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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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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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Rain Days…

It’s quiet down on Opal’s Farm. The rain has been falling since the pre-dawn hours and work came to a halt. Jameson the Farm Dog curled up next to my desk when the thunder rumbled earlier and hasn’t moved since. He’s not a big fan of thunderstorms. I’m convinced it’s due to the many nights in a kennel at the shelter. I can only imagine how it must feel to be alone with thunder crashing outside and a hundred other dogs barking. I’d be scared too…

Rain Days!

Needless to say, I’m working inside today. You can’t plow in the mud and stuck tractors are not much fun…

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Jameson the Farm Dog

Thoughts From the Porch: I had a big day planned. The operative word being “had”. One of the frustrations in farming can be the dependence on the weather, the one thing that cannot be controlled. There’s either too much rain or not enough, either an early or late frost, a brutally hot summer or a brutally cold winter. Farming is always dependent on the weather. So, it is this morning…

Still, even a day of rain can be a blessing. This week has been a bit hectic. Keyboard time has been limited to thank you notes for our ribbon cutting attendees and constant appeals for donations and sponsors. That’s the perpetual chore for most non-profit organizations. However, since I had to rearrange the schedule to fit the weather, I found the time to share some thoughts from the porch.

Waiting to leave for Opal’s Farm

The morning started with threatening skies. I greeted the day with mixed emotions. Part of me wanted it to rain. It’d be a great excuse for staying home and this has been a busy week. When the clouds finally let go of their watery loads with a resounding bang, I felt a twinge of relief. Jameson, on the other hand, did not.

For those of you who don’t know, Jameson is the official Farm Dog for Opal’s Farm. I’m not sure his title ever went to a board vote, but I made an executive decision as Farm Manager that he would be our official mascot. Besides, I’m not sure I would even know how to farm without a Farm Dog.

Jameson came to join our little family almost three years ago. Missy, my Sheltie companion of ten years, had passed away in March of that year and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I was ready to adopt a new dog (another story for another time). She was more than simply my best friend. She was special. I can’t explain it any better than that. Pet parents will know exactly what I’m talking about.

One day, almost a month after Missy died, I was at the feed store up the street from the Humane Society of North Texas animal shelter. I was finished early for the day and I could just stop in to look, right? I stopped in and wandered through the kennels. I was rather proud of myself that I didn’t make an impulsive decision, but when I got home, I had to confess to Margaret I’d opened a door that maybe I shouldn’t have.

To my surprise, Margaret said, “If you want to adopt a dog, then maybe you should. Our home seems a little empty now”.

I said, “thank you but maybe I’ll think about it some more”. I started on some chores, but an hour later I was headed back to the shelter. I wanted to get there before they closed. So much for taking time to think about it.

To make a long story short, in the very last kennel I inspected my heart simply melted. I left the shelter with Jameson (although we hadn’t decided on a name yet). The incredible folks at North Texas Humane Society were happy to share some of his background. He was nineteen months old and had been born at the shelter. He’d been adopted twice before and returned because of “behavior problems”. Most of his life had been spent in the shelter and the employees loved him. He had a bit of a reputation there and I took him around to say goodbye before heading home. The last thing they told me was that “he’s not a ‘cuddler’.”

Fast forward to today and I can tell you he doesn’t know he doesn’t like to cuddle. In fact, he obviously isn’t aware he’s not a lap dog (a 100+pound lapdog, mind you!). He got his name because from day one he’s been a licker. I don’t need a shower after a few minutes with him. Why not name him after my favorite liquor, Jameson’s? Licker, liquor, get it?

As I sit here writing this, Jameson is right by my side. He’s really a ‘Momma’s boy’, but when it thundered, Jameson found his place by my side. You see, he’s terrified of thunder. I can’t say for sure what the root of his phobia is, but I think it has to do with being in the shelter those many months. Living in North Texas is pretty scary during the Spring thunderstorm season. I imagine it’s even scarier for a young dog in a kennel by himself with a cacophony of other dogs barking around him…

As for behavior problems I still haven’t figured that one out. Jameson is a typical Catahoula – fierce enough to take down a wild boar or a bear and gentle enough to love on our grandkids. The only thing I can figure is he was waiting on us to be his family.

That’s Jameson’s story. We’ve since been blessed with Maggie (a Catahoula-Coyote mix, or as Margaret says, a Coyotahoula) and Sadie (our pretty mixed breed – part Rottweiler and…?). They love the farm as well, but there can only be one official Farm Dog and Jameson earned that title…

One may wonder why an official Farm Dog is such a big deal. Only those who have known the love of a canine companion really ‘get it’. To say that dogs are “man’s best friend” is a gross understatement. Besides, I’m sure his spirit will make the produce grow bigger. It’s made my heart grow bigger…

It’s time for dinner!

