Stories Told

Up on the roof

Autumn’s never been my style – give me the warmth of spring and summer instead. Even though the colorful trees are beautiful in my neighborhood, they are mature and plentiful. They dump a huge mess on my lawn every year at this time, and collecting their bounty consumes weekend after weekend. Fortunately, my lawn tractor makes it easier. I just drive around the yard and let the leaves collect in the bagger – or, if I’m lazy, I just mulch them into powder and leave them on the lawn. I was lazy all last season, and it looks like I’m headed for a repeat this year.

If there’s anything I enjoy about the annual leaf harvest, it’s cleaning the gutters. No, really. I take my leaf blower up there and have the job done in no time. And then I linger a little, enjoying the quiet, looking out over my neighbors’ rooftops. I so enjoy those few moments of pure peace. I wonder if anybody sees me just standing there searching the sky.

Two tall, skinny trees stand near the house out back. They’ve dumped all of their leaves already, cramming the gutters full. When it rained last week, I watched water sheet over my gutters as if they weren’t there. So I went topside over the weekend to solve that problem. Because the rest of my trees haven’t finished shedding yet, I’ll have to do this job again in a few weeks. I’m cool with that.

I can solve all of the world’s problems while driving
my tractor around the yard. Read about it.

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Stigma, style, and stamens

I buy cut flowers at the grocery store from time to time. I’m sure that the person who rings me up thinks I’m buying them for a girlfriend or a wife, but I’m currently unattached. I buy them for myself.

The Japanese have raised flower arranging to an art form. I think of it every time I place the flowers one by one into a vase. I aspire to beauty, but I have no idea what I’m doing. I just go about it quietly and mindfully. That’s the whole point, really – I buy flowers for myself when I need a little inner peace. Sometimes I stay in that place by photographing them, moving in close, looking for a beautiful composition. Such was the case this day. I leave it to you to decide whether I succeeded.

Photography

Captured: Stigma, style, and stamens

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Faith, Personal, Stories Told

Find joy where life is

It’s Down the Road’s fifth blogiversary!
All month I’m reposting favorite stories from the blog’s early days.

It was my third annual trip to the Vida Nueva mission in Piedras Negras, Mexico. The day after I returned from my first mission trip to Mexico, my wife and I separated. By the second trip, she had filed and we awaited trial. In the few months before this third trip I started a new job, my divorce became final, and I rented a house. I grieved my marriage, tried to be a good dad to my sons as they grieved, worked hard to make the right impression on the job, and tried to keep the house tidy and the grass cut.

I was busy. I was tired. Downtime seldom seemed to come, but when it did I couldn’t relax in it. I felt compelled to stay busy, or I worried about how things would turn out, or I ruminated about things that had happened.

It was a blessing to go away on these trips. We usually did construction work – hot, hard labor for God that let me lay down exhausted each night. I liked how the work distracted me from my problems for a while, and I liked how giving all this effort for God made me feel closer to him.

On the long bus ride to Mexico, the trip’s leader found me and said, “I hear you know about computers. We brought 17 computers that have been donated to the mission. Do you think you can take a look at them, maybe get them set up? The mission wants some of them in the preschool, and a couple in the clinic.” I lit up. “Sure!” Having worked with computers for more than 20 years, I was excited to contribute from my best skills.

We arrived late Saturday. Sunday we rested. Monday morning I reported to the preschool and started work. As the week unfolded, I ran some basic tests to make sure the computers and monitors were usable. Then I defragmented the hard drives and installed needed software. Finally, I installed the computers where they needed to go.

The problem with this plum assignment was that there wasn’t very much to do. My tripmates worked hard in the hot sun laying a new building’s foundation, welding steel beams for another building’s new roof, and wiring a third building for electricity. I sat in air conditioning waiting for disks to defragment and programs to install on these old, slow computers. I had lots of time on my hands.

In the mornings, I tried to sit quietly and listen to the preschool. The teachers talked very seriously in their daily meeting before school started. When the children arrived, they laughed and chattered as they passed and moved to their clasrooms in the distant corners of the building. Happy singing seeped through the closed doors. When it was time to play outside everyone filed out single file, the only sound being the shuffling of their feet. There was also one poor accident-prone little boy who wailed in the distance every day as skinned his knee or hit his head. All of these sounds swelled my heart. Even a hurt child’s crying is a joyful sound simply because there’s life in it.

After the children went home at noon, I took breaks while I waited for tasks to finish on the computers. I walked to a large gazebo in the courtyard, sat at a picnic table, and tried to pray, even though my mind wanted to worry or ruminate. I could hear dogs barking in the distance, someone’s radio playing, and the breeze as it made the trees rustle, all of which helped me stay in the moment. When I felt the breeze on my skin, it felt like an intimate friend’s comforting and soothing touch. The intensity of it filled my mind and blocked other thought. Whenever my mind would wander to my worries, the breeze would touch me again.

