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Looking for the good

July 24, 2014  

Photo courtesy of photobucket.com

Photo courtesy of photobucket.com

I spotted it while waiting for my family to finish their weekly shopping outside of a local department store, scrawled into the pavement next to a garbage can with what appeared to be pink sidewalk chalk. With nothing else to occupy my time, I bent down to see what had been written.

There’s lots more, it said. Look! A small picture of a flower had been drawn beside it.

I looked up and back into the crowd of people both going in and coming out. I hated shopping, and especially so at that particular shopping center. As a boy, it was once a field full of trees and tall grass and deer. Now, it was a paved city in and of itself, with a different sort of wild animals walking upon. The march of progress often takes its toll on beauty and leaves in its wake an ugliness that is glossed over with words like “convenience” and “revenue.”

I waved to a friend coming into the store. Said hello to another leaving. A third who seemed confused as to which way he was going began a conversation. That’s when my eyes wandered to the spot where his right foot was planted onto the sidewalk.

Another picture. This one of a dog’s face. Written below it—There’s lots more. Look!

We said our goodbyes and I reached for my cell phone to check on the progress of my wife and children inside. I was informed that I had plenty of time to look around. I said I was going to do just that.

I looked back to the garbage can, then to the spot where my friend stood. The result was a straight line approximately ten feet long. I walked a little farther, studying the ground.

Another! This one a tree whose roots said, There’s lots more. Look!

I paced off ten more steps and saw nothing. Then, next to a storm drain, I saw the outline of a puffy pink cloud.

There’s lots more. Look!

I did. Past the Michaels store and Bed Bath & Beyond. Past the hair salon the Hallmark, all the way to the end of the Books-a-Million.

There were pink birds, pink suns, and pink balloons. Pink people with gigantic smiley faces and pink snowmen. There were even pink angels.

They ended just as suddenly as they had begun, at the door of the bookstore. It was a pink book. Written in the pages was There’s lots more. Look!

I did. I didn’t find anything.

But I did turn around and look at how far I walked. A hundred yards, at least. One hundred yards spent not staring at the bad, but looking for the good. And I thought that maybe, just maybe, that was all that mattered.

We’ve heard a lot about change in the past couple of years, about how much we need it and how necessary it is. I can agree with that. But I don’t think we can do much about a lot of things in this world. I think we can do a lot of things about us, though. Maybe that’s how real change happens. Maybe we change the world not by changing governments, but by changing ourselves.

And we can start by not wallowing in the ugly, but looking for the beautiful.

Because there’s lots more. We just have to look.

In the name of Jayzus!

July 21, 2014  

image courtesy of photobucket.com

image courtesy of photobucket.com

I was winning.

Nothing too strange about that. The backyard baseball games with my son are usually close on purpose, which is much more important than who wins or loses. Sometimes I let him win in an effort to teach him how to be a gracious victor. And sometimes I makes sure he loses, because being a gracious failure is equally important. He’s going to face both triumph and setback in life. Best to teach him about both now, when he’s young.

This time, though, I was going to leave the end result to him. He would win or lose on his own, and it all came down to one pitch.

So.

Tie game, two outs, last inning. A homerun (in our backyard, homeruns are anything that passes the maple tree in the air) wins. Anything else, and he’d have to wait until the next evening to try again. Mother and sister were on the porch, watching and cheering. He took his stance, glared, and tapped on the rock we used for home plate.

I had already started my windup when he called time. Rather than take another practice swing or spit, he raised his hands in the air, looked to the heavens, and said, “In the name of Jayzus, lemme hit a homer!”

Laughter from the porch. I wrinkled my brow. Said, “What are you doing?”

“Heard it on the radio,” he told me. “Preacher said God gives me anythin’ if I ask in the name of Jayzus.”

Oh. Jayzus = Jesus. Okay then.

He stepped back in, tapped the bat on the rock. Glared. I threw. He hit.

Over the maple tree. Homerun.

That’s how it started.

Since then, the name of Jayzus has been bandied about quite often in our house. I heard it the next evening when my son lost the Lego spaceship he’d built—“In the name of Jayzus, come back to me!” Heard it again a few hours later—“In the name of Jayzus, save me from the bathtub!”

And then this morning—“In the name of Jayzus, let me at a Pop-Tart and not eggs!”

Comical, yes. And I suppose it’s even more comical that in all those instances, things worked out just the way he wanted. He did find his Lego spaceship. And since he’d stayed indoors all day because it was about a million degrees outside, we allowed him to forgo his bath. And we were out of eggs this morning, out of everything really. Except for Pop-Tarts.

My son thinks he has quite a thing going on here. He believes he’s just stumbled on the secret to life, that he’s won some sort of supernatural lottery. You should see him strutting around.

Me, I say nothing. Sometimes it’s best to let these things play out on their own. Sticking my Daddy Nose into it, telling him he’s really kind of wrong about the whole thing, won’t work. The big things in life tend to be the ones you have to learn on your own.

Besides, I really don’t think I’m qualified to add any wisdom. Not with this. Because I pretty much do the same thing.

