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3 Easy Steps to Better…

I’m as voracious reader. I keep up on the news. I read articles and books that help me professionally: that hone my writing skills or help me learn to be a better farm manager. Above all, I love reading books and articles that nurture my spirituality and find simple pleasure.

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I receive several newsletters each week about issues important to me, especially those that help me help my clients better. Recently, one of them reemphasized the basic marketing concept of successful titles in catching the reader’s attention. From a marketing standpoint, classic titles saying things like, “How to do XYZ, Five Easy Steps to a better ABC”, and so forth, invite the reader in and are more likely to be read. Basic copywriting and Marketing 101. I do it for clients all the time.

However, it occurred to me while I was reading another “Five Easy Steps” article that it’s rare for such articles to exceed the number five. It may on occasion be “Seven Easy Steps to” but that always seems to be the limit. There’s a myriad of reasons why smaller numbers elicit attention: psychological, neurological, and social. Everyone wants to solve their problems in a few quick, easy steps. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way; at least in my personal experience…

For years I sought quick solutions to life’s pressing problems, but “Five Easy Steps” never seemed to work. I always found myself in the same state as before. It wasn’t until I discovered a recovery program from my “seemingly hopeless” condition of mind and body my condition began to change. It was going to require more (and steeper steps) if I were to become the man I wanted to be. In fact, I found it to take twelve of them.

People tend to have a love-hate relationship with twelve step programs. What can’t be denied is Twelve Step recovery programs have helped thousands of people through the years, no matter what the specific problem might be. It should come as no surprise there are around 240 such programs today; each dealing with specific issues – alcohol, overeating, addiction, gambling, sex, shopping, ad infinitum… I don’t know if it’s the solution to everyone’s problems, but the twelve steps of recovery were for mine. I have been transformed in mind, body, and spirit by taking all twelve steps. I have a relationship with God today. Moreover, I’ve witnessed the change in countless others as well.

I tried many times and countless ways to solve my dilemma. If I just work harder, if I do it this way or that way. Hey, I’m a reasonably intelligent guy. I can handle this. I should be able to reduce twelve steps to something more manageable like five or seven, right? It wasn’t until I was completely beaten that I decided my way didn’t work. I’d take the steps like those before me had. Maybe, just maybe I could achieve the same results and move toward positive change.

The stories the same for so many. The evidence is (and was always) right in front of me. So why did it take so long to believe it?

It may have to do with the number of steps involved. Maybe twelve is overwhelming. Maybe it’s difficult to see past three, five, or seven of them. Maybe it’s just poor marketing on the part of all the people involved. I don’t know.

The bottom line for me is in the results. I’m not who I used to be. I’m becoming the man God meant for me to be. Had I been able to see into the future all those years ago I probably wouldn’t have cared how many steps I had to take to get here today. It’s easy to say that in hindsight though.

The payoff has been far greater than any investment on my part. If I were developing a marketing campaign for such programs, I’d eliminate the whole “Twelve Step” thing. Too many steps. Won’t attract enough readers, you know? I’d break it down to what has become a bit of a mantra to me: “I can’t, He can, and I think I’ll let him”. It’s the cycle of threes seen in all twelve and, hey, it’s only three easy steps, right?

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Escape Artists and Neighbors

Life loves to grant opportunities for introspection and growth. Sometimes they come from unexpected, and often, unpleasant places.

Sadie, our Rottweiler/we’re not sure what else, is the happiest dog that has ever graced our home. She’s the smallest of our three rescue pups but has been known to take on a pit bull that made the mistake of jumping into our (more appropriately “her”) backyard. She’s sweet, gentle, and incredibly smart. The “smart” part can sometimes be a problem…

Our little stinker! I can’t stay mad when I see this face…

She recently discovered a space where she can jump the fence into our neighbor’s yard and escape to the front yard. She loves to explore, and our cul-de-sac offers endless opportunities. Our other two dogs, Jameson and Maggie, are bigger and I just assumed she had found a hole somewhere to crawl through. After several attempts to block any small holes she might have found, our neighbor informed me where she was jumping the fence. Our neighbor went on to explain that he didn’t want her in his yard. He has a two-year old daughter and was fearful of Sadie. I dutifully affixed a guard to prevent her from jumping in the same spot.

