Decluttering

       Friday morning I found a box at my front door containing a new pair of Wrangler Relaxed-Fit black jeans, which in my present phase of life have become my standard dress pants. I ordered them online because whenever I look for jeans in Midland the men’s sections are full of glittery fashion jeans with skinny legs designed for European waifs that sell for $100. I’ve opted out of those.

       However, buying a new pair meant I needed to move the old ones out of my closet and into the giveaway bag. This is a discipline that must be maintained for closet equilibrium and protection of the planet. If you don’t move stuff out when you bring new stuff in, before you know it, they are making TV documentaries about you.

       To be honest, I’m good about cleaning my closet on a regular basis. When I hang up a shirt fresh from the laundry I put it at the front of the line, so my clothes are sorted by frequency of use rather than color. That means if a shirt remains at the far end of the line for a season or two, it is time for it to go. I don’t throw the clothes in the trash, of course, I give them away. (I suppose I could sell them, but I find garage sales almost as irritating as clutter.)

       Putting two pairs of old black (now dark gray) jeans into the giveaway bag started the process, which I knew would happen, and by the time I was finished I had filled two large plastic bags with clothes. They are now destined for the Baptist Crises Center. I’m sure they’ll be worn more often in the future.

       Pruning my closet is an easy chore. I have dozens of hideaways full of stuff, and they are harder to declutter. I’m not good at distinguishing between the debris of the past that should be discarded from the building-blocks of the future that should be saved. I often spend too much energy worrying about whether to throw out something that has been part of my life, only to be surprised how quickly I learn to live without it once it is out-of-sight. And afterward it feels like fresh air, like I’ve finally stepped into the clearing. Author Gail Blanke wrote this in her book, Throw Out Fifty Things: Clean the Clutter, Find Your Life, “I don’t think we pay enough attention to the lighter, prouder feeling that comes from cleaning stuff out of our lives.” Well said.

       I read this book back in January 2011, and intended to make it an annual project. Alas, I haven’t. Maybe this closet project will put me back on track.

       Why bother? Well, for one thing, here is a photo of a throwing-out project I undertook when moving my parents from Hobbs to Midland. This was one of at least twenty similar loads. I hope to avoid this in my own future.

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       But a more important reason for decluttering is that it quickly moves beyond the physical into the rest of life. We begin to ask, what about the clutter in my mind? What about old regrets and resentments? What about those five-year-old to-do list items I haven’t finished yet?

       How do you decide what to throw out (knowing full well I’m not talking about black polo shirts)? Gail Blanke writes, “If it weighs you down, clogs you up, or just plain makes you feel bad about yourself, throw it out, give it away, sell it, let it go, move on.” She refers to all of that as life plaque and says we should routinely clean it out just like we regularly get plaque cleaned from our teeth.

       Pruning takes courage. There is a saying among backpackers: We pack our fears. We tend to carry too much stuff, both in volume and weight, because we are afraid of what might happen and want to be prepared for all contingencies. But all those extra items make the pack heavier and the journey harder.

       I’ve been thinking, and writing, about how to best live this third quarter of life - I expect continual pruning to be a major theme, throwing everything over the side that no longer matters to me: old habits, disciplines, goals, dreams – those ideas that defined who I used to be, but not who I want to be. I’m sure I’ll continue to bring new ideas and dreams onboard (maybe even new jeans) even as I’m lightening my load, but I want to streamline my passage.

 

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

Sacred Rituals

       Friday morning, Cyndi and I woke up together, after two snoozes on the alarm, and we immediately made the bed. It’s something we seldom fail to do no matter how busy our morning. I think we’ve made the bed every morning since we first got married. We even make the bed when we know our housekeeper will come and change the sheets later in the day; we’ve been known to do it when staying it in a hotel room. It seems important to maintain the practice.

       Occasionally, like last Friday when we get up at the same time, we make the bed together, one on each side of the bed. That is the exception, however. Mostly one of us does it by ourselves, whoever gets out of bed last.

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       I doubt I ever made my bed when I was a young boy. I don’t remember even noticing, much less caring about it. It became a habit for me, and also for Cyndi, when living in a dorm room in college, when all of life happened inside that small cramped space and a messed-up bed made the space seem even smaller.

       The practical reason we make the bed every morning is because it’s so much more pleasant crawling into made bed at the end of the day than to crawl into a mess of sheets and bedspread.

