This winter, shortly after a snow storm, my wife and I were driving home. On our normal route home there is a small stream that originates from a lake that is the center of a nearby park. It runs through a culvert under the road winding next to farmland and houses. Ducks and geese use the stream for whatever ducks and geese do as they enjoy the day. But this was a winter day. A white, freshly fallen snow, winter day.
I was driving slowly because the road was covered. As we approached the area of the stream, we both noticed a flash of red, stark against the snow. There was no traffic so I slowed down even more to watch a fox playing on the ice covered stream. The fox jumped, circled, bounded a few times. It was playing something. Its coat was beautiful against the white plumps the fox made as it enjoyed the moment.
It was joy personified.
After a few seconds the fox disappeared from our view as we continued home. I did think that it would have been a cool picture, but in all honesty we would have ruined the moment if we had stopped and tried to take the photo. In fact we probably wouldn’t have gotten a photo anyway.
Instead of a photo, I have the memory. And when I drive past the stream, I think about that fox, about the joy it had playing in the snow. And I’m glad I didn’t ruin it by trying to take a photo of the moment.
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.
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.
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.
I wanted to say a few things to you today as a basketball parent. I am writing this letter the day after my son’s last game. His career ended with the runner-up trophy at state. A bittersweet moment for sure. But I’ll come back to the ending later.
First, thank you, for so many things. See, I’m a football guy. I played basketball in junior high and my sophomore year in high school, but football is my game. Yes, I thought my sons would play the game I loved. But they found you instead, especially Dante. Basketball became a central part of our family for the last 10 years, and our family is stronger because of it. Let me explain.
Both of my sons started playing basketball in elementary school. In fact, they played together on the YMCA’s 3 / 4 grade team. My oldest son stopped playing after junior high because he found his passion on the stage, but basketball became a part of Dante’s journey of becoming a young man. And what a journey it was for him and us. As I write this through the flood of memories, I have to laugh because my son was at the top of the zone on that first team, and would be the main player at the top of his high school’s 1-3-1 zone. (He ended this season with over 70 steals.)
But, this letter is about what you gave to use as a family. Basketball, you gave us moments together. From heartbreaking last second losses to incredibly joyful wins. You showed us the best in people, and sadly the worst sides of people. You brought friends into our lives, and revealed how connected our own personal journeys are.
It started with Saturday morning trips to get coffee and then to a local gym, sometimes with good seating, other times parents would be shoulder to shoulder standing against the wall trying to keep little ones from stepping onto the floor.
As my sons got older we traveled to elementary tournaments. We would pack snacks, drinks, try to plan when we could eat. By this time, the boys were on separate teams, and we would sometimes have to decide who went to watch who, let alone timing the games because we only had one car. My wife and I would send game updates and pictures to each other. We strengthened our communication skills for sure.
Then, when Dante earned a spot on the Bison team (Nebraska Basketball Development Association) in junior high, you took our family to another level. In fact, I am a better father because I messed up during a summer tournament.
The tournament was in Omaha. We traveled back and forth from home to Omaha like we usually did, I was tired. Any parent who travels for AAU knows the bone weariness that comes with traveling. It was an early Sunday morning game and I did something uncharacteristic. I yelled at my son during the game.
OK, basketball, you know that fans and parents, especially, can be harsh and disrespectful. We have always tried to be respectful of the game, teams, and officials. In fact, except for this year, I was pretty quiet for a sports dad. This year, I just had to cheer loud! But back to that Sunday morning, Dante committed a turnover, and I hollered something in frustration. Honestly, I can’t remember what I said exactly, but it hurt my son. I knew it right away, too. After the game it took him 30 minutes to come to us and he gave me the cold shoulder. He wouldn’t walk with us to the car. I apologized to him, but it took awhile for him to forgive me. I have never crossed that line since then. Even though it was one of the toughest lessons to learn, I have to thank you for it.
You are also responsible for another tough lesson as a father, maybe not a lesson but a milestone all fathers have; that moment when a son is better than their father. I don’t know how many hours we have spent playing basketball on our driveway. When the boys were young it was them against me. As they got older, the games became tougher to win for me, so we would play Red, White, and Blue (One-on-one where the person who makes a basket stays and the other player rotates in). Then came the day Dante straight-up beat me, you can read the poem about it here: Driveway Basketball.
Again, as memories flood my heart, our driveway hoop had a hand in building Dante’s other passion, photography. He would experiment with creating cool images of him shooting. He would set his smartphone on the concrete and make shots, then blend them together. Basketball, you have been an inspiration, even for art, for my family.