I use God as a rabbit’s foot. I tend to keep him around in my pocket and pull Him out whenever there’s trouble. Not so much when I lose a Lego spaceship, but definitely when I want something bad to go away. Or when I want something good to get a little closer.

Or just when I want.

Truth is, I’m no better than my son.

Maybe what’s best is that I talk to him about this after all. Just be honest and say that yes, he’s doing something wrong, but so am I. And maybe we can figure out this thing together.

Because God wants us all to love Him for who He is, not for what He can give.

Starting over

July 17, 2014  

image courtesy of photobucket.com

image courtesy of photobucket.com

I last saw Joey five years ago, just before he started over. He was a mess back then. Thin and shaky and unkempt. A shadow of the man who was once a boy I called a friend. He was still sick. Still “fighting the bear,” as he called it. He was in the pit, yes. But at least he was looking up toward the light. For the first time in nearly ten years, he was smiling.

His life had followed the same downward spiral that more and more people in this area had taken before him. Booze had turned to pills and pills to meth. He had no idea that the foggy paradise he thought he’d found was in reality a grave that was being dug around him. I’m not sure what finally managed to take hold of him as he tottered on the edge of an eventual overdose, whether it was his wife and kids finally leaving him or getting fired from his job. Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was God. Whatever it was, it worked. That Something grabbed hold of Joey and refused to let go.

He entered counseling. AA and NA and nearly every other A you could imagine. Joey made his peace and asked for forgiveness and learned to rely on a Higher Power. The road to healing was a slow process and a brutal one, but then the road to all good things usually is.

“I need to start over,” he told me that day.

He was moving. Away from the temptations that had nearly killed him and had cost him so much. West. Colorado maybe, or maybe Montana. Joey had always loved the mountains, and the Rockies seemed the place to go.

“You know how the mountains here are smooth?” he asked me. “It’s because they’re old. They’ve been worn down by time. The Rockies aren’t like that. They’re still sharp. I’m tired of feeling worn. I want to be sharp again.”

So he left, taking that winding path West that so many once trod in search of freedom and a better life. I understood. We all needed to start over sometimes. And we all yearned for a new place to do it, a place where our sins wouldn’t follow and we could be judged by who we’ve become rather than who we once were.

I told him to keep in touch and he did. There were emails and phone calls and even an old fashioned letter or two. Doing good, he said. Weather’s perfect, he said. Joey found work and a home and bought a dog to keep him company, a Siberian husky with one blue eye and one brown one. He named him Crackhead.

The Rockies soon lost their appeal, though. As it turned out, there was just as much temptation out West as there had been down South. Joey wrote to say he was heading for Alaska to find work on a fishing boat. He’d always wanted to do that.

The years went on. Emails and phone calls stopped. I thought nothing of it. Time and life often get in the way of friendships like currents that push ships apart and send them on separate courses upon the same ocean. I was here and he was there, and somehow that knowing alone made things okay.

I was catching up with an old friend last week when Joey’s name came up. I wondered aloud whatever had happened to him.

“You didn’t hear?” my friend asked. “Joey died a year ago.”

I didn’t want to believe it, but it was true. He’d heard the news from Joey’s mother just after it had happened. They’d found him in his apartment. The needle was still in his arm.

I thought about Joey today. No reason, really. Sometimes things just pop into your head, memories that you haven’t quite sorted out and found reason in yet.

All Joey wanted was a chance to start over. To leave his problems behind. Most addicts are like that, I think. They’re prisoners unto themselves, chained by a desire that goes beyond want and straight into need. They hate what they do as much as the people who love them hate it. They hate it more.

But there is a catch to starting over, and it’s this—no matter where we go, we always take ourselves with us. And not just our hopes and our dreams. Our frailties and our wounds, too.

My daughter’s fingernails

July 15, 2014  

image courtesy of photobucket.clm

image courtesy of photobucket.clm

Buy all the books you want about how to raise a child into a fully functioning and responsible adult, and you’ll be wasting your money. I know that’s a pretty broad statement, but I stand by it. Because it doesn’t matter what Ph.D. says what or how much Biblical wisdom people can give you, in the end you learn by experience. This I know.

I know this, too—you learn to pick your battles with your children. Which means making them earn an allowance to buy the toy they desperately want rather than simply handing over the money, but treating them to a Slurpee when they pine for one as you drive by the 7-11. Simple enough. At least, it usually has been.

But then came my daughter’s fingernails.

Coffey women tend to have the reputation of being both ladylike and tomboyish, depending upon which the situation warrants. Which means my daughter will strut around all day long giving tea parties in her Sunday finest, only to hit me in the head with a pillow and want me to wrestle. I honor both. It’s good for girls to have tea parties. Good for them to know how to scrap, too.

The problem was the fingernails. Good for pouring tea and wearing dresses. Bad for rolling around on the floor with daddy. So when our impromptu grudge match the other night resulted in me looking as if I’d been attacked by a Komodo dragon, I called time out and grabbed the clippers.

“Time to cut your nails,” I said.

My daughter didn’t protest. Not yet. She simply stood there and stared, wondering how she could explain what she needed to.