       The spiritual reasons for making the bed? It’s a small move toward consciously being present, noticing and settling our surroundings. It’s one way to take ourselves seriously, and an attempt to shape the day by starting it off with structure and aesthetic.

       Lately we’ve adopted a new wrinkle, so to speak, in our habit of bed maintenance. Whichever one of us goes to bed first, before we climb in, we remove the show pillows and turn down the sheets on the other side to make it easier for the other person. It’s a welcoming gesture, I suppose. And if Cyndi crawls into bed first she usually also turns on my reading light.

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       Leonard Sweet wrote in Soul Salsa about the “rituals of our lives that help us grow our own souls by modulating the mundane into the eternal.”

       I showed that quote to Cyndi and asked if she thought we had any rituals? Making the bed was the first thing she thought of. We probably had more rituals back when Byron and Katie were younger and lived at home with us. We certainly had a more predictable routine. Nowadays our rituals are mostly about taking care of each other.

       Besides making the bed, we thought about this: when either of us leaves the house, we don’t just yell “goodbye”, or leave and expect the other of us to know. We find each other and kiss goodbye, even if only making a quick errand run to the grocery store. Maybe one reason is because we are fully aware of the dangers in our world and how something sudden and fatal could happen to either of us so we what to at least have a last kiss goodbye. But I doubt this is the main reason. We aren’t that fearful or fatalistic. I think it has more to do with acknowledging the importance of each of us in the other’s life, of recognizing existence, saying, “Yes, I see you.”

       I don’t know if this is a ritual, but I’m crediting it as one: I won’t, that is to say I can’t, walk past Cyndi, whether in a crowded hallway or an open room, at home or at Rosa’s or at church, without brushing against her, dragging my hand across her back or her bottom. I try to be subtle and I doubt many outsiders notice it, but I do it every time. Why? I’m touching base; tagging up; reminding her I’m close; even more, that I notice her. I’m saying: I see you and I’m drawn to you and I’m still hot for you.

       Here’s another: we eat at least 99% of our home meals in the kitchen, with no distracting TV, even if we’re just eating a quick sandwich. Only occasionally will we eat in front of a movie, or a ballgame, or our laptops; a dozen times a year at most. I’ll admit that some of you who know us are shaking your head and wondering: When are you at home and NOT eating at Rosa’s or Jason’s. That would be an accurate observation. I don’t think we have any rituals for restaurants.

       However, I would add that Cyndi and I pray before meals, whether in public or at home, a practice we both learned from our families and it is definitely a sacred ritual. It’s a pause to recognize God as Lord of our lives and giver of all things, and acknowledgment we have been blessed.

       Sometimes when we are eating with other people who don’t have the same praying ritual, we will look at each other and let it pass. It isn’t our desire to make our companions feel awkward or uncomfortable. But just last week we were having dinner with a friend in San Angelo and she wouldn’t let us pass. She said, “Oh, you two always like to ask a blessing for the food, don’t you,” as she grabbed our hands.

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       Maybe it’s presumptuous to equate making the bed or kissing goodbye with rituals of our faith, but I feel like they are. For Cyndi and me, our biblical faith is tightly woven into our faith in each other. Sweet wrote, “The challenge of discipleship is to make one’s own life a sacrament, a sign of love and grace, a sacred gesture inserted in a world flaunting other gestures.” I believe our small gestures are indeed spiritual practices, disciplines we stick to so our hearts stay soft toward each other and toward God.

       How about you? What rituals do you have at home?

 

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

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Third Quarter

       Once again, I laid in bed wondering: Do I really wanted to get up and go for a long ride on my bike or stay horizontal for a bit longer? The truth was, I wanted to have already ridden, have it behind me, be proud of my accomplishment, relish bragging rights, and like that. I just didn’t want to get started.

       But I knew I was good for at least thirty miles, so why not go now. Most of my long rides start out this way – commit to the first half and see how I feel while I’m riding.

       I rolled away from my house at 8:30 am, surprised how cool it felt. The temperature was in the low 70s, unheard of for August. Even the wind was minimal. Why did it take me so long when this was perfect summertime riding weather?

       For the first two miles I was king of the road. I was amazing. I expected a call from Team Sky. But then I noticed more pebbles and ridges from the pavement than I should have. Flat tire. I slowed down and pulled into a paved alley where I could work without being in the street and seen by too many who might want to help.

