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Spiders and Clarity

I haven’t written from the porch for the past couple of weeks. Time has been short. I’m playing catch up from a recent two-day stint in the hospital (long story but everything’s okay). They couldn’t figure out what was going on. I guess that’s why doctors only “practice” medicine…

I could use the whole hospital thing to explain my lack of recent communication, but I won’t. The truth is a bit uglier than that. The reality is there’s been some doubt and depression going on the last few days. When I started writing “Thoughts From the Porch”, my intent was to only write positive, encouraging words. God knows there’s enough negative crap out there!

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Unfortunately, life isn’t always happy, joyous, and free. Life shows up in some awful ways. Even when I feel I’m on the path God has chosen for me it can have some serious rough spots. I would be dishonest if I didn’t share those as well. I may not write in a manner comparable to great authors or even my fellow writers on WordPress, but I’ve learned to be truthful, to be authentic, and to be myself regardless of how I’d like to be.

The truth is that I haven’t liked myself very much the last few days. Sometimes, the truth sucks. As my friend Edgar always tells me, “The truth will set you free, but it’ll really piss you off first.” Quite frankly, I’ve been pissed.

Margaret and I have struggled financially over the last few months. Work has been slow as most of my time is spent on the urban farm project, Opal’s Farm. Most of you know my passion for the project. Margaret and I prayed diligently before taking on this task. We went into it with eyes wide-open. We knew money would be tight until we gained sponsors and had our first harvest. Looking back over the last few months, hell, even over our lifetime, we can see God’s thread all the way through. He stands with us through all the difficult times. Bills get paid, we eat regularly, and most of the time life is good despite the setbacks that come with our chosen path. However, there are times when an awareness of God’s providence is insufficient to stave off the blues.

In lieu of our smaller income we’ve been forced to put off needed home repairs and tighten our money belt in ways neither of us have experienced, at least in our lives together. Add to that Margaret’s chronic pain, limited mobility, and the depression that rears its ugly head as a result. Frustration and stress mounts despite our faith in the Almighty. It’s a recipe for doubt, fear, and self-loathing, for me at least, and it has been simmering for quite a while. Yesterday it came to a boil…

A serious case of the “F..k Its”.

Yes, folks, expletive laced prayers, lamentations of “poor me”, and drowning in a cesspool of comparing myself to everyone else. I threw a temper tantrum! Why me?

I imagine some of you can relate. It felt as though my world had fallen apart and God was nowhere to be found. He always seems to be playing ‘Hide and Seek’ when I need Him: just like with everything else in my world. I immediately decided to quit the farm, stop writing, and start looking out for Number One. I’d probably have to become a greeter at WalMart (no offense intended – all work is important). A career in bank robbery seemed a viable alternative to the present financial hardships. You must take it, because no one’s going to give to you, right?

If it sounds a bit extreme, it is. I tend to go for extremes. A friend once told me that “balance is the beam I trip on while running between extremes”.  Yep!

I always feel like such a spoiled brat after these not-so-little tantrums. It doesn’t take as long as it used to getting over these fits of doubt, frustration, and fear (that’s really what the tantrum is about…). I find relief in the fact they don’t happen very often anymore, but I sure hate it when they do. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can identify with this temporary insanity…

Fortunately, sanity returns, I own my behavior, make amends for the harsh words and actions, and find forgiveness and gratitude for everything I do have. First and foremost, I have a Heavenly Father who appreciates my authenticity. I’m sure most church folks would be shocked by how I “pray”. It’s not always pious and formal. Still, God allows me to express my doubts and fears. He listens. He understands and He loves me right where I’m at – expletives and all. He allows my rants and then holds me close to remind me that I’m loved and it’s okay to be human. I’m His child.

Somewhere in this process I find peace. The situation hasn’t changed at all, but I have.

Healing the Blind…

My tantrums always begin with tunnel vision and outright blindness. The world is out of focus, blurred with pain and frustration, and I can only see myself, my needs, and my wants. When I finally grow tired of emotional blindness, I hear Jesus’ question to the blind man at the Pool of Siloam, “Do you want to be healed?”

