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Thanks Dad…

Today would have been my dad’s 96th birthday. I found my biological father earlier this year and learned from his obituary that he died on January 16th, 2021. Hmm. One man was the most loving, selfless man I’ve ever known. The other didn’t even know I existed. I haven’t even tried to contact the half-sister I apparently have in southeast Texas. I think it’s better that way. Besides, I have a whole new family to get to know up in Kentucky.

I miss Dad this morning (my real or “adopted” father for clarification). When he retired from the railroad (early retirement at 57 and 40 years of service!) he stayed home for a couple of months and found retirement lacking many of the things he loved (Plus Mom couldn’t stand having him around the house all day). People for one, work another. So, he went to work for another ten years for a local developer and construction company.

He agreed to go back to work with the understanding that he would take a month off every January into February to work the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo (FWSSR). He and one of his oldest friends, Jesse, worked security at the vendor’s and exhibitor’s gate. They’d go to work the week before the show started and work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and for minimum wage, until the stock show was over. For one month he was no longer a Human Resources professional for a big firm in East Fort Worth – he was the guy in the Stetson hat that greeted you at the entrance.

Dad loved the Stock Show. It was a constant stream of people in and out and he knew them all. He used to bring huge amounts of food from the bakers, caterers, and food vendors for the show. I don’t think Mom had to go to the grocery store for a month! We never celebrated his birthday until the show was over, but he never minded. He was always the happiest working the FWSSR.

The FWSSR or “the Stock Show” as it’s more commonly called, began in 1896. The Southwest Exposition and Livestock Show (formal name) is longest running stock show in the country. It’s always been a big deal here in Fort Worth. I know few Fort Worth natives that haven’t been to the FWSSR. If attendance records are any indicator, even the new transplants to Fort Worth come in droves. I’m not sure if Dad would’ve liked that. He was the man who had one bumper sticker his entire life and it read: “If you love New York take I-30 East”. He was a bit “Texophobic”…

When I was young, the Stock Show was the highlight of the year. The Fort Worth schools even gave a day off for students to attend. We went every year to tour the livestock barns (especially the horses), the exhibit halls, and the show arenas. Dad would get us tickets to the Saturday matinee rodeo. Paradise was three weeks long on an annual basis. Attending the Stock Show was one of my first (and happiest) memories.

 My Grandmother was a seamstress for “The Army Store” downtown (they sold army surplus and work clothes – I could wander the store for hours!). Her boss, Mr. Wimberly, owned champion Appaloosa Horses he both would show and race. His top show horse, Rustler Bill, pulled in awards from the stock show (and nationally I might add) every year. He was a beautiful horse and I wanted more than anything to ride him.

My father and I walked to the horse barns to look for Mr. Wimberly. I stared at this incredible stallion ignoring the conversation between Dad and Mr. Wimberly. My trance was broken by Mr. Wimberly. “Do you want to ride him son?” If I had died that moment, I would have died the happiest kid on Earth. I almost yelled “of course” and he helped me up onto the horse’s back. Handing me the reins, he said to walk him around the barn. I walked him slow so I could stay on him longer.

from the Rustler Bill website

It’s been fifty-plus years since that day. I continued to make the FWSSR every year until the boys grew bigger. They weren’t interested in the cows, horse, and other livestock anymore. They’d grown out of it they said (My oldest son worked training cutting horses for a few years though). I took the grandkids several times, but they too, have lost interest as they’ve grown.