       I quickly flipped my bike over onto handlebars and saddle, pulled the back wheel trying to avoid the grease and grime from my chain. I unzipped my under-seat bike bag and everything fell out. A new tube, a CO2 canister and pistol-grip, my small tool kit, some spare change, a pair of folding reading glasses, and something else I don’t remember.

       The tube went in perfectly and quickly, and I was proud of my dexterity, now wishing someone was there to observe and report. But when I tried to inflate the tube and tire, the plastic pistol-grip broke and the CO2 canister emptied explosively in my hand. (I used the word explosively as dramatic effect. It was a loud and surprising release, but not dangerous or as scary as I would’ve thought.) Luckily, I had my small six-inch back-up hand pump with me, and I used it to put in just enough air to ride back home.

       Back in the garage I used my floor pump to put 90 psi in the tire and tube, made a quick pit stop, reset my bike computer, put a new tube inside my bike bag, took a photo of my broken inflator and texted it to Cyndi since nothing in the 21st-Century goes undocumented, and rolled away again. It was 9:07 am.

       I didn’t have my second flat on the same wheel until four miles from home, somewhere along Mockingbird. I used my hand pump to add about 20 psi hoping I could get back home again, but as soon as I crossed the street and turned east I was flat again. I knew I had to change the tube. I was slowing down looking for a safe place when another rider pulled up behind me. “Looks like you’ve got a flat!”

       “Afraid I do.”

       “Well, pull over and we’ll fix it right now,” he said as he pulled over in front of me leaving me no choice but to stop immediately. I barely had time to unclip my shoe and avoid tumbling over into the barrow ditch. He was determined to rescue me. I don’t know if he thought I couldn’t do it myself, or if I was too lazy or too old, or if he was just the sort of guy who helps everyone with everything whether or not they want or need it. At least with two of us standing beside the road we made a larger image for passing motorists and decreased the likelihood of being swiped by a car.

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       I ran my fingers through the tire and discovered a very small yet persistent thorn that I’d picked up somewhere, an unusual occurrence for me. It had probably caused both flats. I should have found it the first time. I extracted the thorn, installed the new tube, he pumped up my tire with the small hand-pump, and I was back on the road to my house. When I got home this time I put my bike away. I was mentally disengaged. Done. Ready to move on to the next task of the day.

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       Back when I was in high school band and playing for football games, we’d play through our entire catalogue during the first two quarters, challenging the opposing band to better us, helping the cheerleaders with their cheers (when we weren’t making fun of them for not having rhythm). We worked hard at our job, which was to entertain our own fans and influence the outcome of the game by playing loudly whenever the other team had the ball.

       And then during halftime when most people left the stands to get a drink and a snack and go to the bathroom, we went down to the field and marched our halftime show that we’d been working on for weeks.

       But the band director usually gave us the third quarter off. He released us to go below the stands and enjoy a break. We’d earned it. We’d played well and loud and hard during the first part of the evening and now it was our time to relax.

       I’ve been working on my next book, and thinking about living in the third quarter of life, which is most-often defined as ages 50-75. I’m now at the midpoint of that interval, and happy about it. It’s a good place to live. But unlike my marching band days, I want to spend my third quarter playing instead of going below to relax.

       In his book, The Well-Played Life, Leonard Sweet proposes the big questions for each phase of life, and his third quarter questions are: “How can I become a master player and world changer? How can I be a coach to others? How can I be a healing presence for Christ in the world?” That’s where I want to play – within those questions.

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       I’m not sure how that fits with my Saturday morning ride and series of flat tires, but I should expect more mornings like that if I intend to keep moving. And I’m sorry for being such a grouch when I got help with my flat. I would apologize to my helper for my crankiness if I knew his name. One of the biggest third quarter lessons I have to learn is to let other people into my life more often.

 

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

To Make You Smile

      Cyndi and I married on July 28, 1979, so this summer is our 39th anniversary. A few years ago I realized one way to celebrate was to spread love around. We feel fortunate and blessed to have each other, and we want to share that with people close to us. So in 2007 I started giving away love songs.

      Music is a deep connection between Cyndi and me. We first met in a band hall in 1973 in Hobbs, NM; we rediscovered each other and started falling in love at a NTSU One O’clock Jazz Band concert featuring Bill Watrous, in Denton, TX, in 1976. We’ve been playing music together ever since.

      Falling in love often feels like accident. Maybe it is. But staying in love is a learned response, maybe even a spiritual practice. If listening to love songs reminds you how to be in love, shouldn’t we all listen more often?       I hope at least one of these songs will soften your heart and push you toward your own true love.

