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Always Remember

It’s a brilliant, sunny late Spring day here in North Texas. Soon I’ll head off to Opal’s Farm. It’s been incredibly busy. Our first harvest of French Breakfast Radishes came in. We have about a hundred pounds bundled for sale and another hundreds pounds still to harvest. The beans and peas are in full bloom and squash is getting almost big enough to pick.

I haven’t had a great deal of time to write this last week with all the goings on. This week marked the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion that turned the tide in the Allies favor during World War Two. Those who know me might find it peculiar I’m memorializing warfare. My faith calls me to be a non-violent peacemaker. Still, I know my calling is not shared by everyone and I honor the veterans who fought for their beliefs and each other.

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Tom Brokaw coined the term “the greatest generation” when speaking of my parents peers. As a history student I was always intrigued by the men who fought so gallantly during “The War” as it came to be known. I grew up on the great epic movies about WWII- “Patton”, “The Battle of the Bulge”, Guns of Navarrone”, John Wayne and “The Fighting Seabees” and so forth. I saw “The Great Escape” at the long since demolished Gateway Theater twice a day on three successive Saturday matinees (for 50 cents admission I might add). Steve McQueen was my hero…

Things changed and I grew past the illusions I was taught. After all, “history is written by the victors” and subsequent wars proved to be void of morality. It’s no longer about defense but about gain. War is usually started by men who have never served. They were wealthy or powerful enough to worm their way out of military service. They’re quite content to let your young men fight for their wants while they talk about how patriotic they are; but enough said or I’ll get started…

Still, those WWII vets always held a special place of honor above all others. Perhaps its because of my father and my uncle’s (one of whom died at Anzio, Italy) service. It’s a way I hang onto them as well. They never spoke of their service. They did what they were called to do and now they’re gone, like so many of their generation. I miss them.

There are only 1.7 million WWII vets alive today. Their time is growing short. The “greatest generation” will pass away and become memory. That’s why it’s so important (for me anyway) to cherish the time I’m given with some of the men who served. They’re more likely to share about it today if you ask. I encourage you to ask. Not only will you be riveted to their stories, you’ll pay them honor and respect as well.

This is my small tribute to those men that leapt of the boats at Normandy seventy-five years ago. Thank you for being part of my life and sharing your stories.

“I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said, ‘No, but I served in a company of heroes.'” —Major Richard Winters

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“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” —Stephen Hawking

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My friend Edgar taught me “when I kneel before my God I can stand before any man”. Prayer continually brings me to a place of awe. Because of grace I don’t look at my feet anymore.

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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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A Little Clarity is in Order…

I sat down to go through our social media posts and comments this morning and I had to take a hard look at how we post for the farm. I often post articles from my blog on WordPress to Opal’s Farm page as well. It was brought to my attention that I could communicate the purpose, goals, and impact of the farm more clearly. I appreciate any comments coming from our supporters and other urban farmers. One thing I have learned is that it truly takes a ‘village’ of people to make the farm and, everything else positive in life, a success!

Jeff Williams, Team Depot Captain at the White Settlement Home Depot (#8521). Thanks, Jeff!

Starting the beds

While our Mission Statement is written in the “About Us” section of the page, it can be easily overshadowed by other postings (including links to my own blog…). Our Mission Statement sums up our overall goal in a simple fashion – “Opal’s Farm restores hope and vitality to neglected communities through an agricultural intervention and education.” However, mission statements make more sense when they are broken down into bit-sized chunks and we certainly want to bring clarity of purpose to our supporters, followers, and ‘farmers’.

Statement of Purpose

Opal’s Farm is a model for regenerative, organic agriculture that:

  • addresses the elimination of local food deserts and scarcity in low-income communities.
  • offers education in sustainability, soil conservation, food distribution, and nutrition.
  • creates jobs, job training, and entrepreneurial opportunities that provide a living wage for low-income community members.

We developed our statement of purpose by listening to the community and getting input from other successful urban farming projects. Ms. Opal Lee, who as many of you know, is our namesake, is the President Emeritus of the Community Food Bank in the United Riverside neighborhood of Fort Worth. She spent many hours speaking to the folks served by the food bank and found that many of those folks had issues with finding employment paying a living wage because of previous incarceration. Moreover, they would be willing to grow their own food and exercise a degree of self and community-reliance. As a result, the vision of Opal’s Farm was born.

Once the vision became a reality, we began to seek guidance from other successful urban farm projects. Bonton Farms, located in the Bonton neighborhood south of downtown Dallas, provided much of the model for Opal’s Farm, especially in developing economic sustainability. Paul Quinn College offered support. God opened so many doors and people came from out of the proverbial woodwork to help Opal’s Farm.

The start of the 70 beds we made so far!