It sounds like a simple question doesn’t it? Sure, I want to be healed, but… I tend to find excuses, much like the guy at the Pool, until finally, I can see again.

Restoration of sight, healing, takes place in miraculous ways for me. It happened the other night. Blinded by my self-centered fear and doubt, I stormed out to the porch to be alone. I stood there, blindly staring into the night, when a tiny spider and his (or her – I’m not sure how to tell the difference) web began to take focus.

As my vision sharpened, the intricacy and size of the web grew. I saw his tiny legs shooting across the web with new silken strands. The minute strands vibrated in the wind but never strayed apart. It seemed impossible.

It sounds silly to be so intrigued by a simple spider web, but I’m kind of a simple guy, I guess. However, this tiny spider is building his web in the same place on our porch every Spring. He’ll stay until Fall, building his net every evening and waiting for the meal he knows will come. I’m no expert on spider species identification, but it’s always appears to be the same species year after year. It’s always a smaller version that grows to be the same as the one last year.

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While I’m no Arachnologist, our little eight-legged friend is probably last year’s offspring. I had the privilege of seeing all the little ones bursting from their egg sac last year. Their home and ours are one in the same. I get to watch the intricate, complex beauty of this tiny creature every evening. Clarity had returned.

Our hardships and my frustration faded into the darkness of the evening. I could see, and more importantly, see that our difficulties were nothing, that God was still (and always is) faithful. Life may have its difficulties, but grace changes how I see them. Difficulties become opportunities to grow in ways I can’t even imagine.

If a tiny spider ca open a world of grace and heal blindness, how much more can I be a vessel of grace?

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3 Easy Steps to Better…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding Your “Why”: Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Acre Down…

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

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

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

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Music to Soothe the Savage Beast?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding Your “Why”: Part Two

I spent last Friday morning at the farm with a prospective donor. We talked about the mission and purpose of Opal’s Farm for over an hour. The farm is about more than simply providing access for fresh produce to a largely forgotten neighborhood. It’s about building a better Fort Worth and serving our community. While that’s a worthy mission, the means by which we accomplish that mission is the tangible “goods” that the local community receives. What makes Opal’s Farm so special and why should you be a part of it? This is the second reason “why”.

Last Friday, we talked about “dirt therapy” and the physical and emotional well-being that comes from working the soil. The sense of community, of connection, and the increased physical activity shared with others of like mind is amazing. Even though that’s reason enough for anyone to come out and work or support the farm, your “why” might be as simple as providing food for your neighbors.

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When I was talking to our prospective donor the other day, I mentioned that Ms. Opal had been late for a dinner meeting the evening before because she had to drive a long way to get lettuce for the salad. He looked at me with a bit of confusion, “Why couldn’t she go to a store around here?”, he asked.

I told him that there was no store around here. The closest one was several miles south of the neighborhood. I explained to him that United Riverside, our neighborhood, is a food desert. The USDA defines a food desert as anyplace were access to fresh, healthy food is more than one mile away. He was a bit shocked that there were over forty food deserts listed in Tarrant County alone.

Honestly, I’m not surprised. Everyone touts the great economy and growth Fort Worth has experienced over the last few years. Politicians and business leaders point to the success Fort Worth and the growing economy has had. We often don’t hear the grim statistics and the reality for many of our neighbors. I’ve thrown them out there many times before, but statistics are often abstract and overwhelming.

In Tarrant County, one in four children go to bed hungry each night. One in four, 25%! For blacks and Latinos, the number is even more staggering – one in three children face hunger. That’s 33% of kids right here in Tarrant County!

What can you do about it? Now that you know the numbers it’s overwhelming. When a problem is of a scale that’s overwhelming it can foster inaction. It’s easy to say, “I can’t help everybody” and so no one gets help.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Mother Teresa. It’s at the bottom of every email I send out. It says, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” We do what we can, and Opal’s Farm provides the “why”. Through a simple farm we begin tackling the issues of food success and food scarcity. We can’t feed all of Fort Worth, but we can bring health and vitality to a neighborhood through each season’s harvest. You have to start somewhere…

Maybe you’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the size of the problem. Maybe you feel like you don’t make a difference. Maybe, just maybe, you do. Helping at Opal’s Farm, whether by donating or volunteering is the first step. It’s something tangible.

