As is tradition, I was mixing the batter for the muffins this morning at the kitchen island when I had a strange thought. I happened to look down at my feet. They were both perfectly centered in the tile on our kitchen floor.
Strange I know, but stay with me. I asked my youngest daughter to grab the measuring tape. We measured the length and width of where I was standing. Roughly 290 square inches of space. My place in the world, when I’m standing, totals 290 square inches.
Then I looked up on Google that there is roughly 57,000,000 square miles of land on earth. My feet take up .000000000007 of the space on this earth. (If I got my math right). Even if I got the math wrong, my body, my heart, my life does not take up much of the space in this world.
It is, at first, sad to consider how insignificant one individual is. The space we stand on is so small. But then I had to move my feet toward the kitchen counter where the muffin tin was and my perspective changed.
I get to place my feet anywhere in the 57,000,000 square miles of this world. I can place them on a sidewalk in Chicago. I can walk a beach in Australia. I can play basketball with my son or volleyball with my daughters on the same court. I can stand on a stage in front of a microphone to share my poetry.
Life is about where we stand, where we take up our small 290 square inches of this world. And even more importantly who’s feet join us in our little part of the world…
We spend time and energy working on and developing different types of relationships. Family, spouse, and friends get the most of our time and love, but there are some relationships that are just as important, even if the relationship is built on the smallest foundation. Recently, life has reminded me how important the smallest relationships are for building a joyful life. Let me tell you about a stranger, a cashier, and a person from the congregation of our church. Three cool dots that connect to show the power of a small relationship.
Today we attended a parade in Fairfield, NE, for the town’s 150th birthday celebration. My wife’s parents were the grand marshals because they are the oldest living couple in Fairfield. The parade was a mix of old tractors, cars, the local school band and other fun floats.
There was also a lot of candy!
The whole parade took over an hour. I sat next to a stranger. Yet, we had a great time watching the kids run out to get the candy, appreciating some classic cars, and had a funny moment when a local BBQ restaurant’s float passed us and I commented it would have been great if they threw out some ribs for us big kids. When her daughter showed up later in the parade (she played in the band earlier) she told her daughter of our idea of the ribs for us big kids. We laughed again.
When the parade ended we went our separate ways with a smile and an “enjoy the rest of the day” goodbye. That’s it. But for an hour we enjoyed the community feel of the event, making a small connection that generated some laughs and enjoyment of the day.
The second small relationship is based on dad jokes. No kidding. We usually shop for groceries on Saturday mornings. We shop at a few different places for different things. At our local grocery store there is a cashier that I tell a dad joke to every time I see him. In this case I do know his name (just not going to share it here), and have learned a few things about him. This routine started during the pandemic. It started just to ease the tension everyone was feeling as we were trying to figure out life with COVID affecting our lives. And now it is a small relationship that brings a shot of happiness to both of our lives, and I learned I am “the dad joke guy”.
Last week we had to pick up some milk on Wednesday. On the previous Saturday he did not work, so I didn’t get to tell him my joke. When my wife and I walked into the store I saw that he was working, so I approached him to share with him my newest dad joke. It was a good one. We laughed. My wife and I told him that we missed him on Saturday. He replied that his hours were changing because of school but knew that I had been in the store because his brother was working that day and had texted him that “the dad joke guy” was in the store.
This small relationship is more personal, it brings a sense of routine and joy to the week. It will and is changing because he has major life changes happening as he moves into more major life moments. But for now, we will share a good (sometimes bad) dad joke each week that adds a little happiness to our lives.
Now the third small relationship is with someone that attends our church only on Saturdays. As a family we attend church either Saturday night or Sunday morning, kind of depends on our schedule. When churches opened back up during COVID, we attended Saturday nights for a long time. This is when this small relationship started. And it might be the most powerful of my small relationships, and we don’t even know each other’s names.
During a Catholic service there is a moment when the congregation says “Peace be with you” with each other. During the worse part of the pandemic we waved to each other instead of shaking hands. Durning the first service that the church included this moment, a gentleman was in front of us. At that time we gave each other an awkward wave and said, “Peace be with you,” quietly. For a number of weeks this gentleman sat close to us, so we would wave to each other during this part of the ceremony. He always attends church by himself. He finds a seat right as the service starts, so one week he was not sitting near us. I kind of looked around for him and saw him a few rows back in another section. We made eye contact, smiled, and waved hello. Then during the Peace Be With You part of the ceremony, we waved and mouthed, “Peace be with you.”
