Many people can say that their family began on their wedding day. Alicia and I cannot. I pinpoint the day to an idle Friday afternoon in December 1996.
I was preparing for fall semester finals in the middle of my junior year of college. Having accepted a promotion at work, the next day was going to be my first day as Assistant Manager at Blockbuster Video. I had worked at Blockbuster since the summer before my senior year of high school. Many managers had come and gone; now it was my turn. The position required me to wear a tie to set me apart from the others in blue oxford shirts and khakis. I was feeling so grown up.
Then on that December afternoon, I had to grow up.
Christmas is a season where much of the world comes together in preparation for a birth. When I entered the advent season that December, I did not think that I would be preparing for the birth of my own child. However, on that December afternoon, I learned that I was going to be a father. Suddenly, my part time managerial job in video rental and sales didn’t seem all that grown up.
When the calendar flips to December each year, a mix of emotions stings me like a gust of winter’s chill on a downhill slope. Excitement…insecurity…..the need to be comforted…… a longing to comfort someone. These and more are unwrapped from my soul like a gift from under the tree.
The Christmas season can be a time when many are hit hard by emotions. I am overly aware that many couples who start off the way Alicia and I did do not find themselves married and together several Christmases later. It is also a reality that, in many instances, the cries of a couple’s newborn baby in our situation would never be heard.
I don’t say this judgmentally. I say this because I was there. And I say this because there are others there today and others who will be there tomorrow. “It’s Complicated” is more than just a Facebook status.
That December was the first time I watched Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life . Up until that point, the black and white Christmas film was nothing more than background filler noise that mixed together with Christmas carols, the sound of a toy train circling endlessly under our Christmas tree, and fights between my parents over whose family we would spend Christmas dinner with. The film captured my attention in a way it never had before.
George Bailey taught me that our lives are intertwined. We are not single islands unto ourselves. In our daily existence, the mundane happenings have monumental consequences with alternative effects that change the course of our own paths and, not to sound too self-important, the outcome of the world. Our ripple effects, positive or negative, are felt by others.
During the Christmas season, humanity’s heart seems to be more willing to see the examples of how our own actions touch the lives of other people. This December, I petition you to step away from yourself and watch the world the way George Baily’s guardian angel gave him the opportunity to. How would the world be affected if you were not around?
Act purposefully to serve others in both the big and seemingly not-so-big ways. The ways are endless.
Instead of ignoring the man on the street asking for some spare change, ask him his name and buy him a cup of coffee. Give him a few moments of your time and the respect to hear his story. Offer the gently used winter coat that your child wore last year and outgrew to another family. When you make Christmas cookies, make an extra platter and offer it to the gentleman who lives down the street all alone. Make a choice to volunteer with a local nonprofit and commit a few hours of your time each month for the year to come.
Make good use of the grocery store receipt that you get when you purchase all the fixings for your Christmas meal. Your small choice to donate the free turkey that you’ve earned with grocery store rewards points might mean that a young couple can prepare a feast for their children. Someday, that family will be in the position to give back. They’ll remember a time when someone helped them and they’ll choose to give back. They might even write a blog and ask others to think of ways that they can give back.
Sometimes in childhood we are so unaware that we can’t do something that we soar….or in my daughter’s case, surf.
Superheroes guard us from evil. Fairies make the seasons change. Love is forever secured after one kiss. In childhood, the world can be viewed as mostly good. Along with this view is the perception that anything is possible.
My daughter, Vienna, sums this up by quoting her hero, Bethany Hamilton. Bethany is a professional surfer who, after surviving a shark attach and losing her left arm, returns to the water and her sport. The inner strength that she possessed through faith in God, ultimately led her to find a greater purpose in life. Bethany not only returned to surfing, but she used the curiosity and attention of her story as an opportunity for Christian outreach.
“I don’t need easy, I just need possible,” Bethany Hamilton is attributed as saying in the movie based on her story, Soul Surfer. Vienna has this quote stenciled on her bedroom wall. I like this quote because it does not imply simplicity in one’s personal journey. Conversely, it implies that possibility exists through the trials we face. I prefer Bethany’s lessons of accomplishment through hard work, dedication and strength as an alternative to the plethora of princesses in peril stories that populate our culture.
Vienna’s affection to the water was evident from her first few days. As an infant, she enjoyed being dipped in her baby bath and was quickly promoted to the jacuzzi tub. It was not uncommon for Vienna to be soothed to sleep in the calm, warm water. By six months, she hit both the pool and the waves in Ocean City. Her interest continued not only in the real world, but in fairy tales as well. She could barely talk, yet she could sign Ariel’s scales from Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
This past summer, Vienna looked to the lessons of her hero, Bethany, as she once again hit the waves in Ocean City. No longer a baby, Vienna was seven and old enough to try surfing. “Real surfing” is what she called it.