As for me, Opal’s Farm and family keep me busy. I never seem to have the time. I don’t do large crowds well anymore, especially during the pandemic. I thought about going this afternoon It’s tradition after all, but I’d rather have my memories than current experience. It’s just not the same if Dad’s not there…

A bit of Irony…

I mentioned learning of my biological father this past summer. According to the information and the obituary I found, he was quite the cowboy. He coached a local high school rodeo team in steer wrestling and team roping. He was a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Gold Card member, Original Team Roping Association, and the Texas Rodeo Association. The irony of his passing on January 16th isn’t lost on me. Could it be genetics…

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Resolution, Smezalution…

It finally feels like January here in Cowtown. It went from seventy degrees early yesterday afternoon to a wind chill eight degrees by midnight. This morning brought brilliant sunshine, calmer breezes, and crisp, clean cold air. I finally traded the shorts and t-shirts for sweatpants and long-sleeves as I sit here drinking my coffee. I may have to buy new thermals for the expected series of cold fronts coming this week. As it is I’m perfectly contented to look out the window whilst enjoying the delights of central heating…

The New Year is supposed to a time of resolutions. I’ve never been big on them. Most are broken before February. If resolutions are to be made, they should only be made for today. Several years ago, my mentor and friend Jim once suggested (Actually, he told me. I’m not sure he ever “suggested” anything…) that I take a piece of note paper and tape it to my bathroom mirror. The note should ask one simple question: “If you were absolutely positive that today would be your last day on Earth, would you be happy with the way you spent it?”

I followed his instructions. The note was placed on the mirror. I thought of it frequently until I didn’t. I moved several times since that day long ago. The note never survived the moves. It crossed my mind a few times, but I never put it on another mirror.

Sitting here this morning I thought of his “suggestion”. Maybe it’s time to remember that it was more than a suggestion. When Margaret and I bought our home several years ago I told her that the next time I move out of this house it would be in an urn or a pine box. I can’t think of a better place to put that note up again. It won’t get lost in a move…

My life is drastically different from the life I was living when Jim told me to do this. I was new to recovery. Addiction has its ways of hurting everyone I loved and even those I didn’t. It was a constant reminder that I didn’t have to live that way. I needed that constant reminder and I do now even though my addiction is in remission, and I’ve gone on to a life that I never could never have imagined possible.

Life isn’t perfect. It still shows up in ways I’d rather not have to deal with. I’ve learned what real grief is over the last year-and-a-half since my son Jeremy died. I’ve lost close friends. I’ve cried, been irritable (truthfully, I’ve been a real pain in the ass) and withdrawn from people close to me. I’ve often substituted work for the drugs – usually with the same consequences. “The more things change, the more they remain the same…”. Fortunately, they’re only moments now instead of a constant way of life. Jim also reminded me that life is about “progress, not perfection”.

When I get up from here, I’ll take my note to the bathroom. I’ll take a good look and think about how I can spend my day – not my year. I’m going to be more loving to my wife. I’ll spend some time with her. I’m going to pick up the phone and tell my friends and family how much I love and appreciate them. I’m probably going to be irritated that there’s dirty dishes in the kitchen but remember that the dishes are not what’s important. The person that left them there is – imperfections and all.

I’m going to think about Jeremy. I’m also going to remember the gift he left for me – three beautiful, smart, and in my book, perfect grandchildren. I’m going to cry if need be and let someone know I’m hurting. I’m also going to let those grandkids know how much they’re loved.

I’m going to love better and accept that I don’t always do that to the best of my ability. I’m going to find the joy in the little moments that every day brings – that is if I look for them. The glass of a calm river by the farm, the coyotes that visit every morning, the flowers blooming in the winter…

On the way to my Kentucky Home

I’m not going to be so hard on myself. One of the things Opal’s Farm has taught me is that nature has its own time and it’s not mine. I tell that to others all the time. Yet, I’m the first one to forget that when the “To Do” list is staring me in the face.

I’m going to find the joy in the little things that fill my day. I may or may not leave the house today. Joy surrounds me here…

Resolutions don’t quite cut it for me. I’m not sure they work for anybody – at least not those I’ve observed. However, I know that looking at what I can enjoy and do better on January 2nd does work. It’ll work again on January 3rd, on January 4th, and everyday after if I simply remember that simple question – If I was “absolutely positive that today would be my last day on Earth, would I be happy with the way I spent it?”

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Time To Get Busy

This may well be my favorite day of the year. I feel like I can breathe again now that Christmas is over. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is always emotionally difficult, mentally demanding, and physically draining. The day after feels relaxing and calm.