Did I mention Sadie was incredibly bright? She apparently found another spot. I put her in the house and tried to figure out where she was jumping the fence. It wasn’t long before the White Settlement Police came knocking on my door asking about the “dog problem”.

I’m somewhat ashamed of my initial response. While I was quite friendly to our local law enforcement (who threatened us with “doggie jail”), I wasn’t so gracious thinking about our neighbor. I fantasized all the possible ways I could make his life miserable. After all, we had put up with the chaos coming from their house – the noise, the loud swearing at the kids, and the dog who stayed on our front porch rather than in their backyard (a cute little cuss who ate our cat’s food) and never said a word. They, they, they! Mouthing off to anyone who would listen (sorry Son for interfering with the hockey game), I made for a great self-righteous, pompous victim…

Self-righteous anger doesn’t serve me well. I had time to calm down and go on to bed. Sleep is amazing. I awoke with a far calmer attitude: that is until my morning routine was broken by having to take time to take Sadie out on her leash. Agitation quickly returned.

I finally grabbed my coffee and greeted the morning in my usual way with morning prayer and meditation on the porch. However, thoughts of the previous evening’s police visit kept interfering with my prayers. Suddenly, I remembered Jesus’ words:

“If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend (or in this case, a neighbor) has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” (Matthew 5.23-24 The Message)

I didn’t think it wise to go to my neighbor at six o’clock in the morning. I pondered the situation further. I began to look at the incident from God’s perspective, forcing me to look inward rather than outward toward my neighbor. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with what I found.

A little back story is in order…

We live in a well-kept, older working-class neighborhood. Most of our neighbors have lived here for years. They are either retired military or retired Lockheed Martin employees. The only time children are playing outside is when grandkids (or great-grandkids) come to visit, so it tends to be quiet.

The neighborhood demographics are changing. There’s far more diversity even in the few years we’ve been here. There’s more younger people, families, and racially and culturally diverse residents. Several of the older residents on the block have passed away over the last couple of years. Their children, who already have places of their own, usually put the homes up for sale. The housing market is tight in our area, so a couple of the houses have been purchased by investors to either “flip” or keep as rental properties. There’s far more diversity even in the few years we’ve been here.

The house next door is one such property. It’s always been bit more run down than other homes on the block. It’s been bought and sold a couple of time in the last year and a half. The first owners did little in the way of improvements so when the present owners began working hard to bring it up to current building code, we were thrilled.

New Neighbors…

We watched with a degree of trepidation as the new family moved in next door. They were loud and seemed to have a hundred people helping them. After they settled in, we learned all the “helpers” were family members. It turned out they had ten children and one on the way. So much for our quiet little cul-de-sac!

The solitude of my evening porch time has often been broken since they arrived; by the younger one’s screaming and crying and the parents yelling at them with a variety of swearing and threats. The two and three-year-old kids have repeatedly been found walking around the block without parental supervision (or clothes). The older ones often block the street playing basketball daring neighbor’s vehicles to interrupt them. It goes without saying that our new neighbors are difficult to live with. No wonder I felt justified in my anger about the dog incident.

Unfortunately, justification only goes so far. It’s a great substitute for reality. Was I mad because they called the cops on my dog or was it because I couldn’t stop Sadie from getting out? Who was I upset with? What was I afraid of? It always seems to come down to fear.

The questioning began growing deeper and deeper. The guy had told me he was concerned about his two-year old. I know Sadie wouldn’t hurt a fly, but does he?  Could I not see he had a point? The deeper I looked inside the less I could point fingers at him. I hate it when that happens!

Shifting Perspectives

One of my favorite prayers is the “Saint Francis Prayer”, especially when the line asking to “understand, rather than be understood”. It’s amazing to me how quickly I forget it when things don’t go my way. While I’m grateful my perception, my thoughts, and my actions are less self-centered than they used to be, I still have days when the world just needs to “do as I say”. Father may know best. I do not.