Mother Teresa said something else that always comes to mind, too. She said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” I’m no math genius but I’m pretty sure a whole bunch of small acts with great love constitutes a big thing.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

If you’re wanting to make a real, tangible difference in the lives of others please consider your donation or volunteer at Opal’s Farm. If you’re still not sure, I’ll give you another reason “why” tomorrow…

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Honor Your Wife…

Thoughts From the Porch: A line of thunderstorms is knocking on our door this morning. The wind, called an outflow boundary, is the precursor to the storm that will barge in any second. Jamison the Farm Dog is huddled beneath my feet, making writing difficult by distancing my fingers from the keyboard. Thunderstorms are anathema to him. He pants and paces or hides under my desk to escape the noise. All I can do is reassure him we’ve got it taken care of and we’d never let anything harm our Jameson.

Today is Margaret’s birthday. Please join me in wishing my beautiful wife a very happy birthday. I think of myself as one of the most blessed men in the world. It can’t be easy being married to me, although Margaret tells me constantly that I’m not difficult. Some days I’m not so sure. I find myself preoccupied with the daily goings-on of life and fail to stop and enjoy the company of the best woman I know.

Sometimes I’ll be out and hear other people talk about their difficulty in relationships. It makes me want to run home and kiss my wife and tell her how much I love her. I realize what a gift she is in my life. Our marriage isn’t perfect by any means. We each have our little idiosyncrasies that cause friction. I’m acutely aware of mine, but to be honest, I can’t think of any of Margaret’s. I’m sure they are present. They all seem to fade away when I’m with her.

I used to think that wasn’t normal, that our relationship was too comfortable. I’d hear others speak of their struggles in their marriage or cohabitation. People would talk about how much work their relationship. Everyone talked about “working” out their marriage. Maybe we were doing something wrong because, quite frankly, I can count on less than one hand the number of issues we’ve had to deal with over the years. I’m sure that they each centered around miscommunication or misunderstanding.

My Favorite Picture!

I used to believe we were an anomaly, a blip on the screen that couldn’t be explained. I thought there was no way anyone would believe how good our marriage was (and there may not be…). However, I’ve observed the marriages of our friends and acquaintances, and I’ve seen first hand we’re not so different after all.

There seems to be one or two constants throughout them all. The first one is the one my friend Jim told me about. Many years ago, he asked me if I knew what honor was. The Good Book says to “honor your wife”. What does it mean? I offered the proper dictionary definition and he laughed. He said that was nice but didn’t come close. The real definition was… and he drew in a quick, deep breath. I waited patiently for him to add his definition, but he just sat there, silent.

“Come on Jim. What’s your definition of honor?”

He again inhaled sharply, “h-h-h-h-h” and fell silent. I was beginning to get a bit perturbed and asked again to which he gave the same reply. Now I was ticked off.

I guess he sensed my aggravation because he looked me square in the eye, took another deep breath, and said “that’s what honor is”.

I sat there a bit perplexed. He went on to explain that honor was seeing your wife walk in the room and she takes your breath away. It wasn’t until years later that I really understood what he meant.

Fast forward to March 2nd, 2013 and Jim’s definition of honor became crystal clear. I was standing in front of many family and friends next to my Best Man, Edgar, with my brother Craig, the pastor for the day. Everyone stood and turned to watch Margaret start her walk down the aisle. She was radiant in her wedding dress, her face beaming. I inhaled sharply and deeply. She took my breath away…

Fast forward again to April 6th, 2019. Margaret walks in the room and she still takes my breath away. I can’t believe I am married to such an incredible woman. I want to honor her in every way possible. What surprises me is the honor she bestows on me. She makes me a better man.

I’m no marriage counselor but what I know for certain is that honoring my wife is easy. As a result, our marriage is easy as well. If we are an anomaly, then so be it. I could spend the rest of my life being different…

So, I wish my wife an unbelievably Happy Birthday. I look forward to sharing many more. I’m not confused my dear – you truly are “my better side” (I hate “half” as we were complete when we joined together) and my best friend. Today I honor you and wish for you a beautiful, joy-filled birthday!

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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…