The day I brought Jameson home he ventured out into the backyard for the first time. At once, he went straight to where Missy was buried and sat reverently as if to pay his respects to my beloved friend. He sat there for quite a while, then went to the other end of the yard to take care of dog business. One can’t tell me that dogs lack the same spirit we all share. I want that kind of spirit around our farm as well as our home.

So, here’s to Jameson the Farm Dog. Feel free to stop by and visit anytime but be prepared to cuddle!

For those of you who don’t know, Jameson is the official Farm Dog for Opal’s Farm. I’m not sure his title ever went to a board vote, but I made an executive decision as Farm Manager that he would be our official mascot. Besides, I’m not sure I would even know how to farm without a Farm Dog.

One day, almost a month after Missy died, I was at the feed store up the street from the Humane Society of North Texas animal shelter. I was finished early for the day and I could just stop in to look, right? I stopped in and wandered through the kennels. I was rather proud of myself that I didn’t make an impulsive decision, but when I got home, I had to confess to Margaret I’d opened a door thaThat’s Jameson’s story. We’ve since been blessed with Maggie (a Catahoula-Coyote mix, or as Margaret says, a Coyotahoula) and Sadie (our pretty mixed breed – part Rottweiler and…?). They love the farm as well, but there can only be one official Farm Dog and Jameson earned that title…

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Monday by Myself…

It’s a beautiful morning out on the porch. Margaret left in the pre-dawn hours to stay with a friend who’s four-month-old is undergoing a procedure this morning. In respect for HIPPA laws, I won’t name her friend, but I will ask that all lift them up in prayer for a successful outcome.

One of the things that always attracted me to Margaret (we knew each other for several years before we married…) was her love for others. In the years since we married, I’ve been blessed to see it up close. She’s much better at it than I am. I’m grateful for the example she shows me every day. She is truly an amazing lady and the very best of God’s gifts to me.

Her absence left me more time on the porch this morning than usual. I watched the sun rise and enjoyed a rare warm January morning. The birds were particularly soulful in their songs today. They were probably enjoying the mild weather as much as I was. The weather will change later this morning so I’m sure they’re soaking up the sunshine as much as I am. One learns to relish in the warmth anytime they can here in North Texas since it will change in an instant – a reminder that nature can never be tamed to our liking…

Three Dog Morning…

I get the rare opportunity to enjoy the solitude of the day and an empty house. Our dogs ran outside to send Margaret off earlier, but they didn’t hesitate to run back inside so they could have the bed all to themselves. I couldn’t even make the bed.

The “To Do” list is long today. After all, it is Monday, but the unusual quiet is nice. My thoughts seemed to be about everything but the day’s business ahead of me. Sometimes that’s a good thing…

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Who’s Your Village?

black metal armchair
Photo by Michael Morse on Pexels.com

Thoughts from the Porch: The leaves are starting to cover more of the yard more quickly than they did a couple of weeks ago. The blades of grass, which would shoot toward the sky after every rain last month have slowed to a crawl in their growth. Mowers scurrying along the freeway right-of-way signal colder weather is on the way. Despite the above-average temperatures, Fall is on its way to North Texas.

This week has been hectic (in a good way, for the most part) and the time on the porch is treasured beyond imagination. Margaret and I have been able to get out more, for which I’m grateful. I love to her out and about. The tender’s been stoked, and the brakes are off on Opal’s Farm. The wheels are turning faster now and building speed toward the ribbon-cutting ceremony ahead. The only blot on the week has been a persistent plumbing problem here at home. At least I’m able to be here to take care of it.

As I started my day with a cup of coffee, I felt intense gratitude for the day I’ve been given. I get to meet and work with some amazing people. I’ve often said I prefer the company of dogs and horses to most humans, and that seems to follow on days that I pour over my newsfeed and read about the pervasive anger and divisiveness in our society. I could go on a major rant about it all, but why?

Sometimes I feel a little like the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, in 1 Kings 19. He had seen so much of the selfish decadence of his world that he felt like he was totally alone and persecuted. Lord knows I’ve been there. Events can be overwhelming. I feel isolated, cynical, and sad. Depression clouds my view of the world. It often feels like, “What’s the use?”.

(side note: continuing feelings of “what’s the use, worthlessness, sadness and isolation are nothing to be trifled with, especially when nothing seems to help. It may be something for which relationships, gratitude, and spiritual pursuits aren’t enough. Please seek professional guidance)

Fortunately, Elijah’s story didn’t end there. Yours and mine doesn’t have to, either. God reminded him that he wasn’t alone. First, by speaking in a still, small voice so he was reminded he wasn’t spiritually alone. Second, by reminding him he wasn’t physically alone. In fact, God pointed to all the other people, 7,000 in his case, who had the same desire to make things better. That’s what God does and, continues to do for me on a regular basis.