Coyote, a filthy little dog, spends his days on the mission compound. He shadows the staff as they work, sleeping in the shade until it’s time to move to the next job. When someone leaves on an errand, he jumps into the truck bed to ride along. Nobody pays any attention to him. It’s not because his fur is always matted and filthy, but because Mexicans just don’t dote on dogs like we do.

One noontime in the gazebo, Coyote came up to me. He wanted my attention, but I didn’t really want to touch his filthy, matted fur. But soon I couldn’t resist him and I scratched and petted his head for quite some time. He leaned his head into my thigh, soaking it in. After a few minutes, a cat came and rubbed himself back and forth along my back. I turned to scratch the sides of his neck, which he ate up. Coyote scrambled to the top of a picnic table and lay down all comfortable and content. I felt the same.

The next day I finished work very early, so I wandered through the other work sites. One small crew stood on a school bus installing overhead lights in a tall garage, and a fellow welded beams while standing high in the scoop of a big John Deere earth mover. How improbable both scenes were! I came upon a crew building a credenza for the preschool’s computers. They asked me to help them move it into place, so I did. And then I went to the gazebo.

Coyote immediately joined me. He came up to me for a brief moment, seeming to greet me with a smile and bright eyes. I was startled by the feeling that a trusted old friend had looked me warmly in the eye and said, “Hello! I’m so glad to see you!” He immediately lay down on the gazebo floor, facing a small herd of goats a short distance away. On this side of the fence, two horses grazed on what little grass was available. I felt delighted as their muscles moved under their skin and they tossed their heads as horses sometimes do. Then I settled in to pray and asked God to show me how to stay close to him. I lamented to him how my mind runs and how I press to stay busy and productive. As I finished praying, another member of our group sped around the gazebo in an old van. He had been fixing all of the broken-down vehicles on the compound, and I guessed he was testing a repair. Coyote immediately jumped up and chased the goats out of the way. I was delighted to see that this filthy, neglected dog had a job and a part there. My heart leapt as I felt his excellent dogness bring me joy. I could see that his life was in greater balance than mine. He hung out with people and rested much of the time, but when his job called him he immediately ran to do it.

Through this experience I heard God telling me, “I’m over here, Jim, over here, not so much in all that work you come here to do. Don’t forget me, don’t forget to come outside and sit alone with me, because I’m out here where life is.

Coyote ran off, someone put the horses away, and the breeze became still. I could see that this time of intense pleasure and joy was over. I asked God to help me find the joys as readily back at home, because I felt sure joys were there, too, and I was missing them.

Receiving this joy lightened my load. The next day, I was full of good-natured wisecracks, and I kept finding myself singing the song playing in my heart. But despite my good mood, I suspected that I had not yet learned this lesson. I felt sure that eventually the crush of life would consume me again.

I was right. Again I find it hard to suffer a quiet moment. Again I ruminate about yesterday and worry about tomorrow. And so I return to this story, hoping to find a new insight. As I wrote this, I have been surprised by how all of these blessings came when I first stopped to seek God. And so that is where I will begin.

Originally posted 8/22/2007. Read the original here.

Thanks for coming along on this trip through the Down the Road archives.
Regular programming resumes on Thursday!

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Personal, Stories Told

Checking my barometer

A large barometer used to hang on the wall in my grandparents’ palatial retirement estate. Grandpa tried to explain to me how it told him when storms were coming, important when you lived in the country in a day before 24-hour TV weather channels, but it went over my young head. But after I grew up my dog helped me understand.

About ten years ago, my wife brought home a dog she found shivering in some bushes behind the Shell station around the corner. We already had two dogs and three cats, but because her heart knows no bottom for an animal in need, Gracie joined the menagerie.

One of my travel companions

Gracie showed signs of having been abused. We figured her abuser had been a man because she warmed right up to my wife but cringed if I as much as shifted in my easy chair and ran, tail tucked, when I stood up. As my wife and Sugar, our Rottweiler, helped her find her place in our home, her security increased, and she came to be considerably less skittish around me.

Gracie

I got our dogs after the divorce, and Gracie had trouble making the transition. I had to leave her home alone all day while I worked, and she took to destroying things in my house while I was gone. When I was at my wits’ end, the vet said it was separation anxiety and prescribed a doggie antidepressant, which helped. But I could see she needed a lot of structure so she could know all was well. I started taking the dogs on daily walks, made more time to play with them in the yard, and implemented solid and consistent discipline. It was, and remains, a lot of work, but Gracie responded well and became fully my dog in the process.

