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Larger Than Life

While everyone can be a role model, not everyone can be larger-than-life. I think of those that are “larger” than the rest of us as the positive role models to role models. We all have larger than life heroes.

The kind of hero they are changed as I’ve grew. It was John Wayne, Superman, and John F. Kennedy when I was growing up in the sixties. My definition of a hero changed by the time I was in college in the seventies – it was more of an anti-hero. If you were against the establishment, I was with you! I even had a Che Guevarra poster in my dorm room and a “Question Authority” bumper sticker on my car (both by the way, were a burr under the saddle of the administration of the Christian college I attended for a year where piety and strict obedience were the norm).

I’m not sure who my heroes were in the eighties and nineties. Those were lost decades in many ways. I think I thought of anyone who could stay clean and sober was my hero. I sure wasn’t hanging around anyone like that. The new century brought about the recovery I’d longed for and my definition of “larger-than-life” changed once again to those that looked beyond themselves to serve the common good and make this a better place to be.

It I’d be willing to wager that we’ve all wanted to be a hero. I’ve even met folks who believe themselves to be one (a little clue – larger than life people don’t think of themselves as heroes, or even think of themselves at all, really – at least not mine…).

What is larger-than-life?

“What creates such larger-than-life people? Their altruism is hard to understand by almost any psychological definition of the human person. I believe such people have built their lives on the reality of union with God, Reality, or What Finally Is.” – Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe (New York: Convergent Books, 2019), 161–162.

“Surrender is the strongest, most subversive thing you can do in this world. It takes strength to admit you are weak, bravery to show you are vulnerable, courage to ask for help.” – Holly Whitaker

“Your ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.” – Desmond Tutu

“Whatever that you do, you begin from the premise that you’re human together.” – Musimbi Kanyoro

“I’m not sure it even matters what the artist thought they wanted when they sat down to create the work. The art itself seems to want something, to make a change in the world. And the ability to create art like that belongs to each of us.” – Seth Godin

“If someone can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. – Dr. Opal Lee (the Grandmother of Juneteenth)

I asked Ms. Opal if I needed to start calling her Dr. Lee. She laughed and told me Ms. Opal is fine. That’s what larger-than-life heroes do…

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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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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…

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Happy Early Thanksgiving!

Margaret and I will be leaving in the morning for Kentucky to spend Thanksgiving with my family. Wow! I never dreamed I’d be writing that one. (If you’ve followed my family journey at www.gregoryjoel.com you know why I say that…) Momma told me last night that she hoped Margaret won’t be overwhelmed by the crowd descending on Momma’s house for the holiday (I have a BIG family – never thought I’d say that one either!). Rest assured Momma – Margaret’s ready! I can’t even begin to put into words the joy I’m feeling.

We’ve spent the last couple of weeks getting Opal’s Farm ready for Thanksgiving and my vacation – and I mean “vacation” – haven’t said that one in ten years…). I’ll be unplugging from phones and computers for the next nine days. Stacey Harwood, our Volunteer Coordinator, will be handling everything at the farm. She may be in desperate need of volunteers if we get a freeze warning next week. We have a ton of tomatoes on the vine that we’ll need to pick quickly. Stacey can be reached at opalsvolunteers@gmail.com. Also, please remember that #GivingTuesday, a day of global giving, coming up after the holiday!

We’ll also be taking a break from Cowtown Farmers Market for the next two Saturdays. We’ll be back in force throughout the remainder of the holiday season so come get your fresh, local produce for Christmas!

I won’t be able to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving next week, so I’ll say it today. I hope our friends and family have a great Thanksgiving. I hope this holiday season brings joy and gratitude for the blessings we have received. Sometimes those blessings are disguised by the obstacles that we find along the way. The pandemic and the losses that have accompanied it have been brutal, but like Opal’s Farm, we’re getting past those to find the joy and peace that come from God’s awesome creation.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Love each other a little better and be thankful. Take care!

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Technology? Yes and No…

(portions are rebloged from October 2018)

I was sitting here sorting through the various business cards and it occurred to me that I need a new Rolodex. Some of you know what I’m talking about: that circular file that holds your contacts, addresses, and phone numbers. I’m not sure people use them anymore. Everyone else seems to organize such things online. I guess my friend Gary was right. I’m a dinosaur…

It’s not that I’m technologically illiterate, mind you. Heck, I write and post a lot on social media for Opal’s Farm. It’s just that keyboards and screens feel so impersonal at times. Heck, I lost my phone one time and couldn’t call friends or family because their numbers were stored by the phone’s contact list. I can still remember my very first home number – GL (short for the Glendale exchange)1-0249 (and yes kids, there was a time when they had letters instead of numbers). I could tell you what part of town someone was calling from by the prefix, which was sort of Caller ID in the sixties. One memorized the important numbers in one’s life, wrote them in a phone and address book, or filed them on a Rolodex for future reference. Nowadays, they all go to the phone by name instead of having to dial. I was married two years before I could tell you my wife’s phone number. It was filed away by name on a contact screen. Sometimes smart phones make me feel dumb…

Don’t get me wrong. I love emerging technology and all the new toys. They make life, professionally and personally, so much easier. The world has become much smaller as a result, too. It’s nothing to be able to communicate, both audibly and visibly, with folks on the other side of the world at a moment’s notice. I usually find research on the internet (ever careful to check facts and sources) preferable to the long hours spent in the library, but the library smells of books and newsprint unlike the sterile internet. Unfortunately, technology is frightfully impersonal at times and that can be brutal on relationships.

As I’ve grown older I’ve come to believe that everything in life is about relationships. For all the connectedness technology enables, it inhibits real relationship. One night shortly after Margaret and I started dating, she asked me to come to ‘family night’ at her house. As we all found our seats in the living room and turned on the movie, it became apparent that no one was either talking or watching the movie. Instead, everyone’s face was buried in a phone screen. I think they were texting each other across the living room. Just so you know, we have great, loving relationships with all our kids, but after that evening I became increasingly aware of the downside of technology – stifling relationships.

I’m not a big ‘phone guy’. I value ‘face time’, and not the iPhone kind, over phones calls, texts, and emails. One of the best pieces of advice Jim, my mentor ever gave me was to spend more time watching and listening. The experts say that much of our conversations are non-verbal. We say more with our body language and actions. Just ask my wife. She hates it when I sigh or roll my eyes and still say okay…

Something special takes place between people when they sit and share together. The closer my relationship, the more one is aware of the non-verbal cues between one another. My non-verbal cues often indicate a far deeper meaning than what I say. They often turn my “everything’s okay” into “what’s really going on”. As a result, my relationship with others, and with myself, deepens.

The ultimate face time takes place over the dinner table. In certain cultures, a meal is the most intimate offering one can give to another. To paraphrase another friend, “I don’t get to choose who I am kind to, but I do get to choose who I have dinner with”. Many of my best memories are of meals shared and friendship enjoyed. I guess it’s no wonder that Jesus spent a lot of time hanging out with people over the dinner table…

I’m okay being a dinosaur. What all the great technology doesn’t do is help me be a better human being. I need other folks to help me get there. I need relationships and they are difficult to find inside a cell phone of computer screen. So before I get to the meeting, I think I’ll try the office supply store and see if they have a Rolodex…

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