After a few minutes of on-the-beach coaching from an encouraging instructor, Vienna and her teacher entered the water. “Maybe a shark will bite off my arm,” Vienna bragged to her younger brother, Gideon.
Maybe a shark will bite off her arm . Maybe a wave will knock her down and she’ll get hurt. Maybe she’ll get caught in a rip current and be sucked out to sea. Maybe the board will hit her in the head. Maybe she’ll need CPR and I’ll forget how. Maybe Vienna will end up hating the water forever. These and other dreadful thoughts flooded my head as I got caught in the adult mind-frame of cannot instead of a child’s mind-frame of I can.
As I was stood on shore drowning in my fears, Vienna was sailing over the crests of the early morning waves. Having literally caught the first wave she attempted to ride, Vienna found a new way to tame her old friend, the water. Her confidence allowed her to command where the water’s strength took her.
After her first wave curled into shore, Vienna was eager for more. For an hour, Vienna was the queen of the waves. She learned to ride the sea with confidence. Sometimes the sea invited her for a ride. Other times, the waves overpowered her and challenged her to join them again. Vienna would not retreat to shore. Like her hero, Bethany, Vienna would turn away from the safety and security of shore and face the vast unknowns of an open sea.
Opportunities are usually found within the uncharted waters of our life. While Vienna was learning to surf that morning, the bigger lesson she was learning was that she can. As she matures some fears and doubts will creep in. Some she will easily ride out. Others will be more difficult to overcome. My hope is that in her heart, Vienna will carry lessons passed down by people like her soul surfer so that she can continue to soar.
A moon bounce and a small child can be the ultimate nananapoopoo to a parent. “I see you and you can’t get me. What are you going to do…… get in yourself and drag me out?”
I’ve seen this taunting power struggle played out many times at church bazaars and in-door play places full of blown up fun. I’ve gone through this game with my own kids. Last spring, I joined forces with other parents to coerce their children out of the moon bounce I volunteered to operate at a street carnival.
Standing outside the moon and watching the grins on the faces of child after child for hours made me realize that a moon bounce can be a big step in a child’s awareness of their separation from their parents and the individual power they possess. A milestone of personal freedom, contained within the walls of air filled plastic. Parents watch from the outside. Aside from the occasional bumping of heads, children are safe as they bounce, play and interact with others. When it’s time to go, it can also be an opportunity for age appropriate rebellion.
Watching Vienna and Gideon, my seven year old and five year old, on a moon bounce a few weekends ago, I realized how their squeals of joy and freedom must be similar to the experience that my oldest son, Tyler, is currently having at college and being away from home for the first time.
Alicia and I trust that Tyler is relatively safe. But, at the same time, he is in total control of what we know about his life for the first time. From small decisions such as eating healthy and getting enough sleep to big decisions such as going to class and staying away from drugs and alcohol, Tyler is leaping in a 17,652 person moon bounce.
And Alicia and I are on the outside.
Instead of watching from a few feet away, we are six hours from his moon bounce. We need to remember that Tyler is making his own choices at a more rapid pace than ever before. Along with this light speed increase in decision making, he will have seasons of age appropriate rebellion. Some nananapoopoo moments from inside his moon bounce.
That is where parenting Tyler is difficult for Alicia and me. Tyler is our oldest. As an oldest child myself, I can commiserate that oldest children are somewhat of experiments for their parents. Parents have a tendency to hover too long, worry and scrutinize their firstborn. Alicia and I are definite examples of that. We are also examples of learning from our over-analytical nature and tend to be more patient and realistic with our younger children. Still, with each new milestone of Tyler’s, we go back to our overthinking ways and worrying.
Is he safe? Who is he dating? Why didn’t he answer our texts? Is he responsible enough? These thoughts, and more, plague our minds. The realizations of my own shortcomings make me more forgiving to my parents. It also offers a hope that Tyler knows Alicia and I are doing our best.
I console both myself and Tyler by pointing out that a firstborn’s front line troop status also has some positive attributes too. Research suggests that firstborns have a tendency to be to driven, reliable and scholarly; the movers and shakers of the world. Being a firstborn is not all bad.
From inside his moon bounce, Tyler will grin. But it is no longer with the smile of a five year old discovering freedom with his first steps on the moon. The grin is of a young man making not just a small step for himself, but a giant leap into the moon bounce of life.
My father is a photographer. He has spent much of his professional life and personal life watching the world through a lens. While I was growing up, he captured the moments of my family’s life in still frames and on video tape. Although he was mostly absent from the scenes that were captured, the evidence of him being there is documented by the fact that the photograph exists.
There is a line in “Return of the Jedi” where Darth Vader asks Luke Skywalker to help him remove his mask . “Let me look on you with my own eyes,” Darth Vader begs. I wondered if my dad, from behind his camera lens, felt a bit like this.
As the calendars passed, dad captured birthdays, holidays and school plays in freeze frame. Now as a dad myself, I try to keep a balance of participating in the action, capturing the action on film and just watching with my own eyes.