Jeff Williams, Team Depot Captain at the White Settlement Home Depot makes the first delivery to Opal’s Farm- – Thanks Jeff!

Charlie Blaylock, of Shines Farmstand and the Cowtown Farmer’s Market, has been our closest consultant and friend. Paula Pacanins with Container King provided a shipping container to store our equipment. Natasha Neidhart, Store Manager for the White Settlement Home Depot (#8521), and Jeff Williams, the Assistant Manager and Capitan of Team Depot partnered with us to provide substantial support in tools, equipment, and supplies. Brandon Hendrickson, the Rental Manager at Zimmerer Kubota provided us with a tractor and farm implements to plow the almost 4 acres that makes up the total area of Opal’s Farm.

We also have the support, and are a member of, Grow Southeast, a coalition of growers dedicated to building urban farms and gardens throughout the southeast side of Tarrant County. The Healthy Tarrant County Collaborative purchased a BCS tractor for all the growers to share as they built and prepared beds for planting. So far, we’ve built 70 beds (a whopping 28,000 square feet!) in the last four days because of their help. TCU has come alongside of Opal’s Farm as well through the Tarrant County Food Policy Council. Students are assisting in a variety of ways this semester to make the farm a success. Last, but most certainly not least, is the Trinity River Water District that provided the acreage and believed in Ms. Opal’s dream. Without them, none of this would be possible.

What I’m trying to say in all of this is that Opal’s Farm is about Fort Worth, about our community, and our home. That’s why Opal’s Farm is so important. Each of us has an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of our neighbors. We can’t do it alone. We need each of you – individuals, businesses, and organizations to bring health and vitality to the community. This is very real work, with very real results.

People often ask me if this is a “faith-based” project. I’m not trying to be funny when I say the honest answer is yes, and no. We believe that one’s faith is best reflected in the actions one takes, not merely words. Our faith is reflected in the lives we change and the people who are united in making a better place for everyone. Fresh produce is the means to the real end: helping others. Faith says, always err on the side of love” and that always benefits all of us.

Future posts will include articles from my blog and updates on the farm. It’s not to promote the writing business of one individual but to share what’s going on and how everyone can be a part. Mother Teresa was once asked about her work among the disenfranchised and poor in India. Her response was, “Come see”. Come see what we’re doing at the farm and we might just make a farmer out of you.

You can learn more about Ms. Opal and Opal’s Farm on our website, www.unityunlimited.org and our Facebook page. You can also make a secure donation online.

In the meantime – “Come see…”

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Us and Them: Part Two

Thoughts From the Porch: The temperature is dropping like a rock and the wind is blowing harder here in North Texas. My office is in the coldest part of the house. Normally, this is a good thing. I tend to be hot when everyone else is merely comfortable. Today’s a bit different. I need to add the space heater next to my desk to my Gratitude List for the day.

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It doesn’t matter whether you believe in the literal creation story or if you see it as a metaphor for the beginning of human history; the end result is the same. Man, the rational animal, can act irrationally and believe things that simply aren’t true. I’m no scientist but I’m pretty sure that we’re somewhat unique in that regard.

Dad used to tell me, “Son, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck”. Straightforward and simple, right? You see, a duck doesn’t think itself anything other than a duck. It waddles down to the pond, takes a swim to find something to eat, and quacks at the other ducks. It doesn’t bark, stalk prey, or run like a cheetah, nor does it particularly want to. It’s a duck! Anyone can see that, right?

Imagine for a moment that you’re at the duck pond, feeding the dusks, and someone walks up and says, “look at that Canadian Snow Swan”. You look around and all you see are a flock of Mallards fighting each other for a piece of bread. Intrigued and thinking the stranger a bit off his duff, you ask what he’s talking about. He points to one of the less brightly colored Mallards and says, “see, a Canadian Snow Swan”.

Now you know better. After all, you passed high school biology. This guy must be confused. You press him a bit more. He explains that Canadian Snow Swans are very similar to Mallards, but not as brilliantly colored. They tend to follow Mallard flocks as they migrate to and from, so they are often confused for Mallards. A seed of doubt was just planted.

A few days later, you’re at the same duck pond. Someone comes up and says, “Oh, look at the Mallards”. You wisely declare that they’re not all Mallards, a couple are Canadian Snow Swans. You proudly proclaim your thorough knowledge on the subject because “they” said. It doesn’t matter who “they” are, but apparently “they” are in the know. Now you one of “them”, and everyone believes a lie.