Over the last several weeks many fantastic and selfless people have crossed my path: people who look to the common good and seek how to be of service. Opal’s Farm is the pathway God has granted me. Beginning with Ms. Opal, the farm’s namesake, I’ve met a succession of people who have blessed me in ways they’ll probably never know. God hasn’t left any of us alone. The world is filled with people who strive to make our community a better place by serving other, but I fail to take them into account. “You can’t see the forest because of all the trees…”

I write a lot about the people in my life and relationships. Probably more than you want to read, but I stress their importance, whether it’s personally, professionally, or spiritually. Mom used to tell me she could tell who I was by who my friends were. I didn’t appreciate her wisdom until I was older, but she was so right. The more I surround myself with great relationships, the better I become as a person.

My personal relationships keep my perspective positive, my business relationships sharpen my focus and service professionally, and my relationship with God expands my spiritual life. What are your relationships doing for you today? Are they a priority in your life? Are you grateful?

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I Don’t Know…

The rain started on Thursday. It was brief that first day, only thirty minutes or so, but enough to clean the air and drop the temperature. Then it rained for most of the day on Friday, off and on Saturday, and I have awaken to wet streets and dripping eaves each day since. Another day of wet, wonderful rain is predicted, and the heat won’t return until the end of the week.

Such things don’t usually happen in North Texas in August. It’s a welcome relief to the brutal heat of summer, especially this year. Drought, with all its attendant problems, has left us with falling, dry leaves and the almost winter-like brown of the grass. Finding relief in the middle of summer is a gift from God. I’ve never been so grateful for having to mop the floors because of the dogs’ muddy feet.

The biggest blessing of the week came Friday night though. I drove to our friends’ house in Oklahoma and returned with my lovely wife. She remarked that she was thankful I didn’t get upset by her week-long absence. How could I be upset? I’m simply happy she was able to get out and about, especially with her physical limitations and dealing with chronic pain. Getting out for the day is a little victory. Getting out for a week is a miracle. I missed Margaret, yet the solitude was nice, even though it was interrupted by the kids coming and going. I had a lot of time to work, write, and do projects I’ve been putting off. Still, it’s definitely true that “absence makes the heart grow fonder…”

Our life together is overflowing with blessings I often wonder why I, of all people have received so much grace. I certainly don’t deserve it. Much of my life has been an example of what not to do, and yet, here I sit basking in the glow and freedom of God’s grace. I’ve come to believe that everything in life is about grace, still I have moments of doubt, both in God and myself…

I, like so many others, was taught to accept articles of my faith tradition without question. That may work for those that need easy, simplistic answers, but it can foster judgement, self-righteousness, and false piety. The fragility of faith without doubt and question was a contributing factor to my long trek away from the God I know today. God invites questioning and doubt. Faith grows in the crucible of doubt. Despite my questions, doubt, and periodic low self-esteem my faith has grown, matured, and transformed into an intimate relationship with the Creator.

I finally accepted questioning and doubt as part of the human condition, especially in these times, and life experience has transformed my belief into faith and faith into trust. God has my best interests at heart even when I doubt and question his course for my life.

God really is control. He cares for me deeply, even when it feels like he’s absent. I’m not immune to grief, sorrow, and disappointment. While there’s no easy answer to these feelings, I find myself guilty of offering trite and somewhat cliché answers to others going through their own periods of such feelings. I don’t intend to, but that still doesn’t mitigate the damage they cause to the one asking the questions. I’m beginning to learn the admonition of Jesus’ saying, “Let your no be no, and your yes be yes”. My dad used to tell me to “say what you mean and mean what you say”. When in doubt the honest answer is always “I don’t know”.

Three little words free me. I’m able to listen, really listen, to others’ views and understandings and even the “still, small voice” of God himself. Moreover, they provide much fodder for further conversation with God. He seems to actually enjoy our conversations. I know I do…

It takes a lot of courage to say, “I don’t know”. It requires putting aside my false pride, false self, and ego. It requires a certain vulnerability not to know the answer, to be judged by others as lacking in some way. Ironically, the more I say, “I don’t know”, the more assured I am of the things I am certain of, the more I become the man I was meant to be. I’m not the best, the smartest, or the wisest, but I am uniquely loved and equipped to be part of the human family.

I don’t know why bad things happen. That’s just how life is. I know when my dad passed away in 2002, and when last year my mom died, I didn’t want to hear how “they’re in a better place”. I wanted them here and now. I didn’t want the clichés and yet, when the shoe was on the other foot, I often responded the same way. I do believe in the “new heavens and new Earth” that God promised, but it does little to comfort me in my grief. I’m sure others feel the same.

Today, I’ll quit offering trivial sentiments to people who are going through hurt, pain, and disappointment. I’ll let them question God just as I often do, and trust that they are in the same process I am. Rather than offer trite slogans and clichés, I’ll simply answer, “I don’t know” and offer my presence and empathy, because we all share the same emotions, the same struggles, and the same questions. Today, I’m okay with “I don’t know…’