua said, “How long will you wait before you begin to take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has given you?”

       God had given them land, but seven of the twelve tribes had failed to take possession of theirs. Joshua was losing patience.

       Earlier that week, before our trip, I read from Joshua 1, when Moses died and God turned leadership over to Joshua. I’m always struck by the suddenness of Joshua’s promotion, “Moses my servant is dead. Now then you,” and I’ve written about how we should be prepared when our turn comes.

       But when I read it this time I noticed something else, a different sentence a few words later, “I will give you every place where you set your feet,” implying the size of their blessing depended on how far they walked, or whether they kept pushing out the boundaries.

       I wondered if that was my story, too. Was I failing to ask God for what he has been wanting to give me? I often go round-and-round wondering how to pray for the books I’ve written. Do I humbly ask God to put them in front of the few people who need them and be content with that, or do I pray that they sell mightily around the world? I believe I write the words God gives me, and I believe that people benefit from reading, but it scares me to pray for big book sales. It makes me feel selfish and egotistical. Am I praying for my sake, or for God’s sake?

       One of my favorite authors and influences seems to tell me I should pray for inspiration and then let God decide the results. Another says I should pray boldly for God-sized miracles, so huge everyone will know that success can’t be because of me and my ability but must be the hand of God.

       In Joshua 1, God said he would give the people any place where they set their feet; the size of their nation depended on how far they walked. To stop too soon would be to shortchange themselves.

       Is God wondering when I will start walking out my edges, or taking possession of what he had already given? Is he waiting for me to ask? Is he wanting me to pray for bigger things?

23325_1514102257196_7416955_n.jpg

       In Iron Men, we have been reading A Praying Life, by Paul E. Miller, and recently we discussed the two biggest errors most often made when praying: either we ask selfishly, or we don’t ask at all.

       I’d fallen exactly into this trap. I was so afraid of praying selfishly, of slipping into a name-it-claim-it prosperity message, I didn’t ask at all. How could that possibly be the right answer?

       It’s time for me to grow up and follow God’s directive to Joshua, “every place you set your feet,” and assume God won’t bless unless I walk it out, unless I pray it out.

       What would that look like? I don’t know. My vision gets blurry quickly. I don’t see myself writing prize-winning or best-selling books. I can’t see that far over the horizon yet. I also don’t expect writing to be my sole source income. In fact, I don’t do my best work if writing is all I’m doing. I need the interchange of ideas and personal contacts that come when I am doing engineering work. Cyndi once told me, “Your writing gets small when you spend all  your time alone, when you aren’t working for someone else.”

       I used to pray that God would sell 1,000 books every month, and that as a result I would be invited around the county to speak. I don’t know if 1,000 books a month is outrageous, but in my mind,  it is a god-sized dream that only God can accomplish. I don’t know if lots of speaking engagements is best for me or my family or current ministry commitments, but I am open to the possibility.

       I think that should be my prayer going forward. What do you think? How do you pray?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Gathering Treasure

       There is a Spanish saying often used by pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Caminares atesorar, to say, “To walk is to gather treasure.” It isn’t only true for walking, though. We gather treasure when we pay attention.

       Last week, Spring Break for Texas, we spent some quality time with our family, specifically our two granddaughters, skiing at Brighton, Utah.

       We had a great time. There was plenty of snow on any trail we cared about, and no lift lines. We squeezed as much skiing into three days as we could want, and we even got fresh snow on our last day. This was our first time to ski in Utah, but I doubt it will be our last.

ski 3.png

       Our original plan was to ski at Santa Fe, which we’ve done the previous two Spring Breaks, mostly because they have an excellent kid’s ski program. But since New Mexico didn’t get enough snow this year, we cobbled together enough Southwest Airlines points to get us all to Salt Lake City, all seven of us: Tonya and Kevin and friend Wade, Cyndi and me, and Madden and Landry.

       We stayed in the Brighton Lodge, a ski-in-ski-out place located very near the lifts. Their webpage says it “offers comfortable rustic hotel-style accommodation;” It reminded me of a European youth hostel, with small rooms and a shared commons area. Our stay felt like a college trip with every flat surface covered by a sleeping person. We had to step over suitcases and around gear and each other to maneuver to the bathroom or front door. The commons area was shared by all the guests, so the first morning both granddaughters, still in their pajamas, ate their cereal while surrounded by a half-dozen men from Argentina. “Your girls are beautiful,” they said.