The biggest thank you, though, is for all the awesome memories, and not just on the court. As mentioned before, you have given our family opportunities to be a part of other families’ lives. On Championship Saturday we got to share in the victories and defeats of former Bison teammates. We understood their basketball journeys on a level the casual fan couldn’t. We appreciated their game because we knew their life off the court. Because of basketball, our lives are richer with friendships and stories we can share when our paths cross in the future.
And some of those stories are just for our dinner table. Because of the opportunity to play basketball, our family has created our own memories, from grandpa meeting us to drop off forgotten shoes, to having our engine basically rebuilt in two days while in Chicago. (Thank you, Brett!) You have strengthened my family by allowing us to experience life, both on the court and off. Thank you, basketball, even as my son’s career ends and I feel the pain of never watching him drive to the basket again, my heart is filled with joy for being the father of a basketball player.
P.S. My elementary daughters have enjoyed the game, too. My second daughter plans on playing next year in junior high.
For those readers that have followed my blog or my writing career, you know I’ve been doing this writing thing on my own. My first collection of poetry, And I Never Told You, was printed at a local printing shop. I sold copies through the local coffee shop and by carrying copies with me in case someone wanted a copy.
Today there is social media. I use Amazon to publish my books. I use Goodreads’ giveaway option to give signed copies away. I’ve written letters to libraries and stores to publicize my books.
Being an indie author is hard. One thing all writers want is to know people have read and enjoyed their works. I have had the privilege of learning how my writing has inspired readers. (I share that story in the blog post: “Our Gift is for Others”.)
As I was organizing information for the winners of my latest giveaway, I wondered how many states have received one of my books (some states have more than one book).
As a writer it is cool to think one of my books is sitting on a bookshelf or night stand in Hawaii or Tennessee. Maybe there is a bookmark poking out of the top, or some of the corners are folded. Thinking that someone might lend the book to a friend because they think that person would like my poems makes me feel proud of the work I put into my writing.
We are in the second week of school. We have our routine. Part of it is the drive to school. We have a certain radio station we listen to, we talk about the upcoming day. This morning my youngest daughter was enjoying the drive to school because the radio seemed to play all her favorite songs.
As soon as the music for the next song started to play she would say, “Ooohhh, I like this song!” Then she would read the title of the song off of the display and start singing along.
Singing with her, I was reminded of the simple joys in life.
Especially right now. Life is different. Part of our routine is making sure everyone has their mask for school. As a nation, I feel like we are crumbling under the weight of all the lines drawn in our society. Political. Cultural. Pandemic Issues. So many issues dissecting us, cutting up our sense of community and identity as a nation.
These are troubling times.
Yet, the simple joys intertwine in our daily life. A good cup of coffee. Hot cheese bread at dinner. Snack before bed… and a daughter who likes the next song on the radio…
Yesterday was the first day of school for us. A little different with masks and all the cleaning requirements, but overall, a somewhat normal day. It was nice to have a sense of normal life. But this post isn’t about the pandemic or school… it’s about bubbles.
My youngest daughter wanted to play outside after dinner. I will admit to being tired and tempted to tell her no. She was still excited from going to school, and I could see she needed to spend some of that energy, so we went outside.
She decided to play bubbles. I would make the bubbles while she chased them down. Then I got my turn to run after bubbles. We also took a small walk to the “second stop sign” (it is a boundary marker we use for their freedom to run around the neighborhood).
There was nothing more to life than bubbles and my daughter. Nothing more than smiles with random conversation. My youngest daughter can talk forever.
Without making this a deep post about the theory of Flow, I will simply state that life is this moment. We do worry about the future. We do fight the chains of the past. Life can be difficult. But in the middle of political turmoil, a pandemic, hate and division, the first day of school… I felt joy as my daughter chased bubbles.
Like almost every Sunday morning, we made blueberry muffins for breakfast. I brewed a cup of coffee, set the oven to 410 degrees, started some music on my phone and got the paper cups into the muffin pan. For new readers, making blueberry muffins is a foundational part of my family’s life and a running metaphor for this blog.
Today is also Father’s Day. As my playlist switched to the song “Wild Horses” by Gino Vanelli, I thought about how music and specific songs defined moments for me as a father. I thought it would be fun to share some of those moments and music as a celebration for Father’s Day. Grab some headphones as I share some good vibes about being a father.