One of the first questions I ask someone when they tell me “they say that (fill in the blank) is who “they” are. Ninety-nine percent of the time the respondent has no idea who “they” are. The internet is full of “them”, experts in falsehood who proudly proclaim their version of “Truth” and it gets repeated over and over. After all, it was on the internet so it must be true…

Now the duck hasn’t changed, nor has the fact that it’s a duck, but we now believe it to be something else. Having proclaimed it a Canadian Snow Swan we now defend our position with a myriad of justifications – “plausible, but untrue” explanations of our correctness. Nobody likes being wrong, right?

One of the disastrous consequences of false belief is an equally false superiority over everyone who doesn’t believe the way we do. “They” are different rom “us”. Religion is a prime example. Talk about “us” and “them”! History is littered with the wreckage of “us” and “them”. I’ve heard it said that man can survive without a God but he cant’ live without a devil. The devil’s in “them”.

Sometimes I wonder if we can ever get past the “us” and “them” mentality, the tribalism, that keeps us from being simply one of God’s kids. That’s my own personal idealism and believe me, I’ve had plenty of people tell me I’m wrong. The good news is that I’ve met a lot of folks who share that ideal, so there’s still hope.

I may be completely wrong in all of this. I’ve never been a duck so I’m not sure what’s going on in those little duck heads. What I know for sure is that I’m capable of believing lies. I haven’t cornered the market on “truth”, so I must depend on my fellows to lead me there. Maybe that’s why God thought community so special: so that we could learn from one another and find our way to a better place.

(Part 3 tomorrow)

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Happy Anniversary My Dear

Thoughts From the Porch: It’s a wee bit chilly on the porch this morning. Overcast skies make for a dreary opening for the month of March. The good news is that I saw my first Robin this week. They tend to be a more accurate predictor of Spring. It may be cold but today is the unofficial beginning of Spring in my book. It’s time to get busy.

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I’ve been a bit reflective of the last six years. You see, tomorrow Margaret and I will have been married six years. It’s hard to believe. It’s sounds so cliché to say it seems like yesterday, but in a way it does. On the other hand, my life without my beautiful wife seems like eons ago. That’s a good thing. I can’t imagine life without my bride.

I love telling the story of our “whirlwind” relationship. We started dating on December 1st and got married three month later. I tend to leave out the part that we’d been friends for many years prior to dating. It’s more romantic that way.

I also tend to leave out the part about my proposal. It wasn’t so romantic. Fortunately, when you get married in your fifties, practicality has its own rewards. I debated whether I should include that part in this post, but since many of our friends know about it anyway, here goes…

Margaret and I were at my house getting ready to go out to a recovery function. We were running late so both of us were in the bathroom getting ready. We were in rather inglorious positions, she was getting ready and me shirtless, shaving away. It felt a bit like an old, married couple. I laughed to myself, looked at Margaret and said, “You want to get married?”

She looked over and said, “Are you serious?”

I looked back at her. She looked radiant, despite the awkwardness of our locale. “Yeah, I think so”. The rest my friends, is history.

She still teases me to this day about my ‘romantic’ proposal. I freely admit it wasn’t one of my stellar moments, but it was the most important question I ever asked in my life. The trajectory of my life changed in the bathroom that day and it definitely changed for the better.

There are a couple of reasons I’m sharing this story today. One is that we both had been single for many years prior to our marriage. Each of us had reached a point where we thought that’s the way it would be, and we were each okay with it. Life was good, but companionship would be great and love even greater. We were both complete human beings loving the gift of life and recovery as precious children of God. We were happy and content just the way we were. We didn’t need someone to feel whole. Had we started dating earlier (and believe me, I thought Margaret was hot and way out of my league), neither of us would have been ready for the relationship we have today. It was on God’s time and not ours.

Sometimes it feels like God’s time passes far too slowly. I always want answers to life’s questions now, but it rarely works that way. I knew how to fail in marriage, but I had no clue as to how to have a successful one. If I’m honest, the only thing I knew for sure was what I didn’t want in a relationship. Experience was a great teacher in that regard. Like Tom Petty sang, “the waiting is the hardest part”.

Looking back, I had so much to learn and it took a lot of growth, both personally and spiritually, to even be ready to meet someone special like Margaret. I had to be led through the process of “becoming”. By the time we began dating I had grown in my relationship with God and, consequentially, was ready for someone like Margaret. Patience truly is a virtue. What I’m trying to say is that Valentine’s Day may not be your favorite holiday when you’re single, but it becomes one when you learn to treat yourself as worthy of love.

Secondly, even the simplest, most awkward of times can be holy moments. I often think of how I would’ve liked to have proposed to Margaret. I really can be romantic at times. Still, I wouldn’t change a thing if it meant life would be any different. Margaret and I married eight days later. I was scheduled for a craniotomy to remove an AVM that was bleeding in my head. Even though it was to be a routine brain surgery by one of Fort Worth’s most respected neurosurgeons I couldn’t fathom the idea of passing away without Margaret being my wife. Our friends came together and planned a beautiful wedding in that time. Over a hundred of them came to our wedding and we love each them dearly.