The house is quiet except for the drone of the fan (it was eighty-one degrees yesterday and in the sixties this morning) and Mr. Coffee’s gurgling. The Black Rifle coffee my son gave me yesterday is exceptionally tasty. It has an appropriate name, CAF, which I’m told means “Caffeinated As F***”. A little bit of heaven has been brought down to earth…

I’ll head to the rehab facility where I take a twelve-step meeting every Sunday morning. It’s become my Sunday morning church service. Being around other people trying to find recovery is deeply spiritual for me. I don’t know if it helps them, but I go home clean, sober, and grateful for another day God has given me to be of service to my fellows.

My mind wanders this morning. I no longer feel a need to be “on” for everyone. The build-up to Christmas always feels a bit like the proverbial “fake it ‘til you make it”. I don’t want to steal the joy others feel this time of year. I’m quite content to get the decorations down from the attic, but I let the family be responsible for getting the tree decorated and the lights up. One can only do so much…

I appreciate the gift of Jesus more on December 26th than I ever do on the 25th. I’m free to simply “Be”. He made that possible. He “preached the Message of good news to the poor (check), pardoned the prisoners (check), gave sight to the blind (check again), set the burdened and battered free (big check), and announced, “This is God’s year to act” (check, check, check…).

I am the poor, given the wealth of Spirit. I am the freed prisoner. I am the “blind, but now I see” because of His amazing grace. I’ve been burdened and battered by a life that’s not always fair, but I faith it can all be different, but that requires action – helping others and being a disciple.

It’s time to get busy. Grief will still come, life will show up in ways I don’t like, but He’s here. He’s Emmanuel – “God With Us”…

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Heroes…

One of the best things about working at the farm is the time I have for prayer. It’s been a difficult season for me. Christmas wasn’t the same after my father passed in 2002. Dad was our family’s Christmas spirit. Then Mom passed in 2017. My sister and her husband live in Georgia so there wasn’t much family left. I had Jeremy and the grandkids but negotiating holidays with different families often meant a quiet Christmas with my son Adrian. When Jeremy died last year, I decided the best thing about Christmas was December 26th

My family never celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday. I was told that if Jesus’ birthday wasn’t mentioned by date, then we had nothing to celebrate. It was that old “we have the line on the truth” thing that the Church of Christ was known for. We didn’t celebrate Easter either even though the dates are obvious – even if it is on the Jewish calendar – but that’s another story. I feel a little cheated to be honest. Presents are nice but it wasn’t the same…

Anyway, I’ve grown and changed over the years. I may not have much Christmas spirit – the whole tree, family, and presents thing – but I feel a deep gratitude and joy over the birth of a Savior. I’m especially fond of Advent. It was thoughts of anticipation of Immanuel – “God with us” – that stayed in the fore front of my mind today as I worked and prayed.

My thoughts turned to the “heroes of the faith” – at least my faith. I thought of Ms. Opal (she said I don’t have to call her Dr. Lee…) and all the years of service as not only a civil rights activist, but as a Deaconess in her church. I thought of her mantra – “If someone can be taught to hate they can be taught to love”.

I thought about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker – “It would be foolish to pretend that it is always easy to remember [that Christ is present in the ordinary stranger] … If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed, as St. John says, with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head, and the moon under her feet [Revelation 12:1], then people would have fought to make room for her. But that was not God’s way for her, nor is it Christ’s way for Himself, now when He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.”

– Dorothy Day, “Room for Christ,” Selected Writings: By Little and by Little, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 1992), 96.

I thought of Father Daniel Berrigan. I had the privilege of being arrested with Father Berrigan at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility at a Plowshares demonstration. I don’t know why I thought of that: especially since I came to be very ashamed of all the times I went to jail for reasons I’d rather not recall – addiction sucks…

He was on my mind when I got home and went through email and found this in my inbox:

“So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ — the life of the world.”- Daniel Berrigan, “Advent

I may lack Christmas spirit this year, but I’m not confused by the gift given to God’s kids on that night a little over two thousand years ago. I’m waiting in quiet anticipation for the birthday of Jesus Christ – “the life of the world.