       Since we had seven people (including two teen-aged boys) and three beds, deciding where we would sleep was our most complicated puzzle. After discussing several options, including making the boys sleep outside, the best solution had me sharing a queen-sized bed with the two girls, 8 and 4-1/2 years old, which means I slept on the outside 8” and the girls tossed around the other 52“. We were usually so tired after skiing all day we fell asleep right away so the beds didn’t matter very much anyway.

       One night I was reading in bed while trying to quieten the girls when the youngest, Landry, asked, “Pops, are you stuck on a word?” In her preschool no one reads silently, so her only possible explanation for me holding a book without making a sound would be if I were stuck trying to pronounce a word. She offered, “All you have to do is sound out the letters one at a time.”

ski 4.png

       Thomas Merton wrote, “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” Quality time happens when we are paying attention to each other, and to the details of daily life.

       For Cyndi and me, this phase of our skiing life began three years ago, when the idea of teaching the next generation popped up. That first time, we dug our gear out of the trunks we’d stored in the attic; we were the height of 1990s fashion for three days.

       Skiing used to be a big part of our life. Cyndi and I skied together before we were married, and we started skiing with our kids when they were very young. But even more than skiing itself, we love family traditions and family stories, and we’ll go to great lengths to repeat and reinforce those.

       During this past year I picked up the term, trans-generational, to describe how we should apply our priorities in life to things that will last generations. I’ve even started re-framing some of my life goals to meet that criterion. Cyndi and I want to invest in our family, to influence them toward a deeper and richer life with God. That includes granddaughters and teen-aged nephews. And last week, it included skiing.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

All the Way to the End

       As I approach the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, people have asked how I’m doing. And the truth is, I am doing just fine. Dad died well. He left no accounts unsettled, whether financial, emotional, or family. He did what he loved best all the way to the end: cycling up to his last two weeks, and cracking jokes up to his last five days.

       Oliver Sacks wrote in his small but profound book, Gratitude, “When my time comes, I hope I can die in harness, as Francis Crick did.” (Crick died at 88 from colon cancer, still fully engaged in his most creative work all the way to the end.) I like this contrast: retiring in leisure, which might be calm and peaceful, versus dying in harness, which sounds fun, adventurous, and fulfilling. I prefer the latter.

       Sacks left me wondering what would dying in harness look like for me? Does it mean I might die …

       … at my engineer desk, working on a problem, face pressed into my computer keyboard?

       … at some Whataburger booth, while writing in my journal? If so, I hope whatever I am writing is good and not stupid. I don’t want people to think my writing became so incoherent I committed suicide in the restaurant rather than keep trying.

       … on my bicycle? If so, I hope I have a heart attack and slip off into the barrow ditch, and not get blown away by some big truck while the driver is texting. And I hope I’m flying with a tailwind so at least I’ll be smiling.

       … while hiking? That would be great. Of course, it might be days before they find my body, which could be unpleasant for the finders.

       … while playing trombone? I usually play in public so it would be traumatic. Especially if I keeled over while on stage at church. (We actually had a musician go down during a Sunday morning worship service in December; fortunately, he has recovered and rejoined the orchestra.)

       … climbing the stairs in my office building? Again, it might be a long time before I am missed and even longer before I am located in a seldom-used stairwell. I suppose if they find my pickup abandoned in the parking garage someone would think to look in the stairs.

       … while teaching? It would be dramatic, that’s for sure, and it might leave emotional scars on my class. I would hope to go out while making a significant point.

       … while skiing? Crashing into a tree would be preferable to having a heart attack while riding the lift and leaving hundreds of people stranded while the ski patrol unloaded me from the chair.

       Of course, Sacks didn’t mean he wanted to literally be in harness when his time comes, but he wanted to be actively engaged in the important things of his life all the way to the end.

Bear Trap.jpg

       Sacks also wrote about his own father, who lived to age ninety-four, and who often said “the eighties had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”

       I’m certainly not in my eighties, yet. I still have another third of my life to go before then, but regardless of where I might be on my timeline, with each passing year I feel the same enlargement of mental life and perspective experienced by Mr. Sacks.