Almost two years later, we now find each other through the congregation to say hello at the start and make sure we wave and say “peace be with you” later in the service. Lately we have been attending Sunday morning services, but tonight (Saturday) we attended church and he walked in right at the beginning as usual. I saw him first and my heart was filled as I watched him look around the congregation until he saw me and my family. We smiled. We waved hello. Then later in the service we had to lean a little but still made eye contact, waved, and mouthed, “Peace be with you”. Both of us were smiling, it had been a few weeks since we had seen each other.
I don’t know his name. I doubt he knows mine. We never talk after church. But this small relationship is a powerful one because it gives me, and I think it is the same for him, a moment to know that I am here in this life. That I matter to someone else in this world, that my presence makes them happy simply because we are both here, living this life together, however small our relationship might be.
I spent seven days with my first daughter in Atlanta as she competed in photography at the National Leadership and Skills Conference for SkillsUSA. Besides the almost 40 hours we traveled on a charter bus, I had time to think, read and write as my daughter’s photography competition ended up being two full days.
This post will be a collection of thoughts I wrote down. Be warned, I’m not sure how organized this post will be… but it will be centered on us…
There were about 6,500 students, high school and college, competing in over a 100 different trade, technical and leadership fields in Atlanta. It was amazing to see the scope of talent during the week. I had time on my hands so I walked to other areas to see the competitions. Everyone was a state champion, so the final results were incredible. To name a few of the fields, there was cabinet making, culinary, nursing, and also cool areas like urban search and rescue.
Sometimes we forget how vast our world is. There are so many careers for us to pursue. So many ways to express our talents. I was humbled by the skills the students displayed during the competition.
But I was also amazed at the character of the students and sponsors I met during the week. One of the fun activities during nationals is to collect state pins. I didn’t get extra Nebraska pins, so my pin game was a little rough, but I got some cool pins and met some great people by exchanging or trading pins. It gave us all a common experience to build a connection through.
That common experience is a powerful element to building a community. And a strong community looks out for each other. I witnessed so many small moments of this, of people just helping others. For many of the contests students would have to bring their own tools, or visual aids or make-up supplies. Someone was always willing to lend a hand, or give directions, or rush to hold a door. I would see contestants console or celebrate with another competitor. And in doing so I saw how we could be as a society. Even the staff at the different locations, but especially at the Georgia World Congress Center were a part of the community. Honestly, it took 12 minutes for my daughter and I to walk to her competition area each day. We got to know a few of the staff at the different checkpoints because we stopped and said hello every morning then goodbye at the end of the day. They would ask how the day went, but the best moment was on the last day when they asked to see my daughter’s work. They made her smile with their comments about her pictures. But we also learned a little about them. We learned about the significance of a necklace one of the staff members wore each day. Where another staff member got her cool boots. For just a little while we were a community.
Our nation is divided right now. It is hard to believe that we can be one nation anytime soon, but for a week I saw how we could be. Yes, I understand it was a unique situation, but isn’t our life a unique situation? Can’t we be respectful, helpful, and friendly to each other? Yes, yes, we can…
This is not really a poem, but this is something I had jotted down late Thursday afternoon while I waited for my daughter to complete her debriefing.
We all like a good meal, we just have different favorite dishes.
We all jam out to good music, we just have a different favorite song.
We all want to be seen, we just choose different ways to gain your attention.
We all want to be loved, we just have different ways that we show it.
We all want to look good, we just have different styles.
We all feel pain, we just have different stories that tell of our heartache.
We all have a passion, we just let it shine in different ways.
We all give our lives to something, we just have different things we believe in.
When I go grocery shopping on Saturdays, I tell a dad joke to a certain cashier if he is working. He is not there every Saturday, but if I see him working, I make sure to tell him a joke. Some are better than others, but it is always a fun moment to share a joke with him.
There is a gentleman at church I make sure I wave hello to when I see him and again when we share the sign of peace with those around us. I don’t know his name, I don’t think he knows mine. He is always alone. We both smile as we acknowledge each other. Even if he is in another section, we wave to each other. There is a jolt of happiness in the moment.
Every morning (during the week) I make sure everyone’s water bottle is filled with ice and water. I place the bottles in backpacks, or leave them on the island for the person to grab before heading to school.
For whatever reason, the small moments have been on my mind lately. Actually the power of small moments… Everyday is filled with small moments, some lasting no more than a minute. Talking with the barista while ordering a coffee, holding a door for someone, singing a song in the car with my daughters (No, we do not talk about Bruno). What matters is what kind of energy we bring to the moment.