I probably won’t be running next door and apologize for my ill thoughts. Thank God for the pause button between my thoughts and my actions. I tend to re-act slower and think a bit more before acting these days. I don’t appear to step on as many toes and quite frankly, making amends and corrective action is not on my favorite list of things to do. As my friend Jim used to say, “Crow is best eaten fresh…”

What I will do is pray to “understand, rather than be understood” and stay here on the porch enjoying my morning coffee. It’s funny how much easier it is to bask in the peace and solitude that follows a bit of understanding…

Would you call the “Doggie Police”?
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Easter People…

Thoughts From the Porch: Another beautiful Spring Day here in Fort Worth so it’s off to the farm. No time to write this morning. Before I go, I just wanted to say I hope you all had a wonderful Easter. We did here at the Joel household! Any time you spend you get to spend a whole weekend with close friends it’s a great weekend!

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“Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask but when we are challenged to be what we can be.”   — Morris Alder

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“Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, his will for us will prevail, love will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness.”   — Desmond Tutu

Easter symbolizes resurrection and rebirth. May we all live as Easter people today.

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Finding Your “Why”: Part Three

I must apologize for the delay in posting the third reason to become an Opal’s Farm volunteer or sponsor. It’s been quite a week at the farm. Over an acre of beds are finished and several hundred feet of landscape fabric were laid around the perimeter to help deter the infamous weeds from encroaching on the finished product. Unfortunately, the weekend storms ripped the fabric from the landscape staples requiring repair just in time for more severe weather. Such is the farm life…

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a young man named Brendan O’Connell regarding Opal’s Farm He had seen a news story about the farm on KERA 90.1 and reached out to me for a farm tour. He has become a volunteer for Opal’s Farm and exemplifies a big “why” for anyone. So, without further ado I turn the spotlight on Brendan.

Brendan graduated from Fort Worth Country Day School last year. He decided to take a “gap year’ after high school and will start at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in August. However, he isn’t using the gap year to take it easy. He’s volunteered at a local low-income clinic as a Nurse’s Assistant and started at the farm this past week.

His interest in urban farming began six years when he started his own garden and raising food for his family. He told me he developed an interest in “the relationships between agriculture, public health and medicine, and the economic dynamics” that affect marginalized communities and food deserts. He’s thrilled that an urban farm has come to Fort Worth wants to learn as much as he can while he’s here.

He has been invaluable since he started. I can’t begin to tell you how much we’ve been able to accomplish in short order. He goes well beyond interest in the farm. I asked him about his “why”. I mean no offense, but he’s not your typical nineteen-year-old.

His original email offered some insight as to his motivation, but it goes beyond mere intellectual curiosity. He’s genuinely concerned about the common good; about our community. He sees Opal’s Farm as a solution to the issues of access to fresh, nutritious food and the health and well-being of neglected neighborhoods. An urban farm enables all our community to thrive and become a better place to live.

One Acre Down…

His interest will help in his future studies. Beyond that, it fills a desire to be part of the solution for food justice and the health of each of us.

I often tell Brendan how grateful I am for his service. What I’ve failed to communicate though, is the gratitude I feel for everyone who looks beyond themselves to the community and the common good. I’m hopeful for the future of my hometown, and by extension, my world, when I see young people like Brendan committed to the solutions.

If you’re still searching for your “why” I have some more ideas coming. In the meantime, if you can’t volunteer at this time please go to www.unityunlimited.org today and make your secure donation to the future of Fort Worth’s neighborhoods.

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Music to Soothe the Savage Beast?

I was at the desk for a long time last night catching up on paperwork and phone calls. I had a great head of steam and was crossing items off the “to-do list” right and left when my internet radio station hit a string of songs that stopped me dead in my tracks. I had no choice but to push the papers aside, crank the volume, and sing along to Van Morrison, Jimmy Buffet (anything before “Margaritaville”), the Eagles, and a host of other tunes that reminded me that growing up wasn’t all bad; even if it felt that way…

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It felt that way a lot. Years later I’d ask my friend and mentor, Jim, why I felt so different from everyone else growing up. What was wrong with me and how did I get here? Why was I so uncomfortable being me? He’d smile and reply with one of those West Texas sayings that used to drive me batshit crazy like, “Son, it ain’t important how the mule got in the ditch, it’s how are you gonna get him out”. I’d like to believe I’m a reasonably intelligent individual, but it took a long time to understand what he was saying.