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      This is my 12th collection to give away. I expect there will be many more since I intend to stay with Cyndi for a long time, so I need your suggestions. Send them to me. Play this CD and dance with someone you love. It’ll make you smile.

 

What the people need
Is a way to make 'em smile
It ain't so hard to do if you know how
Gotta get a message
Get it on through
Oh now mama, don't you ask me why

Whoa listen to the music

 

PS: If you received this journal by email, and would like a CD, send your mailing address to berry@stonefoot.org.

Or find this playlist on Spotify!

 

1. Do You Wanna Do Nothing With Me?, Lawrence, 2017.

(Clyde Lawrence has composed songs for six movies, and was admitted to the Songwriters Guild of America at age six. Look up the band Lawrence and LISTEN TO EVERYTHING YOU CAN FIND. Amazing.)

2. Love Love Love (Let You Go), Andy Grammer, 2011. “And I think that you should know that I will never let you go.”

3. Kiss Me, Casey Donahew, 2016. “She said, "I've been waitin' on you to kiss me; Waitin' on you to make your move; There's a window open to steal my heart; And I'm waitin' on you to kiss me"”

(The first time I kissed Cyndi, during Christmas holidays 1976, I realized she’d been waiting for me for quite some time. Maybe since that day in the band hall in 1973.))

4. The More I See You, Chet Baker, 1958. “The more I see you, the more I want you;
Somehow this feeling just grows and grows; With every sigh I become more mad about you; More lost without you and so it goes.”

5. Listen to the Music, The Doobie Brothers, 1976.

(All you have to see are Cyndi’s eyes when she hears this song, and you can’t help but be in love.)

6. So Into You, Atlanta Rhythm Section, 1976.  “When you walked into the room; there was voodoo in the vibes.”

7. I Keep Faith, Billy Bragg, 2008. “Listen to your heart and you'll find me; Right by your side, because I keep faith in you.”

8. Take My Love With You, Bonnie Raitt, 2012. “I'll be your talisman; I'll be your lucky charm; Put it in your pocket; Put it in your heart.”

9. I’ll Be Waiting, Walk Off The Earth, 2015. “I'll be waiting here for you.”

10. More in Love With You, Jason Reeves, 2012. “Someday when I'm coming home so late from work, you try to save the day; you'll take dinner out the oven, black as night and set it smokin' on my plate. And I will laugh with you; when you burn my food. I will spend my whole life through falling more in love with you”

11. How Long Will I Love You, About Time soundtrack, 2013. “How long will I love you; As long as stars are above you; and longer if I can; How long will I need you; As long as the seasons need to follow their plan.”

12. Nobody Else, Los Lonely Boys, 2004. “Cause I only want to be with you, Baby and nobody else; Yes the only girl I see is you, Baby and nobody else.”

(We saw LLB in concert in Midland this past year, and I’ve been singing this song in my head ever since)

13. Love Invincible, Michael Franti, 2002. “Touch me in the morning sun, when I feel impossible; Show me what is possible, teach me love invincible.”

14. I’ll Be Your Home, Mindi Abair, 2014. “I'll always be by your side; we'll walk the winding road; I'll bear your heavy load; I'll be your home; And in the darkness of night; You'll never be on your own; Don't have to go it alone; I'll be your home.”

15. Love is the Answer, Rumer, 2015. “Light of the world, shine on me; Love is the answer.”

(Go listen to Rumer. I like everything she’s recorded)

16. I Met A Girl, William Michael Morgan, 2016. “She dances like nobody sees her, I can't believe I get to be here in her world;
I met a girl.”

(Yeah, well, me too)

17. Baby, Clay Finnesand, 2016. “You brighten all my blues; you're my breezy summer afternoon; Though life gets blurry, I can see so clearly when I'm with you.”

18. Modern Nature, Sondre Lerche, Dan in Real Life soundtrack, 2001. “Oh, what a world this life would be; Forget all your technicolor dreams; Forget modern nature; This is how it's meant to be.”

(Occasionally a movie catches me completely by surprise and I can’t stop thinking about it. Dan in Real Life is one of those. I was captured by the depth of everyday life and value of everyday love.)

19. Is This Love?, Bob Marley & The Wailers, 1978. “Is this love, is this love, is this love.”

20. What The World Needs Now Is Love, Jackie DeShannon, 1965. “What the world needs now is love, sweet love; It's the only thing that there's just too little of.”

