Category Archives: Growing Up

Lent’s Compass. Day 17: Bonfires and Grace.

Fire By Fire

My son goes down in the orchard to incinerate
Burning the day’s trash, the accumulation
Of old letters, empty toilet paper rolls, a paper plate,
Marketing lists, discarded manuscript, on occasion
Used cartons of bird seed, dog biscuit. The fire
Rises and sinks; he stirs the ashes till the flames expire.

Burn, too, old sins, bedraggled virtues, tarnished
Dreams, remembered unrealities, the gross
Should-haves, would-haves, the unvarnished
Errors of the day, burn, burn the loss
Of intentions, recurring failures, turn
Them all to ash. Incinerate the dross. Burn. Burn.

~ Madeleine L’Engle The Weather of the Heart, p. 49.

The following story is excerpted from Robert Fulghum’s blog. The entry is dated March 8, 2011. Fulghum’s inner bonfire pairs nicely with L’Engles.

When I was a high school senior I smoked a cigar at school.
In the chemistry lab.
Lit it with a Bunsen burner.
And tried covering the smell by mixing up a batch of stinky chemicals.
The toxic orange smoke triggered the emergency fire alarms.
Students, teachers, and staff trooped out into playgrounds and parking lots.
Fire trucks appeared with sirens blaring.

Later, the principal used the public address system to call for information on who had been smoking a cigar in the chemistry lab.
Goodtime Bobby Fulghum played it cool and kept his mouth shut.

Wow! Wonder who the idiot was who would do something like that?

But word always gets around.
The look on the chemistry teacher’s face said she knew who the Who was.
But she didn’t say anything to me.
And neither did the principal, Mr. Ware.

Mr. Ware, a tall dignified man, was one of the finest men in our community.
Much respected by students, faculty, parents, and even students.
He addressed us with equal respect: Mr. Fulghum, Miss Brown.
Nobody wanted his disapproval.

But now I had single-handedly caused an all-out fire drill. Bad.
And didn’t own up to the truth when asked. Worse.
A crime and a cover-up.
But . . . somehow . . . I knew he knew.
And I was sure that he knew that I knew that he knew.
Because he always seemed to know about these things.

Next stop for Goodtime Bobby would surely be the principal’s office.

But a week went by without a summons to appear.
Meanwhile I began to beat myself up for what I had done.
There might have been an explosion.
The school might have burned down.
People could have been hurt, maimed, killed.
And I am such a gutless creep I won’t own up or apologize.
I deserve to be expelled, turned over to the police, beaten, branded, jailed.
I am thoughtless, stupid, worthless, a criminal loser.

It was a long, long week – and I hardly slept or ate.
When my parents asked what was wrong with me, I kept the lie alive.
Oh, nothing . . .

On Friday morning there was an envelope in my locker.
Inside on official school stationary was a handwritten note from Mr. Ware.
Mr. Fulghum, would you please stop by my office today?
The end had come.

Reporting to his office, I sat in the waiting room for an eternity.
Rehearsing my confession, my apology, and my plea for mercy.

Finally, his door opened.
Hello Mr. Fulghum, please come in.
He shook my hand in greeting and offered me a chair.
He asked how I was and if I had been doing any thinking this week.
Well, yes, actually I had.
And I threw up the whole mess in a non-stop monologue – confessed what I had done, admitted how dangerous my actions were, and even suggested the severe punishment I deserved.
Finally I ran out of words and choked up with tears.

There was a painfully long silence before he smiled and spoke.
Mr. Fulghum, I respect you and the way you think.
Thanks for stopping by.

No lecture about crime and punishment.
No moralizing.
Just courtesy and respect.
Thanks for stopping by.

As I rose to leave, he said – and I still remember his words spoken to me fifty-six years ago:
By the way, Mr. Fulghum, it doesn’t matter what I or anybody else thinks about you and what you do. What you think about you is all that really counts. Think the best.

That’s all he had wanted to know – what I thought of me.
He chose to think well of me, and left the rest in my hands.
With an act of grace he resolved my disgrace.

I never forgot. . .

When Mr. Ware retired many years later, I sent him a box of cigars.