You see, the why didn’t matter. It wasn’t important. “Why” could never change the outcome. I was always asking the wrong question. When the question became “how” as opposed to “why” I began to crawl out of the proverbial ditch I found myself stuck in. I may not have been responsible for falling in the ditch, but I was responsible for getting out. As a result, the climb has been faster than I imagined and slower than I’d like, but the view from the top is well worth it…

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Every now and then I’m reminded I’m on this amazing journey called life, replete with mountains, valleys, obstacles, and wide-open meadows. I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t been where I’ve been. Duh, right? Music, like what I heard last night, transports me to the mountaintop where I have a 360-degree view. I can see the past and present and am delighted to revel in the present.

Is there a song (or songs) that take you to your “happy place”?

What makes you stop, crank up the tunes, and relish the moment?

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Finding Your Why Down on the Farm: Part One

“Simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones.” – Occam’s Razor

Do you ever get so busy with a project that you overlook the bedrock of its success? Things have been moving quickly at Opal’s Farm: over 30,00 square feet of beds have been prepared and compost is coming. We are busy! We’ve been blessed with good Spring weather and we hope to take advantage of every moment to prepare the acreage for a bountiful harvest.

Jameson the Farm Dog takes a much needed break!

However, one of the TCU students working with us this semester sent me an email that brought me to a grinding halt (by the way, thank you Paris!) She asked a simple question, “Why?”. Why would someone want to volunteer at the Farm? Why would someone want to be a sponsor, a partner, or a “farmer” at Opal’s Farm?

Even as passionate as I am about Opal’s Farm, I had to stop and think hard about the question. In my work as a writer, it’s my job to write a clear concise message and show how a product or service will benefit others. If I’m honest, I’ve done a poor job of communicating that to you. I ask for your forgiveness. Sometimes the simplest question is the simplest solution…

There’s a plethora of reasons one should join us in the task at hand. When Paris asked me the “why” question was specifically regarding “why volunteer?”, so we’ll start there.

Reason #1:

Why volunteer at Opal’s Farm? The simple answer: it’s “Dirt Therapy”. What do I mean by that? If you love to tend your own garden, you know exactly what I mean. Something happens to us when we work with the soil. Study after study has shown improved mental health and relaxation are some of the immediate benefits. The increased physical activity and its benefits are obvious, but “dirt therapy” is something, something deeper.

According to The Immune Advantage (Ellen Mazo and the Editors of Prevention Health Books with Keith Berndtson, M.D.), “a simple gardening project at the University of Texas in Galveston produced uplifting findings among 24 volunteers ranging in age from 63 to 90” that included not only an overall feeling of well-being” but a far deeper spiritual component; one of community.

The book goes on to share the story of Dr. William Thomas, M.D. and founder of the Eden Alternative. He “has proof that people live healthier and longer with daily access to plants, animals, and children”. In the 300-plus nursing homes across the country that follow his program allowing residents their own pets, till their own gardens, and participate in programs with children… residents have fewer infections, fewer falls, and fewer skin wounds”. Moreover, the amount of medication each resident required dropped.

Something happens when people work the earth together, sharing stories and childhood memories. A feeling of well-being and contentment feeling of well-being, of a spiritual connection, takes place. Moreover, the UT-Galveston study showed that “there was no physical decline among the volunteers after 4 months”. Working the soil may not be the proverbial “Fountain of Youth”, but it sure helps.

“Dirt Therapy” is an amazing reason to come down to the farm and join us. We’ll be posting “work days” and someone is usually at Opal’s Farm daily except for Wednesday. We love our volunteers and want to be as flexible as possible to meet varied schedules. It’s always best to call ahead so we’ll be looking for you. The south end of the farm offered the best soil available so we’re often away from the front office/storage container at the north end. If you’d like to schedule a group or simply show up on your own, please know you’re welcome and appreciated!