May you all be filled with the joy and peace of Jesus. May the new year bring justice and peace for us all.

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Quitting Smoking, Grief, and Christmas

I finally rained here in Fort Worth. I’m not sure how much. It’s still dark outside but the weather folks are calling for light rain and possibly sleet throughout the morning (it is forecasted to be eighty degrees by Thursday…), so I thought I’d take advantage of the stillness and wet weather to catch up on “Thoughts From the Porch”.

I haven’t shared many thoughts from the porch lately. I haven’t been on the porch to do much thinking. I quit smoking two weeks ago (two whole weeks so far!) and the porch is a trigger for me. I guess I shouldn’t be overly concerned. Everything is a trigger these days – being alone at the farm, volunteers who still smoke, my kid who is recently out of college for Christmas break, the grief that seems overwhelming this time of year…

Jeremy was my Christmas present in 1982. His death and the absence of the grandkids since Thanksgiving leaves me bereft of Christmas spirit. Climbing in the attic to get Christmas decorations is the last thing I want to do, but my wife loves Christmas and I’ll do it for her later today. Doing for others makes the pain a little easier to bear.

The triangle could always be found in his artwork – Baillie, Lucas, and Simone (Iza)

The morning weather report was followed by a news story about opioid overdose deaths this past year. It’s become the leading cause of death for people eighteen to forty-five – more than suicides, COVID deaths, and car crashes – almost 79,000 in the past year. The statistics seem overwhelming and abstract. My son was one of the statistics. He’s one of the 79,000 other faces behind each of those numbers.

I’ve shared much about my son over the last year-and-a-half, but this is the first time I’ve talked of his cause of death. I simply haven’t been able to talk about it. His friends and family have known all along and I’m sure those in the art world of which he was a part have their suspicions if they didn’t know it for a fact. His art was often a reflection of his struggle with addiction – both his and mine. I still wonder how things would be different if he hadn’t grown up with an addict parent. I still wish I could trade places with him.

It wasn’t always that way. Jeremy became a recovering addict shortly after I did in 2005. He stayed clean for six years and became a respected member of the local recovery community. He had two more children and his oldest lived with him during a difficult time for her mother and grandmother. He worked fulltime and found time to paint and create. Still, there was always the underlying fear that his art would suffer without the drugs to fuel his creativity. Seeing the art he created proved that to be an unrealistic fear.

Life showed up -work, kids, parenting, bills – all the things everyone lives with. Time spent with others in recovery became short. He gradually and unintentionally moved farther and farther away from the recovery community and the support that held his addiction in check.

I won’t go into all the details. This isn’t about war stories or moralizing a disease. Addiction can cover up the heart of the addict and Jeremy’s heart was never defined by addiction. We had many “f*** you fights” over the last couple of years before his death – addiction wreaks havoc among families – but they were always followed by moments of kindness and love. That was my son.

I often wonder if he knew what lie ahead. In the last few months of his life, he struggled to make amends and heal relationships with so many family members and friends. In our last phone call, he asked if we could make a recovery meeting the following week.

I’m sitting here this morning and my heart hurts. Grief is a bitch. It comes unannounced whenever it wants and usually at the most inconvenient time possible. I never asked to join this club of parents, sons, daughters, husbands and wives, and the hundreds of friends and family left with the emptiness in their souls – a deep, aching, grief that never goes away. That’s something statistics don’t measure. They may tell of the deceased, but they never measure the sorrow and brokenness that’s left behind.

I wish I had more hopeful words to share this morning. There are so many things I’m truly grateful for. We’re about to celebrate the greatest blessing of all – Immanuel “God with us”. Still, loss is overwhelming, and we’ll celebrate the second Christmas without Jeremy. Please remember that 79,000 other families with face Christmas without the one they love. Keep us in your prayers and be kind to one another…