Thinking about tomorrow I find myself wishing to shower Margaret with gifts, kisses, and thanks. I can do the wishes and the thanks, but the gifts are going to be slim. We are struggling financially right now so I can commit all my efforts to our non-profit for the farm. We prayed about it and know this is what God wants us to do. That never would have happened in my past life – the prayer that is. God orders our steps today. That’s what makes ours a wonderful marriage – God is the center of it. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “a rope of three cords is not easily broken”. Thanks to my beautiful, thoughtful, and loving wife for making a home of three cords: God, Margaret, and I…

One of my favorite pictures
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Grackles and Dreamers

Thoughts From the Porch: It’s been a gray, dreary, and cold weekend here in North Texas. There were rumors of sleet around us, but here in Fort Worth it was a constant drizzle. I spent several winters in the Colorado High Country and I’ve never felt the cold like I do here. It’s the kind of bone-piercing cold that feels like thousands of tiny needles poking you all at once. Of course, I’m much older now and maybe it was simply youthful exuberance that made the cold more bearable. Today is to be warmer and it’ll be seventy in the next couple of days. I’ll quit complaining now…

I had to run to the grocery store yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t nearly as busy as usual. Everyone must have opted for Netflix binging rather than dealing with the weather. When I got home, I paused on the porch to enjoy what gray light remained of the day. I’d love to tell how I got tom enjoy the quiet at the end of a long, dismal day, but that wasn’t the case. The caterwauling of hundreds of Grackles in the surrounding trees put an end to any idea of quiet enjoyment of the porch. It was so deafening I couldn’t even hear my inner voice, much less the next-door neighbor saying hello as he walked to his vehicle.

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Some of you might be unfamiliar with Grackles, so allow me to explain. The “Great-tailed” or “Mexican” Grackle is a medium-size bird originally native to Central America. According to Wikipedia, they’ve increased their range by over 5500% and can be found through much of the United States. I’m convinced however, that the greatest concentration of them are in my trees…

I don’t wish to offend bird lovers, but I don’t like Grackles. If we lived outside the city limits, I would have no problem declaring open season with the shotgun. Don’t get me wrong. I love birds. They bring color and song to our quiet little cul-de-sac. Grackles, not so much. They are, like city pigeons, flying rats. Noisy, flying rats…

Please don’t judge me if you’ve never experienced a flock of Grackles. They are incredible foragers and they have little fear of humans. They mock efforts to shew them away. They fly together in huge flocks, often darkening the sky and even been known to interfere with traffic.

Several years ago, the Grackle problem got so bad in downtown Fort Worth that a noise cannon could be heard going off in hopes of driving them out of the city center. Sundance Square, the jewel in the crown of Downtown Cowtown, was so noisy and covered in bird droppings it was difficult to find a safe place to sit and enjoy a summer evening outdoors. The city sought to drive them away lest they deter commerce and conspicuous consumption. Unfortunately, they ended up in quiet little neighborhoods like ours. You wouldn’t believe I wash my vehicles and sidewalk regularly.

That being said, I noticed something somewhat unique to our Grackle population. They were all yelling (it can’t really be called ‘singing’) over one another creating incredible dissonance when all the sudden it was eerily quiet. I’m not talking about the noise fading out. It was as if someone yelled, “lights out” and the entire flock stopped at once. It went from a din to silence in the flick of a switch. Looking up I couldn’t see a one.

I guess I’m a bit simple. Little things really intrigue me. The Grackles may be flying rats but they’re awesome flying rats. Now I know there’s several scientific and biological reasons for their unique abilities, but to go from unbearable dissonance to complete silence in a second is pretty darn awesome. It’s not as though there were a few birds here. We’re talking about a flock of hundreds of birds acting as one. Sometimes I wish people were like that…

I sit at my newsfeed every morning, only to be greeted with all the dissonance around me. Everyone yelling at everyone else. Everyone shouting how right they are. Everyone screeching to be heard. Everyone screaming out for their self-interests. Sounds a lot like the Grackles to me.

Imagine if whole neighborhoods, whole communities, acted as one. You know, for the best interest of the ‘flock’. Imagine if my selfishness was replaced by concern for my neighbor, my community, heck, for my planet. Imagine if, instead of yelling to be heard, everyone got quiet together, changed the manner of discourse and talked to one another. I don’t really expect it to happen, but what if…

You’re right, I’m a dreamy-eyed idealist. Maybe the world needs more idealists. It tends to get beaten out of children in favor of being a practical, rational adult. It’s a little ironic that Jesus said we should “become like little children” if we really wanted to live out the Kingdom of God. Like John Lennon sang, “People say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”