My son, Jonah, is on the drum line of his high school marching band. This past weekend he performed at town square. I deemed this a real eye experience. It allowed me to enjoy the music. It saved Jonah the embarrassment of marching down the street and feeling the eyes of dad’s video camera.
I am particularly fond of the rule at my daughter, Vienna’s, ballet recitals. Videotaping and flash photography is strictly forbidden. A professional photographer films the performance and you can purchase a copy from the company. This forces all of us parents to disarm our video devices at the door and take in the show.
My youngest son, Gideon, started kindergarten this fall. The mom and dad paparazzi followed him from his first waking moment, through our family’s traditional 6:00 am first-day-of school Cracker Barrel breakfast, and back home in time to catch the school bus. The camera rolled as the big yellow bus drove our baby to his first day of school. I felt this moment important to keep.
When my son, Tyler, graduated from high school this past spring, the parent paparazzi was at it again in full force. I had the video recorder and Alicia had the camera, our fingers ready to aim, shoot, and record at every second. In our determination to document, we missed some of the important moments.
I didn’t realize that graduates were proceeding into the gymnasium from two sides. I recoded an entire procession line that included half of the high school, but not Tyler. He was on the other side. A quick panic attack made me think that for some reason Tyler wasn’t walking. When I got to my seat, Alicia reassured me that Tyler had marched in from the other set of doors.
We remained cool during most of the ceremony. That is, until it was time for Tyler to walk across the stage and get his diploma. Shortly before his name was called, Alicia and I agreed that the close up features on our cameras were not good enough for this shot.
We leaped from our seats for a closer spot. I recorded. Alicia took pictures. While we captured the event on film, we missed a very touching moment.
Tyler was the only deaf student in his high school. Throughout his school career, he had taught his fellow classmates about deaf culture. One such lesson was that, since the sound of applause doesn’t really have an impact on a deaf person, an appropriate “deaf applause” is the waiving of open hands in the air.
In our rush to record, Alicia and I missed seeing Tyler’s entire class, teachers, and school administrators silently applauding. Later, several guests commented on what a touching moment it was when the class burst into deaf applause. Embarrassingly, Alicia and I had no idea that it happened.
While pinning life down in a photograph album or posting shots on Facebook might seem important, there is nothing like actually participating in life. With our culture’s desire to excessively document moments on Facebook, through telephones and in scrapbooks, take some time to actually live so you don’t miss the sight of a grand applause.
Life does not offer commercial breaks. Cliffhanger moments in the spring cannot wait until the new television season in the fall to be resolved. Life does not fade to black with ominous minor chords playing as a background exclamation point.
Given our uninterrupted existences, life can be overwhelming. In English class, we learned that a story’s plot includes an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, or denouement for the real show-offs. Depending upon whether you believe that life imitates art or art imitates life, life is like a plot or a plot mirrors life. Either way, we’re in for a ride.
I find the rollercoaster much easier to stomach by breaking life into my own episodes. Since life does not offer automatic pauses, I have to create own. My favorite pauses include the peace I feel while swimming, taking a walk in the woods or the live worship music of the praise band at church. It is in these moments where reflection can occur; the climaxes can be examined and the resolutions appreciated. Hopefully, sense can be made of the seemingly senseless.
Life has a way of illuminating our imperfections. We might want to keep them in the dark. But a good story casts a spotlight on a character’s flaws and offers an opportunity for development and growth. Plots twists serve as a catalyst for change. Some memorable twists in my life came from interruptions courtesy of Jesus and a pair of dirty underwear.
One morning many years ago, I found my wife, Alicia, in the laundry room gently dabbing a pair of the boys’ underwear with a dryer sheet because, with both of us working full time, we struggled to keep up with the laundry. Life was chaotic. Juggling school, daycare, two fulltime jobs and a newly purchased house hinted at the so-called American dream. Yet, an underscore in life left us unsatisfied and longing for more. We wanted our kids to leave the house with clean shorts, not just smelling Snuggle clean.
The uncomfortable plot elements made me examine my life. I found myself in church wrestling with myself. It was in church, a place often wrongly assumed as a place where the perfect roam, that I found out it was ok to be imperfect. That there is a God and He walked on Earth specifically for imperfect people. And that by giving things over to Him, you could actually become clean; not just smell clean. While my imperfections would continue, He would be a constant cleanser.
Like a character in a story, I was brought through a catharsis. But unlike a character, this process was not complete and wrapped up in bows within a two-hour period. This process continues. That continuation is the journey of life.
My family’s most recent episodic adventure included launching our oldest son, Tyler, into what can be considered his own spin-off as he started college at Rochester Institute of Technology this fall.
One day, the closing credits will metaphorically roll over the final scene of my life. In the end, I hope to not just be a character. Rather, I want to be person who built a fine character on the lessons he learned.