 

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

Hard Things

       Why is it that the hardest things are often the most fun?

       I’m thinking about last week’s bike ride near Durango and how it wouldn’t have lit me up the same had it been 30 miles on straight flat roads like I ride all the time at home in Texas. For one thing, there’d be no story to tell from a normal ride. It was the 20-mile descent and 8-mile climb that gave me a story and made the ride worth hauling my bike all the way up from Midland to Colorado in the back of Cyndi’s car.

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       I rode the same route twice, Sunday and Tuesday, and on both occasions I had to stop partway up the climb. My legs were tired and my lungs were drained. I unclipped from the pedals, laid my chest on the handlebars, tried to breathe, and not throw up. The first day I was audibly gasping when a young rider dressed in a black kit rode right past me, dancing in his pedals directly up the same road that had broken me. In my defense, I had him by 30 years and 30 pounds, and I live at 2,782’ elevation where the air is more abundant instead of 8,222’, where it isn’t.

       I wondered if I’d have felt better being passed so decisively if I’d been moving instead of stopped. Probably not. I wasn’t embarrassed being passed so much as jealous. The truth is, no matter what hard things you do there is always someone who does it better and easier. Cyndi was once passed during the Boston Marathon by a guy running backwards and then by another guy wearing an Old North Church costume. I was passed in the New York City Marathon by a guy juggling three tennis balls.

       But why do I want to do hard things? It is my dominant thought during the first five miles of every marathon, or during the first mile of every Guadalupe Peak hike, or even when following Dan Ainsworth up the trail to 11,446’ Music Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. (I might have discussed this with Dan at the time but I had to make oxygen choices.)

       My Durango adventure wasn’t an epic bike ride in the world of cycling, but for me, in my current state of fitness, in my current state of age, in my current state of training, it was huge. If I lived in Colorado and rode every day, I would be making hard climbs regularly; but I don’t, and I don’t, so I can’t.

       I don’t want to hard things exclusively. While in Durango I spent more time writing and reading while seated comfortably alongside the Animas River that I did riding my bike. But trying something hard is important to me. And having a story to tell is even more important. My writing is better, closer to the bone, if I invest first in cycling or running or hiking. It grounds me. Settles my thoughts.

       Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when our body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

       Annie Dillard wrote that she visited the Cascade Mountain range “to study hard things, rock mountains and salt sea, and to temper my spirit on their edges.”

       Like Csikszentmihalyi, my best ideas usually come after stretching my limits. Like Dillard, I’ve learned about God when I push the hard things and experience the high places. The vulnerability and exposure from the effort, the potential to fail, allow God to speak to my heart in ways he can’t when I’m in peace at rest.

       Maybe doing something hard is about waking up? Or being present? Or pushing further in?

       I don’t know. I’ve already analyzed it enough. Now it’s time to go to yoga class for something hard.

 

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

Lasting Value

       Last January, after our trip to Guatemala with the Metro Big Band, I seriously considered sending my trombone off to have it rehabilitated and re-plated. One of my fellow trombonists had done the same thing to his horn, the same make and model, and said the results were stunning. I’ve played this horn since 1970, and it didn’t look brand new back then. I wondered what it would be like to play a shiny new version.

       But I didn’t do it. I talked myself down. Probably because Cyndi said my horn looks like I’ve held it in my hands often, for a long time. It’s a King Silver Sonic 3B. It shows the wear and tear of 48 years of use by me (and who knows how many others before I got it). I wish I knew more about it’s provenance. It seems important, like knowing a close friend’s life story. But I’ve written to the manufacturer at least twice, sending the serial number and all that, without success.

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       Another voice that talked me out of refinishing was author Seth Godin, who writes often about Wabi Sabi, a Japanese term he defines loosely as “the pain and beauty of wear, use, and age.” As in, old wood-working tools that show the wear of being used often – the key is “used,” not just old and rusty.

       Wikipedia says: Wabi connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

       I asked, what else do I use often that has Wabi Sabi? My first thought was my Daily Bible in Chronological Order, that I keep in my bookbag. I’ve read through it every year for many years, which has resulted in more handling that it was designed for. The only reason I still have it is I’ve kept it together with lots of glue.

       This Bible is full of scribbled notes in the margins, and reminders of important events on the page of the date when they occurred, making it a personal reminder of valuable things. Every year on December 31st, after I finish reading Revelation, when I turn back to the beginning in order to start over on January 1st, it feels like my Bible is growing in value. At least, this copy.