Gracie’s security had just returned when Sugar died. I worried that Gracie would falter without her constant companion, but soon she stopped looking around the house for Sugar and instead just seemed thrilled to have me all to herself. But six weeks later Gracie just fell apart. She started destroying things in the house again when I was gone; when I was home, she followed me everywhere, whining and crying.

At first I thought that perhaps it sunk in that Sugar wasn’t coming home, but then I connected some dots. I’m a busy dude, often busier than I like to be. Not only was I mourning Sugar after she died, but I was super busy for several weeks afterward. I had let up on Gracie’s walks, stopped playing with her in the yard, and had relaxed the discipline. A couple weeks later, my own usual stress symptoms emerged: I was tired all the time, my shoulders and neck were stiff and sore, and I was becoming irritable. I could see that I hadn’t been getting to bed on time, I hadn’t been eating well, and I hadn’t been setting aside any quiet time.

I realized that I have a barometer, and her name is Gracie. She’s a very sensitive instrument who knows that I’m off my game well before I do. If I’m taking good care of her, then I’m taking good care of me, and we’re both happy. But every time she whines and cries when I come home and becomes jumpy, I always find that both of us need more attention. As soon as I give it to us, she rebounds, and I keep stress from piling up on me.

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Faith

Everything you need

Most of my life I thought I had to make myself right before I could approach God.

I had to stop swearing, stop having sex with my girlfriend, stop lying to cover up things I didn’t want to admit, and stop eating entire large pizzas for comfort when I was feeling blue. I needed to meet my wife’s needs better, pay more attention to my stepson, give my employer 8 hours of solid work every day, and control my temper.

I thought I had to change before God would accept me, but I had it backwards. What I didn’t know was that I needed only come to God as I was. Then to the extent I kept trying to get closer to him, the more the things that needed to stop would go away, and the things I needed to do would happen. In other words, God took me as I was, but was not content to leave me that way.

So I spent many years with my sins and shortcomings. Some of them I overcame by force of will, although I found that they tended to leak out under stress. Some of my sins I justified or minimized, telling myself they were no big deal. Some of my sins I could not stop no matter what I did. They were strongholds over me, keeping me in shame.

When those strongholds finally damaged my life enough that I had no recourse but turn to God for help, he took me in. In time, he cut those strongholds out as if they were a cancer in deep tissue. Although I can see he did it as gently as he could, it triggered consequences that hurt like hell. I don’t know how it could have been otherwise; nor do I regret that suffering for the peace of mind it has brought. God has also used life challenges to bring certain changes in me. Finally, some changes just seemed to happen, and I didn’t realize it until I looked back. I notice how calm I usually am now. I notice how much more easily I find happiness and joy. I notice how I increasingly can handle problems that used to baffle me.

You see, when you turn to God, he begins working to renew your mind, rework you in the image of Jesus Christ, and grow the fruits of the Holy Spirit in you. You actually start becoming the person God meant you to be! As I keep turning to God, he will keep working on me. I expect my serenity and joy to increase, even in the face of difficult times that surely will come. God will keep giving me everything I need to serve him and enjoy this life he has given me.

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Faith, Personal

Find joy where life is

In the few months before I went on the mission trip to Mexico last fall I started a new job, my divorce became final, and I left a one-room apartment and rented a five-bedroom house. I grieved my marriage (and tried to be a good dad to my sons as they grieved the changes in their family), tried to work hard to make the right impression on the job, and had a whole lot more house and yard to care for than I had been used to. I was busy. I was tired. Downtime seldom seemed to come, but when it did I couldn’t just relax in it. I found something to keep me busy, or I worried about how things would turn out, or I ruminated about things that had happened.

This was my third annual trip to the Vida Nueva mission in Piedras Negras. The day after I returned from the first trip, my wife and I separated. By the second trip, she had filed and we awaited trial. With all my troubles, it was a blessing to go away for a week each time. We usually do construction work on these trips; hot, hard labor. I worked hard for the Lord each day and lay down exhausted each night. I liked how the work distracted me from my problems for a while, and I liked how giving all this effort for God made me feel closer to him.

Coyote, a filthy little dog, spends his days on the mission compound, shadowing the staff as they work. He sleeps in the shade until it’s time to move to the next job. When someone leaves on an errand, he jumps into the truck bed to ride along. Nobody pays any attention to him. It’s not because his fur is always matted and filthy, but because Mexicans just don’t dote on dogs like we do.

Coyote wasn’t around the first day of this trip, not that I cared much. Our trip’s leader found me and said, “I hear you know about computers. We brought 17 computers that have been donated to the mission. Do you think you can take a look at them, maybe get them set up? The mission wants some of them in the preschool, and a couple in the clinic.” I lit up. “Sure!” Having worked with computers for more than 20 years, I was excited to contribute from my best skills.