“Arms Wide Open” was a staple on radio when my first child was born. Once I held my son for the first time, I understood this song, completely. The feeling of wonder and responsibility never faded for any of my children’s births. Fatherhood is not easy, but it is the greatest gift I’ve received in my life. Honestly, I believe the world can change from the home. I want this post to be a celebration, so I will simply say that I can not fathom how anyone, father or mother, can treat their children in so many horrible ways… Anyway, this song captures an honest view of the start of fatherhood.
There could be a number of songs here, in fact the song “Wild Horses” could be placed here, but this is a song my daughters like to dance to during our dance parties. Which we have done for about 20 years. On any random night we might have a dance party. We play music and dance. The fun part has been the change in music over the years. The boys had The Wiggles and “Jessie’s Girl.” Now, the girls have Imagine Dragons, Minecraft parody songs like, “Skelly Heart,” and SpongeBob. But the dance party has stayed, filled with music, laughter, and sweet dad moves.
This song started our family’s connection to the stage. My oldest son was 10 years old when he wanted to try out for Charlie in the musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for our youth community theater production. To audition he had to sing and dance to a song of his choice. He decided on “Cave In.” He decided to dance literally to the lyrics. He was auditioning against older kids who had been in theater for a while. Did I mention he had never performed in a play or musical before? He got the part. Watching my son on stage was my first taste of fatherly pride.
That moment when your child finds a place in the world and you get to experience it. But also help foster it and be there through the rough spots. I will admit it is hard to not get caught up in that feeling. My children’s talents are theirs to develop and to reap the rewards from them. I am there to support them and enjoy the ride.
My oldest son isn’t the only one to enjoy the spotlight on the stage. My youngest daughters have been involved in our youth community theater program, too. Not to mention my adventure last year on the stage (What I am Learning). But it all started with my son using this song for his audition. And honestly, his last performance in high school as Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof, was my first taste of knowing how much it hurts to let them grow.
We are also a basketball family. Yes, my youngest daughters play basketball, and also volleyball and tennis. My oldest son played basketball through junior high. But basketball has been an area for my second son (who did do some summer theater when he was younger). My second son started playing when he was nine years old. We have traveled thousands of miles to tournaments and practices. Each season my son would have a song or two we would listen to before we arrived at the gym. Those songs changed every season, but “The Show Goes On” has been a staple for him through the years. The message rings true for me as a dad as I continue to drive miles for him and his sisters now.
This song is one of my oldest daughter’s favorite songs from the show Good Omens. She is the artist, the wild soul in this world. Her taste in music, art, literature, and other forms of media is different, and that is awesome. I remember sitting in her room listening to this song and others from the soundtrack. Something I would do as a teen with my friends. She has influenced her younger sisters in some of the shows they watch, but she has taught me the importance of allowing my kids to have their own interests, to foster their own views in this world. She brings a beauty and wider lens to my world. The depth of fatherhood is found in the uniqueness of each child and the path they follow.
For the last song, I wanted to find a song that came the closest to my view of what it means to be a dad. My view of fatherhood has changed as my children have grown. Each age brings a new understanding of what it means to be a father. The needs and demands change with each year and each child. The joys and pains are unique for each of my kids. I know that they have their own battles in this world, and it only gets harder for them as they become adults. But I will be there for them, for as long as I can.
And if they ever come home, blueberry muffins will be ready for them on Sunday morning.
Earlier this morning the scene in our kitchen was the same as it is most Sundays. The family eating blueberry muffins, eggs, and sausage. Except we were eating at 8:10 a.m. We usually eat around 7 a.m. so that we can attend church at 9 a.m. Today, we are watching the service on TV.
Our oldest son was not at the table, he was heading back to college to get stuff from his dorm because his college was going online only in a week.
The mood in the kitchen was joyful and tired. We were less than 24 hours from watching our second son win the consolation game for state basketball. We were tired from all the emotions we experienced during the tournament. From winning the first round game, losing in the semifinals (a tied game with 6 minutes left), and winning the third place game. But only family was allowed to watch the games.
In a time when we are supposed to be practicing ‘social distancing’, I saw sons hugged by fathers and mothers after the semifinal loss. Hugged for minutes. Tears shared by all. And I saw the same after the team’s victory yesterday, just with a different emotion. Of course the senior parents held their sons the longest during the celebration.
This morning life felt normal while outside our doors things are crazy. Uncertainty fills the air as we wait to see what changes come next. What I do know is that next Sunday we will have blueberry muffins as a family, no matter the changes that occur in the world.