I am sure everyone has had the situation in a store or at a restaurant where the employee was in a bad mood and made the moment awkward or even negative. Or someone is on your tail driving, trying to get you to go over the speed limit. That kind of interaction can be tough to overcome, it sets a sour taste for the day, or at least for a while. Now, I know that customers can bring the same kind of negativity at a store. I have lost my cool in traffic. Anybody can bring negative energy to a moment.
Or we can be positive.
If you think about how many small moments there are in a single day, you can understand why it is important to handle each moment as an opportunity to bring a little happiness to the people involved. It is like dropping change into a jar. A couple of pennies doesn’t seem like much, but if you are depositing change 20 times a day, it adds up quickly.
A small moment can change everything for a person, be it negative or positive. This world needs more positive moments, even small ones.
I spent most of my day with a dead radio. Not because it was stolen like in the song, but I’ll get to why I couldn’t use the radio in a minute. Driving in silence allowed me time to think about the crazy day I was involved in, and also some of the more abstract aspects of this life (just like the song). Warning, this blog post will be all over the place and take some time… just like life.
First, let’s begin with how the day ended. Besides me writing about it, the girls stayed up a little later than normal so they could play Super Soccer with their oldest brother because he was heading back to college tomorrow.
The living room was filled with laughter, and outbursts of “Kick it!, Kick it, NOW!” Both games went to a shootout, and big brother lost both games. His sisters were excited.
I sat with my youngest daughter in the kitchen as they played. We had snack and played Would You Rather. I was asked if I would rather die by drowning or be killed by a giraffe. It was a rough game, but we added to the laughter.
I soaked up the moment and felt grateful for our home. The day did not start so smoothly.
My wife had an early, 6:15 a.m., appointment for a few medical procedures. I took the day off because she would be put under anesthesia for the procedures. We were ready to head to the surgery center at 5:45. My son was going to handle dropping off everyone at school, then he would go to work. I would be able to pick up my four daughters from school at the end of the day.
I go to start the van to warm it up… van is dead. No lights on the dashboard when I turn the key… nothing.
I grab the keys to my son’s car and take my wife to the surgery center. I drop her off to head back to the house. I have enough time to try to jump the van before the girls need to get to school.
Did I mention it was only like 4 degrees outside this morning?
I get the jumper cables attached, start my son’s car and let it charge for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes… nothing. The van is still dead. I unhook the cables, it’s time to get the girls to school. I take them. There isn’t room for my son, so he stays home. I’ll be back to get him to work on time.
By this time, I am consciously making sure I keep my frustration under control. It’s not that I can’t feel frustrated, but I can’t let the frustration take over to cause the morning routine to be filled with negativity from me. The girls are already worried about mom, their schedule has changed, and they understand that dad is improvising because the van is dead.
I finally got back to the hospital. My wife was in the surgery room. The receptionist explains to me how the TV board will keep me updated. I watch as my wife’s patient number changes color (each color is a different step in the procedure). After a while, I was escorted back to the recovery room. Everything went well and we headed home.
I decided to try jumping the van one more time. It’s not as cold, I am not hurried, and there is more light. I make sure I get a good connection on both batteries (which isn’t easy to do with new cars, there are so many things connected to the terminals). Success, the van starts after 5 minutes.
Here is where I spend time with no radio. We have an XM radio. When the battery dies or is changed, you have to enter a code to use any part of the radio, even to play a CD. (Which we do have, the van is about 8 years old). We have the code written down, which I would find later. One of my daughters would get the honor of activating the radio! But that is later in the day after I pick them up from school.
As I run errands, I am alone with my thoughts. And my thoughts got deep when I learn about the death of someone.
We have been in the market for a new car, but it is hard to find a car that matches our needs and our price range. We had been working with a sales person Dewayne for a few months. He helped us when we replaced a car that hit a deer. I had last spoken to him in person in August about our car situation and what inventory the dealership was expecting. As you do with people, we talked about personal things. He let me know he would be taking some time off because he was having heart surgery to clear a blockage in an artery, but I should contact him in December.
Well, I didn’t call in December. I called today. The receptionist was taken aback when I asked for Dewayne. She informed me that Dewayne had passed away the first day he was home from the surgery.
The first day home.
Dewayne was not a close friend, yet our lives intersected. And was supposed to continue to intersect. He was helping me find a vehicle. We had shared stories and talked about how the pandemic was causing havoc in all different aspects of life. Dewayne had a wife and kids. He had a big laugh.
It’s a cliche, not to take life for granted. But honestly, maybe it should become our code to live our life by. What would we change if we treated today like the only day we have? No matter if it starts out with a dead battery, or your coffee order getting mixed up (yeah, that happened too). How would we treat people? How would we treat the people we love if today was the last day we would see them?