Monday morning I reported to the preschool and started work. As the week unfolded, I ran some basic tests to make sure the computers and monitors were usable. Then I defragmented the hard drives and installed needed software. Finally, I installed the computers where they needed to go.

MeInMexico

The problem with this plum assignment was that there wasn’t very much to do. My tripmates worked hard in the hot sun making a new building’s foundation, welding steel beams for a roof structure, and wiring a building for electricity. I sat in air conditioning waiting for disks to defragment and programs to install on these old, slow computers. I had lots of time on my hands.

In the mornings, I tried to sit quietly and listen to the preschool. The teachers talked very seriously in their daily meeting before school started. When the children arrived, they laughed and chattered as they passed and moved to their clasrooms in the distant corners of the building. Happy singing seeped through the closed doors. When it was time to play outside, they filed out single file, the only sound being of their shuffling feet. There was also one poor accident-prone little boy who wailed in the distance every day as skinned his knee or hit his head. All of these sounds swelled my heart. Even a hurt child’s crying is a joyful sound simply because there’s life in it.

After the children went home at noon, I took breaks while I waited for tasks to finish on the computers. I walked to a large gazebo in the courtyard, sat at a picnic table, and tried to pray, even though my mind wanted to worry or ruminate. I could hear dogs barking in the distance, someone’s radio playing, and the breeze as it made the trees rustle, all of which helped me stay in the moment. When I felt the breeze on my skin, it felt like an intimate friend’s comforting and soothing touch. The intensity of it filled my mind and blocked other thought. Whenever my mind would wander to my worries, the breeze would touch me again. One day, Coyote came up to me for the first time. I could tell he wanted attention, but I didn’t really want to touch his filthy, matted fur. But soon I couldn’t resist him and I scratched and petted his head for quite some time. He leaned his head into my thigh, soaking it in. After a few minutes, a cat came and rubbed himself back and forth along my back. I turned to scratch the sides of his neck, which he ate up. Coyote scrambled to the top of a picnic table and lay down all comfortable and content. I felt the same.

One afternoon, I finished work very early. I felt drawn back to the gazebo, so I set out. I felt no hurry, so I took an indirect route to see the others working. One small crew stood on a school bus installing overhead lights in a tall garage, and a fellow welded beams while standing high in the scoop of a big John Deere earth mover. How improbable both scenes were! I came upon a crew building a credenza for the preschool’s computers. They asked me to help them move it into place, so I did. And then I went to the gazebo.

Coyote immediately joined me. He came up to me for a brief moment, seeming to greet me with a smile and bright eyes. I was startled by the feeling that a trusted old friend had looked me warmly in the eye and said, “Hello! I’m so glad to see you!” He immediately lay down on the gazebo floor, facing a small herd of goats beyond a fence a short distance away. On this side of the fence, two horses grazed on what little grass was available. I felt delighted as their muscles moved under their skin and they tossed their heads as horses sometimes do. Then I settled in to pray and asked God to show me how to stay close to him. I lamented to him how my mind runs and how I press to stay busy and productive. As I finished praying, another worker on our trip tore around the gazebo in an old van. He had been repairing all of the broken-down vehicles on the compound, and he was probably testing a repair. He aggressively drove back and forth in an open spot next to the gazebo. Though the goats were in no danger, Coyote immediately jumped up and chased them away. I was excited to see that this filthy, neglected dog had a job and a part there. My heart leapt as I felt his excellent dogness bring me joy. I could see that his life was in greater balance than mine. He hung out with people and rested much of the time, but when his job called him he immediately ran to do it.

Through this experience I heard God telling me, “I’m over here, Jim, over here, not so much in all that work you come here to do. Don’t forget me, don’t forget to come outside and sit alone with me, because I’m out here where life is.

Coyote ran off, someone put the horses away, and the breeze became still. I could see that this time of intense pleasure and joy was over. I asked God to help me find the joys as readily back at home, because I felt sure joys were there, too, and I was missing them.

Receiving this joy lightened my load. The next day, I was full of good-natured wisecracks, and I kept finding myself singing the song playing in my heart. But despite my good mood, I suspected that I had not yet learned this lesson. I felt sure that eventually the crush of life would consume me again.

I was right. Again I find it hard to suffer a quiet moment. Again I ruminate about yesterday and worry about tomorrow. And so I return to this story, hoping to find a new insight. As I wrote this, I have been surprised by how all of these blessings came when I first stopped to seek God. And so that is where I will begin.

For more about this trip, read my illustrated diary here.

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