       It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite writers, Kathleen Norris, who wrote in her book, Dakota, about why she moved from anti-religious intellectualism to becoming a true believer: “I was drawn to the strong old women in the congregation. Their well-worn Bibles said to me, “There is more there than you know,” and made me take more seriously the religion that had caused my grandmother Totten’s Bible to be so well used that is spine broke.”

       In fact there is always more there than we know. It is deeper, wider, higher, longer, than we can imagine or achieve. Why would we want it any other way? That’s Wabi Sabi. A reminder there is a tangible nature to our walk with God that should leave its marks on us and on our stuff. People should be able to know what is important to us by observing our life, and what they see should point them toward Jesus.

       Another thing I’ve used for a long time and value the signs of wear is a Tilley hat that I bought in 1995. I wanted a hat to wear when joining Byron on Boy Scout backpacking trips. Since then it has been on every mountain hike I’ve taken and appears in all my photos.

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      I also asked if there was anything I use that might join this group someday? A Wabi Sabi wanna-be? My best candidate is a brown leather messenger bag that I carry to my office every day instead of a briefcase. It is made well, and attractive, and will probably join my Wabi Sabi list someday after I have more mileage with it. At least, this bag has potential. My previous canvas bag wasn’t robust enough to last long enough to grow in character before falling apart.

       The thing is, I don’t look very new and shiny myself nowadays; why shouldn’t my favorite things show the same wear, use, and age that I do?

       Although, having said that, I wouldn’t turn down a brand-new road bike.

 

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

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What Do You Collect?

      Are you a collector? Or maybe the better question is: Does the person you live with consider you to be a collector? (Try asking them.)

      Some people collect guns, or animal heads they hang on the wall. Others collect paintings, shoes, bicycles, pottery, tools, or swimsuits.

      We all have collections that make no sense to other people. Me, I have a lot of books, 90% of which I’ve read, often highlighted and annotated, that someone else might clear out to make room for things they like better. “You could have all those on your Kindle” is what I’ve been told many times by people who might love to read but don’t enjoy the feel of a real book in their hands the way I do. All I can answer is, books are important to me. They have been since I first learned to read, and I still like holding physical books in my hands.

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Saving or collecting?

      I save (is that the same thing as collecting) quarters, the ones representing each state or national park, on the rare chance one of my grandchildren will want a complete set. I have five or six one-liter water bottles full of quarters.

      I have saved postage stamps for decades, again hoping someone in my family lineage will think they are cool and become a philatelist.

      I have a collection of letters Cyndi and I wrote to each other when she was an the University of New Mexico and I was at the University of Oklahoma, back when long-distant telephone calls were too expensive, and decades before email was an option. Cyndi’s letters tend to be on flowery stationary and mine on green engineering graph paper. Maybe someone will want to read them some day?

      Some might say I collect trombones since we have four of them in our house: a classic Conn 88H from 1973, a Bach once played in high school by daughter Katie, a cool black plastic pBone, and my favorite, a King Silver Sonic 3B that I’ve played since the summer of 1970.

      A few years ago I moved my parents from Hobbs to Manor Park in Midland. The move was the easy part. I spent the next two months driving to Hobbs every Thursday to clean their old house, haul stuff away, and box the rest to come to Midland. Of the boxes we brought to our house, I gave away almost all of the clothes, sold much of the furniture, and gave away other bits and pieces to any family member who had a connection to the items. We repeated the process after my mom died in 2014, and once again after my dad passed away in 2017. And yet, we still have dishes, tools, boxes of collectables in our garage and attic. That’s fifty years of collecting.

Why do we collect things?

      Well, we collect what we like, or once liked and think we might want to like it again, or use it again in the future. I can’t think of anything we have around our house that we didn’t bring in ourselves because we liked it, other than some decorating items  we accumulated to fill space when we first moved in.

      We also save things out of fear. The more stuff we have, the more contingencies we’re prepared for. But how often do we actually use what we collect? Looking back at our family history, the number of times we were rescued from a problem because, thankfully, we had just what we needed piled in the garage behind the cans of old paint or stacks of bicycle tubes, are few if any. More likely we couldn’t find what we needed until after buying it again, or technology rendered it irrelevant, or we forgot we ever owned it in the first place. It isn’t like we keep an inventory of everything we own on a spreadsheet … who would do something like that?