Lent’s Compass. Day Twelve: A Human Love

As Christians we are not meant to be less human than other people, but more human, just as Jesus of Nazareth was more human.
One time I was talking to Canon Tallis, who is my spiritual director as well as my friend, and I was deeply grieved about something, and I kept telling him how woefully I had failed someone I loved, failed totally, otherwise that person couldn’t have done the wrong that was so destructive. Finally, he looked at me and said calmly, “Who are you to think you are better than our Lord? After all he was singularly unsuccessful with a great many people.”
That remark, made to me many years ago, has stood me in good stead, time and again. I have to try, but I do not have to succeed. Following Christ has nothing to do with success as the world sees success. It has to do with love.
~ Madeleine L’Engle Walking On Water, pp  59-60.

As a parent I identify with L’Engle’s conversation with Canon Tallis. It’s not that Sweets or Bud have ever done anything that was “that destructive.” Still, the days where I could look at them for hours are gone. Even before they could talk they were the “most beautiful boy” and the “most beautiful girl” I’d ever seen. I know, yours were too.

Don’t get me wrong, I marvel at the people they’re becoming. It’s just that when they catch me, it’s not cooing or a cutely mashed up word I hear. There are no new Vinny Mans or Popscillos. They don’t just talk. They talk back. “Dad, why are you staring at me?” or “Dad? You can leave my room now.” Those are not the most pleasant interactions.

I used to wonder what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I do a better job at parenting? When Bud was young and needed a nap things were easy. I’d put him in the bouncy chair or take him on a five minute car ride and he’d fall asleep within a few minutes. Now it seems that most of my tactics raise anxiety instead of reducing it. With him. With me. Sometimes their mom calls to vent. In measured tones she says, “You’re not going to believe what he just said to me.” She describes what’s happened. What she tells me, is the same thing he said to me a day or two before. I sigh. It’s not me. I know that now. Most of the time. But it’s nice to have that confirmation.

Bud is becoming his own person. Sweets is often fast to imitate her big brother. That’s double trouble from two fabulous kids whom I love dearly. And now I remember that the five minute car ride eventually turned into a twenty minute one with the heat on. They stopped when he and later she were done with naps. Their mom and I had no say in the matter.

There are bunches of changes to come as Bud moves through his teenage years and Sweets follows. Individuation is like that. Bud’s already showing me that he hasn’t only learned the lessons his mom and I were trying to teach him. He’s absorbed everything. He’s going to continue to do so. Me? I’m not sure I’m a better parent today than I was ten years ago. I am different. There’s no Super Dad. Just a guy who tries to love him as much as I can.

Lent’s Compass. Day One: Agape Dogs

“The Greeks, as usual, had a word for the forgiving kind of love which never excludes. They called it agape. . . . Agape means “a profound concern for the welfare of another without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process.” Not easy. But if we can follow it, it will mean that we will never exclude. . . . Not the people who have hurt us . . . or the people to whom we have done wrong. . . . It teaches me not only about forgiveness but about how to hope to give guidance without manipulation.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle

Sweets and Bud often argue. They love each other dearly, but they’re sibs. They argue. About everything. When feeling are hurt, I ask them to apologize to each other. It’s something they’re more apt to do after the fact, when I can pull them aside and get them to consider whether what they were fighting about was anything important. There are no magic phrases or techniques. The attention they’re given in those moments is magic enough. Often attention is what they wanted in the first place.

Attention is a visible sign that we care for each other. When we give another our full attention, we stop what ever we are doing. We show the other person they mean more to us that the bill we’re paying, the web page we’re viewing or TV show that’s on screen. So we stop. But giving your attention takes time. In the moments when the kids are arguing, time isn’t something I feel I have an abundance of. Even as I try to let them work things out themselves.

Often, after giving them what I measure as enough time to work things out–and seeing their emotions take over–I’ll blow my figurative referee’s whistle. I’ll ask or tell them to “stop arguing and say you’re sorry.” I try to remember to call them both by name when I do, regardless of who initiated the argument or is escalating it. When I forget, which I also do, I hear about it quickly. The opportunity for forgiveness is lost and I immediately become “unfair.” The other child is, my “favorite.” When I remember and they do apologize? They’re as likely to implement a policy of mutually assured rejection as they are to accept the other’s apology. Why? On the face of it because the tone or inflection aren’t right. “You don’t mean it!” is a typical accusation. Even if they are expressing an awareness of the importance of intention–and they are–it’s frustrating.