When you read this, it will be today. And today is the only day that matters, so decide how you will live it.
The most important lesson I have learned in half a century is that there is joy in every day. I can have a horrible day at work but come home and have a dance party with my kids. This lesson took years to understand, and takes strength to accomplish. I have to leave the bad day at work to fully enjoy dancing with my kids.
I know that this list will not surprise anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis, I’ve touched on these in different ways through the years. But hopefully this post will remind you of the things that bring you joy.
I love learning. School was my escape from all the craziness I was going through. Even when I was the new kid so many times growing up. Each school provided opportunities to grow. For the last couple of years I have participated in the challenge to read 60 books in a year. I don’t get to 60 every year, but I spend the year learning and I love that.
When I thought about the role walking has had in my life, I thought back to all the times my best friend and I would walk by the river. How, especially in junior high, we walked all over town. And how I was the only senior that had to walk to school everyday… the consequence of me wrecking a car my junior year. Walking is good exercise, but the joy is in sharing with others. I take the girls on snack walks, we have nature walks, there is a certain joy to sharing the moment and world with others as I walk.
One of the best parts of being a dad is watching my kids in activities: elementary concerts, basketball, soccer, and science fairs to name just a few of the activities I’ve spent enjoying, my wife at my side, and sometimes a coffee in my hand. It matters to me, in part because my father never saw me compete in anything. I swear I tear up every time one of my kids sees me in the crowd and they wave or nod their head at me.
I park the minivan facing the lake. My wife and I people-watch as we enjoy a Blizzard. Cookie dough for my wife. I usually will try the special flavor of the month. These small moments intertwined joy into life. And if we pay attention, not getting lost in the routine of life, every day is filled with these small moments. Talking with my kids before bed. Letting them help make blueberry muffins. Holding hands with my wife as we watch Miami Vice. Yes, I believe joy is the thread that determines the way we live.
This is no surprise for anyone. Writing brings a level of joy that ignites my soul. When the thoughts in my head and feelings stirring in my heart find their way to the page, I feel powerful. I feel complete. I feel vulnerable because the words I write are honest reflections of who I am.
Thanks for sharing your time with me as I start the next half century. Do something that brings you joy today… because if we are not here to feel joy, to love others, to sing badly to our favorite songs… then I don’t know the meaning of life.
For a while now, we have been listening to the top 40 countdown on the 80s channel on XM radio while making blueberry muffins. We get to hear the top 10 songs, with breakfast usually ready while the number one song for the week plays. This week in 1986 was “Holding Back the Years” by Simply Red.
This morning, the kitchen was full. My second son had returned from a trip with his friends, and my oldest son’s girlfriend was visiting. Everyone was filling their plates: scrambled eggs, blueberry muffins, glasses of milk, and bacon. It was a typical Sunday morning.
Earlier in the countdown was the song, “Like a Rock” by Bob Seger (I don’t remember what position on the chart it was). There is a verse in the song about how 20 years have flown by:
Twenty years now
Where’d they go?
I don’t know
I sit and I wonder sometimes
Where they’ve gone
Mixed with the sad vibe of “Holding Back the Years” I thought about how bittersweet our Sunday routine is.
In one way, our blueberry muffin breakfast holds back the years because it brings us together as a family. Every tradition a family participates in is a way to stop time. It strengthens the bond of love and joy that creates a timeless bubble for everyone to live in, no matter how much time has passed or how much someone has grown.
Because time does pass, we do grow older, we do change. Sitting at the table, it was bittersweet to know that in a few months both of my sons would be out in the world. My youngest daughter doesn’t need my help taking the paper cup off of her muffin anymore. My children were growing, time was moving forward.
There was nothing I could do about it, but yet this morning, we were together, family. That will never change. Contrary to the lyrics of “Holding Back the Years”, our tradition of blueberry muffins is a chance for something good to happen, for love to happen.
Tennis with my oldest son tonight 1 and 1. (He won the regular set, I won the shortened one)
Disc Golf with both my sons 0 and who knows.
Lightsaber battles with my second daughter 0 and like 28.
Pool basketball? 1 and too many to count.
Regular basketball? Against my sons? Haven’t won any serious games in years.
Chutes and Ladders (and other games)? I win sometimes. I’m a pretty good Pitch player.
Lately, I have been defeated in lots of different activities. And it is a bitter but mostly sweet feeling. These defeats are milestones for my children and for me. They are important for a number of reasons.