How do you decide what to keep?

      When deciding whether to keep something or move it out, Cyndi and I are training ourselves to ask: Does it have a story? The things we collect should be more than merely beautiful, they should be part of our lives.

      How about you? What do you collect?

 

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

Life Phases

      As a young boy growing up in the 1960s I was captivated by the space race and rockets and moon landings. I read every article in Life Magazine, studied the drawings and photos, and watched all the TV coverage. I remember running into the front yard hoping to see the Mercury capsule fly over, only to learn by the time I made it outside the astronaut was two states away.

       One of the mysteries for me was why those huge rockets needed to come apart as they gained altitude. A Saturn V rocket was 363’ tall at launch, yet all they brought back home at the end of the mission was the Apollo Command Module, which was only 10’ 7” tall. They discarded 353’ of rocket. Later, I learned why.

       The reason for multi-stage rockets is that once the fuel is exhausted, the structure and engine are useless and only add weight to the vehicle which slows down its future acceleration. It takes energy to fly with empty fuel tanks.

       By dropping the now-useless stages the rocket lightens itself. The thrust of future stages is able to provide more acceleration than if the earlier stage were still attached, or a single, large rocket would be capable of. This means that it needs less total fuel to reach a given velocity and/or altitude. Astronauts report feeling acceleration when a stage is left behind … they “jump” forward.

Apollo rocket.jpg

       Curiously, the phases of our lives are similar to those rocket stages. Each time we move from one phase of life to the next - college to career, single to married, children, management, ministry - we leave the weight and resistance of the previous phase behind and leap into the next stage. Each phase is necessary and required to get to the next part of the journey but must be jettisoned so that we are able to go further.

       This June 23rd I’m becoming 62 years old, which is only 16.67*C (even less when you consider wind chill), so I’m not overly concerned. But I’ve been thinking about phases of life, wondering what lies ahead, and curious what I’ll leave behind.

Accelerating Forward

       My beginning phase was simple. I was fortunate to be born into a family that loved God and made worship a priority, so finding God was easy for me. I lived on my family’s faith for the first twenty years of my life.

       It was in my junior year of university that I first started asking hard questions about faith. For the first time I was surrounded by people my age who had different backgrounds, traditions, practices, and terminology. It was only natural I began to question what I once took for granted.

       I wondered why the beliefs I inherited were more correct than my study companion’s inherited belief in Allah or my roommate’s inherited belief in atheism. However, once again I was fortunate - my questioning and research and skepticism brought me back to God, and landed me squarely into a personal discipleship ministry at the Baptist Student Union.

       This began the next phase of my life – all about self-discipline. I learned to memorize Bible verses, lead Bible studies, pray, share my faith, and disciple other students. Those regular practices changed my faith from something I inherited to something I owned, from activity to identity. This was a phase dominated not by my parent’s faith but my own personal beliefs, earned from searching, and deepened by spiritual practices

       For the next twenty years those spiritual practices defined my life. I carried memory verse cards everywhere, even when running (it was that very practice that turned running, which I began as an exercise program, into regular spiritual encounters). When I started teaching adult Bible study classes in 1990, I immersed myself into study, learning, reading, and teaching. Daily spiritual practices guided my thoughts and actions through the most formative years of my adult life.

       Sometime around the year 2000 I entered the next phase of life, most likely prompted by our newly emptied nest. My focus shifted from spiritual disciplines, to understanding my calling and purpose. It was a move toward legacy and lasting significance.

       Even my teaching style changed. It morphed over time from imparting information to sharing my life, from data to relationships, from bullet points to stories. I didn’t make these changes on purpose. Unlike rocket stages, moving through the phases of life is seldom intentional, and it often takes years to recognize that changes have occurred.

Finally Old Enough

       One morning last week I saw my friend Wes while I was at Chick-fil-A working on this essay, and the question came up: What age would you want to be if you had a choice? We both agreed, we would pick our current age. Neither of us wanted to relearn everything that got us this far.

       It reminded me of another conversation Wes and I had awhile back while cycling together. We were describing our lengthening list of athletic ailments when Wes changed everything by saying: “This is the best time of our lives. We’re finally old enough people listen to us. We can really make a difference.”

       Today, as I stare at 16.67*C, I wonder if there is a next phase looming. I hope so. I hope there are a lot more. In the meantime, I’ll live with a quote from one of my currently favorite movies, Dan in Real Life, “Plan to be surprised.”

 

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

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