That’s the crux of the matter. Providing guidance is a substantial part of parenting. At an early age, it’s easy. Kids do just about everything they’re asked. As they grow up and become themselves, that changes. Along the way, intention begins to matter. That’s true of parents as well as kids, I think. Manipulation becomes part of a parent’s toolkit and the child’s. We want to be sure they’re learning the right lessons. We want them to “mean it” and be assured as we can that they do. They want to weigh our motives and gauge our integrity versus their own. Is this necessary? Is it good? I could answer yes or no. And yet, as a Dad, my most satisfying moments don’t come in the good talks I have with the kids. They don’t come from seeing them evaluate intention or realize that they are sincere. The satisfying moments are the ones where I see them love and forgive in a way that embodies what the Greeks meant when they used the word agape.

This Lent, I want to pay attention to how intention gets in the way of my being able to forgive others. To the way it conditions my willingness to forgive. The way it conditions my love. If my love and my forgiveness are tied to your intention or my own, there is nothing agape about them. Imagine having a dog who only loved you when you gave it a treat?

Measures of Permanence.

I wrote a variation of the following in response to this post. “Nobodys Perfect” is a lovely reflection on challenges of parenting that we don’t easily acknowledge. In my experience we’re quick to share both our exasperation with our kids and our pride in their success. The questions we have about whether we’re doing the right thing? Or of the limitations we see our kids facing? We don’t talk about either enough.

Report cards are in. The questions you ask: “What’s the right balance of supporting and challenging your children? How do I inspire them to try to perform well…?” are very real for me. I don’t have answers to them. All I can do is sit with them. If I’m lucky I may live my way into good answers.

Recently I did one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do as a parent.

Bud studies karate. He was invited by his teacher to test with his class for the next level of his belt. After the test there is an awards ceremony. I was there with camera in hand and ready to record a moment of triumph for the family archives. My chest swelled with pride. I waited for Bud’s award to be bestowed.
Instead, the teacher paused and spoke to the rigor of the test the class had taken. He said some students had not passed. Slowly the camera found its way into my bag. I knew. The speech was designed to reset the expectations of the students and their families in attendance. As others around him received their awards, Bud’s head sank.

All I could do was watch. My eyes watered. He glanced my way. How do you comfort from across a room? “It’s Okay, ” I mouthed. There wasn’t anyway of knowing if he’d read my lips. He’s terrible at reading facial expressions so what–if anything that he’d taken from my expression–was impossible to tell. At the ceremonies end his teacher sat with him for a few minutes, giving comfort with his presence as well as detailing what he’d missed on the exam. From there he moved quickly to the locker room, changing and emerging in silence. I reached out to embrace him in a hug. He rebuffed the gesture saying,”Let’s just go.”

Riding home, I asked how he felt. What he thought about his performance. I didn’t know what else to say. I knew I didn’t want to lecture him on his preparation or anything really. I hoped that if he talked about the test, it would help process the experience. The only thing I feared was his taking this moment of failure and giving it a measure of permanence that was undeserved. He can be very hard on himself. I didn’t know what I might say if that was the case.

All I knew is that I wanted him to know that I loved him. And that no test could change that. We arrived at the house. Before he walked in, he turned to me and gave me a bear of a hug. “Thanks,” Bud said.

Ten, twenty, or thirty years from now I’m sure he’ll have forgotten the test. If he remembers it, it will be in the context of passing the second time. That’s not hubris. He was that close. If I’m lucky and relatively consistent, he’ll also remember that his Dad loves him when he succeeds and when he doesn’t.

Chasing Fireflies

I went out for a cup of coffee as night fell.  Alright, I went out for a brownie. The coffee was an accompaniment that I ordered out of habit. Post stroke, I’ve cut my consumption to a cup a day. It’s a 12 to 16 oz cup, mind you, but still a cup. Until recently a 32 oz press was scarcely enough to start my day. The funny thing is, I don’t miss it.

It helps that my local shop has switched suppliers. Their coffee is different. New names. The new names are new fangled. They’re names the roaster gave them. These names are given to intrigue you to taste and purchase.’s They don’t tell you where a coffee is from or how it was processed. Not seeing the name of the country/region listed with the bean is unusual for me. Where a coffee is from determines–to a large degree–it’s flavor profile.  I can and do ask the baristas, but their knowledge is general. They’re still getting to know the coffee too. It’s a barrier. I buy less coffee here are a result. Last night I ordered a cup and learned on first sip that it was Ethopian. The delicate fruity aroma of the cup, it’s berry flavor and medium body gave it away.  The coffee is 30% more expensive. That’s another a barrier. If I’m going to pay $17 for a bag of coffee, I’ll buy a top rated bean from a great roaster.  If I’m counting pennies, which I am, I’ll choose another local supplier. So I purchased a cup with my amazing 4×4 brownie and walked back home. As I did, I chased fireflies.