As I mentioned before, there’s a myriad of reasons “why” you should be a part of Opal’s Farm – far too many to write about here so I’ll be following up with reason number two on Monday. I bet your “why” is on the list…

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“Schadenfreude – pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.”

I have a standing meeting on Sunday morning from 9AM to 10PM. I love to listen to National Public Radio on the way home because “Hidden Brain” is on air with the host, Shankar Vedantam. I’m fascinated by the topics and most all, by the science of why we do the things we do. More importantly, the things we have in common are far more numerous than anything that divides us. Today’s topic, envy, was no different.

Envy has a poor reputation. It made the infamous ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ list. Depending on who makes up the list, it usually ranks second or third on a scale of one to seven. No one wants to admit feeling envious, but we all do it from time to time.

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There are instances envy can have positive consequences. When used for social comparison it can motivate action leading to positive change that brings about happiness – ‘I wish I had what you had so I’m going to do what you did in order achieve it’. This is benign envy. It may be frustrating at times but leads toward action that is generally positive. It’s upside of the very human emotion of envy.

The other side is the one we are most familiar with: malicious envy. It’s the kind of envy that wants to pull a superior person down. That’s where schadenfreude, envy’s evil cousin, comes in – pleasure at another’s misfortune, laughing at another’s failure.

I could go into all the science, psychology, and sociology that explains envy, especially schadenfreude, but I’ll leave that to the experts. I couldn’t help but think about the Biblical story of Cain and Able. The story explains, either parabolically or literally, how envy reared its ugly head in human society.

The book of Genesis tells of two brothers, Cain, the older brother, and Abel, the younger of the two. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. Cain would offer the first fruits of his produce in sacrifice to God. Abel would offer the “firstborn animals of his herd, choice cuts of meat”. For whatever reason God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. I often cited this story as the reason I didn’t like vegetables growing up! God obviously is not a vegan.

Anyway, Cain was peeved that he didn’t measure up (there’s the social comparison thing – kind of like ancient Facebook). He headed for his room and sulked. “God spoke to Cain: Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.” (Genesis 4.6-7 The Message).

I can only imagine what Cain was thinking, but I’ve been there, as much as I hate to admit it. We all have at one point or another. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian denomination I get it. I know what it’s like to ‘never measure up’. I could never be ‘good’ enough to get on God’s good side. It wasn’t until many years later I discovered that there was absolutely nothing I could do anyway, nor did I have to. God’s good side is called grace and it is totally free. It can’t be earned, but that another story…

Most of us know the rest of the story. Cain experiences a severe case of schadenfreude. He not only wants to pull Abel down: Cain kills his own brother. Envy, malicious envy, puts Abel in the ground. Cain tries to deny his involvement, but ultimately faces the consequences of his action. I’ve been there.

In my younger years I chased a lot of pipe dreams out of envy and delighted in schadenfreude when those I viewed as competitors failed. I’m glad Facebook and social media wasn’t available back then. Comparison to the projected images on social media would have killed me. There’s no way I could ever measure up.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve experienced envy and schadenfreude far less than I used to. It may simply be the result of getting older and hopefully, wiser. Robert Fulghum once wrote that one day he walked out to the mailbox in his old bathrobe, bunny slippers, and bedhead hair and didn’t care what others thought of him. He said it’s either “going to seed” or “the beginning of wisdom”. I can relate.

It’s not that I don’t care what others think of me. It’s that I have no energy or time left for chasing images. I’m content with reality these days. Life is simpler, full of gratitude, and drama-free. My quiet time on the porch and my days at the farm are filled with peace and serenity. Life is good…

Ultimately, it’s not important what you think of me or even what I think of me. The most important thing is what God thinks of me. Because of his grace, I know He not only loves me, but He’s especially fond of me. I don’t have to compare myself to anyone else, because He’s especially fond of all His kids.

I maintain a presence on social media. I have a business and Opal’s Farm. Heck, my blog even gets posted on them. I simply wish others well when they get to have fabulous vacations to exotic places. I don’t get the check-ins and pictures of dinner, but I still get envious when I see someone eating a pint of Bluebell Chocolate ice cream…

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