For my children they gage where they are in life regarding their mental and physical stages. I am, as a father, a measuring stick for them. There is a special joy they feel when they win against me. I see it in their faces, the way their eyes shine. I also see their frustration when I win. Either way, they are building strength, discovering what they are capable of. And not just physically. They have to handle their emotions, win or lose. Playing against dad (and mom sometimes with tennis) gives my children a space to develop who they are.
The second factor is that we build memories, win or lose, great shots are made, awesome hands are dealt, funny jokes shared, and sometimes bandages are needed (driveway basketball is not forgiving). Playing allows us to live life fully. The moments get retold at the dinner table. The disc golf shot on the first hole. The 9 bid because I didn’t have the 2. Switching to the other color of lightsaber but still losing.
As a father, I get to see my children grow. I get to teach them, through playing, life lessons that I know will be needed in their efforts to reach their goals. Yes, sometimes in the activity (like basketball) but also in the hardships that life has. I influence how they handle winning and losing. My children get tested playing with me before they are tested by life, tested by an opponent, tested by their own doubt and fear. They build their strength by defeating me.
And I love it.
I may never win a basketball game again. Or a lightsaber battle. But you better believe that I will be up to playing with my kids, no matter their age or my record. I’m their father, that’s what I do.
I went out to the minivan to get the plastic containers so we could pack up our son’s graduation table. The last of family, friends, and other guests had sauntered off to enjoy the sunny Saturday afternoon. Graduation was still a day away but we held our graduation celebration a day early with two of his friends. Their families were tearing down their sons’ tables. It was a fun morning. We went through almost 300 breakfast burritos. Don’t know how many cups of coffee or slices of coffee cake we went through, but it was a lot.
There were old friends and new. Small moments of conversations. My son (and I’m sure his friends) had to answer the question, So, what are your plans for next year?, a million times. Slide shows were on constant loop, revealing how the boys have grown. A window into their lives in six second intervals.
I placed the container down that held all of his medals; sports, journalism, and science fair. Time to box it up all again. For a week my wife and I looked through boxes for material for the table (my wife more than me, but I had to lift the heavier ones). As I picked up this year’s second place medal and small trophy for basketball, I had to hold my heart together.
Not because I was sad. Just the opposite. No one ever tells you how joy can break your heart. Honestly, that kind of heartbreak is just as painful. Partly because on the edge of the joy is the realization that no moment lasts forever. Yes, we have the memories, the pictures and trophies to draw upon. But when you are in the moment, however big, like a state championship game, or small, like teaching your daughters how to play H.O.R.S.E. on the driveway hoop, is when we know we are living. Fully engaged with who we are, connected to those around us. Living life.
And then those moments pass. Many of them are captured in photos, medals, certificates, and home videos. Others are relived through stories told around the dinner table or at holidays. We laugh, we cry, we feel the moments again. Then we box them up. In our hearts. In plastic containers. In our phones.
I got all the medals, photos, certificates, and trophies packed up. We got the extra plates and cups gathered together. We divided the few breakfast burritos among the three families, and left the conference room to enjoy the sunny Saturday afternoon, ready to experience the next big moment: Graduation.
My three youngest daughters were all up early today. They were spread out in the living room. One reading, one drawing, and one on the iPad.
“What muffins today?” they asked. We have been alternating between blueberry and chocolate chip muffins, with a cinnamon option every once and awhile.
“Blueberry,” I say.
They respond, “OK.” But I can tell they wanted chocolate chip muffins. But there were only two left at the end of the day.
Next week is graduation for my second son.
I turn 50 this year.
I completed the Writer’s Digest 2021 April Poem a Day challenge. (You can read the poems on my Creative Corner for Writing blog. I’ve been posting them when I can. I am on day 9.)
I just finished Kevin Garnett’s book A to Z. (Great book!)
And maybe I’m just waiting for the end of this pandemic, but I’ve noticed that there are more endings in my life lately. I understand that time moves on. That doesn’t stop my mind from considering how everything ends. By chance I learned that my stepmother died in November. I haven’t spoken to her or my father in decades. Of course learning of her passing brought back memories (not many were happy). The obituary mentioned that her children were by her side when she passed. No matter what happened while our stories were on the same path, her story is now over.
I guess the aspect of endings I have been troubled by is the finality of most of the endings in this life. There is no way to redo moments in our lives. No matter how much we want to. That knowledge is the hard part of the ending, especially the ending of joyful moments. One of the lessons you learn as a dad. Letting go. Letting go of your children. Letting go of youth. Letting go of the past.
Yes, there is tomorrow and there are new beginnings. But a hard truth of life is that most of the endings in life leave you with only memories.