“Come on. Sit. It’ll just take a minute.”

More staring.

She sat down with the sort of thump that would one day evolve into something that would seriously frighten her husband. When I took her hand, it was a fist.

“What’s the matter?” I asked her.

“I don’t want you to cut my nails.”

“Well, unless you want me to go upstairs and get the boxing gloves, I’m gonna have to.”

“I don’t want you to cut my nails.”

The thought occurred to me that this was some sort of game, the object of which was for the both of us to see if I could get her fist open. I tried. She didn’t like it.

“Okay,” I said. “Why don’t you want me to cut your nails? Girls cut their nails. It’s popular.”

“That’s not why.”

I stared, waiting.

“If you cut my nails,” she said, “I won’t know if I had a good day or not.”

What?

She said she would explain, but I had to put the clippers down first. I did. Then my daughter raised her hands palm up and fingers wide, and told me the story of her day.

The bits of brown and green on her nails were from her work in the garden that morning. A smidge of white paint was on her thumb from the picture she made after breakfast. She pointed out a spot on her pinky that seemed indented, put there by a stubborn drawer she’d helped her brother open. An orange stain from that afternoon’s popsicle. And though the evidence was scant, she swore there was a spot on the ring finger of her right hand where a firefly had landed and made her smile.

“How am I supposed to remember all that,” she asked, “if you cut my memories off?”

How indeed.

Like I said, you have to pick your battles as a parent. You have to learn when to raise and when to fold. I folded. A little pain on my part would be a good enough trade to keep her memories safe.

I wonder a lot whether I’m living the way I should be. Life can get so complicated when you’re an adult. I try to make sure I do more good than bad, but it’s hard to keep track of it all.

Which is why I’ve been paying attention to my own fingernails lately. It’s something I don’t normally do but maybe should do more of. Because I know if there’s evidence there that I’ve worked and created, helped and smiled, then I’ve had a good day.

Then I’m living right.

Wrong number

July 10, 2014  

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

I said “Stupid phone,” but what I really meant to say was “Stupid me.” I tried the number again and remembered the old adage about the definition of insanity being to try the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Same result—“…the number you are trying to reach is not in service…”

Grr.

I hung up the phone and stared at the numbers I had scrawled on a old receipt three days earlier, just after I’d met Chris coming out of the grocery store. Hadn’t seen him in years, and maybe not since our graduation. We stood there and talked for a half an hour about everything from jobs to family, then said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch.

“Let’s go fishing Friday evening,” he said. “Let me give you my number.”

The past few weeks had been a mess of things to do that hadn’t been done, of stress and worry and fretting. I’d ended plenty of prayers over that time with, “And Lord, if You could toss a little happiness my way, that would be great. Amen.”

I waited and prayed. And when that didn’t work, I prayed and waited.

I was still doing both when I ran into Chris at the store, and I thought Yes, finally my answer! Fishing. Yes. Fishing was exactly what I needed to get me out of my slump. One afternoon by a creek in the mountains, with nothing but sunshine and water and company.

But then I tried calling him and…well, you know.

By Thursday, I’d all but given up. I tried the number twice more that morning and got the same mechanical voice. By Friday evening, I had balled up the number and tossed it into the trash. But I did keep praying. Not because I was a devoted saint, but because I didn’t have much else to do.

Then came Friday evening. Still in the dumps, still praying for relief. It was a typical evening in the Coffey house—a nice dinner followed by some time outside. But something happened to me between the kickball game and the bug chase and the popsicles on the front porch. Something unexpected and wonderful.

My heart started to beat again.

One minute I was rolling a ball toward my daughter and then trying to chase her down before she reached home plate, and the next I was laughing again.

And one minute I was eating an orange popsicle, and the next I was sighing with contentment.

I couldn’t explain it then. Can’t explain it now.

Maybe it was just the chance to enjoy a normal night in the summertime, to enjoy the sun and the company and just let go.

Maybe it was the opportunity to allow myself to forget the pressures of life and for one glorious moment become a child again.

Maybe.

But maybe it was more than that.

Chris called me the next morning wondering why I hadn’t gotten back with him. I went through the story about the mechanical voice. Turned out I had the numbers wrong.

I’d been calling the wrong number all week.

It felt like I’d had the wrong number to God all week, too. I had kept dialing and got some angelic voice that said all lines were busy or, worse, that the number had been disconnected.

That wasn’t the first time I’d felt that way, of course. If I could somehow tally the number of prayers I’ve said over my life and put them up against how many of them were answered the way I wanted them, the average wouldn’t be very good. That wasn’t God’s fault, though. It was mine. I’d been asking for the wrong things.

But this one was different. All I’d asked for was some happiness. How could there possibly be anything wrong with that? After all, God wants us to be happy.

Yes?

Yes. But what I forgot was the very thing we all forget sometimes. The happiness we seek isn’t always the happiness God wants us to have. His version of it is better. More secure and more lasting. I think that’s the real reason why I ended up missing the fish but catching an evening with my family.

Because God often will not give us our happiness. He’d rather give us His.

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