Growing up chasing fireflies was a low-tech summer activity. All we needed was a thirty-two ounce jar with a perforated lid. We’d place grass torn from the lawn at the bottom of the jar. Supplies gathered, we were ready. My sibs and I would run and catch fireflies in our hands and place them in the jar. After a time we’d stop and stare at the jar. We were waiting for them to blink. I suppose we thought we’d made a natural flashlight.  They didn’t blink. Given what we know about fireflies, I’m not surprised. We had no idea that we’d become Godzilla, Mothra and Ghidora on their night out.

Tonight I walk, cup of coffee in one hand and brownie in the other. I can only chase the fireflies. I can’t catch them.

Sweets Has A New Smile

Bud’s bus leaves at 8:20 a.m.
Sweets‘ school assembles at 8:54.

As the school year progresses, I’m learning that thirty-four minutes can be an expanse of time or a short interval.

Mornings have a certain flow to them. I grind the coffee beans at 6:45. The sound invariably wakes my son. A weary voice calls. “Dad?” In his life coffee doesn’t yet have magical qualities. It’s the alarm he hears. Then again, given how hard he sleeps, maybe it does.

When I was eleven, my Dad would stand at my door and call my name. After five minutes that felt like seconds, he knock and call again. If more time passed and I didn’t get up, he’d come into my room, place his hand on my shoulder and shake me lightly. If that didn’t work, my mom would take over and I would feel her hand. I would hear her voice and begin my day.

These days I wake to the chorus of U2’s “Beautiful Day.” It’s a small reminder of what lies ahead, regardless of the weather. When I’m getting enough sleep, I rise before the alarm goes off. Sometimes I’m early enough to be my own snooze button. I’ll roll over and tell myself to take an extra ten minutes or twenty. Then I’ll wake up a second time, before the alarm sounds. If I’m over-tired or just up too late, I try to adjust and set the alarm for a later time. That’s usually an accident in process. I’ve set the alarm for 7 p.m. instead of a.m. or changed it to one in the afternoon. I don’t know how that happens, well I do, but it’s all fuzzy in my head. That’s the point. When that happens the morning is an interesting scramble.

Sweets wakes up when she’s ready. No alarm necessary. She seems to sleep as long as she needs. That’s usually about ten and a half hours. It’s four more than I am usually able.

She’s a cold breakfast girl to Bud’s hot breakfast boy. When she wakes, her head is clear. She doesn’t need much time to wash, eat or dress. That’s good. The thirty-four minutes is a nice buffer to have in the morning.

Making coffee precedes Bud’s hot breakfast. I love the way fresh coffee foams in the press like Coca Cola hitting ice cream. The brew swells and slowly recedes.

There are generally four keys to a great cup. Most important are the beans themselves. Quality matters. Freshness too. Coffee stales quickly and keeping it in the fridge only exposes it to the flavors there. The beans absorb them the way baking soda does. I don’t like flavored coffee. A refrigerated blend sits in my imagination alongside the Berties Botts Every Flavored Beans that Harry Potter hopes he never has to taste.

The grind is determined by the brewing method you’re going to use. And you have to use enough coffee. Two good tablespoons for every six ounces of water is the industry standard. That’s twice what most folks use. Good tasting water is key also. After all, it’s 98% of the cup! I’ll take my first sips while making breakfast and finish the cup as I make their lunches.

After breakfast the requisite reminders follow. Ten minutes until we have to leave. Don’t forget to put your homework in your folders. Is your bag packed? Did you brush your teeth? Deoderize? Where are your socks? You need socks. No, it’s too cold to wear that without a t-shirt. Aren’t you wearing shoes today? Yes, you’re wearing a coat. There’s a lot of eye rolling along the way. There’s tension, sometimes a joke or two and by the time we’re in the car, some ease on all sides. That is unless we forget something, or the unexpected happens.

This morning while Sweets was brushing her teeth a loose tooth came out. One of her front teeth. There was a little blood and more surprise. We used all of the buffer before she headed to school, with a new smile.