       I recently pulled my copy of Soul Salsa, by Leonard Sweet, from my bookshelf, to browse through it again. I first read this book in 2005, and then used it in Iron Men that same year. I found some notes I’d written in the front of the book: “As I get older, I want to: lean forward not backward, be less dogmatic, default to grace, give away more (money, time, energy, creativity, life (music, books, insight)).”

       The Apostle Paul admonished in 2 Corinthians 8:11, “Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. (NIV)” Maybe that is what staying in harness all the way to the end of life really means. We should stay engaged in the purpose and calling God has given to us, finishing as strong as we began.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Favorite Things

       Last week I got to combine three of my favorite things: hanging with good men, skiing, and teaching.

       I was part of my church’s men’s ski trip to Crested Butte, Colorado. It was great: the group of men was great, the structure and organization was great, the leadership was great, and the skiing was great.

Watching Out For Each Other

       I was surprised how much of the time we all ten skied together. My experience with groups has been they quickly divide themselves by skill and speed, but this group stayed together, helped each other, and watched out for each other.

ski 1.jpg

       Paul gave me skiing lessons the first day, helping with traverse positioning and deliberate weight transfer, and Stacy drug me up and down the mountain the third day, testing my courage and stretching my skills. The second day, however, was when I lost my mind and reverted to old bad technique, which is one more argument why this introverted solitude-lover needs to be around other men.

       Personally, skiing felt better than I remember from previous trips. I never got winded (only afterward, when climbing the stairs to our fourth-floor condo), and my legs and quads didn’t burn out on me like they used to do. My new knees (which are now 2-1/2 years old) performed perfectly, as they continue to do. I give credit to lots of cycling miles ridden and office stairs climbed for me not getting tired or sore.

       Here’s the thing: I’m not an athlete. My only native athletic skill is perseverance, which might be better described as stubbornness. In all my physical pursuits – running, backpacking and hiking, cycling, skiing – I’m at the intermediate level at best. Through the years I’ve learned enough basic techniques so I can perform at a level that keeps me happy (and keep up (mostly) with Cyndi), but I have none of the natural athleticism needed to excel.

       But having said that, I left with the first group up the mountain each morning, and skied until the lifts closed each afternoon. It’s our family tradition. The Simpsons start vibrating if the lifts are running and we are still goofing around at the base. Some of the guys  in our group quit early so they could enjoy the hot tub, but not me. I don’t care that much about hot tubs unless I have a hot date.

Soul Planting

       I taught each evening on how we can become more resilient. I mentioned three deliberate things we should incorporate into our daily lives, things that will help us respond and persevere through the ups and downs: (1) daily spiritual practices that become lifelong habits, (2) living with gratitude and generosity, and (3) learning to forgive and redeem our past stories. I picked this topic the same way I always pick topics, I teach on whatever I myself need most to hear.

       However, teaching is only a small part of a retreat. I’m confident that God will speak to us no matter what I teach, because he offers grace, insight, and wisdom when we do the things we love. According to Thomas Merton, “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)

All My Best

       Like I said, it was a great week of doing my favorite things. What more could I want?

       Well, there is one thing …

       As much fun as I had, it was a bit hollow and lonely skiing without Cyndi. We’ve been skiing together since 1978, and this is only the second trip where one of us went and the other didn’t. The other time, Cyndi skied and I stayed home with the kids, sometime in the 1980s, a long time ago.

       All of my best ski memories have Cyndi in them. Last week I didn’t know who to share clever ideas or spry observations with. I didn’t know who to kiss while riding the lift. I didn’t know who to sing to while cruising the flats. (Our traditional song is an ancient one by Delaney and Bonnie: I’ve Got A Never-Ending Love For You). And no one wanted to share Snickers on the lift, which is something Cyndi and I’ve done for forty years.

ski 2.jpg

Thank You

       Thank you, God, for blessing us with fun things. Thank you for keeping us safe and injury-free; thank you for giving us a heart to enjoy each other and to learn about you; and thank you, in the midst of this uncertain world, for giving us one more turn to do what we love.

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32